Coming on the heels of the devastating defeat in the Mexican-American War, in 1855 the Revolution of Ayutla ousted the aging dictator José Antonio López de Santa Ana for the last time, ushering in a period in Mexican history known as La Reforma, or the period of Liberal Reforms.
Indelibly associated with the figure of Benito Juárez, the period saw a host of economic and political reforms inspired by Enlightenment notions of private property, secularism, free trade, and individual rights of citizenship.
These reforms in turn sparked widespread resistance on the part of the church, Indian communities, army officers, and other conservative elements. The result was a major civil war from 1858–61 (the War of the Reform). This massive civil war, ending just as the American Civil War was beginning, led to the period of French intervention.
After the expulsion of the French came the period of the Restored Republic, which ended with the coming to power of the dictator Porfirio Díaz, the Porfiriato.
The tumult and confusion of the period 1855–76 has been attributed to the depths of the differences separating various protagonists’ visions of Mexico’s past and future, compounded by the turmoil wrought by foreign invasion and occupation.
The Liberal Reforms (1855 - 1857)
In 1853 as discontent with the ruling conservative regime mounted, a group of prominent liberals plotted the overthrow of the dictator Santa Ana from exile in New Orleans. Their leaders included Melchor Ocampo, Santos Degollado, Guillermo Prieto, and Benito Juárez.
Allying with dissident rebel chieftain Juan Alvarez, one of whose lieutenants Ignacio Comonfort had issued the Plan de Ayutla calling for the dictator’s ouster, the exiles returned to Mexico, fomented a rebellion, and forced Santa Ana’s resignation in August 1855.
One of the first acts of the new government bore the name of the new minister of justice: the Ley Juárez (Juárez Law). The law abolished the special privileges, or fueros, enjoyed by members of the military and the church, which since the early colonial period had exempted soldiers and clerics from prosecution in civil and criminal courts. In a stroke, the law overturned more than 300 years of jealously guarded tradition among two of society’s most powerful groups.
The Ley Juárez was quickly followed in June 1856 by the Ley Lerdo, brainchild of the new secretary of treasury Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, an even stronger anticlerical measure that essentially required the church to divest itself of most of its real property via public auction.
The Catholic Church was far and away the country’s single largest landholding entity. The law also abolished the collectively owned land of Indian communities, compelling their sale at public auction.
The law was intended to weaken the church, turn Indians in communities into individual citizens, advance its framers’ vision of a more secular and modern state and society, and create an important new government revenue stream.
This frontal assault on the church’s power and Indians’ collective rights in land was followed by what is widely considered to represent the height of 19th-century Mexican liberalism: the 1857 Constitution. Incorporating the Juárez, Lerdo, and other reform laws, the Constitution created a unicameral legislature as a stronger check on the power of the executive.
It also created Mexico’s first bill of rights, which included freedom of the press, speech, assembly, and education. The new charter did not specify freedom of religion, but nor did it privilege the Catholic Church, creating de facto state toleration of non-Catholic sects.
The church, the military, Indian communities, and other conservative elements bridled at this assault on centuries of tradition, a resistance that soon erupted into open civil war.
The War of the Reform (1858 - 1861)
Spearheaded by conservative general Félix Zuloaga and his Plan de Tacubaya, conservative elements rose in revolt. Zuloaga and his allies marched on Mexico City, dissolved Congress, arrested the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Juárez, and forced the resignation of President Comonfort.
Juárez, the most charismatic and visionary of the liberal leaders and second in line to the presidency, escaped and established a provisional government in Querétaro, then in Veracruz, rallying liberals around him. For the next two years, a horrific civil war wracked the country.
By this time, liberalism had become a homegrown ideology embraced by Mexicans from diverse walks of life; lines of alliance and conflict were complex, shaped by ideology, personal allegiances, and many other factors. Atrocities mounted on both sides. The war devastated the economy, destroying crops and livestock and bringing commerce to a standstill.
In July 1859 the liberal government in Veracruz enacted the Veracruz decrees, deepening earlier reforms by nationalizing church investment capital as well as its lands.
Soon after the U.S. government bestowed diplomatic recognition on the liberal government in Veracruz. By 1860 the liberals had gained the upper hand, and on New Year’s Day 1861, a liberal army, 25,000 strong, marched into Mexico City unopposed.
The French Intervention (1862–1867)
Endless troubles bedeviled the restored liberal regime under Juárez, elected president in March 1861. Most nettlesome, the economy was in ruins and the government bankrupt. A confluence of events overseas soon compounded the difficulties.
The U.S. Civil War, begun in April 1861, meant that the United States was no longer able to enforce the Monroe Doctrine prohibiting European powers from intervening militarily in Latin America.
In France, the conservative, pro-Catholic regime of Napoleon III, influenced by large numbers of Mexican conservatives exiled in Paris, determined to seize the opportunity to fulfill a longtime national vision and make Mexico part of the expanding French overseas empire.
Using the pretext of the Juárez government’s failure to compensate its nationals for properties destroyed in the late war, in December 1861 Napoleon III dispatched some 2,000 troops with orders to occupy Veracruz, reinforced by 4,500 more early the next year.
On their march toward Mexico City on May 5, 1862, the invading French army met unexpectedly fierce resistance in the city of Puebla. The famous battle, later memorialized in the national holiday Cinco de Mayo (fifth of May), forced the French to retreat.
It also catapulted into prominence General Porfirio Díaz, who played a key role in the fight. The battle of Puebla delayed the French invasion for nearly a year. With the arrival of some 30,000 reinforcements and after a two-month siege, the French finally took Puebla in May 1863 and occupied Mexico City in June.
Napoleon III selected an obscure Austrian archduke to serve as the new emperor of Mexico—Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, or Maximilian, who entered Mexico City with his royal entourage in June 1864.
Weak, indecisive, and well-meaning, Maximilian floundered while armed resistance to the French occupation mounted. Soon after the end of the U.S. Civil War in April 1865, the United States demanded French withdrawal.
Meanwhile, the Mexican venture proved more costly than Napoleon had anticipated. Opting to cut his losses, in January 1866 Napoleon ordered his troops home.
The hapless Maximilian, deluded into believing that the Mexican people embraced his reign, opted to stay. Forces under Juárez captured, tried, and, on June 19 in Querétaro, executed him before a firing squad.
The Restored Republic (1867–1876)
The restored Juárez government soon embarked on an ambitious program to implement the provisions of the 1857 constitution. Slashing the size of the army, enacting measures to revivify the moribund mining economy, and encouraging foreign investment, it also intensified its efforts to secularize education and privatize church and Indian lands.
Elected to a fourth term in 1872, Juárez died of a heart attack in July. His successor Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, elected in October, announced his intention to seek reelection in 1876. Rising in revolt on the principle of “no reelection,” Porfirio Díaz took the National Palace in the fall of 1876, dominating Mexican political life for the next 35 years.