Benito Juarez was born at San-Pablo-Guelatao (Oaxaca, Mexico) on 21 March, 1806, to poor indigenous parents of the Zapotec tribe (who died a few years after his birth). After a period of illiteracy and extreme poverty, Benito came to the city of Oaxaca to join his sister who worked as a servant for the Maza family. There, having been taken in by his sister’s employer, he started learning Spanish at the age of 13, and Antonio Salanueva, a friend of the head of the household, Sr Maza, on seeing Benito Juarez’s aptitude for learning encouraged him go to a seminary in Oaxaca with the idea of becoming a priest. After leaving the seminary in 1827, Juarez turned decisively towards the world, entering the Institute of Science and Art, from which he received a law degree in 1834. This period was also marked by political activity. In the years 1831-1833 he served on the city council and became a defender of Indian rights. In 1841 he became a civil judge, marrying Margarita Maza, the adopted daughter of his patron of his early years in 1843. After a brief period as a federal deputy, he was elected governor of the state of Oaxaca from 1847-52. At this point he also became a mason, adopting the Masonic name, William Tell. On finishing his term as governor, he became director of his alma mater, the Institute of Science and Art.
In 1853, when conservative dictator Santa Anna took power, Juarez was amongst the liberals to be expelled from Mexico. He ended up in New Orleans where he worked in a cigarette factory. Here he joined a Revolutionary Junta (with Melchor Ocampo and José Guadalupe Montenegro) which worked for the overthrow of Santa Anna.
When in March 1854, the liberal General Juan Alvarez and other activists proclaimed a manifesto calling for the overthrow of Santa Anna (the Plan de Ayutla), Juarez returned from New Orleans, to join the liberation movement that drove Santa Anna into exile in the autumn of 1854. And when Alvarez took over as president in November, Juarez was to be rewarded for his services by being appointed minister of justice. After Alvarez stepped down in favour of moderate president, Ignacio Comonfort, in December 1855, Juarez was replaced as minister, and he went once again to serve as governor of Oaxaca (1856). There he re-established the Institute of Science and Art, suppressed under Santa Anna. At the end of the years (in November) Juarez was appointed minister of the interior and in December he became President of the supreme court of justice.
Juarez, by this point head of the liberal constitutional party, was ousted by conservatives led by General Felix Zuloaga in December 1857; congress was dissolved by the conservative forces and Juarez arrested. Comonfort was subsequently cowed by Zuloaga and then deposed by him. In fury, Comonfort released Juarez from prison and, on 19 January, 1858, Juarez proclaimed himself Mexican president (in accordance with the constitution, President of the supreme court of justice is next in line for the presidency if the chief executive dies or is unlawfully removed from office). Thus started the bloody civil Reform War 1858-1861. Juarez’s supporters at first were beaten in battle in the North by Miramon, (Miramon had replaced General Zuloaga as head of the government on 23 December, 1858, as a result of the general’s well known incapacity). Juarez once again refused to recognise the new power and the struggle continued. In April, 1859, the United States of America officially recognised Juarez as the head of Mexico, though several months earlier they done the same for Miramon’s government.
Nevertheless the Civil War continued. As a result of occupying the important port city of Veracruz, Juarez and his supporters were able to make money from customs, whilst Miramon’s government found itself lacking funds. In an attempt to solve his financial crisis, Miramon laid siege (unsuccessfully) to Veracruz. After further military failure, this time at the hands of Juarez’s lieutenant Ortega at the battle of San-Miguelito, Miramon fled to Europe, hoping that Juarez would not be able to cope with the difficulties facing him in his new position. On 11 January, 1861, Juarez entered Mexico City and created a new cabinet, removing all the former employees of the old government. A few weeks later he was officially recognised by France and England, and in the 11 June he was re-elected president. However Juarez’s position was indeed difficult, with internal disorder, foreign countries demanding indemnity payments and the poor, dilapidated state of the Mexican finances left by Miramon.
