From Empire to Republic - Arthur H. Noll

The "Plan De Ayotla"

Herrera was installed in the Presidency, in Queretaro, on the third of June, 1848. The first important act of his administration was to conclude, by a treaty of peace with the United States (the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo), the war which, though he had tried to avert it, had begun in his former term of office. As a result of this treaty, Mexico was deprived of what might have been made her fairest and wealthiest province, comprising 522,955 square miles of territory, including New Mexico and California.

As the armies of the United States retired, Herrera removed the seat of his government to the City of Mexico, the rightful capital of the nation. The tasks confronting his administration were exceedingly difficult. The country had been sadly demoralized by the war, though it had been less devastated thereby, even in the track of the victorious army, than by the almost incessant wars that had resulted from the political turmoils to which the unhappy nation was subject. It was necessary to reorganize the various departments of government; to replenish the national treasury, depleted notwithstanding the fifteen million dollars paid by the United States for the territory acquired as the spoils of war; to establish credit abroad, and to reunite a divided country, before the prosperity of the nation could be advanced.

In the face of all these difficulties, Herrera succeeded in pursuing, in his administration, a course that was wise, economical, tolerant, and moral. His cabinet was composed of men of honor. He was, however, unpopular with the clergy, who lost no opportunity for expressing their disapproval of his liberal and progressive ideas; and, in order to delay the accomplishment of the tasks confronting him in his government of the country. General Paredes "pronounced" in Aguas Calientes, using as a pretext for his revolt his dissatisfaction with the terms on which peace had been concluded with the United States. The outbreak was quickly suppressed by government troops, and the land had peace for a time. But the disturbing elements in the social economy of Mexico were only quiescent in order that they might regain their wonted strength.

General Mariano Arista was constitutionally elected President in 1850 and was installed in office in January, 1851. He had been commander of the Mexican army at the battle of Resaca de la Palma, and had subsequently held the post of Minister of War in Herrera's cabinet. He was a man of no scholastic attainments, but was possessed of correct judgment, having sought to supply the deficiencies in his education by consulting the wisdom of others. He was at least capable of impressing foreign nations as being liberal-minded, patriotic, honest, and as one of the best men of his time and country.

It was impossible long to hold in check the restless spirit of the Mexican political leaders. Arista had begun certain reforms in the army, without which it was impossible to reform the state. Interference with the military branch of the government, like meddling with the religion of the people, was a fruitful source of disturbance in Mexico; and the clergy had already taken alarm at his liberalism. Arista made the further mistake of trying to bring the various political factions into accord. Congress was at the time decidedly Liberal, and united with him in a policy of opposition to Centralism. Arista was himself a "Moderado." In a conscientious endeavor to conciliate the parties, he appointed to his cabinet persons who were not fully in accord with the Federal idea of government. This, like compromises attempted on former occasions, failed of its purpose, and served to hasten the downfall of his administration.

In July, 1852, a revolution broke out in Guadalajara, in the State of Jalisco, and spread to Chihuahua, and even as far south as Oaxaca. It took the name of the "Plan del Hospicio," and was clearly in the interests of the Conservative element. The Governor of the State of San Luis Potosi was assassinated, and the revolution otherwise assumed alarming proportions. Arista found it impossible to act in accordance with the advice of his friends without violating what he regarded as the law of the land, and he was averse to assuming the responsibility of involving the country in another civil war. Disheartened at the course affairs were taking, he resigned the Presidency, without, however, dissolving Congress. Thus Mexico lost, in an important crisis, one of the best of her rulers,—an eminent patriot, a model soldier, and citizen. He left the country immediately, and died a year later, in poverty and obscurity, at Lisbon, Portugal.

Congress installed, as Arista's successor, Don Juan Bautista Ceballos, who was President of the Supreme Court of Justice and a pronounced Moderado. This meant, in his case, that he was strongly inclined to be a Conservative. In accordance with former usages in such crises. Congress, after releasing all prisoners held by the government for political offences, conferred full discretionary powers in all branches of the government upon the President, which was equivalent to constituting Ceballos Dictator.

