» Benito Juarez Bust

“Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the
rights of others is peace.”

- Benito Juarez

Critical Essay By
Dr. William Cumiford
Associate Professor of History
Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences
View Bio

Out of the tumultuous history of early 19th-century Mexico, a period of war, economic collapse and political corruption, Benito Juarez emerged as an unlikely leader and reformer, a politician who faced seemingly unsurmountable odds and is honored among the greatest of Mexicans. His legacy, beginning as a humble indigenous lawyer who rose to be the most revered 19th-century political leader of Mexico, is much debated by historians because of his controversial nationalist agenda against the backdrop of deep economic, racial and social divisions.

Born in Guelatao, Oaxaca, Mexico four years before the famous grito of Independence proclaimed by Miguel Hidalgo, Juarez’ early years coincided with the utter destruction of Mexico’s social and economic fabric stemming from the brutal battles over independence from Spain. As the nation struggled through the instability of Agustin Iturbide’s short-lived Mexican Empire (1821-23), the deep political divisions of the First Republic and the periodic disastrous rule of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the Mexico bequeathed to Juarez and his reformer allies was torn by foreign interference, deep political division and financial failure.  By the time Juarez died Mexico was in its sixth decade of independence, and the country was still plagued with financial instability, severe racial and cultural divisions and protracted political chaos.

Benito Juarez was born into a family of Zapotec Indians and benefitted from an education provided by local church authorities. Both contemporaries and later historians have made a great deal of Juarez’ Indian heritage. The truth is that he was the beneficiary of middle-class support, primarily lay Franciscan Catholics who saw his potential and provided Benito with educational opportunities seldom available to Mexican Indians. Attending the relatively prestigious Seminario Conciliar de la Santa Cruz, Juarez pursued a broad range of liberal arts studies, including Latin, theology and metaphysics. He studied first for the clergy but soon switched to law at Mexico’s Institute of Sciences and Arts, receiving his degree in 1834. After securing a judgeship, he married Margarita Maza, a young woman from a prominent Italian family from Oaxaca. Dating from his early formal education, Juarez, despite his Indian origins, evolved into a Mexican firmly entrenched in the middle class, adopting Spanish as his first language and strongly attracted to politics.

While lacking the intellectual acumen that characterized many early 19th-century Mexican politicians, Juarez possessed formidable character traits that suited him well for political leadership.  Often stubborn and intractable, he also tolerated opposing ideas and was willing to compromise to achieve his goals.  He met adversity with a strength of character rare in Mexican leaders of the time, being especially cognizant of the need for honesty and transparency. He was throughout steady, never shrinking from the challenges of leadership during the most frightful years of early Mexican nationhood.  Juarez’ political and personal fortitude set him apart from others of his era.  It is hard to imagine another leader who could have measured up to his grit and determination through decades of financial collapse, civil war, intra-party factionalism and foreign domination.

Juarez embraced the Liberal Party of Mexico and became increasingly active in politics.  Following two separate terms as Governor of Oaxaca (1840s-1850s), he was appointed Secretary of the Interior under President Ignacio Comonfort and, briefly, President of the Mexican Supreme Court in late 1857 before succeeding Comonfort as President of Mexico in January 1858. Juarez was either actual or ex-facto President of Mexico until his sudden death 1872.

Along with Melchor Ocampo, a scientist and scholar, Juarez revitalized the Liberal Party, a faction historically opposed to the pro-European conservatism led by arch-conservative politico Lucas Alaman and supported by the traditional forces of Mexico, primarily the large landowners, the military and wealthy merchants. Juarez and his Liberal colleagues laid down a program of reform focused on middle class capitalism and a federal government that encouraged state prerogatives and the decentralization of governance. These leaders moved beyond earlier Mexican liberalism by advocating women’s rights, the protection of labor and eliminating the special fueros, special privileges, granted by conservative regimes to the church and military establishment.

However, the Liberal movement reflected a significant division characterized by the moderados, those who were willing to work with conservatives for gradual changes, and the puros, reformers intent upon divesting the privileged elements of the Mexican church, higher clergy and the latifundistas (large landowners).  The puros were supported by small businessmen, church critics, intellectuals and those hoping to decentralize the government to eliminate Old World influence in Mexican politics.  A singular opportunity for the Liberal Party to gain genuine political traction appeared in the aftermath of the war with the United States (1847-48) when, through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidlago, Mexico lost nearly one-half of the country in the Mexican Cession.  However, the split between puros and moderados (with the latter in the majority) enabled a Conservative resurgence resulting in the final, brief, but cataclysmic presidency of Santa Anna. This flamboyant “Man on Horseback” finally was ousted for good in the summer of 1855. The Liberal moment had arrived.

At this juncture, with the nation bankrupt and deeply in debt to European financiers, General Ignacio Comonfort issued the Plan of Ayutla, ending the dictatorship and calling for a new constitution.  With the aged Juan Alvarez serving as Provisional President, Minister of Justice Juarez and Treasury Minister Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, issued two landmark legislative measures: The Ley Juarez empowered the state to limit clerical and military privileges (fueros), foundations of institutional power since colonial times, and the Ley Lerdo, which seized and put up for auction church land holdings of properties not used strictly for religious purposes. These measures, both intimately associated with Juarez’ legacy, put into action the Liberal plan of creating a middle-class economy in Mexico. Unrented Native American lands were auctioned to the highest bidder, accompanied by a large state sales tax. 

