The Inconfidência Revisited

By Adelto Gonçalves

A practically complete review of the so-called Inconfidência Mineira – not least because, in History, you can never define a study as complete because there will always be the possibility of locating forgotten or lost documents – is what the reader will find in the long essay “Imagined Republics: the United States of America, France, and Brazil (1776-1792)”, which constitutes the second part of Brazil in a Changing World Order – Essays by Kenneth Maxwell (Robbin Laird, editor, Second Line of Defense, 2024), a work that has just come out in English and which, because of its capital importance, is calling for its publication as soon as possible by a Brazilian publisher.

The first part brings together brief texts written between 2011 and 2024 on the political situation in Brazil, especially the events that led to the impeachment of President Dilma Roussef, the imprisonment of former President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva and the election of Jair Bolsonaro, the so-called “Tropical Trump”, as well as the election of Lula for the third time to the presidency of the Republic, without failing to discuss the role of BRICS, the so-called economic bloc made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, among other topics, including an exquisite text on military relations between Brazil and the United States during the Second World War (1939-1945).

He is responsible for fundamental works for the study of the movement that took place in Minas Gerais in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, such as A Devassa da Devassa (Rio de Janero, Editora Paz e Terra, 1977), his first book, published in 1973 under the title Conflicts and Conspiracies: Brazil and Portugal, 1750-1808 (Cambridge University Press), Chocolate, piratas e outros malandros (Editora Paz e Terra, 1999) and Mais malandros e outros – ensaios tropicais (Mais malandros e outros – tropical essays) (Editora Paz e Terra, 2005), Maxwell is the author of other titles that are equally essential for understanding what the Portuguese 18th century was like, such as Marquês de Pombal – Paradoxo do Iluminismo (1996), or even what Portugal’s early imperial adventure in Africa, Asia and the Americas represented, of which Naked Tropics: Essays on Empire and Other Rogues (2003) is another unmissable example.


Nor does Maxwell imagine that he has the final word on the history of Portugal and Brazil, as can be seen from his exceptional study showing how a work published in France on the initiative of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), one of the founders of the United States and one of the leaders of the American Revolution (1776), inspired the conspirators of 1788-1789 in Minas Gerais. It was the Recueil des Loix Constitutives des Etats-Unis, or just “Recueil”, a work that circulated among the insurgents, as evidenced by the copy that since 1989 has been part of the collection of the Casa do Pilar of the Museu da Inconfidência in Ouro Preto, the former Vila Rica, and which was brought from Birmingham, England, by the José Álvares Maciel (1760-1804), in 1788.

In this long essay, which forms the second part of the work, the scholar does not fail to cite books by other historians who, after reading his classic A Devassa da Devassa, also located documents that are discussed in a hundred footnotes and that allow an even more in-depth analysis of what the 18th century represented in the Portuguese world.

Finally, they allow us to conclude that, behind the ideals of the inconfidentes, there were also subordinate interests, such as those of the great contract buyers João Rodrigues de Macedo (1739-1807) and Joaquim Silvério dos Reis (1756-1819), who had become huge debtors by failing to pass on the taxes they collected in their name to the Royal Treasury. In other words, the corruption we see today goes back a long way and is part of the very formation of the country.

In fact, this would have been the real reason for the conspiracy’s failure, because it seems that Silvério, faced with the indecision of Lieutenant Colonel Francisco de Paula Freire de Andrade (1752-1808), commander of the Dragons of Minas, in putting the rebellion on the streets, decided to jump to the other side, always thinking about the forgiveness of his debts.


In addition, based on archival documents, Maxwell also shows that, behind the republican ideals, there was mainly the example of the North Americans, as is clear from the letter that an insurgent, José Joaquim Maia e Barbalho (1757-1788), then a student at the University of Montpellier, sent in October 1786 to Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), author of the declaration of independence of the United States, who at the time represented his country in Paris.

In this letter, under the pseudonym Vendek, the student presented the insurgents’ need for decisive support from the “mighty nation”.

He added: “They see the American Revolution as a precedent for their own. They look to the United States as the one most likely to give them honest support and, for a variety of considerations, they have the strongest reasons to act in our favor.”

For Vendek, the captaincies of Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and Bahia would instigate the uprising and the others were expected to follow suit.

Maxwell also mentions Eleutério José Delfim (1769-?), another Brazilian student in Montpellier, the son of Antônio José Delfim, a large public works contractor in Rio de Janeiro and an influential intermediary in the slave trade with Mozambique.

It was alleged that the young Delfim had brought a letter of introduction from the Freemasons in Rio de Janeiro in 1786 so that Maia and Barbalho could get close to Thomas Jefferson, a hypothesis that the author considers unlikely, noting that “there is no reliable evidence of Masonic influence in 1788”.

In fact, Maxwell demonstrates in his footnotes that, in the Autos da Devassa da Inconfidência Mineira, published by the Minas Gerais government in the 1970s and 1980s, the observations of one of the editors, Tarquínio J.B. de Oliveira (1915-1980), regarding Masonic influence in the Inconfidência, are unreliable.

But he adds that the footnotes of the other editor, historian Herculano Gomes Mathias (1916-2002), are entirely reliable.

