Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober

The Era of Reform

[A. D. 1848.] For a brief period, after the withdrawal of the American army, the Mexican people drew the breath of peace, disturbed only by outbreaks headed by the turbulent Paredes. The notorious guerilla, Padre Jarato, was made prisoner and shot, and attempts made to destroy those bands of brigands, the guerillas, that had proved so troublesome to the American army, and which were now murdering and despoiling their own countrymen. For many years these murderous cut-throats existed in their mountain fastnesses, rendering all travel in the interior insecure; and even to-day they infest portions of the country, and set all law at defiance.

In June, 1848, Senor Herrera, (who had been in power at the opening of the war with the United States) took possession of the presidential chair. For the first time  within the memory of men then living, the supreme power changed hands without disturbance or opposition. The administration of Senor Herrera was conspicuous for its tolerance and its economy. The army—that fruitful source of disturbance—was greatly reduced, arrangements were made with creditors abroad, and for the faithful discharge of internal affairs.

[A. D. 1851.] General Mariano Arista, formerly minister of war, assumed peaceful possession of power, in January, 1851, and continued the wise and economical administration of his predecessor. But Mexico could not long remain at peace, even with herself; she was quiet merely because utterly prostrated, and in December, 1852, some military officers, thirsting for power, rebelled against the government. They commenced again the old system of pronunciamientos;  usually begun by some man in a province distant from the seat of government, and gradually gaining such strength that when finally met by the lawful forces they were beyond control. Rather than plunge his country anew into the horrors of a civil war, General Arista resigned his office and sailed for Europe, where he died in poverty a few years later.

[A. D. 1853.] It may astonish any one except the close student of Mexican history to learn the name of the man next placed in power by the revolutionists, for it was no one else than General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna! Recalled by the successful rebels from his exile in Cuba and South America, Santa Anna hastened to the scene of conflict, sniffing from afar the smoke of battle and gloating over prospective spoil with which to replenish his depleted treasury. Instead of devoting himself to the establishment of law and order, he commenced at once to extend indefinitely the army, and to intrench himself in a position of despotic power, and, in December, 1853, he issued a decree which, in substance, declared him perpetual dictator. This aroused opposition all over the country, and the Liberals, who were opposed to an arbitrary centralized government, rose in rebellion. The most successful leaders were Generals Alvarez and Comonfort, who, after repeated victories, drove the arch conspirator from the capital, on the ninth of August, 1855. Santa Anna secretly left the city of Mexico, and a few days later embarked at Vera Cruz for Havana. During several years he resided in Cuba, St. Thomas, Nassau, and the United States, constantly intriguing for a return to power in Mexico. We have not yet taken a final farewell of this man, who for forty years formed so conspicuous a figure in Mexican politics. Alvarez and Comonfort took possession of the capital, and in October, 1855, the former was elected president. He held this office but a few months, when, owing to the infirmities of age, and seeing symptoms of disaffection in the Liberal party, he resigned in favor of Comonfort, his minister of war. Formidable rebellions soon broke out against this liberal government among the officers of the great army revived by Santa Anna, and one of them at the head of five thousand men took the city of Puebla. Hastily assembling an army of sixteen thousand, Comonfort met the rebels and routed them, in March, 1856, and again in October of the same year. During this time he was only provisional president, but in December, 1857, he was elected constitutional president by a large majority of votes.

Sagrario, city of Mexico.


[A. D. 1857.] The year 1857 ushered in a period of Mexican history most critical; when the life of the nation hung in a balance. To understand the condition of things at the beginning of this period, and the causes for subsequent actions during the next fifteen years, we must recall some of the leading events since the year 1810, when Hidalgo of Dolores raised the cry of independence.

The Mexican revolution as a whole, writes a learned investigator, "involved three great events or proceedings:

  1. The throwing off of the yoke of Spain, and the maintenance of an independent organic existence.
  2. The overthrow of the ecclesiastical system at home, which, like the pall of Egypt, overshadowed the whole land.
  3. The construction of a new government on principles in harmony with the 'rights of man,' and the spirit of modern civilization.

"The latter implied a complete reconstruction of society in all the domain of government, of religious institutions, and of the entire fabric of civil, social, and educational life. . . . From 1824 (when the first really National Congress met, and the first Constitution was published) to 1853, the country was rent and torn by a succession of conflicts, in which the distinctive principles of the two great parties were ever uppermost. The Church power was wielded with indefatigable and unscrupulous energy, to baffle the Republicans and stay the progress of constitutional freedom. But its march was irresistible!"

