From Ayutla to the Reform
The Revolution of Ayutla, the armed movement that ousted Santa Anna from power in 1855, brought together some of the most original and creative minds in Mexico. Far from being ivory tower scholars, they were a group of writers and intellectuals who syncretized their own creative work with a spirit of public service, a sense of social consciousness, and a profound desire to see Mexico emerge at last from its long night of political shame. Humiliated by the war with the United States, they sought to re-evaluate the Mexican national conscience and redefine national goals. Secularly oriented and antimilitarist, they deeply mistrusted the church hierarchy and had little use for the ambitious, self-serving Mexican army.
Melchor Ocampo was introduced to the works of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Balzac while a student in Mexico, but when he traveled to Europe Pierre Proudhon caught his fancy. He translated many of the Frenchman’s works into Spanish, and his editions were subsequently published in Mexico City. Returning to Mexico in 1842, Ocampo practiced law, began farming scientifically, cataloged flora and fauna, studied Indian languages, and collected one of the best private libraries in Mexico. He also made the decision to enter politics. In the 1840s and 1850s he served as governor of Michoacán and as a congressman in the national legislature. Shortly after the war with the United States he won acclaim when he became involved in a virtual death struggle with the clergy of Michoacán. The issue—the refusal of a local curate to bury the body of a penniless peón because the widow could not pay the sacramental fees—became a cause célèbre and was used effectively by Ocampo to demonstrate the ineptitude and decadence of the ecclesiastical effort.
Santos Degollado, another law professor in Morelia, shared Ocampo’s interest in French philosophy and natural history. He followed Ocampo in the governorship of Michoacán for a term and, like his predecessor, spoke out against corruption in both church and state.