May 22 is an Argentinian public holiday known as Primer gobierno patrio (the “First National Government”), commemorating the May Revolution and the creation on May 25, 1810, of the Primera Junta, which is considered the first patriotic government of Argentina. Along with July 9, which commemorates the Declaration of Independence, it is considered a National Day of Argentina.
Commemorations of the May Revolution have been held since 1811, the first anniversary: Cornelio Saavedra ruled so for Buenos Aires, and Manuel Belgrano and Juan José Castelli did the same during their military campaigns at the cities they had under control during the anniversaries. The day was officially declared a national day by the Assembly of Year XIII on May 5, 1813. The 1816 Argentine Declaration of Independence provided an alternative national day. In the beginning, this added to the conflicts between Buenos Aires and the provinces in the Argentine Civil War, with the date in May being related particularly to Buenos Aires and July 9 to the whole country. This led the unitarian Bernardino Rivadavia to cancel the celebration on July, and the federalist Juan Manuel de Rosas to re-allow it, but without giving up celebrations on May. The celebrations in 1857, when Buenos Aires had temporarily seceded from the Argentine Confederation, were large and included the remodelation of the Plaza. By 1880, with the federalization of Buenos Aires, the local connotations were removed and the May Revolution was considered the birth of the nation.
Massive celebrations of the holiday have been a tradition during the 19th century and part of the 20th century, but were slowly forgotten by the end of it. However, the Argentina Bicentennial held in 2010 raised again the public interest in the holiday, becoming the most attended public event in the history of Buenos Aires.
The May Revolution (Revolución de Mayo) was a week-long series of events that took place from May 18 to 25, 1810, in Buenos Aires, capital of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. This Spanish colony included roughly the territories of present-day Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and parts of Brazil. The result was the removal of Viceroy Baltasar Hidalgo de Cisneros and the establishment of a local government, the Primera Junta (First Junta), on May 25. It was the first successful revolution in the South American Independence process.
The May Revolution was a direct reaction to Spain’s Peninsular War. In 1808, King Ferdinand VII of Spain abdicated in favor of Napoleon, who granted the throne to his brother, Joseph Bonaparte. A Supreme Central Junta led resistance to Joseph’s government and the French occupation of Spain, but eventually suffered a series of reversals that resulted in the Spanish loss of the northern half of the country. On February 1, 1810, French troops took Seville and gained control of most of Andalusia. The Supreme Junta retreated to Cadiz and dissolved itself, and the Council of Regency of Spain and the Indies replaced it. News of these events arrived in Buenos Aires on May 18, brought by British ships.
Viceroy Cisneros tried to maintain the political status quo, but a group of criollo lawyers and military officials organized an open cabildo (a special meeting of notables of the city) on May 22 to decide the future of the Viceroyalty. Delegates denied recognition to the Council of Regency in Spain and established a junta to govern in place of Cisneros, since the government that had appointed him Viceroy no longer existed. To maintain a sense of continuity, Cisneros was initially appointed president of the Junta. However, this caused much popular unrest, so he resigned under pressure on May 25. The newly formed government, the Primera Junta, included only representatives from Buenos Aires and invited other cities of the Viceroyalty to send delegates to join them. The Junta initially had representatives from only Buenos Aires. When it was expanded, as expected, with the addition of the representatives from the other cities of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata, it became popularly known instead as the Junta Grande (Grand Council). The Junta operated at El Fuerte (the fort, where the modern Casa Rosada stands), which had been used since 1776 as a residence by the Viceroys.
This Junta — officially named the Junta Provisional Gubernativa de las Provincias del Río de la Plata a nombre del Señor Don Fernando VII (Provisional Governing Junta of the Provinces of Río de la Plata in the Name of Señor Don Ferdinand VII) — allegedly meant to govern in the name of the King of Spain, while he was imprisoned by Napoleon Bonaparte. Juntas were a form of transitional or emergency government, which attempted to maintain Spanish sovereignty, that emerged during the Napoleonic invasion in Spanish cities that had not succumbed to the French. The most important for Spanish America was the Junta of Seville, which claimed sovereignty over the overseas possessions, given the fact that the province of Seville historically had enjoyed exclusive rights to the American trade. Its claims had been rejected by Spanish Americans, and its authority was quickly superseded by a Supreme Central Junta of Spain, which included American representation.
When the Supreme Central Junta abolished itself in 1810, the politically active inhabitants of Buenos Aires saw no better moment than this to establish a local government. They had been influenced by the recent democratic and republican philosophical wave, and were also concerned about the commercial monopoly exerted by the Spanish crown, which was suffocating the local economy. Historically Buenos Aires province had partially mitigated this problem through contraband. Local politicians, such as former council member and legal advisor to the viceroy, Juan José Castelli, who wanted a change towards self-government and free commerce, cited traditional Spanish political theory and argued that the King being imprisoned, sovereignty had returned to the people. The people were to assume the government until the King returned, just as the subjects in Spain had done two years earlier with the establishment of juntas. The Viceroy and his supporters countered that the colonies belonged to Spain and did not have a political relationship with only the King. Therefore, they should follow any governmental body established in Spain as the legal authority, namely the Supreme Central Junta of Spain and its successor, the Council of Regency.
