This era (1855–1876), initiated by the Plan of Ayutla in March 1854, capped a long struggle between liberals and conservatives over the character of independent Mexico. Individual rights were the cornerstone of a liberal program that also sought to subordinate the military to civilian authority and to remove the church from secular affairs. A parliamentary system and municipal autonomy within a federal government were favored to prevent a despotic central government and to guarantee individual liberties, while allowing local or state caudillos to retain their dominance. The reformers clashed with the military, Indian communities, and the Catholic Church, which defended corporate structures and privileges.
After coming to power in 1855, the liberals fought for their program through a decade of civil war and foreign intervention (1857–1867). Major reform measures established equality before the law (Ley Juárez, 1855); prohibited civil and ecclesiastical corporate ownership or administration of real estate (Ley Lerdo, 1856), and nationalized virtually all other church wealth; regulated parish fees (Ley Iglesias); suppressed religious orders; separated church and state; established marriage as a civil contract; placed cemeteries and vital statistics under civil control; proclaimed freedom of religion, speech, and the press; and secularized schools and charities. The 1857 Constitution enshrined the reformers' aspirations.
Many Mexicans suffered terribly during the years of turmoil. The contradictory demands of church and state were impossible to obey. For example, the liberal government required officeholders to take an oath of loyalty to the 1857 Constitution, while church authorities forbade the faithful to take the oath. To disobey the government meant the loss of employment; to disobey the church meant denial of the sacraments. Furthermore, during the civil war (1858–1860) the conservative government in Mexico City annulled the liberal laws and Constitution; the liberal government, headquartered in Veracruz, promised to punish those who obeyed the conservatives and issued more extreme measures against its enemies, especially the church.
Prevailing over the French-imposed rule of the Austrian Archduke Maximilian in 1867, the liberals at last had the opportunity to implement their program. They achieved only partial success: the principle, but not the reality, of legal equality for all was established; the decade of conflict undermined the effort to establish a parliamentary system and paved the way for executive dominance; the political and economic power of the church was largely eliminated, but charities and schools suffered; restrictions on the church belied the principle of separation of church and state; the hope that reducing village lands to individual ownership would create a large number of small landowners, which in turn would encourage rural democracy and economic prosperity, largely went awry—privatization facilitated acquisition of village lands by outsiders and by some enterprising villagers; and constitutional guarantees for the individual did little to protect the lower class. Still, the Reform years fostered the growth of nationalism and a sense of nationhood while laying the bases for Porfirian economic development and authoritarian political rule.
Charles A. Hale, Mexican Liberalism in the Age of Mora, 1821–1853 (1968).
Jan Bazant, Alienation of Church Wealth in Mexico: Social and Economic Aspects of the Liberal Revolution, 1856–1875, edited and translated by Michael P. Costeloe (1971).
Robert J. Knowlton, Church Property and the Mexican Reform, 1856–1910 (1976).
Laurens Ballard Perry, Juárez and Díaz: Machine Politics in Mexico (1978).
Richard N. Sinkin, The Mexican Reform, 1855–1876: A Study in Liberal Nation-Building (1979).
Charles R. Berry, The Reform in Oaxaca, 1856–76: A Microhistory of the Liberal Revolution (1981).
Leslie Bethell, ed., The Cambridge History of Latin America, vol. 3, From Independence to ca. 1870 (1985) and vol. 4, ca. 1870–1930 (1986).
Arrom, Silvia. Containing the Poor: The Mexico City Poor House, 1774–1871. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.
Benítez Treviño, V. Humberto. Benito Juárez y la trascendencia de las Leyes de Reforma. Toluca, Mexico: Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, 2006.
Carbajal, Juan Alberto. La consolidación de México como nación: Benito Juárez, la constitución de 1857, y las leyes de reforma. México: Editorial Porrua, 2006.
Monsiváis, Carlos. Las herencias ocultas de la reforma liberal del siglo XIX. México, DF: Debate, 2006.
Robert J. Knowlton