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Benito Juarez Day (March 21) March 19, 2006 3:36 PM

(1806 - 1872)

Since it is the near unanimous verdict of authorities on American history that Abraham Lincoln was our greatest president, it has become a facile formula among historians of other nations to describe their greatest leaders as "Lincolns." Was Clemenceau a French Lincoln? Was Churchill a British Lincoln?

In a way, yes. Both leaders presided over their nations in time of war and both showed the steadfastness and courage to survive periods of crisis and early defeat. But there the resemblance ends. Clemenceau, a fiery journalist-politician known as "the Tiger," passionately defended Dreyfus but at the same time broke strikes and was tainted by the Panama financial scandal. Churchill, implacable foe of Nazism, was still sufficiently imbued with prejudices of race and class that he could call Mohandas Gandhi a "half-naked fakir."

If we're looking for a true "Lincoln," one who resembled the Emancipator in spirit as well as in his political role, it is instructive to look at the life and career of Benito Juárez. Outwardly, they were a quintessential "odd couple," as dissimilar in appearance and ethnic background as two people can be. Lincoln was tall and angular; Juárez short and stocky. Lincoln was of old American stock; Juárez a full-blooded Indian.

The similarities were in chronology and background. Lincoln lived between 1809-1865 and Juárez between 1806-1872. Both were born poor, both cared more for political power than riches, and both believed law was the best preparation for a political career. Though neither was conventionally handsome, both compensated for a lack of matinee idol looks by radiating an impressive charisma and commanding presence. Though they never met personally, they formed a lifetime mutual admiration society and helped each other whenever they could. Instances of their interaction will be recorded as this narrative develops.

Juárez was born on March 21, 1806, in the Oaxaca village of San Pablo Gueletao. His parents, members of the Zapotec tribe prevalent in Oaxaca, were small farmers. When he came to Oaxaca City at the age of thirteen, he could neither read, write nor speak Spanish. His destination was the house of the Maza family, where his sister worked as a servant. Sr. Maza, head of the household, not only took in the boy but showed an interest in his development. A friend of Maza was Antonio Salanueva, a devout Catholic and lay member of the Franciscan order. Salanueva taught the boy reading, writing, arithmetic, Spanish grammar and bookbinding. Both older men were so impressed with Benito's aptitude that they sent him to the Franciscan seminary in Oaxaca with the idea of turning him into a priest. Though young Juárez immersed himself in the study of Aquinas and other great Catholic philosophers, he decided in the end that his career lay in law rather than religion. Graduating from the seminary in 1827, he entered the Institute of Science and Art, emerging with a law degree in 1834. During this period he was reading works by the rationalist philosophers of the Enlightenment. In the end, he became completely imbued with their secular doctrines and abandoned the Catholic faith of his early days.

All this time Juárez was interested in politics. Between 1831-33, even before receiving his law degree, he served as a city councilman in Oaxaca and was a strong defender of Indian rights. In 1841 he became a civil judge and two years later married Margarita Maza, the daughter of his patron. After a stint as a federal deputy, he served as governor of Oaxaca between 1847-52. Though he took no part in the war with the United States, he did support a controversial measure in the legislature calling for the confiscation of church lands. Finishing his term as governor, he became director of his alma mater, the Institute of Science and Art.

The dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna returned to power in 1853 and Juárez was one of a group of liberals expelled from the country. Arriving in New Orleans in October 1853, he joined forces with such kindred spirits as Melchor Ocampo and José Guadalupe Montenegro to organize a Revolutionary Junta aimed at the overthrow of Santa Anna. During this period of exile, Juárez supported himself by working in a cigarette factory.

In March 1854 the liberal General Juan Alvarez and other activists proclaimed the Plan de Ayutla, a manifesto calling for the overthrow of Santa Anna. Returning from New Orleans, Juárez joined the widespread liberation movement that drove Santa Anna into exile in the fall of 1854. Alvarez's troops marched into Mexico City November 14 and the general took over as president, with Juárez serving as his minister of justice. In that post, he produced the "Juárez Law," one abolishing clerical immunity by limiting jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts to ecclesiastical cases.

