The Constitution

Mexico Table of Contents

Nineteenth-Century Constitutions

The roots of the Mexican republic can be traced to two documents drafted during the early independence struggle against Spain: Los sentimientos de la nación (1813), by José María Morelos y Pavón, and the Constitution of Apatzingán (1814). These tracts introduced the ideal of a republic based on liberal political institutions and respect for individual rights. Mexico's independence was attained, however, by an alliance of liberal and ultraconservative forces under the leadership of Agustín de Iturbide (see Wars of Independence, 1810-21, ch. 1). Iturbide's Plan of Iguala proposed an indigenous constitutional monarchy, rather than a republic, as the alternative to Spanish rule. By assuming imperial powers following the victory over Spanish colonial forces in 1821, Iturbide continued the Iberian practice of plenipotentiary rule by the chief executive.

Mexico's first republican constitution was the Acta Constitutiva de la Federación Mexicana (Constituent Act of the Mexican Federation), which was promulgated in 1824, following the forced resignation of Iturbide and the breakup of the short-lived Mexican Empire (see The Abortive Empire, 1821-23, ch. 1). A liberal document modeled largely on the United States constitution, the constitution of 1824 established a federal republic with a divided central government. To avoid the abuses of executive authority experienced under Iturbide, the constitution required the president to share power and responsibility with a bicameral congress and the federal judiciary. Breaking with the Spanish colonial legacy of centralism, the constitution instituted a strong federal system, wherein presidents were to be indirectly elected every four years by a simple majority vote of the republic's nineteen state legislatures.

A document of dubious relevance, the constitution of 1824 was never fully observed by the politico-military leadership of the early Mexican republic. The survival of two of its most important principles, federalism and congressional authority, was more a reflection of the de facto decentralization of power in early nineteenth-century Mexico than of a generalized observance of the rule of law. Many provisions of the constitution of 1824 and subsequent nineteenth-century constitutions were simply ignored by the combative regional caudillos (strongmen) who dominated national politics. The most commonly breached constitutional principle was that of an orderly, electoral process of presidential succession. The violent overthrow of governments and the perpetuation in office of powerful presidents were problems that would plague Mexico throughout the rest of the nineteenth century and into the revolutionary period. Between 1824 and 1857, only one president, Guadalupe Victoria, completed his term and handed over power to an elected successor (see Centralism and the Caudillo State, 1836-55, ch. 1).

In 1833 the conservative president and military caudillo, Antonio López de Santa Anna Pérez de Lebrón, suspended the 1824 constitution and imposed a new national charter known as the Siete Leyes (Seven Laws). The Siete Leyes was a reactionary document that strengthened the powers of the presidency, militarized the federal government, and raised property qualifications for voting.

After three decades of political instability stemming from unrestrained power struggles between liberal and conservative elites, a new reformist constitution was promulgated in 1857 by the liberals, who had gained the upper hand. The 1857 constitution was reminiscent of the 1824 charter but was noteworthy for its introduction of major reform laws restricting military and clerical fueros (privileges) and clerical property rights. The new constitution also introduced a bill of rights, abolished slavery, and reestablished a strong national congress as a unicameral body. The clerical reform laws, moderate in comparison to the strongly anticlerical constitution of 1917, nevertheless galvanized the conservative opposition and led to a three-year civil war. Although the liberal forces under President Benito Juárez eventually prevailed, the conflict left Mexico divided and deeply in debt.

Using the excuse of collecting compensation for damage incurred during the civil war, the French landed troops in Veracruz. The French government, hoping to reestablish a French empire in the Americas, allied itself with conservative and church forces in Mexico and sent French troops to take Mexico City (see Civil War and the French Intervention, ch. 1). French troops entered the capital in 1863, and an empire under the Austrian archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph von Habsburg was declared. Republican forces retreated to the far north, and for four years Mexico had two governments.

Bowing to pressure from the United States and responding to the increased belligerency of Prussia, Napoleon III of France decided to withdraw French troops at the end of 1866. The conservative forces in Mexico, disillusioned by Maximilian, threw their support to Juárez. Before the last French troops had boarded their ships in Veracruz, Maximilian had surrendered, and the republican forces again controlled the entire country.

