Born on March 21, 1806, in San Pablo Guelatao, Oaxaca, Mexico, Benito Juárez was orphaned at age 3 and raised by relatives. He entered politics promoting reforms for the Mexican people. During the military regime of Santa Ana, he went into exile but returned to help overthrow the dictator. He then resisted the French occupation and worked to overthrow Emperor Maximillian. He served a total of five terms as president seeking to institute constitutional reforms and create a democratic Mexico.
Benito Juárez was born into Zapotec Indian tribe in San Pablo Guelatao, Oaxaca, Mexico. His parents, Brígida García and Marcelino Juárez, died when Benito was 3 and he was raised by relatives. Before starting school at age 12, he worked in the fields and didn’t speak Spanish. He entered Oaxaca Institute for the Arts and Sciences in 1827 and received his law degree in 1831. He quickly began to help poor farmers of Oaxaca in their battles with land owners.
At this time, Mexico was coming out of thirty years of domestic violence. The treasury was nearly bankrupt as two political factions emerged: conservatives, who represented the large landholders, the Catholic Church and the military and wanted to protect the status quo. The Liberals represented small merchants and rural ranchers and farmers and wanted to institute democratic reform.
A Reluctant Politician
Benito Juárez initially avoided entering politics, but soon believed the landed aristocracy’s monopoly on the economy was the root cause Mexico’s poor living conditions. Making matters worse, the Catholic Church was often an ally to the rich and thwarted any resistance toward them. In 1843 Juárez married Margarita Meza, the daughter of one of Mexico’s wealthiest Creole families. The union increased his standing among conservatives and he frequently accepted appointments from Conservative state authorities. Politics soon became his passion and he was elected to Oaxaca’s legislature. Known for his impeccable honesty and simple tastes, he was immune from corruption. He didn’t play favorites to either conservatives or liberals and sought to implement reforms fairly.
Committed to Liberal Causes
In 1846, the Liberal Party took power and Benito Juárez joined the push for liberal causes. During the war with the United States (1847-1848) he was appointed Oaxaca’s acting governor and then was later elected governor, which elevated his name and reputation to national politics. He promoted a guerrilla resistance toward the United States and opposed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In 1853, the dictator General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana came to power and Juárez was exiled in New Orleans, Louisiana, working in a cigar factory.
In 1855, Santa Ana’s government collapsed and Benito Juárez returned from exile. Soon Mexico had ratified a new constitution and the liberal party was in power. Juárez was appointed President of the Supreme Court. In 1857, the presidency of Juan Alvarez ended with his retirement and Mexico entered a period of inner turmoil, known as the Three Year War or the War of Reform, a struggle for power between political factions. When it was over, Juárez emerged as president of Mexico.
President of Mexico
Over the next few years, Benito Juárez struggled to help Mexico find its financial footing. At the mercy of European powers looking to regain lost colonies, France’s emperor Louis Napoleon attempted to establish a Mexican empire under Archduke Maximilian. In 1863, aided by the Conservatives, French forces took control of Mexico City.
Over the next three years, Mexico was a divided country. The imperialists controlled the cities, but the countryside was in revolt. The pressure was too much and in 1867, French forces withdrew. Emperor Maximilian was arrested and executed by firing squad. Benito Juárez was soon elected and quickly asked the congress to allow him to rule by decree, even though this was in violation of the 1857 Constitution.
Later Years and Death
Benito Juárez would rule the country for the next four years, until his death. He accomplished much during this time, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, cutting the power and funding of the military, expropriated much of the Church’s large landholdings to the poor, and promoting free speech, press, and assembly. However, Juárez didn’t operate his government like a democracy. Secrecy, suppressing political opposition, and corruption also marred his presidency. Despite fraud charges and widespread controversy, he was reelected in 1871. The next year, on July 18, 1872, died in office from a heart attack
The period of Juárez’s leadership is known as La Reforma del Norte (The Reform of the North). During this time, large tracts of Church land was redistributed to the poor, the army was put under civilian control, church was separated from state, and civil rights were expanded. As progressive as these reforms were, Mexico suffered from inadequate democratic and institutional stability. After Juárez’s death Mexico returned to a centralized autocracy under the regime of Porfirio Diaz.
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