The Federal Constitution of the United Mexican States of 1824 (Spanish: Constitución Federal de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos de 1824) was enacted on October 4 of 1824, after the overthrow of the Mexican Empire of Agustin de Iturbide. In the new constitution, the republic took the name of United Mexican States, and was defined as a representative federal republic, with Catholicism as the official and unique religion. It was replaced by the Federal Constitution of the United Mexican States of 1857.
The Mexican War of Independence (1810–1821) severed control that Spain had exercised on its North American territories, and the new country of Mexico was formed from much of the individual territory that had comprised New Spain. The victorious rebels issued a provisional constitution, the Plan de Iguala. This plan reaffirmed many of the ideals of the Spanish Constitution of 1812 and granted equal citizenship rights to all races. In the early days of the country, there was much disagreement over whether Mexico should be a federal republic or a constitutional monarchy. One of the leaders of the revolution became the first monarch, Agustin I.
Discontent with Agustin’s national government grew, Brigadier Antonio López de Santa Anna initiated an insurrection. Generals issued the Plan of Casa Mata on 1 February 1823. The plan won the support of the provinces because it included a provision granting local authority to the provincial deputations. The election of a new legislature constituted the plan’s principal demand, because provincial leaders considered the composition of the first congress to be flawed. Following the precedent of the Hispanic Cortes, Mexican political leaders considered the executive to be subservient to the legislature. Thus, a new congress, which did not possess the liabilities of the old, could restore confidence even if the executive remained in place. Mexican politicians, of course, expected the new body to keep the emperor in check. Agustin abdicated in March 1823.
The failure of Iturbide’s short-lived empire ensured that any future government would be republican. The Mexican Cortes, following the Cádiz model, maintained that it was sovereign since it represented the nation. The provinces, however, believed that they possessed sovereignty, a portion of which they collectively ceded to form a national government.
The Cortes insisted on writing the nation’s constitution, but the provinces maintained that it could only convene a new constituent congress based on the electoral regulations of the Constitution of Cádiz. Neither side was willing to cede. In the months that followed, the provinces assumed control of their governments through their provincial deputations. Four provinces, Oaxaca, Yucatán, Guadalajara, and Zacatecas, converted themselves into states. To avoid civil war, the Cortes acquiesced and elected a new constituent congress.
Second Constituent Congress
The second Constituent Congress was quite different from the first. It represented the provinces more equitably, and some of its members possessed instructions to form only a federal republic. Oaxaca, Yucatán, Jalisco, and Zacatecas, which had become states, elected state congresses, rather than provincial deputations, as the convocatoria required.
The constituent congress, which convened on 7 November 1823, faced very different circumstances from its predecessor. Not only had the provinces declared their sovereignty, but they had also restricted the authority of their delegates. Valladolid, Michoacán, for example, declared: “This province in the federation does not wish to relinquish the major portion of its liberty and other rights; it only grants [its deputies] the authority absolutely necessary to keep the portion it retains.” Other provinces made similar declarations.
The new congress represented regional interests. The delegates were divided into a confederalist, two federalist, and one centralist faction. The confederalists, extreme defenders of local rights like Juan de Dios Cañedo, argued that only the provinces possessed sovereignty, a portion of which they collectively ceded to the union to form a national government. This interpretation meant that the provinces, or states, as Oaxaca, Yucatán, Jalisco and Zacatecas now called themselves, could subsequently reclaim the power they had relinquished. They were opposed by federalists like Servando Teresa de Mier who believed that only the nation was sovereign. In their view, although the country was organised into provinces, or states, for political purposes, the people, not the states, possessed sovereignty. The deputies, therefore, did not represent the states, but the people who constituted the nation. As the representative of the Mexican people, Congress possessed greater power and authority than the state legislatures. Midway between these extremes stood men like the federalist Ramos Arizpe, who believed that the national government and the states shared sovereignty. Although they favoured states’ rights, they nevertheless believed that the national government had to command sufficient power to function effectively. The confederalist/federalist factions were opposed by a tiny minority of centralists who argued that sovereignty was vested in the nation and that Mexico needed a strong national government.
