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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.