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His home state was renamed Michoacán de Ocampo in his honour.
Melchor Ocampo was orphaned and left at the gate of a hacienda of wealthy woman who raised him as her own.
Ocampo studied at the Roman Catholic seminary in Morelia, Michoacán, and later law at the Colegio Seminario de México (Universidad Pontificia). He began working in a law office in 1833 and travelled to France in 1840, where he was influenced by liberal and anticlerical ideas of the Enlightenment. He later returned to Michoacán to work his family's lands, practice law, investigate the region's flora and fauna, and study the local indigenous languages.
He was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1842. He served as Governor of Michoacán during the U.S. Invasion, and as Treasury Minister in 1850. Because of one of his more controversial projects, he was forced to flee the country by President Antonio López de Santa Anna, taking refuge first in Cuba and then in the U.S. city of New Orleans. In New Orleans he met a group of liberals, including Benito Juárez, and began to publish pamphlets to promote political change in Mexico. The result of his efforts was the Plan de Ayutla of 1855, which called for the overthrow of Santa Anna and the installation of the liberal general Juan Álvarez. With Álvarez's victory, Ocampo served briefly in his cabinet as foreign minister.
During Benito Juárez's administration, Ocampo was appointed Minister of the Interior, with responsibility also for foreign affairs, defence, and the treasury. During this period he drafted the Reform Laws (Leyes de Reforma), bringing about the separation of Church and State.
In the port of Veracruz, on 14 December 1859, acting on Juárez's orders, he and U.S. Ambassador Robert McLane signed the McLane-Ocampo Treaty. This controversial treaty would have awarded the United States perpetual transit rights, for its armies and merchandise, through three strips of Mexico's territory: the Isthmus of Tehuantepec; a corridor running from Guaymas, Sonora, to Nogales, Arizona; and a second transoceanic route from Mazatlán, Sinaloa, on the Pacific to Brownsville, Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico. Although presidents Juárez and Buchanan were both in favour of the arrangement, it was never ratified by the U.S. Senate on account of the impending Civil War in the United States.
Ocampo believed that education had to be grounded on the basic postulates of liberalism, democracy, respect and tolerance for different beliefs, equality before the law, the elimination of privileges, and the supremacy of civil authority.
Some months after retiring from public service, Melchor Ocampo was abducted from his hacienda in Michoacán by conservatives on orders from either Leonardo Márquez or Félix María Zuloaga (reports differ) and, after a drumhead court-martial, was executed by firing squad in Tepeji del Río, in what is today the state of Hidalgo, on 3 June 1861. His remains are interred in the Rotonda de los Hombres Ilustres in Mexico City.
He participated in writing new Civil Laws, that in the end would give sense to liberal politics and would end up amending the Constitution from 1857, in order to make civil and political matters independent from ecclesiastic ones. On July 23, 1859, D. Benito Juarez, interim president then, issues, at the Port of Veracruz, the "Civil Matrimony Law", which has 31 Articles. In Article 15, as a way of ceremonial formalization, the famous epistle, attributed to Melchor Ocampo, was included; and which reads as follows:
- I declare on behalf of Law and Society that you are united in legitimate matrimony with all rights and privileges granted by law, and with the obligations imposed; and also declare:
- “That this is the only moral mean to establish a family, to conserve the human species and to make up for the imperfections of an individual who cannot provide for itself to reach mankind’s perfection. This doesn’t exist in a single person, but in spousal duality. Those married must be and will be sacred to each other, even more than what they are to each self.
- The man, whose main sexual attributes are courage and strength, must give and shall always give the woman protection, food, and direction, treating her always as the most delicate, sensible, and finest part of himself, and with magnanimity and generous benevolence that a strong being owes the weak, essentially when this weak delivers to himself, and also when Society has entrusted him.
- The woman, whose main attributes are self denial, beauty, compassion, shrewdness and tenderness, must give and shall always give the husband obedience, pleasantness, assistance, comfort, and advice; treating him always with the veneration owed to the person supporting and defending us, and with the delicacy of whom doesn’t want to exasperate the abrupt, irritable and harsh part of him, which is of his nature.
- One to another are owed and shall always give respect, deference, fidelity, trust, and tenderness; both will take care of what they were expecting from each other by joining together, and that this will not be contradicted by this union. That both shall be prudent and attenuate their faults. You shall never say insults to each other, because insults among the married dishonors the one saying them, and proves the lack of judgment or common sense of election; and much less shall physically mistreat each other, because it is vile and cowardly to use force.
- Both shall prepare with the study, friendly and mutual correction of their defects, up to the supreme judgeship of being family parents, in order to when both become that, your children can find in you good example and good conduct to serve as role models. The doctrine that you inspire in these tender and loved bonds of affection will make your luck to prosper or to be adverse; and the happiness or misfortune of your children will be the parent’s reward or punishment, fortune or sadness.
- Society blesses, believes, and praises good parents, for the great good they do to it, for giving them good and courteous citizens; and the same properly censures and despises those, that by abandonment, or misgiving affection, or by setting bad example, corrupt the sacred depot that nature trusted them with, for granting them such children.
- And last, when Society sees that such said persons did not deserve to be elevated to have the honor to become parents, but merely should have lived subject to guardianship, incapable of conducting themselves with dignity, grieves for establishing with its authority the union of a man and a woman who have failed to be free and to conduct themselves towards good.”
(Translated by: TRANSFLO)
This is Ocampo's best-known legacy from 1859, which is known as the epistle on marriage, still read out nowadays by judges presiding over civil weddings in many states.
Epístola de Melchor Ocampo (Spanish)
- Krauze, Enrique (1997). Mexico: A Biography of Power. New York: HarperCollins. pp. 152–156.
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