We may trace this determined opposition to the efforts for freedom through a period of over fifty years. It began, perhaps, with the excommunication of Hidalgo and Morelos; and throughout the whole long struggle, ecclesiastical artillery smoked and thundered on the side of oppression and against the defenders of liberty. The most bitter hatred of the Church was evoked in 1846, when the patriot, Gomez Farias, recommended that a loan of fourteen million dollars should be asked of that body, and if refused that it be raised by a sale of Church property. This was at a moment when the very existence of the nation was threatened by an external foe, and when the government was completely impoverished, though the Church possessed "three hundred millions  of the most valuable property of the nation." The request was refused, and Farias driven in disgrace from power.

Thanks to this refusal of assistance to the Mexican nation in time of sore need, the victories of the Americans were rendered easier; thanks to them, also, are due for the subsequent civil strife, and the intervention of a foreign power and a foreign prince!

The Mexican Church was, according to the highest authorities, the most corrupt on the face of the earth at that time. It was a worthy offshoot of that central force of corruption and despotism ruled over and guided by the Pope at Rome. So long as it seemed to be for its interests to do so, it supported the policy of the King of Spain in his colonial possessions. It could not resist the temptation of becoming absolute mistress of the New World, at the successful revolution of Iturbide, and bent its influence for the time to the cause of Mexico. But as soon as it saw the tendency of the people towards religious, as well as civil freedom, it became a bitter and uncompromising enemy of that people towards acquiring the rights which had been long denied them. From the Pope the priests had long been in possession of special privileges and exemptions. Through them, the vicegerent of Peter issued his Bulls  for the benefit of their dissolute flock. There were "bulls" that would absolve one from every crime except heresy; bulls that would pass a sinner's soul through purgatory; bulls that would release a thief from the obligation to return stolen goods; and bulls to wash away even the stain of murder! Rich and poor availed themselves of these opportunities for escaping the penalties of crimes, and into the treasury of the Church flowed the wealth of the entire country. Added to these sources of emolument, were fueros, or privileges, which secured to the clergy a tithe of everything produced or imported into the country. Every article of necessity and luxury was taxed for the support of these useless incumbents of cathedrals, churches, and convents. All these, besides the voluntary contributions of the faithful, and the vast estates wrung from death-bed penitents, to escape the pains of purgatory, swelled the accumulations of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico to an almost fabulous amount. In 1850 it was estimated that the property then held by the Church amounted to a total of from one-half  to two-thirds  the entire wealth of the nation!

Mexican priests of the past.


Including the members of the various conventual establishments, Dominicans, Franciscans, etc., there were, in 1850, seven thousand ecclesiastics supported by the contributions of the people. The cathedrals—notably those of Mexico, Puebla, and Guadalajara,—were ablaze with gold and jewels, the spoils of centuries of oppression of a superstitious people.

Is it a wonder that these long-suffering people groaned loudly under their burdens? Is it strange that, looking at this great parasite settled upon their fair land,—sapping the life-blood of their nation, fattening upon the toil of themselves and their children,—the Mexican people should begin to inquire why it was permitted to exist? For centuries past the Church had strangled inquiry into its doings. By means of fire, and torture, and the Inquisition, it had prevented the crushed and prostrate people from asking questions.

But now, in the years 1856 and 1857, its doom was sealed. It had been foreshadowed in 1846, when Gomez Farias ventured to inquire why it was the Church should not be made to contribute towards the preservation of a nation, the downfall of which would prove its ruin. At that time it became evident to close observers that a champion of the oppressed had arisen. Among those who eloquently advocated the passage of this measure was a young lawyer, named Juarez.

Born of poor parents, in 1806, in a hill town of Oaxaca, Southern Mexico, Benito Juarez lived till he was twelve years of age without being able to read, write, or even speak, the Spanish language. He was a true Mexican, a Zapotec Indian, of unadulterated blood. The race of Indians to which he belonged, the Zapotecs, had never been wholly conquered by the Spaniards; more than once have these Indios de Las Sierras,—"Indians of the hills"—marched down into the valleys, and dictated terms to their rulers. It was fit that the future deliverer of Mexico from the thraldom of three centuries should have been born of such stock.

Portrait of Juarez.


We have not space to dwell upon the career of this remarkable man, but will note that, after having been a member of the city council of Oaxaca, a civil judge, and Secretary of State, he was elected by the people a deputy to the "General Constituent Congress," which met at the capital of the Republic in December, 1846. It was there he showed himself the friend of freedom and the uncompromising enemy to oppression that his later acts proved him to be.

In 1853, in the "Plan of Ayutla"—the announcement of principles for which they fought—Generals Alvarez and Comonfort sounded the death-knell of the Church. In July, 1855, at great personal peril, Juarez joined the army of Alvarez and marched with him to the capital. He had previously met with harsh treatment, and had even been imprisoned and sent into exile, by Santa Anna, whose overthrow he now saw so triumphantly accomplished.

