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by Deborah Moody Wells
One of Mexico's foremost, but forgotten leaders, Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, lived through a very important time in the nation's history, yet very little is remembered of him. In his book, The Life of Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, Frank Knapp wrote, "Not only is he unknown to the world at large, but his significance has been lost even to the vast majority of Mexican people." He lived through the Reforma (initiated in 1854), the French intervention (1863-1867), the restoration with Juárez; and his own presidency. Most that was written about him during later years was negative, or at least distorted. The Porfiriato government "directly or indirectly discouraged any favorable publications on his career." (Knapp viii)
Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada y Corral was born in the city of Jalapa on April 24, 1823. His father, born in Spain, was considered a gachupín (from a privileged class) and his mother was a criolla born in Vera Cruz of Spanish parents. He had six brothers and one sister. Lerdo had a "natural ability for scholarship," (Knapp 4) and had fifteen years of formal education, five of which were at the seminary in Puebla. He was an outstanding student, receiving many awards and honors and was very well liked and admired.
In 1841 Sebastián went to Mexico City to the National College of San Ildefonso to study jurisprudence. For the next twenty two years he was connected with this college: as student, professor, and then rector. San Ildefonso was considered to be one of the best colleges in Mexico for law and theology. He was at the top of his class, and was consistently chosen by his professors to debate in conferences where he was always complimented for his ability. Sebastián was very intelligent, yet worked to stay on top. He spent most of his time studying, so he had few close friends.
At the age of 25 Lerdo received a teaching position at the college. He was promoted quickly and began teaching the first year of jurisprudence before he was 27 and even before he was licenciado. Sebastián became secretary of the college, which was in reality the "first assistant to the rector," enlightening him on how the administration was run. When the rector died in 1852, Sebastián took his place--at 29! He remained in that position until 1863.
Lerdo was appointed as the prosecuting attorney of the Supreme Court of Justice around the end of 1855 and at the same time was alternate magistrate under the Interim President Juan Alvarez.
Miguel Lerdo de Tejada was Sebastián's famous brother, but no public mention was made of them being related. According to research, lack of information, and evidence, it is assumed that they did not associate much, if any. Frequently in reading, it is unclear as to which of the Lerdos historians referred to when the first names were omitted. "Both men were outstanding, civilian, liberal statesmen of the nineteenth century...both were men of refinement, with keen, educated minds...They were both strong pillars upon which rests much of the weight of Juárez's fabulous reputation." (Knapp 58) Miguel was known for the Ley Lerdo which was a law that was incorporated into the constitution of 1857 stating that the church could not own real estate that was not being used for religion.
At the end of 1856 an incident occurred that strained Spanish-Mexican relations. Five Spanish nationals were killed by a band of robbers near Cuernavaca. The Chargé of Spain, Pedro Sorela, tried to pressure the Mexican government to punish the assassins quickly. Sebastián was put in the ministry of Foreign Relations in the middle of this mess, and resigned shortly thereafter.
During this short ministry, Sebastián was exposed to Manifest Destiny in which the United States Foreign minister, John Forsyth tried to convince the Mexican President Comonfort to give the United States rights across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Sebastián, backed by the president, stood his ground in rejecting the offers.
To give Comonfort an opportunity to choose new counselors for the constitutional government, all of the cabinet members resigned at the same time in 1857. Comonfort accepted the Plan of Tacubaya in December of 1857 which was considered to be a golpe de estado. Once again the people were split and fighting began.
In December of 1858 the Plan of Ayutla was developed to overthrow Félix Zuloaga, the President. Lerdo was put on the provisional junta that was to choose a different leader, but he did not go to the meetings, showing that he was more of a moderate than a conservative.
Sebastián Lerdo dropped out of the limelight of politics during the next three years - years of civil war - until 1861 when he became a congressional deputy, and Juárez had returned to Mexico City.
