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Mexican Domestic Politics: An Overview

Topic- Mexican Political Turmoil

In one important respect, Mexico followed a path similar to the United States after independence. After a brief period of post-colonial uncertainty, Mexico emerged in 1824 as a republic, adhering to a federal constitution modeled after the short-lived Spanish constitution of 1812 and, to some degree, the one signed in Philadelphia in 1787. After the dissolution of the Mexican Empire of Agustín Iturbide, a Constituent Congress drafted a new plan of government, the Constitution of 1824, which allowed Mexico's nineteen states a fair degree of autonomy, each with its own governor, legislature, judicial system, and revenue-raising authority. To a large extent, the legislatures of these states determined the make-up of the national government, electing the president, vice president, the Senate, as well as the judiciary. The most significant departure from the U.S. Constitution was its rejection of church and state, with Catholicism declared the official religion, supported by funds from the public treasury.

Although enjoying broad popular support, the Constitution of 1824 masked serious ideological divisions. Whereas liberal federalists supported self-government for the states, conservatives favored a centralized system which privileged Mexico City, a debate that had echoes in the political fault lines that emerged between Jeffersonian republicans and those who supported the Hamiltonian view of a strong national government. Within these two factions, however, there existed considerable differences of opinion. Puro federalists harbored a fierce anticlericalism rooted in the doctrines of the French Enlightenment, equality under the law, and the elimination of traditional privileges which the wealthy had enjoyed under Spanish rule. Moderates (moderados), meanwhile, drew their support from small property-owners, subscribing to the tenets of individualism not unlike Jeffersonian republicans in the United States. They did not share the puros' willingness to recognize the indigenous population as legitimate members of the Mexican body politic, and favored the confiscation of Indian lands. Mexican centralists found their support among the nation's most powerful interests--the Church, the large landowners (hacendados), merchants, and the army. Like the federalists, however, Mexican centralists did not always constitute a particularly well-defined or coherent group. Some centralists were prepared to accept, at least within certain limits, the republican principles enshrined in the Constitution of 1824; others, meanwhile, would do little more than pay lip service to them. The most conservative centralists, however, looked nostalgically back to the colonial era, and called for the restoration of the monarchy.

The Mexican political scene was considerably more complex than these broad outlines would suggest, however. The contest between federalists and centralists was a highly fluid one, with political allegiances constantly shifting (something unthinkable in the rigid partisan climate of the United States). This was particularly true whenever factions on the extremes of the political spectrum gained ascendancy. The rise of puro federalists in 1833 prompted moderates to seek alliances with the centralists; similarly, a pro-monarchist coup in 1846 caused many conservatives to bolt to the federalist camp. And with low literacy rates, the Mexican republic did not develop a mass-based party system, the efforts of some puros to mobilize the rural and urban poor notwithstanding. Rather, political life remained exclusively in the hands of the so-called hombres de bien, men of property. By the 1820s, these two factions coalesced around Mexico's two branches of Masonic lodges -- Scots Rite (Escoceses) and York Rite (Yorkinos), both of which took on the character of political clubs. The Scots Rite lodge, introduced by the Spanish during the colonial period, reflected the views of Mexican centralists, while federalists gravitated to the York Rite lodge, a group influenced by Jeffersonian doctrines (and promoted by the first U.S. minister to Mexico, Joel Poinsett). The semi-secret nature of the Masonic Lodges further isolated Mexican political elites from the public at large, creating an environment in which political machinations took the place of open public discourse.

Adding another powerful dimension to the factionalism of Mexican political life was the politicization of its military. At the end of the War for Independence in 1821, royalist commanders had accepted the terms of the Plan of Iguala and joined with their erstwhile enemies. They retained enormous political power during the early national period, and as time passed the army became as much an instrument of political intrigue as one of national defense. The early national period has been called by some historians "the age of the caudillo," an era dominated by a cadre of military/political leaders of similar professional and social backgrounds. Although conservative by nature, they were also inclined to be pragmatic, casting their support for centralists and federalists alike. Following a tradition common to the Latin American republics of the nineteenth century, Mexican military leaders proved increasingly ready to usurp the political process through pronunciamentos, by which they would publicly declare their opposition to the government and call upon other officers to join them. As a result, from 1821 to 1857, Mexico experienced 48 different governments. Guadalupe Victoria, its first duly elected president in 1824, would be the only chief executive to serve out a full four year term.

The contest between federalists and centralists greatly undermined the authority of the national government in the years after independence. When puro federalists initiated a series of anticlerical reforms in the early 1830s, conservatives retaliated, seizing power and abrogating the Constitution of 1824 (it would not be reinstated until the eve of the war with the United States). The Siete Leyes replaced the state legislatures with five member councils, and made the states themselves military "departments" of the national government. In short order, federalist revolts flared throughout Mexico, threatening the nation's very survival. Uprisings in Zacatecas and Coahuila were ruthlessly put down; an attempt to subjugate an uprising in Texas ended famously and disastrously with Santa Anna's capture at San Jacinto in 1836. Political unrest in the country's outlying regions, where federalism had always been strongest, continued long after the insurrection in Texas. A revolt flared in New Mexico in 1837, the states of Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas briefly formed the Republic of the Rio Grande in 1840, Tabasco declared its independence in 1840-41, while the Yucatán, which declared itself independent in 1840, did not rejoin the nation until 1848.

The absence of stability was still a problem when the United States embarked on a policy of rapid territorial aggrandizement in the mid-1840s. Far from uniting Mexican elites in a common cause, the threat of foreign invasion only exacerbated political infighting. The federalist government of José Joaquín Herrera collapsed amid rumors that it was negotiating with the United States to resolve the Texas annexation issue. The conservative government of Mariano Paredes y Arrillaga, aided and abetted by Spanish monarchists, proved no less stable. It was soon replaced by a new federalist government headed by José Mariano Salas, but in such a crisis the only leader capable of holding these disparate factions together was Mexico's pre-eminent caudillo, Antonio López de Santa Anna, who returned from exile in Havana in 1846 to take control. Santa Anna, however, preferred battlefield laurels to political power, and when he vacated the presidential chair to take command of the army, the infighting began again, culminating in the Polkos revolt in 1847. As U.S. troops converged on the nation's capital, no faction was willing to assume responsibility for initiating peace talks. Angry delegates frequently boycotted the sessions of the Mexican Congress, making it impossible for the government to deal with the crisis for lack of a quorum. With the fall of Mexico City, a coalition of moderates established an interim government which, after much wrangling, signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to end the war with the United States.

Internecine conflict continued to characterize Mexican politics after 1848. Santa Anna would once again return to the political stage to impose a certain degree of stability in 1853, only to be overthrown two years later. His fall from power signaled the end of the tumultuous age of the caudillo, but not the struggle between liberals and conservatives. In the years that followed, a new cast of characters would emerge, but the political divide would remain much the same, pitting those who favored a secular republic for Mexico and those who believed the nation would only thrive if its institutions were rooted in the traditions of the Old World.

Nate Kogan


Brunk, Samuel, and Ben Fallaw. Heroes and Hero Cults in Latin America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

Kirkwood, Burton. The History of Mexico. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2010.

MacLachlan, Colin M., and William H. Beezley. Mexico's Crucial Century, 1810-1910: An Introduction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

Richmond, Douglas W. The Mexican Nation, Historical Continuity and Modern Change. Prentice-Hall, 2004.

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