Mexican History: The Revolution (1910-20)

Francisco Madero
Figure 1.--Carranza and Obregón set out building a Federal Army that could defeat the Revolutionaries Villa and Zapata). This meant forced recruitment which included youths and children. Here Federal soldiers are press ganging youths and a boy from a Mexico City train station, probably in 1915. Source: Augustín Víctor Casasla

Mexico's Revolution came a century after independence. Huerta, after killing Madero, was forced to fight the Revolution on many fronts. He benefited from a strong central position, but faced a formidable if tenuous alliance including Venustiano Carranza, General Álvaro Obregón, Emiliano Zapata (in the south) and Pancho Villa (in the north). These are many of the the most esteemed names in Mexican history and both Carranza and Obregón went on the be presidents. The Mexican Revolution was the bloodiest period in Mexican history since the Conquest. Huerta was eventually defeated. Carranza assumed the presidency. Both Villa and Zapata refused to recognize Carranza. They with their Armies of the North and South drove on Mexico City. Carranza and Obregón with their forces fled the capital. The Villistas and Zapatistas held raucous celebrations after reaching Mexico City. They did not, however, have the organizational skills to organize an effective government. Carranza and Obregón retreated to Veracruz, Mexico's major port. There they reorganized and resupplied and launched a new offensive to retake the capital. In the fighting that followed, Obregón largely destroyed Villa's cavalry at Celaya (1915). Obregón lost his right arm, but won the battle. Celaya was actually a series of engagements which constitute the most massive battle ever fought in Latin America. Obregón commanded a modern force with artillery and machine guns. As Villa's cavalry was the major force of his army, Villa never seriously threatened the government again, although he was a continuing irritation in the North. Carranza called for a Constitutional convention (1916). He was elected the first president under the new Mexican Constitution of 1917. The Government finally dealt with Zapata. After a vicious anti-guerrilla campaign weakened his forces, Zapata was lured into a trap by a government soldier and shot. Carranza tried to hold power by backing the election of a supporter (1920). When it became clear that Obregón would win the election, Carranza attempted a coup. Obregón escaped and organized a military campaign against Carranza. As Obregón approached the capital, Carranza fled, trying to reach the port of Veracruz where he could leave the country, the traditional route for failed Mexican leaders, There Obregón's forces arrested and shot him. A frustrated Villa in the North attempted to punish the United States for supporting Carranza. Villa killed several Americans in Mexico and then crossed the border to attack some U.S. towns. President Wilson ordered an incursion into northern Mexico to arrest Villa. This failed, but Villa finally decided to end his political career and became a rancher in Parral. He still had a following among the poor and was assassinated (1923). This meant of all the major figures of the Revolution, only Obregón survived and he was shot a few years later.

The Porfiriato (1876-1911)

General Porfirio Díaz (1830-1915) was a mestizo from Oaxaca. He opposed Santa Ana, fought for Juarez in the War of Reform, and with his brother fought against Emperor Maximilian. He was one of Juarez's more effective generals. He ran unsuccessfully against President Juarez (1871). He claimed electoral fraud and decided to use force and overthrow the government (1876). He introduced a dictatorship which ruled Mexico for nearly 40 years. is iron-fisted rule, which lasted almost 40 years which Mexicans refer to as the Porfiriato. He and his Cientificos ruled Mexico under the banner of "Liberty, Order, and Progress". Díaz had a very specific interpretation of these terms. Liberty was extended to supportive landowners, industrialists, and entrepreneurs to make money. Order was enforced through a policy of pan y palo (bread and club). Progress was rapid economic development. Díaz negotiated arrangements with foreigners in which he and his associates profited personally. Any opposition or even criticism was suppressed, often brutally. The Díaz dictatorship introduced a degree of modernization. Mexico in 1910 had a much more developed infrastructure than that of the country he had seized control of in 1876. It was, however, still an underdeveloped country. Díaz did not address Mexico's deep-seeded social problems. Ans a key area that he did not invest in was Mexico's human capital. Mexico was still a country with a small middle-class and a largely illiterate rural peasantry living in essentially feudal conditions. The Mexican Revolution was the first of the great 20th century peasant revolutions. When the Revolution came, it was a surprise to everyone--not the least to Mexicans. Díaz was astonished that the effete little teetotaling lawyer could succeed in overthrowing him. When departing for Mexico he warned, "Madero has unleashed a tiger, let us see if he can control him."

