From Empire to Republic - Arthur H. Noll

The Restored Republic and the Death of Juarez

By the triumph of the Republic over the Empire, Benito Juarez reached the pinnacle of his fame, and vindicated his right to be regarded as the greatest of national heroes of Mexico up to that time. His name was already a household word throughout his own country, and was well known in Europe. Europeans, however, having lent too ready an ear to tales related for political effect by Conservatives and Reactionaries, and having been remiss in more honest efforts to learn the character of the man, did him an injustice in regarding him as an Indian savage, "less civilized than Theodore of Abyssinia," and as quite capable of devising a plot to "exterminate the entire white population of Mexico "and to sell a part of the territory to the United States.

His return to the capital, in 1867, after an absence of five years, furnishes an opportunity to pay somewhat closer attention to his personality than has been permitted heretofore in the course of this history; and without some knowledge of this man's personality it is impossible to understand the history of the struggle for constitutional government in Mexico. He was now in the sixty-second year of his age, though in his personal appearance giving little indication of his years, as was characteristic of persons of his race. A somewhat stoical temperament, a reserve in matters of public importance, coolness and self-possession in the face of danger, patient endurance of adversity, dignified courtesy at all times—these were other racial characteristics which he possessed to a marked degree.

He was short of stature, but of powerful frame, like most of the Zapotecans, and had small hands and feet. His was a "very dark complexioned Indian face, which was not disfigured, but on the contrary made more interesting, by a very large scar across it. He had black piercing eyes, and gave the impression of a man reflecting much and deliberating long and carefully before acting." His dress was that of the Mexican student or professional man—plain black broadcloth, unrelieved by any official or military insignia. This placed him in such striking contrast with the brilliant dress affected by other Mexican officials, who were, almost to a man, military officers, and with the foreign diplomats with whom he came in contact, that he was known in semi-diplomatic language as "The President in the Black Coat." While other public men in Mexico had military titles, he preferred to be known simply as Ciudadano—Citizen.

They were greatly mistaken who supposed him deficient in mental acquirements. He was able to write French with ease; and could read English, though he never attempted to speak it. He was well read in Constitutional law. History was his favorite study. He received the degree of Doctor of Civil Law from his alma mater  and the honor was worthily conferred. His state papers were models of clearness and exact style.

The conduct of the Church in Mexico had been such as to embitter him against that phase of religion which manifests itself wholly in institutionalism. On the subject of personal religion he maintained such an impenetrable reserve as to make it impossible to say to what extent he was a religious man. He was doubtless affected by the reaction from the devoteeism, at one time so prevalent in Mexico, and represented by men of the Santa Anna stamp,—a reaction that carried many of the public men into religious indifferentism, if not agnosticism.

Juarez was excommunicated by the Church in which he was born and for whose ministry he was at first intended. He never sought to have the ban of excommunication removed. He instituted in Mexico a policy of religious toleration; and not unlikely, could the influences of a purer form of Christianity than what he saw around him have extended to him, he might have sought to give his religion some expressive form. His attitude toward the Church of Rome probably gave some color of vengefulness to the measures of reform which he advanced; but they were in reality actuated by his regard for the rights of man and the welfare of the State. He had an innate sense of justice, and desired to see the privileges which the Church was enjoying at the people's cost restored to the people to whom they properly belonged. Even Maximilian, devotee of the Church though he was, bore frequent testimony to the wisdom of Juarez's statesmanship and to the justice of his measures in regard to the Church.

Despite the Decree of January, 1862, and his refusal to interfere to suspend the law in the case of Maximilian, and despite the seeming hardness of his Indian nature, Benito Juarez was a humane man, rising in that respect far above the average of Mexican public men of his time. He sought to prevent the execution of the death sentence upon Robles, though that sentence was justified under the circumstances by the rules of war in any civilized land. There is small doubt that he would have been glad of Maximilian's escape could it have been effected without any dereliction on his part. Vengeance was foreign to his nature. Bloodshed was no part of his policy. After the close of the War of the Reform, he was provoked to no reprisals by the constant cruelties and reckless military executions which had characterized the conduct of his savage opponents; and there is no act of wanton bloodshed or popular vengeance chargeable upon the successful party in that struggle. He was the author of more than one decree of amnesty at times when he had his enemies in his power. The French prisoners taken at Puebla, in 1862, were sent to the French camp under safe conduct; their wounded were cared for; their medals and decorations were restored to them, and money was provided them for their expenses. While in Paso del Norte, and his government was at its lowest ebb, Juarez, who was in other matters a poor financier, managed to dispatch more than twenty thousand dollars to France for the relief of the Mexican prisoners taken to that country by the French after the fall of Puebla in 1863.

