Short History of Mexico - Arthur H. Noll

Benito Juarez and Constitutional Government

Not until after the Fall of the Second Empire, and the return of the Republican government to the capital, was it fully understood and appreciated that the contest between the Empire and the Republic was the culmination of a struggle that had been going on since the overthrow of Iturbide, in 1823, between two opposing systems of government. The principle of Centralism had been advocated by the party that was represented by Santa Anna and the later Reactionaries and Imperialists; while the principle of Federalism and popular government had been upheld by such men as Gomez Farias, Melchor Ocampo, Ignacio Comonfort, and Benito Juarez. The adoption of the Constitution of 1857 was a distinct triumph for the Federalist party,—or Liberals, as they came to be called. It meant that Mexico was to be a Republic, not only in name but in truth. The "Reform" measures, however extreme and inequitable they might have appeared at the time of their execution, were now seen to be a part of a program by means of which Mexico might be established as an independent nation and its people be taught the lesson of peaceable self-government. The reactionary revolution which ensued upon the adoption of the Constitution of 1857, and which was known on its defensive side as the "War of the Reform," arrested the progress of the Constitutional reforms set in motion by the Liberals. And the Maximilian Empire was an afterpiece to the War of the Reform, whereby European powers were called in to assist the Mexican Centralists to oppose the establishment of popular government.

While, therefore, the attention of the students of Mexican history may have been diverted to the course of events under the rise and fall of the Second Empire, in the years 1863 to 1867, the true makers of the nation's history were comprised in a small band of Republicans who left the City of Mexico upon the approach of the French army in 1863; rested for a while at San Luis Potosi; retreated to Saltillo, then to Monterey, then to Chihuahua, and finally, in August, 1865, to Paso del Norte. From that frontier town upon the Rio Grande (now known as Ciudad Juarez) Benito Juarez, Constitutional President of Mexico, issued a proclamation declaring that it was his firm determination not to abandon the Mexican territory, but to maintain the Republican government and its struggle against the invaders of the country.

This band of patriots numbered twenty-two men, who had faith in Juarez, and firmly believed in Constitutional government. They were afterwards nicknamed "The Immaculates." Chief among them was Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada. From Paso del Norte the indomitable Indian President watched with grim satisfaction the evil fortunes of the Empire; and, at the withdrawal of the French troops upon which that Empire relied for its maintenance, he directed the consolidation of the scattered military forces of his government, and sent them south to close around the Imperial army in Queretaro. Then he moved his own temporary capital to San Luis Potosi, from whence he returned to his rightful capital as soon as the Empire was thoroughly crushed, and the way had been opened for him by his faithful General, Porfirio Diaz.

While the fortunes of the Constitutional Republic seemed at a low ebb, with the Republican military forces scattered though not exterminated, and the President and his cabinet exiled from their rightful capital to a little town on the banks of the Rio Grande, the term expired for which Benito Juarez had been elected Constitutional President in 1861. And, strange as it may seem, a man was found who could cast covetous eyes upon the presidential office even in the days of its deepest adversity. Juarez himself, at the close of the War of the Reform, was not satisfied with holding the office by his right of succession as President of the Supreme Court of Justice, when the office became vacant by the resignation of Comonfort. He had demanded, in 1861, an expression of the popular will in an election under the Constitution. At the same time General Jesus Gonzalez Ortega was elected President of the Supreme Court of Justice. He had practically abandoned that office while the government of the Republic was itinerant; but he nevertheless claimed that he was the legal successor of Juarez, upon the expiration of the latter's term in the Presidency.

Juarez, however, thought differently, and decided to hold over until a successor could be elected in the manner provided for under the Constitution of 1857. His decision was probably a wise one. At all events, the attempt of Ortega to oust Juarez was without result; and in August, 1867, in order to test the legality of his action at Paso del Norte, Juarez directed a new Presidential election to be held. Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada and General Porfirio Diaz were entered as candidates against him; but Juarez was elected, and his course at Paso del Norte was fully sustained. He began a new Constitutional term of four years in the Presidency the following December.

Probably the measure by which Juarez would have preferred that his administration of the government from 1867 to 1871 should be remembered was his Decree of General Amnesty. But his popularity waned, and when the expiration of his term of office drew near, in 1871, his re-election was opposed by the same candidates as four years previously, and the contest was an unusually exciting one. The election of Juarez was extremely close, and he was not installed in office without a formal protest from his opponents, the protest taking the form of a pronunciamento under the name of the "Plan de Noria."

This revolutionary movement might have eventuated very disastrously for the government of Mexico, but for the sudden death of Juarez, on July 19, 1872. He was in his sixty-sixth year, and had been President of Mexico nearly thirteen years, though a large part of that time exiled from the capital of his country, and opposed first by the Reactionary Anti-Presidents, and afterwards by an Empire of foreign creation. The chief characteristic of his public career was his effort, with the assistance of such men as Gomez Farias, Melchor Ocampo, and Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, to establish Constitutional government in Mexico,—to make law superior to force in that country. His efforts were successful so far as the establishment of the Constitution of 1857 was concerned; but he had encountered many difficulties in making that Constitution effective, and in training his fellow-countrymen up to an appreciation of the blessings of independence, peace, and self-government.

For two days the body of the Indian President lay in state at the National Palace, visited by thousands of Mexicans of every class. Then it was accompanied through the streets of the capital by a vast throng to the Panteon de San Fernando, where a beautiful monument now marks the last resting-place of Benito Juarez. Under a canopy, supported by Doric columns, a white marble group represents Mexico's grief at the death of her greatest hero.

To the same Panteon the remains of Miramon and Mejia were allowed to be removed, a few months after the execution at Queretaro. Within the same enclosure lies the dust of Ex-President Ignacio Comonfort, Ignacio Zaragoza (the hero of Cinco de Mayo), Salazar and Arteaga, two distinguished victims of the decree of October 3, 1865. The tomb of Vicente Guerrero occupies a niche upon one side. And in a mural tomb, closed by a white marble slab bearing the inscription "Sacrificado por la Tirania," lie the bones of Melchor Ocampo, a liberal patriot who was hanged by the Reactionaries in 1863 for advocating liberal movements and for supporting the Constitution that was intended to guarantee to the Mexicans popular rights and a national government freed from ecclesiastical control and military domination.