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History, Juarez and the French Occupation

Ignacio Comonfort, General Ignacio Zaragoza, Mexican empire, universal male suffrage, Mexican politics

The 1855 takeover of the government by the liberals began a period known as La Reforma, in which liberal leaders sought to reduce the power of the church and the military in Mexican politics and society. Later that year President Alvarez was replaced by Ignacio Comonfort, a liberal who sought a more gradual pace of reform. In 1857 the liberals enacted a new constitution, which reestablished a federal form of government. It provided for individual rights, universal male suffrage, freedom of speech, and other civil liberties. The constitution also abolished special courts for members of the military or clergy, and ordered the church and other institutions to auction off any land or buildings not absolutely necessary for their operation.

Conservative groups bitterly opposed the new constitution. With Spain supporting the conservatives and the United States supporting the liberals, a bitterly divided Mexico sank into a period of civil strife known as the War of the Reform (1858-1860). This violent struggle between conservative and liberal groups devastated Mexico.

The great leader to emerge from the liberal faction during this period was Benito Pablo Juarez, a Native American who became famous for his integrity. Juarez served as the minister of justice in President Alvarez’s cabinet, and for the next 15 years he would be the principal influence in Mexican politics.

In 1858 a political revolt overthrew President Comonfort and Juarez became provisional president. Soon afterward conservatives who had participated in the revolt forced Juarez to flee Mexico City; he established a new seat of government in Veracruz. Mexico now had two competing governments: one led by conservatives based in Mexico City, and one led by liberals based in Veracruz. Conservative forces controlled much of central Mexico, but they were unable to drive the Juarez forces from Veracruz. As provisional president, Juarez issued a decree nationalizing church property, separating church and state, and suppressing religious orders. The Juarez government gradually gained the upper hand, and by 1861 the liberal armies had decisively defeated the conservative forces.

Juarez moved his government to Mexico City, was elected president in 1861, and set about trying to establish order in the troubled country. He attempted to ease the financial chaos caused by the civil war by suspending interest payments on foreign loans incurred by preceding governments. Angered by his decree, France, Britain, and Spain decided to intervene jointly to protect their investments in Mexico.

The prime mover in this decision was Napoleon III of France, who believed that Mexico would welcome the creation of a monarchy. He hoped that a Mexican monarchy would protect Latin America from the Anglo-Saxon republicanism of the United States. A joint expedition occupied Veracruz in 1861, but when Napoleon’s colonial ambitions became evident, the British and Spanish withdrew in 1862.

The French encountered unexpected resistance at Puebla, as General Ignacio Zaragoza repulsed the invaders on May 5, 1862. That date, known as Cinco de Mayo in Spanish, henceforth became a popular national holiday. A shocked and angered Napoleon III dispatched another 30,000 troops, who spent two months capturing Puebla before sweeping into Mexico City in June 1863. A provisional conservative government proclaimed a Mexican empire and offered the monarchy, at Napoleon’s request, to Austrian archduke Maximilian.

Meanwhile, Juarez and his cabinet had fled northward with a small force. By early 1865 only the states of Chiapas, Guerrero, and part of Michoacan—in southern Mexico—and Chihuahua and Sonora—in northern Mexico—remained under liberal control. While the United States continued to recognize the Juarez regime, it could offer little help because of its own civil war. Just as Maximilian hovered on the verge of establishing control over the entire country, events in Europe prompted the French to withdraw their troops in 1867. The Juarez forces reconquered the country, and troops under General Porfirio Diaz occupied Mexico City. Maximilian was besieged at Queretaro and forced to surrender. He was executed by a Mexican firing squad in 1867.

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