Welcome back to my little corner of the internet! It’s been a while since my first post… life happened and I decided to put this project on hiatus for a while, but now I am recommitted to getting it going again.
March 18, 2019 is the celebration of the Natalicio de Benito Juárez (the birth of Benito Juárez). Although he was actually born on the 21st of March, 1806, this legal holiday is celebrated on the third Monday of each March. Benito Juárez served as President of Mexico from 1858-1872, excluding a lapse between 1864-1867. A popular and deeply influential President, his legacy is still celebrated in México, especially through the dedication of streets, towns, monuments, and even currency (his face is on the 20 peso banknote) in his name.
He is perhaps best known as the face of Mexican Liberalism, part of a larger movement occurring throughout Latin America and Europe in the 19th century. Juárez presided over a period in México known as La Reforma, where a series of liberal reforms were enacted that drastically changed the official relationship between church and state, as well as land tenure laws that would cause severe disruption in the country.
This is admittedly a huge topic – many scholars have devoted time to Mexican liberalism and La Reforma. Here, my goal is to present a brief overview of what 19th-century liberalism was and Juárez’s legacy (in a nutshell).
In order to understand Juárez and his period of history, it is critical to define the term liberalism. In 19th century Mexico, it consisted of many of the following elements:
- Appealed to middle class groups, small landowners, lawyers, professionals, aspiring mixed-race people.
- Favored a federalist government, inspired by US & European models.
- Guarantees of individual rights.
- End to special privileges for the military and church.
- Confiscation of church property.
- Abolition of slavery.
- A disregard for the communal lifestyles of indigenous people; saw this as an impediment to modernization. In Mexico, this resulted in the breaking up of ejidos (communal lands).
(Keen, Benjamin, and Keith Haynes. A History of Latin America. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2013.)
From the 1830s through to the time of Benito Juárez, there was a constant struggle between liberals and conservatives, the usually upper-class sector of the population who supported the church and a strong central government. Benito Juárez, a lawyer and governor in the state of Oaxaca, was a leader of the Liberal Party and also of Zapotec indigenous origin. With his rise, he represented a new demographic entering onto the national political scene, yet it remains a complex relationship because he favored the breaking up and sale of indigenous lands through the Ley Lerdo in 1856.
His Presidency ushered in a period known as La Reforma. To put it simply, Juárez oversaw the implementation of several new liberal reforms during this time, the most important being:
- Ley Lerdo (1856): a sweeping land reform that required all religious properties not in direct religious usage to be auctioned off. This is the law that also did the same for indigenous ejidos, breaking them up and auctioning them off, usually ending up in the hands of hacendados (hacienda owners), which furthered the creation of a landed elite.
- Ley Juárez (1856): eliminated clerical and military privileges (fueros). This obviously angered the Church and the military.
- Ley Iglesias (1857): required that Church-issued services such as birth and marriage certificates were to be handled by the state going forward. This expanded the bureaucracy of the state and stripped more power from the Church.
Benito Juárez was President through the War of Reform or Three Years’ War (1857-1860) and was temporarily displaced during the French Intervention of Mexico by Maxmilian I (1861-1867), a European Hapsburg royal who briefly reigned as emperor in Mexico. Juárez remained in office until his death in 1872.
His legacy stands as a major liberal innovator during a turbulent period in the 19th-century: he was anti-clerical, breaking up many of the privileges of the Church; he subjected the military to government control; and he passed land reforms that changed the landscape of the Mexican countryside (literally). As previously mentioned, he remains a national hero in México and his likeness can be found everywhere.
I hope you enjoyed this blog post. I want to inspire you to take time to learn more about Benito Juárez and La Reforma. It’s a fascinating, complex, and important period of Mexican history.
If you have book or film suggestions for this period, or if there is a topic you would like to see discussed in the future, please comment below.