Benito Juárez’ Birthday

March 21st is a National Holiday in Mexico to commemorate the birthday of Benito Juárez, who rose from humble origins to occupy the Presidency of the Republic on several occasions during the turbulent second half of the 19th century.

Born in a small Zapotec village in Oaxaca named Guelatao, in 1806, Benito was orphaned at age three. When he was 12, he moved to the city of Oaxaca to attend school. He lived with his sister, a servant in the house of Antonio Maza, who took Benito in, and helped with his studies. The seminary was his only option for secondary school, but, instead of going into the priesthood, Benito Juárez studied law. Between 1831 and 1847, he was elected to the city government, the state Congress and the federal Congress. In 1843, he married Margarita Maza, Don Antonio’s daughter. In 1847, he became governor of his native state of Oaxaca. He promoted public works and left the treasury with a surplus at the end of his term in 1852.

Around this time, many Mexicans were alarmed by the loss of half the national territory to the United States of America, the poverty of the people and government, incessant civil war and unruly administrations; they decided to put a stop to these conditions. However, the Conservatives and the Liberals had very different ideas on how to go about remedying Mexico’s problems.

The Conservatives believed that, in the words of Lucas Alamán, "We are hopelessly lost if Europe does not come to our aid soon". They wanted a strong Catholic Church, and were opposed to federalism and popular elections. Despite Santa Anna’s disastrous military escapades, Alamán and others believed he would be a good ruler; he was made President in 1853, and immediately set out to exile or jail the liberals.

The Liberals, on the other hand, believed that Mexico must break with its past Hispanic and Catholic tradition to undertake the path of freedom, trade, education, tolerance and representative democracy, based on the United States model. Within this group, there were also radical and moderate positions.

Benito Juárez and other liberal leaders took refuge from Santa Anna in New Orleans. Florencio Villareal, Juan Alvarez and Ignacio Comonfort published the Plan de Ayutla in 1854, to oust Santa Anna and convene a new Constitutional Congress. Santa Anna was defeated and fled the country the next year. Alvarez was appointed President and named Juárez Minister of Justice. The Conservatives continued to fight against the new administration and the "Juárez Law" (1855) limiting Church privileges to judge people, the "Lerdo Law" (1856), which confined church ownership of land to that used for worship, education or welfare activities.

Meanwhile, the Constitutional Congress gathered together a group of distinguished intellectuals such as Ponciano Arriaga, José María Mata, Melchor Ocampo, Ignacio Ramírez and Francisco Zarco. The resulting document was mostly based on the Constitution of 1824, which called for a democratic, representative, federal republic, but it also provided for federal intervention in public religion, lay education, and a judicial system to uphold individual rights. It was adopted in 1857.

The Conservatives answered with the Plan de Tacubaya, abolishing the new Constitution. The Pope threatened the Liberals with excommunication. Comonfort, who had become President in 1857, but found it impossible to govern because of the opposition to the Constitution, accepted the plan. Benito Juárez, then Vice President and fiercely pro-constitution and anti-clergy, was imprisoned. Comonfort later released him, entrusting him with the government in January of 1858. Three days later, the Conservatives named Felix Zuloaga President, and he immediately issued the Five Laws against what he termed "the destructive constitutional system". Mexico thus came to have two Presidents and two governments, and the Reform or Three Year War (1858 to 1861) began.

Benito Juárez declared the Constitution reestablished. Because the conservatives held the capital, he set up government in Guanajuato, and subsequently moved to Guadalajara, Colima, Panama, the U.S. and Veracruz. During this period, cities, states, armies and politicians passed from side to side as they tried to find some way to end the chaos. Juárez almost lost his life during one such shift in Guadalajara, but was saved by the eloquence of Guillermo Prieto. General Miguel Miramón became President in 1859. Juárez remained steadfast in his convictions and his determination; he proclaimed the "Reform Laws" in July of 1859, calling for nationalization of church property, civil marriage and registry, among other items. In January 1861, he triumphantly returned to Mexico City.

The conservatives, however, continued to make war on the Liberals, killing Ocampo, Degollado and Valle. They also plotted with European powers to overthrow the government. When Juárez found his administration unable to continue payments on the foreign debt, in July 1861, he declared a moratorium; England, Spain and France sent troops to collect their monies. A treaty was signed with England and Spain, and their troops withdrew; but the French, encouraged by the Conservatives, used this as an excuse to invade Mexico and make Maximilian Emperor.

General Laurencez commanded the 6,000 French troops which were the last foreign army to invade Mexico. Despite its defeat on May 5th, 1862 -- at the Battle of Puebla which gave rise to the Cinco de Mayo celebrations -- Mexico was finally conquered. Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, Archduke of Austria, was crowned Emperor of Mexico on June 10, 1864; he came to Mexico believing that his appointment had popular support. Paradoxically, Maximilian believed in many of the same ideals as his rivals, the Liberals. He disconcerted the Conservatives by calling for freedom of religion, nationalization of church property, secularization of cemeteries and a civil registry, as well as laws to protect workers. However, his proposed laws never went into effect. When the United States ended its own Civil War, it called for an end to French intervention; the French Emperor withdrew his forces to defend himself from Prussia; and Maximilian was defeated by the Liberal army and executed in 1867.

The fall of Maximilian’s Empire marks the beginning of Modern Mexico. The first ten years of this period are known as the Restored Republic. After five long and terrible years, Juárez and his followers declared the Republic restored, and it seemed as if the time had come for Mexico to fulfill its dream of peace and prosperity. Juárez made his famous statement: "Mexicans: let us now pledge all our efforts to obtaining and consolidating the benefits of peace…. May the people and the government respect the rights of all. Between individuals, as between nations, respect for the rights of others is peace". Now Mexico seemed free from foreign intervention and internal strife, and the most intelligent, experienced and patriotic of leaders were in charge of the government. Benito Juárez was President.

However, there were many "heroes" of the recent wars claiming their reward; close to 100,000 soldiers were unemployed and the national economy was in no position to guarantee them a decent wage, much less a better standard of living; the conflicting factions became more personal than ideological. In the first Presidential election of the restored republic, in 1867, Juárez won by a wide margin over Porfirio Díaz. Four years later, Juárez ran against Díaz and his old confederate Lerdo de Tejada. Juárez again won, but this time a Congressional decree was required, as he did not have an absolute majority. Benito Juárez died in 1872, only seven months into this term in office. Lerdo de Tejada became President.

Although Juárez attempted to reorganize the country’s economy, reduce the army, organize an educational reform, and support worker’s rights, these things were not easy to achieve. The struggle for power continued between the younger and the older generations, with "heroes" periodically rising up to seize it. The country longed for peace and order, which would be provided by Porfirio Díaz, who finally took the highest office in the land in 1877, and ruled for over 30 years until the Revolution of 1910 overthrew his dictatorship.

One of the reasons Benito Juárez is seen as representing Mexico is because his indigenous roots and seminary education seem to reflect the national mixture of races and cultures. Indeed, Juárez did much to overcome the prejudice against indigenous heritage, so prevalent in the 19th Century. He was fiercely anti-clerical, believing that the excessive power of the Catholic Church was one of the main obstacles to the development of the country. He led the nation in a struggle against neocolonialism and French intervention, earning the title of "Benemérito de las Américas", or deserving of the Americas’ praise.