The Golden Law

On this day in 1888, Princess Isabel of the Empire of Brazil enacted the Lei Áurea (Golden Law), formally abolishing slavery in Brazil, which had the largest number of slaves and was the last Western country to abolish slavery. Both Isabel and her father, Emperor Dom Pedro II, were opponents to slavery (she signed as his regent because he was in Europe).

The law was very short, stating only that “From this date, slavery is declared abolished in Brazil. All dispositions to the contrary are revoked.” This was intended to make clear that there were no conditions or qualifications to abolition — slaves were to be totally freed, full stop. (Previous laws had freed the children of slaves, or freed slaves when they turned sixty; this time, slavery was stamped out for good, at least formally.)

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By the same token, however, the law provided no assistance to help slaves transition into freedom; without any assets, education, or political representation, black Brazilians struggled for decades to come, a legacy that remains evident to this day.

More to the point, the law angered Brazil’s powerful landowning class, whose influence accounted for why Brazil held out as a slave state for so long. Just one year later, the monarchy was overthrown in a military coup backed by the upper classes.

(Though Brazilians could counter that at least they did not have to fight a bloody civil war to end slavery.)

 

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