header by Emerson Taymor, 2005

1. Pre-Columbian Mexico

2. The Conquest

3. The Colonial Period

4. The 19th Century

5. The Revolution

6. Mexico Since 1920

7. Theories of Mexicanidad




La Reforma

This era (1855-1876), initiated by the PLAN OF AYUTLA in March 1854, capped a long struggle between liberals and conservatives over the character of independent Mexico, individual rights were the cornerstone of a liberal program that also sought to subordinate the military to civilian authority and to remove the church from secular affairs. A parliamentary system and municipal autonomy within a federal government were favored to prevent a despotic central government and to guarantee individual liberties, while allowing local or state caudillos to retain their dominance. The reformers clashed with the military, Indian communities, and the Catholic church, which defended corporate structures and privileges.

After coming to power in 1855, the liberals fought for their program through a decade of civil war and foreign intervention (1857-1867). Major reform measures established equality before the law (LEY JUAREZ, 1855); prohibited civil and ecclesiastical corporate ownership or administration of real estate (LEY LERDO, 1856), and nationalized virtually all other church wealth; regulated parish fees (LEY IGLESIAS); suppressed religious orders; separated church and state; established marriage as a civil contract; placed cemeteries and vital statistics under civil control; proclaimed freedom of religion, speech, and the press; and secularized schools and charities. The 1857 Constitution enshrined the reformers' aspirations.

Many Mexicans suffered terribly during the years of turmoil. The contradictory demands of church and state were impossible to obey. For example, the liberal government required officeholders to take an oath of loyalty to the 1857 Constitution, while church authorities forbade the faithful to take the oath. To disobey the government meant the loss of employment; to disobey the church meant denial of the sacraments. Furthermore, during the civil war (1858-1860) the conservative government in Mexico City annulled the liberal laws and Constitution; the liberal government, headquartered in Veracruz, promised to punish those who obeyed the conservatives and issued more extreme measures against its enemies, especially the church.

Prevailing over the French-imposed rule of the Austrian Archduke MAXIMILIAN in 1867, the liberals at last had the opportunity to implement their program. They achieved only partial success: the principle, but not the reality, of legal equality for all was established; the decade of conflict undermined the effort to establish a parliamentary system and paved the way for executive dominance; the political and economic power of the church was largely eliminated, but charities and schools suffered; restrictions on the church belied the principle of separation of church and stale; the hope that reducing village lands to individual ownership would create a large number of small landowners, which in turn would encourage rural democracy and economic prosperity, largely went awry—privatization facilitated acquisition of village lands by outsiders and by some enterprising villagers; and constitutional guarantees for the individual did little to protect the lower class. Still, the Reform years fostered the growth of nationalism and a sense of nationhood while laying the bases for Porfirian economic development and authoritarian political rule.
See also Anticlericalism; Catholic Church; Mexico: Constitution of 1857.

LEY JUAREZ, a Mexican law abolishing military and ecclesiastical FUEROS (privileges) named for Benito JUAREZ, its principal author. The law, dated 11 November 1855, was promulgated by President Juan ALVAREZ, while Juarez was his minister of justice. The law contained seventy-seven main articles that had the effect of abolishing all special tribunals except the military and ecclesiastical courts. Although the Ley Juarez did not abolish these courts, it did end the military and ecclesiastical fueros in civil cases. Priests and military officers could no longer change the venue of trials for civil of-fenses to the ecclesiastical or military courts. Sinkin argues that the law accepted the basic corporate structure of society and did not abolish the entire fuero system since the church courts retained the right to hear criminal cases. As the first of the Reform Laws, the Ley Juarez was approved as part of the Constitution of 1857.

LEY LERDO, a Mexican law disamortizing church property, named for Miguel LERDO DE TEJADA, its principal author. The law was promulgated 25 June 1856, while Lerdo served as finance minister for President Ignacio COMONFORT. It declared that civil and ecclesiastical corporations, such as the Catholic church and local and state governments, would be prohibited from owning real property not directly used in everyday operations. The church could retain its sanctuaries, monasteries, convents, and seminaries, and local and state governments their offices, jails, and schools, but both had to sell all other urban and rural real estate. Tenants were given preference during the first three months the law would be in effect, and the annual rent was considered as 6 percent of the value of the property for sale. The government would collect a 5 percent tax on these sales. The law prohibited civil and ecclesiastical corporations from acquiring property in the future, but it did not confiscate their wealth. Intended to raise revenue and promote the development of markets, its actual effects on properly ownership are disputed, but it seems to have raised little revenue for the government. The Ley Lerdo was adopted as part of the Constitution of 1857. It was later superseded by decrees confiscating church property.

LEY IGLESIAS, a Mexican law regulating the cost of church sacraments, named for Jose Maria IGLESIAS, its principal author. The law was promulgated 11 April 1857, while its author was minister of justice under President Ignacio COMONFORT. The law stipulated that the poor were not to be charged for baptisms, marriage banns, weddings, or burials. All who earned no more by their honest toil than would provide for their daily subsistence were to be considered poor. All others could be charged reasonable fees. The Comonfort administration had earlier taken from the church the responsibility for registering births, marriages, adoptions, and deaths. Registration of these events and the administration of cemeteries were turned over to civil officials, but these changes were not technically part of the Ley Iglesias. These Reform Laws were later adopted as part of the Constitution of 1857.