The meeting of a Buenos Aires cabildo abierto (an extraordinary meeting of the municipal council with assistance of over 200 notables from government, the church, guilds and other corporations) during May 22, 1810, came under strong pressure from the militias and a crowd that formed in front of the cabildo hall on the Plaza Mayor (today the Plaza de Mayo), up to May 25. The crowd favored the stance of the local politicians, and the cabildo ended up creating the Primera Junta, the first form of local government in the territory that would later become Argentina. Spain would never recover its dominion over that territory. From the very beginning of the new government, two factions manifested their differences, a more radical one, whose visible leader was the Junta’s Secretary, Mariano Moreno, and the conservative wing that supported the Junta’s President, Cornelio Saavedra.
In general, the principles of the May Revolution were popular sovereignty, the principle of representation and federalization, division of powers, the maintenance of the mandates, and publication of the government’s actions.
The Primera Junta was concerned with the risk of Portuguese expansionism towards La Plata, either directly or through the Carlotist project. The diplomacy in Spain attempted to prevent the dispatch of a punitive army, limiting the armed conflicts to the royalists in Paraguay, the Upper Peru and the Banda Oriental. The Junta declared itself a natural ally of any city that revolts against the royalists; either those that did so in support of the May Revolution or those who revolted on their own (Chile, and Paraguay shortly after Belgrano’s defeat).
Britain, allied with Spain in the Napoleonic Wars, stayed neutral in the conflicts between patriots and royalists. Nevertheless, the British policy towards the conflict was to favor British trade as long as it did not conflict with the neutral policy.
The Junta was received with mixed reactions from the other cities of the viceroyalty. Santa Fe, Entre Ríos, Misiones, Corrientes and Mendoza supported the change, others did not. Upper Peru, which greatly benefited from the system of mita to exploit the mines in Potosi, supported the absolutist system for a long time. Javier De Elío in Montevideo denied recognition to the Junta. Paraguay was torn between supporters of either side, but royalists prevailed. However, the most immediate danger to the Junta came from Cordoba, where Santiago de Liniers came out of his retirement and started to organize an army to lead a counter-revolution against Buenos Aires. The Junta ordered Ortiz de Ocampo to stand against those counter-revolutionaries and bring the leaders as prisoners to Buenos Aires. A later ruling requested instead to execute them, but after defeating Liniers, Ortiz de Ocampo decided to ignore the latter and instead to follow the first ruling. The Junta removed Ocampo from his duty for this act of disobedience, and replaced him with Juan José Castelli. Castelli ordered the execution of the counter-revolutionaries by August, 26, with the exception of the priest Orellana. By this time, Mariano Moreno was popularly regarded as the leader of the revolution, whose resolution permitted the radical changes to the absolutist system that the Junta had managed so far.
Military authorities, fearing the loss of power by Saavedra, pressured the Junta to control Moreno. Moreno, on the other hand, succeeded in getting the approval of decrees that limited Saavedra and others. By December 1810, tension had reached its peak. Saavedra got the support of deputies sent by the interior provinces that had not yet been allowed to join the Junta. With this backing, Saavedra gave Moreno his most serious political setback: he forced Moreno to present his resignation on December 18. With this resignation, the integration of the deputies from the other provinces to the Junta became possible.
Created on May 25, 1810, the Primera Junta was thus transformed on December 18 of the same year into the new Junta Grande by the introduction of representatives from other provinces of Río de la Plata.
The May Revolution began the Argentine War of Independence, although no formal declaration of independence was issued at the time and the Primera Junta continued to govern in the name of the deposed king, Ferdinand VII. As similar events occurred in many other cities of the continent, the May Revolution is also considered one of the early events of the Spanish American wars of independence. Historians today debate whether the revolutionaries were truly loyal to the Spanish crown or whether the declaration of fidelity to the king was a necessary ruse to conceal the true objective—to achieve independence—from a population that was not yet ready to accept such a radical change. A formal declaration of independence was finally issued at the Congress of Tucumán on July 9, 1816.
May 25 is considered a national and non-workable holiday by law 21.329. It is immovable, meaning it is celebrated on May 25 regardless of day of the week.
I have very few stamps from Argentina in my collection — just five different designs, in fact. Scott #479 portraying General Juan Lavalle was the closest I could find to match today’s Argentinian holiday and the events which led to its creation. He was active in Argentina’s military a few years after the May Revolution. The stamp was released on December 5, 1941 (which also happens to be my birthday but in 1965), a 5-centavo denomination printed in bright blue and perforated 13 x 13½.
