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date: 19 June 2018

The Reforma Period in Mexico

Summary and Keywords

By revealing the weaknesses of its political system and the fragmentation of its social fabric, Mexico’s devastating loss to the United States in 1848 forced a reexamination of the nation’s very foundation. It also emboldened leaders to redouble efforts to either refashion Mexico into a modern, democratic republic or strengthen colonial-era institutions that had ensured unity and stability despite cultural and regional heterogeneity.

Those who hoped to modernize Mexico were the liberals. Their ideas regarding the depth and pace of change varied considerably. But they coalesced around broad principles—democracy, secularism, and capitalism—that, they insisted, would help Mexico overcome the vestiges of colonialism. In pursuit of equality under the law, liberals proposed to dismantle legal privileges for nobles, ecclesiastics, and the military. In order to stimulate the economy, they wanted to force corporate entities, especially the church, to sell their lands to individual owners. Finally, liberals sought to establish the primacy of the state by granting civil leaders authority over the church.

Conservatives countered that the liberal program and its exotic ideas constituted an attack on Mexico’s Hispanic Catholic legacy and would only further weaken the nation. It was a chimera, if not demagoguery, to declare the equality of citizens in a society where the masses were illiterate, isolated hamlets who barely spoke Spanish, and residents in the far-flung regions regarded national rule with deep suspicion. Conservatives feared that the liberal program would foster more of the peasant revolts, threats of regional succession, and racial antagonism that had roiled the nation since independence. They wanted to conserve the pillars of order—the military and the Catholic Church—reinstate monarchism, and curtail political participation. Liberals and conservatives vociferously debated these divergent visions in the public forum. But ultimately their differences plunged the country into civil war.

Keywords: reforma, liberalism, conservatism, federalism, Juan Alvarez, Revolution of Ayutla, Constitution of 1857, anticlericalism, Benito Juárez, Maximilian von Habsburg

The Revolution of Ayutla

The catalyst for renewed strife was Antonio López de Santa Anna’s return to the presidency following a military coup in 1852. Now demanding that he be addressed as His Most Serene Highness, Santa Anna assumed imperial pretensions and demanded military recruits, additional taxes, and obedience from the provinces. He and his conservative supporters meant to create highly centralized order, devoid of the local elections and popular choice that had been at work for decades in the federalist system that granted extensive political autonomy to provinces. Many caudillos (regional strongmen) and common folk were not about to give up their freedoms.

Resistance to Santa Anna erupted most forcefully in southern Pacific region, where caudillo Juan Alvarez enjoyed widespread popular support. Peasants in what became the state of Guerrero rallied around Alvarez, who insisted on the political rights and commercial interests of the provinces. Santa Anna, seeking to impose the central government’s authority, sent troops to the region in 1854. Alvarez and other liberal leaders declared their opposition to the regime in the “Plan of Ayutla” and successfully built alliances around a shared popular political culture based on the defense of municipal authority against impositions from Mexico City.

Nineteen months of guerrilla warfare against Santa Anna’s government ensued. As the forces of Alvarez enjoyed success, Mexicans in the neighboring states of Michoacán, then Mexico, Morelos, and Oaxaca, joined the revolt. Many of the units entering the struggle had been organized in the waning months of the US–Mexican War, when the beleaguered Mexican government ordered the mobilization of a state militia. A few contingents fought heroically in Mexico City, but most saw little action against the invaders. Still, when peace came, the battalions remained intact. The mostly peasant volunteers elected their own officers and were imbued with an esprit de corps that made them fierce defenders of territory and their rights as citizens. Finally, the flames of revolt spread north to Nuevo León. Army garrisons in Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, and the nation’s capital then denounced Santa Anna, who fled into exile in August 1855.

Three months later, Alvarez led his largely mixed-race soldiers known as “Pintos” triumphantly into Mexico City. Almost as soon as it took power in the capital with Alvarez at the helm, the liberal coalition began to fall apart. Social liberals such as Ponciano Arriaga emphasized significant land reform, whereas others such as Benito Juárez aimed to reduce the power of the Catholic Church.

Alvarez tried to balance the various interests among the cabinet members he selected, but to no avail. He gave up and went home with his troops, naming as his successor Ignacio Comonfort, a through-and-through moderate. The reformers began to hammer against the old order. First, as minister of justice and ecclesiastical affairs, Benito Juárez issued a law stripping the army and the church of customary special privileges, called fueros, such as the right to maintain their own court systems. The ideal of equality under the law was to become a hallmark of the reform movement. Then the finance minister, Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, declared it law that corporate entities such as the church could no longer hold land. Church real estate would be parceled and sold to private individuals as part of the liberal attempt to diminish the power of the church, stimulate capitalist markets, and increase commercial agricultural production. In addition, the taxes on these forced sales would benefit the national treasury.

The communal holdings of indigenous communities were also declared corporate property. They were also to be divided up and sold to individuals. Liberals hoped to transform whom they viewed as backward subsistence peasants into independent farmers who were engaged with capitalist markets and were loyal to the central state.

Some 155 delegates to the 1856 constitutional convention, mostly professional-class men such as lawyers, doctors, engineers, and notaries, modeled their work after the liberal constitutions of Spain and the United States. These constitutions guaranteed basic human freedoms, protected private property, and preserved a largely federalist system with its power in a legislature. The Mexican version also incorporated the attacks against special privilege and corporate property that had been encompassed in the laws propagated by Juárez and Lerdo de Tejada, limited presidents to one four-year term, and guaranteed universal adult male suffrage.

