Juárez is one of Mexico’s greatest and most inspiring figures. In his memory, the third Monday of March is observed as a Federal holiday: El Día de Benito Juárez. It is similar to President’s Day, observed in the U.S.
In fact, there are many similarities between Benito Juárez and Abraham Lincoln. The latter is undoubtedly one of the United States’ most revered and beloved presidents. He was a humble man of humble beginnings, and he brought changes that set a course for a modern country just as the Industrial Revolution began a new era. But he was not a president without controversy, and he presided over one of the country’s most difficult times.
During the time of Lincoln’s presidency, and the U.S. Civil War, Juárez saw Mexico through its own civil war, helped save the country from foreign occupation and set a course for modern Mexico.
WHO WAS BENITO JUÁREZ?
Juárez was a Zapotec Indian peasant. He was orphaned at an early age and was raised by an uncle. As a child he worked in the cornfields and took care of his uncle’s goats and sheep in the Oaxacan Sierra. At the age of 12, illiterate and speaking only the Zapotec language, Juarez went to Oaxaca where he worked as a domestic houseboy. He taught himself to read and write, and grew up to study for the seminar and later law. By the age of 41 he became governor of the State of Oaxaca.
In the 1850’s-60’s, Mexico was in turmoil. There were dictators (Antonio López de Santa Ana); the military and the clergy joined in a coup under the Plan de Tacubaya; the war against the U.S. had just ended with the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, where Mexico ceded much of what is now the U.S. Southwest, from Texas to California, to the U.S. And then there was Mexico’s own civil war known as, La Guerra de la Reforma between conservative and liberal forces.
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Benito Juarez was a member of the Liberal party. He became President of the Supreme Court, and through the Constitution of 1957 became president only to have to flee Mexico City for Veracruz when Conservative troops took over Mexico City.
In March 1861, Juárez was elected President of Mexico. It was the same month and year that President Lincoln began to serve his term in office as President of the U.S. A month later the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter starting the Civil War.
Mexico’s war against the U.S. and then the country’s own civil war bankrupted the country. Juárez cancelled payments on all foreign debt, but this brought an invasion of the French army of Napoleon III. Remember Cinco de Mayo? That day celebrates the Mexican victory over the French in Puebla. But the victory was short lived and the French won Mexico. Maximilian Von Habsburg, the brother of the Emperor of Austria, was crowned Maximilian I of Mexico. Juárez fled to the north of the country while Maximilian ruled with the support of Conservatives and the church.
WHAT LINCOLN & JUÁREZ HAD IN COMMON
In 1867 the French forces left Mexico, Maximilian was executed by a firing squad and Juárez was back in the presidency until he died of a heart attack in 1872.
What Juárez did for Mexico is similar than what Lincoln did for the U.S. Juárez kept the country together through years of war and foreign occupation. He changed a semi-feudal system to a more market driven system. He also created the separation of church and State, expropriated Church holdings and fought for equal rights for all Mexicans. In many ways, just like Lincoln, he prepared the country for modern times. But unlike the U.S., Mexico was a young and turbulent democracy. Four years after Juárez’s death General Porfirio Díaz appointed himself president of Mexico. Díaz remained dictator of Mexico until 1911 when the Mexican Revolution forced him into exile.