A Tale Of Two Presidents
By Mildred Boyd
February 2009 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 25, Number 06
They were born in the same decade, only three years but thousands of miles apart. Both had humble beginnings; one came from backwoods farmers, the other was a pure-blood Zapotec Indian. Neither could claim even a passing acquaintance with the wealth and social position of the usual politician.
How, then, did these two boys, seemingly without any advantages, grow up to be among the greatest, if not the greatest, Presidents of their respective countries?
Benito Juarez from Oaxaca and Abraham Lincoln from Illinois had much in common. Lincoln was a wood cutter; Juarez was a shepherd. Both apprenticed themselves to lawyers and became attorneys. Both were attracted to politics as young men after practicing law in their home states. Both men became orators of considerable talent who made a profound and lasting impression with their pithy remarks as well as with their formal speeches.
Juarez’ unforgettable “Democracy is the destiny of humanity; freedom its indestructible arm,” was quoted by John F. Kennedy in 1962 and every schoolchild in the 50 States can recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and “You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”
Both men were intelligent far beyond the norm, but any education for either was hard won and seems to have been sought for the sheer joy of knowing rather than personal advancement. Lincoln reportedly once said,
“The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who’ll git me a book I ain’t read yet.” This might not have been easy since he was a voracious reader and lived in an area where books were rare luxuries.
Both men spent their formative years in atmospheres aflame with patriotism as their countries fought wars against oppression and struggled to cope with the problems of independence. Those wars, the 1810 Revolution and the War of 1812, and the ideals for which they were fought left a lasting impression on the two small boys.
Both finished their legal studies and went on to serve as legislators of their respective states. Juarez became the first constitutional president of Mexico in 1858; Lincoln was the first Republican U.S. president in 1860. Both earned reputations for honesty and the conviction that only laws equally applicable to all men could be just. “Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace,” is a statement made of his beliefs by Juarez. It is now inscribed on the coat of arms of his home state, Oaxaca.
Both came to the Presidency under extremely adverse conditions and at great personal risk. Lincoln had to be secretly smuggled into Washington for his inauguration because of threats against his life by those who hated his stand against slavery. Juarez, as President of the Supreme Court, was the legal successor when liberal President Commonfort was persuaded into “voluntary” exile. Almost immediately Juarez was forced to flee the Capital by conservatives appalled by his ultra-liberal policies. His legitimate government only moved on to set up shop in Guadalajara.
As presidents, both became commanders-in-chief of vast armies though neither had ever seen a battlefield. Lincoln’s few weeks of enlistment during the Indian War in 1832 was spent only in camp. Nevertheless, both showed an ability to appoint able generals and keen grasp of strategy when the chips were down.
Finally, both died in office soon after their re-election as presidents of their respective countries. Benito Juarez was elected for the fourth time though actually his fifth term in 1871. The old war horse died of a heart attack while working at his desk in the National Palace in Mexico City on July 18th, 1872. Abraham Lincoln was sworn in for his second term on March 4th, 1865 and died from an assassin’s bullet exactly six weeks later on April 15th.
No wonder these two great men, who never actually met, admired and respected one another and carried on a lengthy correspondence about the many common problems of their neighboring countries. Lincoln’s was involved in a great civil war; Juarez’ recovering from 40 years of turbulence following the revolution for independence. Now, in 1862, they had a common cause.
Napoleon III, trying to protect French investments and restore order there by reinstating a monarchy, invaded Mexico. This action was in direct opposition to the Monroe Doctrine, which pledged United States resistance to European intervention in this hemisphere. Lincoln, who needed all his troops for his own battles, was forced to do little or nothing .
He did invoke the Monroe Doctrine to give diplomatic recognition to Juárez’ government and supply weapons and funding to the Republican forces. When he could get no support in Congress, he supposedly had the Army “lose” some supplies (including rifles) “near” (across) the border with Mexico. Other than that, he could only offer moral support and advice to his friend while praying that the unstable Juarez government could contain the threat.
The Mexican victory at Puebla on May 5th, 1862, united the Mexican people behind Juarez. Although the ensuing battles went the other way and a French Empire under Maximilian did come into being, it was doomed from the start. In April, 1865, his war won at last, Lincoln immediately issued an ultimatum to Napoleon III; get out of Mexico or face two million battle-hardened and victorious Civil War veterans still spoiling for a fight.
The US never had to implement this threat. Within two years, Maximilian was dead, executed by his erstwhile subjects, Carlotta had returned to Europe hopelessly mad and the Western Hemisphere was once again free of European meddlers. United by its long struggle against a common foe, Mexico forgot its internal quarrels and began to come into its own as a world power.
Once again fate had intervened. Two great leaders had appeared just in time to change the course of history!