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Julio Roca (1843-1914)

A great president influences the course of history by placing his nation on a trajectory that benefits the people over time. Argentina can proudly point to Julio Argentino Roca (1843-1914) as such a president. Roca was instrumental in the transition of a loosely associated collection of provinces into the modern Argentine nation-state. Twice elected president, he also served as Argentina's highest ranking general, a cabinet minister, and the head of the national senate.

Biographical Information

Born on July 17th 1843 in the scenic Argentine province of Tucumán, Roca was the fifth of eight children of Coronel José Segundo Roca and Agustina Paz. José Segundo's military career kept him away from home for long periods of time either engaged in military campaigns or in exile fleeing from the terror instigated by Juan Manuel de Rosas, who ruled Argentina with an iron fist from the 1820s to 1852. In 1855, Julio Roca's mother passed away. The children were sent to various relatives with Julio and two of his brothers enrolling at the Colegio de Concepción del Uruguay. Excelling under the rigorous discipline of a military school, he happened upon the library where he buried himself in works on military campaigns. These studies served him well later in life when he rose to lead the Argentine army. In his father's absence, Roca spent time at his uncle's home in the province of Paraná. His uncle, Marcos Roca, was a senator in the provincial Paraná congress and an avid supporter of José Justo Urquiza, the vanquisher of Rosas and the leader of the Argentine Confederation that failed in its attempt to unite the country.

Argentina experienced nonstop civil conflict from 1850-1880 and Roca fought in many of the most significant battles during this era before being elected to the presidency in 1880. His baptism by fire came as an officer (while still enrolled at the colegio) in the artillery of the Confederation during the battle of Cepeda (1859) where it defeated the forces amassed by Buenos Aires. The victory must have been bittersweet for him as two of his brothers, Alejandro and Ataliva, fought for the opposition. In 1861 he served the Confederation as a lieutenant in the artillery at the battle of Pavón. Here he witnessed the Confederation's president, José Justo Urquiza's inexplicable retirement from the battlefield giving the victory to Buenos Aires.

While the confederation collapsed with Urquiza's surrender, Roca was not deterred from continuing his military career. He traveled to Buenos Aires in 1862 to serve in the provisional national army, which he had fought against only months before. He was assigned to a large force that was sent to the interior to combat the uprisings of the local forces known as montoneros and protect settlements from Indian incursions. Over the next two years he served under General Wenceslao Paunero during the army's mostly successful efforts to put down uprisings in the interior.

While Roca labored in pitched battles with caudillos like Ángel Vicente Peñalosa el Chaco, Paraguay invaded Brazil. Argentina soon joined Brazil and Uruguay to form the triple alliance that participated in the bloodiest war in Latin American history. During the deadly War of the Triple Alliance, Roca emerged as a hero because of his charge on the Paraguayan forces at the battle of Curupaití. He fought alongside his father and four brothers. The hard fought victory over Paraguay came at a high cost for Roca as his father passed away due to health problems during the conflict. Two of his brothers and two cousins also paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country before Paraguay was subdued.

In 1867 Roca was assigned to western Argentina to quell the insurrections led by Juan de Dios Videla and Felipe Varela. He helped to defeat Videla and Varela, further increasing his reputation as a military leader. In January 1870 the lieutenant coronel Roca was sent to the province of Entre Ríos in Northern Argentina (situated west of Uruguay and located between the Paraná and Uruguay rivers) to reinforce the army that was pitted against Ricardo López Jordan, a worthy adversary who had held out against a larger and better armed force. At the battle of Ñaembé, Roca's strategic recommendation to the battlefield commanders led to victory and chased López Jordan into exile in Brazil. Roca's rapid ascent through the ranks continued with his appointment to coronel.

By 1871, Roca, only 37, was recognized by the national government for his leadership, fairness, and effective use of military strategy. Unlike other generals of the Argentine army, who maltreated and regularly shot their prisoners, Roca placed his captives in custody without undue harm. His reward for this effective service was an appointment as the commander of the Southern Front, a far-reaching area home to Indian tribes and outlaws, but coveted by Argentina for its unlimited potential of mining, farming and ranching. This border experienced constant conflict and negotiation between the Indian leaders and the Argentine government.

Roca met his wife while commanding the Southern Front from its headquarters in Córdoba. They met in December 1871 and married shortly afterwards. His wife, Clara, was the daughter of the renowned Funes family whose ancestor, the priest Dean Gregorio Funes, was one of the leading voices for independence. The wealthy and well-connected Funes family from Argentina's second city served as an important source of political capital in Roca's future. The couple married on August 22, 1872 and would have three daughters.