Disputed Election (1910)

President Díaz thinking he was in complete control of the country and beloved by his countrymen, told U.S. journalist James Creelman, that his country was ready for democracy and real elections (1908). He indicated that he would step down from the presidency. Precisely what was on his mind is unclear. He indicated that he would permit candidates to compete for the presidency. Several well-known Mexicans were interested and apparently took Díaz's offer at face value. Bernardo Reyes, the Díaz-appointed governor of Nuevo León, announced his candidacy. Díaz was either not serious about allowing an election or changed his mind. He may have expected his country to demand his continued presidency. He dealt with Reyes by sending him off on a foreign mission. Unfortunately for Díaz he had let the genie out of the bottle. A political unknown appeared on the Mexican scene. A scholarly hacienda owner and lawyer, Francisco I. Madero, finally challenged Díaz. He was small in stature and an unlikely person to challenge the great man who had dominated the country for four decades. Madero was educated at the University of California, Berkeley. He was not a radical, but believed in democracy. Madero became famous in Mexico for his book--The Presidential Succession of 1910. Díaz was furious when he learned of the book. He ordered the arrest of Madero. Madero fled to the United States, but later returned and was arrested. The Government announced Díaz's reelection by a virtually unanimous vote. The reported Madero vote was miniscule. There was clearly massive electoral fraud resulting in voter outrage. Madero called for an armed uprising. This was the beginning of the Mexican Revolution, but not the bloody struggle that the Revolution became. Díaz was forced from office and fled the country (1911). He found refuge in France where he is buried.

Armed Rising (1910-11)

Madero was no revolutionary. He simply wanted an honest election and moderate reforms. He had, however, some real revolutionaries on his side. Madero proclaimed the elections of 1910 and Díaz's victory null and void. He called for an armed revolution. This was the beginning of the Mexican Revolution, but not the bloody struggle that the Revolution became. The Revolution against soon spread. Francisco Villa was an ardent supporter of Madero. And his Army of the North took Chihuahua, and Ciudad Juárez in Chihuahua. Zapata in the south joined the growing coalition against Díaz. Madero signed the Treaty of Ciudad Juárez with the Díaz forces (May 17, 1911) He demanded Díaz resign as a condition for an armistice. Díaz resigned (May 25). He fled the country (May 26). Díaz found refuge in France where he is buried. Madero appointed Francisco León de la Barra as interim president to replace Díaz. León de la Barra was an arch conservative and opposed many of the reforms that Madero had championed. The effect was deeply disappointing to Villa, Zapata, and others who had hoped for real change. Zapata responded with the Plan de Ayala (November 25, 1911).

Madero Presidency (1911-13)

