Posted by: Russell Fowler on Jul 1, 2021

Journal Issue Date: July/August 2021

Journal Name: Vol. 57 No. 4

“The law has always been my sword and my shield.”1Benito Juárez

It was 1835. In the remote Mexican village of Loxicha, a group of poor, illiterate Zapotec Indians were mistreated by their local priest. He took what little money they had and forced them to work for less than the law allowed. The frightened band finally summoned the courage to make the 70-mile journey to the capital city of the state of Oaxaca, also named Oaxaca.2

Benito Juárez (1806-1872)

They sought Benito Juárez, a 28-year-old fellow full-blooded Zapotec. He was a lawyer, no small achievement for an Indian in 19th century Mexico, an extremely class- and race-based society. Moreover, Juárez was renowned for helping the poor for free if he felt their cause just.3

In his small office, the 4-foot-6-inch Juárez explained it would be a difficult case. All civil and criminal charges against a priest had to be brought in an ecclesiastical court. But he taught church law part-time, among other subjects, at the Institute of Sciences and Arts in Oaxaca (his alma mater) and would take their case pro bono.

The court ordered the priest to appear, suspended him from duties and enjoined him from returning to Loxicha until the case was tried.4 Yet before trial, a different political party won control and reversed the preliminary ruling: the priest could return. He had Juárez’s clients jailed by a local magistrate and obtained a decree that anyone would be jailed if they consulted Juárez or any lawyer on church business. Juárez rushed to Loxicha and demanded to know why his clients were arrested and to see the warrants. The magistrate refused and said if Juárez persisted, he would be jailed for vagrancy.5

Juárez dashed back to Oaxaca to appeal to a higher court, but the priest secured a warrant for Juárez’s arrest for “inciting the citizens against the authorities.”6 Seized in his home at night, it took him nine days to obtain bail and freedom. The courts did nothing about the priest, and it is unknown what happened to his clients,7 but this pro bono case, which he often recounted, spurred the soft-spoken Juárez to political action.8 The humble lawyer would forever change Mexico and become its greatest hero.

Benito Juárez and “the War of the Reform.”

The Rise of the Oaxaca Orphan

Benito Pablo Juárez was born in the mud hut mountain village of San Pablo Guelatao, in the state of Oaxaca, on March 21, 1806. Orphaned at three, as a boy he worked as a shepherd for an uncle and lived in abject poverty. A scar across his lips was from one of his uncle’s beatings.9

Unable to speak Spanish or the predominant Indian language, at the age of 12, the abused boy ran away to find a better life through education. Having no shoes, he tied straw around his feet and traversed the 41 miles of rough roads to the capital city of Oaxaca.10

Juárez was hired as a servant by a Jesuit bookbinder and attended a parish school where he mastered Spanish but was treated badly because he was an Indian. Hence, he decided the only way to get a good education was to study for the priesthood in a seminary. After a state college opened nearby, however, he left the seminary and determined to be a lawyer. Still barefoot, he studied law at the college while working as a waiter. He commenced practice in 1831.11

In 1834, with a phenomenal score, Juárez passed the exam for admission to the highest courts and served as acting judge. He would also go on to be a militia captain, town councilman, state legislator, justice of the state supreme court and congressman. By 1841, he was a senior judge, known for diligence and fairness and his black wool suit and stovepipe hat. He then rose to governor of Oaxaca in 1847.12

Governor Juárez made the poor province, with a bankrupt administration, one of the wealthiest and most politically stable and free in the country. He ended corruption, waste and favoritism in government, opened 200 schools, encouraged the education of girls, established a port for international trade, improved the horrible roads, created a public health system with free hospitals and left a surplus in the treasury. He bravely warned Mexico’s dictator, Santa Anna, and his army to stay out of Oaxaca.13

Upon leaving office in 1852, Juárez returned to the law and pro bono work for the poor and became head of the Institute of Sciences and Arts. But the new Santa Anna-allied governor attempted to have him assassinated, and Santa Anna had him imprisoned then exiled from Mexico.14

An ill Juárez had to be carried onto the ship. He ended up in New Orleans, again in poverty, rolling cigars and barely surviving yellow fever. But he was not alone. Juárez and other Mexican expatriates planned to return home and oppose the dictator.15

Antonio López de Santa Anna

Revolution and Civil War

In 1855, Juárez returned to Mexico to join a revolution. When Santa Anna was finally overthrown, Juárez was made minister of justice in the new republican government under a constitution modeled after the U.S. Constitution. He then wrote the monumental Ley Juárez (Juárez Law).16

This law restructured the judicial system, making all equal before the courts and eliminating separate tribunals for the military and clergy. The government also abolished slavery and titles of nobility, and forbid the church from owning land beyond what was necessary for religious purposes. The church had owned one half of all Mexican land.17

Juárez was made chief justice of the supreme court in 1857, placing him first in line of succession to the presidency. Later that year, a general, with church backing, seized control of Mexico City and ousted and exiled the president. The general then declared himself president and arrested Juárez, who was told he would be executed. Nevertheless, he was released after a few weeks and was recognized by the democratic resistance as president.18