The church, the army, and their conservative supporters ranted against the new constitution. For them, the liberals’ restrictions on the church threatened to weaken both Mexico’s link to God and a degree of unity throughout the country’s regional and cultural diversity. The archbishop in Mexico City pledged to excommunicate any public servant who swore to uphold it. The liberals themselves were split over its specific provisions, and some state governors suspected that it encroached on their powers. Radicals thought the document lacked immediate effectiveness. Centers of popular Catholicism in Jalisco and Michoacán rebelled against the perceived attack of religion.

Ignacio Comonfort, who had been elected president in the summer of 1857, could not hold the center together. In December of that year, he allied himself with a military coup headed by Félix María Zuloaga, the conservative general who had fought Apaches in Chihuahua as a teenager, defended Monterrey against US invaders, fought the Mayas in Yucatán, and supported Santa Anna’s imperial designs in the 1850s. Comonfort had his own cabinet members arrested, dismissed Congress, ruled by executive decree, and determined to cast the constitution into a more workable form. But within a month, he had had misgivings about his turnabout and became disenchanted with his conservative partners. General Zuloaga sent him into exile and assumed the presidency for himself. Yet liberals insisted that, according to the constitution, the office of the presidency fell to the president of the Supreme Court.

That post was held by Benito Juárez, a Zapotec born in 1806 in the state of Oaxaca. After a brief stint of seminary training, Juárez enrolled in Oaxaca’s Institute of Science and Arts, where he studied under a politically active, moderate liberal, Miguel Méndez, a professor of logic, mathematics, and ethics. Méndez set Juárez’s political sails, and advancement quickly followed: Oaxaca city council, state legislature. After receiving his law degree with distinction in 1834, he became a magistrate on the state court at a time when long-held prerogatives of the church were coming under scrutiny. Even when conservatives came to power during the next decade, Juárez served the state’s court system. During the US–Mexican War, he became a federal deputy from Oaxaca and then the state’s governor.

Reforma War

With two competing presidents, Zuloaga and Juárez, Mexico plunged into a civil war. With the support of some state governors, the church, and financiers, General Zuloaga defended the country against the anarchy that he believed liberalism provoked. Powerful state governors from Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacán, Veracruz, and other states ordered their militia units to go to the defense of the liberal cause. Then the potent, if avariciously opportunistic, governor of Coahuila-Nuevo León, Santiago Vidaurri, who controlled the northeast and its lucrative commerce with the United States, also cast his lot with the liberals and their ideal of free trade. He helped Juárez establish a power base at the vital port of Veracruz, from which an attack on the capital could be launched. But first the liberals sought to broaden their base of common support by strengthening their statement of purpose.

The more radical of Juárez’s supporters had pressed for stringent measures against the church since the outbreak of the latest phase of civil war. The church, they felt, should be punished for its support of the conservatives. Furthermore, confiscated church property, signaling a move toward purchasable real estate, might well secure loans from the United States government that were needed to replenish the depleted liberal war chest. The radicals also argued that the liberals should make clear their aim to separate church and state. The political blows began to strike on July 12, 1859, when all church property (except the church buildings themselves) was nationalized to be sold at auction, with the proceeds accruing to the national treasury. Naturally, the law could be implemented only in liberal-held territory, but denunciations of property in enemy domain were also encouraged, with the actual sales to follow the liberals’ victory.

The new law separating church and state also guaranteed religious freedom. Henceforth, the government would protect the public practice of all religions. In addition, monasteries would be closed. Nunneries were prohibited from recruiting novices, which would lead such institutions to die off. On July 28, a civil registry system was established, meaning that births, marriages, and deaths would hereafter be registered by the state.

Two weeks later, the Juárez group announced a calendar of official celebrations for the populace, mixing religious and civil observances. This law forbade civil officials’ attendance at religious functions: public servants could go to mass as individuals, but not as representatives of the state. Religious ceremonies such as processions were prohibited outside of church buildings. Clergymen could not appear in religious dress beyond their churches proper. Police regulations severely limited the time for church-bell ringing, and the clergy were to be taxed like all other individuals. Finally, the liberals guaranteed the liberty of religious belief for the first time in Mexico.

To proclaim such laws was one thing; to enforce them was another. These so-called Reforma laws were more the start of a process than an accomplished task. Their implementation remained spotty, incomplete, and resisted for a long time. How could the law now successfully proscribe religious processions at which drought-stricken peasants prayed for rain or, conversely, thanked the divinity for a good harvest? So compromise and accommodation occurred. Civic officials looked the other way when a religious procession came in their direction. Or they allowed the procession to take place and then fined the practitioners a nominal fee for breaking the law. However, representatives of government might balk at such challenges to their authority, and bloody confrontations could follow. Likewise, the new civil registry frequently became a source of contention. First, although people had often grumbled about paying fees for priestly services, they had still attached a spiritual significance to the act. If nothing else, the fees had kept a priest in town. Second, local power was at stake: to whom would people literally pay allegiance to, the church or the state?

Liberals in charge of the government had their ideals and goals, but people everywhere still made choices about how they intended to live. The new laws produced little income for the liberal cause. Loans backed by church property did not, after all, much interest lenders in the United States. They had their eyes on bigger stakes, such as the entire territory of Baja, California, or transit rights across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, connecting the Gulf of Mexico with the Pacific. In 1859, the financially desperate liberals considered making such formidable concessions, but the issue became moot as the United States increasingly focused on the uncertainties of its own civil war.

