José Joaquim da Silva Xavier was born in the small town of Pombal (today Tiradentes), Minas Gerais, on Nov. 12, 1748. His parents were moderately wealthy, but little evidence exists that he had much formal education. He worked as a merchant and dentist and served in the militia as a cavalry officer. Most often he is picturesquely known by his profession, Tiradentes, or the "toothpuller." He traveled in the captaincies of Minas Gerais, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro and was aware of and disturbed by the major problems in Brazil at the end of the 18th century.

An influx of enlightened ideas from Europe and a growing economic discontent prompted some intellectuals to conspire against Portuguese rule. The first such major conspiracy centered in Minas Gerais at the end of the 18th century. Tiradentes assumed a leading role in that conspiracy, known in Brazilian history as the Inconfidência Mineira. When people discovered that Portugal planned to collect back taxes, the plotters increased their activity in the early months of 1789.

Romantic and unrealistic, the plans never passed the hypothetical point. All agreed that Brazil should be independent. Beyond that, they did not agree. Some were republicans, others monarchists; some wanted the abolition of slavery, others not. Tiradentes, an admirer of the U.S. Constitution, wanted a republic. While they debated, informers reported their meetings and intentions to Portuguese authorities. The Crown ordered their arrest. Tiradentes was captured while on a mission to Rio de Janeiro.

The investigation and trial extended over a period of 3 years. Tiradentes maintained before the courts that he was the leader of the conspiracy and responsible for it. On April 18, 1892, the court gave the sentences. Only one of the death sentences was carried out, that of Tiradentes. Called "unworthy of royal mercy, " he was hanged and quartered in Rio de Janeiro on April 21, 1792.

The principal result of the brutal execution was the creation of a martyr to Brazilian independence. Afterwards, Tiradentes acquired a more significant place in history than his impractical plans merited. Today, Brazilians consider him as their national hero. The plot itself indicated the degree to which many ideas of the Enlightenment had penetrated the interior of Brazil to agitate the waters of economic and political discontent.