Gilberto Freyre has characterized Nilo Peçanha as a member of the political center in Brazil during the early decades of the republic. Nilo and others in the center, treading a path between supporters of positivism and idealistic adherents to pure republican principles, sought to solve the problems of their day in a practical non-doctrinaire manner. Such an interpretation offers the most comfortable explanation of the political career of Nilo Peçanha, though it is not the interpretation offered by Brígido Tinoco.
Nilo Peçanha (1867-1924), born of mulatto parents in the state of Rio de Janeiro, came of age politically during the revolt against the empire when he was elected to the National Constituent Assembly. The succeeding decade found him straddling basic issues of national politics, his position depending on his relationship to the president. Nilo’s career advanced rapidly with the election of Campos Salles in 1898. Nilo gave vigorous support to the second paulista president and became his confidant. He also served as the political deputy of the president in the state of Rio de Janeiro and gained control of the dominant party in the state. At age 35 Nilo was elected to the senate and later the same year became governor of his natal state.
Governor Peçanha proved to be a model of administrative vigor and intelligence. His success in state administration and his close ties with the president led to his nomination for vice-president in 1905 and his accession to that office in 1906. The death of President Alfonso Penna in 1909 made him acting president (1909-1910). As president he continued to emphasize efficiency and honesty in government, working to stabilize the financial situation of the nation, inaugurating a public works program, promoting education, and including able men from all parties in his cabinet.
The climax of Nilo’s public life came during the presidential election of 1922 when he was the driving force in a new political movement (Reação). Apparently realizing that the old line political power was massed against him, Nilo embarked on a strenuous personal campaign in an effort to arouse grassroots support. The whole idea of a personal campaign was a sharp break with tradition as were his emphases on the exploitation of the masses by the middle and upper classes and his extensive campaigning in the north. Congress declared the election of his rival, mineiro Artur Bernardes. The nilistas claimed electoral fraud and joined elements of the military in a revolt which was quickly suppressed by the new president.
Despite the twists and turns of Nilo’s political policies, Tinoco consistently portrays him as a liberal ahead of his time, a political leader who did not desert the Brazilian people in his hour of triumph. He is called the “only populist statesman” of the early republican period and a “socialist” fighting desperately against the restrictions of his age. Tinoco states that Peçanha is the greatest politician in Brazilian history, challenged for this honor only by Getúlio Vargas who effected the victory of the program of his fluminense precursor in the revolution of 1930.
Sebastião Leme da Silveira Cintra (1882-1942), a near contemporary of Nilo, was in rapid succession priest, auxiliary bishop of Rio de Janeiro, archbishop of Olinda, archbishop coadjutor of Rio de Janeiro, and second Brazilian cardinal. Cardinal Leme, one of the strong figures of the Brazilian church in the first four decades of the century, had two broad objectives in his ministry. First, he worked vigorously to strengthen the religious life of the faithful—both clergy and laity. His methods in pursuing this objective ranged from personal counseling to the organization of national eucharistic congresses and the Catholic Confederation. He also worked to reassert the primacy of the church in the affairs of the Brazilian nation. He warned political leaders in his famous pastoral letter of 1916 that “Brazilian Catholics are tired of being a majority without rights.” He worked to secure the reintroduction of religious training in public schools, to block any movement toward legalizing divorce, and to promote the election of men sympathetic to the church. He sought to attain these goals by organizing the Brazilian Catholic Action movement and the Catholic Electoral League, and through strenuous activities directed at the “rechristianization” of the intellectuals of Brazil.
Sister Maria Regina concentrates on the personal and religious activities of Dom Sebastião, examining these aspects of his life through the eyes of the church. Cardinal Leme appears as a statesman of the church, as the spearhead of its counterattack against dangerous enemies in Brazil—positivism, spiritism, communism, secularism, and modern indifference. His campaign has led, according to his biographer, to the reclamation (reivindicação) of the role which the church lost at the time of the founding of the republic.
Several important similarities in the scope and approach of these biographies and in the background of the authors must be noted. Both authors are part of the Brazilian establishment. Brígido Tinoco (bicode-pena of Luis Jardim) is a political figure of note in his home state, Rio de Janeiro, who has served in the national legislature and in the cabinet of Jânio Quadros. Sister Maria Regina is the daughter of President Epitacio Pessôa. Both authors made extensive use of personal papers and had the close cooperation of the friends and family of their subjects. Both biographers are very sympathetic and claim too much for their subjects leaving unanswered intriguing questions concerning their lives and motivations.
Withal, these volumes are valuable contributions to our knowledge of major figures in the emergence of modern Brazil—figures little studied heretofore. One only wishes that the accounts had been more critical and less adulatory.