Like many government officials, Roca pursued commercial ventures from the land deeded to him by the national government in recognition of his achievements. Land was a key to building financial wealth in Argentina either through raising cattle, farming, or speculating on land that might be later purchased for the rapid expansion of the railroads. Roca quickly put the property into production with his brother and in-laws. Together they imported cattle from England that greatly improved their herds.

The era of provincial control by local caudillos who led through military might and the loyalty of the local populace was coming to an end. The presidency of Domingo Sarmiento (1868-1874), along with Roca's military leadership, engaged and defeated several provincial caudillos. As the day of the caudillo was ending, a new power structure emerged to take its place in the 1870s. A number of the provincial governors formed the League of Governors. These politicians consolidated control within a few families in several provinces. They recognized that establishing good relations with the national government eventually led to the allocation of resources that supported their programs and political institutions. This “oligarchy” controlled national politics for the next 40 years. Roca, with his provincial, familial, financial, and military connections, led this movement through the early part of the 20th century.

As Roca rose through the ranks of the military, his assignments placed him in the central and western provinces. Here he began to build the political base that launched his national campaign for the presidency. His supporters began to fill the provincial legislatures and governorships. He utilized his military forces to influence elections to support provincial gubernatorial candidates of his choice. The election of governors sympathetic to Roca in the late 1870s in La Rioja, San Luis, and Jujuy further strengthened his political power.

In October 1878, Argentina's president, Nicolás Avellaneda, recognized Roca's stellar military record and leadership qualities by appointing him to head the Ministro de Guerra y Marina (Ministry of the Armed Forces). Roca agreed to accept the position left open when the gifted politician and leader Valentín Alsina died at the age of 48. Roca immediately initiated a plan that he had considered for several years to open for settlement a vast area of land totaling over 150,000 square miles south of the province of Buenos Aires. After years of somewhat successful pacification of the indigenous peoples in that region through gifts of goods and supplies by the national government, an uneasy peace held sway. The Indians' growing dependence on these supplies led them to raid settlements to acquire more resources. The failure of the subsidy program to pacify the Indians and the pressure for more arable land by such groups as the Argentine Rural Society lent public support to Roca's campaign. The plan quickly gained congressional approval, and in October 1878, the campaign began with a series of attacks on the Indians by small bands of mounted soldiers who were closely followed by five columns of well-armed soldiers to confront larger groups of Indian warriors. Because the Indians' dependence on the subsidies harmed their ability to forage from the land, the campaign had little trouble routing the tribes. With considerable fanfare, Roca reached the border of the new frontier at the Rio Negro River in May 1879.

Shortly after the successful completion of this Desert Campaign, Roca declared his candidacy for the 1880 presidency. The contacts in the provinces, which he had cultivated during his military service, solidly supported him, while Buenos Aires rallied around the provincial governor Carlos Tejedor. Tejedor established a militia in Buenos Aires and led a revolt that was put down by the national army under Roca's direction. Tejedor's defeat marked an important event in Argentine history. While provincial militias would form in future years to challenge the national government, they never again defeated the national armed forces that had finally become a well funded and trained professional organization.

Roca's election tipped political power towards the provinces and Buenos Aires did not regain its former preeminence until Roca's power (called the Roquismo) waned in 1908. This new power structure brought together the metropolitan and the rural and is exemplified by decree 11.747 signed by Roca in December 1880 that declared Buenos Aires the capital of Argentina. No longer would this city isolate itself from the provinces and retain its customs taxes or raise its own army. Roca had accomplished what his predecessors, Sarmiento, Bartolomeo Mitre, and Avellaneda could not during their administrations.

Roca turned to established politicians to help carry out his agenda to create wealth by supporting business, particularly import and export industries. He appointed Nicolás Avellaneda as secretary of state and Domingo Sarmiento as the head of the National Council of Education. In 1885 Roca signed into law free public education that was obligatory and secular. He also organized the National Department of Health. He pursued friendly relations with his neighbors. In the case of Chile, he negotiated a treaty that established the national boundary between the two countries. During his presidency, he used his extensive political network to found the Partido Autonomista Nacional (PAN), Argentina's first true national political party. PAN candidates won the most important elections during his term.

In Roca's final state of the union speech, May 1886, he recounted several of the successes achieved by his administration. He gave this speech despite being hit in the head with a rock that caused significant bleeding.

