Part III: First the Treasure, Then the Blood

In Part I of this series, we examined the scene in modern Mexico, observing that there is an effort underway to amend Article 40 of the Mexican Constitution to add the word laica, or secular, to the definition of the Mexican Republic. In Part II, we began the journey through Mexican history that helps us to define the historical antecedents of this effort, which led to the establishment of the Constitution of 1857. This document, and the events that surround its establishment, is our point of departure for understanding the modern effort to amend the current Mexican Constitution.

One June 19, 1867, Emperor Maximiliano of Mexico was executed by the victorious Republican army, with Benito Juarez at its head and Porfirio Diaz as its principle military general[i]. It is at this point that the Constitution of 1857 could be put into practice[ii]. This Constitution explicitly includes the text of the Lerdo Law, named for Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, Mexican Treasury minister in 1856. Under this law, the government “expropriated the property of the Church.”[iii] Juarez is today remembered as a hero throughout Mexico and Latin America for his role in re-establishing Mexican rule and establishing the Constitution of 1857. Expropriating Church property was one of the causes célèbres of nineteenth century Liberals throughout Latin America. Part of the justification for this was economic: the expropriation was “a resolution that would put an end to one of the economic errors which had contributed greatly to… prevent the country’s development.”[iv] To this day, mainstream histories praise the expropriation of Church property as a huge advance in Mexican history.

Nevertheless, the mainstream histories are wrong. When the 19th century Liberals expropriated Church property, that property was not taken from a monolithic or static entity. The Church, then as now, was a corporate entity. There were 10 dioceses, 1,000 parishes, and 300 convents and monasteries[v]. Still, “10 bishops and 177 canons spent two-thirds” of Church income, a situation that demonstrated the “difference between low and high clergy, [though] the anticlerical tonic at the time made it appear to be a unity.”[vi] “Priests lived almost exclusively from parish income and the Masses. The rest lived off the money from renting their farms, from alms, and from bequests, which continued to be the largest source of income.”[vii] Parsing this sort of dense text can be difficult. Parish income would have come from donations and quite probably from small cottage industries that operated with lay participation on parish property. Farm rental was exactly that: people worked the land and paid a portion of what they grew in exchange. Given the huge concentrations of land in the hands of a few landowners, the Church’s participation in the farm rental business was probably a significant boon to large numbers of poor families. These would have been able to keep enough of the fruits of their labor for themselves and their families.

The few people who did get rich off this arrangement were at the top of the pyramid, so in this the Church differed little from the rest of the country. Though lots of people were already living off the property held by the Church – and others would have survived off of Church alms[viii] – Church properties became a target of the State. Nevertheless, when the Liberal government expropriated this property, it did not suddenly pass into some mutual benefit society, nor did the government offer social welfare for the good of the people. Rather, many of the people living off this land would have lost everything, and ownership of the land would have passed on to the people who had conquered with the Reform – the Republican Liberals. This is the most likely explanation of the rise to power of the Liberal general, Porfirio Diaz: the Liberals had become rich off of properties seized from the Church and (most likely) from some of the defeated Conservatives. They needed stability in order to consolidate and build upon their wealth. This wasn’t a static event; they began lots of new economic activities, and a lot of these activities were good. But much of this was done at the expense of the poor whom the Church had traditionally supported with her alms and her property. Those alms were now gone, completely.

When Porfirio Diaz was elected to the presidency with 98% of the popular vote[ix], it was the next logical step for the Liberal Reform. The mainstream histories do not tie Diaz directly to this Reform. Instead, they tend to repudiate him as a dictator and lament the circumstances under which he assumed the Presidency. However, the fact remains that Diaz was Juarez’s general and a Liberal hero from the Reform years. Attempts to distance Diaz from anti-Catholic Liberalism must ignore this. Following the simple line of history, the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz was the next logical step for the Liberal Reform and a thoroughly secular act. The great landowners and captains of industry who supported Diaz were the secular Liberals themselves, and their descendants. The penury into which the bulk of the populace sunk in consequence was so great that the disaster of Mexican Revolution resulted. The Mexican Revolution began with Diaz’s ouster in 1910; at least in part, it was a reaction against the reformers who had seized property and made it their own to the exclusion of others.

