In the wake of Mexico's defeat and dismemberment at the hands of the United States, the war-ravaged nation determinedly set out in a new direction, led by a handful of liberals who for the first time dared to promote the cause of social justice. Foremost among this new breed of leaders was a full-blooded Zapotec Indian by the name of Benito Juárez, subsequently to become the country's first indigenous ruler since Cuauhtémoc and, without a doubt, the noblest and most revered national figure the Mexican nation has since produced.
Orphaned as a mere boy, he was taken under the wing of a caring mestizo family who saw to his early education in a seminary. He then went on to study law and to enter politics, serving first in the legislature of his home state of Oaxaca and then going on to the national assembly in Mexico City. Elected in 1848 as the governor of his state, he was exiled by Santa Anna and spent several years in New Orleans working there with other exiled Mexican liberals. Returning to Mexico following the successful revolution of Ayutla, he became secretary to President Alvarez, and soon was appointed by him as Minister of Justice. In 1857 he was elected chief justice of the Mexican Supreme Court, and the next year, President of the Republic.
During Juárez' term as Minister of Justice, he was instrumental in enacting the first major reform law in Mexican history, an act since labeled the Ley Juárez in his honor. This law abolished the religious and military fueros, which permitted clerics and soldiers to be tried in their own courts for alleged violations of the country's civil or criminal laws. Although ecclesiastic and military courts were not themselves abolished, their jurisdictions were henceforth restricted to cases of specific religious or military concern. Enacted in November 1855, the Ley Juárez immediately provoked violent reaction from conservatives and even sorely divided the liberal camp as well. When President Alvarez and most of his cabinet resigned over the issue, the presidency was passed to a moderate general by the name of Ignacio Comonfort.
"I would like to see the Indians converted to Protestantism; they need a religion that will teach them to read and not waste their pennies on candles for the saints." Benito Juárez
In June 1856, Comonfort's government enacted a second reform law that had been drafted by the minister of treasury, Miguel Lerdo de Tejada. Subsequently known as the Ley Lerdo, it deprived all institutions from owning real estate in excess of that required for the specific operation of their affairs. It was specifically aimed at the church, which by this time was estimated to be in possession of about half of the country's landed properties. The surplus real estate was to be sold at auction and the money, apart from a tax earmarked for the government, would go to the institution owning the land. The liberals saw the Ley Lerdo not only as a means of curtailing the overwhelming power of the church but also as a way of building up the national treasury while at the same time creating a new class of rural landowners who would be indebted to the liberal cause. As it worked out in practice, however, very few mestizos or Indians could afford to buy land at any price, and most of it passed into the hands of speculators and wealthy hacendados who were even less kindly disposed toward the welfare of their landless tenants than the church had been. As a result, the actual revenues generated for the government turned out to be disappointing as well.
Another liberal cabinet member, José Maria Iglesias, authored a reform law targeted at the clergy by limiting the fees it could charge for such services as baptisms, marriages, and burials. The poor were to receive the sacraments free and those of modest means would pay substantially lower fees than those who could afford more. Although hardly to be considered an anti-religious move, the Ley Iglesias was also coupled with additional legislation that transferred the keeping of demographic records from the church to the state.
The reform movement that these three pieces of legislation set in motion culminated in the drafting of a new, liberal Constitution in 1857. A major change from the earlier constitution was the deletion of the office of the vice-president, which, as we have seen, almost invariably had led to a division of powers between the two antagonist camps of conservatives and liberals, and usually ended in violence. The new constitution stipulated instead that the chief justice of the Supreme Court would assume the powers of the president in the event of the latter's death or incapacity. The legislative body was to be unicameral (although a Senate was added some twenty years later), and all males aged twenty-one and older were entitled to vote. All titles of nobility were abolished as was slavery and compulsory service, i.e., debt peonage. In addition, a bill of rights guaranteed freedom of speech, press, assembly, and education, but freedom of worship was not specifically mentioned. Neither was there any provision for Roman Catholicism being made the state church.
