A former estancieiro (farmer with huge properties of land), Goulart (nicknamed "Jango") studied law in Porto Alegre. He was elected to the Rio Grande do Sul state legislature in 1946 with the Brazilian Labor Party (Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro, PTB). He later served as minister of justice and the interior. In 1953 he was appointed by President Getúlio Vargas as minister of labour, industry, and commerce. Despite being rich, Goulart was very popular among lower classes and made connections with labour unions. Vargas took advantage of that just when the left wing sectors were deviating from his government. As minister of labour, Goulart proposed an increase of 100% in minimum wages.
In 1956, Jango was elected Vice President, as the running mate of President Juscelino Kubitschek. Goulart was again elected Vice President in 1960. This time, however, the president was Jânio Quadros, a member of a different party. (At the time, Brazilians could vote for a ticket that had candidates for president and vice president from different parties.) Quadros resigned in 1961. According to some chroniclers, this was an attempt to promote a self-coup. After this alleged coup failed, Goulart assumed the presidency after a ten-day-long crisis.
The Goulart years were marked by national reforms, closer ties to left-of-center political groups, and conflict with more conservative sectors of society. He signed decrees expropriating oil refineries and uncultivated land owned by foreign companies. State-run workers programs, in an attempt to work this unused land, were considered too radical.
In the first of hours of March 31, 1964, General Olímpio Mourão Filho, in charge of the 4th Military Region, headquartered in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais, ordered his troops to start moving towards Rio de Janeiro, to depose Goulart.
When he reached Brasília, Goulart realized he lacked any political support. The Senate president, Auro Moura Andrade, was already articulating for congressional support of the coup. Goulart stayed for a short time in Brasília, gathering his wife and two children, and flying to Porto Alegre in an Air Force Avro 748 aircraft. Soon after Goulart's plane took off, Auro Moura Andrade declared the position of President of Brazil "vacant".
In the first hours of April 2, Auro Moura de Andrade, along with the president of the Supreme Federal Court swore in Pascoal Ranieri Mazzilli, the speaker of the house, as president. This move was arguably unconstitutional at the time, as João Goulart was still in the country.
At the same time, Goulart, now in the headquarters of the 3rd Army in Porto Alegre, (still loyal to him at the time) contemplated resistance and counter-moves with Leonel Brizola, who argued for armed resistance. In the morning, General Floriano Machado informed the president that troops loyal to the coup were moving from Curitiba to Porto Alegre, and that he had to leave the country, risking arrest otherwise. At 11:45AM, Jango boarded a Douglas C-47 transport for his farm bordering Uruguay. Goulart would stay in his farms lands, until April 4, when he finally boarded the plane for the last time, heading for Montevideo.