Benito Juárez (March 21, 1806 – July 18, 1872) was a Zapotec Amerindian who served two terms (1861-1863 and 1867-1872) as President of Mexico. Juárez is often regarded as Mexico’s greatest and most beloved leader. He was the only Native American to serve as President of Mexico.
Benito Pablo Juárez García was born in the village of San Pablo Guelatao, Oaxaca. His parents were peasants who died before his fourth birthday. He worked in the corn fields and as a shepherd until the age of 12, then on December 17, 1818, he walked to the city of Oaxaca with a wish to educate himself and find a better life. At the time he was illiterate and could speak no Spanish, only Zapotec.
In the city he took a job as a domestic servant, and eagerly made up for his previous lack of education. A lay Franciscan named Antonio Salanueva was impressed with young Benito's intelligence and thirst for learning, and helped arrange for him to be accepted at the city seminary. He studied there but decided to pursue the law rather than the priesthood. He graduated from the seminary in 1827, then studied law.
Juárez became a lawyer in 1834 and a judge in 1842. He was governor of the state of Oaxaca from 1847 to 1853, at which time he went into exile because of his objections to the corrupt military dictatorship of Antonio López de Santa Anna. He spent his exile in New Orleans, Louisiana, working in a cigar factory. In 1854 he helped draft the Plan of Ayutla as the basis for a liberal revolution in Mexico.
Faced with growing opposition, Santa Ana resigned in 1855 and Juárez returned to Mexico. The liberales formed a provisional government under Juan Ruiz de Álvarez, inaugurating the period known as La Reforma. The Reform laws sponsored by the puro wing of the Liberal party curtailed the power of the Catholic church and the military, while trying to create a modern civil society and capitalist economy on the North American model. The Ley Juárez of 1855, for example, abolished special clerical and military privileges, and declaring all citizens equal before the law. In 1857 the liberals promulgated a new federalist constitution. Juárez became chief justice and vice-president of Mexico, under moderado president Ignacio Comonfort.
The conservadores led by General Félix Zuloaga, with the backing of the military and the clergy, launched a revolt under the Plan of Tacubaya in December 1857. Juárez was arrested, but escaped to lead the liberal side in the War of the Reform, first from Querétaro and later from Veracruz. In 1859, Juárez took the radical step of declaring the confiscation of church properties. In spite of the conservatives' initial military advantage, the liberals, drawing on support for regionalist forces, turned the tide in 1860 and recaptured Mexico City in January 1861. Juárez was elected president in March for a four year term under the Constitution of 1857.
Faced with government bankruptcy and a war-ravaged economy, Juárez declared a moratorium on foreign debt payments. Spain, Britain, and France reacted with a joint seizure of the Veracruz customs house in December 1861. Spain and Britain soon withdrew, but French Emperor Napoleon III used the episode as a pretext to invade Mexico in 1862, with plans to establish a conservative puppet regime. The Mexican won an initial victory over the French at Puebla in 1862, celebrated annually as Cinco de Mayo. The French advanced again in 1863, forcing Juárez and his elected government were forced to retreat to the arid northern part of the country.
Juárez led the Mexican opposition to the French intervention and the imposition of Maximilian of Habsburg as "Emperor of Mexico" in 1864. Maximilian, who personally harbored liberal and Mexican nationalist symapthies, offered Juárez amnesty, and later the post of prime minister, but Juárez refused to accept either a monarchy or a government imposed by foreigners. With it's civil war over, the United States invoked the Monroe Doctrine. Faced with a growing threat from Prussia and possible United States invocation of the Monroe Doctrine, the French troops began pulling out of Mexico in late 1866. Mexican conservatism was a spent force and less than pleased with the liberal Maximilian. In 1867 the last of emperor's forces were defeated and Maximilian was sentenced to death for treason by a military court. Despite international pleas for amnesty, Juárez refused to commute the sentence.
Juárez was reelected president in 1867 and 1871, using his office to ensure electoral success and suppressing revolts by disappointed opponents like Porfirio Diaz. Benito Juárez died of a heart attack in 1872 while working at his desk in the National Palace in Mexico City. He was succeeded by Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, his foreign minister.
Today Benito Juárez is remembered as being a progressive reformer dedicated to democracy, equal rights for the nation's indigenous Indian population, lessening the great power of the Roman Catholic Church then held over Mexican politics, and defense of national sovereignty. The period of his leadership is known in Mexican history as La Reforma, and constituted a liberal political and social revolution with major institutional consequences: the expropriation of church lands, bringing the army under civilian control, liquidation of peasant communal land holdings, and adoption of a federalist constitution.
The Reform led by Juárez represented the triumph of Mexico's liberal, federalist, anti-clerical, and pro-capitalist forces over the conservative, centralist, corporatist, and theocratic elements that sought to reconstitute a locally-run version of the old colonial system. It replaced a semi-feudal social system with a more market-driven one, but following Juárez's death, the lack of adequate democratization and institutional stability soon led to a return to levels of centralized autocracy and economic exploitation under the regime of Porfirio Díaz that surpassed anything from the colonial or conservative eras. The porfiriato, in turn, collapsed in the Mexican Revolution.
Juárez's famous quotation continues to be well-remembered in Mexico: Entre los Individuos, como entre Las Naciones, El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz, meaning "Between individuals, as between nations, respect for the rights of others is peace". It is inscribed on the State Flag of Oaxaca.