Juárez, Benito 1806-1872
In twentieth-century Mexico, no name was used more frequently to name streets, public buildings, and towns than that of Benito Juárez. A Zapotec Indian lawyer from the southern state of Oaxaca, Juárez stood at the helm of the liberal, reformist republican project during the bloody nineteenth-century civil war against the conservatives, which became a struggle against a monarchical regime supported by French military intervention (1858–1867). He then presided over the restoration of the republic and governed, until his death, under the heavy criticism of the opposition in Congress and an exceptionally free press. One of nineteenth-century Mexico’s ablest politicians, he became, within a generation of his death, one of the nationalist imagination’s most enduring symbols. His life story opens a window on the complex workings of politics in nineteenth-century Mexico at a critical juncture, and the recurrent reconstruction of his image as a national symbol offers clues to the transformations of Mexican political culture.
Juárez left the monolingual Zapotec community of San Pablo Guelatao as a twelve-year-old who spoke little Spanish (he would later be able to read Latin, English, and French) to join his sister, a house servant, in the state capital city of Oaxaca. He studied law at the city’s seminary and then at its secular, modern Institute of Arts and Sciences. In a state where liberalism had a broader, more popular appeal than in other regions, Juárez entered politics early and gained experience at all levels of government. He was a member of the Oaxaca city council and of the local and then the federal Congress. He was also a judge, prosecutor, secretary of state, and governor. Nevertheless, his promising political career was interrupted, like that of many young politicians in the provinces, by the dictatorship, from 1853 to 1855, of military strongman Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794–1876), which sought to put an end to representative politics and state autonomy. Juárez was exiled and ended up in New Orleans, Louisiana, where his perspectives were broadened and his political vision sharpened through contacts with more sophisticated Mexican radicals like Melchor Ocampo, Ponciano Arriaga, and José María Mata.
The fall of Santa Anna brought about a new era in Mexican politics that was known as the Reform (1855–1867). Despite differences among them, the young provincial liberals who arrived on the national stage in 1855—among whom Juárez would cut an elder-statesman figure—were committed to modernizing Mexico through the restoration of federalism, the strengthening of the national government, and the destruction of those “vices” that were the legacy of colonial times: corporate privilege, which denied equality before the law; corporate ownership of land, which made for a sluggish economy; and the overwhelming power of the Church. Their project was given expression in the 1857 constitution, which prevailed after ten years of armed struggle. The first conflict (1858–1860) was against the conservatives, who feared that the constitution’s attack on the Church and religion would tear apart the deteriorated social and moral fabric of Mexican society. The struggle next included Napoléon III’s army, who joined the conservative cause and sought to establish a French-sponsored empire led by Austrian archduke Maximilian, who served as emperor of Mexico from 1864 to 1867. Unlike the four constitutions that preceded it, that of 1857 provided a stable, if not always heeded, juridical framework over the course of half a century.
Juárez, as minister of justice, drafted the 1855 law that put an end to ecclesiastical and military judicial privilege in civil suits. Although he did not participate in the design of the constitution, having been reelected governor of his home state, it became his touchstone and source of legitimacy as he assumed the presidency in 1858 after a conservative coup d’etat. When the coup set up a government that abrogated the constitution in the nation’s capital, Juárez set up the constitutional government in Veracruz. The country was effectively divided in two. For Juárez, the constitution stood for putting the rule of law above petty rivalries, politically convenient shortcuts, and regional interests. The Reform laws promulgated by Juárez in 1859 and 1860 greatly diminished the power of the Church by nationalizing ecclesiastical wealth, shutting down religious orders, establishing a civil registry, and formalizing religious freedom. It was his insistence on adherence to the constitution that consolidated his legitimate leadership as a civilian president over the military. It provided the principles through which he tried to solve one of the national government’s most pervasive problems since independence: its recurrent altercations with the states, particularly over men and money. On the other hand, he did not consider constitutional principle a strict mandate for government action. Like all presidents who governed under the 1857 law, he repeatedly asked Congress for emergency powers. In 1865, when his presidential period ran out, he refused to step down, alleging that the war made holding new elections impossible. When in 1867 he tried and failed to amend the constitution, he appealed directly to the electorate instead of following the constitutionally mandated process for reform.
