Benito Juárez ranks among Mexico’s greatest national heroes. He was the towering figure of nineteenth-century Mexican politics, and his maxim – “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz” (“Respect for the rights of others is peace”) – has long been a rallying cry for liberals. A Zapotec, he strove against nineteenth-century social prejudices and, through four terms as president, successfully reformed many of the worst remnants of Spanish colonialism, earning a reputation for honesty and fair dealing.
Juárez was born in San Pablo Guelatao in 1806. His parents died when he was 3, and he grew up speaking only Zapotec; at the age of 12 he was adopted by priests and moved to Oaxaca, where he began to study for the priesthood. Turning his talents to law, he provided his legal services to impoverished villagers free of charge, and by 1831 had earned a seat on Oaxaca’s municipal council, lending his voice to a disenfranchised people. Juárez rose through the ranks of the city council to become state governor from 1847 to 1852, on a liberal ticket geared towards improving education and releasing the country from the economic and social stranglehold of the Church and the aristocracy. In 1853, the election of a conservative government under Santa Anna forced him into eighteen months of exile in the US.
Liberal victory in 1855 enabled Juárez to return to Mexico as minister of justice and give his name to a law abolishing special courts for the military and clergy. His support was instrumental in passing the Ley Lerdo, which effectively nationalized the Church’s huge holdings, and bills legalizing civil marriage and guaranteeing religious freedom. In 1858, President Ignacio Comonfort was ousted by conservatives enraged by these reforms, and Juárez, as the head of the Supreme Court, had a legal claim to the presidency. However, he lacked the military might to hold Mexico City and retired to Veracruz, returning three years later, victorious in the War of Reform, as constitutionally elected president. Stymied in his attempts to reduce the power of the Church by an intractable Congress and empty coffers, Juárez suspended all national debt repayments for two years from July 1861. To protect their investments, the British, Spanish and French sent their armies in, but when it became apparent that Napoleon III had designs on the control of Mexico, the others pulled out, leaving France to install Habsburg Archduke Maximilian as puppet emperor. Juárez fled again, this time to Paso del Norte (now Ciudad Juárez) on the US border, until by 1867 he was able to return to the capital and to round up his army and execute the hapless Maximilian.
Juárez was returned as president in the 1867 elections but alienated much of his support through attempts to use Congress to amend the constitution. Nevertheless, he secured another term in the 1870 elections, spending two more years trying unsuccessfully to maintain peace before dying of a heart attack in 1872.