Juan Galo Lavalle was born on October 17, 1797, in Buenos Aires to María Mercedes González Bordallo and Manuel José Lavalle, general accountant of rents and tobacco for the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. In 1799, the family moved to Santiago de Chile, but returned to Buenos Aires in 1807.
In 1812, Lavalle joined the Regiment of mounted grenadiers as a cadet. By 1813, he reached the grade of lieutenant and moved to the army, which under orders of Carlos María de Alvear besieged Montevideo. Lavalle fought against José Gervasio Artigas in 1815 and in the Battle of Guayabos under the command of Manuel Dorrego. In 1816 Lavalle moved to Mendoza to join the Army of the Andes of the “liberator” José de San Martín and fought in Chacabuco and the Maipú in Chile. He continued along with San Martín on his way to Peru and Ecuador and took part in the battles of Pichincha and the Riobamba, after which he became known as the Hero of Riobamba.
Because of disagreements with Simón Bolívar, Lavalle returned to Buenos Aires by the end of 1823. He would later govern Mendoza Province for a short time. He then fought in the war against Brazil in command of 1,200 cavalry, with great episodes of valor in the battles of Bacacay and Ituzaingó in February 1827, beating the forces of General Abreu and being himself proclaimed General on the field of battle itself.
By the time he returned to Buenos Aires, the President of the United Provinces, Unitarian Bernardino Rivadavia, had resigned, and Manuel Dorrego was elected the federal governor of Buenos Aires Province. Lavalle, a Unitarian himself, led a coup to take the government and executed governor Dorrego without a trial. His government then started a reign of terror, aiming to destroy the Federal Party, but the resistance in the countryside didn’t recede. In 1829, the demographic growth was negative as there were more deaths than births. During that time, José de San Martín had returned from Europe. While he was in Montevideo, Lavalle offered him the government of Argentina as he probably was the only man capable of putting an end to the chaotic situation, because of his authority over leaders on both sides. But when he learned about the spiraling factionalist violence, San Martín realized that he would have to choose sides as the only actual way to govern, so he refused and returned instead to self-exile in Europe.
The other provinces did not recognize Lavalle as the legitimate governor, and supported the rosista resistance instead. Lavalle would be defeated a short time later at the Battle of Márquez Bridge by the forces of Juan Manuel de Rosas and Santa Fe governor Estanislao López. López returned to his province, menaced by Unitarian José María Paz, who had taken power in Córdoba. Meanwhile, Rosas kept Lavalle under siege and forced him to resign with the Cañuelas pact. Juan José Viamonte was designated as interim governor, and the legislature that was removed during Lavalle’s coup d’état was restored. This legislature would elect Rosas as the governor. Lavalle retired to the Banda Oriental.
During the French blockade to the Río de la Plata, Fructuoso Rivera was reluctant to take military actions against Rosas, aware of his strength. Unitarians, who thought that the whole Argentine Confederation would rise against Rosas at the first chance, urged Lavalle to lead the attack, who requested not to share command with Rivera. As a result, they led both their own armies. His imminent attack was backed up by conspiracies in Buenos Aires, which were discovered and aborted by the Mazorca. Manuel Vicente Maza and his son were among the perpetrators, and were executed as a result. Pedro Castelli also organized an ill-fated uprising against Rosas, and was executed as well. Rosas did not wait to be attacked and ordered Pascual Echagüe to cross the Paraná river and take the fight to Uruguay.
The Uruguayan armies split: Rivera returned to defend Montevideo, and Lavalle moved to Entre Ríos Province. He expected that the local populations would join him against Rosas and increase his forces, but he found severe resistance, so he moved instead to Corrientes Province. Governor Pedro Ferré defeated López, and Rivera defeated Pascual Echagüe, clearing for Lavalle the way to Buenos Aires. However, by that point France had given up its trust on the effectiveness of the blockade, as what was thought it would be an easy and short conflict was turning into a long war, without clear security of a final victory. France began peace negotiations with the Confederation and cut its financial support to Lavalle. He didn’t find help at local towns either, and there was widespread desertion among his ranks. Buenos Aires was ready to resist his military attack, but the lack of support forced him to give up and retire from the battlefield, without starting any battle.
Persecuted, his troops suffered constant attacks and Lavalle was forced to move further north, being defeated by Manuel Oribe in La Rioja and Tucumán. Escaping with a small group of 200 men on October 9, 1841, he was accidentally shot by a Montonera detachment which spread-shot a reputed Unitarian’s house, not realizing that Juan Lavalle, the very chief of the Unitarians, was staying there. This in San Salvador de Jujuy.
Afraid that his body would be desecrated by the Federales, his followers fled to Bolivia carrying Lavalle’s decomposing remains with them. Hurrying over the Humahuaca pass, they finally decided to strip the skeleton by boiling it and, after burying the flesh in an unmarked grave, carry the bones, which are today buried at the La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.
A statue of the general standing on top of a long, slender column, commemorates the figure of Lavalle at Plaza Lavalle in Buenos Aires.