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Happy B-Day, BJ. Juarez, Grant, Mary Todd Lincoln and the whole gang celebrate…

21 March 2005

Entre los individuos, como entre las naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz
… in other words… MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS

In the United States, Juárez is usually compared with Abraham Lincoln. Both were country boys who overcame poverty, becoming shrewd lawyers. Both had the good fortune to marry wealthy women, surprisingly became President after mediocre political careers, and both lead their country through a Civil War.But Juárez has the more amazing personal history. A Zapotec, he was descended from people never been completely conquered by either the Aztecs, or the Spanish. The Aztecs were satisfied to control the Zapotec markets, and to collect taxes. When the Spanish first sent tax collectors, the Zapotecs sent back their heads — and complained that the Spaniards had been too skinny to make a decent meal! After that experience, the Spanish had to be satisfied with indirectly ruling them through Zapotec leaders. After monks converted the Zapotecs, the Spanish were able to gain more control of the area, but left these tough mountain people alone for the most part. An orphan at 3, Benito was sent to live with his uncle. He was a shepherd until he was 12. His uncle realized the boy was too bright to waste his life watching sheep. The nearest schools were in Oaxaca City. Never having been in a city or even worn shoes, and not knowing a word of Spanish, the boy hiked the 40 miles through the mountains to the big city, where his sister worked as a maid for a bookbinder. The bookbinder, a religious man, thought the serious little boy[1] might make a decent parish priest. The bookbinder put the 12 year old to work in the bookshop, and paid for his schooling. Earning his keep in the bindery and as a servant and waiter, Juárez graduated with a law degree in 1831. He was not a particularly successful as a lawyer, but he was one of the few that defended poor and indigenous clients. He was an Oaxaca City councilman, then mayor, and then Congressman by the time the United States invaded. Returning to Oaxaca, he was elected Governor. Although Juárez, like Ocampo, wanted to limit the Church’s power, he needed the Church to support his cause, education. He agreed to leave the clergy alone if they would support public education. Schools became an important part of the State budget (and the first public girl’s schools were opened during his tenure), Puerto Angel was developed for trade, and, amazingly, he cut the bureaucracy and paid down the State debt. When Santa Ana’s army collapsed, he had the prestige and power to call out the state militia and keep the fugitive president out of his state. Juarez hadn’t forgotten the President’s insults when he was a servant, and Santa Ana wouldn’t forgive the Governor’s insults.When Santa Ana returned to power, Juárez was arrested. Santa Ana never shot his enemies – he was satisfied to exile them. For Juárez, this meant joining Melchor Ocampo, thrown out to satisfy the Church conservatives, and other exiles in New Orleans. The exiles stuck together, running a small cigarette factory, and working out a new constitution for Mexico. Juárez, the dignified ex-governor, had a large family to support, so took on a second job, selling the cigarettes in the saloons[2].From their contacts in the saloons, the exiles found the gun dealers and smugglers they needed to further their aims in Mexico. There were always generals looking to overthrow the President, but Juan Alvarez was different. He welcomed advisors like Ignacio Comonfort, who had worked up the exile’s plans into a program, explaining what this latest coup hoped to accomplish. Professor Santos Degollado, who had replaced Ocampo as Governor of Michoacán, also joined the revolt. Civilian leaders throughout the country joined local army leaders. Santa Ana simply gave up and left the country in August 1855.Alvarado became president. As promised, he resigned in favor of his Comonfort, the civilian Vice-President. To the shock of the Conservatives, the new civilian government started to carry out exactly what they had promised. Justice Minister Juárez pushed through a law limiting church and military courts to strictly religious and military matters. Bishops with unlicensed butcher shops or soldiers who stole doughnuts would go before civilian courts like anyone else. The Reformers then turned their attention to the bloated, and ineffective, army with more officers than soldiers.To the inefficient, disgraced officer corps, this was an open insult. Worse yet, especially in the eyes of the Church, was the law Miguel Lerdo de Tejada wrote. The Liberals believed the problem in Mexico was that landowners were unproductive. Private enterprise and private ownership, they felt, would turn the economy around. Also, the government was, as always, broke, and taxes on land sales were a welcome addition to the treasury. The “Ley Lerdo” restricted corporations to properties connected with their business. The Church was the corporation the law had in mind –specifically the farms, factories and apartment houses the church owned, but had nothing to do with religion or charitable work. Unfortunately, the law was used throughout the rest of the century to take land from the indigenous “ejitals”, or communal farms[3]. The Church leaders protested, and threatened the new government with religious sanctions. Justice Minister Juárez responded in January 1857 with an even tougher law. Birth, death and adoption records became a government function. The Church couldn’t even collect those fees. To top things off, cemeteries were taken over by the Health Department.

The Church increased their pressure, threatening that any civil servant who enforced the new laws, or anyone who bought their old properties, would be excommunicated: they would lose their membership in the Church, and believers would be forbidden to help them, or even speak to them. In a nation where everyone was a member of the Church, this was a serious matter. Juárez and the rest of the cabinet pushed back even harder. Most of them were Yorkista Masons anyway[4]. Ocampo was an atheist. The “Ley Iglesisas” eliminated fees for most church services, and put the rest on a sliding scale. Since most people had little or no money, the practical result was the Church lost its last sources of income, outside of the collection plate.