The conservatives were also in financial straits but had managed to secure usurious loans guaranteed by church property from the house of Rothschild, and later from Swiss and Spanish sources, that financed military offensives. The first push, in February–March 1859, had failed, but a year later the conservatives were again on the march, only to be turned back again by the liberals’ determination.

Conservative general Miguel Miramón now assumed the (conservative) presidency from Félix Zuloaga and beat a retreat for Mexico City, where with the archbishop’s consent, he ordered articles of silver to be taken from churches and melted down for coinage, also pawning off precious jewels and gold from the same source. Then, in desperation, he confiscated from the British legation certain interest payments that were owed to English lenders. But the conservatives’ fortunes were running as dry as their financial coffers, and the liberal armies tightened the noose around the capital.

The two military forces collided on the outskirts of the city on December 22, 1860. Three days later General Jesús González Ortega led the victorious liberals into Mexico City. Three weeks later, Benito Juárez was seated in the president’s chair, but his position was hardly secure. Conservative guerrillas remained in the field, whereas on the political front, Juárez had powerful challengers for the presidency with protracted, indirect elections set to begin in early 1861.

The rivals for the office of chief executive included General González Ortega, now a national hero, and Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, a brilliant radical liberal and author of the Ley Lerdo, the body of law that dissolved corporate property. He was an experienced finance minister at a time when Mexico’s money problems threatened to drive the country into bankruptcy and political ruin. And of course there was the moderate Juárez, with his proven leadership and political and diplomatic skills as well as a vulnerability to charges of illegal incumbency. The race for the single four-year term ran neck and neck in the spring, but when Lerdo died on March 22, his backers turned to Juárez, whom Congress declared president in June 1861.

The tasks facing Juárez were daunting. The most pressing at the moment was the question of foreign loans. French, British, and Spanish lenders backed by their respective governments agitated for repayment, and Mexico’s treasury was close to bone dry. Juárez and his government had few options. In different circumstances the United States probably would have given or loaned money—even manpower—to assist the republicans in their battles with the European monarchies, but on the eve of its own civil war, it could offer only sympathy and moral support to its neighbor. Up to this point, Mexico had done reasonably well in servicing its international debt obligations, most of them owed to Britain. In fact, the Juárez government, using customs revenue from the port of Veracruz, had just paid off some 24 million pesos (about the same in US dollars) of its indebtedness. Nonetheless, it still owed more than 80 million pesos, with 64 million of them to the British. Moreover, debts piled up by the conservatives worsened the crisis. President Miramón had borrowed heavily from the famous Jecker bank in Switzerland, which had as a heavy investor the Duc de Morny, the half brother of the French emperor. Juárez repudiated the conservatives’ indebtedness, but this hardly satisfied the powerful Duc, who agitated in high places for relief.

French Intervention

On July 17, 1861, the Juárez administration suspended payment on its foreign debt for two years. Three months later, Britain, France, and Spain made a pact to seize the port of Veracruz and enforce payment of the debt. But France’s impatient emperor, Napoleon III (Louis Napoleon Bonaparte), had more grandiose visions than debt collection. Urged on by the ambitions of his Spanish wife, Eugénie, he was determined to spread French influence in this age of empire. Specifically, he dreamed (as in fact others had before him) of building a canal and railway across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to complement the Suez Canal on routes to the East.

To promote his scheme, Napoleon III needed a figure to govern Mexico, to which end he convinced the Austrian archduke Maximilian von Habsburg that the people of Mexico would welcome him eagerly as their king. At another time, the United States would certainly have vigorously protested the establishment of a monarchy in the Western Hemisphere, but the Civil War was then consuming all of the nation’s energies. Napoleon III, understanding that his time to act was now, ordered a French expeditionary force of twenty-seven thousand troops drawn from what was said to be the best army in the world to set Maximilian on the throne of Mexico.

When they learned of Napoleon’s intentions, the British and Spanish withdrew from the venture, but the confident French marched on toward their goal of Mexico City. The French commander, Charles Ferdinand Latrille, a vain and pompous aristocrat, wrote to his minister of war on April 25: “We are so superior to the Mexicans in race, organization, morality, and devoted sentiments that I beg your excellency to inform the Emperor that as the head of 6,000 soldiers I am already master of Mexico.”

Mexicans did not intend to give up without a fight and had dug in under General Ignacio Zaragoza at the city of Puebla. When the smoke had cleared from the battlefield on May 5, 1862, the defenders had sent the French army scuttling back toward Veracruz in disarray. Winning the battle hardly ended the war, however. In just over a year, a reinforced French army captured the capital and sent the Juaristas fleeing north. The delay in taking Mexico City cost the interventionists dearly, though. It gave the Juaristas time to mobilize resistance in various parts of the country. It also meant that Maximilian did not ascend the throne until May 1864, almost one year after the end of the US Civil War. Napoleon knew that he had to have his foreign enterprise deeply rooted before that conflict ended, especially now that it looked like the North would prevail.

French soldiers under the marshal François Achille Bazaine steadily pushed Benito Juárez and his coterie of government officials toward the northern frontier. Reinforced with North African Zouaves (colorfully dressed Algerian infantrymen) and some Egyptians (supposedly more adaptable to Mexico’s hot regions), he headed nearly forty thousand troops, including legionnaires and Mexican conservatives, in his attempt to pacify the country and bring Maximilian to the throne.

