BENITO JUAREZ : HERO OR HERETIC?
By Shep Lenchek Surprisingly
September 2000 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 16, Number 13



Benito Juarez is regarded as a national hero by the majority of present-day Mexicans who still pledge their allegiance to and partake of the sacraments of the Catholic Church he almost destroyed. Had he lived during the Inquisition, he might well have been burned at the stake as a heretic. While his political agenda did not succeed in totally destroying Catholicism in Mexico, it certainly crippled it. Ironically, the most lasting damage he did was to his fellow Indians when his party passed the "Lerdo Laws."

A pure - blooded Zapotecan Indian, born in 1806 in a village within walking distance of Oaxaca, he was orphaned at the age of four and was raised first by his grandparents and then by an uncle. Until the age of 12, he had no education, worked in the fields as a laborer and finally tended sheep. On September 16, 1818, all of this changed. That day one of the sheep he was tending was stolen. Fearing his uncle's wrath he fled to Oaxaca where a sister worked for an Italian family named Mazza. They became his patrons. Now, the boy was turned over to a Franciscan Friar, Don Antonio Salanueva, who taught him to read and write. During this period, he piously accompanied his Franciscan mentor on his daily devotion of the Way of the Cross. Next enrolled in a private school, in 1821 he entered the Seminary of Oaxaca, heading toward the priesthood. Having completed courses in Latin grammar and philosophy, he was now ready for moral theology, a last step toward receiving the sacred orders. Yet he later declared, "I felt nothing but contempt for the priests who studied only Latin grammar and moral theology." Using the argument that he was not yet old enough to be ordained, Juarez was able to persuade Don Antonio and the Mazza family to permit him to take courses in the liberal arts. Leaving the Seminary, he entered the Institute of Sciences and Arts to study Jurisprudence. There is no evidence that he was already anti-clerical. It seems that he was simply dissatisfied with the narrow scope of religious education and wanted a secular career. It was then that he had his first contacts with liberals, and became familiar with rationalism. His mentors were the Frenchmen, Voltaire and Rousseau. These two men, plus Benjamin Constant, a Franco-Swiss writer who lived in the early 10th century, made a lasting impression on Juarez and finally led to a Masonic rather than religious affiliation.

Yet he was still not an ideologue. In 1844 he supported Santa Anna, the next year became a Moderate and served in the Conservative State Government of Oaxaca.

In 1846 he helped developed the liberal, anti-cleric platform that was his launching pad to political office and ultimately the Presidency.

In 1853, an invasion by American troops led to the recall of Santa Anna to save the country. Now Juarez, once a supporter, turned against him. This led to a period of exile in the United States where he worked as a cigar-maker in New Orleans. However, many of his former compaņeros from the liberal movement joined him there and the Liberal Party remained alive. In 1854 he returned to Vera Cruz. Santa Anna fled, and the Liberal Party grabbed the Presidency without an election. They chose Juan Alverez, a general who had switched his allegiance back and forth between the Conservative and Liberal Parties, to head the Government and Juarez was soon the Minister of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs. Then he served as the private secretary of the President. From this position of power he proposed the "Juarez Laws" that abolished the exemption of the clergy from trial by secular courts. These laws, the first steps in the war to strip the Church of its "special " status, aroused popular resentment and were attacked by the Archbishop of Mexico. Even the liberal governor of Guanajuato raised his voice in opposition, stating that "Catholicism is the only binding force that keeps Mexico from anarchy."

At the same time, Juarez proposed dissolving the Mexican Army. This proposal led to military uprisings that forced Alvarez out of power. A more moderate liberal, Ignacio Comonfort, assumed the presidency, again without an election. Juarez was dropped from the cabinet. The Minister of Finance, Lerdo de Tejada, one of the founders of the Liberal Party, proclaimed the laws that made official all the anti-clerical policies of the party. Meanwhile, out of the government and somewhat estranged from Comonfort, Juarez was appointed Governor of his native state of Oaxaca, where opposition to the anti-clerical laws was very strong. There, he dissolved the regular armed forces, and enforced the "Lerdo Laws" with zeal and no regard for popular opinion.

