From Empire to Republic - Arthur H. Noll

Constitutional Government Bearing Fruits

Juarez had not been inducted into office in December, 1871, without a formal protest from Porfirio Diaz, whose action in regard thereto—taking the name of the "Plan de Noria"—might be regarded as revolutionary and reactionary. His proposition was to avoid threatened evils by convening an Assembly of Notables, and to reorganize the government. The movement collapsed with the death of Juarez, who was immediately succeeded in the Presidency by Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada, the President of the Supreme Court of Justice, and constitutional successor to the Presidency.

Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada, like his brother Miguel, was a scholar and a gentleman. He had long been identified with the struggle for constitutional government, and was, as we have seen, one of the "Immaculates" of the fugitive government of Juarez. He had been perhaps unpleasantly influential in that government in the trying time when it had the condemned Austrian Archduke to dispose of. In the subordinate positions he had occupied under Juarez, he passed readily for a statesman and a patriot. But both statesmanship and patriotism failed to stand the severe test to which his sudden call to the Presidency subjected them.

Nor was he the man to lead turbulent Mexicans on to an appreciation of the blessings they might enjoy under constitutional government. He was somewhat under the spell of the old system. He sought at first to maintain the policy of Juarez, and retained his cabinet, which was something of an affront to the leaders of the movement under the "Plan de Noria." He looked upon Porfirio Diaz from the start as a dangerous rival, and had him proscribed. He tried to strengthen himself in the affection of the people by a Decree of General Amnesty, and then ordered a special election. He thus began a constitutional term of four years in the Presidency, in December, 1872.

For three years his administration was tolerated, and the country was quiet and progressive. His contribution to the history of Constitutional revision was the adoption of the following Reform laws as Amendments to the Constitution on the twenty-fifth of September, 1873.

"Article 1. The State and the Church are independent of one another. Congress may not pass laws establishing or prohibiting any religion.

"Art. 2. Marriage is a civil contract. This and the other acts relating to the civil state of persons belong to the exclusive jurisdiction of the functionaries and authorities of the civil order, within limits provided by laws, and they shall have the force and validity which the same attribute to them.

"Art. 3. No religious institution may acquire real estate or capital fixed upon it, with the single exception established in Article 27 of this Constitution.

"Art. 4. The simple promise to speak the truth and to comply with the obligations which have been incurred, shall be substituted for the religious oath, with its effects and penalties."

And to Article 5 of the original Constitution were added the words:

"The law, consequently, may not recognize monastic orders, nor may it permit their establishment, whatever may be the denomination or object with which they claim to be formed."

The immediate effect of these additions to the Constitution was the suppression of the last remaining religious order in Mexico—the Sisters of Charity.

It was evident, as the expiration of his term of office drew near, that Lerdo was preparing to secure a reelection. It was alleged also that his administration had lost the confidence of the Mexican people. It had been guilty of gross abuses under certain election laws, the passage of which it had secured. It had subverted the Federal system and reestablished Centralism. It was charged with corruption in the granting of subsidies and franchises to railroads, with reckless financiering in refunding the English debt, and with jeopardizing the territory to the United States. A remedy for the evils thus alleged to have been brought upon the country was not to be secured by pacific means, owing to the outrageous manner in which the elections were conducted. There were hints, also, that Lerdo had taken at least the sub-diaconate in the Church, and was hence ineligible to the Presidency under Article 77 of the Constitution, which says that the President shall "not belong to the ecclesiastical order."

The days of "Plans" and pronunciamentos had not fully passed; for in January, 1876, the "Plan de Tuxtepec" was put forth in the State of Oaxaca, and by midsummer the whole country was again in a state of revolution. General Porfirio Diaz appeared upon the scene early in April, emerging from a place of exile not far from the Rio Grande. The last of the "Plans," as endorsed by him, furnishes a fair specimen of this class of pronunciamentos, which has played such a prominent part in the history of Mexico. It was as follows:

"Article 1. The Supreme law of the Republic shall be the Constitution of 1857, the Reform act promulgated September 25, 1873, and the Law of December 14, 1874.

