Early Republic of Mexico (1823 - 1855)

Several major themes dominated the first three decades of the independent Mexican republic—sometimes referred to as the “Age of Santa Ana”—each relating to a specific axis of social, political, and international conflict.

The central arena of struggle was the process of state formation, the constituent elements of struggles to forge a viable national government pitting liberals against conservatives, centralists against federalists, and pro-church against anti-church factions.

Conservatives generally were centralist and pro-church, and liberals were federalist and anti-church, though there were many exceptions to these broad tendencies.

Related to these domestic political conflicts were struggles in the international arena, pitting the new Mexican state against foreign interlopers, especially Spain, France, and the United States.

The early republican period was marked by profound political instability, economic dislocation, and deep divisions between various leaders, parties, and factions. It also saw Mexico’s national territory slashed nearly in half, with the loss of Texas in 1836 and the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.

The political turmoil and national humiliations of the early republican period set the stage for the rise of a new generation of political leaders in the mid-1850s, epitomized by the revered Liberal reformer Benito Juárez.

Following the overthrow of Agustín de Iturbide in 1823, a provisional military junta oversaw the creation of the nation’s first constitution, the Constitution of 1824. A liberal, federalist document modeled on the U.S. Constitution, the 1824 Constitution created the Estados Unidos Mexicanos (Mexican States United) comprised of 19 states and four territories.

The new charter gave individual states more power than did its counterpart to the north (as implied in the new nation’s name, the “Mexican States United,” not the “United States of Mexico”), while also granting the president special powers in times of emergency.

It also preserved the religious monopoly of the Catholic Church and special privileges of military officers and the clergy. The administration of the country’s first elected president, Guadalupe Victoria, was marked by fiscal crises and an armed revolt by Vice-President Nicolás Bravo—squashed by forces led by José Antonio López de Santa Ana—a harbinger of the political turmoil to come.

In 1829 under Victoria’s elected successor Vicente Guerrero, Spain attempted to reconquer their former colony but was roundly defeated by forces under Santa Ana. In the same year the Guerrero government abolished slavery throughout the republic.

Meanwhile, the conservative disenchantment with the liberal government intensified. Sensing the shifting political winds, Santa Ana, elected president as a liberal in 1833, retired to his estate and left the daily business of governance to his vice-president Valentín Gómez Farías.

When a coalition of conservatives rose in revolt, Santa Ana put himself at their head, defeated the liberal government, and installed himself as the new conservative president. The Constitution of 1824 was scrapped and in its stead was imposed the Constitution of 1836, or Siete Leyes (Seven Laws), a far more conservative and centralist document.

The new constitution dramatically circumscribed the political autonomy and power of states and territories, including the slaveholding Anglo-American settlers in Texas, whose numbers had grown dramatically in the past two decades.

Rising in revolt, in 1836 Texas declared its independence from Mexico. Santa Ana took the field again, and, after some initial successes, was defeated, captured, and sent back to Mexico City.

Soon after, in 1838, a conflict with French property-holders escalated into open hostilities with France—the so-called Pastry War—in which French battleships shelled the port city of Veracruz before Santa Ana (who lost his leg in the battle) negotiated a settlement.

The final nail in Santa Ana’s political coffin came with the Mexican-American War of 1846–48, in which the United States, driven by visions of Manifest Destiny, wrested from Mexico the northern two-fifths of its national territory. Discrediting Santa Ana, the war was experienced by many Mexicans as a profound national dishonor.

Compounding the crisis, just as the war with the United States was ending in the far north, a major revolt by Maya Indians was erupting in the far south—the so-called Caste War of Yucatán, which came to a boil in 1848 and simmered for the next half-century. Atop all the turmoil and strife of the first three decades of independence, the defeat at the hands of the United States created an auspicious environment for the emergence of a new generation of leaders and the period of La Reforma (the Reforms) from the mid-1850s.