In parliament Lerdo did not try to monopolize the floor. When he spoke he made his point clearly, without extras, nor bragging like many of his counterparts. He was recognized as a talented and courageous orator. He was asked to speak often and to hold more offices and committee posts. Meanwhile, he continued as rector of San Ildefonso.
After the civil war, Mexico owed money to Great Britain, France, and Spain. Mexican congress passed a law in 1861, suspending for two years the payments of all foreign debts. The three countries then signed the Treaty of London, calling for an intervention and settlement of the claims. At this time Manuel María de Zomacona was negotiating with Sir Charles Wyke, the British minister to Mexico (Wyke-Zomacona Treaty). Their agreement was rejected, with Lerdo playing an important role in its defeat, being strongly against it.
In January, 1862, troops from Spain, Great Britain, and France landed in Mexico. The Spanish and British withdrew three months later, and Maximilian moved into the monarchical position with his bride at his side.
On May 31, 1863 congress closed its session, giving President Juárez "extraordinary powers to last the duration of the foreign invasion." (Knapp 75) That night Lerdo left with Juárez and a few advisers and ministers - heading toward San Luis Potosí - and four years of danger on many roads before returning to Mexico City.
Under Maximilian there were actually two governments: the Empire and Juárez's government, the "Nomadic Republic." (Knapp 76) Juárez and his ministers continued to govern, moving whenever necessary for safety. They traveled from San Luis Potosi to Saltillo, Monterrey, Chihuahua, and Paso del Norte, over rough and dangerous roads, with many stops in between. In September, 1863, Lerdo became minister of Justice and a few days later was transferred to minister of Relations and Government, and was considered to be Juárez's main advisor.
In 1864 General Jesús Gonzalez Ortega sent a letter to Lerdo "reminding the government that he was president of the Supreme Court of Justice and consequently vice-president of the nation." (Knapp 99) He wanted to know if Juárez was ready to step down and let him (Ortega) be chief executive. This created more strife, dividing the republic even more.
Lerdo, in his wisdom, and eloquent manner clearly explained that Juárez needed to remain in office until elections could be held. Upset and angry, Ortega began to cause more problems. For a year he tried to gather forces in the US to supposedly fight the empire while increasing debts for the government. Lerdo issued decrees to remove Ortega from office, requesting his arrest. He also issued a decree that Juárez would remain in office as he had explained to Ortega.
Lerdo corresponded diligently with Romero, Foreign Minister to the United States, and gave him instructions, and the power to do all he could to gain support of the US, against the foreign intervention. Jesús Terán was the Foreign Minister to Europe, traveling wherever they would listen. The French finally pulled troops out when it became evident that the empire was falling. Juárez and his government began to move south from Chihuahua.
In June, 1867, Maximilian, Miramón, and Ignacio Mejía were executed. That year "marked the substantial close of the reform initiated in 1854 with the Plan of Ayutla." (Knapp 118) Nationalism increased, and the foreign intervention was defeated, with Lerdo having a part in both.
The time between 1867 (the end of French intervention) and 1876 (the beginning of the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship) is sometimes referred to as the restoration: Benito Juárez's last term and Sebastián Lerdo's administration.
There were many problems during this period: fighting continued, in an attempt to stop the fighting; money was spent, leaving a shortage in the treasury; the central government had to be rebuilt, especially the executive branch; and national income needed to be increased.
Under Juárez and Lerdo there was freedom of press, speech, and assembly. The restoration, in spite of what Díaz claimed, was a time of "discipline, continuity, and, above all, tolerance in the face of exasperating problems." (Knapp 121) As Frank Knapp also stated, "Despite the superficial aspect of chaos and revolt, there was no need to apologize for either the Juárez or Lerdo administration. Many of the remarkable accomplishments under Díaz were possible probably because those men helped to prepare the way." (122)
In August, 1867, Lerdo drafted the convocatoria (electoral decree). It recommended five amendments to which the people reacted negatively. Sebastián explained each reform very convincingly. The problem was with the procedure of the amendments and giving voting concessions to the clergy, not with the proposals themselves. Referring to the convocatoria Knapp states that "there was no single document which so clearly or completely revealed Lerdo's centralistic philosophy of government." (128)
Lerdo became minister of Relations and Chief of Cabinet. It was a struggle because of opposition in the Supreme Court. But Juárez, the newly elected president was determined to have Lerdo working with him. There were complaints from the opposition that Lerdo had too much say in the policies, claiming that he was "the evil brain of the government." (Knapp 137) It continued to be difficult to tell whether policies came from Juárez or Lerdo.
