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Reform War

Reform War or Mexican Civil War

Date 1857–1861
Location Mexico
Result Liberal victory
United States
Commanders and leaders
Benito Juarez
Henry Crabb
Thomas Turner
Felix Zuloaga
Miguel Miramon
Casualties and losses
88 killed or wounded
1 sloop-of-war damaged
1 steamer damaged
230 killed or wounded
1 sloop-of-war captured
1 sloop-of-war grounded

The Reform War (Spanish: Guerra de Reforma) in Mexico is one of the episodes of the long struggle between Liberal and Conservative forces that dominated the country’s history in the 19th century. The Liberals wanted a federalist government, limiting traditional Catholic Church and military influence in the country. The Conservatives wanted a centralist government, even a monarchy, with the Church and military keeping their traditional roles and powers.

This struggle erupted into a full civil war when the Liberals, then in control of the government after ousting Antonio López de Santa Anna, began to implement a series of laws designed to strip the Church and military, but especially the Church, of its rights, powers and property. Conservative resistance to this culminated in the Plan of Tacubaya, which destroyed the government of President Ignacio Comonfort and caused the remaining Liberals to move their government to the city of Veracruz. The Conservatives controlled Mexico City and much of central Mexico, while the rest of the states had to choose whether to side with the Conservative or Liberal government.

Being less experienced militarily, the Liberals lost most of the early battles, but the tide turned when Conservatives twice failed to take Veracruz. Liberal victories accumulated thereafter until Conservative forces surrendered in December 1860. While the Conservative forces lost the war, guerrillas remained active in the countryside for years after, and Conservatives in Mexico would conspire with French forces to install Maximilian I as emperor during the following French Intervention in Mexico.


  • Liberals vs. Conservatives in post Independence Mexico 1
  • Ascendency of the Liberals in the 1850s 2
  • Reform Laws 3
  • Civil war 4
  • The Juárez government up to the French Intervention 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Liberals vs. Conservatives in post Independence Mexico

After the end of the Mexican War of Independence, the country was strongly divided as it tried to recover from more than a decade of fighting. From 1821 to 1857, fifty different governments ruled the country. These governments included dictatorships, constitutional republican governments and a monarchy.[1]

The political division is roughly divided into two groups, the Liberals and the Conservatives. The Liberal political movements had their beginnings in the secret meetings of the Freemasonry. The secret nature of the society allowed for discreet political discussion. Conservatives favored a strong centralized government, with many wanting a European-style monarch.[2]

Conservatives favored protecting many of the institutions inherited from the colonial period including tax and legal exemptions for the Catholic Church and the military. Liberals favored the establishment of federalist republic based on ideas coming out of the European Enlightenment, and the limiting of the Church’s and military’s privileges. Until the end of the Reform period, Mexico’s history would be dominated by these two factions vying for control and fighting against foreign incursions at the same time.[2] The Reform Era of Mexican history is generally defined from 1855 to 1876.[3]

Ascendency of the Liberals in the 1850s

In the 1850s, the Liberal factions gained political control under leaders such as Benito Juárez, Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, Juan Álvarez and others. This ascendancy came after the loss of about half of Mexico’s colonial territory to the United States in the Mexican-American War. Liberals believed that the Church and the military were the source of most of Mexico’s problems.[3]

Liberals had two internal factions, the puros or radicals, and the moderados or moderates. These two factions united when Juárez and Melchor Ocampo, the leaders of these two factions and both in exile in New Orleans in 1854, supported the uprising of Juan Alvarez against Antonio López de Santa Anna, who was widely blamed for the loss of Texas and what is now the southwest U.S. The two set out principles in a document called the Plan of Ayutla.[3] The Plan brought together a broad coalition of forces that was able to oust Santa Anna from the Mexican presidency.[4]

The Liberals’ challenge to the Catholic Church’s hegemony in Mexico came about in stages even before the 1850s. State level measures adopted since the 1820s and the reform measures of Valentín Gómez Farías led to political defense of Mexico’s Catholic identity, including integration of Church and State. This included Catholic newspapers such as La Cruz and conservative groups that strongly attacked Liberal policies and ideology. This ideology had roots in the European Enlightenment, which sought to reduce the role of the Catholic Church in society. The Reforms began in the 1830s and 1840s coalesced into the principal laws of the Reform era, which were passed in two phases, from 1855–1857 and then from 1858 to 1860. The 1857 Constitution of Mexico was promulgated near the end of the first phase. More Reform laws were passed from 1861–1863 and after 1867 after the Liberals emerged victorious after two civil wars with Conservative opponents.[4]

