From Empire to Republic - Arthur H. Noll

Centralism Under the "Bases Organicas" of 1843

In 1837 Anastasio Bustamante returned from his exile in France, whither he had been sent by Gomez Farias, and was elected by his friends in Congress to supersede Corro in the titular Presidency. One plot after another against the government disturbed his administration. Almost immediately after his accession there was a movement in favor of Federalism, and designed to restore Gomez Farias, (who was being held as a political prisoner) to liberty and to put him into the Presidency in Bustamante's place. Another plot had for its supposed object the division of the country and the setting up of "The Republic of Sierra Madre" upon the eastern slope of the mountains so named. The Republic was to be composed of the States of that locality, which were largely Federalist in their political principles. Doubtless if all the States in which Federalist principles predominated had been contiguous, the disruption of the country would have ensued, or the Centralists would have been earlier forced to yield to the demands of the Federalists. These insurrections were, however, put down before they had gained any headway.

In 1838 General Mexia made a brilliant effort for the emancipation of Mexico from the rule of Absolutists. He advanced as far as Puebla with a brave band of patriots, and with the purpose of proceeding to the capital, but he was encountered by General Santa Anna, who had crept forth from his retirement to recover his lost popularity by some daring exploit of arms, and was entrusted by Bustamante with the command of the government troops sent out against Mexia. Mexia was taken captive, not by superiority of military skill, but by treachery; and was executed by his inhuman captor upon the field of battle.

It was in the same year that a French squadron blockaded Vera Cruz in pursuit of what is known in Mexican history as the "Pie Claim." Santa Anna, taking advantage of this opportunity to recover the military and political prestige lost at San Jacinto, took command of the Mexican troops and drove the French back to their vessels. In this battle he received wounds that necessitated the amputation of a leg. The loss of this member became thenceforth a new and important element in Mexican politics. Santa Anna was able to plead with his fellow-countrymen, when it became necessary to send forth one of those manifestos for which he was famous, that his patriotic sacrifices had been greater than those of Napoleon (with whom he was fond of comparing himself), as he had lost a limb in defense of his native land.

In 1839 President Bustamante left the care of the government to Santa Anna, and put himself at the head of the army to repel another insurrection. This was likewise a Federalist movement, and was headed by Gomez Farias and one of his military friends. It started at some distance from the capital, but soon spread in that direction; and the following year, when Bustamante returned to the capital and to the exercise of his presidential functions, he found himself at one time a prisoner in the hands of the insurgents. Some sort of an understanding was reached by which hostilities were suspended, the lives of the insurgents were spared under a general amnesty, and this insurrectionary movement came to an end without accomplishing anything for the improvement of Mexico.

It was evident, however, that a more serious struggle was pending. In 1842 General Mariano Paredes y Arrillaga pronounced against the government. He was followed by General Valencia and General Lombardini in the capital, and by the irrepressible General Santa Anna in Vera Cruz. Among various indefinite causes alleged for this insurrection was the inadequacy of the Constitution of 1836. There was also a well-recognized popular discontent over certain onerous duties and taxes imposed by the Conservative government.

Bustamante occupied the National Palace at the capital, and with his troops held certain other portions of the city. General Valencia, in opposition to him, controlled the ciudadela  from which he cannonaded the city. For months the city was in a state of siege, with frequent contests in the streets, and some more harmless conflicts between the rival troops on the adjacent plains. The chief damage was done to innocent non-combatants in the city, upon whom shot and shell occasionally descended.

The President finally decided upon a more vigorous campaign, and took the field against the insurgents, leaving the government in the hands of the Senior Member and President of the Government Council, who was virtual Vice-President under the Constitution of 1836. Javier Echavarria, who thus became Acting President of the Republic, was a merchant of Vera Cruz, and a notable exception to the military character of the Mexican rulers. After fruitless battles, and after interviews and negotiations equally fruitless, between the chiefs of the different parties, the revolution was terminated by a meeting at Tacubaya in September. A "Plan," inspired by the followers of Santa Anna, was agreed upon and signed by one hundred and ninety-one persons, by which the then existing Constitution was superseded.

