Reform War

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Reform War or First Mexican Civil War
1858 Mexico Map Civil War Divisions.svg
  •   Conservatives
  •   Liberals
  •   Independent
DateFebruary 5, 1857 — December 1860

Liberal victory

Mexico Liberals
 United States[1]
Mexico Conservatives
Commanders and leaders
Benito Juarez
Jesus Gonzalez Ortega
Ignacio Zaragoza
Felix Zuloaga
Miguel Miramon
Leonardo Marquez
78,570 54,889
Casualties and losses
8,713 11,355

The War of Reform (Spanish: Guerra de Reforma) in Mexico, was a three-year civil war lasting from December 1857 to December 1860 fought between the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party over the Constitution of 1857, promulgated under the liberal presidency of Ignacio Comonfort. The new constitution was part of a wider liberal program intended to eliminate the political, economic, and cultural power of the Catholic church as well as reduce the power of the Mexican Army.

After a series of sporadic revolts, conservative generals rose up against Comonfort's government through the Plan of Tacubaya, and took control of Mexico City. Comonfort fled the country and was succeeded by president of the Supreme Court, Benito Juárez who moved the liberal government to the east coast port of Veracruz. The Conservatives controlled the capital and much of central Mexico, while the rest of the states had to choose whether to side with the Conservative government of Félix Zuloaga or that of Juarez. Both governments managed to attain international recognition, though the liberals were recognized by the United States, and the Conservatives by European powers such as France, Great Britain, and Spain.

The conservatives struggled to form a new constitution, and Zuloaga was replaced by general Miguel Miramon while the liberals passed even more measures against the church in the states they controlled. Both sides struggled to capture the enemy's capital, and in order to try to gain an advantage, the liberals negotiated the McLane-Ocampo Treaty with the U.S., which if ratified would have given the Liberal regime cash but also granted the U.S. vast military, and economic rights on Mexican territory. The treaty failed to pass in the U.S. Senate, but the American navy nonetheless helped protect Juarez' government in Veracruz, and even captured conservative vessels trying to aid a siege attempt. Liberal victories accumulated thereafter until Conservative forces surrendered in December 1860. While the Conservative forces lost the war, guerrillas remained active in the countryside for years after, and conservative generals would join the French during the subsequent French Intervention in Mexico, and help establish the Second Mexican Empire.

Liberals vs. Conservatives in post-Independence Mexico[edit]

After the end of the Mexican War of Independence, the country was strongly divided as it tried to recover from more than a decade of fighting. From 1821-57, 50 different governments ruled the country. These included dictatorships, constitutional republican governments and a monarchy.[2]

The political division was roughly divided into two groups, the Liberals and the Conservatives. The Liberal political movements had their beginnings in the secret meetings of the Freemasonry. The secret nature of the society allowed for discreet political discussion. Conservatives favored a strong centralized government, with many wanting a European-style monarchy.[3] Conservatives favored protecting many of the institutions inherited from the colonial period, including tax and legal exemptions for the Catholic Church and the military. Liberals favored the establishment of a federalist republic based on ideas coming out of the European Enlightenment, and the limiting of the Church's and military's privileges. Until the end of the Reform period Mexico's history would be dominated by these two factions vying for control and fighting against foreign incursions at the same time.[3] The Reform Era of Mexican history is generally defined from 1855-76.[4]

Liberals take power in the 1850s[edit]

Soldiers of the Reformation 1858.

The Liberals ousted conservative Antonio López de Santa Anna under the Plan of Ayutla in 1855, bringing Juan Álvarez of the state of Guerrero to the presidency. Liberals exiled to the U.S. during the late Santa Anna regime, Melchor Ocampo and Benito Juárez returned to Mexico, and other Liberals came to national prominence, including Miguel Lerdo de Tejada and his younger brother, Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada. This ascendancy came after the loss of about half of Mexico's national territory to the US in the Mexican–American War. Liberals believed that the entrenched power of the Roman Catholic Church and the military were the source of most of Mexico's problems.[4]

The Liberals' challenge to the Catholic Church's hegemony in Mexico came about in stages even before the 1850s. State-level measures adopted since the 1820s and the reform measures of during the regime of Valentín Gómez Farías led conservatives to defend Mexico's Catholic identity, including integration of Church and State. This included Catholic newspapers such as La Cruz and conservative groups that strongly attacked Liberal policies and ideology. This ideology had roots in the European Enlightenment, which sought to reduce the role of the Catholic Church in society. The Reforms began in the 1830s and 1840s coalesced into the principal laws of the Reform era, which were passed in two phases, from 1855–57 and then from 1858–60. The 1857 Constitution of Mexico was promulgated near the end of the first phase. More Reform laws were passed from 1861–63 and after 1867 when the Liberals emerged victorious after two civil wars with Conservative opponents.[5]

