It established sweeping reforms in regard to land distribution and labor, severely curtailed the power and autonomy of the Catholic Church, guaranteed the rights of Mexican citizens, and sanctioned a federal system and balance of powers. Since 1917 the constitution has been ignored, changed, and reinterpreted many times depending on the leadership and political climate, with a total of 350 amendments added to it.
Carranza initiated the creation of the 1917 constitution to bolster his claims that he would transform the ideals of the revolution into actual practice. In January 1915 Carranza embarked on a campaign to prepare Mexico for a new constitution.
In his capacity as first chief during the preconstitutional period (1915 and 1916), he decreed in September 1916 that elections would be held the following month in every Mexican city and town to elect delegates to the constituent congress, which would draft the constitution. Many regional leaders and revolutionaries loyal to Carranza but dedicated to implementing the ideology of the revolution to the point of radicalism were elected to the congress.
The constituent congress convened in November 1916 in the town of Querétaro, the location of Emperor Maximilian's execution in June 1867. Given only two months to draft the document, the delegates quickly focused on the task at hand.
The moderate liberals of the delegation found themselves head to head with many of the revolution's military leaders. These men attacked the Catholic Church first, focusing on its role in education and proposing article 3, which barred the church from primary education and secularized private institutions.
After a spirited debate coupled with powerful speeches, the radicals passed article 3, alarming Carranza. He sent General Alvaro Obregón to the congress in hopes that he would moderate the leftists. Instead, Obregón threw his powerful military and political weight behind Múgica and the other reformers.
The delegates went on to propose several articles to the constitution characterized by sweeping social and economic reform. Article 27 proposed radical new land policies that reversed Díaz's policy of encouraging foreign investment and land ownership.
Article 27 attempted to restore national sovereignty by making these restrictions retroactive, allowing the president to seize land and property held by foreign owners. This opened the door for peasant communities to petition for the return of lands lost to large estates.
The relationship between the church and the state was the subject of more than one article of the Constitution of 1917. Besides article 3, which excluded the church from education, articles 27 and 130 stripped the church of much of its power in Mexico.
Barred from holding or administering property, the church lost a significant portion of its revenues used to support charitable works. Clergy members could no longer vote, hold political office, or assemble for political purposes.
Múgica and his supporters introduced article 130 at the very end of the constituent congress when delegates were weary of debate. Some scholars cite fatigue in the passing of the severe anticlerical provisions, as the vote was taken at 2:00 a.m. on the final meeting day of the congress.
Labor also took center stage on the radical agenda for the new constitution. Article 5 ended the system of debt peonage, the misery of many poor Mexican workers. Article 123 organized labor by authorizing labor unions and the right to strike.
It also put in place several regulations to protect workers, especially women and children. It established an eight-hour day with one day of rest per week. Women and children were barred from working after 10:00 p.m., children less than six years old were forbidden to work, and those under 16 could only work six-hour days. Wages had to be paid in cash, and a minimum wage was set.
The constitution of 1917 set up a framework for radical change in Mexico. However, it also granted the president great power, and Carranza ignored many of its reforms. The provisions set forth by the constituent congress would take almost the entire 20th century to be implemented, and some would never be fully realized.
The administration of Lázaro Cárdenas, from 1934 to 1940, did the most work on realizing the ideals of the constitution, especially in regard to land reform, labor, and education. After 1940 some articles were deemphasized, such as article 27, which discouraged foreign investments. Despite such permutations of the constitution of 1917, it remains an important document in Mexico's modern history that cleared the way for considerable social and economic reform.