In December 1855 Alvarez stepped down in favor of Ignacio Comonfort, a moderate who had been a collector of customs in Acapulco. 1856 saw Juárez serving again as governor of Oaxaca. There he re-established the Institute of Science and Art, suppressed under Santa Anna. On February 5, 1857, a new constitution was adopted which further restricted the privileges of the Church. In November of that year Juárez was named minister of the interior and the following month he was elevated to chief justice of the Supreme Court.

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 March 19, 2006 3:38 PM

The new constitution greatly displeased the conservatives and clericals. In December 1857 a right-wing general named Félix Zuloaga led a coup in which Congress was dissolved and Juárez arrested. Comonfort, more a centrist than a liberal, was intimidated into approving Zuloaga's action. Then Zuloaga deposed him and assumed the presidency himself. An angry Comonfort released Juárez, who escaped to Querétaro January 11. Eight days later, in Guanajuato, he proclaimed himself president. Under the Mexican constitution, the chief justice of the Supreme Court is next in line for the presidency if the chief executive dies or is unlawfully removed from office.

Thus began the bloody, fratricidal Reform War of 1858-61, pitting liberals against conservatives and so named because of the Reform Laws that had curbed the power of the Church. The Liberals almost lost their leader two months after the conflict began. In March Zuloaga's forces entered Guadalajara and captured Juárez near the Palace of Justice. He was saved from a firing squad only through intervention of the poet Guillermo Prieto, who courageously thrust himself in front of Juárez, crying: "Brave men do not assassinate." The soldiers lowered their rifles and Juárez was able to escape to Manzanillo, where he re-kindled resistance.

In the beginning, the rightists completely had their own way. They commanded most of the army and had by far the better generals. In fact, it wasn't until 1860 that the Liberals first defeated the Conservatives in a pitched battle at Silao. Three main factors led to the Liberals' eventual victory: popular support; control throughout the war of the port of Veracruz, from where customs fees gave them money to finance their war effort; the iron will and dogged, unwavering determination of Juárez. Like Lincoln, he suffered crushing early defeats but never lost hope.

While it is not known exactly when Juárez came to Lincoln's attention, we know that Lincoln was his strong supporter as early as 1857, eve of the Reform War. When Juárez had to flee Mexico City in 1858, Lincoln sent him a message expressing hope "for the liberty of .. your government and its people."

The bond between the two leaders was strengthened in 1861, the year the Civil War began. Juárez, then president of Mexico, had been forced by the financial toll of the Reform War to suspend debt payments to Mexico's chief European creditors, France, Britain and Spain. These powers organized a punitive expedition, seizing Veracruz, but Britain and Spain pulled out when they learned of Napoleon III's desire to install a puppet regime in Mexico City. The French, defeated at Puebla in 1862, poured in reinforcements and captured Mexico City in 1863. Evacuating the capital, Juárez organized resistance in the north.

Though Lincoln obviously had his hands full with the Civil War, he did what he could to help Juárez. Union General Phil Sheridan wrote in his journal that "we continued supplying arms and munitions to the liberals, sending as many as 30,000 muskets from Baton Rouge alone." To Sheridan came this order from General Grant, which of course originated with Lincoln: "Concentrate in all available points in the States an army strong enough to move against the invaders of Mexico."

How Juárez reciprocated Lincoln's friendly attitude is shown by his response to an ill-advised overture he received from the Confederate government. The South had sent a delegation, under John T. Pickett, to try and win over the juaristas. Juárez, to put it mildly, sent the Confederates a message -- throwing Pickett into a Mexico City jail for thirty days and then expelling him from the country.

Though Lincoln was dead by 1867, the year Juárez vanquished Maximilian, the initiatives he had put in place inexorably worked their way in ensuring victory for the juaristas. Louis Napoleon had sympathized with the South, but growing Union power made him stop short of granting recognition to the Confederacy. In 1867, with the Civil War over and the Union-backed juaristas growing in strength, Napoleon III pulled his troops out of Mexico and left Maximilian to his fate. Perhaps the greatest dividend attained by the informal but highly effective alliance between Abraham Lincoln and Benito Juárez was the way it served to ease the bitterness felt by Mexicans thanks to the disastrous consequences of the U.S.-Mexican War.

