Benito Juarez, an enigma

articles History & People

Shep Lenchek

“The evil men do lives after them, the good is often interred with their bones.” These words of Shakespeare may well describe the future of U.S. President Bill Clinton, but in writing about Mexican President Benito Juarez I would paraphrase these words to read, “The good that he did lives after him, the damage was interred with his bones.” Mexican historians have chosen to ignore the fact that in his efforts at reform, he paid little heed to popular opinion that resented his attack on the Church. Himself a full blooded Zapotepec Indian, it is ironic that the most lasting damage he did was to his fellow indigenous people by destroying the ejido system that gave them land rights.

To understand why this happened, we must take a look at Mexico as it was before and during the life of this reformer. The conquistadors and the first Spanish settlers to come to New Spain, not only seized land and authority for themselves, but set up a power structure that excluded even those of pure Spanish blood if they were born in Mexico. Called creoles, they were granted only secondary positions in local governments. High positions in the national government, the military and the Roman Catholic Church were reserved for those born in Spain. To perpetuate this system, pregnant women were sent back to Spain to give birth. Called gachupines (spur-wearers), they were hated by those Spaniards who had been born in the New World. They were equally unpopular among the mestizos, those of mixed Spanish and Indian blood. Hatred for this elite group made itself manifest on the night of September 15, 1810, when those hearing Father Miguel Hidalgo proclaim the Grito, a call for Mexican Independence from Spain, responded by shouting Mueran los gachupines! (Death to the Spaniards). Of the three groups who had formed this alliance, the Church was the most vulnerable and it was at them that Juarez directed his first efforts to overthrow the power structure. He also attacked the army, seeking to abolish it, but with little success.

It is unfortunate but factual that the campaign against the Church crippled the bastion of the religious beliefs of at least 98 percent of all Mexicans of his day and also destroyed their only educational system. Carried on in the name of religious freedom, in reality it restricted the ability of the Church to offer Catholics all the sacraments they had come to rely on. The damage to the Indians may well have been inadvertent. Because most Indians were illiterate, title to ejido land was usually held by the Church and while seizing Church property, Juarez’s fellow Indians lost their land and were left virtual slaves. Realizing that he must retain power to insure the success of his program, he had dealings with the United States that indicate a willingness to sell parts of Mexico and give up Mexican sovereignty to the giant north of the Rio Grande in exchange for their support of his liberal party and his presidency. Historians have ignored these acts. Thus, Juarez remains an untarnished hero. The rational of this is that in the campaign against the Catholic Church, he and the Liberal Party were actually waging war against the Conservative Party, which was an unholy alliance of the Church, the military and the landowners. There can be no doubt that the Church used threats of excommunication and the granting of indulgences to further the well being and control of the country by the gachupines. The destruction of this power structure, that excluded most Mexicans, is the basis for his popularity and rightfully so.

Nevertheless, the man remains an enigma, largely because of his changes of political direction. Aquiles P. Moctezuma in El Conflicto Religioso de1926 (Mexico: 1929) says “In 1844 Juarez supported Santa Anna, the next year a Moderate, in 1846 a Liberal, in 1852, a Juarista, in 1856, a Moderate again and in 1858 a ‘Red.'”

Born in 1806 in a village within walking distance of Oaxaca, Juarez was orphaned at the age of four, raised first by his grandparents and then by an uncle. At the age of 12, uneducated and illiterate, he fled to Oaxaca where an older sister had found work with an Italian family named Mazza. They became his patrons and turned him over to a Franciscan Friar, Don Antonio Salanueva, who taught him to read and write and set his feet on a path that led to the priesthood. In 1821, he enrolled in The Seminary of Oaxaca, headed toward a life as a clergyman. It was only when he had finished his courses in Latin and philosophy and was ready to study moral theology, a last course before ordination, that he revolted. Later, he declared, “I felt nothing but contempt for the priests whose entire concepts of right and wrong were based only on dogma.” Using the argument that he was too young to be ordained, he persuaded both Don Antonio and the Mazza family to permit him to take courses in liberal arts. Leaving the Seminary, he enrolled in the local Institute of Science and Arts and studied jurisprudence. It was there that he was first exposed to liberal thinking and rationalism. Now the works of Voltaire and Rousseau shaped his thinking. There is no evidence that at this stage of his life he was anti-clerical. It seems that he was simply dissatisfied with the narrow scope of religious education. It was not until years later that he was to abandon the Church and adopt Masonry as his religious affiliation. Radical changes in loyalties were to remain a constant part of his life. Perhaps at this point in time he was simply a pragmatist who felt he must gain political power to achieve his goals.

His first entrance into politics came in 1831 when he became a deputy in the legislature of the State of Oaxaca. This was followed by a short term as a Magistrate. Despite Liberal leanings, he now affiliated himself with the Federalist Party and opposed Centralist government. Already, he dressed in the somber black that was to be his “uniform.” Short in stature with dark skin and eyes, his stoical appearance belied the fire of political ambition that burned within him. Now he married Margarita Mazza, daughter of his patron, in a religious ceremony. As late as 1844 he supported Santa Anna, the next year became a moderate and served in the Conservative State Government of Oaxaca. It was not until 1846 that he launched his campaign against the Church and the conservative establishment. In 1853, an invasion of American troops led to the recall of Santa Anna to power. The liberals opposed him and soon Juarez was forced to flee to New Orleans where he earned a living as a cigar maker but continued to develop his liberal philosophy along with other members of the Liberal Party who had also sought shelter there.

