Timothy Dwight, the fervently reactionary and comically pompous head of Yale University, was a strong Federalist supporter who predicted that the accession of Thomas Jefferson to the presidency would lead to “a frenzied dance of Jacobinism.”
Jacobinism — the doctrine of the ultra-radical and anticlerical wing of the French revolutionary movement — was as much of an ogre to eighteenth and nineteenth century conservatives as socialism and communism were their latter-day counterparts. But what many of these conservatives failed to realize is that there is no surer mechanism for converting a rebel into a defender of the establishment than allowing the rebel to come to power.
To quote a popular contemporary witticism, “a conservative is a liberal who was mugged last night,” or, the obverse, “a liberal is a conservative who was indicted yesterday.” Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada, president of Mexico between 1872-76, began his career as a radical renegade from the priesthood and ended it as a liberal elitist whose strongest backing came from the professional classes and the wealthy but who lacked a wide base of popular support.
Lerdo de Tejada was born in Jalapa, Veracruz, in 1823, the son of a Spanish father and a creole mother. In early youth he trained for a religious career, studying at Puebla’s Palafox Seminary between 1836 and 1841. In the latter year, after taking minor orders, Lerdo suddenly turned his back on the spiritual life and embarked on a public career that would span 36 years. In taking this step, he may have been influenced by his older brother Miguel. Born in 1812, Miguel Lerdo de Tejada was an active participant on the Liberal side during the bloody Reform War of 1857-60. In 1856, while serving as secretary of the treasury under President Ignacio Comonfort, Miguel had drafted the strongly anticlerical Ley Lerdo, a body of legislation that confiscated all urban and rural property from the Roman Catholic Church and restricted its holdings to church buildings, monasteries and seminaries.
After rejecting a religious career, Sebastian took a degree in jurisprudence from the Colegio de San Ildefonso in Mexico City. Between 1852-63 he served as rector of San Ildefonso, playing a relatively inactive role during the Reform War. Then came the French invasion of Mexico and the installation of Maximilian of Habsburg as emperor. Benito Juarez led the resistance to the imperialist forces and Lerdo was one of his strongest supporters. Having served as a deputy between 1861-63, Lerdo was named minister of justice by Juarez in 1863 and then served him as foreign minister. With Maximilian installed in Mexico City, Lerdo accompanied Juarez as he tried to kindle resistance in outlying parts of the country. In his ministerial capacity Lerdo issued the decree of November 8, 1865, extending Juarez’s powers until the end of the war and beyond the normal expiration of his term.
The juarista forces triumphed over the imperialists in June 1867, with the storming of the Hill of the Bells near Queretaro. There are differences of opinion among Mexican historians about Lerdo’s attitude toward Maximilian’s execution: some say he supported it enthusiastically while others insist that he had reservations about killing a brave opponent who had by no means been a tyrant.
The United States, then emerging from the Civil War, had been supportive of Juarez during the campaign against Maximilian. Lincoln and Juarez greatly admired each other and in 1869 William Seward, who had been Lincoln’s secretary of state, paid a visit to Mexico. Lerdo was serving as Juarez’s secretary of relations at the time. In this capacity, he made important contributions toward improving relations between two countries who had been such bitter enemies during the 1846-47 war.
In 1871 Juarez decided to run for a fourth term as president. The decision was unpopular in many quarters and among those who went into opposition was Lerdo. Excessive modesty was never one of Lerdo’s failings. An immaculate dresser, a man of well-defined ideas and a superlative public speaker, Lerdo felt by now that he was as well qualified as his onetime mentor Juarez to be president. In a three way election — the other candidate was General Porfirio Diaz — no candidate received a clear-cut majority. The issue then went to Congress, where Juarez was declared the victor. An embittered Diaz staged an unsuccessful revolt against the president-elect while Lerdo assumed a position of watchful waiting as chief justice of the Supreme Court.
He did not have to wait long. On July 19, 1872, Juarez died of heart attack and Lerdo, as chief justice, succeeded him as interim president. In an official election, set for October, Lerdo easily defeated Porfirio Diaz.
As president, Lerdo gave a good example of his elitist liberal style. Though dedicated to economic progress and to curbing the power of the Church, he did not hesitate to use strong executive power to suppress local movements aimed at regional autonomy. On the positive side, he stepped up railroad and telegraph construction, contracting for a new railway line from Mexico City to the U.S. border and adding over sixteen hundred miles of telegraph line. He also made significant advances in the area of education, almost doubling the number of schools in Mexico.
But these proved to be the proverbial good deeds that do not go unpunished. Lerdo’s personal style, his flamboyance, his elitism and his tendency to suffer fools poorly all combined to win him a host of enemies. Press attacks on him increased and some were of a highly personal nature. A bachelor, Lerdo had a reputation as a ladies’ man. This led to accusations that he was making up for time he had lost while living a celibate life in the seminary.
When Lerdo announced that he would run again for the presidency, Porfirio Diaz made another grab for power. In March 1876 he issued a manifesto called the Plan de Tuxtepec, in which he accused Lerdo of a variety of offenses, including violating the sovereignty of states and municipalities and squandering public funds. Both sides mustered their forces but Lerdo was at a disadvantage because he had cut the military budget and treated a number of leading generals with contempt. Diaz’s forces prevailed in a November 16 battle at Tecoac, in the state of Tlaxcala, and Lerdo fled to Acapulco, where he boarded a ship. From there he moved to New York, where he died in 1889. Later, his remains were returned to Mexico and buried in the Rotunda of Illustrious Men.
There is a final irony in the overthrow of Lerdo by Diaz. In the Tuxtepec manifesto, Diaz accused Lerdo of seeking to perpetuate himself in power by seeking a second presidential term. Then he took office and ruled Mexico until he was deposed by the Revolution of 1910.