The ecstasy of Juárez's career came in the heroic years when he remained steadfast during the Reform War and the war against Maximilian; the agony came in the anticlimactic five years between 1867, when Maximilian was executed, and 1872, the year of his death. It is virtually axiomatic in history that a period of glory is followed by one of letdown and leaders who acquire an almost godlike status during the glory years are subject to a sharp and sudden downward revision of their image. Winston Churchill was an inspirational figure as he defied Hitler in the darkest days of the Second World War -- yet he was turned out of office within weeks of victory over Nazism.

In the flush of victory over Maximilian and his European sponsors, Juárez won the 1867 election by a wide margin. But he faced serious problems. Two devastating wars had left the treasury empty. There was an oversized army and resentment among the European powers over Maximilian's execution had shrunk investment capital and dried up markets.

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 March 19, 2006 3:40 PM

Attempting to cope with the situation, Juárez adopted a policy of centralization. To weaken Congress, he used all his prestige to ram through a constitutional amendment that would add a Senate to the Chamber of Deputies. Another amendment, designed to further strengthen the executive branch, gave him the right to veto any bill, with a two-thirds majority required to override the veto.

To raise money for his bankrupt treasury, Juárez sold off lands that had been expropriated from the Church to hacendados (big landowners) who had supported the Liberal cause. There were more of those than one might think. Land stripped from the Church, instead of being distributed to the campesinos (peasant farmers), was sold to the highest bidder. So in many areas a peculiar situation prevailed where landowners supported the Liberals and campesinos -- religious by nature anyway -- the Conservatives. It should never be ignored that the juarista movement was far more directed against the Church and the Conservative-dominated army than against the landowners. And now, under Juárez, there was a new class consisting of Liberal hacendados and a Liberal-dominated officer corps. As for dispossessed peasants and former soldiers who had fought against Juárez, they were increasingly being driven into banditry. In 1868 it was estimated that over a thousand bandits were operating in the outskirts of Guadalajara.

In this chaotic situation, Juárez was increasingly plagued by uprisings. Some were mounted by peasants, some by Indians, and some by Liberal military chiefs who had become dissatisfied with the president.

In 1868 there were insurrections in central Mexico under the peasant leaders Plotino Rhodakanati and Julio López. The former claimed that Jesus Christ was "the divine socialist of humanity" and the latter advocated a socialist system "to destroy the present vicious state of exploitation." So Juárez, whose enemy had long been the Christian right, now faced a challenge from the Christian left. Though liberal and anticlerical, Juárez had never sympathized with socialism. So he had no compunction about sending federal troops against the rebels.

The most troublesome Indian insurgents were the Maya in the south and the Apache in the north. Following the caste wars of 1847-55, the Maya set up an independent state in southern Yucatan that endured until 1901. Their position was strengthened by their ability to buy arms in neighboring British Honduras. Apache attacks were triggered by westward movement of American settlers. As the U.S. pioneers acquired lands in the Southwest, the volume of Apache incursions into sparsely populated northern Mexico increased exponentially, Bands led by the famous Cochise, and his successors Victorio and Ju, caused the death of over 15,000 Mexicans in the northern territories.

Within Mexico, Juárez's main rival was his former ally Porfirio Díaz. Like Juárez, Díaz was an Indian from Oaxaca, but a Mixtec rather than a Zapotec. A military leader, he had distinguished himself in the wars against the Conservatives and Imperialists. He challenged Juárez at the polls in 1867 but did poorly against a statesman who was at the height of his popularity. He tried again in 1871, this time claiming that he lost through electoral fraud. Rising in revolt, Díaz's ideological standard was the principle of "no reelection." In seeking another term, Díaz claimed, Juárez was attempting to perpetuate himself in office. Bringing his rebel forces to the gates of Mexico City, Díaz called for a general uprising. It was not forthcoming and his forces were routed by troops loyal to Juárez. As is well-known, Díaz not only lived to fight another day but this "crusader" against reelection would also live to impose a 35-year dictatorship over Mexico.

Worn out from five years of frustration and disappointment, Juárez succumbed to a heart attack on July 17, 1872. Working at his desk in the National Palace, he truly died in harness.

That last unfruitful segment of Juárez's life does nothing to detract from his stature as Mexico's Lincoln. Faced with an almost impossible situation, his courage and perseverance never flagged.