The task was arduous. Mexican loyalists of various stamps—militiamen, bandits turned patriots, regular soldiers under determined generals such as Mariano Escobedo and Porfirio Díaz—contested every drive. Towns taken by the French had to be occupied and held. From the start of this tortuous struggle, it was a no-holds-barred contest. The Mexican combatants were considered bandits by the French and were court-martialed and shot. Those who gave aid to the Juaristas—money, matériel, lodging, and food—were harshly punished, along with anyone who spread stories of republican successes or failed to report their activities. Finally, towns and villages held by the imperialists were ordered to organize their own self-defense brigades, with a refusal to serve carrying stern penalties.

The republicans under Juárez were equally tough-minded. Decrees in January and October 1862 declared allies of the invaders to be outlaws and traitors. The penalty for collaboration was death. A good many Mexicans wavered between allegiance to the French and loyalty to the republic. Among the undecided were governors such as Luis Terrazas of Chihuahua and Santiago Vidaurri of Nuevo León, who wondered whether their futures might not lie with the monarchy.

In the spring of 1865 with the French closing in on the state capital at Chihuahua City, a call went out to citizens to defend the republic. Some responded, but others grumbled about forced loans and cited a need to retain one’s rifles to fend off bandits and Indian attacks. Drought had caused hardship everywhere. Then in August, towns along the Papigochic River dramatically declared for the imperialists. They had long craved autonomy from the politically domineering national capital and cities in the state. They called themselves the Coalition of Pueblos. The French forced the governor, Miguel Ojinaga, to flee the state capital, and the self-proclaimed imperialists defeated the military unit sent to suppress them. Now the pro-French rebels marched on Guerrero City itself. The harried governor retreated into the safety of the rugged Sierra, but French sympathizers caught him at the Tarahumara Indian village called Arisiachic and killed him in a brief firefight.

During these tumultuous times, Benito Juárez struggled to keep his regime viable. He confiscated the property of his opponents and deeded land to those who joined him, even if such grants overlapped the legal holdings of others. He declared territories that balked at his presidency to be under a state of siege, which called for federal government control and martial law.

Mexican Empire

Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph von Habsburg arrived in Veracruz with Princess Carlota to claim the throne of Mexico on June 10, 1864, the Order of the Golden Fleece pinned to his full-dress uniform of the Austrian navy. The populace hardly rendered the couple the promised royal welcome. In fact, people gave the interlopers the cold shoulder. Aides to the royal couple apologetically explained that disease had broken out in the port city, confining the residents to their homes. Napoleon III had agreed by treaty to secure Maximilian’s kingdom with French troops until 1873, when the army would be returned home. By then, Maximilian was expected to have anchored the monarchy.

From the start the emperor made it clear that his regime would be more liberal than the conservative Mexicans promoting the monarchy they had envisioned. Maximilian settled for a constitutional monarchy and at one point thought that Benito Juárez would make a fine prime minister. Maximilian incorporated moderate liberals into his cabinet. To calm the rancor unleashed by the civil war, he assigned his two most prominent conservative military commanders, former president Miguel Miramón and General Leonardo Márquez, to insignificant positions in Europe. He declined to return church property confiscated by the Reforma laws and indicated that such lands should be divided up and sold for modest amounts to the poor. The emperor decreed that Indian villages could own communal lands, and those that had none should receive property grants. The religious orders were not restored, and schools did not revert to their original ecclesiastical supervision. Maximilian hoped to enlist the clergy as servants of his government, paying them state salaries so as to obviate ecclesiastical tithing and fees.

The emperor also drafted a new constitution that approached many of the liberals’ ideals. It provided for both a moderate hereditary monarchy, headed by a Catholic prince, and religious toleration. The document guaranteed equality under the law to all Mexicans. Debt peonage and corporal punishment of workers were prohibited; child labor and working hours were restricted. Debts of more than ten pesos were canceled, and monopolistic company stores were opened to outside competition. Certainly, Maximilian was playing politics with these provisions, hoping to attract moderates of whatever political persuasion to his regime. He was searching for some sort of national consensus.

Meanwhile, the French Marshal Bazaine sought to pacify the country. In July 1864, he turned his army south to confront Porfirio Díaz in Oaxaca. It took a siege of more than six months to bring the city down, but when it fell, in February 1865, it left the republicans in control of only four states: Guerrero in the center and Chihuahua, Sonora, and Baja, California, in the north.

The infamous colonel Jean-Charles Dupin, recalled to France to account for his conduct of the war, insisted to Napoleon III that he had been merciful toward the Mexicans he had hanged by the neck until dead. His adversaries, he explained, typically strung up their captives by their feet, upside down and facing the sun, where they were left to die of thirst.

Both sides managed to appeal to ordinary Mexicans. On the one hand, liberal notions of equality among citizens had set roots in communities through participatory elections and local militias. On the other, many villagers hoped that conservatives and Maximilian would help them defend communal landholdings and defend the church. Villagers from San Miguel Tecpan in the state of Mexico, for instance, wrote to Maximilian noting that they had “sustained our constant and open adhesion to the Empire with our own arms and resources, always defending the security of our rural properties.”1 Otomí communities in the Sierra Gorda region of Querétaro followed the local caudillo general Tomás Mejía in the defense of land and religion. Still, many of the rural poor who fought for the conservatives had been conscripted. As French military commanders complained, even those who willingly became soldiers often deserted promptly. Thus failing to substitute Napoleon’s troops with local soldiers, Maximilian and the entire imperial venture were running out of time.