His history now becomes a part of that of his country, for he was identified with every prominent political movement from this period until his death, in 1872. Alvarez (as we have already seen) was proclaimed President of the Republic in October, 1855, and appointed Juarez his "Minister of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs." The sweeping laws of reform instituted by this enemy to the Church were sanctioned by the constituent Congress, which met in February, 1856, and, after a year's deliberations, adopted the famous "CONSTITUTION of 1857." The first National Congress, in 1812, had declared in their constitution, first, that the Catholic religion only should be allowed in the State, and that the press, while "free for all purposes of science and political economy, was not free for the discussion of religious matters." In the forty-five years that had passed since then the people of Mexico had learned a bitter lesson, and resolved to profit by it. The representatives of the people now declared not only the right of everybody to any religion he chose to adopt, but to full and free discussion. The celebrated Law of Juarez  "abolished the whole system of class legislation, suppressed the military and ecclesiastical fueros—the privileged and special tribunals and charters of the army and the clergy—and established, for the first time in Mexico, equality of the citizens before the law."

[A. D. 1858.] Comonfort was not equal to the occasion this crisis in the affair of nations demanded. He turned traitor to his party (the Liberals) and gave the government into the hands of the Church party. On the 17th of December, 1857, General Zuloaga, commanding a brigade in the army, "pronounced" in favor of the Church and against the Constitution. He was aided by Comonfort, who, on the 11th of January, 1858, was denounced and abandoned by the very party he had so materially aided, and driven from the country. He later repented of his treason, and returned from Europe during the French invasion, taking arms with the defenders of liberty, and was assassinated by the hirelings of the Church. Zuloaga, in January, proclaimed the "Plan of Tacubaya." The leading principles of this "plan" were in direct opposition to those of the Constitution—to those of Reform. Had the people of Mexico sanctioned them they would have lost all they had gained by fifty years of fighting. The dark cloud of the previous century would again have settled down upon their nation. The fueros  were to be restored—"under which the military and clergy are responsible only to their own tribunals"—the Roman Catholic was to be the only religion tolerated, and immigrants admitted only from Catholic countries; the press was to be subjected to censorship; an "irresponsible central dictatorship, subservient solely to the church," was to be established, looking, if possible, to a restoration of a monarchy. Mark these principles! for they give the key to events during the subsequent foreign intervention.

By the flight of Comonfort the presidency devolved upon the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, BENITO JUAREZ. After trying in vain to combat the hydra-headed enemy to freedom, represented by Zuloaga, Miramon and others in command of the army, Juarez and the loyal members of his cabinet hastened to Guanajuato, where they organized the government on the basis of the Constitution of 1857.

The "War of Reform"

The party of the "old regime" was not recognized outside the capital, and again we see the States arrayed against a central, dictatorial power. Juarez was promptly recognized as the president of the people, and, during the long years of strife that followed, he nobly sustained the trust imposed upon him at their hands. The army was mainly against him, the Church—with all its money and influence—was against him; but the people, brushing from their eyes the cobweb of superstition, rallied in increasing numbers about the banner of reform.

At first the national guards were defeated. In March, Juarez and his cabinet were captured and on the point of being shot by a rebel chief; rescued by a noble patriot leader, they retreated to Colima, in great danger all the way. In April Juarez embarked at Colima for Vera Cruz, to reach which port he was obliged to cross the Isthmus of Panama, sail for New Orleans, and thence take passage for the ancient seaport, where he arrived in May.

The "Three Years' War of Reform" lasted from 1858 through 1861. In the year 1860 the people elected Juarez constitutional president by an overwhelming number of votes. In July, 1859, he decreed the "Laws of Reform," by which the property of the Church was confiscated and declared to belong to the nation. The forces on both sides were incited anew to fresh conflict, and many and sanguinary battles ensued. Among the heroes who aided Juarez in the defence of the constitution were: Doblado, Gonzalez Ortega, Santos Degollado, Zaragoza, Arteaga, and many others, equally worthy of mention, but whom space precludes. Against them, in the interests of the Church and oppression, fought Generals Zuloaga, Miramon, Osollo, Robles, Taboada, and Marquez. Death, in the field, or by the hand of the assassin or executioner, has taken most of these men away.

The decisive battle between the contending parties was that of Calpulalpam, December 25, 1860, subsequent to which the Liberal army entered and took possession of the capital, followed (January 1861,) by Juarez and his cabinet, amid great rejoicings.

His election, and the popular endorsement of his policy, had been by overwhelming majorities, and as soon as he found himself within the capital he set himself at once to promote the welfare of the long-suffering people. But no time was allowed the harassed Republic for rest, for that insane fratricidal strife had attracted the attention of the outside world; the leading powers of Europe had united against poor Mexico, and their fleets were even then headed towards its coasts.