Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Chapter 6: Common Bedfellows? Brazilian Antislavery and Anti–Capital Punishment Efforts in Comparative Perspective (Excerpts)

Brazilian abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco.

In the sixth chapter of Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Interactions, Identities, and Images, Peter M. Beattie examines public and political attitudes toward the death penalty in Brazil and the United States. Whereas in Brazil capital punishment was abolished by law in 1889, only one year after the abolition of slavery there, in the United States the death penalty persisted after slavery’s abolition and still exists today. Focusing on the work of Brazilian abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco, Peter M. Beattie investigates the ways a group of Brazilian intellectuals and politicians opposed the death penalty as an effort to promote human rights and to improve Brazil’s international image. Beattie argues that the differences between the two countries’ approach to the issue of capital punishment are not related to the countries’ respective histories of African slavery but rather to the discrete paths Brazil and the United States took toward slavery’s abolition—as well as to differences in Anglophone and Lusophone legal and political cultures. Below is an excerpt from the chapter:

A brief but more detailed comparison of Brazilian and American histories of capital punishment and slavery illuminates why the two countries followed such different legal and institutional trajectories. The analysis here privileges comparisons of political institutions, paths toward slavery’s abolition, legal traditions, and culture. A major difference that shaped reform outcomes in both countries lay in their political systems. Brazil’s imperial constitution vested the emperor with executive powers that allowed him to sidestep Parliament and bring a de facto end to capital punishment. As noted earlier, efforts to abolish slavery required Parliament to act, slowing changes to slavery laws. The federal system of the United States made the battle over the death penalty a struggle waged within the legislatures of individual states. This made it possible for the anti–capital punishment movement to claim at least partial victory in a few of northern states in the nineteenth century, but the system hampered more sweeping reform.

The nature of slavery’s abolition also played a significant role in shaping attitudes toward the death penalty in both nations. In the United States, the Civil War brought an incredibly violent and abrupt end to slavery. This resulted in the occupation of former Confederate states by Union forces during Reconstruction (1865–1877), when many black men won election to prominent political offices as representatives of the Republican Party. After Reconstruction, Bourbon Democrats led a campaign of terror to take political power away from black Republicans and their allies in southern states. Part of this campaign included extralegal lynchings and legal executions. It may be argued that powerful planters and political bosses in Brazil did not protest the abolition of the death penalty more vociferously because they could carry out extralegal executions with little fear of prosecution; and similar impunity for offenders certainly existed in the United States, particularly for those who perpetrated crimes against black citizens. The lynching or legal prosecution of black men in the United States often hinged on accusations that they had raped or attempted to seduce white women, charges that played on fears of miscegenation in the United States. Democratic Party operatives coined the very term miscegenation during the Civil War; in New York City they produced a pamphlet, purportedly authored by the Republican Party, that argued in favor of race mixture and claimed that the Republican Party supported it as a matter of policy. It was a crass hoax intended to scuttle Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 reelectioncampaign, and it reprised Stephen Douglas’s assertion that Lincoln favored miscegenation, a claim made during the debates of the 1858 Illinois senatorial race. Both incidents demonstrated that concern about race mixture were not limited to the white citizens of southern slave states, and fears of racial miscegenation subsequently served as a rationale to justify racial segregation of varying degrees across the nation.

By comparison, Brazil’s abolition of slavery and capital punishment was gradual and comparatively peaceful. After 1850, when the transatlantic slave trade to Brazil ended, the bonded population began to decline. Unlike in the United States, the slave population in Brazil had never reproduced itself naturally, but depended on importation for growth. Therefore the underlying political support for slavery slowly eroded until the abolitionist movement came into its own in the 1880s.

Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Interactions, Identities, and Images edited by Ana Lucia Araujo is available in hardcover. It is also available as in different ebook formats, which start at $19.99 to purchase and $9.99 to rent. Professors who wish to use this book along with others in the slavery studies collection for their classes should use the Cambria Book Cloud, which allows for the bundling of ebooks at only $9.99 per title for each student.