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Notes on Liberals and Conservatives, 1855-1876

The  Reform, the French Intervention and the Restored Republic


1.     La Reforma or The Reform or The Reformation (1855-1867):

    The efforts of Mexican Liberals to dramatically change Mexico and make is a society of equality before the laws and equality of opportunity, abolish special privilege, and create a democratic political system.

2.     The French Intervention and the erstwhile Empire of Maximilian of Hapsburg (1864-1867):

    Invited by Mexican Conservatives and supported by Emperor Napoleon III of France, Maximilian established an Empire in Mexico. He and his wife, Carlota, tried to create a liberal monarchy. Benito Juárez resisted the Empire and eventually won.

3.     The Restored Republic, 1867-1876:

    Victorious in the fight against Maximilian, Juárez and company recreated the Republic. Juárez dies in 1872, and is succeeded by his Vice President, Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada.



1.     Juan Alvarez—proclaimed the Plan de Ayutla. He was an aging guerrillero leader who had been involved in the Independence movement.

2.     Benito Juárez—the hero of 19th century Mexico.

3.     Miguel Lerdo de Tejada—finance minister whose decree on property ownership helped start a civil war.

4.     Melchor Ocampo—former governor; leading anti-clerical.

5.     Ignacio Comonfort—first Liberal president after Santa Anna


1.     Félix Zuloaga—Conservative general.

2.     Miguel Miramón—Conservative general who was a stalwart of the conservative cause.

3.     Juan Almonte—General put in power by the French in 1863

4.     Maximilian of Hapsburg—erstwhile Emperor of Mexico

Restored Republic Personnel

1.     Matías Romero— finance minister who managed to put the national finances in a semblance of order.

2.     Gabino Barreda—education minister. Barreda was the founder of the modern educational system.

3.     Porfirio Diaz—Liberal general and  hero of the resistance to the French intervention



    Santa Anna's departure in August, 1855 left Mexico with a political vacuum, a country full of pronouncing caudillos with their private armies. Victorious Liberals wanted a constitutional convention to write a document that would provide law and order, equality of opportunity, and civilian government. Meant breaking the power of the army and the church.

    Juan Alvarez took over Mexico City in November, 1855 and called a constitutional convention. His Minister of Justice, Benito Juárez, issued the Ley Juárez, which abolished all special courts. The Army and the church were furious over the loss of their fueros, privileges, for they had been "states within a state."  Alvarez retires.

    Ignacio Comonfort, a moderate lawyer, takes over. Ley Lerdo issued which called for the forced sale of corporate holdings. Corporate included all church lands as well as village-owned lands (owned by Indians). Liberals overestimated the amount of land owned by the church and the amount the government might obtain from the sale of the land. The idea was to create a nation of small farmers who would be independent and inclined to democratic government. (That is not what would happen, however.) The land would be auctioned off in small units and the government would receive income from a title transfer tax. Conservatives outraged and prepared to fight. The Church told people not to buy or else be excommunicated and suffer the wrath of God.


    Drafted by the constitutional convention and signed February, 1857.   It created a federal system  with a unicameral legislature. Made no mention of Church-State relations because the framers couldn't agree. Created a 19th century representative government. Incorporated the Leyes Juárez and Lerdo.

    Conservatives denounced and refused to obey it. Pope Pius IX condemned it and forbade Catholics from obeying. Mexican Churchmen were furious and began, along with other conservatives, to circulate anti-Liberal tracts. Conservatives stashed arms and plotted conspiracies.

    In December, 1857, came the revolt of Felix Zuloaga. Comonfort and Juárez arrested. Many members of Congress and administration escaped to Querétaro and organized a rump government. Comonfort gets Juárez freed and then Comonfort leaves country. As chief Justice of he Supreme Court, next in the line of succession, Juárez was now president. Benito Juárez was a Zapotec Indian from Oaxaca. He was an orphaned sheepherder who was befriended and then sent to Oaxaca City to seminary. Decided to become a lawyer. Fought cases for the poor. Pious, mystical, righteous, homely man. Tough and determined. Beginning in 1847, he was governor of Oaxaca for 5 years. Had alienated Santa Anna by refusing to give him refuge when the latter was on the run. Santa Anna exiled him from 1853-55. He lived in New Orleans with other Liberal exiles, making cigars and plotting revolution.

    Freed from jail because of Comfort, Juárez and his cabinet flee to the Pacific coast in a black carriage. They disguised the carriage by having it draped to seem that the passengers were diseased. When they reached the coast, they took a boat to Panama, crossed the Isthmus via mule, and then took a boat Veracruz, traditionally a Liberal stronghold. Juárez was tough and enduring. His strength of resolve kept the liberal cause alive. Only the United States recognized his claim to be the government of Mexico.

    Conservatives, led by Miguel Miramón, established republic in Mexico City. Also controlled rich central Mexico.