Reform Laws

The success of the Plan of Ayutla brought rebel Juan Alvarez to the Mexican presidency. Alvarez was a “puro” and appointed other radical Liberals to important posts such as including Benito Juárez as Minister of Justice, Miguel Lerdo de Tejada as Minister of Development and Melchor Ocampo as Minister of Foreign 1123. The first of the Liberal Reform Laws were passed in 1855. The Juárez Law, named after Benito Juárez, restricted clerical privileges, specifically the authority of Church courts,[5] by subordinating their authority to civil law. It was conceived of as a moderate measure, rather than abolish church courts altogether. However, the move opened latent divisions in the country. Archbishop Lázaro de la Garza in Mexico City condemned the Law as an attack on the Church itself, and clerics went into rebellion in the city of Puebla in 1855-56.[6] Other laws attacked the privileges traditionally enjoyed by the military, which was significant since the military had been instrumental in putting and keeping Mexican governments in office since Emperor Agustín de Iturbide in the 1820s.[5]

The next Reform Law was called the Lerdo Law, after Miguel Lerdo de Tejada. Under this new law, the government began to confiscate Church land.[5] This proved to be considerably more controversial than the Juárez Law. The purpose of the law was to convert lands held by corporate entities such as the Church into private property, favoring those who already lived on it. It was thought that such would encourage development and the government could raise revenue by taxing the process.[6] Lerdo de Tejada was the Minister of Finance and required that the Church sell much of its urban and rural land at reduced prices. If the Church did not comply, the government would hold public auctions. The Law also stated that the Church could not gain possession of properties in the future. However, the Lerdo Law did not apply only to the Church. It stated that no corporate body could own land. Broadly defined, this would include ejidos, or communal land owned by Indian villages. Initially, these ejidos were exempt from the law, but eventually these Indian communities suffered an extensive loss of land.[5]

By 1857, additional anti-clerical legislation, such as the Iglesias Law (named after José María Iglesias) regulated the collection of clerical fees from the poor and prohibited clerics from charging for baptisms, marriages, or funeral services.[7] Marriage became a civil contract, although no provision for divorce was authorized. Registry of births, marriages and deaths became a civil affair, with President Benito Juárez registering his newly-born son in Veracruz. The number of religious holidays was reduced and several holidays to commemorate national events introduced. Religious celebrations outside churches was forbidden, use of church bells restricted and clerical dress was prohibited in public.[8]

One other significant Reform Law was the Law for the Nationalization of Ecclesiastical Properties, which would eventually secularize nearly all of the country’s monasteries and convents. The government had hoped that this law would bring in enough revenue to secure a loan from the United States but sales would prove disappointing from the time it was passed all the way to the early 20th century.[8]

As these laws were being passed, Congress debated a new Constitution. Delegates were concerned with the precedents established by the first of the Reform Laws and the issue of whether Mexico would have a central, authoritarian government or a federal republic. In the end, the Constitution of 1857 established a centralist component.[5] This Constitution did not establish the Catholic Church as official, allowing for later laws requiring religious freedom.[8]

Civil war

Each of the Reform Laws met strong resistance from Conservatives, the Church and the military, culminating in military action and war. After the Juárez Law, General Tomás Mejía rebelled against the Liberal government in the defense of the Catholic identity of Mexico in the Sierra Gorda region of Querétaro. Mejía would conduct operations against Liberal forces for the next eight years.[6]

Opposition to the Lerdo Law and the 1857 Constitution culminated in a take over of Mexico City by Conservative forces. This operation was called the Plan of Tacubaya. When the military took control of Mexico City, then president Ignacio Comonfort agreed to the Plan’s terms, but Benito Juárez, then president of the Supreme Court, defended the 1857 Constitution. Juárez was arrested.[9] Comonfort was subsequently forced to resign and army general Félix Zuloaga was put in his place. After arriving in Mexico City, Zuloaga’s supporters closed Congress and arrested liberal politicians, preparing to write a new constitution for the country.[10]