But Congress was far too liberal in its principles to suit Ceballos, and he forthwith dissolved the body from which he derived both his office and his authority. Congress immediately reassembled in the house of one of the deputies in the capital, passed resolutions branding the doughty President as a traitor, and proceeded to elect Juan Mugica y Osorio to the Presidency; and Mexico returned once more to a state of anarchy and political chaos. Mugica was a merchant of the capital, serving at the time as Governor of the State of Puebla. He declined the rather shadowy office thus offered him (a rare instance of self-abnegation in the history of Mexican public life), and Ceballos, realizing the seriousness of the opposition to his arbitrary administration, resigned the Presidency. A military demonstration was made in favor of General Manuel Maria Lombardini and Centralism, coupled with a demand for a national convention to frame a new Constitution. Lombardini was seated as Acting President; and Ceballos, to relieve himself of further responsibility and to insure the acceptance of his resignation, went through the formality of appointing him President.

Lombardini had been reared a soldier, had participated in the struggle between the "Yorkinos" and "Escoceses" in 1828, and had suffered banishment by Arista after the war with the United States. He was a clear-headed man, but without any ability as a statesman.

The purposes of the leaders of the revolution which was now in progress became apparent when a committee of public men started out for New Granada in search of Santa Anna. That irrepressible person had throughout his exile maintained a correspondence with the Conservative, Centralist, and Clerical leaders, and no one could be more successful than he in influencing the minds of the Mexicans by means of letters. He was far more successful in managing the domestic affairs of Mexico when abroad than he had been in efforts to control them at home. General Lombardini had no difficulty in securing the election, by the States, of General Santa Anna as President of Mexico.

He landed in Mexico on the first of April, 1853, and almost before the people were aware of his presence among them he began a journey which was in the nature of a triumphal procession from the coast to the capital. Banners and bells, cannon, triumphal arches and flowers, were all called into requisition in welcoming the man who had repeatedly threatened Mexico's destruction, and who had never yet answered the charges of robbery and treason brought against him; who had been engaged in secret negotiations with the United States government, through which the issue of the war between that nation and Mexico had been disastrous to the latter country; who had intrigued with European powers for the institution of monarchy in his native land; and whom the Mexican people had more than once declared worthy of death, and had not suffered to remain in their land.

At Guadalupe-Hidalgo, he took the oath as President on the fifteenth of April. He organized his government, with Lucas Alaman, the avowed monarchist, at its head as Secretary of State; and with Conservatives, in full accord with his plans of absolutism, in charge of the other portfolios. Five days later he entered the capital, and issued a proclamation of general amnesty to all who had been charged with political offences. It was an appropriate afterpiece to the farce he had been acting; for nothing could be more ludicrous than Santa Anna, guilty as he was of every political crime, offering pardon to those who had fallen under the displeasure of his adherents because of their efforts to support the Constitutional Government of Mexico.

The Centralists and Conservatives were again everywhere triumphant. The nation had voluntarily placed itself at the feet of its oppressors, and was really entitled to little sympathy. An era of the most despotic absolutism ensued. Congress was dissolved, and the legislatures of the several States were abolished. The government of every city having less than ten thousand inhabitants was suppressed, and the administration of the revenue was centralized. Public employees were deprived of the right to express an opinion upon public affairs. The liberty of the press was curtailed to such an extent as to be virtually destroyed. The militia was disbanded, and the army was increased. The Jesuits were re-established by decree, dated May first, 1853. The Dictator provided himself with ample funds, by the sale to the United States, for ten millions of dollars, of a tract of land known as the Gadsden Purchase. Of this amount, very little found its way into the national treasury of Mexico. While thus depriving the Mexicans of their rights, and using his position for his personal aggrandizement, Santa Anna sought some means to flatter certain classes. He re-established the Order of Guadalupe, originally instituted by the Emperor Iturbide, retaining for himself therein the office of Grand Master. Throwing aside all pretentions to Republican simplicity, he demanded that he be addressed as "Serene Highness."

