In 1882 Antônio Gonçalves Chaves, a Liberal politician and magistrate from Montes Claros, an isolated rural community in Minas Gerais, was appointed president of the province of Santa Catarina. A political opponent celebrated his imminent departure in the following letter printed in a Conservative provincial newspaper:

This commentator employed pointed metaphors to attack the reputation of Chaves and his family. He likened Chaves to a tradition-bound lord claiming quasi-feudal privileges by referring to his region of influence as a colonial captaincy, rather than a judicial district of postindependence Brazil. For this writer, excessive nepotism constituted a regressive and shameful violation of modern constitutional principles and liberal institutions. He deemed manipulation of electoral procedures and denying citizens their constitutional right to vote equally reprehensible.

Why is the commentary of this rural spokesman significant? At first glance, it merely confirms widely accepted interpretations of the...

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