The Mexican Revolution was the most violent war ever fought in the Western hemisphere. Around 600,000 to 700,000 people died during the U.S. Civil War. This was in a total population of about 31 million. It is possible that as many as 3.5 million people died during the Mexican Revolution, in a population of about 15 million persons. This disaster was in direct proportion to the disaster which preceded it: dictatorship led to total war, and that on an almost unimaginable scale. The whole country was at war, rich and poor alike, but when the violence began to settle, the poor armies led by Francisco Villa in the north and Emiliano Zapata in the south were defeated and so had little influence over the legal framework that emerged. This legal framework is captured in Constitution of 1917, which remains the supreme law of the land in Mexico. Articles 3, 24, and 130 have kept the anti-Church tone of the prior Constitution.

 In part IV, we will look directly at the text of the Mexican Constitution of 1917.


[i] Zoraida Vázquez, Josefina, Lilia Díaz, Lorenzo Meyer, et.al. La historia general de México, Volumen 2. México, D.F.: El Colegio de México, 1976. Print. Page 895. Hereafter, this is referenced as LHGM 2, with appropriate page numbers.

[ii] LHGM 2, page 908.

[iii] LHGM 2, page 833.

[iv] LHGM 2, page 833.

[v] LHGM 2, page 786.

[vi] LHGM 2, page 786.

[vii] LHGM 2, page 787.

[viii] The secular histories are largely blank on this note, but almsgiving is a traditional role of the Church. I am forced to wonder whether some of the two-thirds of Church income controlled by the bishops and canons went to serve this sort of purpose. It’s hard to tell without a more exhaustive search, that would probably need to look directly at the Church receipts of the era.

[ix] LHGM 2, page 955.

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  • Chris Stewart

    The title here is a bit melodramatic. Direct government persecution of the Church will come after the Mexican Revolution and is discussed in a later part of this series. The point I was after in the discussion of the Mexican Revolution was to place it in the context of the historical unfolding that began in 1857. The Reform wars led by Juarez and Diaz did establish stability and local rule, and these were good things. However, just as certainly, they led to a social and political order whose primary basis was power.

    Many analyses of the period conclude that Diaz was a Conservative — either that he always was one in his heart of hearts or that he became one later on. This really stretches things. Diaz fought the Reform wars as the primary Luiberal general, and the most likely reason is that he was, and remained, a committed Liberal (in the 19th century definition).

    Following the wars, the Church did find a way to exist, but then again, the Church finds a way to exist even in such places as modern Sudan, where its members suffer from the policy of genocide of the central government there. But this does not mean that Diaz was suddenly a Conservative, only that he needed some level of popular support in order for his stability to reign. The Church has always been popular in Mexico, down to the present day, so Diaz’s policies in this regard were prudent.

    However, the vast bulk of the population did live in extreme poverty, and Diaz’s rule, once it weakened towards the end, crumbled altogether. Emiliano Zapata’s slogan was Tierra y Libertad: Land and Liberty. Economics played a role in the Revolutionary explosion. But the larger role, I think, was the vacuum left once Diaz left. He had governed through personality and, no doubt, some level of fear. Once these power structures were gone, the country simply exploded.

    However, a host of factors led to the Mexican Revolution: economics, the vacuum left by a departing despot, and so forth. Specific persecution of the Church was not on the agenda. Everybody died in great abundance during these horrific years.

    One of the fascinating dynamics was the pattern of war itself. In the U.S. Civil Watr, both sides were formal armies of constituted States. The power of any informal armies, if it existed, was negligible or quickly wiped out. In Mexico, there were at least four different factions, any of which might be associated with the central government power at one time or another. Zapata’s army and Villa’s army were completely independent of one another, and neither was associated with any formal governmental power — unless they conquered that power. In the northwest, another army fought. It is from this army that Mexican president (from 1920 to 1924) Alvaro Obregon emerged. In the northeast, yet another army fought; Mexican president (from 1917 to 1920) Venustiano Carranza would emerge from here. Moreover, fighting was everywhere: army-against-army; army-against-would-be-army; army-against-civilians. About the only thing that brought an end to hostilities was sheer exhaustion from it all. By then, Zapata was dead, and Villa was weakened (he would later retire to a government-granted hacienda and be murdered).

    The Constitution which emerged from all this was a reflection, therefore, of the power structure, which was highly reflective of the Reform years. There was a land reform. Most of that was almost sterile land given to some peasants here and there. Juan Rulfo’s Nos han dado la tierra is a short story published in his work, Llano en llamas. In this story, a peasant walks across a desert landscape, and we learn that this desert is what the poor gained by their efforts of fighting in the Revolution. In other words, nothing.

    The larger point here, is that the Mexican Revolution had many causes and hurt everybody. One of the causes rarely mentioned, however, is that it is simply a logical next step from what happened in the Reform years. I argue that this last cause is important.

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