At the same time, plans for the establishment of a monarchy in Mexico were being revived, as though in fulfillment of his alleged threat; and in July, 1854, Santa Anna appointed Gutierrez de Estrada (who had been maintaining an active correspondence with the Clerical and Monarchical leaders in Mexico) a special commissioner to negotiate with the governments of France, England, Austria, and Spain, for the establishment of a European prince upon a throne to be erected in Mexico. But for the sudden and timely fall of Santa Anna, some results might have been obtained from these negotiations. "Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad." Santa Anna's personal vanity carried him to the extent of madness. To many persons who by no means sanctioned his acts, his assumptions of grandeur were the subject of ridicule. The army was naturally pleased with his policy of Centralism, and some of the garrisons were ready at any time to proclaim him Emperor. There were some who actually believed that his strong personal government was necessary to save Mexico from anarchy and ruin. He had a body of sychophants about him who held him up before the people as a self-sacrificing hero who was giving up his all to the public good. But his pride and arrogance caused his final downfall.

On the sixteenth of December, 1853, he issued a decree declaring himself Perpetual Dictator. A government was thereby established more absolute than any Mexico had ever yet known. The press was muzzled, and a system of espionage was instituted by which the enemies of the Dictator could be discovered and brought to punishment. The Dictatorship was to be largely a government by intrigue. High Liberals were imprisoned, and the "court" of the Dictator was filled with the most vicious members of society.

Alaman promptly resigned the portfolio of State. Monarchist as he was, he was disgusted with the prospect of Mexico under the Imperial rule of such a man as Santa Anna. A revolution long brewing in Acapulco finally broke out. The leader was the old revolutionary hero, General Juan Alvarez. A new order of things was dawning upon Mexico.

Alvarez was a full-blooded Indian, who exerted a great influence over the people of his race. He had served under Morelos, and had never ceased to love liberty. At this time he was over sixty-three years of age, and was serving as governor of the State of Guerrero. The Dictatorship of Santa Anna proposed to deprive him of his governorship and destroy the sovereignty of his State.

The new revolutionary movement was called the "Plan de Ayotla." It called for a Congress to form a new Constitution, by which a Federal Republican system would take the place of the Dictatorship established by Santa Anna. The "Plan" as originally set forth was somewhat modified, in order that it might commend itself to the "Moderados," or less extreme Conservatives, and gain their support, which seemed to mean its eventual success; and more particularly that it might gain the support of General Ignacio Comonfort, who was destined to be a leader in the affairs of Mexico at a critical period of her history.

Comonfort was in many respects a remarkable man. He was at this time about forty years of age, and in addition to his military training (he was a captain of cavalry as early as 1832, and had risen to the rank of General since) he had some knowledge of public affairs. He was prefect of Tlalpa when scarcely more than of legal age, and at the age of thirty was a deputy to Congress; and again, four years later, was sitting in the Congress at Queretaro. He was then chosen Senator by the State of Puebla, and served until 1851. He was a third time elected to Congress in 1852, and served subsequently as Custom-House director. His dismissal from this post by Santa Anna was the direct cause of his joining Alvarez and attaching himself to the ''Plan de Ayotla." He was of the Liberal party, but was disposed to be conciliatory, and proposed the modification of the original "Plan" which was intended to attract the "Moderados."