The "Plan de Tacubaya," as it was called, proclaimed a general amnesty to political offenders on both sides, and provided that a Congress should be called to frame a new Constitution for the better government of the Republic. A "Junta of Notables" was formed, the members to be named by the General-in-chief of the army. The junta was to elect a Provisional President, who, by one of the articles of the "Plan," was to be "clothed with all power necessary to reorganize the nation and all branches of administration"—in other words, to be invested with supreme power. The General-in-chief of the army, by the appointment of Bustamante, was Santa Anna. He selected the junta in accordance with the terms of the "Plan." The junta returned the compliment, and elected Santa Anna Provisional President.

The "Plan de Tacubaya" was so far successful that Bustamante left the Presidency and departed for Europe, and Echevarria was superseded as Provisional President by Santa Anna, who thus, after defeat, disgrace, and capture by his enemies, now recovered the Supreme power in the land. A Congress, composed of "patriotic citizens" chosen by the people, met in June, 1842, and was opened by a speech from the Provisional President, in which he positively declared his preference for a firm and centralized government, but intimated his readiness to acquiesce in the decisions of that deliberative body.

After Congress had made two unsuccessful attempts to devise a system of government that would be acceptable to both parties, Santa Anna thought it best to retire from the scene. He placed the affairs of the government in the hands of General Nicolas Bravo and Valentin Canalizo, who were by turns to execute his mandates during his absence from the capital. Bravo promptly dissolved Congress and revived the "Junta of Notables" created under the "Plan de Tacubaya." The junta put forth a new Constitution, known as the "Bases Organicas Politicas de la Republica Mexicana." It was dated on the thirteenth of June, 1843, and centralized the government still further than the Constitution of 1836 had done.

By its first section, the new Constitution declared that Mexico adopted the form of a popular representative system for its government; that the territory was divided into departments; that the political power resided not in the people but in the nation; that the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Creed was professed and protected to the exclusion of all other forms of religion.

The second section abolished slavery, and declared that no one should be molested for his opinions or called upon for contributions or government loans excepting such as were regularly imposed by law. The third section declared citizens all persons born in Mexican territory, or born elsewhere of a Mexican father, as well as all who were in Mexico in 1821 who had not renounced their allegiance; also all natives of Central America at the time it belonged to Mexico, who had continued to reside in Mexico, and all who had obtained or should thereafter obtain letters of naturalization. It limited the right of suffrage to male citizens of eighteen years and upwards if married, or twenty-one or upwards if not married, provided they were in the enjoyment of an annual income of at least two hundred dollars derived from actual capital, industry, or honest personal labor; and after 1850 the suffrage was to be further restricted to those who were able to read and write. The rights of citizenship were to be forfeited by entering into domestic servitude, by habitual intemperance, by the taking of religious vows, the keeping of prohibited gambling-houses, and by fraudulent bankruptcy.

The legislative power was to reside in a Congress divided into a Chamber of Deputies and a Senate. The first branch was to consist of individuals elected by Electoral Colleges in the departments, in the ratio of one for every seventy thousand inhabitants, except that every department should have at least one deputy. There was also to be a deputy in any department having a population of thirty-five thousand in excess of the seventy thousand or a multiple thereof. The Senate was to consist of sixty-three members,—forty-two to be elected by the Departmental Assemblies, and the remaining twenty-one by the Chamber of Deputies, the President of the Republic, and the Supreme Court of Justice. The Departmental Assemblies were to select five persons each from the classes of agriculturists, miners, merchants, and manufacturers, and the rest of them from the class called "Distinguished Individuals." Those appointed by the President and by the Supreme Court were to be men who had signalized themselves in a civil, military, or ecclesiastical career.

The Executive Power was to be confided for five years to a President, who was to be a Mexican by birth, in full enjoyment of the rights of citizenship, over forty years of age, and a resident of the Republic at the time of his election. Among the duties prescribed for him were the following: He was to impose fines, not exceeding five hundred dollars, on those who disobeyed his orders, and were wanting in respect and obedience to the laws; to see that prompt justice was administered; to visit the tribunals whenever informed of delays or of the existence of disorders in those bodies; to require that precedence be given in the courts to causes concerning the public welfare; to demand information regarding the same whenever deemed proper; and he had the right to veto, within thirty days, any laws passed by Congress not meeting his approval, said veto subject to being overruled by the vote of two-thirds of the members of both houses of Congress; he might declare war, and dispose of the armed forces of the nation as he saw fit, in accordance with the purposes for which they were created; he might expel from the Republic unnaturalized foreigners who were deemed dangerous; and he might name speakers from the Council to defend the opinions of the government before the legislative chambers.

