Manoel Deodoro da Fonseca

Manoel Deodoro da Fonseca (1827-1892) was the first president of Brazil. Perhaps his greatest contribution was the assumption of authority in the last days of the empire and his leading role in the establishment of the republic.

Manoel Deodoro da Fonseca was born on Aug. 5, 1827, in Alagoas. In 1843 he entered the Military School in Rio de Janeiro and after graduation in 1847 began a series of assignments that took him to all parts of the empire. In 1864 he participated in military campaigns in Uruguay and later against Francisco Solano López in the Paraguayan War. He later rose to field marshal.

Militarism, nurtured during the Paraguayan War, became reality in the late 1870s. The army looked upon itself as the savior of the nation, and the Military School was the center of positivist propaganda. Deodoro's prestige had grown to such stature that when the Duque de Caxias died in 1880 the Conservative party hoped that Deodoro would assume the duke's role of pacifying the restive army. But Deodoro also had the admiration of the young officers, who were increasingly attracted to republicanism and positivism. Promoted to quartermaster general of the army, he was assigned to an office in Rio, where he became the military strongman around whom the officers and their sympathizers rallied.

As the military-civilian crisis intensified, Deodoro was first transferred to Mato Grosso and then returned to Rio in June 1889. Rumors of cutbacks in military personnel and troop transfers to the frontier to diminish the army's strength in Rio aggravated the growing conflict.

Pressed by militants to lead a coup and proclaim a republic, Deodoro believed that the military's honor could be maintained by merely overthrowing the ministry. After repeated entreaties he agreed to lead the revolt. Yet his real goal is still unclear. Even during the actual coup, led by Floriano Peixoto on Nov. 15, 1889, when Deodoro became ill, he seems to have thought it was simply a move against an antagonistic ministry. Emperor Pedro II was sent into exile the next day.

On November 17 the provisional government was formed with Deodoro as the chief executive. Unfortunately, he was ill-suited for the position. Accustomed to instant obedience, he had little patience or administrative ability. Receiving minimal cooperation from his ministers and daily attacks in the press, he became increasingly bewildered by his new responsibilities. On Jan. 20, 1891, his Cabinet resigned en masse. On February 24, however, the constitution was proclaimed, and the Constituent Congress elected Deodoro president and Peixoto his vice president.

Unpopular and frequently seriously ill, Deodoro faced chronic disorder within the country and fiscal chaos. He was in constant conflict with Congress, and Peixoto plotted against him. On Nov. 3, 1891, Deodoro dissolved Congress, proclaimed a state of siege in Rio and its environs, and ruled by decree. His dictatorial regime was short-lived, however, as he faced the rebellious disaffection of the army and continuing poor health. On November 22 he suffered a serious heart attack. Two days later he resigned and was succeeded by Peixoto.

Peixoto effectively crushed a revolt to restore Deodoro in January 1892, but by then Deodoro was suffering serious physical and mental decline. He died in Petrópolis on Aug. 22, 1892.


Further Reading on Manoel Deodoro da Fonseca

The standard work in English on Deodoro is Charles Willis Simmons, Marshal Deodoro and the Fall of Dom Pedro II (1966). It provides a sympathetic treatment of a man thrust into a position of responsibility far beyond his own ambition and ability. For background see João Pandiá Calógeras, A History of Brazil (trans. 1939).