Pedro II of Brazil (1825–1891)

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Pedro II of Brazil (1825–1891)

Pedro II of Brazil (b. 2 December 1825; d. 5 December 1891), the second and last emperor of Brazil (1831–1889). A central figure in Brazil's development as a nation state, Pedro II was a man of complex personality and considerable abilities. His actions first consolidated and ultimately undermined the monarchical regime. Born in Rio de Janeiro, the son and heir to the emperor Pedro I and the empress Leopoldina, Pedro II was set apart by both ancestry and nurture. Related to almost all the monarchies of Europe, he grew up surrounded by a rigid etiquette and omnipresent deference inherited from the royal court at Lisbon. His destined task was to command, the role of all others to obey. His formal education gave him a love of knowledge and instilled a sense of self-restraint and a devotion to service.

Pedro II's early years were disturbed and psychologically cramping. His mother died before his first birthday, and he lost his father, his beloved stepmother, and his eldest sister when they sailed for Europe following Pedro I's abdication in his favor on 7 April 1831. As guardian of Pedro II from 1831 to 1833, José Bonifácio de Andrada failed to protect his ward's physical and emotional health. An epileptic attack in August 1833 nearly proved fatal. Pedro II's health and conditions of life did improve markedly after José Bonifácio's dismissal, but the psychological pressures remained. Pedro II's approaching adolescence and his intellectual precocity made him credible as a possible savior for Brazil, which was mired in crisis in the late 1830s. Deference and adulation fed his sense of indispensability and intensified his isolation from ordinary life. He offered no resistance to the political campaign that prematurely declared him of age, at fourteen years and seven months, on 23 July 1840.

The trappings of authority did not, Pedro II soon discovered, denote real power. Courtiers and politicians cooperated to manipulate his views, exploit his prerogatives, and determine his life, as he realized in October 1843 when the bride chosen for him, Teresa Cristina, proved to be plain and not an intellectual. Coldness, arbitrariness, and brevity of speech increasingly characterized Pedro II's public conduct. In 1845 the birth of a son (to be followed by three more children) and a long tour through the far south of Brazil provided the catalyst that brought maturity and unleashed his capacities as a ruler. By 1850, Pedro II had ended the power of court factions, learned the efficient management of public affairs, and established his public image as a beneficent, highly cultured, and dedicated sovereign. His success as ruler was facilitated both by a boom in coffee production and by an eclipse of radicalism and republicanism following the Praieira Revolt of 1848–1850.

During the 1850s and 1860s, Pedro II embodied, as monarch, the only legitimate source of authority. He exemplified the European civilization that Brazilians desired for their nation. His talents as ruler were formidable: inexhaustible energy, remarkable memory for faces and facts, iron control of speech and action, firmness in purpose, freedom from petty resentments, acute sense of tactics, and utter indifference to the trappings of power. Politicians came and went. He alone remained entrenched at the center of affairs, ultimately determining both the political agenda and the personal characteristics requisite for political success.

Pedro II's skill as ruler played a part in securing long-term political stability for Brazil. He worked tirelessly to promote the development of the nation's infrastructure. Two particular achievements must be mentioned. He pursued the War of the Triple Alliance for five years until Paraguayan President Francisco Solano López was eliminated in 1870. Initiating in 1865 a campaign to force the eventual elimination of slavery, Pedro II brought it to fruition in 1871 with the enactment of the Free Birth Law.

After 1871 new factors—a shift in the intellectual climate toward republicanism, greater confidence among Brazilians in their capacity to rule themselves, and growing resentment against a highly centralized administration—undermined the regime's legitimacy. Pedro II's innate conservatism in thought and behavior, his staleness in mind and body induced by three decades of rule, and his unwillingness to surrender any part of his powers inhibited him from meeting this challenge. He held no intellectual belief in monarchy as such. Both his sons had died in childhood and, much as he loved Isabel as a daughter, he did not perceive her as a credible successor. He therefore felt no duty to assure her future as monarch, an obligation that would have restricted his freedom of action. His antediluvian court, shabby palaces, and distaste for ceremony destroyed the emotional appeal of monarchy.

The growth in the size and complexity of government made Pedro II's insistence on personally supervising every detail of public business a clog on effective administration. His love of knowledge and concern for culture appeared increasingly as superficial, amateur, and antiquated. His dominance of public life and elimination of all competing centers of power produced a vacuum at the heart of the system. Among younger Brazilians his monopoly of power bred feelings of impotence and futility and a resentment against his tutelage.

From the middle of the 1880s diabetes increasingly deprived Pedro II of the qualities that had made him so effective as a ruler. Still respected and even loved, he had ceased to be indispensable or even present in the country. During his prolonged absence in Europe in search of better health (1887–1888), Isabel used her powers as regent to secure the immediate abolition without compensation of slavery (13 May 1888). The disposal of one long-established institution could only suggest similar treatment for another that, for many Brazilians, had become an anachronism.

The army uprising that overthrew the monarchy on 15 November 1889 was as unexpected as it was decisive. Pedro II had no wish nor the ability to contest his dethronement and banishment to Europe. He conducted himself during exile with unwavering dignity, pursuing, as far as ill health would permit, his quest for knowledge. He died in Paris.

See alsoFree Birth Law; Praieira Revolt; War of the Triple Alliance.


Heitor Lyra, História de Dom Pedro I (1825–1891), 3 vols. (São Paulo, 1938–1940).

Mary Wilhelmine Williams, Dom Pedro the Magnanimous (1937).

Pedro Calmon, História de Dom Pedro II, 5 vols. (Rio de Janeiro, 1975).

Additional Bibliography

Barman, Roderick J. Citizen Emperor: Pedro II and the Making of Brazil, 1825–91. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Needell, Jeffrey D. The Party of Order: The Conservatives, the State, and Slavery in the Brazilian Monarchy, 1831–1871. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.

Schwarcz, Lilia Moritz. As barbas do imperador: D. Pedro II, um monarca nos trópicos. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras: Editora Schwarcz, 1998.

                                 Roderick J. Barman