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date: 02 June 2020

Summary and Keywords

By revealing the weaknesses of its political system and the fragmentation of its social fabric, Mexico’s devastating loss to the United States in 1848 forced a reexamination of the nation’s very foundation. It also emboldened leaders to redouble efforts to either refashion Mexico into a modern, democratic republic or strengthen colonial-era institutions that had ensured unity and stability despite cultural and regional heterogeneity.

Those who hoped to modernize Mexico were the liberals. Their ideas regarding the depth and pace of change varied considerably. But they coalesced around broad principles—democracy, secularism, and capitalism—that, they insisted, would help Mexico overcome the vestiges of colonialism. In pursuit of equality under the law, liberals proposed to dismantle legal privileges for nobles, ecclesiastics, and the military. In order to stimulate the economy, they wanted to force corporate entities, especially the church, to sell their lands to individual owners. Finally, liberals sought to establish the primacy of the state by granting civil leaders authority over the church.

Conservatives countered that the liberal program and its exotic ideas constituted an attack on Mexico’s Hispanic Catholic legacy and would only further weaken the nation. It was a chimera, if not demagoguery, to declare the equality of citizens in a society where the masses were illiterate, isolated hamlets who barely spoke Spanish, and residents in the far-flung regions regarded national rule with deep suspicion. Conservatives feared that the liberal program would foster more of the peasant revolts, threats of regional succession, and racial antagonism that had roiled the nation since independence. They wanted to conserve the pillars of order—the military and the Catholic Church—reinstate monarchism, and curtail political participation. Liberals and conservatives vociferously debated these divergent visions in the public forum. But ultimately their differences plunged the country into civil war.

Keywords: reforma, liberalism, conservatism, federalism, Juan Alvarez, Revolution of Ayutla, Constitution of 1857, anticlericalism, Benito Juárez, Maximilian von Habsburg

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