If the Reformers hadn’t done enough, they wrote a new constitution in 1857. To help prevent coups, they eliminated the Vice-President’s post. They felt congress would be stronger if there was only one house, so they also eliminated the Senate. While the added a few things – a Bill of Rights[5]— they left one other thing out. Freedom of Religion is never mentioned. But neither is a State Religion. For the first time there was no official religion.

For some, this was just too much. The Conservatives and the Church officials thought another coup would resolve the issue, but the new government had performed a miracle – people actually respected it, and wanted the new rights. The disastrous invasion from the United States had one benefit. Mexicans recognized that their bad leaders had been a joke, and were only out for themselves. From now on, everyone was a Mexican. A Criollo soldier from Saltillo like Ignacio Zaragoza would loyally serve a Zapotec President; an indigenous general, Tomas Mejia, would die standing next to a Mexican Emperor.

President Comonfort tried to keep the Conservatives and Liberals together, but there was the invariable military coup. As usual, the president resigned in favor of the winning General. But there was a catch. The new Constitution didn’t allow for coups and generals. If the President resigned, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (an elected officer) was the temporary president until Congress could select a regular President. And the new Chief Justice was that stubborn Zapotec lawyer, Benito Juárez. If the Aztecs and the Spanish had never been able to conquer his ancestors, they were unlikely to conquer the temporary President. The general saw no real harm in letting the little Zapotec having the title for a few days. Congress was called into session, and did the unthinkable. They defied the coup leaders and elected Juárez President, also giving him the emergency powers to run the country until they could meet again. The Congressmen went home to organize resistance movements. Cosijoni, King of the Zapotecs had retreated to Guiengola Cave, and ran his country from his hideout above Tehuanatepec. His distant descendant, Benito Juárez ran his country out of lighthouses, haciendas, peasant huts, cantinas and horse-drawn buggies[6].Congress continued to meet now and again, mail service managed to function now and again, and the Republic survived, even when it’s territory was reduced to nothing more than the small town below El Paso Texas (modern Ciudad Juárez).
The Reform War was as much a “holy war” between the Church and the State, as a war over what kind of nation, and what kind of rulers the country would have. Even peons on the same hacienda were sometimes fighting each other. The brutality of that war was seen in Tacubaya, then a Mexico City suburb, where the students and faculty of the medical school went to set up a field hospital. The hospital was on the Reformer’s side of the battlefield. The winning Conservative general, Leonardo Marquez was universally despised and feared as the “Tiger of Tacubaya” when he had the patients, doctors and students shot.
For the most part, the Conservatives had the same problems the old government had always had – too many Generals thought they should run the country, and too many Criollos really didn’t care. By 1861 the war was over, and the government could begin to implement its reforms. In March, Juárez was elected to a second term. After 30 years of mismanagement, foreign invasion and civil war, Mexico had exactly what it needed: a bankruptcy lawyer as President. The Church land sales hadn’t brought in nearly the funds needed — with the Reform War, the government had been forced to sell land for whatever it could get. Like any lawyer representing an honest debtor, Juárez sought to negotiate with his creditors for more time.The new government was willing to acknowledge the debts that it inherited from the past governments, but it was going to have to stop payments for the next two years. The United States was in the middle of its own Civil War – they were in no position to collect their debts, and could not afford an unfriendly nation on their border. Matias Romero, the Mexican Ambassador in Washington, did everything possible to maintain friendly relations … and then some. He was the first to note the similarities between his president and Abraham Lincoln. But, what really made Lincoln receptive to the Mexican diplomat was simple gratitude. Romero escorted the “difficult” Mrs. Lincoln (she was a “shopaholic” and mentally unstable) to the Washington fashion stores. Ulysses S. Grant another close friend. Moreover, Grant admired the Mexican culture and its people, the Juárez government and Lincoln. When the time came, he was one of the few gringos to assist Mexico without expecting anything in return. [1] Literally. Juárez was less than 4 foot, 6 inches tall as an adult.

[2] Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman, all later admirers of the little Zapotec were also in New Orleans at about this time. Tempting as the thought is, there is no evidence that any of them ever met. I once received an indigant e-mail from one of General Grant’s descendants, denying that her illustrious ancestor ever spent any time at all in New Orleans taverns… something I find a bit implausible.

[3] The Mexican Liberals wanted to turn the country into a “modern” capitalist state. Replacing the ejitals with private property may not have been accidental.

[4] The main reason Masons are a “secret society” is that they were automatically excommunicated by the Catholic Church until the 1990s.

[5] The Bill of Rights included a few unusual rights, important to the Reformers: the right to an education (something Juárez thought was especially important) and the right to mail service.

[6] It sometimes seems that every historical museum in Mexico has Juárez’ buggy. French intelligence officers believed the rumor that Juárez didn’t know how to ride a horse, and once tried to capture him by carefully destroying every wagon and buggy in the area he was known to be. Juárez could indeed ride a horse and escaped. Juárez favored buggies because they were fast, and the only vehicle available in the 19th century with shock absorbers. They were stable enough to let the President continue working while fleeing his enemies.


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