It was preceded by the Rio Branco Law of September 28, 1871 (a.k.a. "the Law of Free Birth"), which freed all children born to slave parents, and by Saraiva-Cotegipe Law (also known as "the Law of Sexagenarians"), of September 28, 1885, that freed slaves when they reached the age of 60.
The Lei Áurea had only two articles:
- Article 1: From this date, slavery is declared abolished in Brazil.
- Article 2: All dispositions to the contrary are revoked.
The succinctness of the Law aimed at making clear that there were no conditions of any kind to the freeing of all slaves. However, it had the side effect of not providing any support to either slaves or their owners to adjust their lives to their new status; for example, slave owners didn't get any State indemnification, as they claimed, and slaves didn't get any kind of compensation from owners or assistance from the State. Before the abolition of slavery, the slaves were prohibited from having assets or education; slaves were freed, but left alone with their own destinies. Without education or political representation, slaves faced many difficulties to gain economic and social status in Brazilian society; this explains many of the social inequalities observed in Brazil until today.
The Golden Law was authored by Senator Rodrigo A. da Silva and, after passing both houses of the National Assembly (Assembléia Geral) it was sanctioned by Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil (1846–1921), who was regent at the time, while her father, Emperor Dom Pedro II, was in Europe. The Golden Law was signed by the Princess Imperial and countersigned by Rodrigo A. da Silva, in his capacity as Minister of Agriculture. Isabel was awarded the "Golden Rose" by Pope Leo XIII and Senator Rodrigo A. da Silva received honors from the Vatican, France and Portugal.
There were a number of reasons for the signing of the law, aside from the activities of abolitionists. Slavery was no longer profitable, with the wages of European immigrants, whose work conditions were poor, costing less than the upkeep of slaves, and the slowing of the incoming of new slaves – Brazil was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery. The Brazilian government was also under pressure from Britain, that sought to put a stop to slave trade in order to expand production in its own colonies. For example sugar was produced both in Brazil and in the British colonies of the West Indies; the British strove to ensure that the Brazilians would get no advantage in the world markets by using slaves.
The Lei Áurea had additional effects besides the freeing of all slaves; bereft of slaves and lacking hands, the plantation owners (fazendeiros) had to recruit workers elsewhere and thus organized, in the 1890s, the Sociedade Promotora de Imigração ("Society for the Promotion of Immigration)". Another effect was an uproar among Brazilian slave owners and upper classes, resulting in the toppling of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic in 1889 – indeed, the Lei Áurea is often regarded as the most immediate (but not the only) cause for the fall of monarchy in Brazil.
- Schwartz, S. B. (1992). Slaves, peasants, and rebels: reconsidering Brazilian slavery. Blacks in the New World series. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0252065492