A year later, aided by the U.S., the exiles returned to Mexico, deposed Santa Anna and seized the presidency without an election. Juan Alvarez, a general who had switched his support from the Conservatives to the Liberals, was largely responsible for their return to power, albeit illegally, and it was he who became president. Juarez was appointed Minister of Justice and Ecclesiastic Affairs, then moved on to become the secretary to the President. From this position of power he proposed the “Juarez Laws” that abolished the exemption of the clergy from trial by secular courts. This first attempt to strip the Church from its “special status” aroused popular resentment, was attacked by the Archbishop of Mexico and even provoked the Liberal Governor of Guanajuato to raise his voice in opposition. “Catholicism is the only binding force that keeps Mexico from anarchy,” he said.

Now, Juarez, along with fellow liberals Lerdo de Tejada and Ignacio Comonfort, became totally committed to the anti-clerical policy that was to plunge Mexico into the chaos the Governor of Guanajuato had predicted. Despite popular outcry, the attack on the Church continued. Juarez now proposed dissolving the Mexican army. This led to a military uprising that forced Alvarez from the presidency. He was replaced by the more moderate Ignacio Comonfort, again without an election. Soon, Juarez was dropped from the cabinet and appointed Governor of Oaxaca. But the assault on the Church continued, for now Lerdo de Tejada, the Minister of Finance, proposed the series of laws that bear his name. The “Lerdo Laws,” forced complete separation of church and state, seized Church property including ejido land, suppressed religious orders, banned the wearing of clerical garb outside the church, secularized marriage and declared religious vows illegal. Even cemeteries were removed from clerical supervision. Although these laws were proposed by Lerdo de Tejada, Juarez had developed the philosophy and program on which they were based. Evidence of this is that Juarez, in his capacity as Governor of Oaxaca, enforced the new laws much more strictly than the Governors of other Mexican States. Also, he persisted despite popular protests and also expelled the Mexican army from the state he governed.

In 1857 these “Lerdo Laws” were incorporated into a new Constitution along with the original “Juarez Laws.” At this point the Liberal Party had succeeded in having its philosophy become the law of the land. Although the document established free education and universal suffrage, neither materialized. Approved by a Congress that completely excluded Conservatives and representatives of the clergy, it came under fire by the landowners and the military. Faced with opposition to the Constitution, not only from the Conservatives but from the public, Ignacio Comonfort, the President, sought compromise. He called on Juarez to modify his position and permit changes to the document but to no avail. Faced with an armed insurrection, led by General Zuloaga, Comonfort agreed to hold new congressional elections. At this point, Juarez and 70 Liberal congressmen met in Queretero, declared that Comonfort had violated his oath to defend the new Constitution and elected Juarez to the Presidency. Although he raised an army, it could not defeat the opposition and once again Juarez fled to the United States. Soon Comonfort fell from power and a conservative government headed by the aforementioned General Zuloaga seized power. At this point the struggle had become political rather than ideological. Now, the United States started to intervene in Mexican politics. They had been negotiating with Comonfort to buy portions of northern Mexico, and lower California and for the right of perpetual passage across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrowest part of the country that connects Tabasco, Chiapas, Campeche, the Yucatan and Quintana Roo to the rest of the country. With the Conservatives back in power, the negotiations had come to an end and now the self-interests of the U.S. clearly called for the restoration of Juarez to the presidency and the return of the Liberal party to power. They broke diplomatic relations with the Conservative government, recognized Juarez as the legal president, and gave him financial support. In April of 1859 he returned to Mexico and engaged in open warfare with the Conservatives who still supported Zuloaga as the rightful president. Now he approved the McLane-Ocampo treaty that not only sold parts of Mexico but also granted the U.S. the right to intervene at will in Mexican internal affairs. Fortunately for Mexico, the U.S. Senate, facing secession by southern states, never approved the treaty. For the next three years fighting continued. Called the Reform War, the struggle continued into 1861 with neither in full control of the country. But at the end of 1861, the Liberals had gained the upper hand and Juarez returned to Mexico City in triumph. Once again he started strict enforcement of the Lerdo Laws, which the Conservatives had ignored. As a final blow to the Catholic Church, the government now not only introduced Protestantism to the country but actually turned over Catholic churches to Protestant congregations.

Losing this battle for control, the Conservatives, seeking to balance the support the United States was giving the Liberals, appealed to the French for aid. In 1864 Napoleon III sent a French army and established a monarchy with Maximilian of Hapsburg on the throne. Once again Juarez sought sanctuary, this time in El Paso, Texas. By 1867, under pressure from the United States, the French withdrew their army, Maximilian was arrested and executed. Back in power, Juarez still faced strong opposition. Schisms were now developing in the ranks of the Liberal Party and although he finally managed to get himself legally elected President, all the remaining years of his years in office were turbulent.

To the very end the man remains an enigma in that his idealism never interfered with his early changes of political parties and later, his willingness to accept support from the United States at the expense of Mexico’s national interests. Was he a liberal or an opportunist? Perhaps he was both, but felt so strongly about his cause that to insure its success he was willing to take extreme measures to retain the power he needed to insure the success of his programs. If one contemplates the fate of Mexico had the Conservatives not been forced from power, it is possible to understand and ignore some of his actions that appear self-serving. There is no question that living under the alliance of the Church, the landowners and the military, the vast majority of Mexicans would have remained second class citizens. In recent times, the separation of church and state has become a hallmark of democracy. To achieve this Benito Juarez, used whatever methods necessary. Do the ends justify the means? Perhaps at times they do.

Footnote: I have researched the facts in this article that reflect poorly on President Juarez for more than six months. They are true. However, he reformed not only the Mexican political system but the Catholic Church in Mexico, as well. All Mexicans have benefited from his efforts that opened the door to democracy.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2005 by Shep Lenchek © 2008
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