"Art. 2. The same law making the President and Governors of the States ineligible to the same position will be maintained, this being a measure of constitutional reform which we agree to sustain by all the legal means afforded to us by the Constitution.

"Art. 3. We repudiate Don Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada as President of the Republic, and all those persons employed by him or occupying positions under him, or elected at the elections of July, 1875.

"Art. 4. All State Governments adhering to this Plan will be recognized; those refusing to do so will be placed under a provisional government to be appointed by the executive officer of the army.

"Art. 5. The election of the officers of the Union will be held two months after the capture of the capital of the Republic, at such places as the Executive shall appoint one month after the capture, and will be held under the election laws of February 12, 1857, and October 23, 1872. At the time appointed for the interior elections. Congress shall assemble, and shall proceed immediately to carry out the provisions of Article 51 of the first-mentioned laws, in order that the constitutional President of the Republic may enter upon the discharge of the functions of his office, and that the supreme tribunal may be installed.

"Art. 6. The executive powers, except those which are purely administrative, will be conferred during the elections upon the President of the Supreme Court of Justice, or upon the magistrate discharging the duties of his office, provided they shall have accepted in all their parts and provisions the conditions of this Plan, and shall have signified their said acceptance by publishing the same in the public press within one month from the day the said Plan shall have been published in the newspapers of the capital. The neglect or refusal on the part of the functionary will invest the chief military officer of that State with the powers of chief executive."

The situation was complicated by a pronunciamento issued by Iglesias, President of the Supreme Court of Justice, whose argument was that if Lerdo were not President he was his constitutional successor. Iglesias attempted to establish his government in Guanajuato, and it seemed for a time that Mexico had gone back to the old unhappy days of rival parties and revolutions. The three new parties received the names of "Lerdistas," "Porfiristas,"and "Iglesistas, "respectively.

Diaz took command of the revolutionary army, and pursued an energetic and finally successful campaign. The decisive battle was fought at Tecoac, in the autumn of 1876, and the victory was with the "Porfiristas." The "Iglesistas" promptly collapsed. Lerdo fled to the United States, taking with him some of the public funds. General Diaz advanced to the capital in November, and was proclaimed Provisional President. The following April he was elected "Constitutional" President, and was so formally declared by Congress for a term ending November 30, 1880.

There is, of course, much reasonable doubt as to the legality of the steps by which the Presidency of General Porfirio Diaz was brought about. The career of this wonderful man, who was now at the head of affairs, reflects much of the history of his country at the time the struggle for constitutional government was going on, and explains many of the strange features of a movement by which a man attaining to power by means that can only be called unconstitutional, and subversive of all law, should finally establish constitutional government in his land.

Diaz was a Oaxacan, born on the anniversary of the Grito de Dolores  in 1830. Through his mother he derived some Indian blood. Like many of his time, he was at first intended for the Church; but at an early age he volunteered for service in the war with the United States, though he was not sent to the front. He then decided upon a career at the bar, took a four years' course at the Institute with which Juarez was connected, and, entering the law office of Juarez, became Professor of Roman Law in his alma mater. In war and politics, he took lessons under Herrera in the revolt against Santa Anna. He received honorable wounds on the side of good government in the little wars waged in the neighborhood of Oaxaca, until he got a Lieutenant-Colonelcy, and finally came to be Chief of a Brigade in the War of the Reform. The bare record of his military exploits, wounds, captures, and escapes, in the War of the Reform and in that of the Intervention, would read like a romance.