Naturally the church and its officials were especially irate over what they saw as a concerted attempt to reduce ecclesiastical power and authority, and the Pope himself came out solidly against Mexico's new constitution. The issue really came to a head when Mexican bishops threatened to excommunicate anyone who supported the new document, for all military personnel and civil servants found themselves in the untenable position of either being cast out of their faith or removed from their jobs. Once again, Mexico was brought to the point of all-out confrontation between liberal idealism and conservative reaction; by the end of the year the battle lines were being drawn for another bloody conflict pitting the church, the army, and the large landowners against the disadvantaged masses.
Proclaiming a new "plan" of their own -- the Plan of Tacubaya -- the conservatives marched on the capital in December 1857 under the leadership of General Félix Zuloaga, dissolved the Congress, arrested Juárez, and attempted to gain the support of President Comonfort. Rather than join with them, the latter resigned and left the country, and a conservative junta immediately named Zuloaga as his successor. Juárez, who as chief justice of the Supreme Court was legally the next in line for the presidency, escaped to Guanajuato where he proclaimed himself the chief executive and set up a constitutional government in exile. Very quickly the liberal governors of eleven states declared their support for Juárez, who likewise realized that a far more strategic base for his counter-offensive would be the city of Veracruz. Not only could arms be secured from abroad more easily there but the receipts from the local customs house could also be used to pay for them. As a result, the country now had a conservative general acting as President in the capital, espousing the cause of "Religion and Special Rights" (Fueros), and a constitutionally empowered liberal appointed as President on the Gulf coast whose rallying cry was "Constitution and Legality".
The ensuing War of the Reform, as it has come to be called, was a bitter continuation of the conservative-liberal split that had been Mexico's legacy from colonial times. Race, class, religion, and economics were all involved in the power struggle that went on for the next three years. Once again, no quarter was given; conservatives shot prisoners without trial, and liberals killed priests who refused to administer the last rights to their men. Because the Church was funneling its funds into the conservative cause, Juárez enacted ever more radical laws to curb its misuse of power. All remaining Church property was to be nationalized without compensation. All male religious orders were to be abolished. Female religious orders were placed under the control of the bishops but were not allowed to admit new sisters. Marriage was made a civil rather than a religious contract. Many religious holidays were abandoned, the complete freedom of worship was permitted, and, as of July 1859, Juárez made the separation of church and state official.
The following year the war reached a turning point as a Liberal army failed to take Mexico City and a Conservative army failed to conquer Veracruz. In Guadalajara and Oaxaca, however, the Liberals were successful, and they also triumphed in a battle at Capulálpan, opening the way to the capital for Juárez' return in January 1861. Juárez won the presidential election later the same year, but at the cost of dividing his own party by his leniency in granting amnesty to his former enemies. The country he inherited was scarred by death and destruction, racked by unemployment, and saddled with debt. When Juárez' government voted to suspend payment on the foreign debt for two years, his creditors in France, England, and Spain reacted by drawing up a treaty in October 1861 calling for the seizure of Mexico's forts and customs houses along the Gulf coast until such time as all payments due had been collected. Both Spain and France, however, had other designs in mind for their intervention as well; Spain was hoping to rebuild its colonial empire and France saw the possibility of turning Mexico into a puppet state Of course, the timing for such adventures was perfect, because the United States, the would-be guarantor of the Monroe Doctrine, was itself in the throws of an internecine Civil War and was in no position to checkmate any such moves from Europe.
A Spanish squadron was the first to arrive in Veracruz in December 1861, and it was joined by French and English contingents a month later. However, the three disparate military commands soon were squabbling amongst themselves as to how they should proceed, and within another three months both the Spanish and English forces were withdrawn. Now the French were free to act on their own, and very shortly they increased their military presence considerably and began a march on the capital. They were met outside the city of Puebla on May 5, 1862 by a Mexican army under the command of General Ignacio Zaragoza and decisively defeated, giving Mexico one of its few military victories and a national holiday which has been celebrated with pride ever since.
The following year, when the French army had been reinforced with 30,000 more men, they once again advanced on the capital. Again, the fortifications at Puebla were their major stumbling block, but after a two-month siege and a heavy bombardment, they finally captured the city and pressed on toward Mexico City. Juárez and his government now had no alternative but to flee, and a few days later the French army entered the capital without opposition.