A Council of the Government, composed of seventeen persons to be named by the President, was to perform certain duties in aid of the government in all matters required by the "Bases," and in other matters upon which it might be deemed proper to consult. It was to be the privilege of this Council to propose to the government any regulations that might be deemed necessary for the public welfare in any branch of the administration. The judicial power was declared to reside in a Supreme Court, in Departmental tribunals and others already established by law, and in a perpetual Court Martial chosen by the President. Each Department was to have an Assembly, but, as defined, this amounted to scarcely more than a species of municipal police subject to review by the President and the Departmental Governor appointed by him.

The population of Mexico was divided into sections of five hundred inhabitants each for the election of "Primary Juntas," and the members of each junta were to vote by ballot for one elector. These primary electors were to name the secondary,—one for every twenty primaries; and these latter were to form the Electoral College of the Department. The Electoral College was to elect Deputies to Congress and Members of the Departmental Assembly. Each Departmental Assembly was, every five years, to select a person for President of the Republic. The person receiving the vote of the majority of the Assemblies was to be declared elected. The number of terms for which a person was eligible was not stated, nor was the mode of supplying a vacancy caused by death, resignation, or incompetency, provided for.

Thus had Santa Anna succeeded in forcing upon the country his favorite scheme of government by Centralization of power. He was fortified in his position, and his power was entrenched on every side. He was absolutely removed from the people. Four millions of Indians among his subjects were utterly unrepresented in the government, and were without hope of advancement or of any improvement in their condition. Nothing could be less "popular" than the government organized upon the Bases of Political Organization of the Mexican Republic, proclaimed in June, 1843, as a "Popular Representative Government."

The people were divided into classes of "citizens" and "inhabitants." Property qualifications were created. The voter must have an annual income of at least two hundred dollars, the Deputy to the Departmental Assembly five hundred dollars, the Deputy to the Congressional Chamber, twelve hundred dollars, and the Senator two thousand dollars. Domestic servants and the clergy were disfranchised in the same category with gamblers and drunkards. The direct vote of the people for men to represent them in the Departmental Assemblies, and in Congress or in the Presidency, was abolished. The opinions, sentiments, and preferences of the people were to be filtered through three or more bodies of electors before their representatives could be chosen; and the Supreme Power was vested in a Central government, the people being left with scarcely a shadow of authority over their homes and their political interests in the Departments. Thus, all the revolutions that had gone on in Mexico for twenty years, in which there had appeared now and then some slight evidence of a progressive principle, had culminated in the establishment of what was really a retrogressive system of government; and so far from getting nearer to liberty and enlightenment, the country had at last reached the acme of Centralism and Oligarchy.

A glance at the social conditions of Mexico at this time will in a measure account for this strange situation. The people were forced to submit to a twofold domination especially fostered by the "Bases," that of a military rule and that of the Church. Eight million dollars were annually expended upon the military establishment, and this sum went to the support of the younger members of those families whose influence it was deemed wise to secure for the government. Almost every respectable man met upon the streets of the larger cities wore military dress. But while to a partially informed observer Mexico might thus have appeared as a military nation, to the better informed this military strength was known to be created and maintained, not to protect the nation from foreign aggressions, but to guard the government from the assaults of the people. Although for twenty years the country had been one vast camp and battlefield, the contests had been between the possessors of power and the aspirants therefor. The military strength of the nation was not only being dissipated, but was working a positive injury to the country.