Drafting a Constitution
A committee consisting of Ramos Arizpe, Cañedo, Miguel Argüelles, Rafael Mangino, Tomás Vargas, José de Jesús Huerta, and Manuel Crescencio Rejón, submitted an Acta Constitutiva (draft of a constitution) on 20 November. The Hispanic Constitution of 1812 and its institutions of government were well known; moreover, seven proposals for a Mexican constitution had been debated throughout the country in the previous months. The constituent congress, therefore, was filled with educated individuals with diverse ideas and extensive political experience at the local, state, national, and international levels.
Nature of the Constitution
Most of the Hispanic Constitution’s articles were based on the Peninsular document; a few were adopted verbatim from that charter. Although the deputies relied on their first constitutional experience, the Constitution of 1812, they did not slavishly copy the Hispanic model. Radical federalists like Juan de Dios Cañedo, deputy from Jalisco, challenged the need for an article declaring national sovereignty because in a republican federal government each state is sovereign.
The Acta, unlike the Hispanic constitution, did not grant exclusive or even dominant sovereignty to the nation, because the states also claimed sovereignty. The issue of sovereignty remained at heart a question of the division of power between the national and the state governments.
Struggle Among Confederalists, Federalists, and Centralists
The proponents of state sovereignty—the confederalists—were challenged by some less radical federalist delegates who argued that only the nation could be sovereign. Because these men stressed the need to endow the national government with sufficient power to sustain national interests, they are often mistakenly considered centralists.
Neither the advocates of states’ rights, like Cañedo, nor the proponents of national sovereignty, like Mier, triumphed. Instead, a compromise emerged: shared sovereignty, as advocated by moderate federalists such as Ramos Arizpe. Throughout the debates, he and others argued that although the nation was sovereign, the states should control their internal affairs. The proponents of states’ rights and those who believed in shared sovereignty possessed enough strength to pass the measure by a margin of 41 to 28 votes.
The states did not just share sovereignty with the national government; they obtained the financial means to enforce their authority. They gained considerable taxing power at the expense of the federal government, which lost approximately half the revenue formerly collected by the viceregal administration. To compensate for that loss, the states were to pay the national government a contingente assessed for each state according to its means. As a result, the nation would have to depend upon the goodwill of the states to finance or fulfill its responsibilities.
Weak Executive Branch
The constituent congress’s decision to share sovereignty did not settle the question of the division of power within the national government. Although all agreed on the traditional concept of separation of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, most congressmen believed that the legislature should be dominant. Recent Hispanic and Mexican experience had fostered a distrust of executive power.
The authors of the Acta Constitutiva proposed that executive power be conferred “on an individual with the title of president of the Mexican Federation, who must be a citizen by birth of said federation and have attained at least thirty-five years of age”. The proposal led to a heated debate that transcended the former division between states’ righters and strong nationalist coalitions.
The fear of provincial disorder also influenced the debate. The revolt of 12 December in Querétaro, for example, demanded the expulsion of gachupines (Spaniards who had come to Mexico) from the country. A similar uprising occurred later in Cuernavaca. In both instances, the national government sent forces to restore order.
On 23 December, Puebla declared itself a sovereign, free, and independent state. The authorities in Mexico City immediately concluded that the military commander of the province, General José Antonio de Echávarri, was responsible for the “revolt”. Therefore, the government dispatched an army under the command of Generals Manuel Gómez Pedraza and Vicente Guerrero to restore order. The forces of the national government approached the capital city of Puebla at the end of December 1823. After lengthy negotiations, General Gómez Pedraza proposed that, since Congress was about to issue the convocatoria for national and state elections, the leaders of Puebla renounce their earlier action and hold new elections. The Poblanos agreed. The convocatoria was received in Puebla on 12 January 1824. Elections were held throughout the province and a new state government was inaugurated on 22 March 1824.
