As a Mexican-born American, I’m always looking for occasions to celebrate. I guess this festive nature is simply dyed-in-the-wool (or dyed-in-the-cotton, if you’re Southern-raised, as I am). With that in mind, I wanted to write a bit about the Mexican Constitution – especially since two related holidays take place in the month of February: Mexican Constitution Day (February 5) and Mexican Flag Day (today – February 24).
February 5, 2011 marked the 94th anniversary of the Constitution of 1917. On that day, Mexican President Venustiano Carranza promulgated the Constitution that is still in force today in Mexico. This particular Constitution was a product of the Mexican Revolution, which just happens to have celebrated its centennial last year. Its enactment took place at the Teatro de la República (the Theatre of the Republic) in the city of Querétaro. This Constitution came with significant social reforms to labor laws, and provided for equality in treatment without discrimination on the basis of race, creed, social or political condition, among other reforms.
But there’s always a history, so in the words of Fredric Jameson let’s “always historicize.” Here’s a chronology of the Mexican Constitutions:
This was the organic instrument when Mexico was part of the Spanish Crown under King Ferdinand VII. Article 5 of the Constitution of Cádiz provides that “All free men born and residing in the domains of the Spains [sic], and the progeny of these” are Spaniards. Further to the subject of the “Spains” is article 10, wherein it states that the Spanish territory comprises several historical regions of the Iberian Peninsula, adjacent islands, and the modern-day autonomous communities, parts of Africa. In addition, it includes:
the Septentrional [northern] America, New Spain [the bulk of modern day Mexico and the US Southwest] with New Galicia [the modern Mexican States of Jalisco, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Colima, and Nayarit] and the Yucatan Peninsula, Goatemala [sic, modern day Central America], internal provinces of the East, internal provinces of the West, the Island of Cuba with the two Floridas [sic], the Spanish part of the Island of Santo Domingo, and the Island of Puerto Rico, with the rest of those adjacent to these and to the Continent, in one and the other sea. In Meridional [southern] America, the New Granada [modern day Colombia], Venezuela, Peru, Chile, and the Provinces of the Plata River, and all the islands adjacent [to them] in the Pacific Ocean and in the Atlantic. In Asia, the Philippine Islands and those that depend on their government.
If it didn’t come through quite clearly, Spain was huge!
Sentimientos de la Nación (Sentiments of the Nation, a precursor to the Constitution of Apatzingán)
It is believed that José María Teclo Morelos y Pavón, who drafted this treatise, was inspired by the actions of one criollo – the progeny of Spaniards born on Mexican soil – Father Miguel Hidalgo [Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla]. Hidalgo took the Virgin of Guadalupe – an autochthonous Virgin – as his coat of arms and declared Mexico’s Independence on September 16, 1810 in the “Cry of Dolores.” This is why Mexico celebrated its bicentennial last year on September 16, 2010. But I digress.
The Sentiments of the Nation is basically a preemptive piece that lays the groundwork for Morelos y Pavón’s Constitutional Decree for the Liberty of the Mexican America. The treatise has twenty-three points. The first of these is a statement pronouncing the independence of Mexican America from Spain. The remaining points in the treatise cover things like the role of the Catholic Church, the organization of the three branches of government, the terms and remuneration of elected officials, the prohibition of torture. Point eleven, which was minimally amended in the final decree, states that the country shall not be free until it replaces a tyrannical government with a liberal government and rids the land of the “Spanish enemy, who has declared himself against this Nation.”
Point fifteen is also significant – it calls for the abolition of slavery “forever” as well as distinction by castes, resulting in an equal citizenship where “the only thing that shall distinguish one American from another are vice and virtue.” One of the Spanish legacies, and perhaps the most controversial, in Colonial Latin America was that of the Spanish Caste System–wherein the parents and their progeny were labeled according to their racial composition. It is from this system that words like “criollo,” “mulato,” and “mestizo” are drawn, but the System was far more detailed in making clear distinctions of the multiple castes. In a nation as racially diverse as Mexico, the collective welfare would require a single identity, irrespective of ethnicity.
Finally, point twenty-three very eloquently states that the “16 September of every year be solemnized, as the anniversary upon which the voice of independence and our sacred liberty began, for on that day was when the lips of the Nation were opened to claim its rights and wielded the sword to be heard; remembering always the great merit of the hero and gentleman Lord Miguel Hidalgo and his companion Lord Ignacio Allende.”