Madero after Díaz tried to reverse the results in the 1910 election led resistance to the stolen election. He assumed the presidency (1911). He was intent on reconciling the badly shaken country. Madero had succeeded in forcing Díaz out, however, by temporarily unifying various democratic and anti-Díaz forces. This included elements that were mutually incompatible and essentially not willing to be reconciled. Among the anti-Díaz forces were wealthy land-owners and others not at all committed to democratic government in Mexico. A strong leader would have found reconciliation difficult and Madero was for a forceful leader. He attempted a series of moderate reforms. The reforms were a disappointment to the revolutionaries who wanted more drastic action. They were even more vehemently opposed by the conservatives who were adamant about preserving the existing order. There problem was with Díaz not with the Porfiriato system Díaz had created. Madero was an idealistic lawyer without the political or leadership skills capable of controlling the passions released with Díaz's departure or the conservative reaction to his reforms. Madero did not last long as president. Mexico soon spun out of his control. After Díaz was forced from Mexico, Madero did not replace the Porfirista military with his supporters. As a result the Mexican Army which was the principal force in the country was controlled by men at odds with President Madero, men who Madero trusted to do their duty. At the same time, many of Madero's supporters were disappointed with his performance. Even Zapata denounced the President. After years of censorship, Mexican newspapers took advantage of their newly found freedom of the press to criticize Madero's performance as president harshly. Gustavo A. Madero, the president's brother, remarked that "the newspapers bite the hand that took off their muzzle." Francisco Madero refused the recommendation of some of his advisers that he bring back censorship.

La Decena Tragica (February 1913)

Victoriano Huerta, the commander of the armed forces, conspired with Félix Díaz (Porfirio Díaz's nephew) and Bernardo Reyes to get rid of the troublesome president. What followed was a 10-day battle in Mexico City known as La decena tragica (the Tragic Ten Days). Fighting occurred between Madero's supporters and the Díaz/Reyes forces. Madero accepted Huerta's offer of protection. Huerta betrayed him. He had him arrested. Meanwhile. Huerta had Madero's brother and close adviser, Gustavo A. Madero, kidnapped off the street. Huerta had the President's brother tortured and murdered. Huerta had in effect executed a coup d'état (February 18, 1913). He forced Madero to resign. The plotters declared Pedro Lascuráin president, but Huerta claimed the presidency for himself. Huerta ordered Madero shot On the same day Madero was shot four days later February 22). Huerta claimed that bodyguards were forced to shoot both Madero and his Vice President Pino Suárez as a result of a rescue attempt by Madero's supporters. Few believed the claim. Huerta controlled the capital, but Mexico is a large country and establishing control of the entire country was a very different matter. Madero had many supporters. Madero's death launched the most violent phase of Mexican history since the conquest.

Victoriano Huerta (1913-14)

Mexico's Revolution came a century after independence. General Victoriano Huerta, after killing President Madero, was forced to fight the Revolution on many fronts. He benefited from a strong central position. He incorporated the Rurales into his Federal military forces. He faced a formidable if tenuous alliance including Venustiano Carranza, General Álvaro Obregón, Emiliano Zapata (in the south) and Pancho Villa (in the north). These are many of the the most esteemed names in Mexican history and both Carranza and Obregón went on the be presidents. The Mexican Revolution was the bloodiest period in Mexican history since the Conquest. Resistance to Herta was led by Venustiano Carranza, a politician and rancher from Coahuila. He called his movement the ta, calling his forces the Constitutionalists. He received covert support from the United States. Carranza issued his manifesto--the Plan de Guadalupe (March 26, 1913). He refused to recognize Huerta and called for armed rebellion. Leaders such as Villa, Zapata, and Álvaro Obregón joined the fight against Huerta. While the United States supported Carranza, Huerta also had foreign supporters--the German Empire which was providing him arms and equipment. He also imported arms from other countries. U.S. opposition to Huerta developed to the point that the United States seized the port of Veracruz (April 1914). Veracruz was Mexico's primary port supplying Huerta's forces based in Mexico City. This cut off Huerta from the arms he needed. Cut off from foreign military supplies, Huerta's military situation rapidly deteriorated. He resigned and fled to Spain (July 1914). Eventually Huerta attempted to renter Mexican politics by organizing a counter-revolution. The Germans provided some funding, hoping that Huerta back in the presidency would distract the United States and discourage American intervention in World war I. Huerta attempted to enter Mexico through the United States. American authorities arrested him in El Paso as he tried to enter Mexico.

