Juárez, Benito (1806–1872)

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Juárez, Benito (1806–1872)

Benito Juárez (b. 21 March 1806; d. 18 July 1872), president of Mexico (1858–1872). Juárez led the liberals and Republicans during the War of the Reform (1858–1861) and the French Intervention (1862–1867). For many Mexicans, and in the official pantheon of national heroes, Juárez is a preeminent symbol of Mexican nationalism and resistance to foreign intervention. His critics, however, continue to charge that Juárez resorted to dictatorial methods to prolong his presidency, undermined the property rights of rural villages, and sacrificed Mexican sovereignty to the United States.

Juárez was born in the village of San Pablo Guelatao, Oaxaca. His parents were Zapotec Indian peasants who died before he reached the age of four. Juárez was raised by relatives and worked in the fields until the age of twelve, when, in hopes of getting an education, he left his village and walked the forty miles to the city of Oaxaca to live with his sister. There, he was taken in by Antonio Salanueva, a bookbinder and Franciscan monk, who immediately took Juárez to be confirmed and encouraged him to attend the seminary for his education. Still lacking a primary education and with no more than the rudiments of Spanish grammar, Juárez began studying Latin. After two years, Juárez convinced his patron to allow him to study the arts since he was still too young to be ordained a priest. Juárez completed his secondary education in 1827. Lacking the financial resources and the inclination to receive holy orders, he rejected an ecclesiastical career in order to study law at the newly established Institute of Sciences and Arts, where he received his degree in 1834.

Even before Juárez received his law degree, his political career had begun with election to the City Council of Oaxaca in 1831. Two years later he was elected to the state legislature. He made a living as a lawyer, and in 1841 he was appointed a civil judge. In 1843, he married Margarita Maza. The following year, he was appointed secretary of government by the state governor, Antonio León, and then to the post of prosecutor with the state supreme court. In 1845, Juárez was elected to the state legislature, but that body was soon dissolved in a conservative rebellion led by General Mariano Paredes. Juárez was then named by liberal forces to the executive committee for the state. Elected to the national congress the following year, Juárez supported President Valentín Gómez Farías in his attempt to use church property to pay for the war with the United States. Organized opposition to these efforts, the Rebellion of the Polkos (1847), brought Antonio López de Santa Anna back to the presidency, ended the liberal government, and forced Juárez to return to Oaxaca.

In Oaxaca, liberals regained control of the state and elected Juárez governor in 1847. At the end of his term in 1852, he accepted the post of director of the Institute of Sciences and Arts. When Santa Anna returned to the presidency in 1853, he exiled Juárez and other leading liberals. Juárez eventually ended up in New Orleans, where he met Ponciano Arriaga, Melchor Ocampo, and other opponents of Santa Anna, and where he earned his living making cigars.

With Juárez and his allies providing the political platform for the liberal Revolution of Ayutla in 1854, Juárez traveled to Acapulco to serve as a political aide. When Juan Álvarez forced Santa Anna into exile the following year, liberal exiles were able to return to Mexico. President Álvarez named Juárez his minister of justice and ecclesiastical affairs. Juárez wrote the Ley Juárez (eliminating the right of ecclesiastical and military courts to hear civil cases), which President Álvarez signed in November 1855. Juárez resigned the following month, returning to Oaxaca, where he took office as governor in January 1856 and served for nearly two years. Juárez supported and swore to uphold the Constitution of 1857, but he took no direct role in drafting that document. President Ignacio Comonfort designated Juárez minister of government in November 1857. Elected president of the Supreme Court (and first in line of succession to the presidency), Juárez took the oath of that office on 1 December 1857. Ten days later President Comonfort ordered Congress closed and Juárez arrested. Juárez was freed in January 1858 and escaped from the capital, just before conservative militarists overthrew Comonfort and declared Félix Zuloaga president. The coup notwithstanding, in accordance with the Constitution of 1857, Juárez succeeded Comonfort in the presidency, taking the oath of office on 19 January 1858 in Guanajuato, thereby leaving Mexico with two presidents and civil war.

