Emperor Dom Pedro I at age 35, 1834
One of the founding fathers of Brazil’s democracy was, somewhat ironically, a king and a colonial emperor. Born in 1798, Dom Pedro I was the fourth son of King Dom João VI of Portugal and Queen Carlota Joaquina. When Portugal was invaded by the French in 1807, the royal family fled to the wealthy and vast Portuguese colony of Brazil. Young Pedro thus grew up on the vast estates of South America. The prince particularly enjoyed physical and artistic pursuits such as hunting, building, music, furniture making, and horseback riding (although he tended to neglect his academic pursuits and studies in statecraft). When he reached adolescence he pursued other physical pursuits as well, and his romantic dalliances were a lifelong problem for his government and his wife, Maria Leopoldina, an Austrian Princess.
In 1821, revolution in Portugal compelled Dom João VI to return to Lisbon. The king left his son Pedro as regent…he also left some valuable advice: if revolution were to come also to Brazil (a certainty in those days of colonial independence), Pedro should join it, rebel against his father and co-opt the movement for himself. This is exactly what Pedro did in 1822. On the 1st of December, 1822, Pedro became Pedro I, the first Emperor of Brazil. By 1824 the huge South American nation had made a clean break from Portugal and was well and truly independent.
Declaration of Brazil’s independence by Prince Pedro on 7 September 1822
Alas, Pedro’s constitutional empire was ridden with secessionists. Brazil swiftly began to rip apart into separate nations. First he was forced to quash the Confederation of the Equator, a secession bid in Brazil’s northeast. Then he had to fight the Cisplatine War, an Argentine land grab which ultimately lead to an independent Uruguay being carved out of Brazil’s southernmost province.
Pedro I was the heir apparent to the Portuguese throne (which he rebelled against back up in paragraph 2). When his father died in 1826, he briefly became king of Portugal before abdicating that throne in favor of his daughter, Dona Maria II. Unfortunately his scheming younger brother, the traditionalist Dom Miguel, stole the throne from his niece (Dom Pedro had toyed with the idea of marrying them in order to prevent exactly such an outcome). Weary of secession attempts, and recognizing that he was needed back in Portugal, Pedro I abdicated in favor of his 5 year old son Pedro II. He joined forces with the Portuguese liberals and defeated his brother in an Iberian civil war, but just as this “War of Restoration” was finished he keeled over from tuberculosis.
Among all of those revolutions, counter-revolutions, abdications, and trans-Atlantic crossings, it is easy to lose sight of how remarkable Pedro I was. In an age of bondage, he despised slavery. Unable to convince the slaveholding landowners of the Brazilian national assembly to enact a gradual process for ending slavery, he decided to lead by example and freed all of his slaves. He then granted lands from his estate at Santa Cruz to these manumitted bondsmen.
He possessed an understanding of people’s shared humanity. This is rare enough among everyone but especially unusual among those who are born to immense privilege. When adoring Brazilians once unyoked the horses of his carriage and began pulling it themselves, he promptly stopped them and proclaimed “It grieves me to see my fellow humans giving a man tributes appropriate for the divinity, I know that my blood is the same color as that of the Negroes.”
After Dom Pedro’s day, Brazil has sometimes flirted with absolutism (always to its detriment), however the delightfully heterogeneous and chaotic modern democracy owes its real character to this king who was always willing to set aside his own power, prestige, and privilege in order to advance the betterment of all.
*Also, apparently, his grooming was immaculate. It is a footnote, but everything I have read mentions it.