Mexican Revolution

Conflict in Mexico resulted in a new collectivist constitution and elected governments.

Summary of Event

In 1876, Mexico came under the governance of Porfirio Díaz, whose stated aim was the restoration of constitutional government. Historians generally agree that the Mexican government during Díaz was autocratic, arbitrary, and repressive. His program might be described as one of “scientific” development of Mexico, and in an effort to meet those goals, he allowed the suppression of the political rights and the denial of the economic rights of large sections of Mexican society. To bring about the development of Mexico, Díaz invited the investment of foreign capital under conditions that were extremely favorable to the investors. The economic penetration of foreign investors, especially from the United States, occurred in the areas of railroads, mining, and—most significant from the perspective of the Mexican Revolution—petroleum and land. Mexican Revolution (1910-1920)
[kw]Mexican Revolution (Mid-Oct., 1910-Dec. 1, 1920)
[kw]Revolution, Mexican (Mid-Oct., 1910-Dec. 1, 1920)
Mexican Revolution (1910-1920)
[g]Latin America;Mid-Oct., 1910-Dec. 1, 1920: Mexican Revolution[02680]
[g]Mexico;Mid-Oct., 1910-Dec. 1, 1920: Mexican Revolution[02680]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mid-Oct., 1910-Dec. 1, 1920: Mexican Revolution[02680]
[c]Government and politics;Mid-Oct., 1910-Dec. 1, 1920: Mexican Revolution[02680]
Díaz, Porfirio
Madero, Francisco
Huerta, Victoriano
Villa, Pancho
Zapata, Emiliano
Carranza, Venustiano
Huerta, Adolfo de la
Obregón, Álvaro
Calles, Plutarco Elías
Cárdenas, Lázaro

Despite the economic development achieved in this way, and its social ramifications, the suppression of political rights led to the Mexican Revolution. As such, one could describe the revolution in its initial stage as liberal in character. As the Díaz regime aged, it became subject to much criticism, particularly for its authoritarian political nature, its exclusion from political office of all except a few favored men, and its suppression of labor in favor of foreign investors.

As the 1910 elections approached, for public relations purposes Díaz gave an interview to Joel Creelman, an American newspaper reporter, in which he declared that Mexico was ready for a system that included political opposition. Francisco Madero took the president at his word and declared his candidacy for the presidency of Mexico in 1910. Madero came from a wealthy landowning family in the Mexican state of Coahuila that had benefited from and cooperated with the Díaz regime in its early years. Like other prominent families, however, the Madero family and especially Francisco had become disfranchised, dissatisfied, and embittered.

Madero was a peculiar man, very intense, almost a mystic, and he obviously took himself seriously. He wanted to be president in order to achieve the reforms that he believed were essential for the progress of Mexico. In 1909, he criticized the Díaz regime and made particular reference to the repeated reelection of the president. Arrested on June 14 for this insubordination, Madero was placed in jail at San Luis Potosí and Díaz was declared reelected. Madero managed to escape from confinement in mid-October, when he issued his Plan of San Luis Potosí, Plan of San Luis Potosí in which he declared the election fraudulent and called for “effective suffrage, no reelection,” a political tenet honored thereafter in Mexico: Presidents cannot succeed themselves, and since 1929 they have been limited to a single term in office.

Madero’s challenge to Díaz can be called the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. Madero asserted that the people were seeking political freedom and not bread, and he called for armed revolt, which he promoted with the aid of guerrilla fighters in late 1909 and early 1910. These actions opened the gates to full-scale opposition to Díaz. In 1911, the regime collapsed, and Díaz went into exile.

Madero was elected the new president, but his presidency was ineffectual. Rather than peace and stability, the result was continued rebellion. Both reformers and conservatives fought against the Madero administration. Finally, reactionary elements, working with General Victoriano Huerta, plotted a successful coup d’état in February, 1913, in which Madero and his vice president were murdered. General Huerta’s attempt to reestablish the old regime caused immediate reaction in several sections of the country. The most significant of these were a revolt in the south led by Emiliano Zapata, an uprising in the north led by Pancho Villa, and a constitutionalist revolt in the north, which ultimately assumed legitimate power in Mexico.