The Plan of Tacubaya deeply divided the country, with each state deciding whether to support the Liberals' 1857 Constitution or the Conservatives' takeover of Mexico City. Juárez escaped prison and fled to the city of Querétaro.[9] Júarez was recognized as the Liberals' interim president. As Zuloaga and the army took over more of the central part of Mexico, Juárez and his government were forced to the city of Veracruz. From there, the Liberal government had control over the state of Veracruz and a number of allied states in the north and central-west. The Liberal government would be located in the city of Veracruz from 1858 to 1861.[11]

Full hostilities between Liberal and Conservative forces raged from 1858 to 1861 and is known as the Reform War. The Conservatives controlled Mexico City, but not the city of Veracruz. Twice in 1860 conservative forces under General Miguel Miramón tried to take Veracruz but without success. From here, Juárez directed the opposition movement, from which the Liberals obtained supplies and money through duties received in the port city.[12]

At the beginning of the war, Liberal leaders and armies lacked the military experience of the Conservatives, who were backed by Mexico’s official military. However, as hostilities continued, Liberal forces gained experience and obtained aid from the United States that would eventually enable victories for the Liberal side. On March 6, of that year, two ships previously acquired by the Conservative government were prevented from entering the city by a fleet of the United States, acting in support of the Liberal faction of Benito Juarez. The U.S. fleet attacked the Mexican ships and arrested their crews, eventually kidnapping the Mexican marines and taking them to New Orleans.[13] This incident is known as the Battle of Anton Lizardo. In the same year, Conservative forces were defeated in Oaxaca and Guadalajara. In December 1860, Miramón surrendered outside of Mexico City. Liberal forces reoccupied the capital on 1 January 1861, with Benito Juárez joining them a week later.[12] Despite regaining control of the Capital, bands of Conservative guerrillas operated in rural areas. General Miramón went into exile to Cuba and Europe. However, General Márquez remained active and Mejía operated from his stronghold in the Sierra Gorda until the end of the French Intervention in Mexico.[14]

The Juárez government up to the French Intervention

Juárez’s interim presidency was confirmed by his election in March 1861. However, the Liberals' celebrations of 1861 were short-lived. The war had severely damaged Mexico’s infrastructure and crippled its economy. While the Conservatives had been defeated, they would not disappear and the Juárez government had to respond to pressures from these factions. One of these concessions was amnesty to captured Conservative guerrillas who were still resisting the Juárez government, even though these same guerrillas were executing captured Liberals, which included Melchor Ocampo. Juárez also faced external pressures from countries such as Great Britain, Spain, and France owing to the large amounts indebted to them by Mexico.[15] Conservative factions in Mexico, who still wanted a European-style monarchy for Mexico, would eventually conspire with French forces to install Mexico’s second emperor during the French Intervention in Mexico.[15][16]

See also


  1. ^ Kirkwood 2000, p. 107
  2. ^ a b Kirkwood 2000, p. 109
  3. ^ a b c Kirkwood 2000, p. 100
  4. ^ a b Hamnett 1999, p. 160
  5. ^ a b c d e Kirkwood 2000, p. 101
  6. ^ a b c Hamnett 1999, p. 162
  7. ^ Kirkwood 2000, pp. 101–102
  8. ^ a b c Hamnett 1999, pp. 163–164
  9. ^ a b "La Guerra de Reforma, Historia de México" [The Reform War, History of Mexico] (in Spanish). Mexico: Explorando Mexico. Retrieved 2009-12-02. 
  10. ^ Kirkwood 2000, p. 102
  11. ^ Hamnett 1999, p. 163
  12. ^ a b Kirkwood 2000, p. 103
  13. ^ "Juárez es apoyado por tropas de EU en Guerra de Reforma" [Juarez is aided by U.S. troops in the War of Reform] (in Spanish). Mexico: El Dictamen. 2012-10-08. 
  14. ^ Hamnett 1999, p. 165
  15. ^ a b Kirkwood 2000, p. 104
  16. ^ Hamnett 1999, p. 166


  • Kirkwood, Burton (2000). History of Mexico. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated. p. 107.  
  • Hamnett, Brian R (1999). Concise History of Mexico. Port Chester, NY: Cambridge University Press. p. 160.  

External links

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