Popularly revered as Mexico’s greatest and most beloved president, sometimes called Mexico’s Abraham Lincoln, Benito Juárez rose from humble origins to become a towering figure of the mid-19th century. Like his contemporary Lincoln, Juárez overcame his disadvantaged youth, entered the law, became attracted to politics, and by dint of hard work and perseverance became his nation’s preeminent political leader.
Like Lincoln, Juárez was distinguished by his public morality, honesty, and rectitude; his solemn demeanor and simple dress (in Juárez’s case, a plain dark frock coat); deep religious convictions; faith in justice and the law; and exceptional strength of character. Like Lincoln, Juárez shepherded his nation through the horrors of civil war only to die in office at the height of his political influence.
The country’s only Indian president and the personification of the country’s mid-19th century liberal reforms, Juárez was profoundly committed to the rule of law in a nation historically wracked by corruption, political opportunism, and personalist rule.
Born to Zapotec parents in the province of Oaxaca on March 21,1806, Benito Pablo Juárez was orphaned at age three and taken in by his uncle, for whom he worked as a shepherd until around age 12. Speaking only rudimentary Spanish, he migrated to Oaxaca City, where he apprenticed to a bookbinder before entering Santa Cruz Seminary, Oaxaca’s only secondary school.
There, he studied Latin, philosophy, and moral theology in preparation for entry into the priesthood. Disenchanted with the prospect of clerical life, at age 22 he matriculated at the newly established Institute of Science and Arts, studying political economy, mathematics, and natural sciences before receiving his law degree in 1834.
It was during his law studies that Juárez developed his lifelong adherence to Enlightenment principles of reason, secularism, individual rights, and republican government. Delving into the rough and tumble world of local politics, he was elected to Oaxaca’s city council in 1831, earning a reputation as hardworking, honest, fair, and a rigorous legal thinker.
In 1842 he was appointed minister of government and, in 1847, governor of Oaxaca, leaving office in unheard-of circumstances: with a surplus in the treasury. In 1843 he married Spanish descended Margarita Maza, a union that inverted the country’s historical racial-ethnic marriage conventions.
After Mexico’s humiliating defeat in the War of ’47 (Mexican-American War), Governor Juárez declared President José Antonio López de Santa Ana persona non grata in Oaxaca, a slight for which Santa Ana never forgave him.
Forced into exile by Santa Ana in 1853, Juárez journeyed to New Orleans, where he joined a group of discontented liberals plotting the dictator’s overthrow, a plan that came to fruition in 1855 in the Revolution of Ayutla.
From 1855 until his death from a heart attack in 1872, Juárez was the leading player in his nation’s political life, serving as minister of justice, minister of the interior, provisional president headquartered mostly at Veracruz during the War of the Reform, president of the republic, and leader of the national resistance movement against the French occupation. In 1867 he was elected to a third term as president, and, in 1871, to a fourth, dying in office on July 18, 1872, at the age of 66.
A lifelong practicing Roman Catholic, Juárez respected the church and its historic role in Mexican society but believed more strongly in Enlightenment principles of individual rights and the secularization of law and government. Mid-19th-century Mexican liberalism ranged on a spectrum from “pure” to “moderate” (puros and moderados).
More moderate than pure, Juárez envisioned a harmonious coexistence of church and state and saw no contradiction between respect for the nation’s religious institutions and a secularized state and judicial system. A strong proponent of education, he oversaw the foundation of numerous schools and colleges and devoted much of his public life to educational reform.
He also pursued numerous public health initiatives, consistently exhibiting an abiding concern for the material welfare of the poor and downtrodden. His personal life mirrored his public, his personal letters revealing a man deeply committed to his wife and children.
His critics maintained that during his last years in office Juárez grew increasingly authoritarian and intolerant of dissent, his reelection to a fourth term revealing a man intoxicated by political power.
Others argue that his actions must be interpreted in the context of the period, particularly the regional revolts and uprisings that rocked the restored republic, combined with the country’s weak sense of national identity, which required forceful assertion of the supremacy of the central state. His liberal policies violently rejected by many Indian communities, the Zapotec president was Indian in biogenetic terms only.
His thinking, indeed his whole being, was Mexican, his political career demonstrating his commitment to transforming the collective rights of Indians in communities into the individual rights of Mexican citizens, a transformation that many Indian communities fiercely resisted.
Juárez left an enduring mark on the nation’s political life and, along with Lázaro Cárdenas, is widely considered the most popular president in Mexican history, especially among the poor.