Reform, Civil War, and Invasion
Mexican leaders finally saw the light and exiled Santa Anna forever. While conservatives fumbled, searching for a king to replace Santa Anna, liberal leaders (whom Santa Anna had exiled or kept in jail) stirred up their own successful revolution. Benito Juárez, having triumphantly returned to the Oaxaca governorship, and others plunged ahead with three controversial reform laws: the Ley Juárez, Ley Lerdo, and Ley Iglesias. These reformas, integrated into a new liberal Constitution of 1857, directly attacked the privilege and power of Mexico’s corporate landlords, clergy, and generals: Ley Juárez abolished fueros, the separate military and church courts; Ley Lerdo forbade excess corporate (read: church) landholdings; and Ley Iglesias reduced or transferred most church power to the state.
Despite their liberal authors’ good intentions, some of the reform provisions resulted in negative consequences. Although Ley Lerdo (the “Law of the Divestiture of the Property of the Dead Hand”) succeeded in wiping out bloated church landholdings, it also forced thousands of native communities to sell their traditional land. Such sales invariably benefited the few rich individuals who could afford to buy, at the expense of the great mass of native Mexicans who became landless as a result. The consequence was equally negative. It created a new class of superlandowners: latifundistas, who soon ruled small kingdoms with impunity all over Mexico.
Oaxaca, fortunately, ran counter to the national trend. Lack of local capital and isolation from Mexico City led to little investment in Oaxaca land, so most communal holdings remained in indigenous hands. Moreover, of the several hundred church parcels sold in Oaxaca, one-third were, surprisingly, bought by native Mexicans.
Alarmed by the reforms, conservative generals, priests, and businessmen and their mestizo and indígena followers revolted. The resulting War of the Reforms (not unlike the U.S. Civil War) ravaged the countryside for three long years until the victorious liberal army paraded triumphantly in Mexico City on New Year’s Day 1861. In a thumping congratulations from the electors, Juárez outdistanced all rival candidates and became president in March 1861.
Juárez and Maximilian
Benito Juárez, the leading reformista, had won the day. His similarity to his contemporary, Abraham Lincoln, is legend: Juárez had risen from humble Zapotec native origins to become a lawyer, a champion of justice, and the president who held his country together during a terrible civil war. Like Lincoln, Juárez’s triumph didn’t last long.
Imperial France (taking advantage of U.S. preoccupation with its civil war) invaded Mexico in January 1862. Despite a formidable French force, which eventually ballooned to 60,000, Mexican regulars and guerrillas achieved a number of victories, several under the leadership of Oaxacan colonel (later general) Porfirio Díaz. Díaz rocketed to fame as the “Victor of Puebla” whose troops routed the French on May 5 (Cinco de Mayo), 1862. The French nevertheless managed to occupy Mexico City and several state capitals, including Oaxaca City, by summer 1864.
After two costly years pushing Juárez’s liberal army into the hills, the French installed the king Mexican conservatives thought the country needed. Austrian Archduke Maximilian and his wife Carlota, the very models of modern Catholic monarchs, were crowned emperor and empress of Mexico in June 1864.
The naive Emperor Maximilian I was surprised that some of his subjects resented his presence. Meanwhile, Juárez refused to yield, stubbornly performing his constitutional duties in a somber black carriage one jump ahead of the French occupying army. After Díaz’s signal victories at Carbonera and Miahuatlán in Oaxaca in late 1866, the climax came in May 1867, when liberal forces besieged and defeated Maximilian at Querétaro. Juárez, giving no quarter, sternly ordered Maximilian’s execution by firing squad on June 19.
Juárez Reelected; Díaz Rebels
Benito Juárez’s tumultuous popular approval and reelection to the presidency in October 1867 was not without its costs. His critics, notably Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada and Porfirio Díaz (who retired from active military duty to seek the presidency himself) accused Juárez of heavy-handed constitutional violations. Under Díaz’s influence, a number of military commanders stirred up local uprisings. Undeterred, Juárez worked day and night at the double task of reconstruction and reform. Single-mindedly, he pushed to amend the Constitution of 1857, a course that triggered a major armed revolt, the Rebellion of La Noria, by Díaz in 1871 to “restore the purity” of the constitution against Juárez’s alleged transgressions. Although his political momentum was weakened, Juárez was reelected president over both Tejada and Díaz in October 1871, but, exhausted, he succumbed to a heart attack on July 18, 1872. In his honor, Oaxaca City fathers renamed their city, officially, Oaxaca de Juárez.
The passing of Benito Juárez, the stoic partisan of reform, signaled hope to Mexico’s conservatives. They soon got their wish: General Don Porfirio Díaz, the “Coming Man,” was elected president in 1876.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition