March 21 – Benito Juárez birthday
Benito Juárez is revered as the “Father of Mexico” and his portrait graces the 20 peso note. He was born in 1806, a poor, illiterate, Oaxacan Zapotec. His native intellect was recognized by a local seminarian and that began a meteoric rise to the highest office in the land. At 4’6” tall, Juárez is recognized as the shortest President of any country, ever. At age 42, he married outside his class to a Spanish-descent daughter of a friend of his benefactor, 20 years his junior, and two years later, became the governor of Oaxaca. As his term ended, President Antonio López de Santa Anna had just been defeated in Texas and was retreating, his army in shatters. When Juarez refused to back Santa Anna in his bid to reorganize the army and march northward again, he was exiled to New Orleans along with several other political figures including Melchor Ocampo, the former governor of Michoacán. When Santa Anna’s political corruption and his obsession with Texas ruined Mexico’s economy he resigned from power. In 1855, Juárez returned from New Orleans and joined the Supreme Court. General Juan Álvarez became president beginning a period of Mexican History known as “La Reforma”. Álvarez again curtailed the power of the Catholic Church and the military and attempted to model the Republic after the US style civil society and capitalist economy. Álvarez declared that all citizens were equal, a novel idea in his day. The Constitution of 1857 also brought freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of thought, freedom of assembly, the right to bear arms. It abolished slavery, curtailed cruel and unusual punishment and abolished the death penalty. These liberal ideas did not sit well with the Conservatives so they joined forces with the Church and the military and staged a coup. Benito Juárez was jailed; Álvarez ended up resigning, but not before freeing all political prisoners, including Juárez. This Constitutionalist faction of government removed itself to Vera Cruz with Juárez as Interim President and Ocampo as Minister of the Interior. At this time, México was not a Federation of States. Each State had alliances and loyalties of its own and Vera Cruz was liberal. It was also the only port through which imports arrived and control of the Customs House was crucial in funding the Constitutionalist Cause as was the expropriation of church property. General Álvarez successfully defended Vera Cruz twice from attack by the Conservatives but was too weak to win the war outright. When US President James Buchannan decided to back Álvarez an arms treaty was signed, although never ratified. Ignoring this bump, Buchannan “lost” a shipment of arms somewhere south of the border and the Constitutionalists were able to mount an assault that defeated the Conservative Army in 1860.
In 1861, Benito Juárez was elected President in his own right but faced an ongoing guerrilla war from Conservative factions, a devastated infrastructure and a failed economy. He had no choice but to cancel all the loans taken from Europe and abroad to finance his country. As a result, Spain, France and Britain invaded México, seizing the Vera Cruz Customs House. Spain and Britain soon withdrew from the fight, but Napoleon was bent on seizing México to regain access to North America. This led to Mexico’s War with France. On 5 May 1862, Constitutionalist General Ignacio Zaragoza defeated the French Army at the Battle of Puebla, but Napoleon regrouped and, with the help of the Conservatives, drove Juarez’s army back into México City, then north to San Luis de Potosí and finally all the way to what is now called Cuidad Juárez, a government in virtual exile. Emperor Maximillian I was installed as Mexico’s first monarch since Aztec times. The United States vociferously decried the presence of a foreign king on their southern border but was distracted by the onset of the American Civil War. In 1866, President Andrew Johnson insisted that the French withdraw from México and imposed a naval blockade of Vera Cruz. Johnson could not get Congress to approve a full scale invasion of México so he just sent rifles to Mexican Conservatives who by this time had become disenchanted with Maximillian’s excessive spending and whimsical directives. Maximillian was shot by firing squad in 1867, even though the 1857 Constitution expressly forbade the death penalty. In the next election, Benito Juárez again became President, also a violation of the Constitution. Alarmingly, he soon requested and was granted the power to rule by decree. He was reelected President again in 1871 and he died in 1872. Prior to Juárez presidency Mexico had fifty different governments in a 36 year span; that’s about one every sixteen months. Juarez’s twenty-five presidential years were marked with excessive warfare. It seemed the violence could only be quelled by an heavy-handed ruler so he set the Mexican political stage that allowed Porfirio Díaz to become the next Dictator. Autocracy and economic exploitation ruled the day for the next 30 years until Francisco Madera accidently won election (see the previous post regarding Constitution Day, February 5.)
An interesting if confusing footnote to this story is that Benito Juárez is one of only a handful of foreign citizens to be elected to the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, MOLLUS, a prestigious association normally reserved for Union Officers who served during the Civil War. Another interesting footnote is that Juárez was a Freemason, just like Maximillian I. Freemasonry is considered by the Roman Catholic Church to be an occult and evil power.
One more thing, the banks will be closed on Monday to celebrate March 20st.