Benito Juárez

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: The dominant figure of mid-nineteenth century Mexican politics, Juárez embodied a liberal vision of a democratic republican form of government, economic development and modernization, virulent anticlericalism, and mandatory public education. Although he was prevented from fully implementing his ambitious agenda by years of warfare against foreign intervention and his policies were anathema to many entrenched conservative elements in Mexico, especially the Catholic church, Juárez’s reform program laid the groundwork for a modern Mexican nation.

Early Life

Benito Juárez was born in the small mountain hamlet of San Pablo Gueletao in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico in 1806. He was orphaned when his parents died before he reached the age of four. Reared by his uncle until the age of twelve in a remote Zapotec Indian community, Juárez’s beginnings could not have been more humble. In 1818, he walked forty-one miles to the state capital, Oaxaca City, and found work and shelter in the home of a Franciscan lay brother who was a part-time bookbinder. Juárez worked in the bindery and helped with chores, and in return was given school tuition. Since he excelled in school, he was encouraged to enter the seminary. Juárez later changed his mind, however, and in 1829 chose a career in law, entering the Oaxaca Institute of Arts and Sciences. Two years later, he earned his lawyer’s certificate, and that professional degree proved to be his passport to politics. The same year he was graduated from law school, he became an alderman in the city council and subsequently served as state legislator. His improved social and economic standing was reflected by his marriage in 1843 to Margarita Maza, the daughter of a prominent Oaxacan family.

Even as a successful young lawyer, Juárez always remembered his roots and did pro bono publico work for groups of impoverished peasant villagers. Convinced that major structural change was needed to make Mexico a more just society, Juárez decided to forgo his law practice and dedicate his career to public service.

When war erupted between Mexico and the United States in 1846, Juárez, who at the time was a deputy in the Mexican national congress, was recalled to his home in 1847 to serve an abbreviated term as interim governor. A year later, he was elected to a full term. Juárez proved to be a capable and honest governor, overseeing the construction of fifty rural schools, encouraging female attendance in the classroom, trimming the bloated state bureaucracy, facilitating economic development through the revitalization of an abandoned Pacific port, and making regular payments on the state debt. Moreover, the idealistic governor raised eyebrows around Mexico when he refused to offer his state as sanctuary to General Antonio López de Santa Anna, the powerful dictator (caudillo) who would serve as president on eleven separate occasions during the first thirty chaotic years of Mexican nationhood. Santa Anna never forgave Juárez for this slight, and, when he became president for the final time in 1853, he arrested Juárez, imprisoned him for several months, and then exiled him aboard a ship destined for New Orleans.

Life’s Work

In New Orleans, Juárez made contact with a burgeoning expatriate community who represented the best and brightest of a new generation of young, idealistic Mexicans. These liberals, who called themselves puros, were committed to wholesale changes in the political system, to modernizing the nation’s stagnant economy, and to creating a more equitable society for all Mexicans. These puros knew that Mexico had been racked by political instability, that Mexico had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the United States, that corporate institutions such as the military and the Church had a viselike grip on Mexican society, and that a small politically powerful and economically wealthy elite dominated thousands of impoverished Indians and mestizos. Influenced by nineteenth century European liberal thought and enamored of the North American republican experiment, the puros composed a statement of principles in exile and secured arms and ammunition for regional caudillos in Mexico who opposed Santa Anna. Juárez was smuggled into Mexico and served as an aide to Juan Alvarez, the caudillo who spearheaded the Ayutla Rebellion. In 1855, the rebels drove Santa Anna from power for the last time.

When the new government was formed, Juárez was named secretary of justice. Juárez’s cohorts were determined to see Mexico erase the vestiges of the past and emerge from chaos and anarchy. The puros focused on the Catholic church as being the single most regressive institution in Mexican society and sought to curtail its pervasive influence. The secretary of justice was intimately involved with the first of a series of reform laws that attacked corporate interests. There came a series of reform laws—which gave the era its name, La Reforma—and which systematically dismantled the power of the Catholic church in Mexico. The Ley Lerdo prohibited corporate institutions from owning or administering property not used in their daily operations. The Church, local and state governments, and corporate Indian villages could retain their churches, monasteries, meeting halls, jails, and schools, but other property had to be put up for sale at public auction, with the proceeds destined for federal coffers. In the first six months following the implementation of the law, twenty-three million pesos worth of property was auctioned, twenty million of which had belonged to the Church.

The reform laws were incorporated in a new constitution (1857). This document gave Mexico its first bill of rights, abolished slavery and titles of nobility, and created a unicameral congress to diminish executive power. Conservatives, especially the Church, unleashed a torrent of invective against the liberal document. Priests who did not publicly disavow the constitution were...

(The entire section is 2489 words.)