Maxwell prefers to stick with the hypothesis that there was more interest in encouraging the separation of the Brazilian captaincies from the kingdom of Portugal on the part of the merchants of the French port of Bordeaux, who had already benefited enormously from the slave trade with West Africa and the French colony of Santo Domingo.

In this case, Delfim would have gone there to strengthen his family’s commercial ties with those merchants.

This Eleutério José Delfim, who has long been forgotten in history, would settle on the island of Mozambique and, coincidentally or not, it was after his arrival that the slave trade with Rio de Janeiro would grow tremendously.

In fact, he soon became one of the island’s biggest slave traders.

Another detail is that Eleutério José Delfim would go on to hold the patent of “lieutenant colonel of the auxiliary infantry”, a position vacated in 1793 by the death of Alexandre Roberto Mascarenhas (1753-1793), father-in-law of the poet Tomás Antônio Gonzaga (1744-1810), a former chief magistrate in Vila Rica who had been deported there as punishment for his participation in the councils of the planned mining conspiracy, accused by Silvério dos Reis “of having worked on the preparation of the said insurrection, preparing the laws that would regulate the new government”.


Maxwell recalls that the discussions between the conspirators between the end of 1788 and the beginning of 1789, during the period before the planned imposition of the “derrama”, were attended by magistrates, lawyers, merchants and clergymen, but what stands out is “the inspiration dictated by the example of the independence of the 13 British colonies in North America, the influence of the constitution of the United States, especially the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776, as well as the role of writers such as Abbé Raynal (1713-1796), including his work The Revolution in America“, and Abbé Mably’s (1709-1785) commentary on the constitution of the Americans published in Recueil”.

Further on, Maxwell notes that the mining conspirators apparently never made any approach to either the British or French governments.

“Their hopes rested on the United States,” he assures us. However, he points out that Thomas Jefferson concluded that the interests of the United States would be better served by maintaining the good relationship with Portugal than by encouraging a risky adventure in South America.

In his extensive essay, the historian goes beyond the 1789 mining conspiracy, broadening his analysis of the influence that the “Recueil” had on other world events. For this reason, he considers the copy brought by José Álvares Maciel, in which there are notes probably made by Gonzaga and also by the poet, lawyer, landowner and miner Cláudio Manuel da Costa (1729-1789), who died in suspicious circumstances at the home of the bidder João Rodrigues de Macedo, to be “the most precious document kept in the archives of the Casa do Pilar of the Museum of the Inconfidência”.


Kenneth Maxwell was director and founder of the Brazilian Studies Program at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) at Harvard University (2006-2008), and professor in the Harvard History Department (2004-2008).

From 1989 to 2004, he was director of the Latin America Program at the Council on Foreign Relations and, in 1995, he became the first holder of the Nelson and David Rockefeller Chair in Inter-American Studies. He served as Vice President and Director of Studies of the Council in 1996. He previously taught at Yale, Princeton, Columbia and Kansas universities.

He founded and was director of the Camões Center for the Portuguese-Speaking World at Columbia University and was Program Director of the Tinker Foundation, Inc. From 1993 to 2004, he was Western Hemisphere Book Reviewer for Foreign Affairs at the foundation. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and was a weekly columnist between 2007 and 2015 for the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo and has been a monthly columnist for O Globo since 2015.

He was also a Herodotus fellow at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study and a Guggenheim fellow and a member of the Board of Directors of The Tinker Foundation, Inc. and the Advisory Board of the Luso-American Foundation. He is also a member of the Advisory Boards of the Brazil Foundation and Human Rights Watch/Americas. He received his BA and MA from St. John’s College, Cambridge University, and his MA and PhD from Princeton University. He is a regular contributor to the website Second Line of Defense.

In May 2004, he resigned as Director of Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York for having criticized Henry Kissinger (1923-2023), former US Secretary of State (1973-1977), in a book review about the military coup led by Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006) in Chile in 1973, and for not having had a response published in Foreign Affairs magazine.

Adelto Gonçalves is a journalist and historian, with a master’s degree in Spanish Language and Spanish and Hispano-American Literatures and a doctorate in Letters in the area of Portuguese Literature from the University of São Paulo (USP). He is the author of Gonzaga, um Poeta do Iluminismo (Rio de Janeiro, Nova Fronteira, 1999), Barcelona Brasileira (Lisbon, Nova Arrancada, 1999; São Paulo, Publisher Brasil, 2002), Fernando Pessoa: a Voz de Deus (Santos, Editora da Unisanta, 1997); Bocage – o Perfil Perdido (Lisbon, Editorial Caminho, 2003; São Paulo, Imprensa Oficial do Estado de São Paulo – Imesp, 2021), Tomás Antônio Gonzaga (Imesp/Academia Brasileira de Letras, 2012), Direito e Justiça em Terras d’El-Rei na São Paulo Colonial (Imesp, 2015), Os Vira-latas da Madrugada (Rio de Janeiro, Livraria José Olympio Editora, 1981; Taubaté-SP, Letra Selvagem, 2015), O Reino, a Colônia e o Poder: o governo Lorena na capitania de São Paulo – 1788-1797 (Imesp, 2019), among others.

E-mail: [email protected].

Translated by

The original article appeared as follows:

A Inconfidência revisitada


A Inconfidência revisitada de Kenneth Maxwell, por Adelto Gonçalves