Meanwhile powerful enemies to Juarez were being formed in Paris, especially following Juarez’s unwillingness to pay indemnities to Britain and France immediately. France, Britain and Spain simultaneously broke relations with Mexico, and a French expeditionary corps was sent to Mexico to seek reparations by force. Following this invasion, the Mexican Congress granted Juarez special powers, and on 26 September, 1861, he declared war.
Following diplomatic failures, the small French army penetrated the Mexican interior in April 1863, and on 12 April Juarez prepared a desperate defence. He ordered the requisition of material and food, authorised the formation of guerrilla corps and declared Mexicans who stayed in the areas occupied by the French, and who did not arm themselves against the invasion, traitors to their country. Finally he declared the capital to be in a state of siege and the National War began.
The first forays of the French army were not successful. They campaign began outside the fortified town of Puebla, where they were held up and had to retreat and wait for vital reinforcements from Europe. Yet when these important reinforcements did arrive, the inexperienced Mexican troops, who could not hold out against the French army in an open campaign, slowly retreated through Mexico. The Mexican Army however won Cuernavaca and San-Luis de Potosi, where Juarez attempted to reorganise his government. Yet he was once again forced to retreat in front of the French invasion, this time up to Zacatecas, all the while protesting in the name of the national government.
In May 1864 the French Government imposed the Emperor Maximilian on Mexico, and little by little Juarez’s leading generals abandoned their homeland and submitted themselves to the new power, seduced by brilliant offers. Only Ortega and Negrete stayed faithful to the president. But soon the rest of the federal army was dispersed after the defeat experienced at the edge of Nazas. From this point onwards, the only option was to fight a guerrilla war in the mountains. Juarez sent his family to the United States before restarting a war without cease, fighting for the Independence of his country. He never lost hope, nor rested, for a single day. He defended his land inch by inch, withdrawing, and then charging forth again, impassive in defeat, unperturbed in resistance, setting a great example of consistent firmness.
It soon became apparent how incapable and unpopular Maximilian was, and the United States urged Napoleon to end his intervention on the American Continent. Napoleon dutifully conceded, and withdrew his troops, thereby abandoning Maximilian. Juarez retook the offensive and, with the help of capable generals such as Escobedo and de Porifirio Diaz, he re-conquered a large part of the northern states of Mexico, including notably Alamaz and de Matamoros, from the beginning of 1866. The general Ortega disputed Juarez’s title as president, but he gained little support, and he was stopped by Juarez, who was then recognised as the legitimate leaders by Mexicans and Washington.
Maximilian sought refuge in Queretaro in February, 1867, which Juarez ordered Escobedo to siege. After a strong resistance on 15 May, Maximilian was taken prisoner, before being sentenced to death. He was shot along with Miramon and Meijia on 19 June.
Juarez then set about introducing liberal reforms, and was re-elected President in October, 1867. Although he was at the height of his popularity, there were still several revolts to put down. In 1869, Juarez, with Congress’ support, announced a general amnesty for everyone who complied with Maximilian’s government. During this period Juarez also developed Mexico, for example through the construction of railways, a telegraph network and the introduction of freedom of the press.
Nevertheless, other insurrections occurred, in various Mexican states, especially after the re-election of Juarez to the presidency for the third time in October, 1871, which caused his opponents to accuse him of perpetuating his power indefinitely. He later suffered a stroke, and was replaced by the chief justice of the Supreme Court and former minister for foreign affairs, Sebastian Lerdo. Juarez died on18 July, 1872.
Pierre Larousse, Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle, Paris : Adminstration du Grand dictionnaire universel, 1873 [Reprint Slatkine: Geneva-Paris, 1982], vol. IX, pt. 2, p. 1062
Jim Tuck, “Mexico’s Lincoln: The ecstasy and agony of Benito Juarez”, online at http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/274-mexico-s-lincoln-the-ecstasy-and-agony-of-benito-juarez
Ed. PH and AM