The Oxford History of Mexico

By Michael C. Meyer; William H. Beezley | Go to book overview

12
Betterment for Whom?
The Reform Period:
1855–75

PAUL VANDERWOOD

The outcome of the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846–48—the loss of half of Mexico’s national territory—both traumatized and energized Mexicans. It laid bare the weaknesses of the country’s economy and its political system, highlighted the flaws in its social fabric, and raised the specter of further United States territorial aggression. At the same time, it emboldened the leaders who aimed to modernize Mexico, as well as a number of ordinary folk demanding a say in their country’s future.

Those hoping to calm the turbulence of the early independence period and to drive Mexico down the alluring pathways offered by the West were called liberals. The political orientation of these liberals ranged from truly radical to extremely moderate, differences that were bound to create controversy within their ranks. But in a broad overview, the liberals yearned to democratize and secularize the country, stimulate capitalist ventures, protect human rights and private property, guarantee equality under the law, and forge a nation out of all the disparate regions whose disunity had led to the just completed military disaster. And they meant to do all this quickly, come what may.

Their opponents, called conservatives, also believed in their own principles with different degrees of radicalism, endorsing many of the ideas of their adversaries but advocating a much slower pace. They feared that the liberal program would hurl the country into social chaos, stimulating peasant movements like those that had occurred in the 1840s, perhaps including a race war by Indian campesinos (small-scale farmers). Thus they demanded that the time-tested pillars of order—the army and the church—be retained intact and that efforts to increase the participation of ordinary people in government be restrained. For a short period these points of view were vociferously debated in the public forum. But ultimately the contenders, claiming irreconcilable differences, plunged the country into civil war.

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