- San Pablo Guelatao, Oaxaca
- March 21, 1806 – Born
“…as men we are nothing, principles are everything.”
– Pablo Benito Juarez
Life Sketch from The Other Eminent Men of Wilford WoodruffCopyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy. Mexican President, Statesman 1806-1872
Early LifeJuarez and Lincoln had great admiration and respect for another. Juarez was born by the providence of God to establish religious freedom and the sovereignty of Mexico, freeing it from any European nation. His life began on 21 March 1806, near the village of Ixtlan, high in the mountains above the city Oaxaca. He was a full blooded Zapotex Indian. “I had the misfortune,” he wrote, “not to have known my parents, Marcelino Huarez and Brigido Garcia, Indians of the primitive race of the country, for I had hardly three years old when they died leaving me and my sisters, Maria Josefa and Rosa, to the care of our paternal grandparents, Pedro Juarez and Justa Lopez, Indians also of the Zapotec nation.” A few years later his grandparents died, his sisters married, and he was left under the care of an uncle. In this remote mountain village he did not become familiar with or speak Spanish until about the age of twelve.
In some idle moments my uncle taught me to read and impressed on me how useful and helpful it was to learn the Spanish tongue…. These promptings … awoke in me a vehement desire to learn, so much so indeed that when my uncle called me to take my lesson, I myself brought him the whip to punish me if I did not know it.Life in this mountain village was so strenuous that there was very little time for studies, and there was no school. Anxiously, Juarez awaited the time he could go to Oaxaca and advance his education. When the time came he sadly departed from his uncle, and left to satisfy his desire for more education. Arriving in Oaxaca, he found shelter as a “house boy” in the home of Don Antonio Slanueva, a lay member of the Third Order of Saint Francis. Salanueva often read the scriptures to young Juarez experienced severe discrimination. Although it had been three hundred years since the conquest of Mexico by Spain, the treatment of the Indians remained cruel. In school, he and the other “poor” boys, mostly of Indian descent, were not allowed to sit inside the classroom. They had to sit in an outer room where an assistant treated them harshly. Juarez soon realized that he could learn more on his own and save his patron’s tuition. He left the school and developed a plan to further his education. He worked late into the night reviewing old lessons by the light of a stump of resin which a woman in the next courtyard loaned him. Although he mastered his studies, he longed for more knowledge. Because he was poor Indian youth, the only educational opportunity opened to him was the seminary, which he was much disinclined to enter; however, because any education was better than no education, in 1821, he reluctantly entered the seminary. His education there, as he had suspected it would be, was narrow and limited. But Juarez did not give up. He had a sense pf the future and believed miracles had happened before and would again, so he remained in the seminary until Providence could interven. Such patience was characteristic with him.
Entering PoliticsProvidence did respond. In 2820, Mexico had begun its weaning provess from Spain. Gradually, new educational opportunities began to open up outside the control of the clergy. In 1827, a Civil College, based on a liberal education, was opened in Oaxaca. Juarez was not long in leaving the seminary to take advantage of this new and open education. Here, too, Juarez found persecution, particularly from the clergy who referred to the college students and professors as “heretic.” So great was the pressure on the students and their families that many left the college. Others remained under the threat of excommunication. Perhaps, it was now a blessing that he had no family who would have to suffer with him in his strugglee for progress, In 1831, he entered a law pratice and, in 1833, was elected to the state legislature. During this time Mexico produced a number of great men who made significant contributions, many among Juarez’s cirlce of friends. Among these men were Father Hildalgo and Jose-Maria Morelos, whose efforts led in 1824 to the first constitution, originally patterned after the consitution of the United States. Unfortunately the church and military, wielding heavy political power deleted many good principles and rights. Having to compromise, as our founders did on the slavery issue, these men voted religious freedom out of his constitution. The authoritarian traditions of the church and the army made them answerable to no laws or courts but their own. In these conditions demoncracy was impossible. The control these two entities held during the next half century resulted in anarchy, revolution, and civil war. As a young college