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by Greg Clements
The Ley Lerdo was a piece of legislation calculated by Miguel Lerdo de Tejada that shook the whole structure of Mexican society. By 1850, the shape of Mexican society was changing. The Mexican people had become less conservative. The new reformers of this period were men of diverse social and racial origins, and their primary target was the Church, whose power was still regarded as the real obstacle to national progress. The Church was unlike the Mexican public in that it was still very conservative and did not want any type of radical change.
The ouster of Santa Anna led to the election of Juan Alvarez to the presidency in November of 1855. Alvarez was not very qualified for the position, but his ministry was full of talent. It included Ignacio Comonfort, a creole, as minister of war, and Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian, as minister of justice. Melchor Ocampo was made minister of treasury, and Miguel Lerdo de Tejada was placed secretary of development (Meyer 376). All of these men had one thing in common: they were all strong liberals. When Alvarez selected these men into his cabinet, they began to create a reform program that would loosen the clutches of special privileges. This reform program became a group of laws that are more commonly referred to now as the Reform Laws.
In June of 1856, now president, Ignacio Comonfort's secretary of the treasury, Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, drafted a very important new law that the liberals hoped would weaken the church and the conservatives hoped would increase national revenues. This new law was called the Ley Lerdo.
The Ley Lerdo prohibited ecclesiastical and civil institutions from owning or administering real property not directly used in day-to-day operations (378). This meant that all of the land that the Roman Catholic Church had acquired over the centuries were to be put up for sale at public auction. The church could keep its church buildings, monasteries, and seminaries, but all of its rural and urban property had to be given up.
The creators of the Ley Lerdo knew that it would be very controversial, but did not think it would have results like this. Its purpose was to raise money by collecting taxes on all of the land that the Church had to sell. The government hoped that the Church would lose all of its economic and political power and that the government would win the loyalty of the new class of landowners that would be created by the division of the church properties. In theory, this law would be the solution to all of Mexico's problems. It would reduce the power of the church and give more power to the government, and it would also strengthen the economy by allowing people that otherwise could not own land the chance to buy some property. On top of those reasons, it would also bring a great deal of revenue in to the country when they taxed these new properties.
But no sooner had the law been applied than its results deceived the planner's expectations. The revenue accruing to the state was disappointingly meager. They expected to receive much more revenue from these transactions than they actually did. Also, the Church estates were expected to be split up between peasant proprietors, but in actuality, they fell into the hands of foreign and domestic speculators. This was because the fear of the church was so great that those of small means were very reluctant to purchase. So instead of creating a new class of landowners, they actually just gave more land to the people that already owned land and created a new aristocracy. In addition, these speculators that bought the new land exploited the peons who worked on them with a harshness of which the Church had never been guilty (163). The peasants were also deprived of the educational and charitable benefits dispensed by the clergy. Now, not only had the new liberal government not created a new class of land owners, but it had lost all of its support from the lower class because of this law.
Also, besides losing the support of the peasants, this new law infuriated the church. The Bishop of Puebla preached against the new law, and the Archbishop of Mexico demanded that the matter should be submitted to the arbitration of the Pope (MacHugh 46). After this law was implemented, it was war between the clerics and the liberals.
Large numbers of Catholics rose up in revolt against the Ley Lerdo and an army of fifteen thousand men was organized at Puebla, the most religious town in Mexico. President Comonfort hated the idea of this war between the clerics and the liberals, but under the advice of his cabinet, he acted strongly and quickly and the revolt was promptly suppressed. This would not be the only revolt though. Throughout the rest of the time that the liberals were in power, the country was in a civil war. The church felt betrayed and the people felt that the government was trying to gain too much power. The Ley Lerdo did not only affect the church, but also many civil institutions.
One of the civil corporations forced to sell its property was the ejido, the communal landholding of the Indian village. The ownership of ejidos had been respected throughout colonial times and the early independence, but now the owners had been reduced to a condition that resembled serfdom (Cheetham 163).
The Ley Lerdo was not successful for many reasons. The liberals felt that they could hurt the power of the Church by just taking away some of the land that it did not use. This did not hurt the church at all because they did not confiscate the property, but put it up for public auction. This step hurt them for two reasons: any money collected from the land would go back to the Church, the government collecting only the taxes, and the land would not be distributed to the landless peons, but to people that had money. With all of the money going back to the church, it did not hurt them at all economically, and all of the people buying the land were speculators, mainly from other countries. So, in essence, the Church received all of the money from selling the land and other countries received the benefits from these land purchases. Also, the government had a hard time enforcing the law. Adjudication and sales appear to have totaled some twenty and a half million pesos by the end of 1856. Lerdo himself believed that less than half the value of eligible ecclesiastical property had been transferred in that period (Hamnett 163). This fact shows that the Ley Lerdo's goals were very idealistic and the accomplishment of these goals would be very hard to achieve.
Although the Ley Lerdo was very good in theory, the creators of this law failed to recognize the unsettled condition of political affairs with the people and the church, the scale of opposition likely to rise, the opportunities provided for foreign speculators, and the generally complicated procedures involved. Although the Ley Lerdo did not accomplish all of its goals, the liberal ideas expressed in it displayed that Mexico was moving in the right direction. At the time that this legislation was passed, the Mexican society was just not ready for it. It was a little too liberal for its time.
Cheetham, Nicolas. Mexico: A Short History. New York, Thomas Y. Crowell Company. 1970.
Hamnett, Brian. A Concise History of Mexico. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
MacHugh, Robert Joseph. Modern Mexico. New York, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1914.
Meyer, Michael and Sherman, William. The Course of Mexican History. New York, Oxford University Press, 1987.
Priestley, Herbert Ingram. New York, The Mexican Nation. MacMillan Company, 1938.