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Liberalism in Mexico was part of a broader nineteenth-century political trend affecting Western Europe and the Americas, including the United States, that challenged entrenched power.
Most Mexican liberals looked to European thinkers in their formulation of their ideology, which has led to a debate about whether those ideas were merely "Mexicanized" versions. In Mexico, the most salient aspects of nineteenth-century liberalism were to create a secular state separated from the Roman Catholic Church, establish equality before the law by abolishing corporate privileges (fueros) of the church, the military, and indigenous communities. Liberals' aim was to transform Mexico into a modern secular state with a dynamic economy. Corporate privilege and the conservative elite defenders were considered stumbling blocks to the nation’s political, social, and economic progress. Secular, public education was a key element in opening paths to achievement for all Mexican citizens. Schooling historically had been the domain of the Roman Catholic Church and limited to elite men, so that broadening educational access and having a secular curriculum was seen as a way to transform Mexican society. The breakup of land owned by corporations, specifically the Roman Catholic Church and indigenous communities, was a crucial policy element in diminishing the power of the church and integrating Mexico’s Indians into the republic as citizens and transforming them into yeoman farmers. Unlike many liberals elsewhere, Mexican liberals did not call for limitations on executive power.
The term "liberal" became the name of a political faction, which previously had called itself "the Party of Progress" in contrast to the Conservative Party, which they called "the Party of Regression." Conservatives characterized themselves as those that defended Mexican tradition. Following Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, the first Mexican liberals became important on the national scene. The most prominent was secular priest and intellectual, José María Luis Mora (1794–1850), who was influenced by Montesquieu, Benjamin Constant, and Jeremy Bentham. Mora attacked corporate privilege, especially the fueros of the Roman Catholic Church; considered the role of utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number) in Mexico; examined the so-called "Indian Question," of how to modernize Mexico when the majority of the population was indigenous living in rural communities; and considered the role of liberalism in economic development. The early post-independence era was dominated by General Antonio López de Santa Anna and Mexican conservatives, so that Mexican liberals were rarely able to exercise political power nationally.
With Mexico's defeat in the Mexican–American War (1846–48), a new generation of what historian Enrique Krauze calls "romantic liberals" emerged. They were rooted in literature, and read and translated European writers such as Lamartine, Michelet, Byron, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. Outstanding among these Mexican liberals were Ignacio Ramírez (1818–1879); Guillermo Prieto (1818–1897); and Ignacio Manuel Altamirano (1834–1893), who was of indigenous Nahua origin and rose to be a major literary figure and journalist.
These intellectuals lived through and tried to shape political thought in the War of the Reform between conservatives and liberals, and the French invasion, a foreign intervention supported by Mexican conservatives. However, pragmatic politicians, preeminently Benito Juárez, born in a Zapotec village in Oaxaca, as well as Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, and Melchor Ocampo implemented liberal reforms and defended them during civil war and foreign invasion. None of these men were great thinkers, but they were all guided by liberal principles. With the ouster of the French in 1867 and the discrediting of Mexican conservatives who had supported the regime of foreign monarch Maximilian I of Mexico, Juárez, and his successor following his death of natural causes in 1872, Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada could implement the Reform laws passed in the 1850s. With religious toleration mandated, the Roman Catholic Church was no longer the sole spiritual institution in Mexico; it was excluded from its former role as educators of the nation; and its economic power was diminished.
With that major liberal victory won, a third generation of liberals emerged during the presidency of liberal general and military hero of the French intervention in Mexico, Porfirio Díaz (r. 1876–1911). During the Porfiriato, a new group of liberals in name only, the "científicos," were influenced by the Positivism of French philosopher Auguste Comte, and Saint-Simon, scientist Charles Darwin, and Herbert Spencer, known for social Darwinism. Historian and educator Justo Sierra was the most prolific and influential of this group surrounding Díaz. A group of Mexican politicians supporting the increasingly dictatorial Díaz regime characterized themselves as the Cientificos, "scientists". Díaz’s supporters became comfortable with a strong executive, traditionally associated with conservative ideology, as a pragmatic means to achieve stability and ensure economic growth. Under Díaz, a modus vivendi with the Roman Catholic Church emerged whereby it regained a portion of its power and influence, but the anticlerical articles of the Constitution of 1857 remained theoretically enforced.
As the Díaz regime became increasingly dictatorial and trampled on the rights and liberties of Mexicans, a group of Mexican oppositionists led by Camilo Arriaga and Ricardo Flores Magón formed the Mexican Liberal Party (PLM). It called for the overthrow of Díaz and agitated for the rights of workers and peasants and for economic nationalism favoring Mexicans rather than foreigners. The PLM had two basic factions, one was reformist and was supported by elite, urban intellectuals and the other was anarcho-communist and advocated revolution. As the opposition to Díaz grew, Liberal clubs met secretly in Mexican cities to discuss politics, which led to the First Liberal Congress that met in San Luis Potosí in 1901. Radicals, such as Flores Magón, were exiled to the United States and drafted the Liberal Party program in 1905. A reformist liberal, rich hacienda owner Francisco I. Madero founded the Anti-Reelectionist Party and ran against Díaz in the 1910 presidential elections. He garnered support from PLM members in the campaign. The fraudulent 1910 elections sparked revolts throughout many parts of the country, considered the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, and Díaz was forced to resign.