The Decreto Constitucional para la Libertad de la América Mexicana  (Constitutional Decree for the Liberty of the Mexican America, also known as the Constitution of Apatzingán) fleshes out what was established in the Sentiments of the Nation.
This document established the Mexican monarchical system that resulted in the creation of the First Mexican Empire under Emperor Agustín de Iturbide. It served the dual purpose of appeasing the Spanish crown (by allowing King Ferdinand VII to be the emperor) and gaining some sense of relative sovereignty amidst the turmoil of the wars of independence that were taking place all over Latin America against Iberian forces.
The Plan of Iguala was short lived. It asserted Mexican independence – even though Spain didn’t fully recognize independence until 1836. It should also be noted that during this First Mexican Empire, the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, as well as the U.S. Southwest states and Texas, were all part of Iturbide’s Mexico.
This was the first real Mexican Constitution – it was drafted without foreign forces in mind, since the country had already developed a relatively cohesive national identity. This Constitution came about after the abdication of Agustin I, bringing the First Mexican Empire to an end and recreating Mexico as a Representative Federal Republic.
The second of the seven laws comprising the Constitutional Laws of 1836 created another branch of government: the Supreme Conservation Power, which was made up of five individuals. Its main role was to provide checks and balances for the other three branches and, if necessary, it was to interpret the will of the people. Another provision that is worth highlighting in these constitutional laws is article 8 of the first law where the composition or territorial division of the Republic is transformed from “States” to “Departments” where the Governors of the Departments are appointed by the President under the recommendation of the Governing Boards, which are elected by the people. Article 1 of the seventh law forbade the amendment of any of its articles for a period of six years.
Somewhere between the Constitutional Laws of 1836 and the Organic Bases of the Mexican Republic of 1843, Texas moved towards its Republic period, separating from Mexico (prior to this period it was known as Coahuila y Texas). Once it separated from Mexico, the Texas of this period covered all of modern-day Texas, parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma. (That might explain why there are great cultural similarities between the people of these other states and those of Texas.)
Bases Orgánicas de la República Mexicana of 1843 (the Organic Bases of the Mexican Republic)
This was a little known constitution with a very short life. It reestablished capital punishment, restricted freedom of the press and, once again, provided for the support and defense of the Catholic faith.
Following this, the Act of Amendments of 1847 basically placed the Constitution of 1824 back into force.
During this period, the Mexican-American war took place and Texas was annexed into the United States of America. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo brought an end to the war, where Santa Anna gave up claims to Texas and later ceded the modern-day Southwest. And Texas assumed the cartographic shape it has today.
What is markedly different about this constitution is the resounding spirit of liberty. It starts out by saying that all men are free and that by merely setting foot on Mexican soil one is set free. It proceeds with a markedly liberal tone. An official Church of the State isn’t established. In fact, article 27 begins a series of provisions that are not in the best interests of the Church. It provides that no corporation, civil or ecclesiastical, shall have the legal capacity to acquire or administer for itself real property, with the sole exception of the buildings destined for its immediate and direct use in the service or objective of the institution. New (and old) boundaries for the states were (re)established.
Following French intervention, the Second Mexican Empire under Maximilian I was established during 1864-1867. One of the main provisions during his rule was the re-establishment of the Catholic Church as the Official Church of State. Yet after Benito Pablo Juárez García successfully stopped the French invasion and overthrew Maximilian, the State returned to secularism and became a Republic.
As stated earlier, this constitution came with significant, cutting-edge social reforms. These came as a result of the Mexican Revolution. Like many constitutions, it has been amended; however, this constitution is the one that is still in force today. What is also more evident with the most recent Mexican constitutions is a deliberate movement toward secularism.
This is merely an overview of the history of the Mexican Constitution. My purpose was to provide you with the most salient and interesting facts, rather than a more comprehensive work, which (as you can see from all of the events and documents) would have been an extraordinary feat and required an even longer post!
Note: As GLIN is currently in transition, many links that directed the user to GLIN were modified to existing LC sites where the instruments are currently located. The image of the 1917 Constitution was digitized at the Library of Congress from the official gazette that is in its collection. It was then shared with colleagues at the Chamber of Deputies of the Hon. Congress of Mexico, who then added it to their site.–FM 1/27/2014
Update: This was originally published as a guest post by Francisco Macías. The author information has been updated to reflect that Francisco is now an In Custodia Legis blogger.