  • The country had experienced six consecutive years of peace.
  • Imports and exports together had grown from 103,000,000 to 189,000,000 by 1886.
  • Cultivated land had increased from 1,120,000 to 1,920,000 hectares.
  • 108,000 individuals immigrated in 1886, up from 33,000 in 1880.
  • There were significant public works projects, including the improvement or creation of ports in Buenos Aires, Bahía Blanca, and Santa Fe.
  • Only the U.S. spent more than Argentina (3,000,000 pesos) on education in the Americas.
  • New settlements had been established in the Chaco and Patagonia.

The English benefited greatly from the increased commercial activity. To show their respect and gratitude to Roca following his six-year term, he was feted at a great banquet in London by Britain's commercial elite, including the Baring brothers.

In August of 1886, Miguel Júarez Celman was elected president of Argentina. Even after leaving the presidency in 1886, Roca cast a long shadow over the country until his reelection in 1898. He remained active in politics starting with his election to the Senate as a representative of the capital city, Buenos Aires in March of 1888. His election as the provisional president of the Senate in May must have given the standing president, Juárez Celman, cause for concern. In fact, Roca presided over the Senate as it accepted Celman's resignation in August 1890. The new president, Nicólas Pellegrini, appointed Roca the Minister of the Interior, a powerful position within the administration. With the oversight of domestic policy, Roca promoted commercial projects, particularly those that expanded the railway system. He stepped down as a minister in May of 1891, but quickly returned to the national scene as the elected Senator of Tucumán and, again, was elected provisional president of the Senate. Through these powerful positions Roca continued to push a political agenda supported by the PAN.

Unhappy with the state of the nation following the presidency of Avellaneda, Roca ran and won a second term in 1898. His return to the presidency was a relief to foreign commercial and financial interests, particularly the British who had established a strong working relationship with him. The term was highlighted by Roca's administrative skills in foreign relations and domestic policy. He negotiated border dispute settlements with Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Brazil. Roca promoted immigration and growth in Patagonia. He modernized the departments of justice, education, and the military, while managing to control government spending and pay down the national debt. His administration continued extensive public works projects that included irrigation systems, bridges, railroads (1,016 kilometers of new tracks laid in 1900 alone), and roads.

Following his second term, Roca retired from public life. In 1912 President Roque Sáenz appointed him extraordinary ambassador in Brazil to head off a possible arms race. The Brazilians were in the process of purchasing a new battle ship that demanded a response from Argentina. Roca negotiated a freeze on the purchase of such powerful weapons that lasted for several years. Two years later, he passed away closing an extraordinary chapter in Argentina's short history. Few men served their homeland so ably in both the military and public office as Julio Argentina Roca did.

Roca's raise to power helped to establish an oligarchy that dominated national politics through the early part of the 20th century. This is not surprising considering the warring factionalism that had destabilized Argentina since Independence. The largely stable peace overseen by a small group that included Roca, Bartolomé Mitre, and Avellaneda allowed commercial investment to flourish, major public works projects to be undertaken, and immigration to provide the labor needed to settle newly available land. While democratic institutions languished in Argentina well into the twentieth century due to a powerful oligarchy, Argentina's standard of living rivaled the United States in the hemisphere and its position in the world grew. While this initial potential promised Argentina a place at the table with the developed world, financial collapse and military dictatorships have left this potential unfulfilled.

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Description of Archival Collection
(MSH/SCH 4020-1 to 4020-149 and 8500-1 to 8500-8)

The 149 items found in this collection consist largely of letters written to members of Roca's family. The majority are personal letters written to his father, brother, and son. More detail on each individual item can be found the manuscript database at

They include:

  • 108 letters written by Julio Roca to family members and friends including:
    • 53 letters to his brother, Alejandro
    • 8 letters to his father, Jose Segundo
    • 1 letter to his son, Julio
  • 41 letters or documents addressed to Julio Roca from friends and associates:
    • 9 letters from Pedro Barrazas
    • 5 letters from General Francisco Seeber

There is also a small number of official documents dealing with commercial issues and some photographs.

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Arce, José. Cronología de Roca. 2nd ed. Buenos Aires: Republica Argentina. Ministerio de Educación y Justicía, 1965. Series: Publicaciones del Museo Roca. Estudios – VII.

Julio A. Roca. Buenos Aires: Planeta, 1999. Series: Grandes Protagonistas de la Historia Argentina.

Luna, Felix. Yo soy Roca. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 2000.

Rock, David. State building and political movements in Argentina, 1860-1916. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

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