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A legacy of liberty: the Portuguese Liberal Revolution of 1820

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The Portuguese Liberal Revolution of 1820 was a unique episode in European history. It was fueled by the Portuguese people’s desire for political and economic freedom.

Many are familiar with Portugal’s Carnation Revolution that brought an end to the authoritarian Estado Novo regime in 1974 and paved the way for democracy. Still, perhaps fewer are aware of the fascinating circumstances around the country’s Liberal Revolution, which took place just over 200 years ago.

The Portuguese Liberal Revolution of 1820 was a unique episode in European history. It was a series of events fueled by the Portuguese people’s desire for greater political and economic freedom.

While its success in establishing a liberal Portugal was somewhat limited and short-lived, the Liberal Revolution brought a definitive end to absolute monarchy in Portugal and had a profound impact on Portuguese politics and society for generations to come.

What caused the Liberal Revolution?

Portugal’s Liberal Revolution was a somewhat delayed part of a broader wave of liberal revolutions that swept across Europe and Latin America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Enlightenment ideas about individual rights became increasingly popular throughout the Western world, and fueled other revolutions, such as in the United States and France.

Many liberals in Portugal were also inspired by the Trienio Liberal in neighboring Spain, in which a liberal government ruled for three years following a military uprising that occurred just months prior to the beginning of Portugal’s Liberal Revolution.

During the Peninsular War (1807-14), part of the Napoleonic Wars, after several French invasions, the Portuguese monarchy decided to relocate to Brazil, which remained a Portuguese colony at that time. 

Meanwhile, in the absence of King João VI, Portugal was administered by a regency overseen by its ally, the British Empire, and governed by Viscount Beresford, who was appointed Marshal and Commander in Chief of the Portuguese Army. In 1814, the French were defeated, but the arrangement for governing continental Portugal remained.

By the late 1810s, rather than an independent nation, Portugal could effectively be described as either a British protectorate or a colony of Brazil, where the Portuguese monarch had set up his capital in Rio de Janeiro.

Restrictions on trade frustrated the merchants of Portugal’s major port cities, where a strong liberal tradition was already rooted. As such, secret societies formed with the aim of creating a revolution that would end absolutism and bring the monarch back to Portugal as a constitutional ruler.

What were the objectives of the Liberal Revolution?

Portuguese liberals were determined to establish a system of government that respected individual rights and limited the power of the state.

The revolutionaries sought to replace the absolutist monarchy with a constitutional monarchy to establish a system of government that respected individual rights and limited the state’s power. Furthermore, they sought to abolish the privileges enjoyed by the nobility and establish a more meritocratic society.

One of the primary goals of the revolution was the establishment of a written constitution, which would set out the rights and freedoms of the Portuguese people.

This emphasis on popular sovereignty was a critical aspect of the revolution’s pro-liberty ideals, recognizing the importance of individual rights and freedoms and the need for the government to be accountable to the people. Portugal’s revolutionaries also recognized the threat a powerful state posed to individual liberty.

Another significant aspect of the Liberal Revolution’s goals was to bring about economic freedom. The revolutionaries advocated free trade and a market-based economy, believing that the state should play a limited role in economic affairs. They sought to eliminate monopolies and promote competition, recognizing that this would lead to greater economic growth and prosperity for Portugal.

What happened during the Liberal Revolution?

On August 24, 1820, there was a military insurrection in Porto. Revolt then spread throughout the country with no significant resistance. Popular support for change had been growing, particularly since several prominent advocates for revolution were arrested and executed in October 1817.

From a pro-liberty perspective, the Portuguese Liberal Revolution of 1820 was a watershed moment in the country’s history. Indeed, it was successful in many of its goals.

The Liberal Revolution achieved the end of absolutism. In its aftermath, the revolutionaries organized elections and debated the nature of how Portugal should be governed in future. Subsequently, the first modern Portuguese parliament crafted the Portuguese Constitution of 1822, to which King João VI, one of Europe’s last absolute monarchs, swore allegiance after returning from Brazil.

Portugal’s 1822 Constitution recognized the principle of popular sovereignty, stating that all political power came from the people, and that they had the right to participate in government through their elected representatives.

The ensuing period of liberal rule in Portugal was short-lived, as Prince Miguel, nicknamed “the Absolutist” or “the Traditionalist,” launched a series of revolts against the constitutional order and liberal government. Miguel seized the throne in 1828 and thus sparked a prolonged period of civil conflict known as the Liberal Wars. 

Although the liberals prevailed and Miguel’s sister Maria became Queen of Portugal, the country would still be subject to significant periods under various forms of authoritarian rule during the 19th and 20th centuries.

A legacy of liberty

Ultimately, despite many years of turmoil and conflict between liberals and absolutists, absolute monarchy would never return. Crucially, the Liberal Revolution had a significant impact on Portugal’s social structure. It challenged the idea of divine right to rule, which eventually became obsolete, installed lasting ideas of meritocracy and individual rights, and laid the foundations for Portuguese democracy.

Overall, the Portuguese Liberal Revolution of 1820 was a groundbreaking event in the country’s history that had a profound impact on its politics, economy, and society. While there is always room for improvement, the revolution’s legacy serves as a reminder of the importance of individual rights and freedoms, limited government, and free markets.

If you are interested in the ideas and values of liberty, be sure to check out the upcoming LibertyCon Europe. This year’s edition will be held in Lisbon, Portugal, on April 22-23, 2023. This annual event brings together an impressive lineup of speakers who are subject matter experts in a wide variety of fields.

Tickets are selling fast and will be limited when the venue reaches capacity. If you’d like to attend LibertyCon Europe 2023, be sure to click on the button below to register, using the discount code: 50%DISCOUNT 

We hope to see you in Lisbon!

This article was originally published on the Learn Liberty blog.

This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.


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