During the War of the Reform, or Three Years' War (1858–1860), Juárez fled to Guadalajara, where he was captured and nearly executed by conservative forces. Later he made his way to Colima, then Manzanillo, and by way of Panama, Havana, and New Orleans to Veracruz, where the liberal governor, Manuel Gutiérrez Zamora, allowed Juárez to establish his government. With the support of the radical liberals (known as puros) like Miguel Lerdo De Tejada and Melchor Ocampo, Juárez issued the reform laws separating the church and state, establishing civil marriage and civil registration of births and deaths, secularizing the cemeteries, and expropriating the property of the church. The conservative forces held most of central Mexico but were unable to dislodge the Juárez government from Veracruz. Perennially short of funds to pay and provision the improvised forces that fought the conservatives, the liberal government expropriated and sold church property and negotiated with the United States.

During the war, Juárez authorized arrangements with the United States that have been the source of enduring controversies about his patriotism. The McLane-Ocampo Treaty, which Juárez's secretary of foreign relations Melchor Ocampo negotiated with the U.S. diplomat Robert M. McLane in 1859, permitted United States protection of transit over routes across Mexican territory in exchange for several million dollars. The treaty was rejected by the U.S. Senate. In what is known as the Antón Lizardo incident, President Juárez authorized U.S. ships to attack conservative vessels flying the Mexican flag at anchor in the port of Antón Lizardo, Veracruz, in 1860. Juárez's critics charge that he condoned foreign intervention and sold out to the United States.

Further concessions were not necessary before liberal forces under Jesús González Ortega defeated the conservative army and recaptured Mexico City in December 1860. At the end of Comonfort's term in 1861, there were new elections, which Juárez won. His government's suspension of payments on the foreign debt led to the intervention of Spain, France, and Great Britain. Spanish and British forces soon withdrew, but French forces, supporting the creation of a Mexican empire, advanced toward Mexico City in early 1862, and in 1864 the Austrian archduke Maximilian von Habsburg took the throne as Maximilian I.

The French Intervention (1862–1867) provides conflicting images of Juárez. A heroic Juárez led the Republican forces that tenaciously defended Mexico and its Republican constitution during desperate years of struggle against foreign and imperial armies. But Juárez's critics charge that he illegally extended his presidency when his constitutional term ended in 1865 and that he arbitrarily ordered the arrest and imprisonment of Jesús González Ortega, who ought to have succeeded to the presidency. The defeat of the imperial armies and the execution of Maximilian in 1867 provided a moment of unity for Mexican liberals, but Juárez's attempt to alter the constitution and strengthen the presidency by referendum again prompted critics to charge him with dictatorial methods. Many liberals opposed his reelection, but Juárez retained enough support to win the presidential elections of December 1867.

The liberals divided into three major factions backing Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, Porfirio Díaz, and Juárez. The president repeatedly resorted to grants of extraordinary power to combat revolts and to maintain order. His critics maintained that Juárez was corrupted by power and increasingly dictatorial. By the time of the 1871 elections, Juárez could no longer count on a majority of votes, and the election passed to Congress, which elected him to another term. Porfirio Díaz resorted to rebellion, but Juárez was able to defeat him, again with an extension of extraordinary powers.

Not long afterward, on the evening of 18 July 1872, Juárez died. Controversial during his lifetime, he became a premier symbol of Mexican nationalism after his death. Ironically, Porfirio Díaz, as president, played a major role in creating the Juárez myth. As a national hero, Juárez has been most commonly invoked by presidents seeking to create an image of continuity with the past during times when stability and economic growth rather than reform have been the major concerns of government.

See alsoAnticlericalism; Comonfort, Ignacio; Mexico, Wars and Revolutions: The Reform.


Ivie E. Cadenhead, Jr., Benito Juárez (1973).

Donathon C. Olliff, Reform Mexico and the United States: A Search for Alternatives to Annexation, 1854–1861 (1981).

Laurens Ballard Perry, Juárez and Díaz: Machine Politics in Mexico (1978).

Ralph Roeder, Juárez and His Mexico: A Biographical History, 2 vols. (1947).

Walter V. Scholes, Mexican Politics During the Juárez Regime, 1855–1872 (1957).

Richard N. Sinkin, The Mexican Reform, 1855–1876: A Study in Liberal Nation-Building (1979).

Charles Allen Smart, Viva Juárez: A Biography (1963).

Daniel Cosío Villegas, Historia moderna de México, vol. 1, La república restorada, vida política (1959).

Charles A. Weeks, The Juárez Myth in Mexico (1987).

Additional Bibliography

Cunningham, Michele. Mexico and the Foreign Policy of Napoleon III. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Hamnett, Brian R. Juárez. London: Longman, 1994.

Villalpando César, José Manuel. Maximiliano. México: Clío, 1999.

                                          D. F. Stevens