As the Empire fell to pieces, the effort was twice made by the Imperialists to make Diaz President. But Diaz was loyal to the Republic as established under the Constitution of 1857, and to his friend and early benefactor Benito Juarez. After the fall of Queretaro he secured the surrender of the City of Mexico, and prepared for the return of Juarez to his capital. He then retired to his estate of "La Noria," in the State of Oaxaca. The "Progresistas" made him their candidate for the Presidency, against Juarez, in 1867; but he made little effort on behalf of his election. When, however, Juarez was reelected in 1871, and showed a laxity about the reforms which he had promised to institute, and gave further evidence of failing powers, Diaz protested in the famous pronunciamento, or "Plan de Noria." Friendly as he was with Juarez, he placed the principles for which Juarez stood before Juarez himself.

It would have been remarkable indeed if, when the "Plan de Tuxtepec" was proclaimed, it had failed to appeal to Porfirio Diaz. It would have been remarkable indeed if such a man had failed to see, in the course events were taking, the great opportunity for Mexico to establish constitutional government permanently. He was by training a military strategist. His mind was trained to seek ends, irrespective of the means employed. To secure the vantage-point from which to render the Constitution operative in the government of Mexico, no other course was open to Diaz and his followers than that which was successfully pursued under the "Plan de Tuxtepec."

It may be that none of these considerations were in the mind of Diaz and his followers at the time, or until long subsequently; and in such a case the history of Mexico is by no means unique. In other nations, the path to independence and to constitutional government has led through acts that were in themselves unconstitutional. And Mexico's training for national life had not been such as to prepare her to take in every case a course of unimpeachable legality.

Whether or not these ideas were in the minds of Diaz and his followers before the success of the "Plan de Tuxtepec," it is obvious that, immediately after the establishment of General Diaz in the Presidency by means of a constitutional election, his unquestioned purpose was to confine every act of the government within the limits of the Constitution of 1857. It was a slow and tedious process by which the nation and those employed in the national government were to be trained up to such a course. Nor is it to be doubted or denied that the earlier administration of Diaz was full of mistakes. But nevertheless Mexico began forthwith to develop all the resources of a great and powerful nation.

Soon the time came to furnish proofs of the intention of the new administration to maintain the Constitution. In accordance with the "Plan de Tuxtepec," the Constitution was amended to inhibit the President from holding office for consecutive terms. When, in 1880, the term for which Diaz had been elected expired, he steadfastly adhered to his purpose of abiding by the constitutional provision which rendered him ineligible for a succeeding term. In vain was it pleaded that there were no others who could be trusted to carry out his schemes for constitutional government; he declined to allow his name to be exploited as a candidate for the office. There were no less than eight presidential candidates in the field; and of these, General Manuel Gonzalez—by no means the best of the eight—was constitutionally elected.

Gonzalez was not a man of the new type of statesman needed in Mexico, and his administration was in many respects a reaction from the high principles which had begun to prevail. The influence of Porfirio Diaz was all that kept it from reverting to the days of Santa Anna. Diaz was for a time a member of the cabinet of Gonzalez, at another time Senator from the State of Morelos, and at another time Governor of Oaxaca. In each capacity he sought the material welfare of Mexico. The friendly relations cultivated with the United States, and the investment of American capital in railroads and other enterprises in Mexico, went on with success, even though the moral tone of the government seemed retrogressive.

In 1884, Diaz was, with practical unanimity, reelected President. But ere the administration of Gonzalez gave place to that of Diaz under the Constitution, an incident occurred which, while it seemed for a time about to engulf the country in revolution, gave signs of a regeneration, and that the lessons of the Constitution were being learned.

Under the spell of the old system of politics, a measure was proposed by which the English debt was to be refunded. The measure was in most particulars acceptable to all persons interested, but there were certain features which were clearly in the category of contracts made by the government in the most corrupt periods of its existence. It was evidence of an awakened national conscience that the measure met with opposition when it came up for final passage in the Mexican Congress. And it was a healthy sign that the insurrection that resulted was led by the students of the University. The postponement of the measure until after the inauguration of Diaz was celebrated as a triumph for Los Estudiantes  who obtained credit for the success of their opposition. Thenceforth a new element was introduced into national affairs. Indifferentism in the citizens had been an evil with which the advocates of constitutional reform in Mexico had always to contend. Now there was evidence that the young citizens were taking an interest,—that there were young men in course of training for an intelligent participation in national affairs.