Leaders

Quite a number of individuals played important roles in the Mexican Revolution. This included men of all social classes. Porfirio Diaz himself came from humble origins. There were upper-class land owners involved as well as peasant leaders and all classes in between Madero came from a landing owning family. Huerta, one of the great villains in Mexican history, was of mestizo origins. Carranza came from a middle-class cattle ranching family. Obregón came from a formerly well to do family that had lost their wealth. He was a farmer with an interest in local politics when the Revolution broke out. Another scion of a wealthy family was Lucio Blanco who proved to be an effective military commander, but often found himself estranged from the better known Mexican leaders. A major factor in the campaign against Huerta were the two key peasant leaders, Emiliano Zapata in the south and Francisco (Pancho) Villa in the north. The are the two individuals that come to the popular mind in association with the Mexican Revolution. They played a major role in the defeat of Huerta, but they did not have the education or governing skills to form a government. And they were two very different people with widely different goals. While Zapata was fairly consistent in supporting the Plan de Ayala and land reform, Villa was much less committed to comprehensive social reform. This was in part because, Villa turned large estates over to his generals and not the peasants who worked them. They were used to finance his operations. The cowboys who rode with Villa were not committed to land reform like the peasants who backed Zapata. Most men were defeated and did not play a major role in the Revolution after the defeat of General Huerta. Zapata's Plan de Ayala, resonated throughout the Revolutionary period and influenced the Land Reform of the PRI Government which followed it. Villa left no permanent influence on Mexico except for his image in the popular imagination in confronting the United states.

Children

Mexico was essentially at war with itself for a decade. The fighting reached every corner of the country and in some cases with terrible ferocity. Children as the weakest element of the population were among those most severely affected. They were affected in a number of ways. Many children were orphaned. Often it was only their father who was killed, but in Mexican society it was the father who was the principal bread winner which left huge numbers of families destitute. And this was at a time when the fighting was destroying the economy. Other children were affected or even killed in the fighting. This was only in part when fighting flared in their town or village. One aspect of the Revolution that has not been given adequate coverage is the role that women played in the Revolution as well as the long term impact of this on Mexican society. After the Revolution we see women emerging as journalist, union organizers, and a whole range of roles that they had not previously entered. Many women went to war with their men. They played a range of roles from cooking to laundry to actually engaging in combat. It was not uncommon for these women to take their children with them. In some cases the children might be left with grandmothers or other family, but in many instances the children came along. The older children might actually join the army. Other children were involved in the forced levies that were conducted by the various warring forces. It was quite common to include teenagers in these levies and in some cases children not yet in their teen years. It should not be thought that the children were passive victims. Many children like their parents were caught up in the popular passions of the day. We suspect this was especially the case of peasant children. Middle-class and upper-class children were probably kept out of the fighting by their parents. Here the sane dynamic was involved as in the American Civil War.

Carranza Seizes Control (1914-20)

Carranza assumed the presidency. Both Villa and Zapata refused to recognize Carranza. They with their Armies of the North and South drove on Mexico City. Carranza and Obregón with their forces fled the capital. The Villistas and Zapatistas held raucous celebrations after reaching Mexico City. They did not, however, have the organizational skills to organize an effective government. Carranza and Obregón retreated to Veracruz, Mexico's major port. There they reorganized and resupplied and launched a new offensive to retake the capital. In the fighting that followed, Obregón largely destroyed Villa's cavalry at Celaya (1915). Obregón lost his right arm, but won the battle. Celaya was actually a series of engagements which constitute the most massive battle ever fought in Latin America. Obregón commanded a modern force with artillery and machine guns. As Villa's cavalry was the major force of his army, Villa never seriously threatened the government again, although he was a continuing irritation in the North. Carranza called for a Constitutional convention (1916). He was elected the first president under the new Mexican Constitution of 1917. This was the major accomplishment of the Carranza presidency. It was an effort to finally destroy the essentially feudal system imposed on Mexico by the Spanish and which operated in Mexico for four centuries. The Government finally dealt with Zapata. After a vicious anti-guerrilla campaign weakened his forces, Zapata was lured into a trap by a government soldier and shot.

