Benito Juárez

On this date in 1806, Benito Pablo Juárez García, who became the 26th president of Mexico, was born in the village of San Pablo Guelatao, Oaxaca. His parents, both indigenous Zapotec Indians, died of diabetes-related complications when he was 3, leaving Juárez to be raised by his uncle. At 12, he walked 40 miles to the city of Oaxaca to move in with his sister and begin his education.

Because of his obvious intelligence, he was given a place in the city’s seminary. He graduated in 1827 but decided to study law instead of joining the church. His political career began in 1831 when he became an official for the Oaxacan Town Council, representing the anti-establishment Liberal Party. In 1835, he was elected Liberal deputy to the federal legislature.

Juárez was elected governor of Oaxaca in 1846 and used his power to end corruption and invest in public goods, such as roads, new buildings, and new schools.  After a few months in office in 1857 as Supreme Court president, he began his tenure as president of the nation on Jan. 15, 1858, serving until his death.

He is noted for his dedication to the causes of the poor, particularly the impoverished indigenous people, and for focusing on education and infrastructure rather than on the Mexican military. He is also celebrated for leading a successful resistance to European takeover. Also during his time as president, he worked as a secularist with the Liberal Party to dismantle the control the Catholic Church held over Mexico and the government.

During his time in office, the church, which was the largest landholder in Mexico, was stripped of much of its holdings and the Constitution of 1857 severed ties between church and state and guaranteed religious liberty for all citizens. Juárez was keenly aware of the injustices perpetrated by the church, particularly against indigenous people, who had been treated as heretics and killed if they refused to convert to Catholicism.

He famously said, “Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace.” Juárez was married to Margarita Maza in 1843. They had 12 children. He died of a heart attack in 1872.

Freedom From Religion Foundation