Freedom, even if it comes late
During virtually the whole eighteenth century, there were reports about mutinies, sedition and uprisings in the region of Minas Gerais. From the middle of the eighteenth century, however, the riots had lost their spectacular character and became deaf, widespread and constant. A circle of scholars was most likely responsible for some important innovations in this context. One of them, perhaps the most obvious, was to encourage the emergence of a network for dissemination of ideas which extended through inland towns and reached the three most important counties of the captaincy - Vila Rica, Rio das Mortes and Serro do Frio. Among the poets selected by the circle of scholars regarding Cláudio Manuel da Costa, there were Tomas Antonio Gonzaga, Domingos Vidal Barbosa Álvares Maciel and the canon Luís Vieira da Silva, and many others who participated in the evening cults filled with many ideas, literary inclinations, some slander and varied pastoral poetry.
Gonzaga was probably the most active participant in the generation of a process of formation and circulation of opinions supported by the practice of versifying. It is true that his Chilean letters specifically targeted the political speech and administrative practices of d. Luís da Cunha Meneses, governor of the captaincy and Gonzaga’s enemy for taking away his debt collection and lien placements privileges and for excluding him from profitable relationships between members of the magistracy of Minas Gerais and illegal trading of gold and diamonds. Seen from this angle, the Chilean letters are mainly the result, in verse and rhyme, of a reasonably successful effort to tarnish the reputation of the governor and his favorites in the administration of the captaincy – besides the fact that they could successfully be used as political pamphlets with tasty, quick, sharp and unprecedented language in Minas Gerais of the eighteenth century.
In the literary and historical conditions in which Gonzaga has composed his work, to rediscover the virtue curiously implied a return, something that goes back to and is based on the origin of a society. But surely, his opinion was not an isolated one: in the eighteenth century, the true revolutionary action could only be a restorative action, as proposed by Montesquieu.
To a large extent, the scholars from Minas Gerais dealt with political problems related to corruption and tried to find known ways to make this society capable of rediscovering itself, willingly or forcibly, with the good government – a public order governed by laws that prevent the immoderation of men and institutions. However, as sensed by alferez Joaquim Jose da Silva Xavier, known as Tiradentes, none of these men seemed eager for something new; They were previously trying to restore an old order that had been disturbed and violated by the despotism of absolute monarchs and abuse of the colonial government or by both situations. Like all the other revolutionaries of the eighteenth century, Tiradentes was also not prepared to unleash something unprecedented.
What they cared about was a certain conception of freedom. Men who participated or circulated around the circle of scholars from Villa Rica and São João del Rey attested to their taste for stability and seemed to desire freedom mainly to look after their own affairs.
Strictly speaking, that is where the value lent by them to the idea of republic originated from, based mainly on the relationship that has kept this idea with certain specific characteristics of a very particular type of city – the one that acquired the freedom to manage their own affairs. In fact, the starting point for the republican sensitivity of the majority of these men was in an ideal city which is cherished by Anglo-American republicanism, meaning more independence plus self-government. In fact, the scholars from Minas Gerais had learned, with the historical experience of English America, that the power was within the several sovereign states, free and independent, and that this power was concentrated in the legislation and mainly in the lower chambers.
Due to this, those who wanted to confront the establishment by subversively drafting new laws for the captaincy as Gonzaga and Claudio Manuel intended to, did not have to indicate the need for consolidation of the vast Portuguese colonial area under a national government. It was about underlying its commitment with the decision to bind the whole political system to a specific process of discussion and negotiation regarding legislation. In the historical context of the captaincy of Minas Gerais at the end of the eighteenth century, this decision could only be translated by a project to recover the legislative role of the municipal chambers.
However, in the Portuguese world, the municipal chambers were also the only instrument used to represent local interests and the only promise of administrative continuity backed by the authority known by colonial villages. In practice, these Chambers worked as a decisive instrument of the Crown’s policy - in part because it symbolized stability and continuity and also because it acted as a space for expression of local resentment relating to tax problems of the metropolis. Moreover, in a fluid and mobile society as Minas Gerais was in the eighteenth-century, the Chambers meant the possible means for young men, natives of the country, occupy land governance positions upon recognition of their capabilities and politicization and their ambition for social ascension. It was not something small.
Another very characteristic indication of the Republican sensibility which had begun to form was the idea that sovereignty was in fact legislative and therefore could not be shared. Another discovery was made in consequence of this one: the idea that there was something very relevant in the defense of the individual's right to enjoy their own assets with immunity from arbitrary action of the prince or his representatives.
It did not matter in this case, if the republic was hidden under the monarchical form, as canon Luís Vieira liked to imagine; or whether, as priest Toledo wanted, the criterion of a well-ordered republic should be based upon the ability of its leaders to recruit its citizens to defend the homeland - even if, in order to accomplish that, the mulattoes and blacks born in the colony would have to be set free. The men who participated or circulated around the circle of scholars from Villa Rica and San Jose Del Rey generally had a utility-oriented political conduct. They imagined freedom to be as per Montesquieu’s terms, or "a benefit that allows one to enjoy all other benefits," and became closer to the republican form of government upon recognizing, in a comprehensive way, that the interests have aggregate value.
None of these men at some point seemed to be willing to give up the goodness of life in the name of old political or military virtues or the formation of a civic consciousness.
To the contrary. Perhaps not by accident, many among them were so deeply involved in the smuggling trade. Priest Rolim for example, spent most of his life involved in fraudulent activities against the Crown: forged money, bribed officials – including officials from the church – deviated diamonds from its official route from Lisbon to the illegal trail which ended in Amsterdam. But it seemed like priest Rolim was also a man with vocation for the lights of calculation and, as many of his partners, a person able to cut the cord of privacy isolation. In the Republic that he envisioned he would help to create, there would be free trade and diamonds owned by those who knew how to mine them, the tithes would be with the vicars, the gold would leverage "its true value."
It’s certain that the attempt to make Minas Gerais of the eighteenth century to have a republican form of government has failed - intention offenses, ambiguous verses, crossed lectures, crimes of ideas and excess of loquacity were left out; or, if we want to see it differently, the following were also left out: interrogations, suicide, imprisonment, exile, and the hanging of Tiradentes.
However, since then, the word republic ceased to mean only and pejoratively the rhetoric illustration of decay, anarchy and disorder. In the root of this republicanism that left much of its features in the region of Minas Gerais, there would be, from that point on, the possibility, which is always present, that men know and desire to keep their hands on freedom. On second thought, much was left out.
Heloisa Starling is a professor of history of ideas in the history department at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (Federal University of Minas Gerais), organizer of CD-Rom Visionários, a imaginação republicana nas Minas Gerais nos séculos XVII, XIX e XX (CD-Rom Visionaries, The Republican Imagination in Minas Gerais in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries (UFMG, 2004) and of the book Dossier Republic Brazil (USP, 2003).
(RHBN. Nº 5. November 2005. PP. 28-30)