Mexico’s Lincoln: The ecstasy and agony of Benito Juarez

articles History & People

Jim Tuck

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.

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.

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?

Published or Updated on: April 1, 1999 by Jim Tuck © 1999
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2 thoughts on “Mexico’s Lincoln: The ecstasy and agony of Benito Juarez

  1. Loved this chance encounter with my obsession, Mexico.
    Always thought of getting an idea of Mexican history and this was an informative and well written article introducing me to not only Juarez but also Porfirio Diaz. Thank you!

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