Two months after Díaz capitulated to Bazaine, the US Civil War was over. Soon afterward, the US military maneuvered so as to increase pressure on the French imperialists. On the pretext of having to mop up some stubborn Confederates, General Grant ordered Major General Philip H. Sheridan, a keen liberal like himself, to the border with forty-two thousand men. The majority of these troops camped at Brownsville, eyeball-to-eyeball with interventionists under Tomás Mejía dug in at Matamoros. A flurry of diplomatic exchanges followed in which the United States officially denied having any military invasion plans, but the threat remained.

Napoleon III, who for more than a year now had been expressing misgivings about his Mexican involvement, had made three miscalculations. First, he had not anticipated the tenaciousness of the Mexican guerrilla resistance. Second, he had not expected Maximilian’s failure to consolidate his regime and regulate its finances. Finally, he had thought the South would win the Civil War. Now the French emperor faced the increasing unpopularity of the Mexican war at home, the prospect of getting into a serious scrap with the United States, and sword-rattling echoing from Germany’s Otto von Bismarck to the east. This was no time to be mired down in a failed intervention.

Maximilian issued his notorious Black Decree on October 3, 1865: anyone captured with arms or associated with an armed band would be summarily put to death. Normally such punishment was reserved for brigands rather than political adversaries. Furthermore, the French commander-in-charge would execute prisoners taken in military engagements. There would be no court-martials, no pleas for clemency, and no pardons. A week later, Bazaine, reacting to guerrilla atrocities in which the irregulars had mutilated the bodies of French soldiers they had killed, extended the meaning of the Black Decree. He directed his field commanders to “inform the troops under your command that I will not permit them to take prisoners. There will be no exchange of prisoners. Our soldiers must realize that they must not lay down their arms to adversaries. What is now taking place is a war to the death, a struggle to the finish between barbarism and civilization. It is necessary to kill and be killed.” The bloodbath deepened.

Amid this savage ferocity, on January 15, 1866, Napoleon III informed Maximilian that he intended to withdraw French troops from Mexico. Nine thousand were to be brought home that October, another 9,000 the following March, and the remaining 11,300 in October 1867. Marshal Bazaine began to pull back his forces from outlying districts toward Mexico City. Liberal forces quickly filled the gaps and kept the pressure on the retreating French. After the marshal evacuated Chihuahua City in the summer of 1866, Juárez, long pinned against the border to the north, expeditiously moved his government to that state’s capital. As more republicans (and unabashed opportunists) caught the scent of victory, the Juarista armies grew.

July 1866 found Carlota at the court of Napoleon in Paris, where she demanded that the emperor fulfill his promise, confirmed by the Treaty of Miramar, to leave French troops in Mexico until Maximilian’s regime was secured. But Napoleon refused to budge. Carlota traveled to Rome to seek the pope’s intercession. Nothing is known of his response, if there was one, but the news from Rome was that Carlota was slipping into insanity. Her brother, now Belgium’s King Leopold II, insisted that Carlota be brought for care to the castle of Tervuren near Brussels. From there her doctors wrote to Maximilian only that his wife was ill, but he soon learned the truth.

Napoleon accelerated the withdrawing of his troops: now all would be home by March 1867. This date meant that the departure of the first contingent would be delayed by five months, but all the troops would be returned to France seven months earlier than anticipated. Rumors that Maximilian intended to abdicate circulated in Europe and the United States, but he could not make up his mind. In late November 1866, he summoned his council of ministers to seek their recommendation. By a close vote, his councilors urged him to stand firm and not abdicate. Maximilian prepared to fight the republicans with the assistance of the Mexicans still loyal to the monarchy.

The French departed on February 5, 1867. Bazaine urged Maximilian to join them, but to no avail. A week later, the emperor left for Querétaro to establish headquarters for a showdown with the Juaristas. He knew he could rely on the support of steadfast conservative generals such as Mejía and Miramón, returned from his overseas assignment, but their armies were far outnumbered by those of the enemy—some 21,700 royalists against 69,700 republicans—and munitions and money were running short. A month later, 35,000 Juaristas held Querétaro and its 7,000 defenders under siege. The Mexican empire was suffering its final agony. At Querétaro, the beleaguered defenders planned to surge out of their fortifications and cut through the siege, but a commander of the emperor’s household cavalry betrayed his ruler’s trust and opened a gate to the besiegers, who promptly imprisoned Maximilian in a local convent.

At the end of May 1867, Maximilian learned that he, as well as Miramón and Mejía, was to be tried for treason. The court-martial of the three defendants began on June 13 before seven officers. It lasted two days, after which the verdict came quickly: guilty. The sentence was execution by firing squad on Sunday, June 16, at 3:00 p.m. Foreign governments and dignitaries urged Juárez to reconsider. Two of the president’s greatest international admirers, Victor Hugo and Giuseppe Garibaldi, pleaded for clemency. Juárez responded, “The law and the sentence are inexorable now because public safety requires it, and this will enable us later on to be sparing of the blood of those who have been led astray, which will be for me the greatest happiness of my life.” The executions took place early on the morning of June 19, 1867, on the Cerro de las Campanas (the Hill of the Bells) outside Querétaro.