The Church had accumulated a large share of the real property of the country, in addition to the untold wealth which swelled its coffers; and its influence was naturally in favor of that branch of government which preserved its property and protected the religious orders through which it derived its power. These were direct inheritances from the Spanish system, which lingered in spite of the efforts that had been made to cast it off. The result was that there was in the country no numerous and distinctive body of enlightened lawyers or merchants, or educated mechanics or agriculturists, to counterbalance the influence of the two really influential classes of people,—the clergy and the military. An aristocracy of arms and of the spiritual power having been created, agriculture was regarded as a menial occupation. A few Mexicans there were who loved liberty and strove to secure the well-being of the people. Every Congress that assembled contained some of these. They were looked upon as obstructionists by the aspirants to political power, and their efforts were in a large measure thwarted by the people at large, who, hopelessly unhappy in the condition in which they were placed, were indifferent as to the kind of government that was over them.

A Congress was installed in accordance with the "Bases," on New Year's day, 1844, and an election by this Congress confirmed Santa Anna in the Presidency. He at once began to enjoy, to the fullest extent, the pomp and circumstance of royalty, rather than the simplicity presumed to inhere in a Republic. The state he observed as President was, in fact, altogether inconsistent with the Republican institutions he professed to observe. He rode abroad from the National Palace in a coach richly decked with crimson velvet and gold, drawn by four white horses, accompanied by a troop of gaily caparisoned hussars, and with six mounted aides-de-camp  at the sides. He wore the rich gold-embroidered dress of a General of Division. A number of decorations were about his neck, and a medal of great brilliancy upon his breast. In his personal character he was thoroughly inconsistent. He was the habitue  of the cock-pit, as he had been before; for it was not at this time considered beneath the dignity of the grandees of the country to interest themselves in cock-fighting and other low sports. As with the government, so with the people; and the morality of the country was at a lower ebb under the "Bases" than ever before.

Congress was at first disposed to sustain the views of Santa Anna in regard to the re-conquest of Texas, and granted four million dollars of the ten millions he desired for that purpose. But when it was discovered that the first-named sum was impossible of realization, Congress refused to sustain his plans any longer. In point of fact, Congress had become suspicious of the honesty of the President, and was unwilling to entrust so large a sum to his control. And this was but an indication of the bitter opposition to the absolutism of Santa Anna, manifested all over the country. Public opinion was being aroused and was resulting in popular uprisings. So threatening was the aspect of affairs that the President, fearing a serious outbreak and always ready to fly before a coming storm, asked permission of Congress to retire to his estate at Mango de Clava, to arrange his private affairs. The "Bases" had made no provision for the selection of a President ad interim  in such an exigency, and Congress took the matter in hand. Santa Anna was shrewd enough to interpret the meaning of the bare majority by which Canalizo, his candidate for the office of President ad interim, was elected. Canalizo took charge of affairs at the capital, and Santa Anna retired to Vera Cruz to indulge in further intrigues against the country.

He had taken the precaution, however, to mobilize the better part of the army (ostensibly for his proposed expedition upon Texas) eastward of the capital, where he might avail himself of its services in case of need. But his plans were disconcerted by a movement in a most unexpected quarter. General Mariano Paredes y Arrillaga had been one of the chief instruments of Santa Anna in the overthrow of Bustamante and the establishment of the ultra-Centralized government, and he had received as the reward of his efficient services the position of Military Commandant of the Department of Jalisco. He disagreed with Canalizo, the President ad interim  and did not hesitate to express his disapproval in a most public and official manner. He had the Departmental Junta, or Assembly of Jalisco, publish an "Initiative," or "Constitutional Act," as it was called, demanding that the National Congress "make the provisional government amenable to the Plan of Tacubaya;" that it repeal a certain law imposing extraordinary contributions (forced loans); and that it reform those articles of the Constitution which were inimical to the prosperity of the Departments. All the civil and military authorities of Jalisco indorsed this initiative, and the Departments of Aguas Calientes, Zacatecas, Sinaloa and Sonora concurred. Paredes, who was on his way to take command of the Department of Sonora, stopped at Guadalajara with his troops, and from that city dated his pronunciamento against Santa Anna and "assumed the functions of Military Chief of the Revolution." He took up his position, with fourteen hundred men, at Lagos, on the borders of Jalisco. Between him and the City of Mexico were the Departments of Queretaro and Guanajuato. In the latter Department, General Cortazar was established with two thousand men, and Paredes depended upon him for support.

