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Rio Branco, Visconde do (1819–1880)

Rio Branco, Visconde do (1819–1880)

Visconde do Rio Branco (José Maria da Silva Paranhos; b. 16 March 1819; d. 1 November 1880), Brazilian statesman and diplomat. Paranhos, father of the Barão do Rio Branco, was a foremost statesman of the monarchy (1822–1889), celebrated for his Platine diplomacy and the Free Birth Law (1871), the first direct attack on Brazilian slave holding.

Born in Bahia and orphaned early, Paranhos escaped poverty through scholarship at Rio's navy and army academies, where he studied and then taught. Literary skill brought him early prominence as a journalist and as a Liberal deputy (1848). He caught the attention of Honório Hermeto Carneiro Leão, later Marquês de Paraná, a powerful chief of the Conservative Party. Leão was entrusted by his old ally, Paulino José Soares de Sousa, later Visconde do Uruguai, with the diplomacy in Uruguay that would lead to the victorious alliance against Argentina's Juan Manuel de Rosas in 1850. In Paranhos, Leão hoped for an able lieutenant, and he was vindicated. Both Soares de Sousa and Leão were impressed enough to champion Paranhos's entry into the Conservative Party and his election as Conservative deputy for Rio de Janeiro province in 1853.

Paranhos, despite his relative youth, was next appointed a minister in the celebrated Conciliação (Conciliation) Cabinet organized by Paraná in 1853. He served in several posts from 1853 to 1871, including minister of foreign affairs. Other portfolios followed in the 1850s and 1860s, as did the presidency of Rio de Janeiro Province (1858), ascension to the Senate (for Mato Grosso in 1862) and to the Council of State (1866), and several controversial missions to the Río de la Plata republics (1857, 1864–1865, 1869–1870, and 1870–1871), involving negotiations leading up to and ending the War of the Triple Alliance.

In 1871 the emperor picked him as prime minister to organize a cabinet to address the question of slavery. Rio Branco did so, at the beginning of the longest ministry (1871–1875) of the monarchy. He also defended the crown's prerogatives vis-à-vis the church in the Religious Question, a dispute sparked by two bishops' decision to condemn the participation of Brazilian Catholics in freemasonry. And he introduced many reforms on elections, education, justice, and the infrastructure. But his greatest accomplishment was the passage of the Free Birth Law in 1871, which, like earlier Spanish and English colonial legislation, declared all children of slave mothers free upon majority and provided for self-manumission and apprenticeship. A consummate politician and orator, Rio Branco successfully isolated and then dominated the fierce and able resistance to slavery's reform, led by the namesake and son of his old protector, Paulino José Soares de Sousa. Although its ultimate failure figured in the struggle for complete abolition begun less than a decade later, Rio Branco's legislation was a hard-won and politically crucial step and thus remains his great claim upon posterity.

See alsoBrazil, Political Parties: Conservative Party; Slave Trade, Abolition of: Brazil.


Visconde De Taunay, O Visconde do Rio Branco (1930).

Lidia Besouchet, José Maria Paranhos (1945).

Barão Do Rio Branco, Biografías (1947).

Robert E. Conrad, The Destruction of Brazilian Slavery, 1850–1888 (1972).

Joaquim Nabuco, Um estadista do império (1975).

José Murilo De Carvalho, Teatro de sombras (1988).

Additional Bibliography

José, Oiliam. Visconde do Rio Branco: Terra, povo, história. Belo Horizonte: Impr. Oficial de Minas Gerais, 1982.

Vieira, Hermes. A vida e a época do Visconde do Rio Branco. São Paulo: T.A. Queiroz, Editor, 1992.

                                       Jeffrey D. Needell

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