‘The storm that swept Mexico’

Benito Pablo Juárez García (21 March 1806 – 18 July 1872) was a Mexican lawyer and liberal politician of Zapotec origin from Oaxaca.

He was of poor, rural, indigenous origins, but he became a well-educated, urban professional and politician, who married a socially prominent woman of Oaxaca City. He identified primarily as a Liberal and he wrote only briefly about his indigenous heritage. He was a key figure in the group of professional men in Mexico’s indigenous south, and his rise to national power had its roots in that power base. He was not an intellectual star of Mexican liberalism or a strict ideologue, but he was a brilliant, pragmatic, and ruthless politician.

He held power during the tumultuous decade of the Liberal Reform and French invasion. In 1858 as head of the Supreme Court, he became president of Mexico by the succession mandated by the Constitution of 1857 when moderate liberal President Ignacio Comonfort was forced to resign by Mexican conservatives. Juárez remained in the presidential office until his death by natural causes in 1872. He weathered the War of the Reform (1858–60), a civil war between Liberals and Conservatives, and then the French invasion(1862–67), which was supported by Mexican Conservatives. Never relinquishing office although forced into exile in areas of Mexico not controlled by the French, Juárez tied Liberalism to Mexican nationalism and maintained that he was the legitimate head of the Mexican state, rather than Emperor Maximilian. When the French-backed Second Mexican Empire fell in 1867, the Mexican Republic with Juárez as president was restored to full power. In his success in ousting the European incursion, Latin Americans considered his a “second struggle for independence, a second defeat for the European powers, and a second reversal of the Conquest.”

He is now “a preeminent symbol of Mexican nationalism and resistance to foreign intervention.” Juárez was a practical and skilled politician, controversial in his lifetime and beyond. He had an understanding of the importance of a working relationship with the United States, and secured its recognition for his liberal government during the War of the Reform. Although many of his positions shifted during his political life, he held fast to particular principles including the supremacy of civil power over the Catholic Church and the military; respect for law; and the de-personalization of political life. In his lifetime he sought to strengthen the national government and asserted the supremacy of central power over states, a position that both radical and provincial liberals opposed. He was the subject of polemical attacks both in his lifetime and beyond. However, the place of Juárez in Mexican historical memory has enshrined him as a major Mexican hero, beginning in his own lifetime.

His birthday (March 21) is a national public and patriotic holiday in Mexico, the only individual Mexican so honored. In the assessment of Mexican historian Enrique Krauze, “Without taking [Juárez’s] biography into account, we cannot hope to understand either the triumph of the Liberals in the War of the Reform or the course of Mexican history in the nineteenth century.”

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