Santa Anna, however, started for the City of Mexico with eight thousand five hundred men, received some additional troops in Puebla, and fixed his headquarters at Guadalupe, a suburb of the capital. The situation was interesting. The Departments of Puebla, Vera Cruz, Mexico, Queretaro, and Guanajuato professed loyalty to the Santa Anna government, and Santa Anna seemed abundantly able to march into Queretaro with thirteen thousand men and crush the little army of Paredes. But he was confronted by constitutional questions. By the "Bases Organicas" the President was prohibited from commanding the military forces in person without previously obtaining the consent of Congress. Such constitutional questions, however, were not wont to trouble Santa Anna; and this Constitution, being of his own creation, one would think could easily be made to stand aside. But he was likewise confronted by a Congress which, while not professedly supporting Paredes, was disposed to support the Constitution. Santa Anna and Paredes were both alike engaged in revolutionary acts.

Santa Anna marched into Queretaro under an order signed by the Minister of War. Congress at once passed a resolution impeaching the Minister of War for issuing such an order, and voted to receive, print, and proclaim, and thus to endorse, the pronunciamento of Paredes. Meanwhile the Departmental Junta of Queretaro adopted the "Initiative" of Jalisco. Santa Anna threatened to imprison the members of the Junta of Queretaro if they did not pronounce in his favor. He carried out his threat upon three of them, sending them under a strong guard in the direction of the capital.

Congress, with great promptness, summoned the Minister of War before it, and demanded of him whether he had authorized General Santa Anna to imprison the members of the Junta of Queretaro. The proceedings of Congress were of such a menacing character that Canalizo, after consultation with Santa Anna, determined upon extreme measures. The Deputies, who repaired to the National Palace on the first of December, found the doors closed and a guard of soldiers to prevent access to the Palace. The following day a proclamation was issued by Canalizo declaring Congress dissolved indefinitely, and all powers of the government, legislative as well as executive, conferred upon Santa Anna as Presidente Proprietario, with Canalizo as Presidente Interino  until otherwise ordered by Santa Anna.

Popular indignation rose to its greatest height. The Commandant General of the Department of Puebla, aided and abetted by the municipal authorities, pronounced against Santa Anna, and a few days later the garrison and people of the City of Mexico rose up, imprisoned Canalizo and his ministers, and thus permitted Congress to assemble. General Jose Joaquin Herrera, President of the Government Council, was advanced by Congress to the place of Canalizo.

The situation increased in interest. Santa Anna was constitutional President, but was unconstitutionally in command of troops and (in conjunction with Cortazar) in military possession of two Departments of the country. The Departments farther north were in a state of revolution under Paredes. Puebla and Vera Cruz adhered to Santa Anna. The Minister of War, under instructions from Congress, now ordered Santa Anna to give up the command of the military forces, with the understanding that if he refused, he would be considered a rebel and a traitor, for the new provisional government was unquestionably constitutional. If he chose to disobey this mandate, and was successful in his opposition to Congress and the constitutional government, he became at once the Military Dictator of the country. To obey the mandates of Congress was to relinquish his military support and place himself at the mercy of his opponents.

The Senate acted with great dignity and firmness. In a document signed by all but four of the Senators, it protested against the absolutism of Santa Anna. The Chamber of Deputies also protested in like manner; and both houses of Congress resolutely expressed a determination to resist any military or other encroachments upon the rights of popular government. An exchange of letters between Herrera and his ministers on one side, and Santa Anna on the other, brought no results; and on the seventeenth of December a decree was issued declaring that the government no longer recognized Santa Anna's authority as President of the Republic, pronouncing all his acts as President null and void, and calling upon the army under him to submit at once to the authority of Congress.

Continuing his march toward the Capital and his messages to the government, Santa Anna proceeded in his now clearly unconstitutional course. But the government cause gained ground steadily. The capital was put in a state of defense, and General Bravo was placed in command, with General Valencia as his lieutenant. The approach of Santa Anna was anticipated with no little concern, and all the roads leading up to the capital were torn up to impede his progress; and although Herrera, in his letters to Santa Anna, had urged him to yield to the will of the people and avoid bloodshed, preparations were made for a desperate struggle.

