May Revolution - Historical Perspectives

Historical Perspectives

Historiographical studies of the May Revolution do not face many doubts or unknown details. Most of the information was properly recorded at the time and was made available to the public by the Primera Junta as patriotic propaganda. Because of this, historical views on the topic differ in their interpretations of the meanings, causes and consequences of the events, rather than in the accuracy of their depiction of the events themselves. The modern version of events does not differ significantly from the contemporary one.

The first people to write about the May Revolution were participants who wrote memoirs, biographies and diaries. However, their works were motivated by purposes other than historiographic ones, such as to explain the reasons for their actions, clean their public images, or express their support or rejection of the public figures and ideas of the time. For example, Manuel Moreno wrote the biography of his brother Mariano as propaganda for the revolutions in Europe, and Cornelio Saavedra wrote his autobiography at a moment when his image was highly questioned, to justify himself to his sons.

The first remarkable historiographical school of interpretation of the history of Argentina was founded by members of the 1837 generation, including Bartolomé Mitre. Mitre regarded the May Revolution as an iconic expression of political egalitarianism: a conflict between modern freedoms and oppression represented by the Spanish monarchy, and an attempt to establish a national organization on constitutional principles as opposed to the charismatic authority of the caudillos. These authors' views were treated as canonical until the end of the 19th century, when the proximity of the centennial encouraged authors to seek new perspectives. The newer authors would differ about the relative weight of the causes of the May Revolution and about whose intervention in the events was more decisive, but the main views expressed by Mitre were kept, such as to consider the revolution to be the birth of modern Argentina and an unavoidable event. These authors introduced the idea of popular intervention as another key element. By the time of the World Wars, liberal authors attempted to impose an ultimate and unquestionable historical perspective; Ricardo Levene and the Academia Nacional de la Historia were exponents of this tendency, which still kept most perspectives of Mitre. Left-wing authors took a revisionist view based on nationalism and anti-imperialism; they minimized the dispute between criollos and peninsulars and portrayed events as a dispute between enlightenment and absolutism. However, most of their work was focused on other historical periods.

The May Revolution was not the product of the actions of a single political party with a clear and defined agenda, but a convergence of sectors with varying interests. Thus, there are a number of conflicting perspectives about it, because different authors highlight different aspects. Mitre, for example, referred to The Representation of the Landowners (an 1809 economic report by Mariano Moreno) and the role of the merchants to support the view that the May Revolution intended to obtain free trade and economic integration with Europe; right-wing revisionists center around Saavedra and the social customs of the time to describe the revolution under conservative principles; and left-wing revisionists use the example of Moreno, Castelli and the rioters led by French and Beruti to describe it as a radical revolution.

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