The French military commander immediately set up a provisional government consisting of a hand-picked junta of two hundred and fifteen citizens to form an "Assembly of Notables", which in turn appointed two conservative generals and the archbishop to act as its executive. The Assembly promptly announced that hereafter Mexico would be ruled as a hereditary monarchy with a Catholic prince as emperor, the latter having already been chosen by Napoleon III of France. The latter was to be Ferdinand Maximilian von Hapsburg, an Austrian archduke, who otherwise had dim prospects for a realm of his own. Thus, while a delegation went off to Europe to offer the crown to Maximilian, French forces attempted to mop up the military opposition within the country itself. Although the main cities in the center of Mexico were nominally under French control, Juárez kept up a guerilla action from the northern desert while Brigadier General Porfirio Díaz continued to harass the French from the south.
In October 1863 Maximilian agreed to accept the crown of Mexico on condition that the Mexican citizenry approve him. This was the signal for the French military commander to institute a "plebiscite", which overwhelmingly "confirmed" Maximilian as the people's choice. For his part, Napoleon III now negotiated a treaty between the empires of France and Mexico which ensured that Mexico would pay for the entire cost of the French military intervention up to July 1864 -- an amount which by then totaled some 270 million francs -- and thereafter be responsible for paying 1000 francs a year for every French soldier stationed in the country. Once Maximilian had organized his own Mexican army, the French forces would be withdrawn, except for an 8000-man contingent of the Foreign Legion that was to remain there for at least six years.
If France had earlier been concerned about Mexico's ability to pay its foreign debt, it should now have had even greater concern, for, by these few strokes of the pen, it had increased that indebtedness three-fold. As for Maximilian himself, his older brother, Franz Josef, obliged him to sign a document giving up all claim to the imperial throne of Austria before he left for the New World. In return for receiving the Pope's personal blessings for himself and his wife Carlota, Maximilian swore his loyalty to the church but did confess that he was "moderately liberal", an admission which must have troubled the pontiff somewhat. In mid-June 1864, the new emperor and empress of Mexico arrived triumphantly to take up residence in their new abode at Chapultepec Castle.
The imperial couple apparently were quite enthused about the land they had come to rule, choosing to travel as widely as conditions permitted, using Spanish whenever they could, eagerly sampling local dietary creations and frequently donning regional costumes. Childless themselves, they soon adopted Agustín Iturbide, the grandson of Mexico's first criollo "emperor", intending in this manner to perpetuate the dynasty. Maximilian was eager to develop industry and improve communications, to further literary, scientific, and artistic endeavor, and to encourage immigration from abroad. Perhaps his most reactionary move was to reestablish what he called "black peonage labor" by inviting many former Confederates from the United States to move to Mexico with their slaves.
It was also no secret that his attitude toward the Church was a disappointment for Mexican conservatives. When the French military commander forced the reactionary archbishop out of the junta's executive, the latter responded by excommunicating the entire French army of occupation. When Maximilian tried to intervene, the intransigent Mexican clergy quickly disillusioned him and he personally tried to arrange a concordat with the Vatican. The pope, himself an arch-conservative, refused to compromise in any way, and the frustrated Mexican emperor finally had to issue a series of unilateral decrees which defined Church-state relationships within his realm. These continued to recognize Roman Catholicism as the state religion but ensured toleration for all other sects as well. All Church property that had been sold to date was confirmed and the Church could acquire no new property. On the other hand, if there were any legal irregularities in the earlier sales, these were to be reviewed by the office of nationalized property. In short, Maximilian seemed to be reaffirming the Liberally inspired laws passed a decade earlier, and by so doing, he was certainly aligning the conservative clergy of the Church against him, including the Pope.
Although nearly two-dozen European governments granted political recognition to the new empire, neither Lincoln's government nor the Confederacy gave it diplomatic approval. In an effort to reconciliate the Mexican people, Maximilian released all political prisoners serving terms shorter than ten years and offered key positions in his government to liberals, including Juárez. Even though the proud Zapotec refused any cooperation with the European invaders, some of his former supporters did accept appointments in Maximilian's regime.