Although the constitution of 1857 was restored, its democratic principles were increasingly violated in the decades to follow. Juárez was reelected twice amidst charges that his administrations were becoming increasingly dictatorial. After Juárez's death in 1872, Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada assumed the presidency. Under Lerdo, a bicameral congress was reinstated. When Lerdo announced he would run for reelection in 1876, José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz took control as dictator. For more than a third of a century, either directly of indirectly, Díaz ruled Mexico (see The Porfiriato, ch. 1).

The revolutionary years from 1910 to 1917 were a period of governmental chaos (see The Revolution, 1910-20, ch. 1). Various groups espousing populist and revolutionary ideals roamed the country. By 1917 forces under Venustiano Carranza gradually had consolidated their control of the nation. Carranza then called a constitutional convention and presented a draft constitution, similar to the constitution of 1857, to the delegates. Carranza's moderate faction was outnumbered by the radicals, however, and numerous anticlerical and social reform articles were added.

Constitution of 1917

The constitution of 1917, proclaimed on February 5, 1917, is considered by many to be one of the most radical and comprehensive constitutions in modern political history. Although its social content gave it the title of the first modern socialist constitution--it preceded the constitution of the former Soviet Union--the Mexican document replicates many liberal principles and concepts of the constitution of the United States. The liberal concepts include federalism, separation of powers, and a bill of rights. In addition to reaffirming the liberal principles of the nineteenth-century documents, the 1917 constitution adds a strong nationalist proclamation, asserting Mexico's control over its natural resources. It also recognizes social and labor rights, separation of church and state, and universal male suffrage. Reflecting the varied social backgrounds and political philosophies of its framers, the constitution of 1917 includes various contradictory provisions, endorsing within the same text socialism, capitalism, liberal democracy, authoritarian corporatism, and a host of unimplemented provisions for specific social reforms.

Formally, the constitution prescribes a federal republic consisting of thirty-one states and a federal district. The federal government is divided into executive, legislative, and judicial branches, but these branches do not have comparable powers. Only the president may promulgate a law, by signing it and ordering its publication. The executive can veto bills passed by the legislature, either in whole or by item, and although a veto may be overridden, there is no constitutional way in which the president may be forced to sign a bill into law. In addition, executive-sponsored bills submitted to the Congress take precedence over other business, and the constitution gives the president broad authority to issue basic rules (reglamentos ). Reglamentos have the same legal force as laws and are the source of most statutory regulations.

The constitution treats many matters of public policy explicitly. For example, before being amended in 1992, Article 27 placed stringent restrictions on the ownership of property by foreigners and the Roman Catholic Church and declared national ownership of the country's natural resources (see Church-State Relations, ch. 2). Religious groups were excluded from any kind of political activity and were not allowed to participate in public education, conduct services outside churches, or wear clerical dress in public. In its original form, Article 27 also granted the government broad powers to expropriate private property in the public interest and to redistribute land.

The constitution prescribes an activist state that will ensure national autonomy and social justice. Thus, in addition to a charter of individual rights, the constitution provides for a number of social rights for workers and peasants and their organizations. In Article 123, the constitution provides what has been described as "the most advanced labor code in the world at its time." It guarantees the right to organize, as well as an eight-hour workday, and provides for the protection of women and minors in the workplace. It mandates that the minimum wage "should be sufficient to satisfy the normal necessities of life of the worker," and establishes the principle of equal pay for equal work regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. In addition, Article 123 clarifies the right to strike. Strikes are legal when their purpose is to "establish equilibrium between the diverse factors of production, harmonizing the rights of labor with those of capital." The article further establishes arbitration and conciliation boards made up of equal numbers of management, labor representatives, and one government representative. Although many of these provisions were not implemented until 1931, Article 123 mandates the incorporation of organized labor into the formal political process and serves as a basis for labor's claim to a preeminent status in national politics.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress