Benito Juárez

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Benito Juárez

Benito Juárez (1806-1872) was a Mexican statesman and resistance leader against the French. After defeating the Austrian would-be emperor Maximilian, Juárez instituted numerous liberal reforms as president.

By 1850 Mexico seemed on the verge of total collapse. Thirty years of violence had left the treasury bankrupt, communications disrupted, and the population demoralized. Two factions, defining themselves as Conservatives and Liberals, constantly fought over the control of the state and its shrinking revenues. The Conservatives, representing the large landholders, the Church, the professional army, and the large cities, tried to make Mexico into a highly centralized state based upon the institutions and ideology of the colonial period. The Liberals, who represented small merchants, some intellectuals, political leaders in rural areas, and the small ranchers of the west and south, stood for a federal system, the abolishment of colonial prerogatives, land distribution, and a constitutional democracy based upon the ideals of Jean Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson.

Benito Juárez was born in the small Zapotec Indian village of San Pablo Guelatao, Oaxaca, on March 21, 1806. His parents, poor peasants, died when he was 3 years old. Juárez then lived with his grandparents and later with an uncle. He worked with his uncle until he was 13, when he left for the city of Oaxaca; at this time he could not yet speak Spanish.

His Education

In Oaxaca, Juárez worked with Don Antonio Salanueva, a bookbinder, who took a strong liking to the young Indian boy, became his godparent, and to all intents and purposes adopted him. Helped by Salanueva and a local teacher, Juárez learned to read and write. In 1827 he graduated from the Seminary of Santa Cruz.

In 1828, despite Salanueva's wishes that he take on the priesthood, Juárez entered the Oaxaca Institute of Arts and Sciences to study law. The curriculum proved the perfect stimulus for the rebellious and ambitious former seminarian. In 1831 he qualified to enter a local law office, but as the legal profession was already overcrowded, he began a second career as an antiestablishment Liberal politician.

Early Career

In 1831 Juárez entered politics as an elected alderman on the Oaxacan town council. In 1835 the city elected him as a Liberal deputy to the federal legislature. He carried forward his legal career, often serving as a representative of impoverished Indian communities in their struggles to protect their landholdings. Incorruptible and intelligent, he was one of Oaxaca's leading lawyers.

During the Conservative domination of Mexico between 1836 and 1846, Juárez largely avoided elective office but often accepted professional and political appointments from the Conservative state authorities. In 1841 the state government appointed him a federal court judge, a post in which he served with distinction. His local standing had increased through his marriage to Margarita Mazza, the daughter of one of Oaxaca's wealthiest Creole families.

Juárez served as secretary to the state's Conservative governor and as a member of the local assembly. He showed his liberalism by resigning the judgeship because of unwillingness to prosecute those who refused to pay clerical tithes, but the state government soon reinstated him.

Governor of Oaxaca

In 1846 the Liberal party, led by former president Valentín Gómez Farías, took power throughout Mexico. Despite his Conservative connections, Juárez became again a Liberal federal deputy. In 1847-1848, during the debacle of Mexico's war with the United States, he became Oaxaca's acting governor and then elected governor.

Juárez curbed corruption and built roads, public buildings, and schools. He reorganized the state national guard, and when he left office in 1852, a respectable surplus remained in the state treasury. His state government became renowned throughout Mexico for its honesty, public spirit, and constructiveness. In 1852 Juárez became director of the Institute of Arts and Sciences. He also again served as a lawyer, often helping the poor.

In 1853 the Conservative party, led by the brilliant Lucas Alamán, seized power by a barracks coup. One of the revolt's leaders, and its inevitable president, was Antonio López de Santa Ana, the unscrupulous Creole general who had frequently dominated Mexico during the previous 20 years. Seeking to consolidate power, Santa Ana immediately exiled the leaders of the Liberal party.

Exile and Revolutionary

Government troops arrested Juárez without warning and then sent him into exile. He lived first in Havana and then in New Orleans. In the early 1850s the future Liberal leaders of Mexico, including Ignacio Comonfort, José María Mata, and Melchor Ocampo, formed a revolutionary junta in New Orleans and began to plan the reforms with which they hoped to rebuild their shattered nation.

In Mexico, Santa Ana had run the country into further bankruptcy. Disgruntled Liberals, led by Juan Álvarez, a hero of the war for independence, launched a revolt known as the Revolution of Ayutla. Juárez offered his services to Álvarez's rebel army. Santa Ana's government collapsed with a minimum of fighting, and the Liberals again assumed power with Álvarez as president. In October 1855 he named Juárez minister of justice.

Juárez immediately began to implement some of his reform ideas: the Ley Juárez (Juárez Law, Nov. 23, 1855) reorganized the judicial system, but most important, it abolished the right to separate courts for the military and the clergy. In January 1856 Juárez again became governor of Oaxaca, where he reestablished the Institute of Arts and Sciences and promulgated the New Liberal Constitution of 1857.

The voluntary retirement of Juan Álvarez in 1857 ended the Liberal hopes for a peaceful transformation of Mexico. The ensuing period (1857-1860), known as the Three Year War, proved to be one of the most bloody and wasteful in Mexican history. Armies defining themselves often arbitrarily as Conservative or Liberal roamed the countryside looting and burning. The economy was again halted; Mexico, bankrupt and divided, tempted foreign intervention.

