Go Back

Brazzil - History - January 2004
 

A Bill to Join Brazil and the US

If a little-known legislative bill had succeeded in Brazil during
the 1830s Brazilian and Americans might be sharing
politicians and the products of each nation would go to the other
free from any tax. The bill also required both nations to
mutually defend themselves against foreign aggression.

Guy Burton

 

Brazilian senators Antônio Carlos Magalhães and José Genoíno debating with each other on Capitol Hill, Trent Lott and Dick Gephardt locked in combat in Brasília. Orange juice from Brazil and America being sold at the same price in Florida's supermarkets. President Bush excluding Brazilian steel from high import tariffs. American high school students learning about the Brazilian soldiers who fought alongside the Yankees to preserve the Union.

Fantasy you say? Not if a little-known legislative bill had succeeded during the 1830s, during what may well have been the most fluid period of Brazil's turbulent political history.

In 1831 Brazil's young charismatic emperor, Dom Pedro I, abdicated his throne. The writing had been on the wall for some time. The son of the Portuguese king, Dom João VI, Dom Pedro had nailed his colours to the cause of Brazilian independence nine years earlier. But his reign hadn't been happy and he had been regularly upsetting public opinion.

To win international recognition for the new country he had agreed to pay Portugal £2 million and accepted an unfavourable trade agreement with the most powerful country at the time, Britain. His war against Argentina over the east bank of the Plata had ended in disaster with the creation of a new country rate. Meanwhile, he was behaving autocratically, limiting the power of the exchange in Uruguay and was contributing to spiralling foreign debt and the collapse of the elected General Assembly and appointing ministers with little regard for popular feeling.

By 1830 Dom Pedro was in a bad way. But it was about to get worse. His subjects now had access to a large print media: they read with interest the news that French king Charles X had been thrown out of power.

In March 1831 Pedro I produced his first cabinet, made up of Brazilian-born ministers. But a month later he had replaced them all with an unpopular government made up of Portuguese-born Brazilians. Public opinion snapped: he was forced to abdicate, sailing away and leaving behind his five-year old son, Pedro, who wouldn't be eligible to take the throne until 1843—when he turned 18.

But the departing emperor wasn't leaving without something to go to; five years earlier his father had died and his brother Dom Miguel had sought the throne for himself. Pedro I was determined to not let that happen: he wanted his daughter, Maria, crowed queen of Portugal.

But the Brazil Pedro I left behind was in an uncertain state. It had survived less than ten years of independence and although Brazilians were finally in charge of their own affairs, it was economically weak. It wasn't at all clear it could survive as an independent nation.

At the time of Pedro's abdication there were two main political tendencies in the country: the liberals and the conservatives. While the conservatives were generally in favour of centralisation and a strong monarchy, their thunder had been stolen by Pedro's abrupt departure. Filling the political vacuum for the first time were the liberals with their general programme of decentralisation and limitations on monarchical power.

The liberals moved quickly to establish a Regency, which would oversee both affairs of state and the care and upbringing of the young emperor-elect. Three regents were to be selected by the country's elected representatives, but unlike Pedro they weren't to be the masters of the assembly. Without the power to dismiss the General Assembly, they became its creatures.

Economic difficulties were being exacerbating political differences within the provinces. After the highly centralised rule of Pedro I the tensions between liberals and conservative were played out across the country as factions competed for regional dominance and control. The imperial authorities at the capital in Rio de Janeiro found their work cut out trying to halt the instability caused by these rebellions in Pernambuco, Alagoas, Pará, Bahia, Maranhão and Rio Grande do Sul.

In May 1833 some troubling news was imparted by the Government to the Chamber of Deputies. Evidence was shown which suggested the former Pedro I was planning a comeback to Brazil. In keeping with the greater powers allocated to the legislative assembly, Ministers tried to persuade deputies to put forward a bill which would banish Pedro I from being allowed to return. A year later their fears became even larger when Pedro defeated his brother, Miguel, and guaranteed the Portuguese throne for his daughter, now Dona Maria II.

