Scour the annals of Mexican history, from Independence through the present day, and you will find no man more admired than Benito Juarez. The 19th-century president is almost universally beloved by his forebears, with only those unaware of him withholding their veneration.
A full-blooded Indian from humble origins, Juarez dedicated his career to modernizing Mexico, played a key role in the period known as La Reforma, and rescued the nation from French invaders. But at his birth in 1806, Benito Juarez was an unlikely candidate for hero to a nation. A Zapotec Indian born in the poor southern state of Oaxaca, Juarez was orphaned before his fourth birthday. He spent his early childhood working as a farm hand, learning neither to read nor to speak Spanish.
At the age of twelve, Juarez fled the small village of his birth for the relatively bright lights of Oaxaca City as fast his two legs could carry him. There in the state capital, his sharp mind attracted the attention of a lay Franciscan, who arranged a place for the future leader at the local seminary. He was a successful student, and it seemed as though a fruitful career in the priesthood beckoned.
History is filled with “what ifs,” which although they change nothing, are tantalizing to think about. What if Fidel Castro had been signed after his tryout with baseball’s Washington Senators? What if Gavrilo Princip hadn’t managed to track down Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo? And, what if Benito Juarez hadn’t shoved his religious studies aside and embarked on a career in law?
There are an infinite number of answers to any one of those questions, but luckily for Mexico, Juarez’s destiny lay in politics, not religion. He became a lawyer in 1834, upgraded to judge eight years later, and on to governor of his home state in 1847. Along the way, he developed a reputation as a talented liberal (not liberal in the modern American sense of the word, but in the nineteenth century Latin American meaning. Juarez believed in a lessening of power in the military and church, a greater expansion of opportunity to the entire society) thinker. He also emerged as an opponent of the country’s powerful military dictatorship (led by the famous General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna) and, ironically for the ex-seminary student, the clergy that was allied to it.
Enemies of the military don’t often last long in military dictatorships, and Governor Juarez was forced to flee in 1853 to escape Santa Anna’s long reach. He spent his exile in New Orleans, rolling cigars and contributing to the liberal opposition to military rule.
Santa Anna resigned in 1855, and Juarez returned to Mexico. La Reforma had begun. Juarez worked to draft laws limiting clergy and military privileges, the two most entrenched special interests in Mexico and across Latin America. Juarez and his allies took a further leap toward his goal of an open, egalitarian society with the passage of the Constitution of 1857.
Juarez was chosen as vice president under the first government elected under the new system, although he didn’t last long in his post. In December 1857, at the outset of the conservative military revolt that became the War of the Reform, Juarez and his cohort were driven from Mexico City.
Backed by the church and the military, the conservatives held the capital for more than three years. Juarez and his contingent, supported by regional troops not loyal to the federal army, battled the conservative forces from Querétaro and Veracruz. Juarez’s forces took back the capital in January 1861. Two months later, Juarez, now the liberal hero of the War of the Reform, was elected president for four full years.
The landscape was littered with crises for President Juarez. Economically, the War of the Reform bankrupted the nation. An insolvent Mexico was unable to make payments to powerful creditor nations in Europe. Juarez declared a moratorium on all foreign debt payments. Rattling their sabers, Spain, England, and France took control of Mexican assets in Veracruz. While Spain and England backed off, France fully unsheathed its sword, invading Mexico in 1862. The economic emergency had snowballed into a military calamity.
Napoleon III saw the conflict as a chance to not only recoup financial losses, but to further the French imperial interests while the United States was preoccupied with its bloody Civil War. He sought to establish a friendly monarch across the Atlantic, and sent the Austrian Archduke Maximilian of Hapsburg to fill the role.
The French leader’s imperial adventure was not immediately (nor ultimately, for that matter) successful. The Mexicans repulsed the French at the famous Battle of Puebla in early May 1862, an occasion that gives us all a reason to drink Corona every Cinco de Mayo, when the encounter is annually celebrated.
Eventually, a reinforced French contingent took control of the fighting. Juarez and the contents of the Mexican treasury were evacuated from the capital ahead of the French advance in 1863, and the Austrian noble now known as Emperor Maximilian of Mexico was installed a year later.
Maximilian may have ruled the capital, but he never consolidated control of the country. Juarez, again stationed in New Orleans, led the political fight against the invaders. He sat at the head of the republican Mexican government that marshaled all of the nation’s resources in the fight to eject the French. Although Juarez initially seemed doomed to live out his days a lonely, exiled pariah, he eventually began to rally powerful allies to his cause.
Conservative opponents of Juarez, while happy to see him out of power, were as appalled as anyone to have foreigners ruling the country. The United States, with its own bloodbath winding down in 1865, began to urge France to leave Mexico and the Western Hemisphere. Juarez made an enormous impression on Abraham Lincoln, and his government began to supply the Mexican resistance with weapons.
The importance of Juarez’s political resistance should not be underestimated. The loyal devotion of a great statesman, who rejected offers to return to Mexico to live in peace as Maximilian’s prime minister, lent constancy and morale to those physically fighting the French forces. Napoleon, with his imperial army being bled dry by the Mexican resistance, realized his situation was untenable. He began withdrawing his army in 1866, and Juarez and his cohort eagerly rushed in. For the second time in his career, Juarez returned heroically to Mexico City, this time having vanquished the French imperialist invasion. Mexico once again was whole and pure.
Maximilian was not so lucky. Juarez’s forces caught the fleeing emperor in Querétaro in 1867. Despite his generally liberal leanings (he had invited Juarez to return to Mexico to serve as his prime minister during the war), Juarez used his capture to send a message of Mexican pride and resolve across the globe. Maximilian was tried and executed for treason on a hill outside the city where he’d been caught.
After restoring Mexico’s independence from France, Juarez was now able to concentrate on the more workaday task of modernizing the nation. He was only partially successful. For the most part, he enjoyed the support of his grateful nation, but various generals (most notably Porfirio Diaz) confronted him with revolts throughout his later years in power. The internecine battles of Mexico’s elite blocked Mexico’s path to modernity and prosperity.
Juarez was elected to terms in 1867 and again in 1871. As always, his goals were to maintain Mexico’s independence internationally, and to move the country along a path of economic growth and modernization domestically. In 1872, the tireless politician died while working at his desk.
The great Mexican republican was succeeded by his vice president, but four years after Juarez’s death, the rebellious General Porfirio Diaz clawed his way into the presidency. It was to stay within his grasp for 35 years.
Perhaps the greatest measure of the esteem the Mexican people hold for Juarez is that today’s politicians—whether they identify with the extreme right or the extreme left of the spectrum, or somewhere in between—invariably claim to be the true inheritors of Juarez’s ideal.
But the truth is that no Mexican leader has ever come close to matching his achievements, both in war and peace. His weakening of the military and the church laid the foundation for the modern secular society that Mexico is today. Juarez’s leadership in response to the conservative revolt during La Reforma and the French invasion in the 1860s kept Mexico whole. As the only Indian ever to serve in Mexico’s highest office, Juarez remains today a powerful symbol to indigenous tribes across Latin America. As a political leader, he remains beloved by Mexicans of all shades.