The only positive result of these years was the emergence of Juárez as the undisputed leader of the Liberal party. He served as minister of government and later as president of Mexico's Supreme Court under Ignacio Comonfort. In 1858 Comonfort resigned; Juárez traveled northward, organizing the divided Liberal party. The departure of Comonfort had left Juárez as Supreme Court president, the legal executive power in Mexico. Simultaneously the Conservatives had named one of their own number the president of Mexico, repealed the laws of reform, and sent their troops northward to exterminate Liberal resistance. Beset by fractious allies and mutinous troops, Juárez fled to Veracruz.

For 3 years Juárez and the Liberals held Veracruz while the Conservatives held Mexico City. The Church helped the Conservatives with money, troops, and moral persuasion. The angered Liberals reacted in 1859 by promulgating drastic anticlerical laws, confiscating all ecclesiastical property, except buildings, without compensation. The same year Melchor Ocampo signed the infamous Maclane-Ocampo Treaty, selling more of Mexico to the United States (this was rejected by the U.S. Senate) for badly needed funds to prosecute the war.

After 2 years of defeat, the reorganized Liberal armies under Santos Degollado, Porfirio Díaz, and Jesús González Ortega took Mexico City. The Conservative armies disintegrated, and their leaders went into exile. Leonardo Márquez, leading Conservative general, held out as a guerrilla, but the Liberals were firmly in control. In 1860 the Mexican people elected Juárez president.

President and Reformer

Juárez acted determinedly to carry out national reconstruction. He exiled the archbishop of Mexico, five bishops, and the Spanish ambassador, all of whom had aided the Conservative cause. The new government strictly enforced the anticlerical codes of the constitution, seizing for the nation Church lands and monastic buildings. Juárez's program was ambitious, but he had staggering problems. The government, seeking to develop a large agrarian middle class, tried to distribute the lands to those working them.

However, the Liberals needed money to pay the army bureaucracy and the national debt. Pressed for funds, public officials allowed these lands to go to those who could pay for them immediately, mostly rich speculators and foreigners. The land reform did not create a large yeoman class but instead allowed secular individuals to monopolize the large former Church estates and to gain control of Indian communal lands, also abolished by the reform laws and the Constitution of 1857.

The same financial exigencies which forced the government to curtail its ambitious land reform program caused it in 1862 to declare a 2-year suspension of the external debt. This gave England, France, and Spain the excuse to intervene in Mexico. The English and Spanish soon withdrew, but the French emperor, Louis Napoleon, attempted to establish a client Mexican empire under the Austrian archduke Maximilian. Aided by small Conservative forces, the French took Mexico City in 1863, forcing Juárez to flee.

Fight against a Foreign Usurper

The years 1864 to 1867 determined the future of Mexico and the Liberal reforms. Juárez refused to serve in an imperial cabinet. He retreated north with his cabinet and a small bodyguard in his famous black coach. The imperialists controlled the cities, but the countryside remained in a state of insurrection. Faced with mounting costs in men and money and the rise of Prussia, the French withdrew from Mexico.

In 1867 the empire collapsed. The Liberal forces captured Maximilian and his main Mexican adherents in Querétaro. In June 1867 Juárez ordered the Emperor's execution despite worldwide pleas for clemency. Always a strict legalist, Juárez would not countermand the courtmartial; he saw the execution as a firm warning to other foreign conquerors.

In 1867 the Mexican people again elected Juárez president. His first act was to arbitrarily dismiss without pension two-thirds of the 90,000-man Liberal army, many of whom either became bandits or joined the subsequent rebellions of Porfirio Díaz. Juárez accomplished much in the remaining 4 years of his life. The government began to build railroads and schools; the military budget was cut; and the Church was stripped of its large landholdings. Most important, Mexico had its first effective government, based upon the Constitution of 1857, which guaranteed free speech, free press, right of assembly, and the abolishment of special legal privileges.

On the negative side, Juárez refused to delegate authority and insisted, despite much opposition, upon his own reelection in 1871. He obviously sincerely believed that he alone could govern Mexico, but many now saw him as a dictator. Furthermore, he had failed to abolish internal tariffs or to curb large secular landholdings. In 1871 his army crushed the revolt of Porfirio Díaz, but the Liberal party had split into irreconcilable factions. On July 18, 1872, the President died at his desk.

Juárez had many failings, but he was one of the greatest Mexican executives. He fought for and established a liberal constitution and stubbornly saved the country from foreign domination, although he did little to help the rural proletariat.

Further Reading

There is a great deal of material on Juárez in English. The best works are Ralph Roeder, Juárez and His Mexico (2 vols., 1947), and Walter V. Scholes, Mexican Politics during the Juárez Regime, 1855-1872 (1957). For background consult Henry Bamford Parkes, A History of Mexico (1938; 3d ed. 1960), and Hudson Strode, Timeless Mexico (1944). A brilliant discussion of the Liberal ideology is Charles A. Hale, Mexican Liberalism in the Age of Mora, 1821-1853 (1968). See also Wilfrid Hardy Callcott, Church and State in Mexico, 1822-1857 (1926), and Richard A. Johnson, The Mexican Revolution of Ayutla, 1854-1855 (1939). □

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Benito Juarez

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