Comonfort organized and reinforced the troops identified with the new movement, and found himself at the head of an army ready to assume the aggressive and make itself formidable to the Dictator at the capital. The "Plan" received jubilant support from every quarter. It was seconded by distinguished leaders in Michoacan, in Nuevo Leon, in Tamaulipas, in San Luis Potosi, in Vera Cruz, and in the State of Mexico. Santa Anna, being unsuccessful in his efforts to suppress the revolution, now tried to conciliate the malcontents by changing his policy. He removed the Conservatives from his cabinet, and appointed "Moderados" in their places. But it was all to no purpose. His changes of front while he was in office deceived nobody. It was only when he was out of the country that his professions of conversion to Liberalism affected the popular mind. The "Plan de Ayotla" continued to gain ground. The popular elections, proposed by Santa Anna to determine whether or not his government by Dictatorship should continue, were so fraudulently manipulated by the Conservatives as to increase the popular discontent and contribute to the success of the cause of Alvarez and of the "Plan de Ayotla."

Santa Anna gave up the governmental experiment as hopeless. He appointed a triumvirate, composed of the President of the Supreme Court of Justice, General Salas, and General Martin Carrera, to administer the government during his proposed absence from the capital; then he secretly left the city, on the night of the ninth of August, 1855, and was escorted by Haro y Tamaris to Perote. There he issued a manifesto—the last of the remarkable papers of that class by which he was to address the Mexican people. It commended his own services, and laid upon others the culpability of having ruined the country. On the thirteenth of August he went into voluntary exile. He was never again permitted to take a prominent part in the politics of Mexico.

According to the new "Plan," Santa Anna was to be deprived of the Presidency; a President ad interim  was to be appointed by a Junta, or Assembly of Representatives from all the States; and a Congress was to be convened for the purpose of adopting a constitution by which Mexico was thenceforth to be governed. Santa Anna had, by his own act, obviated the necessity of taking the first step in this program and the leaders of the "Plan" proceeded forthwith to convene a "Constituent Congress," as it was called. In the anarchy which followed the flight of Santa Anna from the capital, General Romulo Diaz de la Vega became Acting President, by the nomination of the garrison at the capital and with the consent of the governing triumvirate appointed by Santa Anna. He was quickly succeeded by General Martin Carrera, who resigned within a month, and the duties of the Executive office again devolved upon General Diaz de la Vega, who practically represented the party sustaining the "Plan de Ayotla," and he appointed a cabinet composed of Liberals and adherents of the "Plan."

The Junta of Representatives was convened in Cuernavaca, for the election of a President ad interim  until the whole program of the "Plan de Ayotla" could be accomplished and a Constitutional President could be elected and installed. General Juan Alvarez, General Ignacio Comonfort, Melchor Ocampo, and Santiago Vidaurri, were candidates for the office of President ad interim. The choice fell upon General Alvarez, and he received the recognition of the representatives of the foreign governments at the capital.

Two distinct factions among the professed adherents to the "Plan de Ayotla" made themselves conspicuous as soon as the adherents of the "Plan" entered seriously upon the tasks they had set themselves to accomplish. Comonfort and his immediate followers, calling themselves "Moderados," were disposed to compromise somewhat with the past, and to invite the cooperation of the parties then in existence and lately in power. As a result of their conciliatory action, some pronounced Conservatives had professed adherence to the "Plan." Antonio de Haro y Tamaris, Felix Zuloaga, and others, were among them. These afterwards proved utterly unfaithful to the party supporting the "Plan," and withdrew to organize the party of the Reactionaries, which included the clericals and clerical sympathizers, and the Ultra-Conservatives. The other faction was thoroughly radical, and would make no compromises whatever with the past misgovernment of the country. The members called themselves "Puros," and came to be known as High Liberals, Advanced Liberals, and later as the Reform Party, They brought new names into prominence in the history of Mexico,—Melchor Ocampo, Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, and Benito Juarez, among them.

General Diaz de la Vega tried to harmonize these two factions in the interests of the "Plan de Ayotla," by appointing representatives of both upon his cabinet; but this experiment resulted as similar ones had done before in Mexican public affairs, though the administration of Diaz de la Vega was of too short duration to bring about the disasters that had previously ensued from such attempted conciliatory measures.

