Benito Juárez

By: Victoria Yates

Benito Pablo Juárez Garcia was born on March 21st 1806 to Marcelino and Brigida Garcia in the village of San Pablo Gueletao, Oaxaca. His parents were small farmers and he worked in the fields and as a shepherd until he was thirteen. Then he walked to Oaxaca City (at the time he was neither literate, nor could he speak Spanish). He did this to take a position as a servant in the house where his sister already worked as a cook, that of the Maza family. It was Snr. Maza who took it upon himself to oversee the boy’s development, having a friend of his, Antonio Salanueva (a lay member of the Franciscan order) teach Juárez reading, writing, arithmetic, Spanish grammar, and bookbinding. Between them Maza and Salanueva saw potential in their young charge and found him a place at a Franciscan Seminary in the city with the intention of Juárez joining the Priesthood.

Juárez became engrossed in his studies of the great Catholic philosophers, such as Aquinas, but choose instead to enter law upon his graduation in 1827. He studied for his law degree at the Institute of Science and Art. It was during this time that he began to read the works of the rationalist philosophers of the Enlightenment, eventually leading to Juárez rescinding the Catholic faith he had previously held.  During his studies he had already shown his interest in politics, serving as a city councilman and proving himself a defender of Indian rights. Juárez graduated in 1834, going on to become a civil judge seven years later and, in 1843, he married Margarita Maza, his patron’s daughter. His next key post was that of Govenor of Oaxaca, a role he served from 1847-1852, at the end of which he became director of the Institute of Science and Art. Juárez ‘s objections to the return to power of dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna made him one of the liberals exiled from the country in 1853.

Upon his arrival in New Orleans in October of that year he took a job in a cigarette factory. It was while in exile that Juárez met with like-minded liberals, helping in the organization of a revolutionary Junta aiming to overthrow Santa Anna. In 1854 the Plan de Ayutla was proclaimed, supported (amongst many others) by Juárez. It sought to remove the dictator and convene a constituent assembly to draft a federal constitution. Returning from exile, Juárez joined the movement that drove Santa Anna from power in late 1854, with General Juan Alvarez taking over the presidency (the beginning of a period known as La Reforma). Juárez was appointed Minister of Justice, a post he used to instigate the “Juárez law” which abolished clerical immunity in law courts, by reducing the jurisdiction of ecclesial courts to ecclesiastical cases only, and abolished military privileges, declaring equality for all citizens in the eyes of the law.

Alvarez stepped down in 1855 at which point Ignacio Comonfort, a moderate, took over. In 1856 Juárez returned to the post of Governor of Oaxaca, during which time he reformed the Institute of Science and Art which had been suppressed by Santa Ana. A year later (1857) he was made the Minister of the Interior, followed a month later by his promotion to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. These promotions occurred in the same year that the new federalist constitution was adopted, further restricting the privileges enjoyed by the Church. It was clerical anger over this constitution joined by conservatives in the country that led to a revolt on the 17th of December under General Félix Zuloaga. Wishing to avoid a civil war, Comonfort executed an auto-coup d’état in which congress was dissolved and a new cabinet of greater conservative influence was formed. Juárez and several other key members of the government were arrested. Still, further unrest and the desire for a wholly conservative governing body and a revocation of the constitution, led to a new revolt being launched in January 1858 in which Zuloaga was proclaimed president. The deposed Comonfort released the political prisoners, including Juárez, and re-established congress before resigning his role. Under the terms of the new constitution the Chief Justice became the interim president until elections could be held, meaning that Juárez took office in late January, fleeing to Guanajuato.

The period from 1858-61 marked the Mexican War of Reform (so called because of the Reform laws that had reduced Church powers and divided the conservatives and liberals), for which Juárez led the liberal side.  Despite being captured at one point early on in the conflict, Juárez was saved by the poet Prieto who stood in front of him before the firing squad and convinced the rifleman to lower their weapons. The liberals didn’t defeat the conservatives in any battle until 1860. But popular support and the control, throughout the conflict, of the port of Veracruz that served to fund their war effort through customs fees, meant that Juárez eventually triumphed.

