Manuel Montt Torres (1809-1880) was a Chilean statesman and public servant. One of the ablest and most active of Chile's presidents, he continued the work begun by Diego Portales of organizing his country along orderly, efficient, centralized Conservative lines.
Manuel Montt was born in Petorca of a distinguished family of Catalan descent. After training for the law and entering government service, he played an active part in bringing to justice the assassins of the great Conservative minister Diego Portales, whose spiritual heir he became. Montt was twice appointed minister of the interior, held a succession of other high posts, and completed two terms (1851-1861) as president of Chile.
Montt displayed great energy in promoting reforms in almost every branch of national life. He expanded and remodeled the civil service, founded savings banks, and reorganized the taxation system in order to finance (with the help of a large loan raised in England) his ambitious public works program, which included the construction of key railway lines and telegraphs. His educational reforms were particularly far-reaching. He founded many primary, secondary, technical, and specialized schools, reformed their curricula, and expanded higher education. He encouraged scientific research and endowed Chile with an astronomical observatory.
Under Montt's administration, commerce and industry advanced rapidly, and agricultural production increased, thanks in part to the immigration schemes by which farmers were brought from Europe, particularly Germany, and settled on state lands in southern Chile; the city of Puerto Montt bears witness to his initiative in this field.
Though he was a convinced Conservative himself, Montt's reforms brought him into conflict with the Church, which believed its privileges to be threatened, and with the large landowners angered by his abolition of the colonial system of estates, which Montt believed would encourage a more equitable pattern of landownership. The Liberals had launched an armed rising in an unsuccessful protest against Montt's advent to power in 1851, and toward the end of his second term they renewed their agitation, this time in an unnatural alliance with the extreme Conservatives and with the unruly Araucanians in the south of the country. This created economic and political difficulties for Montt's administration, which was succeeded by a Liberal government in 1861.
On leaving presidential office, Montt served on the Supreme Court (where an attempt was made to impeach him) and then as senator, counselor of state, and Chilean envoy to Peru. His severe and inflexible character made him many enemies, but in Chilean history he has seldom been equaled for his probity and many-sided devotion in the public service.
There are no full-length studies of Montt in English. Luis Galdames, History of Chile (trans. 1941), contains a useful chapter on Montt's personality and achievements. Hubert Clinton Herring, A History of Latin America (1955; 3d rev. ed. 1968), has a discussion of Montt's place in Chilean history. □