As a result of the crisis, the majority in Congress eventually decided to establish an executive branch composed of a president and a vice-president. The creation of a single executive, however, did not mean that Congress had accepted a strong presidency. Most Mexicans continued to favour legislative supremacy. The Mexican charter, like the Hispanic constitution, severely restricted the power of the chief executive. The Constitution of 1824 created a quasi-parliamentary system in which the ministers of state answered to the congress.
The creation of a national government did not end the tensions between the provinces and Mexico City. The debate over the location of the country’s capital sparked a new conflict. The discussion centred on whether or not a federal district should be created. The ayuntamiento and the provincial deputation of Mexico were vehemently against such action. Indeed, the provincial legislature threatened secession and civil war if Mexico City were federalised. Nevertheless, on 30 October Congress voted fifty-two to thirty-one to make Mexico City the nation’s capital and to create a federal district.
Constitution of 1824
After months of debate, Congress ratified the constitution, on 4 October 1824. The new charter affirmed that:
Article 3. The religion of the Mexican nation is and will permanently be the Roman, Catholic, Apostolic [religion]. The nation protects her with wise and just laws and prohibits the exercise of any other [religion].
Article 4. The Mexican nation adopts for its government a representative, popular, federal republic.
Article 5. The parts of this federation are the following states and territories: the states of Chiapas, Chihuahua, Coahuila and Texas, Durango, Guanajuato, México, Michoacán, Nuevo León, Oaxaca, Puebla de los Ángeles, Querétaro, San Luis Potosí, Sonora and Sinaloa, Tabasco, Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Xalisco, Yucatán and Zacatecas; and the territories of: Alta California, Baja California, Colima and Santa Fe de Nuevo México. A constitutional law will determine the status of Tlaxcala.
Article 74. The supreme executive power of the federation is deposited in only one individual who shall be called President of the United States of Mexico (Estados Unidos Mexicanos).
Article 75. There will also be a vice president who, in case of the physical or moral incapacity of the president, will receive all his authority and prerogatives.
Like the Acta Constitutiva, the Constitution of 1824 was modelled on the Hispanic Constitution of 1812, not, as is often asserted, on the U.S. Constitution of 1787. Although superficially similar to the second U. S. Charter, and although it adopted a few practical applications from the U.S. Constitution, such as the executive, the Mexican document was based primarily on Hispanic constitutional and legal precedents. Both the Hispanic Constitution of 1812 and the Mexican Constitution of 1824 established powerful legislatures and weak executives. Events in Mexico however, particularly the assertion of states’ rights by the former provinces, forced Congress to frame a constitution to meet the unique circumstances of the nation.
The principal innovations—republicanism, federalism, and a presidency—were adopted to address Mexico’s new reality. The monarchy was abolished because both Fernando VII and Agustín I had failed as political leaders, not because Mexicans imitated the United States’ charter. Federalism arose naturally from Mexico’s earlier political experience. The provincial deputations created by the Constitution of Cádiz simply converted themselves into states.
The constitutions of the states of the Mexican federation varied, but they generally followed the precedents of the Constitution of Cádiz. Most state constitutions explicitly defined the people in their territory as being citizens of the state; they were chiapanecos, sonorenses, chihuahuenses, duranguenses, guanajuatenses, etc. Some states, such as Mexico and Puebla, simply referred to “the natives and citizens of the estate”.
