Monday, May 31, 2010

The Greatest Brazilian

During the (almost) 59 years of his reign he’d rise daily at 7, seldom retire before 2, and spend the vast majority of his 19 waking hours attending to affairs of state. No Brazilian politician has ever worked longer, or harder, at governing the nation. He inherited an empire on the verge of collapse and left it a place of political stability. Brazil, in his time, was distinguished for freedom of speech, respect for civil rights and vibrant economic growth. He was Pedro II, the last emperor of Brazil, and the very epitome of a philosopher-king.
Here’s his earliest surviving picture. It was taken in 1848, when he was just 22 years old.
In addition to Portuguese, Pedro could read and speak Latin, French, German, English, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Mandarin, Occitan and Tupi-Guarani.
His library contained more than 60,000 volumes - and he was reputed to have read every one of them. His palace contained a photo lab, another lab dedicated to chemistry and physics, and an astronomical observatory.
In addition to the sciences, he loved literature, poetry, art and music.
He won the respect and admiration of scholars such as Charles Darwin, Victor Hugo and Friedrich Nietzsche. He was a friend to Richard Wagner, Louis Pasteur and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He was elected a member of the Royal Society, The Russian Academy of Sciences, The American Geographic Society and the French Academy of Sciences, an honor previously granted to only two other heads of state: Peter the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte.
He financed the creation of the Institute Pasteur
and helped underwrite the construction of Wagner's Bayreuth Festspielhaus.
It was said of him that he kept his emotions under iron discipline, that he was never rude and never lost his temper. He was exceptionally discreet in words and cautious in action. He was diligent in appointing only highly-qualified candidates to positions in the government, insisted that every politician put in a workday of at least eight hours, and sought to curb corruption.
Here you see him with the weight of his years and his troubles upon him. This photo was shot shortly before he was deposed and sent into exile.
What brought him down?
He hated the practice, called it a “national shame”, never owned slaves of his own, but he couldn’t abolish slavery by imperial decree because his was a constitutional monarchy.
Nevertheless, he spent years struggling against it.
But, when he finally succeeded, the rich and powerful coffee farmers had a fit.
They regarded emancipation as confiscation of their personal property and launched a coup, a unique instance of a successful monarch overthrown despite the love of his people and at the pinnacle of his popularity.
When he heard the news of his deposition (15 November, 1889) Pedro simply commented: "If it is so, it will be my retirement. I have worked too hard and I am tired. I will go rest then."
This is the last photo of the imperial family in Brazil

His last years were spent in Paris, where he lived in modest circumstances and in cheap hotels.
One very cold day he took a long drive in an open carriage along the Seine. He felt ill, contracted pneumonia and died at  00:35 a.m. on  December 5, 1891.His last words were, "May God grant me these last wishes—peace and prosperity for Brazil..."While his body was being prepared for burial, a sealed package was found in the room. Next to it there was a message in Pedro’s own hand: "It is soil from my country, I wish it to be placed in my coffin in case I die away from my fatherland."
The package contained earth from every Brazilian province. In accordance with his wishes, it was placed inside the coffin.
This is the last picture of Pedro II, taken on the day after his death, December 6, 1891. You see him clad in the dress uniform of a Marshall of the Brazilian Army. The book beneath his head symbolized that his mind rested upon knowledge, even in death.
The establishment of the republic began a long downhill slide for Brazil. The country slipped into a period of anarchy, dictatorship and economic crises from which it has only recently recovered.

Winston Churchill quipped that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.
In The Republic, Plato has Socrates steering us toward a benevolent monarchy as the best form of government.
Study the life of Pedro II.
And, in this one case at least, you’ll agree with Socrates, not Churchill.

Leighton - Monday


  1. Leighton thanks for all this information, which proves that our history teaching in schools is just inadequate. The fascinating history of Latin America is never covered.

  2. Leighton - All countries should be lucky enough to have a man like Pedro II as their leader.

    I am fascinated by the notion of children becoming rulers when they are only children. My fascination with history began with my fascination with Mary, Queen of Scots who became queen when she was 6 days old. Pedro II was far more mature when he became ruler; he was 5 years old and quickly, it appears, developed a very old head for very young shoulders.

    From whom did he learn his work ethic, his commitment to his people and country? His father didn't manifest the qualities of the son. It is unfortunate that he didn't fight back against the leaders of the coup. How different might Brazil's history have been if he had.

    Slaves were personal property so the owners were free to do with them anything they wanted. In Brazil, they were valuable because they increased the production on the coffee plantations. By the time the Civil War started in the US, the cotton plantations were no longer productive; the emancipation of the slaves in a devastated south was just another blow to end a way of life that was already in the past.

    The key word in Socrates' definition is "benevolent". That rarely happened before constitutional monarchy became the rule rather than the exception. Sweden and the Netherlands seem to have figured out how to respect their monarchs without the monarchs losing the respect of the people.


  3. Leighton, thanks for this thumbnail biography. You told me that, in the past, you posted the story of Francisco Solano Lopez and Eliza Lynch of Paraguay. Did you know that, at one point, Lopez offered his hand in marriage to Pedro II's daughter. Lopez was turned down, of course. The insult turned out to be one thread in the Gordian knot of causes of the Paraguayan War.

    Regarding the question of monarchy versus democracy, a number of years ago The New York Times published a study in the Science Section (social science in this case) that evaluted rulers of England and Presidents of the United States. Historians from both countries particiapted. They ranked the Kings and Queens of England and all the presidents of the US and concluded that monarchy provided the best and worst leaders and that democracy provided none so good as the best kings and queens, nor so bad as the worst monarchs. The study was done before the "reign" of George W. Bush. Who knows what they would have said about him. You can tell what I think!

  4. Annamaria - I think of that "reign" as the Cheney/Bush years. Darth Vader and Dr. Strangelove morphed and were the puppetmasters of the cowboy. Odd that W was the only one in the family who had a Texas accent but cowboys can't sound like they came from the northern elite.


  5. Annamaria

    Thank you for the tidbit about Solano Lopez offering his hand to one of Pedro's daughters.
    That was a new one for me.
    Any idea which daughter?
    And if there was an official response.
    It would be interesting to know how it was couched.

  6. Hi Leighton-

    That's quite a story.

    I can't believe all the books he had and read.

    I think it's very cool that he collected soil from all over Brazil to have buried with him in case he was buried somewhere else.

    It sounds like he never stopped thinking.

    Great story.


  7. Lopez wrote to Pedro II, asking for the hand of his youngest daughter Isabella. Some sources say Pedro ignored the request. Others say that after a long silence he responded, saying the Princess was too young to marry. But then shortly afterwards she married her cousin, the Comte d'Eu, a prince of Orleans and a member of the old French Bourbon royal family. Whatever the case, this rejection made Lopez furious. True to form, his ego did not allow him to understand that the liberal Pedro II would not want his daughter to marry and to thereby form an alliance between Brazil and the reactionary dictator of a neighboring country, which by then showed imperial pretentions. The Comte d'Eu, as you may know, later became a very successful general in the Paraguayan War, and lead the Brazilian forces which were largely responsible for defeating Lopez. What a tangled web it all was.