Providing a legal education

Created 190 years ago, the São Paulo and Recife law schools contributed to the development of a post-independence national identity

JEAN GEORGES RENOULEAU/WIKICOMMONS Facade of the seventeenth-century Franciscan monastery where the São Paulo Law School was established in 1827JEAN GEORGES RENOULEAU/WIKICOMMONS

The years following the proclamation of Brazilian independence on September 7, 1822, were marked by political upheaval and intense negotiations on the creation of the Brazilian nation and the definition of a national profile. The new country needed to invest in the formation of an intellectual elite, capable of managing their newly emancipated homeland and instituting a national identity in opposition to the Portuguese. More than new laws, the country needed a legal conscience emanating from its own established courses. It was these arguments, and others, that set the tone for the political discussions that culminated in the creation of Brazil’s first law schools, in São Paulo and Recife, in August 1827.

The political discourse that contributed to the creation of these institutions began during the debates held in the country’s first National Constituent Assembly. Convened in May 1823, the Assembly represented a fundamental step in the process of consolidating Brazil’s political and economic independence. Representatives were tasked with structuring the country’s political and institutional foundations, and thus legally inaugurating the constitution.

The proposal for a law course was presented at the session of June 14, 1823, by lawyer José Feliciano Fernandes Pinheiro, the Viscount of São Leopoldo (1774–1847). It was a request from Brazilians enrolled at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, where most people who intended to work in legal professions studied at the time, including the politicians themselves. The bill presented by Fernandes Pinheiro was submitted for debate at the Assembly, and discussions on the potential locations for Brazilian law schools began soon after. The debates were heated. “Politicians argued in favor of the places they were from, since these courses were going to cultivate the future political elite of the country,” says lawyer and historian Bistra Stefanova Apostolova, from the University of Brasília (UnB) Law School.

WIKICOMMONS Olinda Law School building before it transferred to Recife in 1854WIKICOMMONS

Apostolova studied the creation of the first Brazilian law schools as part of her doctorate, analyzing the speeches recorded in the annals of the 1823 Constituent Assembly and the General Assembly, instituted in 1826. She asserts that during the discussions, many politicians argued in favor of Rio de Janeiro—the capital at the time—including Pedro I, the first emperor of Brazil (1822–1931). Others maintained that the course should be based in São Paulo. “The area around the port of Santos has a low cost of living, a healthy and moderate climate, it offers all the basic necessities, and is at a comfortable distance for families from the South of the country and the state of Minas Gerais,” said representative Luis José de Carvalho e Melo (1764–1826) in the session of August 19, 1823.

The bill was passed by the Constituent Assembly on November 4, 1823. It settled on the creation of two law schools, one in São Paulo and the other in Olinda, Pernambuco. The text, however, was not converted into law, as was the case with many other bills debated and approved by the constituent representatives. As their work progressed, the representatives had been gaining political strength in relation to the executive power. Feeling threatened, Pedro I took steps to swing the balance of power back into his favor in the early hours of November 12, 1823, in an episode that became known as the “Night of Agony,” momentarily resolving the disputes between the various branches. He ordered the army to surround the Assembly Chambers and instructed Brigadier José Manuel de Morais to dissolve the Constituent Assembly.


Talks about the law schools were only resumed in May 1826, at the Legislative General Assembly. “The memory of the law school bill was still alive among the political elite,” says Apostolova. It was Lúcio Soares Teixeira de Gouveia (1792–1838), the representative for Minas Gerais, who proposed readdressing the issue based on the bill already approved by the first Constituent Assembly.

The text was discussed and received several amendments. In 1827, São Paulo and Olinda were once again chosen as the locations for the law schools. “Establishing law schools in the North and South was intended to integrate the different regions of the country, strengthening national unity,” explains Ana Paula Araújo de Holanda, a lawyer and historian from the University of Fortaleza (UNIFOR) who studied the political processes that contributed to the creation of the first law courses in Brazil. The bill approved by the General Assembly, however, did not break completely from Portuguese legal tradition. There were some discrepancies between the intentions of the politicians and what actually occurred, says Apostolova. The Statutes of the University of Coimbra were provisionally adopted.

The São Paulo Law School was created in a seventeenth-century Franciscan monastery, in the region of the city today known as Largo São Francisco—it was only in 1936 that the school transferred to the current neocolonial-style building next to the monastery, designed by Portuguese architect Ricardo Severo da Fonseca e Costa (1869–1940). Two years earlier, the school had been one of the founding colleges of the University of São Paulo (USP). Pedro I appointed its first dean: lieutenant-general José Arouche de Toledo Rendon (1827–1833), a doctor of law. The first class was enrolled in March 1828, with 33 students in total, including the Marquis of São Vicente, José Antonio Pimenta Bueno (1803–1878), one of the leaders of the abolitionist movement that led to the end of slavery in 1888.


The Olinda law school was created in part of the São Bento monastery, under the leadership of politician and legal expert Pedro de Araújo Lima (1793–1870), before moving to Recife in 1854. It was incorporated into the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE) in 1946. In his inaugural speech, Judge Lourenço José Ribeiro, the interim dean, highlighted the social importance of the legal course—and the facilities it would offer to those who wished to pursue legal professions without having to move to Europe—to the progress of the country and the region. Classes began in June 1828, with 41 students in the first class.

As well as being the only law education institutions in Brazil at the time, both schools became important hubs of inspiration for the literary arts and poetry, contributing to the development of the Brazilian national identity. They were also important to many of the major civic, literary, and political events of the following decades, such as those that led to the abolition of slavery in 1888, the proclamation of the Republic a year later, and the Diretas Já movement in 1983, which demanded direct presidential elections in Brazil.