Content of the Constitution
The 1824 Constitution was composed of 7 titles and 171 articles, and was based on the Constitution of Cadiz for American issues, on the United States Constitution for the formula for federal representation and organization, and on the Constitutional Decree for the Liberty of Mexican America of 1824, which abolished the monarchy. It introduced the system of federalism in a popular representative republic with Catholicism as official religion. The 1824 constitution does not expressly state the rights of citizens. The right to equality of citizens was restricted by the continuation of military and ecclesiastical courts. The most relevant articles were:
1. The Mexican nation is sovereign and free from the Spanish government and any other nation.
3. The religion of the nation is the Roman Catholic Church and is protected by law and prohibits any other.
4. The Mexican nation adopts as its form of government a popular federal representative republic.
6. The supreme power of the federation is divided into Legislative power, Executive power and Judiciary power.
7. Legislative power is deposited in a Congress of two chambers—a Chamber of Deputies and a Chamber of Senators.
50. Political freedom of press in the federation and the states (paragraph 1).
74. Executive power is vested in a person called the President of the United Mexican States.
75. It provides the figure of vice president, who in case of physical or moral impossibility of the president, exercise the powers and prerogatives of the latter.
95. The term of the president and vice president shall be four years.
123. Judiciary power lies in a Supreme Court, the Circuit Courts and the District Courts.
124. The Supreme Court consists of eleven members divided into three rooms and a prosecutor.
157. The individual state governments will be formed by the same three powers.
Although this was not stipulated in the constitution, slavery was prohibited in the Republic. Miguel Hidalgo promulgated the abolition in Guadalajara on 6 December 1810. President Guadalupe Victoria declared slavery abolished too, but it was President Vicente Guerrero who made the decree of Abolition of Slavery on 15 September 1829.
Without the existence of established political parties, three political tendencies are distinguished. The first still supported the empire of Iturbide, but was a minority. The second was influenced by the Yorkist Lodge of freemasonry, whose philosophy was radical Federalism and also encouraged an anti-Spanish sentiment largely promoted by the American plenipotentiary Joel Roberts Poinsett. And the third was influenced by the Scottish Lodge of freemasonry, which had been introduced to Mexico by the Spaniards themselves, favored Centralism, and yearned for the recognition of the new nation by Spain and the Holy See.
With the consummation of independence, the “Royal Patronage” was gone, the federal government and state governments now considered these rights to belong to the State.
Repeal and Resettlement
In 1835, there was a drastic shift to the new Mexican Nation. The triumph of conservative forces in the elections unleashed a series of events that culminated on 23 October 1835, during the interim presidency of Miguel Barragán (the constitutional president was Antonio López de Santa Anna, but he was out of office), when the “Basis of Reorganization of the Mexican Nation” was approved, which ended the federal system and established a provisional centralist system. On 30 December 1836, interim president José Justo Corro issued the Seven Constitutional Laws, which replaced the Constitution. Secondary laws were approved on 24 May 1837.
The Seven Constitutional Laws, among other things, replaced the “free states” with French-style “departments”, centralizing national power in Mexico City. This created an era of political instability, unleashing conflicts between the central government and the former states. Rebellions arose in various places, the most important of which were:
Texas declared its independence following the change from the federalist system, and refused to participate in the centralized system. American settlers held a convention in San Felipe de Austin and declared the people of Texas to be at war against Mexico’s central government, therefore ignoring the authorities and laws. Thus arose the Republic of Texas.
Yucatán under its condition of Federated Republic declared its independence in 1840 (officially in 1841). The Republic of Yucatán finally rejoined the nation in 1848.
The states of Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, and Coahuila became de facto independent from Mexico (in just under 250 days). The Republic of the Rio Grande never consolidated, because independence forces were defeated by the centralist forces.
Tabasco decreed its separation from Mexico in February 1841, in protest against centralism, rejoining in December 1842.
The Texas annexation and the border conflict after the annexation led to the Mexican-American War. As a result, the Constitution of 1824 was restored by interim President José Mariano Salas on 22 August 1846. In 1847, The Reform Act was published, which officially incorporated, with some changes, the Federal Constitution of 1824, to operate while the next constitution was drafted. This federalist phase culminated in 1853.
The Plan of Ayutla, which had a federalist orientation, was proclaimed on 1 March 1854. In 1855, Juan Álvarez, interim President of the Republic, issued the call for the Constituent Congress, which began its work on 17 February 1856 to produce the Federal Constitution of the United Mexican States of 1857.
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