A bloody three-year civil war ensued, “the War of the Reform.” Juárez’s carriage became the republic’s mobile capital. Republican forces ultimately took Mexico City on Jan. 1, 1861, with Juárez’s dusty carriage soon to follow. In June, the people elected him president in a landslide.19

During the war, to hinder church assistance to the usurpers, Juárez’s government confiscated church property, closed the monasteries and recognized freedom of religion. With the war over, he turned to Mexico’s dire financial condition. Facing an empty treasury and massive debt, he declared a two-year moratorium on payments of foreign loans.20

In response, Great Britain, Spain and France invaded and took the customs house in Vera Cruz to directly collect debts. Soon Spain and Britain pulled out of the venture when realizing France had broader designs.21 The French dictator, Napoleon III, announced “the French flag had come to stay.”22

The French Invasion and Emperor Maximilian

Although Mexican forces defeated a 6,500-man French army outside Mexico City on May 5, 1862 (the celebrated Cinco de Mayo), France eventually captured the capital with 30,000 soldiers, and, once again, Juárez’s carriage became “a government on wheels.” Though initially overawed by the French war machine, the “Juaristas” fought relentlessly, often using guerilla tactics. Juárez was pushed to the U.S. border and hid state papers in a cave, but he was determined to keep a legitimate government on Mexican soil.23

Maximilian von Hapsburg

With the support of the church and wealthy landowners, Napoleon III installed a monarch in Mexico: Archduke Maximilian von Hapsburg of Austria. The well-meaning Maximilian was duped into believing the Mexican people wanted him as emperor through a pretended plebiscite. Once in Mexico, to the dismay of his far-right Mexican supporters, Maximilian sustained Juárez’s land reforms and offered the president a place in his regime, but Juárez was committed to democracy and the constitution.24 He pledged: “[T]he Imperial Government will not succeed in subduing the Mexicans and its armies will not have a single day of peace.”25

With the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the U.S. was able to supply Juárez’s armies, concentrate American troops on the border and exert pressure on France. Napoleon evacuated his forces. The misguided yet gallant Maximilian, refusing to desert his remaining Mexican followers, was captured, tried by court-martial and executed by firing squad on June 19, 1867.26 President Juárez had rebuffed pleas for clemency by world leaders, believing Maximilian must die according to law for violating Mexican sovereignty, for the deaths Maximilian’s rule inflicted and to discourage further foreign intervention.27

Mexico was at peace, stable and free. One historian concluded that many of Juárez’s opponents “despised him for being an Indian, but they despised him even more for being a lawyer.”28 The masses loved him, nonetheless, and re-elected the self-effacing Juárez to a third term as president in 1867 and a fourth in 1871. Juárez suppressed crime, instituted internal improvements, expanded education and protected freedom of the press, even when it criticized him. He died of heart failure on July 18, 1872, working to the end against doctor’s orders.29

Despite his and Mexico’s many travails, Juárez never wavered in his devotion to democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, separation of church and state and, a free market economy. Moreover, he brought life to his words: “Democracy is the destiny of humanity; freedom its indestructible arm.”30

And it all began with a pro bono case.


RUSSELL FOWLER is director of litigation and advocacy at Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET), and since 1999 he has been adjunct professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He served as the law clerk to Chancellor C. Neal Small in Memphis and earned his law degree at the University of Memphis in 1987. Fowler has many publications on law and legal history, including many in this Journal.


1. Dennis Wepman, Benito Juárez 118 (1986).
2. Id. at 14-15; see Cambridge Biographical Dictionary 800 (Magnus Magnusson, ed. 1990).
3. Wepman at 14.
4. Id. at 14-15.
5. Id. at 15.
6, Id.
7. Id. at 15-16.
8. Id.; see Henry Bamford Parkes, A History of Mexico 223 (1960).
9. Jasper Ridley, Maximilian and Juárez 32 (1992).
10. Wepman at 17-19.
11. Id. at 20-31.
12. Id. at 31-46.
13. Id. at 46-50; Parkes at 223-24; Gene Smith, Maximilian and Carlota 108 (1973).
14. Id. at 51-55; Smith at 107-8.
15. Id. at 51-55; Smith at 107-8.
16. See John Edwin Fagg, Latin America 672 (1963); Lynn V. Foster, A Brief History of Mexico 133- 34 (2004); Wepman at 60-73.
17. See John Edwin Fagg, Latin America 672 (1963); Lynn V. Foster, A Brief History of Mexico 133- 34 (2004); Wepman at 60-73.
18. Wepman at 73-86.
19. Id.
20. Id. at 83-87; Foster at 136.
21. Id. at 83-87; Foster at 136.
22. Wepman at 87.
23. Id. at 90-94; Foster at 136-37.
24. See Wepman at 94-95; Foster at 137; Fagg at 679-682.
25. Hispanic Network Magazine 17-18 (2005).
26. Wepman at 98-104; Fagg at 683-84; Foster at 138.
27. Id. at 98-104; Fagg at 683-84; Foster at 138.
28. Jasper Ridley, Maximilian and Juárez 33 (1992).
29. Wepman at 105-6.
30. Quoted by U.S. President John F. Kennedy in a speech (June 29, 1962).