The thought of Rousseau and the privileges of the Portuguese Empire (17th and 18th centuries)

Atualizado: 1 de Dez de 2020

Bárbara Dantas & Luiz Cláudio M. Ribeiro

ABSTRACT: Privileges, fortunes, tax benefits... these words bring us both to politics and to the abuse of elected representatives. For this reason, our work intends to seek the root of this practice in the policy undertaken by the Portuguese Empire in Colonial Brazil, between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and why it became embedded in the history of our nation. To base our analysis, we will use the thinking of one of the most remarkable philosophers of the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in regard to the cultivation of sociability in which greed and other vices inhibit the luminous rays of virtues such as godliness.

KEYWORDS: Mercês. Benesses. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Portuguese Empire. Brazilian politics.

RESUMO: Privilégios, fortunas, benefícios fiscais ... essas palavras nos levam à política e ao abuso de representantes eleitos. Por esse motivo, nosso trabalho pretende buscar a raiz dessa prática na política empreendida pelo Império Português no Brasil Colonial, entre os séculos XVII e XVIII, e por que ela se inseriu na história de nossa nação. Para fundamentar nossa análise, usaremos o pensamento de um dos filósofos mais notáveis do século XVIII, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, no que diz respeito ao cultivo da sociabilidade em que a ganância e outros vícios inibem os raios luminosos de virtudes, como a piedade.

PALAVRAS-CHAVE: Mercês. Benesses. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Império Português. Política brasileira.

RESUMEN: Privilegios, fortunas, beneficios fiscales ... estas palabras nos llevan a la política y al abuso de los representantes elegidos. Por esta razón, nuestro trabajo intenta buscar la raíz de esta práctica en la política emprendida por el Imperio portugués en el Brasil colonial, entre los siglos XVII y XVIII, y por qué se insertó en la historia de nuestra nación. Para apoyar nuestro análisis, utilizaremos el pensamiento de uno de los filósofos más notables del siglo XVIII, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, con respecto al cultivo de la sociabilidad en la que la codicia y otros vicios inhiben los rayos luminosos de virtudes, como la piedad.

PALABRAS CLAVE: Mercês. Benesses. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Imperio português. Política brasileña.


According to Fernand Braudel (1902-1985), the ideas of European society in twentieth-century were little differed from those of modernity, in special, from those of the century of Enlightenment, from the century of ROUSSEAU, the eighteenth.[1] To assert this reflection, let us return to one of this thinker's maxims in which he is outraged to live in a society where "a handful of people overflow with superfluities while the hungry multitude lack what is needed".[2]

“The posts in the Empire and their possibilities allowed the formation of fortunes.”[3] When João FRAGOSO used this statement, it referred to the Portuguese and Brazilian reality between the 17th and 18th centuries, but we will not commit the capital sin of anachronism if we associate it with the environment current political. Scandalous reality that strikes the eyes of the humblest to the richest citizen of our country, we are amazed at how organized, articulated and well-structured is the machine of privilege behind the official administrative machine in various Brazilian governmental spheres, from municipal to federal.

Historically, what is referred to as “administrative misconduct” today, in earlier times has not been given a derogatory name. In fact, in the context of the Old European Regime, it was a form of social distinction, an economic reward, the official act of receiving benefits beyond official functions, appointed by royal provision. To socially distinguish oneself, to accumulate wealth and power, and to secure resources for one's own offspring and one's descendants, it was not shameful to have economic privileges. Probably this undermined, to some extent, free competition, to privilege the interests of the crown, in the configuration of commercial-bureaucratic elites. Nor was it excuse to use a political office - such as those of the city councils (in Brazil: Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, Recife and Sergipe). Finally, there were several mechanisms - licit and “illicit”, some with full knowledge of the Crown - which the Portuguese and descendants who participated in the power networks used to avoid paying periodically requested taxes or subsidies. Some even had the opportunity to dispose of public money as they pleased.

