What is The Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920

What is the Mexican Revolution? An important period in Mexico’s history; learn about how the revolution began, its effects, and when it ‘ended.’

The Seeds of Revolution

Porfirio Diaz ascended to power in 1876 at the head of the Plan of Tuxtepec, the champion of liberal democracy and of the 1857 Constitution, and immediately proceeded to consolidate his power and establish himself as the undisputed master of Mexico. His reign as dictator lasted over 30 years, dissolving in 1911 into a ten-year revolutionary period marked by political and social strife. It is the purpose of this work to examine that ten-year period: the fortunes of the contending power centers and the reasons for their successes and failures.

Toward the end of the first decade of the 20th century, President Diaz’s hold on Mexico was beginning to unravel. Diaz had consolidated political power and economic wealth in the hands of a few close associates who were widely viewed by the nation’s peasants and small middle class as little more than agents for foreign businesses. As a wave of nationalism swept Mexico, localized revolts against the President’s appointments and regional administrators became common as peasants sought not only relief from their astounding poverty but also freedom from what they viewed as foreign business domination. The intellectual and merchant middle class was more cautious but also searched for an opening through which to oppose Diaz. That opening came in 1908.

In 1908, President Diaz commuted a blunder now termed by historians as the “Creelman Affair.” Creelman was an American journalist whom Diaz told in an interview in that year that he believed Mexico was ready for a full democracy and that he would not run for reelection in 1910. In the same interview, Diaz also said that he would finally allow opposition parties to form. President Diaz was certain that he could manage any such election to produce results favorable to himself by installing as the next President, an individual whom he himself would hand-pick. That Diaz was willing to run the risk at all was a testimony of sorts of the unrest in his country. It proved, however, to be a fatal mistake as Diaz’s opponents took him at his word and immediately began to organize for the 1910 election.

Diaz’s chief opponent, as he soon, despite the Creelman interview, began to run for reelection, was a man named Fransico Madero. Madero was a moderate whose 1908 publication of a book, La Sucesion, had elevated him to a strong leadership position among Diaz’s opposition. In the book, Madero denounced violent revolution but urged Diaz not to run again and advocated the formation of an anti-selectionist party.

Anti-re-electionist clubs began forming throughout the country. On April 15, 1910, at a convention of these clubs, Madero was nominated for President. Madero proved to be so popular that Diaz arrested him in June, and by the final election on July 8, over 10,000 of Madero’s followers were in jail.

On July 8, 1910, Diaz and his vice President were reelected. On July 19, Madero was released and immediately attempted to have the election invalidated by legal means. The courts, under Diaz’s control, quickly ruled against Madero, and open rebellion broke out in the north. In the state of Chihuahua, a Maderista muleskinner by the name of Pascual Orozco succeeded in raising a rebel army and began defeating federal troops in a series of small engagements. He was joined by Pancho Villa and Madero in November. By early 1911, Diaz found himself commander-in-chief of what was largely a paper army, unmotivated to fight and poorly equipped, and President of a nation now in total open rebellion as forces in the south under the famous revolutionary Zapata began experiencing successes to rival those in the north. There are accounts that my May 1911 cries for Diaz’s resignation could be heard on the public streets in Mexico City itself.

On May 15, 1911, Diaz and Madero signed the Treaty of Juarez, which provided for Diaz’s resignation and the establishment of his Foreign Affairs Minister, de la Barra, as Provisional President until new elections could be held. The elections occurred in October, and Madero, unopposed, won the presidency. Madero’s choice for vice President, Pino Suarez, also easily defeated his opponent, de la Barra, who had been put forward by the Catholic Party.

Madero’s victory proved to be far from the end of Mexico’s political troubles. Within a year of his inauguration, the same peasants who had traveled, in some cases, hundreds of miles to cheer Madero on his triumphant entry into Mexico City would be loudly denouncing him as a tyrant.