student, Juarez was well aware of his country’s struggle for freedom was well as the Indians stuggle to overcome the caste system and the Spaniards had established. At this time, Juarez met Miguel Mendez, a “liberal” or pro-reform instructor. At a meeting of like-minded persons, Mendez singled out Juarez and prophetically declared: “And this one [Juarez], so serious and reserved, this one will be a great politician. He will rise higher than any of us, and he will be on of our great men and the glory of our country.” It was about this time, 1829, that the well-known General Santa Anna was entertained one evening at the new Institute where Juarez was studying. This was the first time Santa Anna saw Juarez and all taht he remembered about Juarez was that he was barefoot and waiting on tables. To see greatness in meekness was not one of Santa Anna’s abilities. “He [Santa Anna] was a fortune-hunter, not a fortune-teller; and being one of the coming men of the country himself, he saw only the feet.” In 1841 Juarez was appointed to the bench, and in 1843, he entered into a marriage that was to provide him a never-failing source of decotion and strength. His wife, Margarita Mazza, of Italian descent, was a tireless, devoted supporter of the role he was to play in the destiny of Mexico and to the establishment of freedom. She bore him ten children. She never failed him, nor did he fail her. About 1844, Juarez accepted the position as secretary to the governor. However when it came time to sign an order from the governor to the courts, directing them to prosecute those who refused to pay ecclesiastical tithes, Juarez resigned. By 1846, he was elected a representative from the district of Oaxaca to the National Congress. Even as a newcomer he began pushing for freedom of religion. Juarez did not remain long in the capital. In 1847, he became the governor of Oaxaca. This position marked the beginning of his destiny.
Becoming a GovernerJuarez was a good governor. His top priority was education. Remembering his lineage, he said: “As a son of the people, I will not forget them; on the contrary, I will uphold their rights, I will see to it that they become educated…. Education is the primary base of people’s prosperity and at the same time the surest means for making abuses of power impossible.” Juarez built over two hundred schools, and he encouraged the education of girls. “To form women with all the qualifications required by their necessary and lofty mission,” he said, “is to form the fertile seed of social regeneration and improvement.” Juarez’s administration was an example to the country of what could be done with thrift and honesty. When he assumed office in the 1847, the resources of the state were exhausted, a shortfall that resulted from the cost of several local revolts. When he retired in 1852, the deficit had been almost eliminated. The oath of the governor’s office bound Juarez to defend and preserve the Catholic religion. Juarez, true to this pledge, began his work of reform by cultivating the church in the areas of its original purpose and functions. He called upon church leadership to help during a cholera epidemic, and they established hospitals and provided nursing. He asked the church to bless and dedicate a newly built roadway and harbor which had been erected to stimulate the economy. Priests rallied, mobilizing their communities to help build badly needed roads. Juarez’s efforts were not only beneficial to the government, but also to the church, which regained its “moral prestige” by coming out of its magistrative pursuits and doing good.
Sent to New OrleansDuring these years, Santa Anna used intrigue to become president of Mexico. Each of the five times he fell from being dictator/president, he fled the country. One time his flight took his southward towards Oaxaca. The former barefoot servant, Juarez, who was now governor, closed Oaxaca’s borders to the deposed despot. However, in 1853, Santa Anna, through his convert activities, came again into power. As president, Santa Anna’s first order of business was to rid the country of certain “undesirables.” Benito Juarez’s name was at the top of the list, and he along with other reformers, was arrested and deported on a ship. They landed in Havana and eventually made their way to New Orleans. This small group of reformers in New Orleans began to mold the future of Mexico.
Studying the ConstitutionMost of the deposed reformers in New Orleans were anxious and impatient to return to Mexico and establish a lasting constitution. However, Juarez was calm and at ease, always studying, mostly constitutional law. One day he was invited by an American court to sit in on a case involving a land claim in California, a proud day for his friends, one of whom fondly reported that “his opinion was unanimously approved by the members of the court, he was enthusiastically praised with a thousand attentions to which he was justly entitled.”
