Melchor Ocampo (1814–1861)

articles History & People

Jim Tuck

Among critics of the Roman Catholic Church in a country where a vast majority of the citizens are nominal Catholics, the charges most frequently heard are those of worldliness and hypocrisy. Anticlericals point to the Church’s wealth, its reluctance to use that wealth to alleviate the sufferings of the poor, and of priests counseling chastity while leading decidedly unchaste lives themselves.

This brings us to Melchor Ocampo, a 19th century Mexican statesman who combined the roles of political leader and scientist and who was notorious for his furious attacks on the privileged position of the Church. Did Ocampo have a personal agenda in becoming such an anticlerical enragé?

There is good reason to believe that Ocampo was the illegitimate son of a parish priest. His mother, Francisco Xaviera Tapia, was the daughter of an army captain named Simón Tapia. Among well-known biographical sources, the Diccionario Porrua says he says he was born in Pateo, Michoacán, while the Enciclopedia de Mexico offers several versions of his birth year but states that his mother went to Mexico City for the delivery. Ocampo himself, in a biographical sketch that accompanied a scholastic thesis, gave his birthdate as January 5, 1814.

But what about his paternity? While one biographer dances around the subject (citing a source who claimed he knew but was afraid to tell), the historian Jesús Romero Flores flatly states that Ocampo’s father was Antonio Maria Uraga, parish priest of Maravatio, Michoacán.

Another priest, Manuel Montealegre, baptized him José Telesforo Nepomuceno Melchor but the picture clouds over if we try to explain the surname “Ocampo.” All we know is that he was using it by the time he was a teenage student at the Morelia Seminary and it stayed with him the rest of his life.

Without overdoing the Freudian aspect, it is easy to understand Ocampo’s ideology if he was indeed the rejected and abandoned offspring of a priest. During his lifetime, Mexico was in the grip of a fierce cultural war that pitted the forces of clericalism and conservatism against those of rationalism and liberalism. As this conflict escalated into civil war, liberal anticlericals and conservative defenders of the Church hunted and killed each other with reckless abandon.

On completing his studies at the Morelia Seminary, Ocampo matriculated from the University of Mexico, majoring in law but also studying physics, natural sciences, chemistry and botany. In 1840 he traveled to Europe and there became steeped in the liberal and anticlerical doctrines of the French Enlightenment. A Renaisssance man who was equally at home in the humanities, arts and sciences, Ocampo returned to Mexico in 1842 and combined the practice of law with scientific farming, cataloguing of flora and fauna and the study of Indian languages. He also established one of the finest private libraries in Mexico.

In 1847, during the war with the United States, Ocampo served as Governor of Michoacán, striving energetically to raise troops to combat the northern invader. After the U.S.-Mexican war, Ocampo’s anticlerical sentiments were further intensified by a bitter dispute with the clergy of Michoacán. The issue that sparked the controversy was the refusal of a local parish priest to bury an impoverished peon because his widow couldn’t afford the sacramental fees.

Ocampo later became Secretary of the Treasury but was exiled from the country in 1850 by the flamboyant Antonio López de Santa Anna, who had set himself up as a military dictator.

Settling in New Orleans, Ocampo made friends with an even more illustrious exile: Benito Juárez. He became one of Juárez’s most loyal followers. Exile for the pair ended as the result of dramatic events that took place in Mexico in 1854. Juan Alvarez, a general with liberal sympathies, convoked a meeting at his hacienda in Guerrero of several influential men who wished to overthrow Santa Anna’s corrupt dictatorship. The conspirators produced the Plan de Ayutla, calling for Santa Anna’s ouster and for a temporary president who would rule until a new constitution was written. Rebellion quickly spread through the country and Santa Anna, unable to quell the uprising through his usual method of bribery, fled into exile in the fall of 1855. Alvarez became provisional president and Juárez and Ocampo, back from exile, were respectively named ministers of Justice and the Interior.

During the bitter Reform War of 1858-61, the pro-Church conservatives controlled most of major cities, including the capital. The liberals were in possession of Veracruz but in the rest of Mexico were pretty much reduced to waging guerrilla warfare. During this period of trial Ocampo remained one of Juárez’s most faithful and influential followers, both men ranging through the country in their effort to organize resistance. That effort eventually proved successful, with the liberals marching into the capital on January 1, 1861.

After Juárez’s victory, relations between the two men became strained. Juárez had offered amnesty to Leonardo Márquez, the most brutal of the right-wing generals. Declaring that this offer made a mockery of everything the liberals had fought for, Ocampo resigned from the government and retired to Pomoca, his hacienda in Michoacán, whose name was an acronym for his own.

Then came one of the grimmest ironies in Mexican history. On the morning of June 3, 1861, a band of horsemen under the leadership of a Spaniard named Lindoro Cajiga thundered through the hacienda gates and arrested Ocampo. They took him to their chief, none other than Leonardo Márquez. Márquez immediately formed a drumhead court martial and Ocampo was sentenced to death. Taken to Tepeji del Rio, Hidalgo, he was shot and his lifeless body was hanged from the branch of a tree. In a grotesquely extreme application of the principle that life is unfair, Ocampo’s killer was the very man who had caused him to resign in protest from Juárez’s cabinet.

And there was more. Leandro Valle and Santos Degollado, two juarista leaders who had been among Ocampo’s close friends, led an expedition to avenge him. But they were ambushed by Márquez and also executed. Within a month, the liberal cause lost three of its ablest leaders.

The fate of the brutal Márquez is so anticlimactic that it comes as almost a comic footnote. Forced to flee the country after the liberal victory, he moved to Havana and spent the rest of his life working as a tailor.

Published or Updated on: October 9, 2008 by Jim Tuck © 2008


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