Overview of the Government
The constitution of the Empire of Brazil stated that “The representatives of the Brazilian Nation are the Emperor, and the General Assembly.” [Art. 11. Os Representantes da Nação Brazileira são o Imperador, e a Assembléa Geral.] In this way, the Empire of Brazil was a constitutional monarchy, wherein the Emperor and the Parliament were servants of the people of the empire. The idea was that the emperor was the enduring, big-picture ruler (the “permanent will” as Nabuco says in Um Estadista [vontade permanente]), while the General Assembly attended more to the day to day concerns of the state.
The Emperor appointed judges, magistrates, senators, provincial presidents, ministers of state, and eventually the President of the Council of Ministers—a position similar to Prime Minister. The Emperor was responsible for sanctioning laws in order for them to go into effect, though parliament could force a bill into law if it was voted through by two consecutive legislatures. The Emperor could also commute sentences and grant amnesty.
While it’s wrong to say that the emperor was just a figurehead, certainly the General Assembly was the main governing body of the Empire. It consisted of the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house) and the Senate (upper house.) The General Assembly (which is alternately referred to as “parliament” and “the legislature”) held the power of the purse, power to modify, suspend, and enact laws, control of the military, and power to create government offices.
The Senate was composed of 50 members, each serving lifelong terms, with provinces each having a certain number of senators representing them, based on population. They were appointed by the emperor, however the emperor had to choose from the three candidates who garnered the most votes from the citizens of whichever province.
The Chamber of Deputies was elected (pretty much) by Brazilian voters—specifically men who made above a nominal amount of annual income—for four-year terms. There were 102 deputies, also distributed proportionally based on population.
Executive power was effectively split between the Emperor and the Council of Ministers. The Council of Ministers (also called the “cabinet”) was a group of politicians appointed by the emperor to run specific ministries—Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of the Navy, Ministry of the Treasury, etc. Eventually, however, the emperor would nominate one President of the Council of Ministers (sometimes called the “prime minister”) to head this council, and allow this president to appoint the ministers of state himself. This cabinet functioned a lot like the government of a parliament, as it had to present an annual agenda to the Chamber of Deputies, and could be dissolved by the monarch (as could the entire Chamber.)
As well, the Emperor would only appoint presidents who he believed had the majority support of the Chamber, and would often dissolve the cabinet if the legislature passed a motion of no confidence. The President of the Council of Ministers also had some executive powers, as they were responsible for diplomacy, issuing decrees, and national security.
And there was an independent judiciary, though they aren’t especially relevant for this book.
With all that established, on to the history.
The First Reign and the Regency
The Empire of Brazil was a very centralized state from the beginning, with no way for citizens to directly elect the president of their province—and right from the beginning, there were constant provincial uprisings (such as the Cisplatine War, wherein Uruguay gained sovereignty.) To alleviate this unrest, many statesmen wanted to grant greater autonomy to the provinces, and—together with politicians who wished to confer greater power to the people of the empire, rather than the emperor—they began to form the Liberal Party. However, this “party” was really more of a loose coalition, composed of Republicans (called “extremists,” and farrapos, translated in English as “ragamuffins”) and “moderate” Liberals. The moderates were in turn split between the Coimbra bloc and the Nativists. The Nativists, led by Diogo Antônio Feijó, were one of the earliest political groups to form. They supported slavery and wanted more federalism, and more democracy. The Coimbra bloc was dominated by graduates of Coimbra University such as Pedro de Araújo Lima (Olinda), Honório Hermeto Carneiro Leão (Paraná), and Paulino Soares de Sousa. They actually supported a strong central government, and only aligned themselves with the Nativists and Republicans in order to oppose the Restorationists.
The Restorationists came about in 1831 when Pedro I, the first emperor of Brazil, abdicated the throne to take care of some royal drama in Portugal. They fervently argued for his return to the throne. In the meantime, Pedro II was only five years old, so a regency of elected officials was appointed.