The revolution, which Madero had largely started, had outgrown him even before he ascended to the presidency. He was a moderate in a revolutionary time. The peasants and their generals, who had fought against Diaz, demanded the agrarian reform that Madero had promised, and they were not willing to wait. Waiting, however, was exactly what Madero wanted the nation to do.

On May 12, 1911, Orozco broke from Madero’s ranks and, taking a sizable army of 6,000 federal troops with him, declared himself in rebellion against Madero’s government. Six months later, Zapata issued the Plan of Ayala, calling for comprehensive land reform and denouncing Madero’s failure to act on the matter. The Plan of Ayala recognized Orozco as the chief executive of Mexico.

Throughout the early part of 1912, Madero’s military situation steadily worsened. By late March of 1912, both Orozco and Zapata were closing in on a defenseless capital city. The federal troops had been demoralized by a number of defeats and were grossly undersupplied due to the government’s inability to secure loans and the treasury’s lacking condition.

The next month, however, saw a brighter situation present itself. A new federal army commander forced Orozco into retreat and actually defeated him in August. In July, a new, non-presidential election gave Madero control over a formerly hostile congress.

Madero faced another problem, however. This one became fatal because of Madero’s unwillingness or inability to even accept it as existing. It was that of the intrigue surrounding him and his government. In the early days of 1913, Madero refused to believe a report brought to him by his brother, Gustavo, detailing a conspiracy headed by General Mondragon intending to depose the President.

The coup began on February 8, 1913. The next day saw General Mondragon barricaded in the city arsenal. For ten days, Mondragon and loyal federal troops bombarded one another in the Capitol City. They did little damage to themselves but a great deal to Mexico City itself. During this time, the federal commander, General Huerta, secretly negotiated a deal with Mondragon under the moderation of the U.S. ambassador.

Huerta’s goal was to drag the battle out as long as possible to convince the capitol’s population that Madero was unable to cope with the situation and to convince Mondragon of his strength. His plan worked. With the backing of Mondragon, the military, and Diaz’s old coalition of administrative cronies and foreign business interests, Huerta declared himself President. Gustavo was assassinated, and Madero fled the city, only to be captured shortly afterward and murdered.

Huerta’s assumption of power did little to end the national fighting. In the south, Zapata refused to recognize his administration. In the north, Venustiano Carranza, governor of the state of Coahuila, declared himself in rebellion on February 19, 1913. The next month, Carranza issued the Plan of Guadalupe, establishing himself as First Chief of the Constitutional Army and calling for a national revolution. In April, the Sonora state legislature voted to recognize Carranza’s title, a move soon followed by Poncho Villa’s formal acceptance of Carranza in the summer of 1913.

As the revolution spread, it began acquiring, perhaps for the first time since its beginning in 1910, a solid purpose. While Carranza himself was never very popular with the peasants and was more a moderate than a liberal, Villa and Zapata, who were popular, increased their demands for wide agrarian and social reform.

Villa and Zapata (Zapata never formally accepted Carranza’s leadership of the revolution) never fully trusted or accepted Carranza, and relations between them and the self-styled First Chief never progressed beyond the strained point. Still, Carranza had a capable military commander in the person of Alvar Obregon. Together, they inflicted a series of military defeats on Huerta’s federal forces, eroding Huerta’s support both internally and with the United States. The summer of 1914 saw Carranza approaching Mexico City. In July, Huerta resigned and fled. The next month, Obregon entered the city at the head of Carranza’s forces.

Seeking a basis on which he could establish the legitimacy of his claim to the rulership of Mexico, Carranza sent Obregon to negotiate with Villa. The result was the agreement of the two to convene a convention at Aguascalientes in order to select a new president.

The resulting Convention met in October 1914. From the beginning, it was dominated by a group led by Obregon, who wanted to unify the revolution and bring peace and order to Mexico. Four days after the Convention’s opening, it declared itself the sovereign authority of Mexico.