The opposition attacked Lerdo persistently. He was called, "the Jesuit, the evil genius of government, the Mexican Machiavelli, the seminary politician, the destroyer of the constitution, the germ of unrest, the favorite of Cura Juárez,"(Knapp 144) plus many more. There was obvious envy and resentment of Lerdo, but he was also respected and feared because of his influence with Juárez and the government.
Ireneo Paz, director of "El Padre Cobos," and strong supporter of Porfirio Díaz is quoted as saying that Sebastián Lerdo de Tejado was "very intelligent and full of ambitions, the chief of Juárez's cabinet, and the only terrible one among all our [the Porfirists'] adversaries for his refined perspicacity." (Knapp 145)
In January, 1871 Lerdo resigned from his post in the cabinet. The obvious reason was that he was competing with Juárez for the presidency. The three candidates running for president that year were Juárez, Porfirio, and Lerdo. The Juaristas had the support of the federal army, and the "bureaucracy in federal and state offices." (Knapp 151) The state governors were expected to show their loyalty to Juárez. The Porfiristas had a wide variety of supporters, mostly people that were discontent and disappointed with Juárez and Lerdo. The Lerdistas were primarily professionals, intellectuals, and "especially lawyers and writers." (Knapp 153)
The Juaristas won the election and the Porfiristas revolted, claiming fraud. But the Lerdistas, claiming to be peaceful in the campaign, accepted Juárez's reelection. Actually, none of the three candidates won the majority of the votes. Congress had to make a decision, and many of the deputies remained silent, refusing to vote. The Porfiristas, under the plan of La Noria, seeking to overthrow Juárez, began another revolt.
Although Lerdo had stepped down from the cabinet, he continued to be president of the Supreme Court. So when Juárez died on July 18, 1872, Lerdo was next in line, and thus moved into the position of president for four years.
As president, Lerdo decided to pardon the Porfiristas for political crimes, but they had to forfeit "rank, titles, pensions, and other military awards." (Knapp 161) Slowly Díaz's men accepted the offer. Díaz himself was very reluctant but finally gave in when Lerdo refused to change his position.
National confidence surged. Lerdo calmed the Juaristas and brought back the Porfiristas. He was at the height of his career. The railroad from Mexico to Vera Cruz was officially opened and Lerdo took the grand opening journey, greeted and acclaimed by the people all along the route. The country was at peace for now.
Sebastián Lerdo alienated many of his supporters by not associating with any particular political groups. He adhered to the law and would not bend for any party nor any person. He did not make changes in the ministers that Juárez had placed. Basically, he combined the positions of president and prime minister, giving himself the "ultimate executive responsibility." (Knapp 177) The governors of the central states of Mexico were supportive of Lerdo's administration, but some of his enemies considered him a tyrant. He constitutionalized the Laws of Reform: (1) church and state were separated; (2) marriage became a civil contract; (3) religious corporations could not purchase property except for religious reasons; (4) the courts no longer used a religious oath, only promised to tell the truth; and (5) no law would be recognized that 'in any way diminished the "liberty of man."' (Knapp 188)
Lerdo wanted to "stabilize the central government and to solidify peace at the expense of state anarchy." (Knapp 189) He added a senate, which actually turned out to be a "tool" that could be used to arbitrate the policies of the states. This did not actually start until the end of Lerdo's presidency. Another notable law passed was the Ley de Timbre, known as the Stamp Act which did not go into effect until 1875. It was a taxation that was internal--one that benefited Porfirio Diaz.