An interesting speculation: what if Lincoln had lived to serve out his second term? Thanks to an assassin's bullet, he had the "luck" to die a martyr. But what if he had been faced, as was Juárez, with the challenge of rebuilding a war-torn nation? Would he not have suffered some of the frustrations and disillusionments that plagued his Mexican counterpart?

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 March 19, 2006 3:42 PM

Benito Juárez

(1806-1872)   Benito Juárez

Don Benito Juárez

Nació en San Pablo Guelatao, Oaxaca, en 1806. De extracción indígena, habló solamente zapoteco durante gran parte de su niñez. En la ciudad de Oaxaca vivió con su hermana Josefa, quien servía en la casa de don Antonio Maza. Estudió en el Seminario de Santa Cruz, único plantel de secundaria que existía en Oaxaca.

Posteriormente, Juárez estudió Derecho en el Instituto de Ciencias y Artes. Fue regidor del Ayuntamiento de Oaxaca en 1831 y diputado local en 1833. Durante algún tiempo vivió de su profesión defendiendo comunidades indígenas. Al ser derrocado de la presidencia el general Paredes Arrillaga, Juárez resultó electo diputado federal, y le correspondió aprobar el préstamo que Gómez Farías había solicitado a la Iglesia (1847) para financiar la guerra contra Estados Unidos de América. 

Como gobernador de su estado natal (1847) procuró el equilibrio económico y ejecutó obras públicas: caminos, reconstrucción del Palacio de Gobierno, fundación de escuelas Normales; levantamiento de una carta geográfica y del plano de la ciudad de Oaxaca; reorganizó la Guardia Nacional y dejó excedentes en el tesoro. 

Al volver Santa Anna al poder, muchos liberales, entre ellos Juárez, fueron desterrados. Juárez fue a Nueva Orleans, donde, sin descuidar su actividad política, desempeñó diversos oficios para ganarse la vida. Mientras tanto en México se proclamó el Plan de Ayutla que desconocía a Santa Anna como presidente. 

Al caer Santa Anna y llegar Juan Alvarez a la presidencia, nombró a Juárez Ministro de Justicia e Instrucción Pública (1855). Desde este ministerio, expidió La Ley sobre Administración de Justicia y Orgánica de los Tribunales de la Nación, del Distrito y Territorios (Ley Juárez), con la que fueron abolidos los fueros, privilegios que tenían los militares y el clero por encima de otras personas. Nombrado gobernador de Oaxaca, convocó a elecciones; como resultado de ellas, fue reelecto. 

Promulgó en su estado la Constitución de 1857. Se le nombró ministro de Gobernación (1857) y posteriormente fue elegido presidente de la Suprema Corte de Justicia, durante el gobierno del presidente Comonfort. Al desconocer Comonfort la Constitución de 1857, y dar un golpe de Estado, encarceló a diversos ciudadanos, entre ellos Juárez. Este acto de Comonfort desencadenó la Guerra de Reforma.

Al ser liberado (11 de enero de 1858) asumió la presidencia en Guanajuato por ministerio de ley. En julio de 1859, con apoyo del grupo liberal, expidió las Leyes de Reforma, que declaraban la independencia del Estado respecto de la Iglesia, la ley sobre matrimonio civil y sobre registro civil; la de panteones y cementerios, y el paso de los bienes de la Iglesia a la nación.

Al concluir la Guerra de Reforma con el triunfo de los liberales, fue electo consitucionalmente para continuar en la Presidencia (15 de junio de 1861). Debido a la intervención francesa, en mayo de 1863 tuvo que dejar la ciudad de México, ejerciendo su gobierno desde diferentes puntos del país. Regresó a la ciudad de Méxicoel 15 de julio de 1867, después de que Maximiliano fue juzgado y fusilado. 

Por su defensa de las libertades humanas, defensa que sirvió de ejemplo a otros países latinoamericanos, fue proclamado "Benemérito de las Américas".

Al triunfo de la República, dijo en un célebre discurso: "Mexicanos: encaminemos ahora todos nuestros esfuerzos a obtener y a consolidar los beneficios de la paz. Bajo sus auspicios, será eficaz la protección de las leyes y de las autoridades para los derechos de todos los habitantes de la República. Que el pueblo y el gobierno respeten los derechos de todos. Entre los individuos, como entre las naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz".