American Involvement (1910-20)

The United States and Mexico share one of the world's longest borders. It was a border at the time of the Mexican Revolution that was largely unpatrolled and easily crossed. And important events in the Revolution occurred in northern Mexico where the Federal Government often had difficulty maintaining control and where the revolutionaries could easily slip back and forth across the border. Thus inevitably the United States was drawn into the Mexican Revolution. Revolutionaries of different factions sought refuge in the United states or sought to obtain funds and weapons. This was possible because of Mexican communities in the Southwest and the ease of crossing the border. The U.S. army was mobilized to better protect the border, especially the border towns. The first important confrontation, however, occurred further south at Tampico. The Tampico Affair led to American occuption of Tampico (1914). In addition the American Government, including the Taft and Wilson Administration about the Revolution and the different regimes that took power in Mexico City. This in turn caused animosity on the part of the factions opposing the the regimes favored by the American administrations. The most notable individual here was of course Paco Villa. This eventually led to the U.S. Mexican Expedition led by General Pershing just before World war I (1916-17). At the time, Europe was locked in World war. The Mexican Foreign Ministry recognizing that America might enter the War was apparently following developments in Mexico which led to the infamous Zimmermann Telegram. The Germans who were in the process of redrawing the borders of Eastern Europe, decided to do the same in the American Southwest. This incensed the American public and played a part in American involvement in World War I.

Obregón Seizes Control (1920-28)

Álvaro Obregón (1880-1928) rose from a modest farming family. He was the military thinker behind the Constitutionalist military victory and the new Federal Army that defeated the more radical Zapata and Villa. Carranza appointed General Álvaro Obregón as Minister of War and of the Navy. Carranza and Obregón led the more moderate elements within the Constitutionalistas. Carranza led the Liberal wing which was focused on narrow, legalistic reform. Carranza wanted a liberal, democratic government, but not extensive social reform. Obregón was more realistic in seeing that the dynamic of the Revolution made reform inevitable. He was not, however, for the wide-spread reform advocated by Zapata in the Plan de Ayala. Obregón decisively defeated Zapata at the Battle of Ayala (1916). Zapata was forced back into the rugged north. He was, however, no longer a force in national politics. Obregón managed to eliminate Zapata (1919). Carranza after his first term attempted to hold power by backing the election of a supporter (1920). When it became clear that Obregón would win the election, Carranza attempted a coup. Obregón escaped and organized a military campaign against Carranza. He was supported by most leading generals, including Plutarco Elías Calles and Adolfo de la Huerta. As Obregón's forces approached the capital, Carranza fled, trying to reach the port of Veracruz where he could leave the country, the traditional route for failed Mexican leaders, There Obregón's forces arrested and shot him (May 21, 1920). Obregón served as the next president (1920-24). Historians debate just when the Revolution ended. The execution of Carranza is the most commonly accepted end of the military phase of the Revolution. The social reforms that Madero has sought, however did not come until later.

Villa's End (1923)

Villa unlike Zapata managed to survive the military phase of the Revolution. He also managed to evade the American expeditionary force dispatched by President Wilson. Villa finally decided to end his political career and became a rancher in Parral. He still had a following among the poor. He was assassinated (1923). This meant of all the major figures of the Revolution, only Obregón survived.

Assessment

A very important question that must be addressed in connection to the Revolution is if it promoted Mexico's development as a modern, productive country or created a political structure which made this development possible. And particularly did it establish the rule of law, a central component of a modern society. And an important part of this discussion is to what extent the modern situation where working-class Mexicans have to migrate to the United States to find decent paying jobs has its roots in the Revolution.







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Created: 2:46 AM 6/20/2008
Spell checked: 4:08 AM 5/25/2014
Last updated: 4:08 AM 5/25/2014