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Lesson #5: The Mexican Constitution of 1824 and The Struggle for the National Soul

October 5, 2019


In 1824, Mexican liberals finally crafted
the form of government they had been fighting to attain since the beginning of their revolution
in 1810. With Agustín de Iturbide now out of the way,
leaders began reorganizing the system along federalist-liberal lines. They envisioned an arrangement that allowed
significant regional sovereignty, while keeping the central government comparatively feeble. During the autumn of 1823 through January,
1824, delegates from the various Mexican states gathered to indorse a national charter. On October 4, 1824, that document became part
of Mexico’s first constitution, the Federal Constitution of the United States of Mexico. Among the signatories of that historic contract
was Tejano delegate Juan José María Erasmo Seguín. The Constitution of 1824 owed much to its
predecessors. It mirrored the United States Constitution
of 1787, but it also drew from the 1812 Spanish Constitution of Cadiz. A liberal document, by Spanish standards,
the Cadiz charter greatly influenced many state and federal officials. Undercutting Mexico City’s traditional influence,
the 1824 Constitution sanctioned state participation in national matters but allowed for greater
regional self-rule. Hypothetically, it removed distinctions between
all races and castes. Mexican politicians learned, however, that
it was easier to eliminate such divisions on paper than in hearts and minds. Allegedly, eradicating class differences,
the 1824 Constitution nevertheless retained special privileges—or fueros—for clergymen
and soldiers. While pledging freedom of speech, it incongruously
recognized but one religion: Roman Catholicism. Despite those inconsistencies, most Mexicans
believed their new constitution was a vast improvement over all previous legislation
and augured a brighter future. Yet, others had no faith in the new government. The conservative centralistas asserted that
Mexico could never achieve true unity unless, and until, the central government consolidated
authority. Their liberal rivals—the federalistas—countered
that unless the individual states seized the lion’s share of power, the wealthy , the
church, and the military would strangle the infant republic in its crib. Federalists, moreover, supported American
colonization for the economic growth it fostered; the centralists opposed it. Labels can create confusion. In American history, “federalists” were
men like James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay who supported a powerful central
government. Quite the opposite, Mexican federalists advocated
strong state governments but a weak central regime. The two factions never organized into formal
political parties. Rather, they were communities of interest
with profound philosophical differences. In 1824, Mexicans were still trying to find
their footing and forge a national identity. The centralists and federalists nurtured vastly
different visions of what Mexico should be and each sought to define the national soul. Their altercations shaped Mexican politics
for the next four decades and placed Texas on the path toward revolution. Back in Texas, American colonists read Mexican
proclamations with mixed emotions. During the Spanish colonial period, the province
of Tejas—which one disgusted official reviled as “more remote than Lapland”—had proven
an administrative nightmare. It was, furthermore, a nightmare that the
Mexican congress had inherited. On May 7, 1824, it addressed the problem by
simply fusing the troublesome region with Coahuila to establish the hybrid state of
Coahuila y Tejas. Yet, it neglected to stipulate a border, leaving
the question of Texas’s southwestern limits wholly unanswered. Erasmo Seguín resisted the legislation and
attempted to maintain a separate identity for Tejas. Yet, the citizens of Coahuila, who greatly
outnumbered those in Texas, easily brushed aside Seguín’s opposition. On August 18, officials approved a federal
colonization law. Respecting one of the major tenants of Mexican
federalism, it allowed states considerable latitude in administering immigration within
their own boundaries. The law did, however impose some restrictions. Foreigners, for example, could not reside
within thirty miles of the coast; neither could they settle within sixty miles of the
international (read United States) border. Mexican federalists may have supported American
immigration, but they did not entirely trust the Americans. In the main, the Constitution of 1824 delighted
American settlers—and for good reason. The heirs of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison
could not help but approve that Mexico had adopted a constitutional republic. At first glance, the differences between the
American Constitution of 1787 and the Mexican Constitution of 1824 seemed trivial. It was true that the Mexican congress, not
the people, elected the president. Nor did the new constitution recognize separation
of church and state, a principle Americans greatly valued. But these disparities were mere irritants,
not deal breakers. Stephen F. Austin and his Anglo-American colonists
placed their hopes in the promises of Mexican federalism—as did native Mexicans. During the years of Spanish rule, communal
loyalty to a distant sovereign and a sanctioned religion provided a sense of political and
cultural continuity. Yet, independence had undermined or, in some
cases, entirely shattered those ties. Worse yet, nothing had emerged to take their
place. Mexicans who lived beyond the boundaries of
Mexico City identified with their own region—la patria chica they called it (“the little
homeland”). The illiterate ninety-nine percent of the
population found it difficult to even comprehend the concept of a nation-state. For them, federalism meant that each state
would determine its own destiny without interference from a far-flung central government. As Anglo-American settlers interpreted the
ruling, they had official sanction to recreate American culture and traditions inside Texas.

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