By the first half of 1865, French military forces in Mexico had swelled to some 60,000 men; about half of them came from France and most of the remainder was recruited amongst the Mexicans. Although most of the provincial capitals now were securely under imperial control, Juárez' guerrillas still were launching hit-and-run attacks in the north as were Díaz' forces in the south. The French military commander demanded that Maximilian brand the resistance fighters as outlaws, which the emperor, trying to win them over by persuasion, was reluctant to do. Finally, on October 3, 1865, Maximilian put his signature to the notorious "Black Flag Decree", a document that was published both in Spanish and Nahuatl and posted in all parts of the realm. It specified that anyone caught bearing arms against the emperor would be executed within twenty-four hours, including anyone belonging to a group that was not legally authorized. In short order a number of individuals were executed without a trial, which only served to crystallize opposition to the regime rather than reduce it.
However, events outside of Mexico now began once again influencing the course of events within the country with increasing strength and urgency. With the American Civil War now ended, the embargo on the export of arms was terminated and tons of surplus war material started moving across the Rio Grande to republican forces in Mexico. With the Union army being disbanded, nearly 3000 volunteers crossed into the country to join Juárez; on the other hand, about 2000 Confederates also went to fight on the side of the emperor. Even though the French still controlled the Mexican customs houses, the treasury was bankrupt and the imperial army was not being paid. Napoleon III was not only running out of patience, he was also running out of credit, and both the rise of Prussia on his eastern frontier and mounting diplomatic pressure from Washington was making him increasingly uncomfortable. When he announced in January 1866 that all French forces would be withdrawn from Mexico beginning that very year, Maxmilian and Carlota were horrified. They both wrote impassioned letters to the Empress Eugénie begging that the decision be revoked, but to no avail. Carlota then decided to return to Europe and beg for assistance in person, leaving Mexico in July 1866. In Paris, the deaf ear that was turned to her must have driven her "over the edge", because by the time she reached Rome to call on the Pope, she was so mentally upset that it was clear that she had become psychotic. Thus, in the midst of the crisis of having his empire collapse around his ears, Maximilian was handed a cable recounting that his wife was hopelessly insane and was being taken home to an asylum in Belgium.
Maximilian was torn by indecision as to whether he should abdicate or remain in Mexico. The French military strongly advised the former, whereas his mother, Maria Theresa, advised the latter, reminding him of his duties as a Hapsburg. His own physical condition was not helped by the recurrent fevers to which he was subject, and as the winter of 1866 approached, he decided to take up residence in the tropical town of Orizaba about 60 miles inland from Veracruz. In the port, a couple of Austrian warships were loaded with the imperial archives and the royal household's personal effects and furnishings. Since the days of the empire appeared to be numbered, his would-be successor on the throne, the boy-prince Iturbide, was quietly returned to his mother in Europe. Meanwhile, conservative military and clergy continued to urge the emperor to return to the capital and resume leadership of the country.
The Assembly of Notables was convened in January 1867 to discuss the situation that confronted the nation, though Maximilian himself did not attend. The French military commander pointed out that as soon as his army had abandoned an outpost, it was taken over by the republican forces, and he foresaw no way for the emperor to remain in power once his detachments were gone. The archbishop, already at odds with Maximilian, made no effort to persuade him to stay, although when the issue finally came to a vote, two-thirds of the assembled delegates -- obviously with an eye to their own futures -- argued that the emperor remain. The animosity between the emperor and the French military commander now reached such a state that they refused to speak to one another, and within two months the last remaining foreign troops had left Mexico.
In the meantime, Maximilian had made one last attempt to rally his forces by riding north to Querétaro and taking personal command of the imperial garrison of nine thousand men. The armies of Juárez soon closed in on the city and, after a siege lasting two and a half months, finally captured it on May 15, 1867. Among the prisoners taken were the hapless emperor and his two highest-ranking generals, and all three of them were put on trial a month later.
Although Maximilian was excused from attending the trial because of illness, his attorneys argued that if he were released he would leave Mexico and never again return. The most serious of the charges leveled against the emperor was that stemming from his infamous "Black Flag Decree", because many Mexicans had been executed without a trial as a result of it. When the court came down with a verdict of guilty and sentenced Maximilian to death, heads of state from throughout Europe and the Americas pleaded for his life, but Juárez refused to pardon him, and early on the morning of June 19, 1867, Maximilian was executed by a firing squad on a hillside near Querétaro along with his two generals.
