Freedom's Odd Couple
by Jim Tuck
Comparing world famous (or infamous) personages has long been a pastime of historians. Napoleon is compared to Caesar, Hitler or Stalin to Genghis Khan, Voltaire to H.L. Mencken. Yet comparison is inhibited by the fact that the subjects frequently lived in different times and under differing conditions. Eighteen centuries separated Caesar and Napoleon, seven Genghis Khan and Hitler / Stalin, and two Voltaire and Mencken.
Two contemporaries, who were every bit as much poster boys for enlightened political behavior as Hitler, Stalin, Caligula and Nero were not, were Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) and Benito Juárez (1806-1872).
Outwardly they were a quintessential "odd couple," as dissimilar in appearance and ethnic background as two people can be. Lincoln was tall and angular; Juárez short and stocky. Lincoln was of old American pioneer stock; Juárez was a full-blooded Zapotec Indian.
As friends and enemies would learn, the differences between the two men were superficial. Both were born poor, cared more for political power than for riches, and both believed law was the best preparation for a political career. Though neither man could be called handsome, they both compensated for a lack of matinee idol looks by radiating an impressive command of presence and charisma.
Lincoln's greatest historical achievement was in leading his country during a tragic civil war that was fought both to preserve the Union and end slavery. Juárez led Mexico during not one but two civil wars. The first was the 1858-1861 War of Reform, when a Juárez-led liberal coalition triumphed over conservatives attempting to defend the privileges of the Church. The latter were particularly enraged by the Ley Juárez (the Juárez Law), legislation that restructured the judicial system to limit the authority of military and ecclesiastical courts, and by the liberal constitution of 1857.
The second great internal conflict was the campaign Juárez led against the Habsburg archduke Maximilian, installed as puppet ruler of Mexico by French Emperor Napoleon III in 1864. That struggle ended in June 1867, when Maximilian and two leading conservative generals, Miguel Miramón and Tomás Mejía, were captured and executed in Querétaro.
Though Lincoln and Juárez never met personally, they formed a lifetime, long-distance mutual admiration society. Lincoln's attitude towards Juárez was no doubt shaped by the friendly feeling he perennially entertained towards Mexico. Lincoln strongly opposed the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-1848, characterizing it as "a war of conquest brought into existence to catch votes," and adding that, "Mexico was in no way molesting or menacing the U.S."
While it is not known exactly when Juárez came to Lincoln's attention, we do know that Lincoln was a strong Juárez supporter by 1857, eve of the Reform War. When Juárez was temporarily driven out of Mexico City by the conservatives, Lincoln sent him a message expressing hope "for the liberty of...your government and its people."
The bond between the two leaders was greatly strengthened during the American Civil War. In 1861, the year the Civil War began, Juárez was elected president of Mexico. The Reform War had bankrupted Mexico's treasury and Juárez suspended debt payments to Mexico's chief European creditors, France, Britain and Spain. The European powers organized a punitive expedition, seizing Veracruz. But Britain and Spain pulled out when they learned of Napoleon III's desire to install a puppet government in Mexico City. The French, defeated at Puebla in 1862, poured in reinforcements and captured Mexico City in 1863. Fleeing the capital, Juárez organized resistance in the north.
Though Lincoln obviously had his hands full during the Civil War, he still did what he could to help Juárez. Union General Phil Sheridan wrote in his journal that, "we continued covertly supplying arms and munitions to the liberals, sending as many as 30,000 muskets from the Baton Rouge alone." To Sheridan came this order from General Grant, which of course originated from Lincoln: "Concentrate at all available points in the States an army strong enough to move against the invaders of Mexico..."
Illustrative of how Juárez reciprocated Lincoln's friendly attitude was his response to an ill-advised overture he received from the Confederate government. The South had sent a delegation, under John T. Pickett, to try and win over the juaristas. Juárez, to put it mildly, sent the Confederates a message throwing Pickett into a Mexico City jail for thirty days and then expelling him from the country.
Though Lincoln was dead by 1867, the year Juárez vanquished Maximilian, the initiatives he had put into place inexorably worked their way in ensuring victory for the juaristas. Louis Napoleon had sympathized with the South, but growing Union power made him stop short of granting recognition to the Confederacy. In early 1867, with the Civil War over and the Union-backed juaristas daily growing in strength, Napoleon III pulled his troops out of Mexico and left Maximilian to his fate.
Perhaps the greatest dividend attained by the informal but highly effective alliance between Abraham Lincoln and Benito Juárez was the way it served to ease the bitterness felt by Mexicans thanks to the disastrous consequences of the U.S.- Mexican War.