Who is Jose de San Martin? - Biography, Facts, Quotes & Accomplishments

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the life of Jose de San Martin, a South American-born Spaniard who went on to become a champion of the independence movements across southern South America.


Just about every country in the world has figures it considers its founders. In the United States, though there are several contenders, that man is arguably George Washington. As both general of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and our first president, he makes a strong claim. Other countries have their own such figures, including John A. McDonald in Canada or Camillo Benso in Italy.

For Argentina and a few other South American countries, that figure is Jose de San Martin. In this lesson we will explore San Martin's life and his role in the liberation of South America.

Early Life

Jose de San Martin was born in Yapeyu, in what is now Argentina, in 1778. He was the son of two Spaniards, and Jose's father was a soldier and administrator with the Spanish Army. When he was six the family moved back to Spain, and Jose began his education with an aim toward following in his father's footsteps. After his education, he served nobly in the Spanish army in several wars around the turn of the 19th century and was made a captain in 1804.

San Martin continued to distinguish himself militarily, ably commanding resistance forces in Spain against Napoleon's invading French forces and his Spanish allies. Before this fight was concluded, however, San Martin made the decision to change his career path completely. Rather than continue his career in Spain, he asked leave to move to Lima, the capital of Peru, which was at that point a Spanish colony.


But instead of traveling to Lima, San Martin instead landed in Buenos Aires in 1812. Though nominally still a Spanish colony, Buenos Aires had been ruled by a semi-autonomous revolutionary government since 1810. This government was constantly under threat from royalist forces in Peru and Lima (where San Martin was originally slated to go), and he was a welcome addition to the cause.

Indeed, despite serving for over a decade in the Spanish military, San Martin quickly became one of the most ardent supporters of South American independence. He exhibited a dedication to liberty and humbleness in his service to the colonial revolutions. His thoughts on this subject are still often quoted, such as 'I shall always be ready to make the ultimate sacrifice for the liberty of the country.'

Historians believe his enthusiasm for the colonial cause stems from his birth there and the prejudice often exhibited in 18th and 19th-century Spain against those from the American colonies. Whatever the cause, San Martin believed the independence of South America to be a just, and indeed, a moral cause, saying: 'The conscience is the best and most impartial judge that a righteous man has.'

Peru and the Andes

His zeal for the revolution and his military acumen made him a valued asset, and in 1813 he was sent to Tucuman in northwestern Argentina to reinforce the forces there against the invading loyalist forces commanded in Lima. San Martin realized that until the royalist forces from Peru were defeated, South American independence could never truly be secure. The fall of the revolutionary government in Chile soon after San Martin's arrival in Tucuman confirmed this notion.

Instead of traipsing his troops through the rainforests of Bolivia to get to Peru, where they would face stiff opposition, San Martin devised a plan for his troops to cross the Andes and take Lima by surprise. San Martin and his army crossed the Andes in 1817 in less than a month and took Santiago, the colonial capital of Chile, by surprise. Not to be deterred from his ultimate goal of removing Spanish influence from South America altogether, San Martin built a Chilean navy from scratch and sailed his army off for Lima in 1820.

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