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Benito Juárez

Lifespan: (21 March 1806 – 18 July 1872)


Benito Juárez (21 March 1806 – 18 July 1872) was born of humble origins into a poor family from the Zapotec indigenous peoples of Mexico in the village of San Pablo, Guelatao, Oaxaca. Despite this background, he became president of Mexico from 1858 -1861, 1861-1865, 1865-1867, 1867-1871 and 1871-1872. He undertook various monumental tasks such as fighting the French Occupation and defeating the Empire (1862-67), he reinstated the Republic and began the modernisation of Mexico by liberal methods. Juárez’s parents Marcelino Juárez and Brigida García were both peasants and died when he was just four years old. Juárez worked as a shepherd and also on the land up until he was twelve years of age when he made his way to the capital Oaxaca to attend school. At this time his only tongue was Zapotec and here he was to learn to speak Castilian and to read and write. At this time he worked as a domestic servant for Antonio Maza. Fortunately, Antonio Salanueva who was a religious layman of a Franciscan order, was impressed by the intellectual capacity and enthusiasm of the young Juárez, arranged for him to be educated at the seminary of Oaxaca. After studying at the seminary he studied a degree in Law graduating in 1827 and marrying Margarita Maza. After becoming a lawyer in 1834 and a judge in 1841, Juárez began to pursue a political career. He became governor of the state of Oaxaca in 1847 up to 1852. Margarita Maza, Juarez’s wife, was literate and of the wealthy Italian family that employed him as a servant. His liberal ideas and keen intellect deeply impressed the Maza family. Margarita both supported and influenced her husband’s ideas and activities. Margarita’s modern egalitarian perspective affected Juárez. For example it was she who persuaded him to create public cemeteries throughout the state of Oaxaca when he was governor. A measure he stood by despite complaints from staunchly orthodox Catholic critics. In 1853, he opposed the military dictatorship of Antonio López de Santa-Anna. This political stance forced him into exile in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States of America where he worked in a menial post. Juárez was a co-author of the famed Plan de Ayutla which led to a liberal revolution in Mexico and the period of history named La Reforma the period of liberal reforms in Mexican politics. Juárez returned to Mexico when, President Santa-Anna resigned under the pressure of strong liberal opposition led by General Juan Álvarez who then took power provisionally. Under the presidency of Álvarez and the liberals la Reforma was established. The attendant reform laws of this period were supported by the puro (pure) wing of the liberals and suppressed the powers and property of the Catholic Church. In 1855, the Ley Juárez was passed which removed the fueros which were ecclesiastical and military privileges, ensuring in so doing that all Mexican citizens equal in the eyes of the law. In 1857 the new federalist Constitution was inaugurated. Retaliation against the reform laws came with the conservative forces led by General Feliix Zuloaga. On 17 December 1857 the Plan of Tacubaya was launched by President Comonfort, with the aim of avoiding war and destruction. He disbanded congress and assigned cabinet posts to new ministers accommodating conservative factions and the proposals of the Plan of Tacubaya. Juárez was detained along with other politicians. Zuloaga’s conservative rebels made demands for a full reversion of the constitution backed by an armed uprising on 11 January 1858. The conservative forces, named Zuloaga as president. However, Comonfort reacted quickly by dissolving congress and resigning, thus Juárez became interim president in January 1858 as was his automatic responsibility as president of the Supreme Court of Justice. Juárez took the opportunity to lead the Mexican War of the Reform, starting from Querétaro and following from Veracruz. Juárez boldly confiscated church wealth and property in 1859, drawing on support from the regional liberal forces and the United States against the conservatives. In January 1861, the liberal powers were reinstated as they re-took Mexico City. Consequently, Juárez became president for a further four year term by election in March 1861. The country was in dire economic straights and Juárez declared a suspension on foreign debt payment. In December of this year, the European powers of Great Britain, Spain and France retaliated by taking the Veracruz customs house. However, in 1862, Napolean III used the opportunity to initiate the French Intervention in Mexico, in order to establish conservative rule. This attempt at seizing power caused Spain and Great Britain to retreat. In Puebla, on 5 May 1862, Mexico gained a significant victory over the French. This triumph is still celebrated today as the annual festival of Cinco de Mayo. French forces made another attempt in 1863 and this time Juárez’s government was forced into exile in the north, ending up setting up a government in the capital of Chihuahua, Chihuahua City where it remained for over three further years.Napoleon III and a group of Mexican conservatives backed Maximilian von Habsburg as Emperor Maximillian I of Mexico on 10 April 1864. Juárez was granted an emergency extension of his presidency which was effective from 1865-1867. This was in fact the year when Maximilian was vanquished. Juárez had appealed to U.S. sympathy for the Mexico’s troubles due to the French Intervention, sending General Plácido Vega y Daza to appeal for support. Emperor Maximilian, himself was in favour of liberal and Mexican nationalist ideals and he reached out to Juárez. He initially granted him political amnesty and then the role of prime minister. Juárez stood by his principles and denied capitulation to a foreign government and monarchy by refusing both these offers. The United States of America eventually came to Mexico’s aid as President Andrew Johnson employed the tenets of the Monroe doctrine. This was a United States of America policy that was introduced on 2 December 1823, declaring that any attempts by European countries to colonize land in the Americas would be regarded as acts of aggression and would be met with United States intervention. Thus diplomatic credibility was granted by the United States to Juárez’s government and importantly Johnson arranged for ‘misplaced’ arms to support the Republicans, even without support from congress. This coupled with a growing threat from Prussian forces in 1866, led the French troops to retreat from Mexico, with their final defeat in 1867. Emperor Maximilian was sentenced in a military court to death by a firing squad. He was executed on 19 June 1867 at Cerro de las Campanas, Querétaro. Juárez was President by election again in 1867 and 1871 although shortly after this on 1872, a coronary attack ended his life in the National Palace, Mexico City. Juarez’s name has become inseparable from the association with La Reforma and thus he has become an icon for the triumph of Mexico's liberal social reform. To this day he is famed in Mexico as a forward looking reformer with a commitment to democracy and equality as well as defending the sovereignty of the Mexican nation and the federalist, anti-clerical, capitalist forces over the conservative, centralist, corporatist, and ecclesiastical factions who sought to retain colonial power structures.


Signatory of
Representación de los ciudadanos de Oaxaca (23 August 1835; Oaxaca, Oaxaca)