Imagined Republics: The United States of America, France, and Brazil (1776–1792)

By Kenneth Maxwell

Editor’s Note: Professor Kenneth Maxwell recently completed his research on the “global revolution” from the United States to France and then its perceived impact on Brazil. We are presenting his research in a series of articles which will incorporate his entire longer piece.

We start first with his introduction.


In early 1789, a republican, constitutionalist, and anti-colonial rebellion was planned in Brazil. It challenged empire in the apex year of the Atlantic revolutions. It revealed the weaknesses as well as the strength of imperial adaptation in the face of challenges on both sides of the Atlantic. The Minas Conspiracy also revealed the ambiguities and misinterpretation of the commitment of the individuals involved in the United States, in France, and in Brazil at this critical moment of political transition.

The conspiracy occurred in Minas Gerais, at the time the most important region of Portugal’s vast intercontinental overseas empire. Minas Gerais, in the mineral-rich mountainous interior of Brazil, in 1788 was called the “soul” of the Portuguese empire in America by Martinho de Melo e Castro (1716–1795), who was the Portuguese secretary of state for the navy and the overseas dominions. (Martinho de Melo e Castro para o governador e capitão-general de Minas Gerais, Visconde de Barbacena, January, 29, 1788, Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino, Minas Gerais, caixa 94.)

Minas Gerais was the source of Portugal’s vast eighteenth-century wealth in gold and diamonds.

The would-be insurgents in Brazil took their inspiration from the successful war of American independence from Great Britain and the establishment of the United States of America.

This is an Atlantic history of the diffusion of republican and anti-colonial ideas that links North America, Europe, and Brazil between the years 1776–1778 and 1789–1792 in the complex and contradictory history of the transatlantic transmission of constitutional models.

It is a history of Atlantic empires at a moment of profound transformation that joins the nation-building experiments in North America to the new constitutional republic the conspirators in Minas Gerais intended to create in Brazil in 1789.

At the center of this “imagined” Brazilian republic was a book: the Recueil des loix constitutives des colonies anglaises.

(Recueil des loix constitutives des colonies angloises: Confédérées sous la dénomination D’États-Unis de L’Amérique- Septentrionale. Auquel on a joint les Actes d’Indépendance, de Confédération et autres Actes du Congrès Général, traduit de l’Anglois. Dedié a M. le Docteur FRANKLIN, En Suisse, Chez les Libraires Associes, M. DDC. LXXVIII (A collection of the constitutional laws of the English colonies, confederated under the title of the United States of America, to which is appended the Declaration of Independence, of Confederation, and other acts of the General Congress, translated from English and dedicated to Mr. Dr. Franklin, published in Switzerland by Chez Les Librairies Associés, 1778).

The original edition was purportedly published “in Philadelphia.” In fact it was published in France. The copy held by the Minas conspirators was a pirated edition.

(Two copies of the Recueil were published in 1778. One claimed it was published in Philadelphia, “et se vend à Paris, rue Dauphine, chez Cellot & Jombert, jeune fils, Librairies, la seconde porte cochère à droite, au fond de la cour.” The second, a pirated edition, claimed it was published “en Suisse.” This is the copy today held in the collections of the Casa do Pilar of the Museu da Inconfidência in Ouro Preto, where I was able to examine it. I am most grateful to the director of Museu da Inconfidência, Dr. Rui Mauro, for permission to examine the Recueil in 2003 and in 2013, and to the staff of the Casa do Pilar, especially Suely Perucci, on both occasions for all their assistance and help.)

Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson both served as envoys from the United States to the court of the French King Louis XVI. Franklin was the American envoy from 1776 until 1785, and Jefferson from 1785 to 1789.

Both Franklin and Jefferson were to play key roles in the transmission of constitutional and republican ideas between the United States and France and subsequently, and inadvertently, between France and Brazil. In 1778 Franklin was instrumental in the publication of the Recueil in France.

In 1787 Jefferson met secretly at Nîmes in southern France José Joaquim Maia e Barbalho, a young Brazilian student from Rio de Janeiro who was studying medicine at the University of Montpellier. Charles Gravier, the Comte de Vergennes, the French foreign minister, was seeking to avenge France’s defeat in the Seven Years’ War.