WAR OF THE REFORM—civil war between the Liberals and the Conservatives. Killed some 50,000 people. As the war progressed, the liberals were radicalized and passed the Laws of the Reform: complete separation of church and state; complete religious toleration; abolition of monasteries and/convents; no tithing; civil marriage; and confiscation of church property not used for religious purposes.

    Conservatives were dominant for three years and enjoyed the military successes of Miramón. Had money and recognition from every government except that of U.S.

    The Liberals, desperate for funds,  agreed to the McClane-Ocampo Treaty which would have given U.S. the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. US. Senate killed it.

    The liberals finally won and, in January, 1861, Juárez returned to Mexico City the victor. Conservatives leaders fled into exile; some to Europe where they sought help from European nations. Juárez government had no money but plenty of debts, many of them incurred by conservative governments. Congress reelected Juárez. Both Liberals and Conservatives had borrowed money or taken money from foreigners during the civil war. Now the creditors wanted to be repaid. Juárez scaled down claims, for many were bogus or inflated. When claimants protested, he declared that debts wouldn't be paid for two years, that Mexico had to get on its feet again financially, but the debts would be paid.

    Some European nations, encouraged by Mexican conservatives who asserted that this savage Indian couldn't be trusted, started sending armies in December, 1861 and January, 1862. Spanish, French, and British troops took control of the port city of Veracruz. Their purpose was debt collection. Spanish and British withdrew when they realized that  Juárez fully intended to pay and that French goals were different.


    In April, 1862, the French army moved towards Mexico City. During the Battle of Puebla (May 5, 1862), French troops were beaten by Porifirio Díaz. The French continued to advance but Napoleon II poured troops into Mexico to avenge French honor. In June, 1863, 30,000 troops entered Mexico City. Mexican General Almonte was put at the head of the government. Napoleon III tries  to get a European prince to go to Mexico as monarch. His famous uncle had been unable to sustain a New World empire, which he now hoped to do. He also wanted to curry favor with the House of Hapsburg, Europe's leading royal family.   

The Hapsburgs agreed to send Maximilian, one of their young archdukes (princes) but he refused to go unless the Mexican people wanted him. The French army then staged a plebiscite to give the results that his ego desired. He and his wife sailed to Mexico and made a triumphal procession from Vera Cruz Mexico City. The nation now had a monarch, Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico.

    Maximilian liked Mexico and Mexicans and many, including some liberals, liked him. Part of it was the romance of monarchy; there seems to be a universal fascination with young royals. Some of it was the pleasure of seeing how much the couple loved each other. Some of it was the construction of public works, such as the broad boulevard from the National Palace to Chapultepec Castle, for this created jobs. Some support came because people tend to support whoever is in power.

    Maximilian was a bad choice, however. His politics were more like those of the liberals than the conservatives. He supported the confiscation of church property that had occurred and favored the separation of church and state. He even tried to make an alliance with Juárez, who reminded him that he was a foreign interloper who would be shot if the liberals ever caught him! Although many conservatives did not like his policies, they  were stuck. Besides, they could hope that age would make him more conservative as it did for most people. In the meantime, his government was clearly propped up by French troops. 

    In 1866, Prussia leading the North German Confederation won the Austro-Prussian War in a matter of weeks and Napoleon III decided to withdraw his troops so he could station them along the Rhine River in case of a Germanic advance. Besides, the U.S. had been demanding the withdrawal of French troops and, in 1865-66, had a battle-hardened large army which had just won a major war.

    Without French troops, Maximilian's empire crumbled as the liberal armies made advance after advance. Carlota went to France and begged Napoleon III to send troops again. He didn't want to be bothered with her and sent her to the Pope where she had a mental breakdown. Her family came for her and took her to a family castle in Belgium where she died on January 16, 1927. In 1867, Maximilian, Miramón, and other conservative leaders were executed at the Hill of the bells in Querétero. Juárez ignored worldwide protests; he wanted it clear that foreign interlopers would be shot. Mexico was for Mexicans.


    On July 15, 1867,  Juárez was back into Mexico City and the problems worse than they were in 1861. His finance minister, Matías Romero, undertook fiscal reforms  and promoted economic development. Railroad construction was pushed, for example. Gabino Barreda created the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria and revamped the educational system to emphasize the use of reason. Freedom of the press was instituted. Juárez died in 1872 after having had himself reelected. People began to complain about his continuism and Porifiro Díaz had tried an unsuccessful revolt. Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada served as president in 1872-1876. He was overthrown by Porifiro Díaz when Lerdo de Tejada tried to impose himself in 1876.

Restored Republic was democratic and progressive, especially by Mexican standards.


  • Internal bickering invites outside intervention.
  • Inability to compromise weakens the State.
  • Bloodshed invites bloodshed. Violence, even of word, breeds violence.
  • Damage to the nation, including psychological damage, occurs.