The Liberal Restoration

Two days after the executions, Díaz captured Mexico City. Juárez returned on July 15 to the jubilation of the people. Nonetheless, the liberals remained splintered about their goals and the timetable for fulfilling them. After more than a decade of civil war and foreign invasion, local strife churned throughout much of the country: peasants wanted land, pueblos wanted autonomy, and thousands of soldiers agitated for rewards for their military service. Banditry was rife, and the national treasury, supported by a rickety tax system, lay stricken.

Moreover, Juárez’s right to the presidency was under challenge. The 1857 constitution limited presidential terms to four years and did not permit reelection. By then, Juárez had been president for almost a decade, albeit in an emergency situation recognized by the Congress. Juárez now proposed constitutional amendments to strengthen the office of the presidency. This was a dangerous political position to take when confronted by a unicameral national legislature that by and large defended states’ rights and a populace that had fought for the democratic notion of citizens.

Recognizing that he could never push such changes through Congress, Juárez went straight to the people with a plebiscite that would have created a second legislative body to balance the first, and increased presidential veto powers. Then, in a blatant attempt to broaden his constituency, he decreed that the clergy held the right to vote, gave federal employees the right to sit in Congress, and eliminated the requirement for congressional deputies to reside in their home districts.

Juárez’s controversial constitutional changes were linked to the national elections of August 1867, in which he handily defeated his longtime political adversary General Jesús González Ortega and General Porfirio Díaz, now a war hero popular with the military rank and file. As for the constitutional amendments, the administration saw them headed for an embarrassing defeat at the polls and decided to withdraw them from the balloting. But all this political maneuvering for the most part occupied only partisans in Mexico City.

Beyond the capital, local caudillos struggled to retain or gain supremacy. In Puebla, successive governors could not rein in the power of liberal chieftains in the Sierra. The imposition of a governor in Guerrero similarly failed to quiet the state’s feuding factions. Juárez lost political control of his own state, Oaxaca, to the brother of Porfirio Díaz. And in central Mexico, agrarian unrest frustrated the government’s land measures.

The precise nature of the reform promises, of course, rested in the eyes of the beholder. The liberals had long draped their banner loosely so that its position could be adjusted to their myriad ends, despite differences and contradictions. Although any number of factions, pueblos, and even entire states and larger regions agitated for autonomy from the federal government, Juárez and his supporters aspired to increase central control. They did not seek to establish a dictatorship, but they believed that if Mexico was to modernize, it needed order and strong leadership from the capital.

The government also took tentative measures toward building the infrastructure necessary to attract foreign capital investment. Roads were improved, telegraph lines went up, and railroad building moved from the drawing board to the craggy terrain. Reformers also addressed the cultural side of their program. They established primary schools and developed a secular curriculum. Mexicans must learn discipline, work hard, be responsible, control bad habits such as drunkenness, and even save for a rainy day. They must devote their allegiance to the nation as a whole rather than to just their communities and the church. Old superstitions must be discarded. Women should be moral, dedicated domestics, the guardians of family life, and patient sufferers. Even the duties of children to family, community, and country were carefully spelled out as the socialization process fell into place.

Much of the discussion about the future of Mexico was reflected in the then-fashionable theory that societies passed through stages of evolution, from the primitive through the metaphysical and on to the scientific and rationalist level of development. Such doctrines borrowed from Auguste Comte, the father of sociology; Charles Darwin, the patriarch of natural selection; and Herbert Spencer, an evolutionist influenced by earlier strains of pragmatism and utilitarianism.

The reform movement reaffirmed the liberals’ ideas of representative government, even as a stronger state emerged. It endorsed equality under the law and a country of citizens making their own decisions on how to live their lives, albeit with the guidance of an educational curriculum. It questioned the place of the church, and in its whirl of innovations, ideals, and programs, it awakened ambitions and expanded the outlook of many Mexicans. Some latter-day observers suspect that La Reforma and the fight against the French led people to identify with the Mexican nation.

Whatever alterations developed during this period, they did not patch over ethnic conflict, nor did they lessen differences of class. La Reforma vigorously stirred up the society in profound ways, but regardless of the intentions of its notably divided leadership, it did not revolutionize it. The Mexico that emerged from reform was different, yet the same. The sorting out continued, as it does today. For his role in so steadfastly defending the fatherland against foreign intervention (but less so for his Indianness and stand against the conservatives), Benito Juárez now stands as a magnificent amalgam of myth, actuality, and wishful thinking in the rotunda of Mexican heroes. Elected president for yet another term in 1871, he died of a heart attack the following year. In the ensuing melee for succession, Porfirio Díaz emerged the victor who set his way toward advancing (yet also undermining) the programs proffered to Mexicans by La Reforma.

Discussion of the Literature

A central question in the historiography of the Reforma period regards how (or even whether) the disputes between liberals and conservatives involved the masses of ordinary Mexicans. Early scholarship in this vein tended to see a vast gap between elite visions of the nation, on the one hand, and the realities of the impoverished majorities, on the other. As Luis González wrote in the widely read Historia General de México, “Ordinary people could give a damn about democracy.”2 Historians such as T. G. Powell, Jan Bazant, and François-Xavier Guerra set out to explain the disconnect and study its implications for Mexico’s difficult transition to nationhood. Powell argued that indigenous communities were pre-political, isolated, and even hostile to national events. “The important political actions that took place during the civil war . . . had little relevance to the problems most Mexicans faced.”3 Consequently, “Indians took virtually no part in politics and showed scant enthusiasm for either side in the liberal-Church controversy.”4