"Confiemos en que todos los mexicanos, aleccionados por la prolongada y dolorosa experiencia de las comunidades de la guerra, cooperaremos en el bienestar y la prosperidad de la nación que sólo pueden conseguirse con un inviolable respeto a las leyes, y con la obediencia a las autoridades elegidas por el pueblo

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 March 19, 2006 3:43 PM

En octubre de 1867 fue reelecto presidente de la República; se dedicó a organizar la situación económica del país, redujo el ejército, organizó una reforma educativa, ordenó sofocar los alzamientos militares y enfrentó la división de los liberales. Se mostró respetuoso ante la organización de los obreros y artesanos. 

En 1871 fue reelecto por última vez como presidente. Murió el 18 de julio de 1872.


Fuente: Instituto Nacional de Solidaridad, Microbiografías, Personajes en la historia de México.

Benito Juárez , México, 1993

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 March 19, 2006 3:49 PM

 Benito Juarez is considered one of Mexico's greatest and most beloved leaders. During his political career he helped to institute a series of liberal reforms that were embodied into the new constitution of 1857. During the French occupation of Mexico, Juarez refused to accept the rule of the Monarchy or any other foreign nation, and helped to establish Mexico as a constitutional democracy. He also promoted equal rights for the Indian population, better access to health care and education, lessening the political and financial power of the Roman Catholic church, and championed the raising of the living standards for the rural poor.

Benito Juarez, President and national hero Benito Juarez - Mexican President and National HeroBenito Juarez was born March 21st 1806, the child of Zapoteco Indians. After they died when he was three, he went to live with his uncle, but when he was 12 he joined his sister in Oaxaca. He began studying for the priesthood, but in 1829 changed to studying for a law degree, which he received in 1831. That year he also began his political career, with a seat on the municipal council. In 1841 he became a judge, and the governor of Oaxaca.

In 1853 the conservatives took power in Mexico and many liberals were exiled, including Juarez, who spent his time of exile in New Orleans. In 1855 the liberals won the election, and Benito Juarez returned from his exile as the Minister of Justice. In 1857 he was elevated to preside over the supreme court, in effect making him the Vice President. In 1858 the conservatives rebelled, and again Juarez had to leave Mexico City, this time fleeing to Veracruz, where he created a government in exile.

In January 1861 the conservatives lost power, and Benito Juarez became the President of Mexico. As the treasury was practically empty Juarez made the decision to suspend payment on all foreign debts for a two year period. After Mexican congress rejected an agreement Juarez had made with the British Prime Minister to protect the interests of European countries Spanish, British and French troops landed in Vera Cruz. Spain and Britain were there to protect their financial interests, and left in April, after it became clear that France had conquest in mind. The French troops fought for two years, and although suffering a serious defeat on 5th May 1862, eventually captured Mexico City in June 1863, and placed Archduke Maximilian of Austria on the Mexican throne.

Benito Juarez and the government of Mexico were forced to retreat right back to Ciudad Juarez, on the border with the USA. After four years with growing pressure from America, continuing resistance from Mexicans and criticism from the French govenrment and people, finally the Napoleonic forces withdrew. Maximilian himself was captured and executed on 19th June 1867.

Juarez returned to Mexico city, and the presidency even after suffering a stroke in October 1870, and the loss of his wife in 1871. He won the presidential election in 1871, but died on 18th July 1872, of a heart attack

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 March 11, 2009 12:25 PM

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 March 13, 2009 11:15 AM

Great post Tere.... Benito Juarez, truly amazing!, I am his number 1 fan of his quotation "El Respeto Al Derecho Ajeno Es La Paz"- Respect to other's right is peace...

If we all applied this philosophy this would be a better world

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 March 13, 2009 11:24 AM

I forgot to say... I always tell my son that Benito Juarez is a role model to follow, being an indigenous with no chances and opportunities like other people he still succeeded and became the President of the country

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 March 17, 2009 1:15 PM

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JUAREZ March 18, 2009 11:40 AM

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Carta de Don Benito Juarez a los Juarenses March 21, 2009 1:12 PM

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