The effect of the war on the economy left Juárez declaring a moratorium on repayment of foreign debts, namely those of France, Britain and Spain. A punitive expedition was launched by the three powers who seized Veracruz. However both Britain and Spain pulled out when learning of Napoleon III’s plan to instate a puppet regime in Mexico. The French forces captured the capital in 1863, as Juárez withdrew and gathered resistance in the North. Prior to withdrawing Juárez had his presidency extended by congress to prevent it expiring in 1865 but instead lasting until French forces were defeated in 1867. In 1864 Maximilian von Habsburg (a younger brother of the Emperor of Austria) was proclaimed Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico. Maximilian proved to have some Mexican nationalist sympathies, offering the post of Prime Minister to Juárez who turned him down, refusing to play a role in the enforced rule.

Juárez sought American sympathy, and, with the civil war over, Andrew Johnson invoked the Monroe Doctrine (a US policy introduced in 1823 which said that efforts by European powers to colonize or interfere with the states of America would be viewed as acts of aggression on which the US was obliged to act). Johnson granted Juárez and his government recognition and supplied weapons. The move wasn’t supported by congress so Johnson instead had the army ‘lose’ 30,000 muskets near the Mexican border. Facing pressure from Prussia at home, French troops began a withdrawal in 1866. The last French forces were defeated in 1867 and Maximilian was sentenced to death, despite international outcry for mercy.  In light of the victory, Juárez was re-elected with a strong majority in 1867. But he led a country whose treasury had been wiped clean by two wars, and whose prospects of international investment had shrunk as a result of Maximilian’s execution.

To raise money, land taken from the Church was sold off to the wealthy landowners who had supported the liberals in their war. The dispossessed peasants and those who had fought against Juárez were increasingly pushed to banditry, with estimates of more than a thousand bandits in the vicinity of Guadalajara by 1868. This general unrest led to an increasing numbers of revolts, including those from the Christian left who fought a socialist cause. Juárez’ main rival became Pofirio Diaz, another Indian from Oaxaca.  Diaz challenged him at the polls in 1867 but suffered a crushing defeat before winning in 1871. Diaz’ loss on this second count was attributed by him to electoral fraud. So Diaz attempted to raise another revolt against Juárez, claiming that in seeking re-election the President sought to perpetually maintain himself in office.  The support never materialized and Diaz and his forces were easily stopped. The irony of Diaz’s ‘revolt against re-election’ came later in history when he became known as a leader who imposed a 35-year dictatorship on Mexico. The strain of his difficult position and the years of struggle led Juárez to succumb to a heart attack at his desk in 1872.

Juárez’s legacy lives on in Mexico. Cinco de Mayo, celebrated each year on the 5th of May, is a homage to the defeat of the French at Puebla in an early victory in 1862. While a Governor, Juárez, influenced by the ideas of equality that his wife held, established public cemeteries throughout Mexico, a move sharply denounced by critics as being counter to traditions and customs in towns which relied on Catholic teaching and established customs. He is now seen as a progressive reformer who dedicated himself in the pursuit of democracy, and countering the overriding powers of the Church. His time in power created a liberal political and social revolution which brought the army under civilian control, saw separation of church and state  and sought to replace the semi-feudal system of Mexico with a more market-driven approach.  Yet he is not universally revered, with many claiming that the liberals created a history of villains and heroes to hide the mistakes they made. Recently members of the conservative National Action Party have attempted to rename public monuments, roads etc. that are connected to Juárez and the Reform wars claiming that he was not the person that others proclaim him to be.

As with any political leader there are high and low points to Juárez’s legacy, and inevitable disagreement about his fundamental character. However, it is hard not to see him as a ‘great liberator’ for his defeat of the French and as a revolutionary leader of change.  One of his most famous quotations seems a fitting way to remember him as a leader and thinker, “Entre los individuos, como entre las naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz,Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace”.