Paredes followed Santa Anna, and gave to his advance somewhat the character of a retreat. Santa Anna was before the gates of the capital throughout the holiday week, but the battle waged was one of gasconade; and Santa Anna withdrew to Puebla. From the first to the seventh of January, 1845, he made daily attacks on the latter city; but the General in command of it replied to his demands, that he would never surrender the city so long as he had a man left to fire a shot. Santa Anna made an assault while the Poblanos were considering propositions made to them under a flag of truce, but was finally repulsed with the loss of two hundred of his men.

Thus foiled at Puebla, Santa Anna sent General Cortazar, Antonio Haro y Tamaris, and others, to the capital, to arrange terms, while he retreated towards Jalapa. His troops surrendered a week later, and an effort was made to create the impression that Santa Anna had escaped from the country. He was captured, however, and conveyed under a strong guard to Perote. There he was imprisoned, though treated with all consideration due to a distinguished soldier in misfortune.

The capture was treated by Congress and by the press at the capital very considerately. Only the papers of Vera Cruz, Santa Anna's own Department, cried aloud for "the blood of the tyrant." Congress proceeded in a dignified manner with his impeachment for high treason in attempting to subvert the Constitution and to elevate himself to the supreme authority in Mexico as Emperor; for violating the Constitution by an arbitrary exercise of power not conferred upon him; for malfeasance in office in applying funds of the government to his own use, and in sending out of the country, on his individual account, several millions of the public money; for violating the usages of war at Puebla; for robbing the mint at Guanajuato; for pillaging cities, and appropriating public and private property to his own use; and for refusing to deliver up the command of the army when ordered by the government to do so.

Some of these charges might not have been substantiated in all their details, yet there were ample grounds for all of them; and they furnished a commentary upon the character of the man whose highest ambition was to rule Mexico as dictator, and also upon the low moral state of the country where such acts, as he was unquestionably guilty of, could go on unchecked as long as they had in his case. Mexico was learning her need of a wholesome public opinion,—of a quickened, educated public conscience,—and of the necessity of preventing such atrocious crimes being committed against her by those to whom she entrusted the oversight of her highest interests. It was a hopeful sign that the country was awakening to a determination to purge the government of iniquity in high places. It was especially encouraging to those who longed for a reformation in Mexican public affairs, to see the government proceed in a constitutional manner in such a case of malfeasance, and not as Santa Anna himself would have done. The efforts of such men as Gomez Farias were beginning to bring good results.

Perhaps it was well not to deal with the case as it would have been dealt with in an Anglo-Saxon country. In May, a general amnesty was agreed upon, from which were excepted Santa Anna, Canalizo, Haro y Tamaris, the corrupt Minister of War, and others who were regarded as members of the "ring." It was, however, extended to Santa Anna, upon condition of his leaving the national territory forever; and to Canalizo and others, upon condition of their leaving Mexico for ten years. The government was to appoint the place where Haro y Tamaris was to reside.

While Congress and the public press acted with moderation in bringing something like order out of the chaos which Paredes and Santa Anna had precipitated upon the country, it was quite otherwise with the people, who but a short time before had dared speak the name of Santa Anna only in praise. A wild scene ensued upon his overthrow. A statue of him was destroyed by an infuriated mob, and the leg he had lost at Vera Cruz, and which had been entombed with much pomp at the capital while he was at the height of his power, was taken from its tomb and dragged about the streets. Ribald songs about him were sung in the streets, and caricatures were hawked about holding him up to the most scurrilous ridicule. This proved the bitterest potion in the cup of mortification that the fallen chieftain had to drink. It aroused all the vindictiveness of his nature. The treatment he had received while a prisoner in the hands of the Texans, was infinitely more humane, he declared, than that which he experienced at the hands of his own countrymen in the hour of his misfortune. To some intimate friends he announced his intention not to allow a Mexican to govern the country if he could prevent it, but to use his influence to establish a foreign dynasty to be supported by European bayonets. He established himself in Cuba. On arriving in Habana he met General Bustamante, who, taking advantage of the general amnesty proclaimed at this time, was returning to his native land from the exile to which he had been condemned by the "Plan de Tacubaya."