Academic journal article Libertarian Papers

A Libertarian Re-Examination of Early 19th-Century Politics in Brazil

Academic journal article Libertarian Papers

A Libertarian Re-Examination of Early 19th-Century Politics in Brazil

Article excerpt



Brazil's independence and state-building process was unique in the Americas. While other countries severed relations with their former metropolis in revolutionary processes, Brazil maintained a strong sense of continuity with Portugal. Dom Pedro I, Brazil's first head of state and government, was a son of Dom Joao VI, Portugal's prince regent. Both came from Europe in the early nineteenth century to evade the Napoleonic Wars. Instead of fighting a war in Portugal he believed he could not win, Dom Joao decided to simply uproot the capital of the Portuguese Empire and plant it in Rio de Janeiro, displacing his family and court completely.

After Napoleon's defeat, Dom Joao pranced back to Portugal, but Pedro stayed in Brazil and was eventually central in Brazil's move to independence. He soon came to be emperor of Brazil and, after reigning for less than a decade, returned to Portugal in 1831. He left his son, Dom Pedro II, to become Brazil's second emperor. Pedro II would reign until 1889, when he was overthrown by a military coup that established a Republican regime.

Traditional historiography in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries praises this continuity between Portugal and Brazil, sometimes in contrast with Spanish America's history. In its negotiated independence and state-building process, Brazil avoided the dangers of mob rule, oligarchy, despotism, and even territorial fragmentation. This process, conservative in nature, displeased radical liberals, but nevertheless was successful in achieving progress and order.

More recent historiography questions this traditional view, observing that the Conservative state-building process was unable to and possibly uninterested in addressing social and economic issues, such as slavery. Instead, the process sustained inequalities that scarred the country, which helps explain future problems. But even with this criticism, the new historiography also praises the way Brazilian elites were able to avoid some of the consequences associated with Spanish America's path to independence. A supporter of this sentiment is Jose Murilo de Carvalho, author of Elite and State Building in Imperial Brazil (published in Brazil as A Construcao da Ordem/Teatro de Sombras--Construction of the Order/Shadow Theatre (1)). Carvalho says that unlike any other country in Latin America, Brazil had a homogenous elite responsible for the independence movement and subsequent state-building process. The unification of this elite was accomplished through a common education (mainly at the University of Coimbra, in the late 1700s), a common vocation in the bureaucracy, and few ideological differences. In other words, some intellectuals threw themselves into shaping a South American empire out of Brazil, thus ensuring the maintenance of order.

Although Carvalho praises the way Brazilian elites avoided territorial fragmentation, mob rule, despotism, and other difficulties, he fails to address the dangerously authoritarian political attitude dominant in Brazil. To impose order, the elites in Rio de Janeiro assumed a monopoly of the legal use of violence. This process involved alienating opposing elites, and establishing the right to "tax"--a term that in this context could be considered mere theft. (2) These are basic libertarian observations that both traditional and modern historiographies overlook.

When I highlight these aspects of Brazilian political history, I am in no way saying they were the only ones to make this mistake in the state-building process. Just the opposite is true. Even the United States, a country often mentioned as an example of a free nation, failed in similar respects. (3) What I am trying to convey is that this was also the case in Brazil, something other researchers fail to mention clearly.

With this in mind, I aim to provide a libertarian reexamination of nineteenth-century politics in Brazil. …

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