One question that we bring up in this paper is: what of this Old Regime, as far as the "political economy of privilege" is still held? This theoretical exercise is fundamental to a history of the present time, since we understand with BRAUDEL that the resonances of long duration are sometimes so evident even after centuries, without seeming to be a problem of such ancient origin. Thus we return to ROUSSEAU, who in his own time warned: "In this slow succession of things, [there is] a plethora of moral and political problems".[4]

We devoted our work to this moral aspect of ROUSSEAU, in order to use his conceptions, in the sense that, for him, society, reason, reflection and, on another level, technological advances led to humanity's self-depreciation by leading them to a plan of evil and individualism. According to the Enlightenment philosopher, modern and rational man, he denied his own ancestral instincts in himself by not allowing piety to overflow - which was cultivated in "savage" men - but had become almost nonexistent among "good citizens" of the most educated societies. This thought was combined with the conception of Thomas HOBBES (1588-1679), for whom man, upon leaving the “natural state”, after being in harmony with nature and the other species, became the wolf of own man (lupus est homo homini lupus), and his life in a constant war of all against all (bellum omnia omnes). These ideas were popularized by HOBBES in the book The Leviathan (1651).

Rousseaunian thought holds that pride was the first of the evils that plagued the human species; after this, the sedentary lifestyle and agriculture gave the chance for the establishment of private properties. Pride generated the vanity that needed to be maintained by admiration and, consequently, favoritism for those who could distinguish themselves in one way or another. For if in one collective one is distinguished, the other is depreciated. That was the reason for the envy and the disputes that arose from it. In this way, the accumulation of movable or immovable property also required the maintenance of social amenities and distinctions manifested by ostentation. And ROUSSEAU understood that individual property originated all sorts of inequalities:

Thus, natural inequality gradually unfolds with that of combination, and the differences between men, developed by circumstances, become more noticeable, more permanent in their effects, and begin to influence the fate of individuals in the same proportion.[5]

In ROUSSEAU we base the work of thinking, as historians, in distant times - clues to reflect on some evils of present societies, following their method of “seek in ancient time’s evidence of a truth that we have solid testimonies before us”.[6]

The temporal clipping of this study covers the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; The geographical scope is broad, as it covers Portugal and Brazil, as well as France; the thematic clipping addresses the problem of mercês and privileges in the Portuguese Empire; Finally, and moving on the same method, we focus on the interpretation of the ideas of one of the most renowned philosophers of modernity, ROUSSEAU, and the governing practices that prevailed in the Portuguese Atlantic “world”. What we are looking for, and whose result is expressed in this chapter, is to build a new theoretical and methodological way to think about the problem of inequalities in Brazil and the “historical bonds” that support them.


Since the first caravel landed on a beach of terra brasilis, European culture, especially Portuguese, has settled in these Atlantic bands. That meeting between the Amerindians (native peoples of the Americas who had lived here since before the arrival of the “conquerors”) and the Europeans some called the “shock of civilizations”. For others, early contacts were surrounded by amenities and courtesy of both parties. In this way we can observe what ROUSSEAU asserted about the main distinctions between these two individuals separated by distinct cultures: “The savage man and the civilized man differ so much from the heart and inclination that what constitutes the supreme happiness of a would reduce the other to despair”.[7]

The Portuguese who arrived in Brazil carrying their books, boots and weapons named the amazed naked men and women who received them as Gentiles, because "the literate people have too much respect for their prejudices".[8] Portuguese travelers settled along the Brazilian coast from the 16th century onwards and brought politics, Christianity and slavery.[9]

Implemented a centralizing form of State in the process of territorial expansion and domination, in which christianity, the distribution of land and natural wealth to white men and slavery guided the entire political process, to the detriment of the forms of social organization prior to Cabral's trip. After all, wherever the Portuguese went, there was El Rey propelling his transfer to the “partes do Brazil,” along with the structure of the church, in particular that built by the Society of Jesus. ROUSSEAU, in a demonstration of his deep disappointment with the court society he was accustomed to in France, and what it had reduced in the eighteenth century in Europe, thus expressed:

The savage lives on himself; the sociable man, always out of his mind, only knows how to live in the opinion of others and it is, as it were, their judgment that takes away the feeling of his own existence from [...] in this disposition, so much indifference for good and for evil, such beautiful moral speeches.[10]