Brazil-US Union

It was into this climate of suspicion that the little heard-of 1834 legislative bill proposing the federation of Brazil and the United States appeared. But it never got very far. Indeed no mention of the bill is made in the United States' diplomatic correspondence with Brazil during this time. Nor does the proposed legislation appear to have been included in studies regarding Pan-Americanism.

What material is available on the subject tends to deal with the Pan-American ideals of Spanish America, whose governments all rejected the Brazilian monarchical model in favour of republican values which they shared with the French and American revolutions.

The absence of any apparent analysis of this 1834 federative bill seems to indicate it was put forward as little more than a symbolic gesture—perhaps by an over-enthusiastic liberal keen to express his displeasure at a restored monarchy under Pedro I.

So far the only book to which I have traced a reference to the bill is Karl Loewenstein's Brazil under Vargas, published in 1943. In it, the then professor of political science and jurisprudence cited another work, P.A. Martin's Federalism in Brazil, for the detail of the bill:

'Art. 1 Brazil and the United States will be federated for the purpose of mutually defending themselves against foreign pretensions and will aid each other in the development of the internal wealth of both nations.

Art. 3. Each one of the nations shall be represented in the national assembly of the other.

Art. 4. The products of each nation shall be received in the other in the same manner as its own, free from all imposts.'

The bill, even if it had been passed in the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, would never have achieved legal status without reciprocal passage by Congress and Presidential acceptance in Washington as well.

But even if the bill has remained a footnote in history, during that year of fear and suspicion another much more important piece of legislation was passed. Called the Additional Act, the bill was a constitutional amendment which improved government efficiency by reducing the number of regents from three to one and enhanced the liberals' decentralisation ethos, by passing many powers to the provinces.

The other piece of legislation which Ministers tried to press for, a law of banishment for Pedro I was never put forward. There wasn't any need: having secured Portugal for Maria, he died that same year. But despite an end to the foreign threat posed to the country by Pedro's death, Brazil's political turbulence continued. The rebellious provinces maintained their challenge to central authority while the Regency continued to suffer from a weakness of authority and prestige.

The 14-year-old Emperor

A few years later, the liberals' influence began to ebb and the tide began to turn. The conservatives increasingly gained control of the political debate in Brazil; one of their numbers, Pedro de Araujo Lima, replaced the liberal Diogo Antonio Feijó, as regent in 1837. Three years later, in 1840, the Interpretative Law was passed which curtailed the federal experiment by centralising power.

In the same year a movement was organised to declare the son of Pedro I of age and capable of taking up the reigns of government. Many Brazilians, on both the conservative and liberal sides of the fence, were by now concerned the unity of the country couldn't last much longer without a unifying force: the 14-year-old Pedro seemed to offer that hope. On July 23, he appeared before the General Assembly where he took his oath of office and promised to uphold the constitution.

With the coronation of Dom Pedro II, Brazil's period of political instability finally came to an end. The disorder and crisis of the preceding nine years were forgotten and a centralised state with the emperor at its heart was re-established. The 1840s were to see a change in Brazilian politics: the rebellious provinces would be brought to heel and the country was made secure from any foreign threat.

Brazil's 'Second Empire' under Dom Pedro II not only brought to an end the country's colonial past but also the volatile nature of politics during the 1830s when liberals and conservatives experimented with different ideas about what Brazil's destiny could be. Not for another fifty years, until 1889 when Pedro II was finally forced by a military coup, would the nature of Brazil's political institutions again be open to such fluidity.

 
Guy Burton was born in Brazil and now lives in London where he is currently a prospective Liberal Democrat candidate for the London Assembly in elections in June 2004. As a postgraduate student he researched contemporary Brazilian politics, the results of which were published in Gianpaolo Baiocchi's Radicals in Power (Zed, 2003). He can be contacted at gjsburton@hotmail.com.


Discuss it in our Forum

Send your comments to Brazzil

To Top / Go Back