The Advanced Liberals sent to Alvarez, immediately after his election, begging him to come at once to the capital and begin his plans for the reorganization and reformation of the nation. The "Moderados," or less advanced wing of the new Liberal party, showed themselves still under the spell of the Conservatives, by seconding the appeal of the clergy and aristocrats for Comonfort to take charge of the government and "free society from the invasion of the barbarians." For Alvarez, himself a pure Indian, was being accompanied upon his march to the capital by a bodyguard of Indians. Between these and the hordes of savage Indians whom Hidalgo had aroused, the Conservative alarmists sought to establish analogies; and they were not averse to arousing a race feeling to carry their ends.

Alvarez arrived in the capital, with his bodyguard of Indians, in November, 1855, and organized his government with Comonfort as his Minister of War, and Benito Juarez as Minister of Justice and Ecclesiastical Relations. These appointments were, in effect, a notice to Centralists, Conservatives, Clericals, and the Military Power, and even to the "Moderados," that Mexico was to be free from their control, and was to be supplied with a government based upon a fundamental law seeking the highest welfare of the governed.

The Advanced Liberals had formulated a definite program for the constitutional regeneration of the country, and it was one of the steps in the reform of the government that was promulgated, on the twenty-third of November, 1855, in what is known as the "Ley Juarez." This law (taking its name from Benito Juarez, its author) was intended to regulate the administration of justice and the organization of courts of law. By certain articles of this law, special courts were suppressed, and jurisdiction in civil cases was removed from military and ecclesiastical courts.

This might seem like beginning at the wrong end to work a great reform in the constitutional government of a nation; and the measure was, indeed, censured by the enemies of the Liberal government as an attempt, from ulterior motives, to humiliate the clergy and limit their influence. The fact is that these measures were in strict conformity to the "Plan de Ayotla," and were necessary to prevent political disturbances already threatening; they formed, therefore, an important part of the Liberal program of reform. It was felt, after long and patient study of the subject, that this measure would strike at the very source of some of the greatest evils from which the country had long suffered. For one of the inheritances Mexico had received from the period of Spanish rule was the exclusive jurisdiction claimed by ecclesiastical and military courts in all cases, civil and criminal, in which clerics or soldiers were involved. The evils of such a system are easily seen when it is considered that half the crimes committed in Mexico were by men amenable only to military courts, and that these courts were exceedingly lax in the administration of justice. More than a quarter of the landed property in the country belonged to clerics, and even the women who kept house for them, and their servants, evaded the payment of just debts because the tradesmen could not enforce their claims in the civil courts.

The ecclesiastical authorities saw at once, in the passage of the "Ley Juarez," an attack upon the rights of the Church,—their petted fueros,—and they protested most vigorously against the passage of the law and against the means which the Liberals proposed should be provided for the administration of justice and for equalizing the operations of law. This clerical opposition brought into prominence the Bishop of Michoacan, the Rt. Rev. Antonio Pelagio de Labastida y Davilos, who had been but recently advanced to the Episcopate. He was a native of Morelia, and had gained some notoriety there, as a parish priest and orthodox pulpit orator, by preaching against liberal and democratic doctrines and against Freemasonry. He had thus made the home of Morelos, and the entire State of Michoacan, a great bulwark for the Conservatives. In March, 1854, he anathematized from the pulpit, as heretical, the doctrines of Ocampo and Miguel Lerdo. His zeal in that regard was rewarded by his elevation to the Episcopate.

Alvarez was without ambition to rule the country, and complied with the request of some of the "Moderados" that he resign. Having all confidence in Comonfort, he practically abandoned the Presidency to him, on the twelfth of December, 1855. Comonfort, with the evident intention of carrying his policy of conciliation and compromise as far as possible, appointed, as his cabinet, men who had been identified with the former governments, as "Moderados" or Conservatives; thus relieving of office Benito Juarez, who was in disfavor with the "Moderados" and Clericals.

