My dissertation, comleted in 2006, is titled "Rhetoric and Riot in Rio de Janeiro, 1827-1831." In the dissertation I examine the effect of the new and powerful newspaper corps on the rapidly deteriorating political environment in Rio de Janeiro in the waning years of the First Empire (1822-1831). Specifically, I trace the lives of the major newspaper editors and attempt to show the impact their periodicals had on the political turmoil that characterized the last years of Emperor Pedro I's rule. I found that the editors had a significant role in events by providing a new and powerful forum for political debates outside of the strict confines of the state. My findings challenge the impression that the presence of a European monarch ensured Brazil's stability and cohesion, especially in the pivotal First Empire. The newspapers in Rio de Janeiro played a defining role in the direction of the state and encouraged an aware populace to defend the hitherto undefined nation.
That's a lot of grad-school speak for an idea that is very simple. While researching the end of the First Empire and the abdication of Brazil's first Emperor, I noted the drastic increase in newspapers printed in Rio de Janeiro during that period - from 16 in 1827 to 31 by the beginning of 1831, a 94 percent increase. The more I looked into this coincidence, the more I was convinced that there was a relationship. The number of newspapers increased dramatically as tensions increased in Rio de Janeiro, and many Brazilian officials and eyewitnesses blamed the rising tension on the editors' rhetoric. As I began to read widely on the history of the Brazilian press, I soon discovered that I was not the first to have this revelation. Yet, this relationship has not been fully explored in the historiography. I had found a research problem: What was the relationship between the turmoil and violence of the end of Brazil's First Empire and the rise in the number of newspapers in Rio de Janeiro?
What I found was that the newspapers did have a significant impact on events, but maybe not in the way you might think. The editors did not "break" a story that bought down the Emperor. No individual story or even newspaper led directly to the downfall of Brazil's First Empire. Rather, newspaper editors made it possible for a large group of people (the reading and listening public) to be involved in the functioning of the state. This might seem a paltry effect, but in late 1820s Brazil the widening of the public sphere had a great effect. People on the streets and in the bars were talking about politics. The more they read about politics, the more they debated political issues outside of the traditional confines of the legislature or the court. A more active and knowledgeable populace was able to question the direction of the nation. Newspapers provided the ammunition for a newly emboldened public to wage political warfare.
Beyond the dissertation
My current research projects stem from work completed for the dissertation. A major effort of that research was the creation of a database of more than four thousand records that traces the topics of every newspaper article published in the last four years of the First Empire. A separate database was created that also recorded the topics of over two thousand letters to the editor. These two databases have provided a wealth of information regarding political and social topics of interest to residents of Brazil's capital city. Additionally, I own microfilm copies of all of Rio de Janeiro's newspapers from the period, which enables me to continue to mine this large body of evidence for future projects.
The first project I have undertaken with this data is an article-length work titled "Newspapers and the Effort to Control First Empire Rio de Janeiro's Civic Rituals." This article looks at the way the press reported and interpreted the three main civic holidays of late First Empire Rio de Janeiro (25 March, 7 September, and 12 October). A close reading of both the conservative and liberal newspapers indicates that the press provided an arena to contest for discursive control of the rituals. Conservative (pro-regime) and liberal (opposition) editors placed their own interpretations on Brazil's foundational rituals at a time when the legitimacy of the young empire was very much in contest. In conducting this research I discovered that the different groups of editors used the "people" in drastically different ways. While the conservative editors created a passive public that was on hand merely to witness the grandeur of the emperor and his court, the liberal editors invoked an active public that provided the legitimacy necessary to the maintenance of the empire.
Currently, I am preparing a second article for submission that details how newspaper editors and their works created an active public by providing a forum for public debate outside the confines of the court. Editors transformed the public sphere through introducing ideas and commentary that framed Brazil's nascent political culture in enlightenment terms. Editors also exhorted the reading and listening public to act in this newly created forum. Readers responded with thousands of letters to the editor that engaged with the concepts first broached by the editors. This newly-informed and suddenly active populace played an integral role in reducing the power of the state and forcing the reluctant Emperor to bow to the wishes of a powerful public.
Ultimately, I envision the dissertation as the cornerstone of a book-length project on the political culture of First Empire Rio de Janeiro. This period is woefully understudied in the literature on Brazil, though recently it has garnered more attention from historians. The effort to create and sustain a lasting government that represented the various constructions of the public is on full display in the thousands of newspapers published in the capital city of the Empire. By incorporating legislative records, judicial records, and manuscript holdings of literary societies (all available through Rio de Janeiro's admirable library and archival holdings) into the already-analyzed newspaper records, I will be able to recreate this vibrant and violent period in Brazil's history.
My research transects several historiographic trends. Recently, several works have been published regarding the nineteenth-century Latin American city as a cauldron of change. Hilda Sabato's work on Buenos Aires (The Many and the Few, 2001), Charles Walker's book on Cuzco (Smoldering Ashes, 1999), and Sarah Chambers on Arequipa (From Subjects to Citizens, 1999) provide models of urban history that manage to connect ideas to action. In addition, newspapers and print culture are the subjects of a growing body of literature in Latin American studies. For example, Isabel Lustosa's Insultos Impressos (2000) looks at the emergence of the press in Rio during the Independence period while article-length treatises by Pablo Piccato, Fernando Unzueta, and David Sowell provide parallel investigations of Mexico, Uruguay, and Colombia, respectively. My work connects these trends in an analysis of the under-studied period between Brazil's Independence movement (1822-1824) and the beginning of the long, stable Second Empire (1840-1891). Examining print culture also connects my work to the large body of literature on the enlightenment in the Atlantic World and the transmission of ideas. Finally, my work taps into subaltern studies through its emphasis on the widening of the public sphere and the creation of a public that would come to play an important role in shaping the political trajectory of the young nation.
Beyond the dissertation, I am interested in how the idea of "Latin America" was created from without and adopted, adapted, and modified from within in the nineteenth century. The newspaper editors on whom the dissertation was based were well aware of contemporary political and philosophical ideas that were crossing and re-crossing the larger Atlantic World in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. Their understanding of these models, both abstract and practical, fashioned their vision of the future of Brazil. Much of the work in creating Latin America for the rest of the world was completed by travel writers. My Master's thesis, "'Where Things Familiar Cease and Strange Begin': Nineteenth-Century English Language Travel Accounts of Brazil," traces this effort to craft a vision of Brazil that was fully formed within the construct of English and North American value systems. The Master's thesis has formed the nucleus of an upper-level course I am currently teaching and I intend to redraft the thesis into an article length work for publication. Nineteenth-century Brazilians were well aware of the constructs developed by travel writers and many in Brazil adopted this vision wholesale. One striking example of the intersection of North Atlantic value systems and South Atlantic realities is the prevalence of facial hair in the sub-tropical climate of Brazil. In a future book-length project I intend to pursue the role of beards in the construction of male political identity in Second Empire Brazil. Beards were a necessary component of what it meant to be a public figure in this period of rapid scientific advancement and increasing investment from Northern Europe and North America. Throughout the nineteenth century the very idea of what it meant to be Brazilian was in contest. I see my research agenda as the constant search for new and innovative ways to investigate that contestation.