He was Franklin’s intermediary in the publication of the Recueil, which contained the foundational constitutional documents of the United States of America: the Declaration of Independence, a first draft of the Articles of Confederation, a census of the English colonies of 1775, a navigation act, the honorary doctoral degree awarded to General George Washington by Harvard University, and the constitutions of six of the thirteen original American states—Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina, with additional documents concerning South Carolina and Boston.

José Joaquim Maia e Barbalho and his fellow Brazilian students in France and Portugal— and in England in the case of fellow Coimbra University student José Álvares Maceil from Minas Gerais—were all fascinated by the American struggle for independence and the constitutions included in the Recueil precisely because of what these revealed about the vulnerability of the Portuguese empire in Brazil.

(Durand Echeverria, “French Publications of the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitutions 1776– 1783,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 47, no. 4 (1953): 313–38; and Gilbert Chinard, Notes on the French Translations of the Forms of the Government of the Several United States, 1778–1783 (American Philosophical Society, 1943), 88–106; Franklin Papers 23:213–14, Duc de la Rochefoucauld to Franklin and Silas Dean, January 20, 1777, and 26:426–27, 592, Edme-Jacques Genet to Franklin, May 9 and June 5, 1778. For an overview of the history of republicanism in Brazil, see Lilia M. Schwarcz and Heloisa M. Starling, editors, Dicionário da República: 51 textos críticos (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2019); Heloisa Murgel Starling, Ser republicano no Brasil Colônia: A história de uma tradição esquecida (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2018); and Evaldo Cabral de Mello, A outra Independência: O federalismo pernambucano de 1817 a 1824 (São Paulo: Ed. 34, 2004).

In May 1789, the Portuguese governor of Minas Gerais, Luis Antonio Furtado de Castro do Rio de Mendonça e Faro, the viscount Barbacena, discovered that a copy of the Recueil was in the hands of the Minas conspirators in 1788–1789 in Vila Rica and that it had informed the model for the independent, republican, and constitutional government they intended to establish after Portugal’s rule was overthrown.

Barbacena had first been told about the proposed uprising by Colonel Joaquim Silvério dos Reis two months earlier on March 15, 1789, at Cachoeira do Campo, his country residence to the northeast of Vila Rica. On March 25, 1789, Barbacena wrote secretly to the viceroy in Rio de Janeiro, Luís de Vasconcelos e Sousa, who was his uncle, to warn him of the projected revolution.

A formidable conspiracy existed, he told the viceroy, among the “powerful men and magnates” in Minas Gerais who “are the most capable and likely that I know for so great an evil.” “The people of any importance or greatest stature in the captaincy are almost all debtors in all they possess to Her Majesty,” he continued, “and only a revolution could adjust the accounts to their benefit.”

He had acted with the “most judicious measures and the greatest circumspection” and because he was “without forces and without advise, because the officers of the only regiment that I have are for the most part, interested in the revolution… it is certain he had at his disposal no more than 70 soldiers… [and] no force in which he had confidence… and not a single barrel of gunpowder.”

He had as a consequence “resolved to dissimulate.” In an annotation by the copier of   the document as a “pos-datum,” Silvério dos Reis is said to have mentioned that he suspected that there “had, or had been, some kind of correspondence with France about this business, or that there had been a person who had in some way promoted it.”

(Cachoeira do Campo, March 25, 1789, Carta do Visconde de Barbacena ao Vice-Rei, Luis de Vasconcellos e Sousa, relatando a denúncia recebida de Joaquim Silvério dos Reis, Autos de Devassa 8 (1977): 118–31; the references are from Barbacena’s letter under the heading, 17, 18, 22, 23, Autos da Devassa 8 (1977): 122, 124, 128. For a skeptical view of the influence of the Recueil, see João Pinto Furtado, “Uma república entre dois mundos: Inconfidência Mineira, historiografia e temporalidade,” Revista Brasileira de História 21, no. 42 (2001). For a chronology of the inconfidência, see Indice Chronologico, Autos da Devassa da Inconfidência Mineira (Brasília: Câmara dos Deputados/Governo do Estado de Minas Gerais, 1976–1983), 1:387–411; see also the “Introducão Histórica” for an excellent overview by one of the editors, historian Herculano Gomes Mathias. Autos da Devassa 1 (1976): 13–66; Autos da Devassa 1 (1976): 16; São João del Rei, October 30, 1789 (?) Carta para Cidade do Porto relatando notícias da repressão a Inconfidência Mineira, Biblioteca Municipal do Porto, Código 146, Autos da Devassa, 9, (1977), 34–40 with extensive notes by Tarquínio J. B. de Oliveira, 40–43.)

