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The History of the Mexican Constitution

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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).

A black and white headshot of Venustiano Carranza.
Venustiano Carranza, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

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:

The Constitution of Cádiz (1812)

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)

A black and white painting of Father Miguel Hidalgo standing and gesturing to a table behind him filled with paper.
Father Miguel Hidalgo, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

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 [1814] (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.

Plan of Iguala (1821)

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.

The Constitution of 1824

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 Constitutional Laws of 1836

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.

Constitution of 5 February 1857

Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico in a black and white half-length portrait, standing, facing front.
Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico.


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.

A black and white headshot of Benito Juárez.
Benito Juárez, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

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.

The Constitution of 5 February 1917

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.

You can view a consolidated version of the Constitution as it appears today here.

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.

Comments (30)

  1. Impressive and very informative!

  2. Great article!

  3. I had no idea. I agree with Veronica, this was very informative.

  4. How interesting….I never knew Texas was joined with Coahuila. While I knew Texas belonged to Mexico, I never thought about it as a state within Mexico. I also think it’s interesting how while there’s Baja California, the US state of California at some point lost its Alta.

  5. very informative and enjoyed the reading

  6. I have been “schooled” by you on the history of the Mexican Constitution. It is informative, yet concise. Nice work!

  7. Thanks so much! You helped boost my gread in Gov’t. class!

  8. I’m very enjoy reading your article, and it’s very informative and useful

  9. I have been researching the Cristero Rebellion. It is interesting that the 1917 Mexican constitution had the “cutting-edge social reforms” and at the same time Articles 5,24, 27 , and 130 regarding the Catholic church (I am not Catholic).

    Could someone please explain to me the reason the writers of this constitution choose to insert these articles? So far I have not found the why, I would really like to know.


    • Hello Marie: Thank you for your interest in our blog; and thank you for posting your question here. As with many trends, there is no simple (or single) answer. These trends are a manifestation of several preoccupations and influences that are channeled into the drafting of a legal document. Nevertheless, to find the answer to your question, I would recommend looking to works concerning La Reforma, Valentín Gómez Farías, Benito Juárez and his (liberal) Reform Laws (look into his life in New Orleans, where many exiled liberals settled), Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, Ignacio Comonfort de los Ríos (see also this brief article by the Mexican Secretariat for National Defense), and Melchor Ocampo–the latter particularly for his role in the drafting of the Reform Laws issued under Juárez’s administration. See also historical and historiographical texts on the 19th century uprising between liberals and conservatives. To get a full perspective, also take a look at the conservative approach by reading texts on the Plan de Tacubaya.

      Benito Juárez, among other liberals, aimed to level the playing field for lay men and the clergy and to separate Church and State in order to control and/or diminish the power the Church wielded over the people and the clergy’s position of privilege over the laity. (This text, which is also available (in full) in digitized form and is published by the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Legal Research Institute, covers all the most salient issues concerning ecclesiastical assets within the framework of Mexico’s constitutional history.) Earlier Constitutions, as well as the Spanish Constitution of 1812, provide that the Catholic faith is the official faith of the State. Such provisions tend to appear very early within the body of the Constitution. The Constitution of 1857 contains many provisions that limited the Church’s power. Such provisions appear in Article 3, which moved education from an ecclesiastical model to a secular or non-dogmatic model; Article 13, which forbade special jurisdictions formed by people or institutions and suppressed special tribunals; and Article 27 precluded the church from having the ability to acquire or administer real property, with the exception of the buildings that were in the immediate use or possession of the institution–this stems from Ley Lerdo, which had the effect of moving Mexico from the feudal/Vice-regal period, where the Church was frequently the administrator of real property, to the era of the Mexican Republic–, among other provisions from this era. Liberal thought was certainly present in the drafting of the Constitution of 1917 (the one currently in force), which resulted in the detailed limitations of the Church included in Article 130, among other limiting provisions of the Constitution.

      The Cristero War stems from a more atheist endeavor by then president Plutarco Elías Calles, who beyond seeking the establishment of a secular state, sought the establishment of a more anti-clerical administration. For more on this subject see Ley Calles, which provided for limiting the presence of clergy within the Republic (by setting a ratio of one cleric for every several thousand inhabitants) and regulated licensing by limiting the right to practice to only the few who had obtained licenses from the national or subnational congresses.

  10. Could you tell me the year when Mexico first recognized dual citizenship? Thank you for your time.

  11. It seems that when Santa Ana became the dictator he and/or his supporters overthrew the Constitution of 1824? This was one of the issues that caused the Texas sessesion?

    Did Santa Ana and his supporters comply with any constitution? Did they make it up as they went along?

  12. hola disculpa ,me podrias decir por que fue tantas veces modificada la constitucion mexicana en los años 70, 80 y 90

    • Hola Mariana:

      Disculpa que apenas ahora esté respondiendo a tu pregunta. Te recomiendo esta liga:

      Allí encontrarás la cronología de las modificaciones. Cada modificación incluye un esbozo y por estos podrás darte una idea de cuales fueron las implicaciones de cada modificación.


  13. i love this article!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! SUPER DUPER INFORMATIVE

  14. How can the constitution be amended?

  15. Hi. This blog was really cool. I’m kinda young, but from what I got I could tell it was cool.
    Have a nice day.
    PS: 2015 for the win!

  16. This article is amazballs thank to mr hafer for making me reed it!!! !!11!

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