Those first contacts were almost lost in the night of centuries and things were quite different about 100 years later. If, from 1500, the Brazilian coast had already been visited by Pedro Álvares Cabral (1467-1520) and other navigators, from 1530 onwards, colonization of these places began. A few decades later, the entire length of the Atlantic coast had here and there trading posts, sugarcane mills, city Councils,[11] churches and brothels. In defense of their interests, the city Councils exchanged amazing amount of correspondence with the crown, as shown by the Carta dos Camaristas de São Luiz ao Rei, dated December 9, 1619:

We humbly kiss the hand of Your Majesty the officers of the House of this city of Sao Luiz do Maranhão on behalf of all this people for the very marked mercê with which he made Portugal and his achievements to come visit this kingdom and make it to his vassals thanks to what we hope for in your Majesty's real greatness will reach us so much for the very leather that the past kings put into the discovery of this conquest losing many armed and vassals as it was conquered in the happy time of Your Majesty and with much work and blood of the conquerors whose example we wish to all to offer their lives to the royal service of Your Majesty in founding here a new empire for which the earth has great disposition in riches, goodness and breadth.[12]

Amid that vassal relationship between subjects and king, of medieval origin and fully utilized until the nineteenth century, an "mercê economy" was built. Predominant and essential to vassalage, mercê was the name of a set of rituals of grace and gratitude upon which both the sovereign and his subjects had to fulfill a series of requirements ranging from willingness between follow royal dictates to expressions social gratitude. A centuries-old relationship of courtesy and previously thought words articulated the communication between sovereign and subjects in which everything existed, less gratuitousness and disinterest.[1] “Thus are all our faculties developed, the memory and imagination at work, the self-esteem interested,” warns ROUSSEAU.[13] The Genevan philosopher also explained to us better about the notions of "self-love" and "love of yourself ":

We should not confuse self-love and love of yourself; two very different passions in nature and effects. Love of yourself is a natural feeling, which leads every animal to watch over its own conservation and, driven in man by reason and modified by godliness, produces humanity and virtue. Self-love it's just a relative, artificial, society-born feeling that makes each individual give more importance to himself than to anyone else and is the true source of honor.[14]

In particular activities in the lands of conquest, the “first conquerors” awaited imperial mercê because they understood that their personal activities were also works for the empire. Around commercial, agricultural or extractive labor, the mercê has become both a social “reward” and a desired political attribute. António Manuel HESPANHA named it as a “patrimonialist conception of the craft” in a period in which the Brazilian legal construction was still in its infancy and, for this reason, began to settle here. It was the socioeconomic discourse and its sociopolitical reception.[15]

ROUSSEAU, however, stated that "political distinctions necessarily bring about civil distinctions".[16] In this sense, HESPANHA emphasized the importance of the German historian Otto Brunner (1898-1982) for the creation of the History of Concepts and for the development of a “historiography of political ideas”. In some of his works he analyzed the concepts of “manorialism” (1949) and “patriarchalism” (1968) as “old patriarchal and manorial political structures and for which the central power had little means of political control”.[17]


The main events that convulsed the seventeenth century are said to have been the prelude to what was to come in the eighteenth century. France, England, and Spain, as well as Portugal, were ruled by absolute sovereigns, that is to say that the king was the creator and maintainer of the laws that his subjects were to submit to. In Portugal, the sovereign was entitled to: “to make leys, to invest Magistrates, to elect worthy & meritorious Ministers, to beat money, for tributes & to their time publish war, & to make peace”.[18] But it was also above the same laws that it created, because it owed only obedience to God, after all, it was through Him that its power was acquired.

In England, the second half of the seventeenth century witnessed the gut wars that divided the English, overturned the Order, and eventually established a Constitutional Monarchy, unprecedented political change.[19] John Locke (1632-1704) gave a dramatic panorama of those violent clashes with pen and sword: “The state of war is a condition of enmity and destruction; and, therefore, a state that declares thoughtful and cold intention toward the life of another”.[20]

The eighteenth century, in turn, also known as the Century of Lights, is so-called as the backdrop of the apex of Enlightenment ideas, that is, of those thinkers who had the convenience of fortune, courage or detachment for everything to question; to exalt reason rather than an overly mystical and ungodly spirituality that served "to uphold the pretended rights of God, that is, their own interests";[21] to call science only what can be proved by real evidence resulting from continued research and experience.