Comonfort continued, however, to reform the army and advance the principles of the Liberals. The next decisive step in the direction of reform was the famous "Ley Lerdo,"—the production of Juarez and Ocampo, though revised and introduced in Congress by Miguel Lerdo de Tejada and passed on the twenty-fifth of June, 1856. Lerdo was especially active among the men who were endeavoring to reform the nation, though he had taken a prominent part in the movement by which Santa Anna had been recalled in 1853. He afterwards allied himself with the Liberals, and continued with them to the end of his life. He was a native of Vera Cruz, had received a collegiate education, and had engaged in commercial pursuits. He had likewise acquired a reputation as a statistician and publicist, and had published a history of the State of Vera Cruz. Alvarez appointed him Under Secretary of Public Works, and Comonfort made him Secretary of the Treasury, in May, 1856. It was in the latter capacity, and with extensive statistical and politico-economical knowledge at his command, that he was able to revise and complete the law which is known by his name, and which revolutionized Mexico.

This "Ley de Desamortizacion civil y ecclesiastica," as it was officially called, removed from all corporations, civil and ecclesiastical, the right to own lands beyond what was necessary for the transaction of their legitimate business, and thus prevented the accumulation of wealth in hands where it would be of no benefit to the commonwealth. It gave to all lessees of Church property the right to purchase the same on advantageous terms, at a price to be assessed by commissioners appointed for that purpose; and gave the right of "denunciation," by which any improved untenanted property of the Church could be entered and possessed and the title secured by any citizen. All unimproved land of the Church was to be sold at an assessed value. The Church was to receive the proceeds of all these transactions, but the land was to be freed from ecclesiastical control and no longer exempt from taxation. Up to the end of the year 1856, the total value of property transferred under this decree was over twenty millions of dollars.

The Clericals made strenuous efforts to defeat this law. The bishop of Puebla protested against the intervention of the government in matters belonging to the Church, and preached sermons of a seditious character thereupon. The Archbishop of Mexico desired that the question involving ecclesiastical fueros  be submitted to the Pope of Rome—a proposition which was at once indignantly refused by the government of Mexico. Why should a foreign ecclesiastical potentate be called upon to decide a question between the Mexican government and its subjects?—and especially a question in which the Pope had an interest identical with that of one of the parties?

A reactionary movement was organized in Puebla, where forces variously estimated at from five to fifteen thousand were mobilized by the Clericals. Antonio de Haro y Tamaris was given the title of General-in-chief of these forces. He had never fully accepted the principles of the Liberals, and after recognizing Comonfort and the "Plan de Ayotla," he returned to the Conservatives with whom he had been accustomed to affiliate. In January, 1856, he had been suspected of attempting to establish an Empire, with either himself or a son of Iturbide as Emperor. He was then arrested, and taken to Vera Cruz, to be sent into exile. He escaped to Puebla, and in February placed himself at the disposal of the Clerical Reactionaries.

Puebla was besieged by the government forces. Haro y Tamaris defended the city obstinately; but Liberal ideas spread, disaffection grew up among the soldiers, and on the twentieth of March the gates of the city were opened to the besiegers. Haro y Tamaris was taken prisoner and sent into exile.

Comonfort not only acted with great promptness and decision in regard to suppressing the revolution in Puebla, but he issued a decree punishing the Reactionary officers and causing the sequestration of enough of the Church property in the Diocese of Puebla (whose clergy had been the chief instigators of the insurrection) to pay the expenses of the war and to indemnify the government for all damages sustained thereby. It was a bold step, and created a sensation.

Despite all opposition, Congress passed the "Ley Lerdo," eighty-two out of ninety deputies voting for it. The law took effect on the twenty-fifth of June. On the fifth of that month the Jesuits were suppressed by a decree of the government. The Reform was advancing. But the Clergy were in opposition, and from that time the war-cry of the Clerical Reactionaries was Religion y Fueros.