The Liberal Reform[edit]

Miguel Lerdo de Tejada drafted the law to disentail the lands of the Catholic Church and those of indigenous communities.
Alegoría de la Constitución de 1857 shows a dark complexioned Mexican woman clutching the liberal Constitution of 1857. The 1869 painting by Petronilo Monroy was completed after the expulsion of the French in 1867.

The success of the Plan of Ayutla brought rebel Juan Álvarez to the Mexican presidency. Alvarez was a "puro" and appointed other radical Liberals to important posts, including Benito Juárez as Minister of Justice, Miguel Lerdo de Tejada as Minister of Development and Melchor Ocampo as Minister of Foreign Affairs. The first of the Liberal Reform Laws were passed in 1855. The Juárez Law, named after Benito Juárez, restricted clerical privileges, specifically the authority of Church courts,[6] by subordinating their authority to civil law. It was conceived of as a moderate measure, rather than abolishing church courts altogether. However, the move opened latent divisions in the country. Archbishop Lázaro de la Garza (es) in Mexico City condemned the Law as an attack on the Church itself, and clerics went into rebellion in the city of Puebla in 1855–56.[7] Other laws attacked the privileges traditionally enjoyed by the military, which was significant since the military had been instrumental in putting and keeping Mexican governments in office since Emperor Agustín de Iturbide in the 1820s.[6]

The next Reform Law was called the Lerdo law, after Miguel Lerdo de Tejada. Under this new law the government began to confiscate Church land.[6] This proved to be considerably more controversial than the Juárez Law. The purpose of the law was to convert lands held by corporate entities such as the Church into private property, favoring those who already lived on it. It was thought that this would encourage development and the government could raise revenue by taxing the process.[7] Lerdo de Tejada was the Minister of Finance and required that the Church sell much of its urban and rural land at reduced prices. If the Church did not comply, the government would hold public auctions. The Law also stated that the Church could not gain possession of properties in the future. However, the Lerdo law did not apply only to the Church. It stated that no corporate body could own land. Broadly defined, this would include ejidos, or communal land owned by Indian villages. Initially, these ejidos were exempt from the law, but eventually Indian communities suffered an extensive loss of land.[6]

By 1857 additional anti-clerical legislation, such as the Iglesias law (named after José María Iglesias), regulated the collection of clerical fees from the poor and prohibited clerics from charging for baptisms, marriages or funeral services.[8] Marriage became a civil contract, although no provision for divorce was authorized. Registry of births, marriages and deaths became a civil affair, with President Benito Juárez registering his newly-born son in Veracruz. The number of religious holidays was reduced and several holidays to commemorate national events introduced. Religious celebrations outside churches was forbidden, use of church bells restricted and clerical dress was prohibited in public.[9]

One other significant Reform Law was the Law for the Nationalization of Ecclesiastical Properties, which would eventually secularize nearly all of the country's monasteries and convents. The government had hoped that this law would bring in enough revenue to secure a loan from the US, but sales would prove disappointing from the time it was passed all the way to the early 20th century.[9]

As these laws were being passed, Congress debated a new Constitution. Delegates were concerned with the precedents established by the first of the Reform Laws and the issue of whether Mexico would have a central, unitary government or a federal republic. In the end, the Constitution of 1857 established a centralist component.[6] Since the constitution did not establish the Catholic Church as the official and exclusive religious institution, it was a major step in the separation of church and state.[9]

Civil war[edit]


General Félix Zuloaga, conservative president of Mexico during the Reform War.
General Miguel Miramón

Each of the Reform Laws met strong resistance from Conservatives, the Church and the military, culminating in military action and war. After the Juárez Law, General Tomás Mejía (1820 – 1867) rebelled against the Liberal government in the defense of the Catholic identity of Mexico in the Sierra Gorda region of Querétaro. Mejía would conduct operations against Liberal forces for the next eight years.[7]