The Supreme Court turned out to be one of Sebastián's main obstacles during his presidency. José María Iglesias was its president and caused a lot of dissension. When Lerdo became president, Iglesias had been elected to fill the position, with Lerdo's approval. But Iglesias began turning against the president. Later, in 1876 Iglesias revolted claiming it was illegal for Lerdo to run for reelection.
Little happened as far as foreign diplomatic relations during Lerdo's presidency. He allegedly had a fear of the United States, not necessarily of their military might, but probably more of its capitalism. "It should be remembered that his influence on Mexican Foreign relations extended over a period of thirteen years...Cautious, consistent, nationalistic, and at times chauvinistic, Lerdo and his ideas left a deep impress on Mexican diplomatic history, his concepts reflecting admirably the pride of the Mexican people during and after the foreign intervention." (Knapp 204)
Lerdo's economic developments showed strong nationalism. Railroads were built and communication improved. Knapp pointed out that Lerdo's "impatient enemies misconstrued caution and farsightedness for stagnation."(205) They did not realize that modernization needed to be slow, and that with patience, cooperation, and funds it would come. Telegraph lines were added, roads were improved, and the government purchased four coast guard vessels, "the real origin of the Mexican naval service." (Knapp 214)
At the time of the revolution in 1876, when Lerdo left office, there were three major railroad grants that had just gone into effect. There were also concessions for the governors to build railroads using individuals, private companies, or making them state projects. The Porfirista revolution interrupted the progress that had been made, destroying some of the routes that were operational.
Contrary to what many thought, neither negligence nor personal attitude were the reasons that Lerdo did not make impressive changes, he did not have the necessary funds. This "is one of the most distorted of many injustices which history has generously allotted him." (Knapp 214) He did the best he could with what was available.
Mexicans did not appreciate the freedoms they had under Lerdo. He promised freedom of the press, which he "honored with a blind zeal." (Knapp 223) The press turned out to be in part, a reason for his downfall. They constantly tried to "discredit, ridicule, and, later to destroy the government by whatever means." (Knapp 227)
Lerdo's government failed for various reasons, all of which in themselves could have been considered good, but added together, brought him down: Lerdo was inflexible and strong-willed; he left Juárez's men in office; he failed to place his own followers in positions in government; he stuck to the law and enforced all laws; and the press took advantage of the freedom he gave them. Another reason may fall on his Minister of War, Ignacio Mejía. It is possible that he purposely did not stop the revolt in Oaxaca where the Porfiristas' strength was. Evidence shows that he may be guilty of "passive defection" which "was a major blow to Lerdo, second in importance only to that of Iglesias." (Knapp 245)
Three main events occurred in 1876: (1) Porfirio Díaz initiated a revolution; (2) Lerdo was reelected; and (3) José María Iglesias defected and began a revolution.
Lerdo departed Mexico City with his cabinet and a few followers. Of course there were many rumors regarding the departure, all of which aimed at making him look worse. The rest of his life (13 years) was spent in New York City in self imposed exile. He learned English on his own and began a legal practice, serving both Mexicans and Americans.
Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada died on April 21, 1889. His body was returned to Mexico City, where he was buried at the cemetery of Dolores in the Rotonda de Hombres Ilustres (Rotunda of "Illustrious Men"), "an honor which he richly deserved." (Knapp 265) It is unfortunate that the people of Mexico will probably never understand nor appreciate Don Sebastián and what he accomplished for them.
Knapp, Frank Averill, The Life of Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, 1823-1889: A study of Influence and Obscurity. University of Texas Press, 1951.
On-line: "Gobierno de Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada," http://www.cegs.nesm.mx/ndem/ restaurada/mestabindad.htm
On-line: Tuck, Jim, "The Transformation of Porfirio Díaz," http://www.mexconnect.com/mex_/history/jtuck/jtporfdiaz.html
On-line: "Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada," http://www.arts-history.mx/reforma/lerdo.html