Many questions led to some answers, and others, to revolutions. In Brazil, the illustrated or Enlightenment culture did not gain notoriety before the 19th century and the arrival of the Royal Family in Brazil in 1808. With the exception of the Minas Gerais region at the time of the Inconfidência Mineira, Enlightenment ideas were seen quite skepticality in the colony's local elites.[22] It was easier to stay away from highs like this one from ROUSSEAU: “As long as power is alone on one side and lights and wisdom on the other, scholars will rarely think great things, princes will rarely do beautiful things, and people will continue to be vile, corrupt and unhappy ”.[23]

The Portuguese built a peculiar way of maintaining and providing the kingdom and its most faithful subjects with the worthy blessings of a citizen in perpetual service to the king and under the omnipresent and omniscient gaze of God, for religiosity was the main factor of social union of those, as ROUSSEAU pointed out: "They are convinced that the divine voice has summoned all humankind to the lights and happiness of the heavenly intelligences, they will do everything to deserve the eternal prize to be expected of them".[24]

This distinctive way of promoting the expansion of the Portuguese Overseas Empire's possessions was noted for political decentralization amid the centralization of power in the king's hands, “an aspect of apparent concord” in ROUSSEAU's words.[25] Let me explain further: consider the Modern Absolute State as a centralized political regime, one in which all powers depart from the king. However, this centralized power in order to maintain or expand needs to be decentralized, that is, to delegate functions to individuals willing to rule in the name of the king a region that was not within the direct reach of His Majesty.[26]

Delegating functions through appointments that gave to the rewarded with the position the charge of governing a place and its people as he pleased at times, but with the obligatory respect for the royal dictates and under the auspices of Our Lord Jesus Christ,[27] for “the chief end of good politics there is not the temporal prosperity of states, but the glory of Deos in the administration of justice & observance of their laws”.[28] ROUSSEAU introduced us to the religious background that guided the political legitimacy of kings and the overseas achievements implemented by Europeans:

How much it was necessary for the public tranquility the divine will to intervene to give the sovereign authority a sacred and inviolable character, to derive from the subjects the disastrous right to dispose of them. Even if religion had only done this good to men, it would be enough that everyone should love it and adopt it, even with its abuses, for it saves even more blood than fanaticism makes it run.[29]

This brings us to sovereign power over all things, centralized power; which cannot rule over all its kingdom or empire and, therefore, delegates functions, decentralized power. For this reason, to the occupants of the public positions, several attributions:

The magistrate, for his part, undertakes not to use the power entrusted to him except by the intention of the principals, to keep each one in the peaceful enjoyment of his own, and always to prefer public utility over his own interest. [...] those in charge of ensuring their conservation were themselves most interested in this.[30]

HESPANHA recalled that the modern european in general was less a centralized regime and more a “polycentric” regime in which kings were forced to reinforce gratifications and favors for those who sought graces and mercês for working to the good government of the king in distant places. The author emphasized that, in this way, more than merit, the currency of exchange between subjects and king was the negotiation of powers and jurisdictions.[1] ROUSSEAU did not refrain from his critical tone in writing about the evils caused by the "bargains" of power: "Frivolous displays of benevolence [...] a state of affairs where all men are forced to flatter and destroy one another and where enemies are born for duty and rascals for interest”.[31]

Both the king's power and the power of the "quality people" worked in favor of Christendom (the set of Christians) and proselytism (the expansion of the Christian religion through conversion), as they "reduced to syllogisms the doctrine of Jesus Christ”.[32] In this regard, let us see what stated by António Coelho GUERREIRO, Secretary of Government of the State of India in the year 1700, about the mercês: “Your Majesty's end is to reward your vassals according to the deserving of the service done to them by the mercês of the posts and offices to the most meritorious".[33]


"Meritorious" were the distinguished people of the village, of the city: "good men of conquest, conquerors, and heirs of the first conquerors".[34] These were the ones to whom the royal “benesses”, the mercês and the privileges were directed. And it was in the Houses of Mercy and the City councils that these powers stood out and fought each other. It was primarily in these two institutions that real power merged with local power.[35] It was in these groups that the rules were formed that would distinguish those who would rule and those who would submit. Not that this was a perpetual thing, for we know that the same power that delegates, is the same that withdraws.

Those chosen to perform the duties delegated by the king were almost always socially distinct persons. “Quality of the person” has become a social criterion; instead of the king, effectively, imposing his norms, what was really practiced were negotiations between the central power and the "republics", the local powers; sometimes, local authority was exercised by one who called himself the creator or protector of that community, the pater familias of all individuals residing there, and it was this individual who overlapped with the power that came from Portugal; following the law was not a requirement.[36] What was the most valid law in those confines of the Portuguese empire, the one that came from distant Lisbon or the local?[37]

The rules were dictated by the planter, the slave trader, and the councilman. Not infrequently, a single man possessed these three distinctive “qualities”. ROUSSEAU helps us to understand this human search for power: “Man in society [...] must first obtain the necessary, and then the superfluous; then come the delights, and then the immense riches, and then the subjects, and then the slaves”.[38] ROUSSEAU's other reflections emphasize his repudiation of “ambition” and the constant “usurpations” present in the most powerful social groups:

Devouring ambition, the eagerness to elevate their relative wealth less out of a genuine need than to rise above others, inspires in all men a dark inclination to mutually harm each other, a secret jealousy, all the more dangerous because striking more safely often takes the mask of benevolence; in a word, competition and rivalry, on the one hand, and, on the other, opposition of interests, and always the hidden desire to gain advantage at the expense of others.[39]

Whatever color they might give their usurpations, they were sufficiently aware that they were established only by a precarious and abusive right and that, having been acquired by force, force could take them away, without being right to complain.[40]

But they complained, and directly to the king!

A large number of letters from the colonial period show us that epistolary contacts were frequent between individuals and the person of the king.[41] FRAGOSO has done a dense research about it. This researcher shows us, through quantitative data and thematic analysis, that there were far more individuals who communicated with the king by letters than from judicial or governing institutions (City councils and their counterparts at the high level of governance of the State of Brazil) that used this means of communication. The historian FRAGOSO named them as "domestic power", the one whose maintainer was the patriarch of an extended family, in which we can include godparents, aggregates and others.[42]

ROUSSEAU helps us to better understand the relationship between political power and parental power to modern societies through the idea of “recognition”:

Recognition is a duty we must fulfill, but not a right we can demand. Instead of saying that civil society derives from paternal power, we should instead say that it is from it that such power derives its main strength: an individual was only recognized as the father of many when they remained gathered around him.[43]

It was this power that often solicited the royal mercês on the premises of a "moral economy" flowed into the idea of "grace".[44] It was the planter, the mighty merchant, both slaveholders, who asked the king to reward them with a benesse; a privilege in recognition of the works for the richness of the empire, the name of Jesus and the maintenance of the colony of this humble royal subject far away in the lands of Brazil.[45] This was a common practice in European modernity, a period in which paterfamilias symbolized the image of both, the king and the head of household.[46] ROUSSEAU did not fail to approach the related theme:

Added to this are honors that make the laws and their ministers respectable and, for them personally, prerogatives that reward them for the hard work that a good administration costs.[47]


The “mercês system” had a history of more than 100 years in the 18th century. To reward the warlike aristocracy that fought, century after century, against the Muslim "invaders", the king of Portugal granted these lands pensions, favors and privileges. This economic system, which dates back to the centuries under which the battles of the Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula took place between the years 700 and 1400, pervaded these centuries and entered modernity with few changes.