Fighting for FreedomWhen revolution broke out again in Mexico, the little group of reformers had high hopes. Juarez was very concerned that in attempting to place reformers in office, the country did not have enough patriotism and enlighrampling on some of freedom’s precious principles. The new revolutionary armies sent for the deported Juarez, Ocampo, and the others to join them and be their leaders. Juarez landed secretly in Acapulco. Arriving in the camp of General Alvarez, he was greeted by the general’s son, a colonel. The colonel who did not recognize him in his shabby and bedraggled state, demanded, “What do you want?” In his unassuming way, Juarez responded, “Knowing that men are fighting for freedom here, I came to see in what way I could be useful.” The men of the camp found a pair of trousers and a cotton blanket for him. It was not until three days later, when a letter arrived addressed to Benito Juarez, that they discovered his true identity. When the colonel questioned his reason for not announcing his identity, he merely replied: “Why should I? What does it matter?” When this revolution was successfully concluded and the reform government took over, Juarez was chosen to direct the ministry of justice and public education. The new president, Comonfort, proved to be weak and capitulated to the power of the clergy, Most of the cabinet resigned. But Juarez determined to remain in hope of even the slightest opportunity to effect change. Patient, as always, Juarez managed to have a new law passed that abolished the special judicial protection of the clergy and the military. This law became known as the Ley Juarez. It became the cornerstone of other freedoms, and in 1857 a new constitution was written. Juarez and his friends were able to establish most of the constitutional articles they wanted. This new constitution established freedom of religion, and freed Mexico from church control. All Mexicans were now free to gather for meetings, and free to speak and write what they wanted. They constitution also upheld the right to be tried in a public court of law. The new constitution almost immediately ran into problems. The church forbade the faithful to swear allegiance to the constitution on threat of excommunication among those who did. Church officials were divided—those of the clergy who were preoccupied with power and dominion on one side, and those who were devoted to being servants of God and providing what was best for his children, on the other. As results of this division a new revolution began.
Elected President of Supreme CourtAnother election was held, and this time Juarez was elected president of the Supreme Court, which, according to the new constitution, placed him next in line to succeed the president. The president eventually weakened to the opposition and had Juarez as well as other reformers in office placed under arrest. However, a coup took place, and Juarez escaped and made his way across the country walking alone until he arrived at Guanajuato. He and other deposed reformers reorganized the government according to the constitution with Juarez assuming the presidency. There were many who saw this situation as hopeless. They reasoned that the old establishment—the church and the military—had plenty of money and the guns. Those who gave up hope did not know the strength of the “little Indian” from Ixtlan. This new anti-constitution revolution began a hunt for all the reformers and attempted to eliminate their supporters.
Near Death ExperienceOnce when Juarez and his cabinet were meeting in Guadalajara, the soldiers inside the palace suddenly turned traitor. Juarez and the others were locked up. Loyal soldiers outside the walls attempted to break in, but the traitors inside decided to kill the prisoners. One of the cabinet members, a great man and poet by the name of Guillermo Prieto, wrote of that event in his diary:
The terrible column halted, with loaded guns, opposite the door. We distinctly hear, “Shoulder arms! Present arms! Ready Aim!” At the word “Aim!” Juarez grasped the latch of the door, flung back his head and waited. The fierce faces of the soldiers, their position … my love for Juarez—what it was that made me do it, I know not. Swift as thought I seized Juarez by the shirt and thrust him behind me. I covered him with my body, and flung out my arms. Drowning the word “Fire!” which rang out at that moment, I cried, “Down with those guns! Brave men are not murderers.” An old lowered his rifle and the others did the same. The soldiers wept, swearing they would not kill us, and vanished as if by magic.