Juarez stood out conspicuously in the history of Mexico as a thoroughly honest and incorruptible man. He was thus placed in striking contrast with the representatives of some of the European nations with whom he was called upon to treat in 1862. Not the least difficult of the tasks which confronted him in his public career, and in his efforts to establish constitutional government, was that of maintaining a high standard of morality in his administration. The public men of Mexico, who had been trained in the old Spanish school of politics, or in the later school of Santa Anna, were accustomed to no such distinctions between right and wrong as the new Constitution presupposed or as Juarez in his government made. They were incapable of appreciating the nice distinctions between honesty and fraud being constantly made by their Indian President. The robbing of the conducta  at Laguna Seca, in 1860, by Degollado, was an ordinary transaction in the history of Mexico—quite characteristic, indeed, of the Zuloaga-Miramon-Marquez regime. But it was absolutely unique in the administration of Benito Juarez, who was deeply mortified by it and did all in his power to make apology and restitution.

Juarez was a patriot. Love of country, and the desire to set her far forward toward the realization of the destiny which he felt to be hers by nature and by the will of Providence, actuated his whole life and engaged all his energies of body and mind. It took strange forms sometimes,—as, for example, at the breaking out of the war with the Interventionists, when he refused all offers of foreign troops for his army, declaring that he would invite no foreigner to shoot down men who, though in rebellion against Mexico, were yet citizens of that nation.

Simple in his tastes, not personally ambitious, deprecating pomp or display, Benito Juarez gave his life to the effort to set law above force in Mexico, and served his country in honorable poverty in the Chief Magistracy for thirteen years, the greater part of the time an exile from his capital.

In August, 1867, Juarez called for a general election for Members of Congress and for President. The election was to determine the propriety of his action in continuing in the Presidency in Paso del Norte after the expiration of his former term of office. He was elected over Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada and Porfirio Diaz, and his action at Paso del Norte was thereby fully sustained. He began a new constitutional term in the Presidency, upon his installation in that office in December.

It might seem that the country had now had its fill of revolutions and pronunciamentos, and was ready to cooperate with the President in an effort to maintain peace and constitutional government. But the administration of Juarez was much disturbed by revolutionary attempts made by those who were still under the spell of the ancient Spanish methods of "practical politics." Santa Anna entered the Republic with no very honorable intentions, we may be sure. He was taken prisoner and sentenced to be shot, but was allowed to escape, and returned to the place of his former exile. Probably the measure by which Juarez himself would have preferred that his administration of the government from 1867 to 1871 should be best known was his decree of General Amnesty. Under its provisions, even Santa Anna was enabled to return to Mexico and spend the remainder of his days at the capital.

As the electoral campaign of 1871 approached, Juarez was advised by many of his best friends to decline a reelection. They urged that, inestimable as was the value of the services he had rendered in securing the Constitution and in maintaining the government of Mexico thereunder during the period of stress and storm from 1861 to 1867, he was not a pronounced success in the administration of the Presidency. His preeminent quality—adherence to a great principle in the face of opposition—did not especially fit him for the task of building upon the foundation he had laid. He was blind to the actual needs of the nation, it was said. His mind was giving way, some alleged,—and such might well have been the case, in one who had passed through all that he had suffered. He remained, however, firm in the belief that his presence in the administration was necessary for the continuance of the effort to maintain good government in Mexico, and prevent a suspension of the Constitution which had been established at so much cost. He therefore entered as a candidate against the same opponents as four years previously. The contest was an exciting one, and his election was extremely close. Congress met on the sixteenth of September, and it was not until the twelfth of October that Juarez was officially declared elected by the vote of a plurality of the States. Pronunciamentos followed, but Juarez, with indomitable energy, confronted every attempt to overthrow the Constitution and return to the former methods of governing the country by force.

On the seventeenth day of July, 1872, he who had never before known more than a day's sickness, was taken suddenly ill with heart disease. Near midnight on the eighteenth he died. Two days later the body was taken to the National Palace, where it lay in state, under guard of government officials, and was visited by throngs of Mexicans of all classes. On the twenty-second it was borne through the streets of the capital, followed by five thousand people, and laid to rest in the Panteon of San Fernando. There, over the dust of Benito Juarez, now rests an exquisitely sculptured marble group representing the grief of Mexico over the death of her great national hero. Thither, on the eighteenth of July every year, lovers of constitutional government go to rehearse the story of his noble and devoted life, and of how through his efforts the Constitution of Mexico came into being. And it is well that this annual pilgrimage be made, and this commemoration be observed, lest in the midst of the prosperity and peace, and the national greatness to which they have recently attained and the progress they are now making, the people of Mexico forget how much of all this is due to the Zapotecan who spent his life in an honorable endeavor to give a Constitution and Constitutional Government to a previously misgoverned land.