After leading the country in what was then called the second war of independence, Juárez won two contested reelections, carried by a political machine that relied on the federal bureaucracy. He died as president in 1872, having secured the principle of constitutional rule; until 1917, challenges to political authority were articulated in defense of the constitution, never again against it. But if the constitution was consecrated as a national symbol and as the structure for political struggle, it failed to set up the mechanics for some crucial aspects of government, particularly for the transmission of power through elections. This is attested by the two rebellions led by Porfirio Díaz (1830–1915), one called the Plan de la Noria in 1871, the other called the Plan de Tuxtepec in 1876. Additionally, the Reform’s disentitlement of communal lands and the nationalization of Church wealth did not bring about the prosperous nation of farmers that the liberals envisioned, but often the concentration of land ownership and the discontent of Indian communities.
Juárez’s performance as a politician and statesman was controversial. Nevertheless, his transformation into an icon preceded his death: In the 1860s, other Latin American countries hailed him as a symbol of successful resistance to European imperialism. Once dead, Juárez, as Charles Weeks writes in his book The Juárez Myth in Mexico (1987, p. 42), “was far more valuable to all” as a particularly powerful and pliable symbol. In the 1890s orthodox liberals, despairing of Porfirio Díaz’s authoritarian ways and his rapprochement to the Church, upheld Juárez as a symbol of true liberalism betrayed. Díaz ably took this banner away from them by claiming to be Juárez’s true heir and throwing the weight and resources of government behind the juarista cult. In 1904 Francisco Bulnes (1847–1924), a prominent Porfirian politician, wrote a scathing critique of Juárez’s actions during the French intervention and of the nationalist narrative that he believed was reducing history to hagiography. He unleashed a furious reaction from both Porfirian intellectuals and their opposition, and his criticism of Juárez was taken as an attack on the nation.
The Bulnes controversy sets the tone for the use and abuse of Juárez’s figure as a source of legitimacy throughout the twentieth century as the self-proclaimed revolutionary state took up the mantle of nineteenth-century liberalism. References to Juárez in official rhetoric have been inevitable, especially from the mid-1940s, with the consolidation of civilian government and with the increasing importance of stability and economic growth over reform. He has personified administrative honesty, the secular state (despite his moderation and good relations with the Church in Oaxaca), strict adherence to law (although he violated the letter of the constitution), the defense of national sovereignty (although he authorized the signing of the unfavorable McLane-Ocampo treaty with the United States in 1859), and indigenism (even though he did not speak of “Indian rights” and repressed Che Gorio Melendre’s movement to defend community resources in Juchitán in 1850). To the opposition right, on the contrary, he has been the embodiment of treachery to the true (Catholic) nation. Allusions to Juárez, then, are not meant to refer to historical experience or to policy content; they intend to draw the line between good and evil, patriotism and treason. Juárez has arguably been more important for what he has represented than for what he did.
SEE ALSO Mexican Revolution (1910–1920); Revolutions, Latin American
Bulnes, Francisco. 1904. El verdadero Juárez y la verdad sobre la intervención y el imperio. Paris, Mexico City: Viuda de Charles Bouret.
Hamnett, Brian R. 1994. Juárez. London, New York: Longman.
Roeder, Ralph. 1947. Juárez and His Mexico. New York: Viking Press.
Sierra, Justo. 1969. The Political Evolution of the Mexican People. Trans. Charles Ramsdell. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Weeks, Charles A. 1987. The Juárez Myth in Mexico. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
Benito Juárez was a Mexican statesman and four-time president of Mexico. After resisting takeover by European powers, Juárez installed numerous social changes that would improve the lives of the Mexican people.
Benito Juárez was born in the small Zapotec Indian village of San Pablo Guelatao, Oaxaca, Mexico, on March 21, 1806. His parents, who were poor peasants, died when he was three years old. Juárez then lived with his grandparents and later with an uncle. He worked with his uncle until he was thirteen. Then he walked forty miles to the city of Oaxaca, Mexico, to move in with his sister. At the time he could not yet speak Spanish (he spoke the language used in the Oaxaca tribe).
In Oaxaca, Juárez worked with Don Antonio Salanueva, a bookbinder, who basically adopted him. Helped by Salanueva and a local teacher, Juárez eventually learned to read and write. In 1827 he graduated from the Seminary of Santa Cruz, but later changed career paths and decided to study law. 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 with goals to change the Mexican government.
In 1831 Juárez entered politics as an official 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 the severely poor Indian communities in their struggles to protect their landholdings. Honest and intelligent, he became one of Oaxaca's leading lawyers.