While deploying a sophisticated, multilevel theoretical approach, François-Xavier Guerra similarly placed the elite–masses divide at the century of his influential work.5 For Guerra, the liberal ideal of a modern nation-state was constrained to a tiny minority of cosmopolitan intellectuals who clashed with the actual structures (or “linkages”) of power that organized the bulk of Mexicans. If the liberals emerged victorious, it was not because the masses had rallied behind their ideals. Rather, the defeat of monarchism had weakened conservatism by eliminating the centerpiece of its political model. Maximilian’s imperial interlude notwithstanding, conservatives emphasized the defense the military and the church, hierarchical institutions that could scarcely attract mass popular support. Nonetheless, the weight of traditional linkages—families, patronage, ethnic collectivities, and social hierarchies that emanated from the nobility and the Catholic Church—continued to undermine the liberals’ designs. The republic, with its purported equality under the law, was a legal fiction divorced from the real networks of power that ended up perverting even the liberal project.

This portrait of a yawning separation between elites and the majority of Mexicans relied on a source base that privileged elite voices and conceived of lower classes schematically, as statistical tabulations, or obliquely, as theoretical formulations. When a subsequent generation of historians began to dig into local legal cases, agrarian disputes, and electoral contentions, they produced fine-grained analyses of how actual peasants, indigenous communities, workers, and provincial political operatives engaged with the broad visions of the nation and with the particular mechanisms of the state. Indeed, Guy P. C. Thomson, Brian Hamnett, Florencia Mallon, Peter Guardino, Mike Ducey, and others argue that these groups were not indifferent or hostile to Mexico’s national political system; rather, their engagement helped constitute it. Peasant communities selectively embraced liberal ideals and policies that granted greater local autonomy, legal equality, and freedom from personal service and tribute to the church. They forged alliances with other communities and with elites actors, and they formed public institutions such as musical bands, the National Guard, and local governance councils. Certainly, their interests, objectives, and cultural practices did not coincide seamlessly with those of urban political leaders. Indeed, while peasant communities embraced liberal concepts such as federalism in order to defend their autonomy, the liberal state strove to extend its centralizing authority and therefore often encroached on local rights, customs, and resources. Mallon posits that liberalism provided an open-ended “sociopolitical space” in which peasants (and, one could add, workers) articulated “alternative nationalisms” that could either support or contest the liberal state. Far from occupying distinct spheres, the local and the national, the elites and the “pueblo,” interacted deeply to form the foundation of politics during this period and beyond.

Historians have also chipped away at the common view that liberals and conservatives ascribed to immovable, irreconcilable positions. Erika Pani shows that Mexicans, many of them confirmed liberals, formed the bulk of Maximilian’s imperial government. Pani’s efforts to take seriously their “experiences and dilemmas” in order to discover “how they imagined that they could construct a possible government” exemplifies recent scholarship’s methodological attention to the subtleties of ideological formations and practical negotiations.6 Other scholarship notes how liberal authorities, far from trying to eliminate religious influence, benefitted from the church’s moralizing restraint on ambition, materialism, and class conflict. Silvia Arrom describes how civil leaders encouraged church-associated charities to provide services for the needy, in part to compensate for the government’s inability to address the moral and material needs of orphans, the poor, the sick, and the elderly. The separation of church and state and republicanism’s emphasis on individual guarantees gave parishioners new autonomy with which to exercise religious activism, publish newspapers, minister to the poor, teach catechism, and run charity organizations. By diminishing the church’s earthly wealth and political power, the Reforma required the clergy to “harness the energy of the laity” in order to “recuperate” its influence.7 Paradoxically, historian Cecilia Bautista argues, “The liberal regime became the best option to guarantee the expansion of Catholic principles.”8 By questioning and problematizing conventional dichotomies such as modern versus traditional, elite versus masses, and liberals versus conservatives, scholars have approached the complex ways in which different groups endeavored to navigate the upheavals in Mexico during the Reforma years.

Primary Sources

Much of the documentation of the Reforma war is found in the Archivo Histórico de la Secretaría de Defensa Nacional, in Mexico City. Files related to Maximilian’s Junta Protectora de las Clases Menesterosas as well as Marshal Bazaine’s field diaries, both in the Archivo General de la Nación are rarely explored gems. The abundant periodical publications are housed in the Hemeroteca Nacional in the Biblioteca Nacional on the campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The Colección Lafragua, also in the Biblioteca Nacional, is a virtually inexhaustible source for newspapers and pamphlets.

For printed collections of key political documents, see Matute, Alvaro, México en el siglo XIX: Fuentes e interpretaciones históricas; Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. Colección de documentos inéditos o muy raros relativos a la Reforma en México obtenidos en su mayor parte de los archivos de las Secretarías de Relaciones Exteriores y Defensa Nacional y otros depósitos documentales de la ciudad de México y de fuera de ella: Edición conmemorativa de la Constitución de 1857.9

The Hemeroteca Nacional Digital de México offers excellent collection of periodical publications from the 19th century.

The Archivo General de la Nación offers digital consultation of many of its documents.

Archivo Histórico de la Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, Mexico.