In fact, it was extended to the overseas domains of the Portuguese Empire from the great voyages of global circumnavigation, achievements and discoveries that the Portuguese implemented from the late 15th century. The "mercês system", as usual, became the norm and, once legally established, was the cause of the formation of a nobility not necessarily connected to the domain of the land, but mainly that lived at the expense of royal mercês as beneficiaries of the king, that is, he received his income from the crown.[48] Thinking about the Europe of your time, ROUSSEAU tried to warn his contemporaries about the evils of this kind of reward policy in the form of titles and mercês:

How much this universal desire for reputation, honor, and preference that devours us all exercises and compares talents and strengths, how much it stimulates and multiplies passions, and how, by making all men competitors, rivals, or rather enemies, he causes every day setbacks, successes, and catastrophes of every kind, running the same lesson both suitors [...] this desire to talk about us, this fury of distinguishing ourselves that keeps us almost always out of ourselves, that we owe the best and worst among men, our virtues and our vices, our sciences and our mistakes, our conquerors and our philosophers.[49]

Another alternative to reward the services rendered to the Portuguese crown was the benesses, namely the assignment of high government positions, inside or outside Portugal. This practice gave his recipient a twofold advantage, since the provision of a post at the same time afforded economic privileges. As in those times when governance was still crawling in the midst of common needs and individual interests with little regulation of justice, a “good man” at the head of public post could also be provided by trade, slave trade or as a landowner.

ROUSSEAU wrote of the perpetual idea that craft, public posts, the state itself were considered private possessions and offered by the king and his beneficiaries as divine grace:

The hereditary chiefs became accustomed to viewing their magistracy as a family property, to considering themselves as owners of the state they were initially but the officers and calling themselves equal to gods and kings of kings.[50]

Generally, the benesses were divided between the “craft benesses” and the “trade benesses”: the first, as we have seen, linked to governance positions; the second as "privileges" in commercial activities in any area, from caravel construction to slave trade.[51] To an individual or group favored by good and mercê, a reality immersed in wealth. Let's see what ROUSSEAU warned us about: “In general, wealth, the nobility or condition, power and personal merit are the main distinctions by which we are measured in society.” Wealth is the main one because “we serve easily get her to buy everything else”.[52] Finally, there is the question of ROUSSEAU in which he emphasized the extremes in which virtue and wealth are located: "And what will become of virtue when we have to get rich at any price?"[53]

From these concessions and favors, the same system of maintaining an elite of the privileged was soon established in Brazil, which, generation after generation, based on a genealogy initiated by the first conquerors, perpetuated the reins of both politics and commerce.[54] As an example, let us look at an anonymous letter from 1676 in which there are accusations against the abuses of the then-judge of the orphans: “Instead of dressing the orphans, they leave them naked, because all the propertys that the orphans inherit from their parents are in the hands of the judge and the scribe and the distributors”.[55]

ROUSSEAU repeatedly warned of the evil of courteous-looking society which, in the philosopher's opinion, was the most depraved and false of all: “This sweetness of character and the urbanity of the customs that make trade between you so friendly and so easy; in a word, the appearances of all virtues without any of them”.[56]

And what about luxe?

Luxe, impossible to prevent among men eager for their own comforts and the consideration of others, impoverishes [...] everything else.

The luxe to sustain the multitude of knaves and wretches who produced, depletes and ruins the farmer and the citizen.[57]


ROUSSEAU, in his conjectures in his two Discourses, wanted his questions to be read and understood; perhaps he wanted his chimeras to be liberated from the field of utopia to that of reality. Rewarding each one for their merit, for example, was one of the premises emphasized by the thinker:

Since all members of the state owe them services commensurate with their talents and strengths, citizens, in turn, must be distinguished and favored in proportion to their services.[58]

Citizens' conditions must therefore be regulated not on the basis of personal merit, which would leave the magistrate the means of almost arbitrary application of the law, but on the basis of the actual services they render to the state which are susceptible of most accurate assessment.[59]

In addition: “Probity is even more dear to good people than scholarly scholarship”.[60] And: “Both politics and morals, it is a great evil not to do good.[61]

But in court society, the one that ROUSSEAU knew very well, the reality was different. In those days what was seen was a political practice based on inequalities of opportunity due to the ardent favors and desires to have social distinction: “All our efforts have only two goals, for myself the amenities of life and among others the consideration”.[62]

What is a policy, after all, than a politeness in speaking and