By this time, Mexico seemed on the verge of total collapse. Thirty years of violence had left the treasury bankrupt, communications disrupted, and the population unconfident. Two factions (rival groups creating conflict), defining themselves as Conservatives and Liberals, constantly fought to control Mexico. The Conservatives, represented large landholders, the Church, the army, and the large cities. The Liberals, who represented small merchants, some intellectuals, political leaders in rural areas, and the small ranchers of the west and south, wanted to modernize Mexico.
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 excellence. His local standing had increased through his marriage to Margarita Mazza, the daughter of one of Oaxaca's wealthiest families.
Governor of Oaxaca
In 1846 the Liberal party, led by former president Valentín Gómez Farías, took power throughout Mexico and Juárez returned to the Liberal faction. In 1847 and 1848, during Mexico's war with the United States over land in America's Southwest, he became Oaxaca's acting governor and then elected governor.
Juárez reduced corruption and built roads, public buildings, and schools. He reorganized the state national guard, and when he left office in 1852, the economy of Oaxaca was in good standing. His state government became renowned throughout Mexico for its honesty, public spirit, and constructiveness. He also served as a lawyer, often helping the poor.
In 1853 the Conservative party, led by the brilliant Lucas Alamán (1792–1853), seized power by a barracks coup, or hostile takeover. One of the revolt's leaders was Antonio López de Santa Ana (1794–1876), the corrupt general who had frequently dominated Mexico during the previous twenty years. Seeking to strengthen his power, Santa Ana immediately exiled (forced to leave) the leaders of the Liberal party, including Juárez.
Return to Mexico
In Mexico, Santa Ana had run the country into further bankruptcy (complete financial ruin). Liberals launched a revolt and Santa Ana's government collapsed with little fighting. The Liberals again assumed power with Juan Álvarez as president. But the voluntary retirement of Álvarez in 1857 ended the Liberal hopes for a peaceful transformation of Mexico. The following period, known as the Three Year War (1857–60), proved to be one of the most bloody and wasteful in Mexican history.
The only positive result of these years was the emergence of Juárez as the undisputed leader of the Liberal party. At the same time, the Conservatives had named one of their own the president of Mexico and sent their troops northward to crush Liberal resistance. Through the conflict, Juárez fled to Veracruz, Mexico. Three years later, the reorganized Liberal armies under Santos Degollado, Porfirio Díaz, and Jesús González Ortega took Mexico City. The Conservative armies fell apart, and their leaders went into exile. In 1860 the Mexican people elected Juárez president.
Verge of collapse
Juárez was determined to carry out national reconstruction, but he had staggering problems. The government, seeking to develop a large agrarian middle class, or a class of farm workers, tried to distribute the lands to those working them. However, the Liberals needed money to pay the army and the national debt. Pressed for funds, public officials allowed these lands to go to those who could pay for them immediately, mostly rich land developers and foreign investors.
On the verge of economic collapse, Mexico was at the mercy of foreign nations, in particular England, France, and Spain. The English and Spanish soon withdrew, but the French emperor, Louis Napoleon (1808–1873), attempted to establish a Mexican empire under the Austrian archduke Maximilian (1832–1867). Aided by small Conservative forces, the French took Mexico City in 1863. Once again, Juárez was forced to flee.
End of his career
The years between 1864 and 1867 determined the future of Mexico and the Liberal reforms. Juárez refused to serve in an imperial cabinet, a body of advisors under control of a foreign empire. The imperialists controlled the cities, but the countryside remained in a state of revolt. Faced with mounting costs in men and money and the rise of Prussia, which was part of the German empire, the French withdrew from Mexico.
Juárez accomplished much in the remaining four 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 (right to organize), and the abolishment of special legal privileges.
On the negative side, Juárez refused to distribute authority and insisted, despite much opposition, upon his own reelection in 1871. He sincerely believed that he alone could govern Mexico, but many now saw him as a dictator, or an absolute ruler. Furthermore, he had failed to rid the country of internal tariffs (taxes) or to reduce large independent landholdings. In 1871 his army crushed the revolt of Porfirio Díaz, but the Liberal party had split into factions. On July 18, 1872, the president suffered from a stroke and 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, or working class.
For More Information
Bains, Rae. Benito Juárez: Hero of Modern Mexico. Mahwah, NJ: Troll Associates, 1993.
De Varona, Frank. Benito Juárez, President of Mexico. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1993.
Palacios, Argentina. Viva Mexico!: The Story of Benito Juárez and Cinco de Mayo. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1993.
Scholes, Walter V. Mexican Politics during the Juárez Regime, 1855–1872. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1957.
Wepman, Dennis. Benito Juárez. New Haven, CT: Chelsea House, 1986.