“The Pronunciamiento in Independent Mexico, 1821–1876,” University of St Andrews, sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).Find this resource:

Further Reading

Bazant, Jan. “La desamortización de los bienes corporativos en 1856.” Historia Mexicana 14, no. 2 (1966): 193–212.Find this resource:

Bazant, Jan. “La iglesia, el estado y la sublevación conservadora de Puebla en 1856.” Historia Mexicana 35, no. 1 (1985): 93–109.Find this resource:

Bautista García, Cecilia Adriana. Las disyuntivas del Estado y de la iglesia en la consolidación del orden liberal: México, 1856–1910. Mexico City: Colegio de México, Fideicomiso Historia de las Américas, Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo, 2012.Find this resource:

Ducey, Michael T. A Nation of Villages: Riot and Rebellion in the Mexican Huasteca, 1750–1850. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Guardino, Peter. Peasants, Politics, and the Formation of Mexico's National State: Guerrero, 1800–1857. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Guerra, François-Xavier. México: Del Antiguo Régimen a La Revolución. 2 vols. México, D.F.: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1988.Find this resource:

Hale, Charles A. Mexican Liberalism in the Age of Mora, 1821–1853. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968.Find this resource:

Hamnett, Brian. Juárez. New York: Longman Publishing, 1994.Find this resource:

Hamnett, Brian. “Liberalism Divided: Regional Politics and the National Project During the Mexican Restored Republic, 1867–1876.” The Hispanic American Historical Review 76, no. 4 (1996): 659–689.Find this resource:

Hamnett, Brian. “Mexican Conservatives, Clericals, and Soldiers: the ‘Traitor’ Tomás Mejía through Reform and Empire, 1855–1867.” Bulletin of Latin American Research 20, no. 2 (2001): 187–209.Find this resource:

Jackson, Robert H., ed. Liberals, the Church, and Indian Peasants: Corporate Lands and the Challenge of Reform in Nineteenth-Century Spanish America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Mallon, Florencia. Peasant and Nation: The Making of Postcolonial Mexico and Peru. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Mijangos y González, Pablo. The Lawyer of the Church: Bishop Clement de Jesús Munguía and the Clerical Response to the Mexican Liberal Reforma. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Pani, Erika. Para mexicanizar el segundo imperio: el imaginario político de los imperialistas. México, D.F.: Colegio de México Centro de Estudios Históricos; Instituto de Investigaciones Dr. José María Luis Mora, 2001.Find this resource:

Powell, Thomas G. El liberalismo y el campesinado en el centro de méxico (1850 a 1876). México, D.F.: Secretaría de Educación Pública, 1974.Find this resource:

Powell, Thomas G. “Priests and Peasants in Central Mexico: Social Conflict During ‘La Reforma’.” The Hispanic American Historical Review 57, no. 2 (1977): 296–313.Find this resource:

Thomson, Guy P. C. “Bulwarks of Patriotic Liberalism: The National Guard, Philharmonic Corps and Patriotic Juntas in Mexico, 1847–88.” Journal of Latin American Studies 22, no. 1 (1990): 31–68.Find this resource:

Thomson, Guy P. C. “Agrarian Conflict in the Municipality of Cuetzalan (Sierra De Puebla): The Rise and Fall of ‘Pala’ Agustín Dieguillo, 1861–1894.” The Hispanic American Historical Review 71, no. 2 (1991): 205–258.Find this resource:

Thomson, Guy P. C. “Popular Aspects of Liberalism in Mexico, 1848–1888.” Bulletin of Latin American Research 10, no. 3 (1991): 265–292.Find this resource:

Thomson, Guy P. C., and David G. LaFrance. Patriotism, Politics, and Popular Liberalism in Nineteenth-Century Mexico: Juan Francisco Lucas and the Puebla Sierra. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1999.Find this resource:

Wasserman, Mark. Everyday Life and Politics in Nineteenth Century Mexico: Men, Women, and War. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.Find this resource:


(1.) Aimer Granados García, “Comunidad indígena, imaginario monárquico, agravio y economía moral durante el segundo imperio mexicano,” Secuencia, Nueva Epoca 41 (1998): 66.

(2.) Luis González, “El liberalism triunfante,” in Historia general de México (Mexico City: Colegio de México, 1988), 914.

(3.) Thomas G. Powell, El liberalismo y el campesinado en el centro de México (1850 a 1876) (Mexico, D.F.: Secretaría de Educación Pública, 1974), 95.

(4.) Thomas G. Powell, “Priests and Peasants in Central Mexico: Social Conflict During ‘La Reforma’,” Hispanic American Historical Review 57, no. 2 (1977): 297.

(5.) Francois-Xavier Guerra, México: del antiguo Régimen a la Revolución, 2 vols., trans. Sergio Fernández Bravo (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1988); and “The Spanish-American Tradition of Representation and Its European Roots,” Journal of Latin American Studies 26, no. 1 (1994): 1–35.

(6.) Pani, Erika, Para mexicanizar el segundo imperio: El imaginario político de los imperialistas (Mexico City: Colegio de México Centro de Estudios Históricos; Instituto de Investigaciones Dr. José María Luis Mora, 2001), 190–191.

(7.) Arrom, Volunteering, 5.

(8.) Cecilia Adriana Bautista García, Las disyuntivas del Estado y de la Iglesia en la consolidación del orden liberal: México, 1856–1910 (Mexico City: Colegio de México, Fideicomiso Historia de las Américas, Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo, 2012), 397.

(9.) Matute, Alvaro, México en el siglo XIX: Fuentes e interpretaciones históricas (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1993), and Colección de documentos inéditos o muy raros relativos a la Reforma en México obtenidos en su mayor parte de los archivos de las Secretarías de Relaciones Exteriores y Defensa Nacional y otros depósitos documentales de la ciudad de México y de fuera de ella: Edición conmemorativa de la Constitución de 1857 (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 1957).