Opposition to the Lerdo Law and the 1857 Constitution culminated in a takeover of Mexico City by Conservative forces. This operation was called the Plan of Tacubaya. When the military took control of Mexico City, then president Ignacio Comonfort agreed to the Plan's terms, but Benito Juárez, then president of the Supreme Court, defended the 1857 Constitution. Juárez was arrested.[10] Comonfort was subsequently forced to resign and Gen. Félix Zuloaga was put in his place. After arriving in Mexico City, Zuloaga's supporters closed Congress and arrested liberal politicians, preparing to write a new constitution for the country.[11]

The Plan of Tacubaya deeply divided the country, with each state deciding whether to support the Liberals' 1857 Constitution or the Conservatives' takeover of Mexico City. Juárez escaped prison and fled to the city of Querétaro.[10] He was recognized as the Liberals' interim president. As Zuloaga and the army took over more of the central part of Mexico, Juárez and his government were forced to the fortified city of Veracruz. From there the Liberal government had control over the state of Veracruz and a number of allied states in the north and central-west. The Liberal government would be located in Veracruz from 1858-61.[12]

Full hostilities between Liberal and Conservative forces raged from 1858-60. The Conservatives controlled Mexico City, but not Veracruz. Twice in 1860 Conservative forces under Gen. Miguel Miramón tried to take the city but failed. From there Juárez directed the opposition movement, from which the Liberals obtained supplies and money through duties received in the port city.[13]

At the beginning of the war Liberal leaders and armies lacked the military experience of the Conservatives, who were backed by Mexico's official military. In fact, the liberals lost many of the first battles. However, as hostilities continued, Liberal forces gained experience and obtained aid from the US that would eventually enable victories for the Liberal side. On March 6 of that year, two ships previously acquired by the Conservative government were prevented from entering the city by a US naval force, acting in support of the Liberal faction of Benito Juarez. The force fleet attacked the Mexican ships and arrested their crews, eventually kidnapping Mexican marines and taking them to New Orleans.[1] This incident is known as the Battle of Anton Lizardo. In the same year Conservative forces were defeated in Oaxaca and Guadalajara. In December 1860 Gen. Miramón surrendered outside of Mexico City. Liberal forces reoccupied the capital on 1 January 1861, with Benito Juárez joining them a week later.[13] Despite the Liberals regaining control of the capital, bands of Conservative guerrillas operated in rural areas. Miramón went into exile to Cuba and Europe. However, Gen. Márquez remained active and Mejía operated from his stronghold in the Sierra Gorda until the end of the French Intervention in Mexico.[14]

The Juárez government up to the French Intervention[edit]

Benito Juárez

Juárez's interim presidency was confirmed by his election in March 1861. However, the Liberals' celebrations of 1861 were short-lived. The war had severely damaged Mexico's infrastructure and crippled its economy. While the Conservatives had been defeated, they would not disappear and the Juárez government had to respond to pressures from these factions. One of these concessions was amnesty to captured Conservative guerrillas who were still resisting the Juárez government, even though these same guerrillas were executing captured Liberals, one of whom was Melchor Ocampo. Juárez also faced external pressures from countries such as Great Britain, Spain and France owing to the large amounts indebted to them by Mexico.[15] Conservative factions in Mexico, who still wanted a European-style monarchy, would eventually conspire with the French government to install Mexico's second emperor during the French Intervention in Mexico.[15][16]

See also[edit]

Battles in the Reform War:


  1. ^ a b "Juárez es apoyado por tropas de EU en Guerra de Reforma" [Juarez is aided by U.S. troops in the War of Reform] (in Spanish). Mexico: El Dictamen. 2012-10-08. Archived from the original on 2014-02-02.
  2. ^ Kirkwood 2000, p. 107
  3. ^ a b Kirkwood 2000, p. 109
  4. ^ a b Kirkwood 2000, p. 100
  5. ^ Hamnett 1999, p. 160
  6. ^ a b c d e Kirkwood 2000, p. 101
  7. ^ a b c Hamnett 1999, p. 162
  8. ^ Kirkwood 2000, pp. 101–102
  9. ^ a b c Hamnett 1999, pp. 163–164
  10. ^ a b "La Guerra de Reforma, Historia de México" [The Reform War, History of Mexico] (in Spanish). Mexico: Explorando Mexico. Retrieved 2009-12-02.
  11. ^ Kirkwood 2000, p. 102
  12. ^ Hamnett 1999, p. 163
  13. ^ a b Kirkwood 2000, p. 103
  14. ^ Hamnett 1999, p. 165
  15. ^ a b Kirkwood 2000, p. 104
  16. ^ Hamnett 1999, p. 166