The Old or First Republic, 1889-1930
The Constituent Assembly that drew up the constitution of 1891 was a battleground between those seeking to limit executive power, which was dictatorial under President Deodoro da Fonseca, and the Jacobins, radical authoritarians who opposed the Paulista coffee oligarchy and who wanted to preserve and intensify presidential authority. The new charter established a federation governed supposedly by a president, a bicameral National Congress (Congresso Nacional; hereafter, Congress), and a judiciary. However, real power was in the regional pátrias and in the hands of local potentates, called "colonels" (coroneis ; coronelismo). Thus, the constitutional system did not work as that document had envisaged. It would take until the end of the decade for an informal but real distribution of power, the so-called politics of the governors, to take shape as the result of armed struggles and bargaining.
Article 14 on the military was particularly important for the future. It declared the army and navy to be permanent national institutions responsible for maintaining law and order and for ensuring the continuance of the three constitutional powers. Officers insisted on the statement of permanent status because they feared that the elites would disband their services. The armed forces were to be the moderator of the system, and military officers were Brazil's only constitutionally mandated elite. The article also required the military to be obedient to the president but "within the limits of the law." Thus, the armed forces were to obey only if they determined a presidential order to be legal. Oddly, military officials were less than enthusiastic about discretionary obedience, which they saw as subversive; the civilian politicians, however, wanted it as a check on presidential power. Interestingly, the constitutions of 1934 and 1946 kept the discretionary clause unaltered. However, the 1937 constitution of the dictatorial Estado Novo, which was a military regime in civilian dress, put the military securely under obedience to the president.
In the election that followed the adoption of the new constitution in 1891, Deodoro da Fonseca and Floriano Peixoto were elected president and vice president, respectively, but with the former gaining only 129 votes and the latter 153. The first president, Deodoro da Fonseca, had difficulty adjusting to sharing power with Congress and, in imperial fashion, dissolved it in November 1891, provoking rebellions in the navy and in Rio Grande do Sul. To mollify the opposition, he resigned in favor of Vice President Peixoto (acting president, 1891-94). Peixoto, known as the "Iron Marshal" (marechal de ferro ), ousted all the state governors who had supported Deodoro, provoking violence in many parts of the country. One of the bloodiest of these struggles was the civil war that exploded in Rio Grande do Sul in 1893 and soon spread into Santa Catarina and Paraná, pitting former monarchist liberals against republicans.
Concurrently, the fleet in Guanabara Bay at Rio de Janeiro challenged Peixoto, and the naval revolt quickly became linked to the struggle in the South. Peixoto's diplomat in Washington, Salvador de Mendonça, with the help of New York businessman Charles Flint, was able to assemble a squadron of ships with American crews, which proved decisive in ending the standoff in Guanabara Bay. The United States government, interested in Brazilian commerce and in the republic's survival, permitted this mercenary effort to occur and sent several cruisers to provide a barely concealed escort. This was the first documented American intervention in Brazil's internal affairs, and significantly it was organized privately.
Deodoro da Fonseca's dissolution of Congress, his resignation, Peixoto's assumption of power, and the outbreak of civil war split the officer corps and led to the arrest and expulsion of several senior officers. Although the power struggles that produced the fighting in Rio Grande do Sul during 1893-95 were local in origin, Peixoto made them national by siding with republican Governor Julio de Castilhos. The savage combat and the execution of prisoners and suspected sympathizers, in what historian José Maria Bello called the "cruelest of Brazil's civil wars," was shameful on both sides. Peixoto's fierce defense of the republic made him the darling of the Jacobins and from then on a symbol of Brazilian nationalism.
In November 1894, because of his ill health (he died in 1895) and the military's disunity, Peixoto turned the government over to a spokesman for the agrarian coffee elite, São Paulo native Prudente José de Morais Barros, also known as Prudente de Morais, the first civilian president (1894-98). Prudente de Morais negotiated an end to the war in the South and granted amnesty to the rebels and the expelled officers. He weakened the army's staunchest republicans and sought to lower the military's political weight. He promoted officers committed to creating a professional force that would be at the disposal of the national authorities, who would determine how it was to be employed. A General Staff (Estado Geral), established in 1896 on the German model, was to shape this new army.
However, before the new army could take shape, it was used in 1897 to destroy the religious community of Canudos in the sertão of Bahia, which the Jacobins thought mistakenly was a hot-bed of monarchist sedition. The Rio de Janeiro government, which saw monarchists everywhere, threw a force of 9,500 against a population of perhaps 30,000. Some 4,193 soldiers were wounded between July and October 1897, and the townspeople were killed, taken prisoner, or fled. Canudos was erased in the same fashion that Indian villages had been and continued to be erased. Although the campaign's symbolic value as a defense of the republic faded as the reality became known, it remained a powerful warning to marginal (marginality) folk throughout Brazil that they would not be permitted to challenge the hierarchical order of society. In this sense, Canudos was a step in creating mechanisms of social control in the post-slavery era.
Canudos affected the political scene immediately when a returning soldier, the foil in a high-level Jacobin conspiracy, attempted to assassinate President Prudente de Morais but killed the minister of war instead, thereby acting as a catalyst for rallying support for the government. The abortive assassination made possible the election of Manuel Ferraz de Campos Sales (president, 1898-1902). In the army, the attempt consolidated the hold of generals who opposed Floriano Peixoto and were interested in professionalizing the institution.
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