What had been a deep personal tragedy for both the Austrian archduke and his fragile Belgian-born wife had likewise been another disastrous nightmare for the people and country of Mexico. In addition to the widespread destruction of property and the immense increase in the nation's foreign indebtedness that resulted from over a decade of war, more than 300,000 Mexicans had been killed. Whether they had died in vain yet remained to be seen, but one thing did seem certain: the Reform movement which had begun to shape a new Mexico under the guidance of Juárez and his fellow Liberals, although seriously set back by the machinations by both domestic Conservatives and opportunistic foreign interventionists was still alive and well and the promise of a brighter future gave the prostrate nation a new sense of optimism. Juárez' defense of the Constitution and his determined struggle against foreign aggression won him the adulation of a hero and in October 1867 he was overwhelmingly elected to a third term as Mexico's president.
Having already managed to limit the power and influence of the Church, Juárez immediately set about cutting the army down to size as well, reducing its active reserves from sixty thousand men to twenty thousand. Naturally, this did not sit well with the army brass and it likewise exacerbated the problem of unemployment, but it did subordinate the military to civilian control and also substantially reduced the country's expenses. To suppress banditry he set up a rural police force patterned on the Spanish Guardia Civil and, within a matter of months, travel between the major towns of the country was made safer for both passengers and merchandise alike, thereby helping to promote both industry and commerce. With the assistance of his minister of the treasury, José Iglesias, he set in motion an economic recovery program that cut the national debt to one-fifth of what it had been at war's end. By revising taxes and tariffs, both the revitalization of mining and agriculture were moved ahead rapidly, and the number of specialized commercial crops raised for export was increased substantially. Foreign capitalists were encouraged to invest in Mexico, with special attention being given to the development of the country's infrastructure and its nascent petroleum and fishing industries. Indeed, one of the Juárez' highest priority projects was the completion of the country's first railway linking the port of Veracruz with the capital.
Another aspect of public policy assigned special significance by Juárez was the creation of a new system of public education. In place of the religious schools formerly run by priests and nuns, Juárez sought to secularize the entire educational process, making elementary education both free and compulsory for all children and obliging all towns with over 500 residents to establish a primary school. To be sure, in a country with as scattered a population and as poor an economy as Mexico, such goals as these remained unfulfilled dreams for many years to come, but at least a concerted beginning was made.
Unfortunately, not all Mexicans shared Juárez' visions for the future, and on repeated occasions rebellions continued to flare up in several outlying parts of the country. While attempting to adhere to the provisions of the Constitution of 1857, Juárez found himself in many instances being obliged to use "emergency powers" to which he was not in fact legally entitled, thereby causing his political detractors to condemn him as a dictator. Long-standing Conservative opponents were now joined by some of Juárez’ Liberal colleagues who sought to gain advantages for themselves. One of these was a former student of his from Oaxaca who had risen to the rank of Brigadier General in the army and had been one of the heroes of the battle against the French at Puebla in 1862. This was Porfirio Díaz who unsuccessfully challenged him for the presidency in 1867. However, when Juárez announced his intention to run for a fourth term in 1871, Díaz came out of retirement to challenge him once again, claiming that he was violating his own principles by not yielding his office and that he was seeking to entrench himself in a dictatorship. Even Juárez' long-term friend and associate, Lerdo de Tejada, deserted his cause and threw his own hat in the ring. Since none of the three candidates received a clear majority, it was up the Mexican congress to decide the outcome, and it once more proclaimed Juárez as the victor. Lerdo de Tejada was awarded second place, which made him the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and thereby Juárez' legal successor should the latter die or become unable to carry out his duties. Porfirio Díaz, who received a paltry three votes from the congress, claimed that he had been "robbed", and less than a month later rose in revolt against his former mentor. Although Díaz won some support for his argument that the election had been rigged, it was Juárez' own sudden death from a heart attack on July 18, 1872 that took the steam out of Diaz' uprising and caused it to be abandoned.
Elected President in his own right in 1872, Lerdo de Tejada sought re-election four years later, but once again Díaz declared his candidacy and mounted an armed revolt, only to have it squashed after a couple of short skirmishes. However, at this juncture the then-chief justice of the Supreme Court, Juárez' old friend José Maria Iglesias, declared the election null and void and named himself president instead. This provided Díaz with an excuse to revive his rebellion, and this time his forces sent both Lerdo de Tejada and Iglesias fleeing into exile, paving the way for his own take-over of the National Palace.