The armed uprisings against Huerta can only loosely be called coordinated. Zapata, who remains a mythic figure in Mexico, issued his Plan of Ayala, Plan of Ayala which called for major agrarian reform. This revolt was centered in the southern state of Morelos and was essentially an Indian- and peasant-based action. Villa led his personal revolt from the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. Venustiano Carranza, who led the third important group, issued the Plan of Guadalupe, Plan of Guadalupe which called for the restoration of constitutional government in keeping with Madero’s Plan of San Luis Potosí.

Together, these three men reflect the roots of the enormous struggle that today is called the Mexican Revolution. Zapata was of Indian extraction. Villa was of mixed blood and uncertain of his origins; although he is often described as a bandit, his personal magnetism and ambition caused him to join forces with other revolutionists in an attempt to seize political power. Carranza, a man of Spanish extraction from the upper class, was above all else an ardent Mexican nationalist. His followers possessed the most talent and organizational skill of any of the revolutionary groups.

These revolutionary forces worked to overthrow Huerta, and with the aid of the United States they were successful and collectively took control of the government, with Huerta as provisional president. The United States, under the leadership of President Woodrow Wilson, Wilson, Woodrow
[p]Wilson, Woodrow;Mexican Revolution gave assistance to the revolutionary forces in two ways: First, Wilson opened the borders and permitted aid to flow to the revolutionaries in the north of Mexico; and second, in April of 1914, U.S. forces intervened at Veracruz. The U.S. Marines took the city and in so doing inflicted casualties numbering in the hundreds, including many civilians of both sexes. A public outcry was raised against the United States, but Huerta was not able to garner additional support.

An important effect of the American occupation of Veracruz was loss of funds for the Huerta government, because the customhouse at Veracruz was the government’s chief source of revenue. In addition, military supplies for the Huerta government came in through the port, so those supplies were cut off. In July, 1914, Huerta resigned and fled the country, but the leaders of the three forces opposing Huerta began to fight among themselves.

Carranza and the constitutionalists prevailed for two reasons. One was the extraordinary talent of Carranza’s ally Álvaro Obregón, and the other was the decision of the Wilson administration to extend de facto recognition to Carranza’s regime in October, 1915 (an action that has been cited as the cause of the Villa raid on Columbus, New Mexico, which led to the Pershing expedition of 1916-1917). Pershing expedition (1916-1917) It is safe to say that the defeat of Villa at Celaya and the recognition of Carranza by the United States mark the ascendancy of the constitutionalists and, therefore, the turning point in the Mexican Revolution.

In 1916, Carranza authorized the calling of a constitutional convention that went well beyond the Plan of San Luis Potosí to incorporate more revolutionary ideas, including land reform, labor reform, reform of the extractive industries, anticlerical reform, and nationalistic restrictions on foreigners and foreign capital. The new constitution, which took effect in May of 1917, established the first major modern socioeconomic instrument for the transformation of Mexican society. Among the more significant provisions of the Constitution of 1917 Constitution of 1917 (Mexico) were Article XXVII, which dealt with many of the basic socioeconomic demands of the revolution, such as again nationalizing subsoil mineral rights and restoration of the ejidos, or communal lands of Indian villages, and Article CXXIII, which dealt with the rights of labor.

General Venustiano Carranza (bearded) sits and relaxes in a field with some of his followers.

(Library of Congress)

Carranza was not committed to many of the radical goals incorporated into the constitution. He was criticized for not fulfilling many of the promises he had made since 1913, and he was also blamed for the lack of stability and order in the country, as civil war, banditry, and corruption continued.

Carranza had other difficulties as well. Villa and Zapata remained armed challengers of his authority, and the president did not continue to have the assistance of Obregón and Plutarco Elías Calles, who had retired to Sonora. In 1919, Carranza “solved” the Zapata problem by permitting the assassination of Zapata. The next administration solved the Villa problem first by buying Villa off and then by assassinating him.