Historians and economists have criticized Ley Lerdo because many communal Native American lands passed into the hands of speculators as few Indians could raise the money for land purchases.  Further, land claims raised in the Mexican courts by villagers got nowhere due to administrative delays, court fees and legal costs.  In effect, the law fulfilled a cornerstone goal of many Liberals, i.e., to move Mexico toward a liberal, middle class economy while eventually eliminating the Indian communities.  In the view of many 19th-century liberals, the communal Indian culture and customs were embarrassing relics of the colonial past; a truly modern Mexico must pursue a future based on Anglo-American entrepreneurial models to foster middle-class prosperity.

The Ley Lerdo infuriated the conservative elite, eventually leading to a bitter and protracted civil war exacerbated by Juarez’ attempts to elevate the presidential office above congress and his insistence on reducing the military ranks.  Comonfort’s fecklessness and occasional collusion with conservatives divided the Liberal cause.  When a coalition of military chieftains and disgruntled higher clergy, opposing the new Liberal Constitution of 1857, invaded the capital and disbanded congress, Juarez was jailed.  Comonfort, attempting to placate all parties, declared the constitution void but refused to revoke Ley Lerdo and released Juarez, who fled to join Liberal factions in Queretaro. Distrusted by both liberals and conservatives, Comonfort fled to the United States. Under the terms of the constitution, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Benito Juarez succeeded to the presidential office.

Now, two governments emerged in Mexico as the Three-Years War began. Known as the Guerra de la Reforma, state and local authorities, regional interests and small landowners opposed owners of great estates (hacendados), rich merchants, the military and the church. The one unifying force among the Liberals was Benito Juarez, who held the reformist cause together through thick and thin, emerging as the only genuine national leader. Despite early military setbacks Juarez soon formed a government in Vera Cruz while conservatives held the capital at Mexico City. Juarez sanctioned the further seizure of church property through the Veracruz Decrees, resulting in many communal Indian lands falling into the hands of merchants, industrialists and hacendados. As the United States showed greater favor to the Liberal cause (largely to offset European influence), Juarez appointed a young new generation of military leaders who subdued the conservative forces in late 1860.  Juarez returned victorious to the capital in January 1861.

Chastened by defeat, influential conservatives turned to European courts, hoping to place a foreign prince at the head of an imperial administration. France, Spain and England, attempting to collect large Mexican debts, jointly occupied Veracruz in early 1862 to force redress on their claims.  While Spain and England soon withdrew, Napoleon III’s forces remained, leading to Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, brother of Austrian emperor Franz Josef, being proclaimed the new Mexican Emperor through a manipulated plebiscite. Maximilian was supported by 14,000 French troops, pushing Juarez once again out of the capital. Just as in the Three-Years War, Juarez gradually assembled republican opposition to foreign domination and, in 1866-67, with the North American Civil War over and half a million U.S. million troops amassed across the border, Napoleon withdrew his Mexican forces.  Maximilian and his top generals refused to leave and were shot under Juarez’ orders in June 1867.

The final years of the Juarez presidency saw significant improvements in labor laws, an broad expansion of the educational system and the beginning of construction on a new rail line from Veracruz to Mexico City. The resurrection of Ley Lerdo, however, further diminished Indian communal holdings as land grabbers took renewed advantage of the law to acquire Native American properties.  La Reforma was throughout dedicated to creating a rural bourgeoise in Mexico, which had the ultimate effect of creating a new dominant class in Mexico, further disenfranchising the Indians and creating a lower-class, docile labor force serving the interests of a rapacious upper-middle class. When Juarez reduced the size of the army, he confronted political opposition from the military while suppressing Indian uprisings sparked by the reimplementation of Ley Lerdo.  As the nation’s instability deepened, Juarez, though reelected in a bitterly disputed campaign in 1871, died of a massive heart attack in mid-July 1872. 

Juarez’ legacy in Mexico is complex. A strong believer in traditional laissez-faire economics and republican politics, Juarez was a product of his age.  The deep colonial divisions over race and ethnicity created in Benito, as in all 19th-century Mexican politicians, a visceral aversion to Indian culture.  Dating from early colonial days the Indian way of life was seen by the Spanish as retrograde and inferior.  This sentiment only intensified under middle-class Liberal rule personified by Benito Juarez.  Regarded in his native land as the greatest of 19th-century Mexicans for his unswerving patriotism, political courage and undisputed honesty, Juarez’ legacy, particularly as embodied in La Reforma, in many ways unfortunately helped set the stage for the 35-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, which in turn inspired the Mexican Revolution of 1911.

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Benito Juarez bust

March 21, 2013

Designation Name
The Donald P. Kennedy Chair in Economics and Law

Campus Location
Between Leatherby Libraries and Argyros Forum, Orange Campus