And then another amusingly dismal event

The General and Extraordinary Cortes of the Portuguese Nation that aproved the first Constitution (Wikipedia)

So September 15 is the anniversary of the “Constitutionalist revolution” in Portugal in 1820. I was trying to make sense of the story but in the end it simply confirmed the aphorism of Sébastian-Roch Nicolas Chamfort that “Only the history of free peoples merits our attention; that of men under despotisms is simply a collection of anecdotes.” And I suppose he would know, being secretary to Louis XVI’s sister and the Jacobin club.

See, Portugal was invaded during the Napoleonic Wars and moved its capital to Rio de Janeiro as well as becoming a British protectorate. And the British seem to have tried to instil liberal ideas while King John VI was far away. As for the king, he apparently hadn’t been much interested in public affairs as opposed to, say, hunting, until his brother died of smallpox and he became heir apparent in 1788 then regent in 1799 when his mother went mad. But he did like running things totally himself.

He came back to Portugal and sort of put up with the liberal constitution imposed by the army on an illiterate peasantry who had no idea what was even going on and nobles and clergy who knew but hated it. So in 1823 a counterrevolution imposed absolutism, which the king put up with, suspending the liberal 1822 constitution and instead promising “personal security, property and jobs”. Oh. That again.

It wasn’t good enough for the hardliners including his own wife, Carlota Joaquina de Borbón, a very nasty piece of work by all accounts who loved the absolutism of her native Spain and despised everything about her husband including his manners. She conspired with their son Michael to force the king off the throne, which failed, conspired again and got exiled, and then in 1826 John died, possibly of arsenic poisoning.

Well, I could go on and on. In fact it may feel that I already did. But the point is there’s really no story here, just anecdotes about the dismal result of political maneuvering in a nation without a tradition of liberty even when some of that maneuvering aims to create such a tradition. After a civil war lasting from 1828 to 1834 Portugal got a constitutional monarchy of sorts, but it presided over instability and coups until the early 20th century when they got a republic and more instability and civil war then dictatorship.

Only in the 1970s did Portugal somehow cast off this dismal succession of anecdotes and via a military coup get something resembling democracy though with 25 governments between 1974 and 2014 and enormous economic problems there’s still far too much anecdote here about human frailty and far too little story of the sort one genuinely does find in the Anglosphere.

So if you have it, cherish it. And if you don’t, do all you can to get it against long odds.

It happened todayJohn Robson