He studied at the College of Moral Sciences of Buenos Aires and joined the Association of May, opposing the dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas. In 1838 Alberdi fled to Montevideo and later to Chile, and devoted himself to journalism and law. He lived in exile much of his life.
As a practical student of economics, Alberdi became a friend of William Wheelright, the North American builder of South American railroads. His emphasis on immigration led to his great phrase: "To govern is to populate." His only political success was a diplomatic mission to Europe, by which he secured the belated acknowledgment by Spain of his country's independence and the recognition of Gen. Justo JoséJose de Urquiza's government as the legitimate government of the newly organized Argentine Federation. Alberdi returned from that mission to serve an unhappy term in congress, where his progressive ideas and solitary ways made him unpopular.