These "Lerdo Laws" still separate Church and States. For all practical purposes, they declared open warfare against the Church. Its properties were expropriated, religious orders suppressed and sent into exile, religious vows made illegal. A by-product of all of this was the destruction of the "ejido" system.

Because most Indians were illiterate, the Church was the trustee for the lands they had been granted. Now, this "ejido" land was seized, along with other Church property. Thus, an Indian was instrumental in depriving his own people of land that had been theirs since the days of the colonial government. It was to result in virtual peonage for Mexican agricultural workers, most of them Indians.

Although the campaign against the Church was waged in the name of "religious freedom," in reality, the almost 98 percent Catholic population of the country, lost most of their places of worship plus the benefits they counted on the Church to provide. The educational system run by the Church was destroyed and though the Liberals gave lip service to free education, there was no money available to replace the church-run schools and universities. This vacuum was to persist into the 20th century.

In 1857 a new Constitution was adopted that fully included the "Lerdo Laws." Resistance to the anti-clerical provisions of the new constitution led to two years of warfare and chaos. Now, Comonfort appointed Juarez Minister of the Interior. Shortly thereafter the Liberal Party managed to have Comonfort re-elected. Juarez now held the post of President of the Supreme Court of Justice, that subsequently designated him Vice President of the nation. By 1858 Comonfort fled Mexico and Juarez assumed the Presidency. This led to open fighting between Liberal and Conservative forces. Then the Conservative's gained the upper hand and Juarez fled, first to Panama and then back to New Orleans.

Adding to the chaos were American proposals to buy Lower California, Sonora and parts of Chihuahua. The treaty they proposed also granted the U. S. rights that would have made intervention in Mexican affairs legal. The proposals brought forth determined opposition from the Conservatives and now with American support, Juarez returned to Mexico and resumed office. In return, he supported the American land-grab.

Fortunately for Mexico, the U.S. was distracted by the secession of South Carolina from the Union, and the Senate failed to ratify the treaty. Returned to power, Juarez went full speed ahead in his attack on the Catholic Church. Once again armies took to the field. Ultimately, this led to French intervention and the ill-fated reign of Maximillian. Again Juarez fled to the U. S. for a third time. The U. S. government was distressed by what they considered French intervention, and again supported Juarez and the Liberals. Under pressure from the U. S., French forces withdrew from Mexico. Maximillian was deposed and executed. Juarez returned to power. The campaign against the Church recommenced.

Uprisings against the Liberals and Juarez broke out again. Despite this, he continued in the presidency for two terms, largely because of American support. To insure continuation of this support he was willing to grant all kinds of concessions to the U. S that threatened Mexican sovereignty. Later, he "sold" a section of Lower California to an American for $100,000 U. S. dollars, apparently for personal gain since only $20,000 went to the government.

The only plausible explanation for his popularity is that the Conservative Party in alliance with the Church had set up an autocracy that completely shut most Mexicans out of the seats of power. Their loyalties to their religion did not blind their eyes to the un- holy alliance between Church and State. Juarez himself remains an enigma.

He changed political philosophies at least six times, had seemed headed for the priesthood, then made a 180 degree shift in direction, and in the name of "Religious Freedom," attacked the institution that had been the springboard that launched his career. The final years of the Juarez era were full of armed conflict. When he left office, charges of favoritism, corruption, inefficiency and the appearance of promoting himself as a "President for Life," came even from members of his own party.

Evaluating the man is difficult. Despite his many flaws, the destruction of the grip of the Church on Mexico, which had existed during the rule of the Conservatives, did open the door for the emergence of a limited form of democracy. It destroyed the last vestiges of the old Spanish-Catholic tradition that looked down on those, even of pure Spanish blood, born in the New World.

However, Juarez did great economic damage to his own indigenous people and his dealings with the United States are suspect. He died in 1872. In the play "Julius Caesar," Shakespeare has Mark Anthony proclaim that, "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is often interred with their bones." The reverse has been true for Benito Juarez. Historians have ignored his faults. To paraphrase Shakespeare, "the evil he did was interred with his bones, the good lives after him."

(Ed. Note: If ever an article required the caveat listed in our masthead about how the opinions expressed in our pages are not necessarily those of either our publisher or editor, this is such an article. Shep's piece, though well researched, is bound to create controversy. We invite our readers to write us to express their opinions.)