Not long after, the Ato Adicional was passed in 1834, an amendment to the constitution which allowed provinces to form provincial legislatures and control primary and secondary education. Despite this, separatist rebellions continued, including the 1835-1845 Ragamuffin War, which established the short-lived Riograndense Republic in Rio Grande do Sul.
The 1830s were quite eventful, because in 1835 news reached Brazil that Pedro I had died. The Restorationists, with no one to restore, joined the Coimbra bloc, and the Nativist-Coimbra-bloc coalition dissolved.
In 1837 the new political landscape appeared thus: The Coimbra bloc; the Liberals, composed of Nativists and a few other minor factions, only allied by virtue of shared opposition to the Coimbra bloc; and the Courtier Faction, composed of politicians and high-ranking servants in the imperial palace, who had ingratiated themselves with the young emperor, led by Aureliano de Sousa Oliveira Coutinho (later Viscount of Sepetiba).
The Liberals allied with the Courtiers, seeking to attain power by gaining the emperor’s favor, and declaring him of age as soon as possible. On 23 July 1840 they were successful. A 15-year-old Pedro II was declared old enough to rule, and a Liberal-Courtier cabinet took power—but less than a year later, infighting caused the Liberals to be dismissed from the cabinet, replaced by members of the Coimbra bloc. There was a sharp backlash to this, with yet more Liberal uprisings. These were easily put down, and after being arrested Feijó—the old Nativist—soon died in 1843.
Also in 1842, Pedro II appointed Paraná to lead a new cabinet, making him the unofficial first ever prime minister of Brazil. Around this time as well, the emperor purged the Courtier Faction from the government, placing an unspoken ban on the leader, Aureliano Coutinho, from ever holding political office again. The Liberal Party held power for some time, but in 1848 Pedro called on the Coimbra bloc, now known as the Conservative Party, to form a new government.
The Second Reign
A month later, another Liberal revolt kicked off in Pernambuco, the Praiera Revolt—though it was essentially a Courtier Faction revolt, led by Aureliano Coutinho. The revolt was crushed in February 1849. It greatly damaged public perception of the Liberal Party and paved the way for Conservatives to dominate politics for the next decade.
To put an end to factionalist violence and gridlock, Pedro II appointed Paraná to lead a government of “Conciliation” [Conciliaçao], inviting old Liberals to join in a Conservative coalition. Paraná complied, though there was strong pushback from old Conservatives who believed that these Liberals were really just working to further their own party, not for any shared conservative ideals. Especially vocal critics were Paulino Soares de Sousa, Joaquim Rodrigues Torres, and Eusébio de Quierós. Still, the cabinet (which included José Tomás Nabuco as Minister of Justice, Nabuco’s first time serving in the Council of Ministers) was able to function for years, until Paraná unexpectedly died in 1856. The next five years saw four different conservative cabinets, as each struggled to maintain majority support.
The Conservative Party was split between the Traditionalists—the older generation, critical of Conciliation—and the Conciliators, or moderate Conservatives—who supported it. With the Conservatives divided, Liberals seized the opportunity, winning several seats in the chamber in 1860. In June 1861, José Tomás Nabuco, who had served as Minister of Justice in the old Conciliation cabinet, gave a speech advocating for the merger of Conservatives and Liberals to form a new party which could overcome factionalism. With this speech, which instantly sparked an enthusiastic political movement among those groups, Nabuco effectively founded the Progressive League, which managed to take power in 1862. Zacarias de Góis e Vasconcelos was appointed to form a cabinet, ending 14 years of Conservative rule.
Ultimately, the Progressive League was short-lived, dissolving in 1868, at which point Conservatives regained power. Ex-members of the Progressive League went on to join the new-and-improved Liberal Party, and later (in 1870) the new-and-improved Republican Party. But that’s beyond the scope of this book, so I’ll leave things here.
The Empire of Brazil Constitution — for info on the government
This article from Portal São Francisco — for info on the General Assembly
This Encyclopædia Britannica article — for info on the Ato Adicional
A History of Modern Brazil by Colin M. MacLachlan — for general info on political machinations of the Empire of Brazil, especially during the first reign
And, as always, Wikipedia — sine qua non