In addition, Carranza faced strong opposition from reactionary elements who worked to overthrow his presidency and reestablish order as known in the period preceding 1910. Carranza selected a surrogate, Ignacio Bonillas, Bonillas, Ignacio to succeed him on December 1, 1920. The logical candidate for the presidency was Obregón, a national hero known in Mexico as a “genius in war and peace.” Indeed, Obregón had announced his own candidacy in June, 1919. In an attempt to frustrate that candidacy, Carranza ordered federal troops to move into Sonora, the base of Obregón’s power. Within two days, a new revolutionary movement emerged, led by the so-called Sonora Clique Sonora Clique of Obregón, Calles, and Governor Adolfo de la Huerta of Sonora, who wrote the Plan of Agua Prieta, Plan of Agua Prieta which attacked Carranza and achieved wide support. Carranza fled the capital and was killed by pursuing forces on May 21, 1920. Adolfo de la Huerta assumed the provisional presidency until November 30, 1920. While in office, he made an accommodation with Villa that brought an end to the latter’s antigovernment activities.

Obregón was elected president of Mexico and assumed office on December 1, 1920. His election marked the end of the violent stage of the Mexican Revolution. His government brought calm to the country and, although he was a compromiser, compliance with the purposes of the revolution.


The tasks faced by the Obregón administration were not simple or easy: pacification of the countryside, reform of the society, consolidation of power, and attainment of recognition for the government by the United States. When he left office in 1924, Obregón could claim considerable success. Although he had not fully accomplished all fundamental reforms, he had established a base from which future administrations could and did take major actions.

Plutarco Calles, who succeeded Obregón in 1924, was considered a radical by landowners, industrialists, and clergy. Calles continued or initiated programs of land reform, labor reforms, and anticlerical reform. Between 1926 and 1929, the Cristero War was fought unsuccessfully by the Roman Catholic Church and its supporters to preserve the wealth and power of the church. Calles had become a repressive dictator by the end of his term in 1928 and continued to exercise political power after he left office.

Lázaro Cárdenas was elected president in 1934 and carried the revolution further to the left. He was more deeply committed to social reform than any previous president. Cárdenas redistributed twice as much land as all of his predecessors combined, increased expenditures for education, especially in rural areas, reformed labor unions, and nationalized the foreign oil companies. After 1940, the revolution moderated under the leadership of President Manuel Ávila Camacho.

Although the political aspects of the Mexican Revolution can be said to have come to an end in 1920, the socioeconomic aspects took much longer to be realized. Indeed, some in Mexico and elsewhere have asserted that the Revolution of 1910 had not yet ended even by the start of the twenty-first century. Mexican Revolution (1910-1920)

Further Reading

  • Brenner, Anita. The Wind That Swept Mexico: The History of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1942. 1971. Reprint. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984. Presents an extensive collection of photographs with commentary to tell the story of the Mexican Revolution. Emphasizes the economic issues involved in the revolution and their social effects.
  • Cumberland, Charles C. Mexican Revolution: The Constitutionalist Years. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972. Describes the real revolution that occurred during the constitutionalist years, Mexico’s relations with the United States, and the contributions of Obregón.
  • Hall, Linda B., and Don M. Coerver. Revolution on the Border: The United States and Mexico, 1910-1920. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988. Describes the impacts of the Mexican Revolution on the areas around the border between the United States and Mexico, the effects of the border areas on the revolution, and the relations between Mexico and the United States in the early twentieth century.
  • McLynn, Frank. Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2001. Dual biography and history focuses on events involving Villa and Zapata in explaining the Mexican Revolution. Includes black-and-white photographs, bibliographical essay, and index.
  • Meyer, Michael C., William L. Sherman, and Susan M. Deeds. The Course of Mexican History. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Interesting and readable history devotes several chapters to the revolution. Provides good coverage of the topics of Mexican society and culture at the time. Includes maps, illustrations, and index.
  • Quirk, Robert E. An Affair of Honor: Woodrow Wilson and the Occupation of Veracruz. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1962. Gives a complete account of U.S. intervention in Veracruz and the long-term ill will this action created for the United States.

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