The second constitutional term of President Diaz was inaugurated with financial reforms which were in themselves an earnest of greater things to come. It was not very long before the finances of Mexico were placed upon a firm and altogether satisfactory basis, and the credit of the nation was recognized in all the exchanges of Europe. Alcabalas  (local duties which goods of all descriptions had to pay at state and city boundaries), a long surviving relic of Spanish domination, were abolished. The whole system of tariff was revised and improved. Home industries were encouraged, and the railroad and telegraph lines, begun in a feeble way in the time of Juarez, were extended until distances were annihilated in Mexico as in all parts of the United States.

Immense sums were spent upon public improvements. The improvements made in the harbor at Tampico increased the facilities for Mexico's foreign trade. The drainage canal, intended to solve the problem of protecting the Valley of Mexico from those inundations with which the Spaniards had begun to struggle three centuries before, was begun and carried to a successful termination. The agricultural resources of the country were developed, and manufactures were encouraged. The prison system was improved, and reformatories have already taken the place of what were in former times nests of crime and harbors for the criminal classes. In the reorganization of the army, the matter was managed with such statesmanship that the country was rid of the banditti, who now find it to their interests to serve the country as soldiers, with the prospect of promotion, rather than to pursue their nefarious calling as outcasts from society.

But the greatest result was attained in the stimulus given to education. A system of public schools has been built up which is surpassed by nothing elsewhere in the world. It fixes a minimum of instruction, beyond which anything that is useful and honorable may be taught.

It was not at once that all this was accomplished; and it is, in fact, only in process of accomplishment at the present time. President Diaz learned, and the country learned with him in 1888, that in one important particular the "Plan de Tuxtepec" proposed a political principle that was very defective, and that the changes it had wrought in the Constitution of 1857 were far from desirable. Rotation in office might be in theory advisable in a country which was likely to be governed by time-serving politicians, and where politicians are not educated up to a sense of their duty and responsibility; but when reforms are to be instituted, and a nation is to be regenerated, time is required, and the work is not benefited by a change of administration and of policy every four years. And for a nation such as Mexico to learn self-government thoroughly, a long paternalism is necessary. Juarez had some such idea, but had been unable to put it in practice.

So, when the second constitutional term for which Porfirio Diaz had been elected President drew toward its close, and thoughtful men who were beginning to have a high regard for the needs of the nation cast about them as to who could be found to take his place and carry out his work of reform, it was generally conceded that it would be far easier to amend the Constitution by eliminating the clause, added after the "Plan de Tuxtepec," making the President ineligible for two terms in succession, and leave the Constitution as it was adopted in 1857. And though good-natured critics called attention to what they chose to call the inconsistency of a man's consenting to this amendment of the Constitution after he had come to power upon a "platform" or "plan" expressly declaring against such a succession in office, yet nearly all are ready to recognize that an effort to be precisely "consistent" about details which stand in the way of progress may sometimes amount to stubbornness.

So the Constitution was amended, in 1888, to allow a President two consecutive terms; and in 1892 all limitations were abolished and the Constitution was made to conform in that regard with the instrument which was adopted in 1857, through the efforts of Ocampo, Gomez Farias, Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, and Benito Juarez. In 1892, in 1896, and again in 1900, there was no one to run against Porfirio Diaz for the Presidency of Mexico. Nor is it likely that any one will be found to compete with him for the Presidential office, or for his place in the popular regard, until he concludes that his work of reform is in such shape that it can be safely committed to the hands of another, or until death shall close one of the most remarkable careers of recent times. And it is to be greatly hoped that whoever then succeeds him will be a man who has learned, by close observation of the lives of Juarez and Diaz, and of the course of Mexican history for the past half -century, what blessings are to be obtained by means of a true Constitutional Government.