Reform War – Summary, History, Causes and Consequences

We explain what the Reform War in Mexico was, its causes and consequences. In addition, its protagonists and the Reform Laws.

war of reform laws-of-reform mural diego rivera
The War of Reform began with attempts to achieve a modern Mexican state.

What was the War of the Reform?

In Mexican history, it is known as the Reform War or the Three Years War to a civil war that Mexican liberals and conservatives faced. These were the two most important parties in the nation. The conflict it was extended between 1858 and 1861 and, being very typical of the time, it had similar variants in other Latin American nations.

He confronted the model of society and economic administration inherited from the colonial era, with the ideals of a modern democratic capitalism wielded by the liberal sectors, represented by the government of Benito Juárez that was established after the defeat of the conservatives in the battle of Calpulalpan.

The Reform War cost the lives of thousands of combatants and did not leave a clear picture regarding its victor. Nevertheless, the liberal army defeated the conservative and he managed to impose Juárez as president of the Republic.

On the other hand, after the elections of 1861 in which the Liberals obtained a slim victory, new measures of secularization of the hospitals unleashed a new conservative uprising, showing that the political landscape was far from final.

It is considered that the Reform War ended with the Second French Intervention in Mexico (1862-1867), in which the French Empire, allied with conservative sectors, invaded Mexico to impose the government of Maximilian of Habsburg and start the Second Mexican Empire.

Causes of the Reform War

The antecedents of the War of Reform must be traced in the post-Ayutla Revolution that ended the dictatorial government of Antonio López de Santa Anna, and that promulgated the Constitution of 1857, under the government of Ignacio Comonfort.

Under this government the liberalization of Mexico began. From the middle of the 19th century, a modern state of law was pursued, although to the detriment of the interests of the conservative and religious sectors, who spoke out against these changes through the Plan of Tacubaya.

President Comonfort refused the conservative proposal to reverse the liberal laws and repeal the new Constitution. Thus began a period of political instability that culminated with Comonfort’s departure from power and the confrontation of two parallel governments: that of Benito Juárez as president of the Supreme Court, and that of the conservative Félix Zuloaga.

Consequences of the War of the Reform

war of reform consequences of the second Mexican empire
The war led to French intervention and the Second Mexican Empire.

In addition to the human and economic losses, the main consequence of the War of the Reform was the enormous military, economic and political weakening of the Mexican nation, leaving it too vulnerable to guard its borders.

Thus, after the Benito Juárez government announced the suspension of foreign debt payments, as an attempt to give priority to the internal economic situation, France, Spain and the UK announced their plan for a military invasion of the American country. These European nations were allied to the Mexican conservative sectors.

Despite the fact that Juárez repealed the Suspension of Payments Law, the invasion plans were not interrupted and the troops of the European Alliance arrived in Veracruz in 1862. While the British and Spanish reached an agreement with the government of Juárez, the French decided to go ahead and thus took place the Second French Intervention in Mexico.

As a consequence, the government of Maximiliano was established in Mexico. Secondly, the liberal reforms introduced by the Juárez government set a precedent necessary for a more modern and democratic nation. But this was only possible once the Second Mexican Empire fell.

Who participated in the War of the Reform?

The two opposing sides, as has been said, were:

  • The Liberals. Headed militarily by José Santos Degollado and Jesús González Ortega.
  • The Conservatives. Directed by Miguel Miramón and Félix Zuloaga.

Reform War Characters

reform war protagonist benito juarez
In addition to participating in the war, Benito Juarez became president again in 1868.

Some of the most important characters in this conflict were:

  • José Santos Degollado (1811-1861). He was a Mexican military and politician devoted to geography, philosophy, physics, mathematics and grammar, nicknamed Hero of defeats for his uncanny ability to form new armies after being defeated in combat. He was an unconditional of the cause of Benito Juárez, who died in a conservative ambush in 1861, and was declared “worthy of the Fatherland.”
  • Miguel Miramón (1832-1867). General in charge of the conservative troops, he was appointed interim president by the Plan of Tacubaya, in opposition to Juárez. After his defeat by Juárez and the US intervention in his favor, he had to leave Mexico in 1861. He returned from exile in 1967 to join the government of Maximiliano de Habsburgo, together with whom he died after being defeated, shot in the Cerro de las Tres Campanas, Queretaro.
  • Felix Zuloaga (1813-1898). Conservative military and politician who headed the Plan of Tacubaya, ignoring the Constitution of 1857. He was appointed interim president of Mexico by the conservative side, a gesture that unleashed the War of Reform. After the end of his disputed government, he tried to ally himself with the Second Mexican Empire, without success. In 1865 he was exiled to Cuba, from where he returned after the death of Juárez, to dedicate himself to the cultivation of tobacco and to abandon politics forever.
  • Benito Juárez (1806-1872). One of the most prominent political figures in the history of Mexico, he was a lawyer and politician from the Zapotec ethnic group, known as the “Benemérito de las Américas”. He led the liberal and transformative forces of the State throughout his life, holding various public positions and becoming an iconic figure of the liberal movement. After winning the Reform War and rejecting Maximiliano’s invitations to join the imperial government, he became president of Mexico again in 1868, leading new liberal changes. He died in 1872, when the porfirate was already on the horizon in Mexico.

Reform laws

With this name the set of liberal laws decreed by Juárez during his first government, despite being in open military confrontation with the conservatives.

Between 1959 and 1960 this set of reforms finally managed to separate Church and State, ecclesiastical property was nationalized, civil marriage was allowed and the State began to keep the registry of citizen identity and the administration of the cemeteries.

Holidays were regulated and official attendance at Church functions was prohibited, also announcing the freedom of worship. These laws constituted a step towards a new social and political era in the country.