Mexican leaders finally saw the light and exiled Santa Anna forever. While conservatives searched for a king to replace Santa Anna, liberals plunged ahead with three controversial reform laws: the Ley Juárez, Ley Lerdo, and Ley Iglesias. These reformas, augmented by a new Constitution of 1857, directly attacked the privilege and power of Mexico’s landlords, clergy, and generals. They abolished fueros (the separate military and church courts), reduced huge landed estates, and stripped the church of its excess property and power.
Conservative generals, priests, hacendados (landholders), and their mestizo and indígena followers revolted. The resulting War of the Reform (not unlike the U.S. Civil War) ravaged the countryside for three long years until the victorious liberal army paraded triumphantly in Mexico City on New Year’s Day 1861.
Benito Juárez, the leading reformista, had won the day. Like his contemporary Abraham Lincoln, Juárez, of pure Zapotec Indian blood, overcame his humble origins to become a lawyer, a champion of justice, and the president who held his country together during a terrible civil war. Like Lincoln, Juárez had little time to savor his triumph.
Imperial France invaded Mexico in January 1862, initiating the bloody five-year imperialist struggle, infamously known as the French Intervention. After two costly years, the French pushed Juárez’s liberal army into the hills and installed the king whom Mexican conservatives thought the country needed. Austrian Archduke Maximilian and his wife, Carlota, the very models of modern Catholic monarchs, were crowned emperor and empress of Mexico in June 1864.
The naive Emperor Maximilian I was surprised that some of his subjects resented his presence. Meanwhile, Juárez refused to yield, stubbornly performing his constitutional duties in a somber black carriage one jump ahead of the French occupying army. The climax came in May 1867, when the liberal forces besieged and defeated Maximilian’s army at Querétaro. Juárez, giving no quarter, sternly ordered Maximilian’s execution by firing squad on June 19, 1867.