Colonel Silvério dos Reis had been intimately involved with the plotters. He was a major landowner, militia commander, slave owner, and a contractor of the tax farms of Minas Gerais. He was also a major debtor to the royal treasury on both of his contracts.

The revenues in Minas Gerais were farmed out to local businessmen in return for the payment of a set annual sum to the royal treasury. The main revenues in Minas were the dízimos, the 10 percent tithe owed to the Church but collected by the state, and the entradas. The entradas were taxes on imports and exports into Minas Gerais, mainly on trade between Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro.

In June 1786 the secretary of the Junta da Fazenda (the exchequer board) of Minas Gerais, Carlos José da Silva, reported to the secretary of state for the overseas dominions in Lisbon, Melo e Castro, that Silvério dos Reis, together with João Rodrigues de Macedo, the region’s de facto banker, major entrepreneur, and tax farmer, owed between them over a million milreis to the royal exchequer.

Barbacena found himself dangerously exposed in March 1789, especially because of the involvement of senior officers of the Minas Dragoons in the plot, including the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Francisco de Paula Freire de Andrade. The plot also involved the participation of leading lawyers, magistrates, and landowners.

Barbacena acted immediately to strengthen the “Portuguese party,” especially over the month between the arrest of Tiradentes in Rio de Janeiro on May 10, 1789, and the arrest of the major conspirators in Minas Gerais on June 12, 1789. This allowed time for the quiet deployment by the viceroy from Rio de Janeiro to Vila Rica of a squadron of three hundred cavalry from the viceroy’s own bodyguard, which arrived in Vila Rica on June 24, as well as two hundred infantry from the Portuguese regiments of Moura and Bragança.

(Ofício do Visconde de Barbacena a Luis de Vasconcellos e Sousa, Vice-Rei, recomendando a prisão de Tiradentes, e participando do envio de Joaquim Silvério dos Reis ao Rio de Janeiro, Cachoeira do Campo, April 15, 1789. Autos de Devassa 8 (1977): 132–35; Cachoeira do Campo, Ofício do Visconde de Barbacena a Luis de Vasconcellos e Sousa, Vice-Rei, apresentado Joaquim Silvério dos Reis, April 19, 1789, Autos de Devassa 8 (1977): 136–37.)

On June 15, 1789, Colonel Francisco Antônio de Oliveira Lopes had testified that “for the plan [for the insurgency], Dr. José Álvares Maciel had brought a volume [código] of laws by which the English Americans are governed.”

He said that the vicar Carlos Correia de Toledo had said that Álvares Maciel would be responsible for making gunpower and establishing factories (fábricas) and that he remembered “that his cousin, Dr. Domingos Vidal de Barbosa, while in France, knew that one of the students at the University of Montpellier, also a son of this America, wrote a letter to the Minister of English America resident in Paris about the liberty of this Portuguese [America].”

(Lucas Figueiredo, O Tiradentes: Uma biografia de Joaquim Jose de Silva Xavier (Sao Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2018), 43–60, 242–67; “Tiradentes: O homem, a história e a construção simbólica da nação,” in Em busca de um rosto: A república e a representação de Tiradentes, ed. André Figueiredo Rodrigues and Maria Alda Barbosa Cabreira (Sao Paulo: Humanitas/Fflch, 2020), 49–65.)

The featured photo is of Professor Maxwell’s keynote address in Brazil to recently held Congress on the Bicentennial of Brazil’s independence at the University of São Paulo..