Racked by an inability to reconcile differences between Villa, Zapata, and Carranza, the Convention, in early November, made General Eulalic Gutierrez Provisional President and ordered all revolutionary armies to disband. This was an order that all three parties rejected, and Villa sent several thousand troops into the northern portion of the state of Aguascalientes, where the Convention was in session.

Thus threatened, the Convention moved to Mexico City, which Villa and Zapata soon occupied. On December 4, Villa, Zapata, and President Gutierrez agreed on a joint strategy to move against Carranza, who was once again claiming the title of President. The civil war continued, with Mexico now divided between two men claiming to be the country’s legitimate President.

By late January 1915, Carranza’s forces led by General Obregon had defeated much of Zapata’s forces south of Mexico City and had advanced to within 60 miles of the capitol. In an internal struggle between their own forces, President Gutierrez forced a military showdown against Villa, who had, for all practical purposes, usurped the powers of the provisional President. Villa promptly ordered Gutierrez’s execution and marched on Mexico City himself. Prudently, Gutierrez fled, renouncing all claims to the presidency. The Convention then named a Villista, Gonzalez Garze, provisional President.

Obregon captured Mexico City on January 28, 1916. It was now Obregon’s turn to defend a besieged city as Zapata quickly surrounded it, preventing it from importing food or supplies. Two months later, Obregon retreated from the city, surrendering it to Zapata’s forces, who now took dominating control of the still-in-session Convention.

Eventually, squabbling between Zapata and Villa caused the Convention to dissolve itself. As it did, Carranza, now aided by the rift between his two principal opponents, was able to, for a time, at least, consolidate his own claim to the presidency. In February 1917, Carranza called another constitutional convention to session in Queretaro to further consolidate and legitimize his claim to power. New national elections were held, and Caranza was formally elected President of Mexico.

As new presidential elections approached in 1920, Carranza bowed to a strong national sentiment that he should not run for reelection. This, unfortunately, did not guarantee a peaceful election. In the fighting between rival candidates for the position, Carranza, whose forces were attempting to keep the peace, was assassinated. Within a few months, Obregon, who still commanded a large portion of the federal army, was able to gain the upper hand and restore relative peace. In May of 1920, Obregon was elected President. Obregon served until new elections in 1924 and peacefully turned the reins of power over to his successor.

The Legacy of the Revolution

The Mexican Revolution profoundly impacted Mexico’s social fabric, political landscape, and economic policies. The Constitution of 1917, one of the revolution’s most enduring legacies, laid the groundwork for a more equitable society, even if its promises were slow to materialize. Land reform, while unevenly applied, aimed to address the grievances of rural communities. Labor laws introduced protections for workers, setting the stage for the development of a more robust labor movement in Mexico.

Moreover, the revolution altered the political dynamics in Mexico, leading to the eventual dominance of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which would govern Mexico for much of the 20th century. While the PRI claimed to embody the revolution’s ideals, its long tenure was also marked by authoritarian practices and challenges to its legitimacy.

The Mexican Revolution also left an indelible mark on Mexican culture, inspiring a flourishing of arts and literature that sought to capture the spirit and struggles of the Mexican people. Muralists such as Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros used their art to tell the stories of the revolution, blending indigenous and European traditions to create a unique Mexican identity.

The Mexican Revolution was more than a political upheaval; it was a societal transformation that challenged the very foundations of Mexico’s social order. Its legacy is complex, marked by both achievements and shortcomings. The revolution’s ideals of justice, democracy, and equality continue to inspire and challenge Mexico, serving as a reminder of the ongoing struggle for a more equitable society.

As we look back on the Mexican Revolution, we are reminded of the power of collective action and the importance of addressing the root causes of inequality and oppression. The revolution teaches us that change is possible, but it also warns us of the complexities and contradictions that come with challenging entrenched power structures. In the end, the Mexican Revolution stands as a testament to the resilience and determination of the Mexican people, a chapter of history that continues to shape Mexico’s path forward.

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