Hispanic Nations of the New World; a Chronicle of Our Southern Neighbors

Author: William Robert Shepherd

Chapter X. Mexico in Revolution

When, in 1910, like several of its sister republics, Mexico celebrated the centennial anniversary of its independence, the era of peace and progress inaugurated by Porfirio Diaz seemed likely to last indefinitely, for he was entering upon his eighth term as President. Brilliant as his career had been, however, and greatly as Mexico had prospered under his rigid rule, a sullen discontent had been brewing. The country that had had but one continuous President in twenty-six years was destined to have some fourteen chief magistrates in less than a quarter of that time, and to surpass all its previous records for rapidity in presidential succession, by having one executive who is said to have held office for precisely fifty-six minutes!

It has often been asserted that the reason for the downfall of Diaz and the lapse of Mexico into the unhappy conditions of a half century earlier was that he had grown too old to keep a firm grip on the situation. It has also been declared that his insistence upon reelection and upon the elevation of his own personal candidate to the vice presidency, as a successor in case of his retirement, occasioned his overthrow. The truth of the matter is that these circumstances were only incidental to his downfall; the real causes of revolution lay deeprooted in the history of these twenty-six years. The most significant feature of the revolt was its civilian character. A widespread public opinion had been created; a national consciousness had been awakened which was intolerant of abuses and determined upon their removal at any cost; and this public opinion and national consciousness were products of general education, which had brought to the fore a number of intelligent men eager to participate in public affairs and yet barred out because of their unwillingness to support the existing regime.

Some one has remarked, and rightly, that Diaz in his zeal for the material advancement of Mexico, mistook the tangible wealth of the country for its welfare. Desirable and even necessary as that material progress was, it produced only a one-sided prosperity. Diaz was singularly deaf to the just complaints of the people of the laboring classes, who, as manufacturing and other industrial enterprises developed, were resolved to better their conditions. In the country at large the discontent was still stronger. Throughout many of the rural districts general advancement had been retarded because of the holding of huge areas of fertile land by a comparatively few rich families, who did little to improve it and were content with small returns from the labor of throngs of unskilled native cultivators. Wretchedly paid and housed, and toiling long hours, the workers lived like the serfs of medieval days or as their own ancestors did in colonial times. Ignorant, poverty-stricken, liable at any moment to be dispossessed of the tiny patch of ground on which they raised a few hills of corn or beans, most of them were naturally a simple, peaceful folk who, in spite of their misfortunes, might have gone on indefinitely with their drudgery in a hopeless apathetic fashion, unless their latent savage instincts happened to be aroused by drink and the prospect of plunder. On the other hand, the intelligent among them, knowing that in some of the northern States of the republic wages were higher and treatment fairer, felt a sense of wrong which, like that of the laboring class in the towns, was all the more dangerous because it was not allowed to find expression.

Diaz thought that what Mexico required above everything else was the development of industrial efficiency and financial strength, assured by a maintenance of absolute order. Though disposed to do justice in individual cases, he would tolerate no class movements of any kind. Labor unions, strikes, and other efforts at lightening the burden of the workers he regarded as seditious and deserving of severe punishment. In order to attract capital from abroad as the best means of exploiting the vast resources of the country, he was willing to go to any length, it would seem, in guaranteeing protection. Small wonder, therefore, that the people who shared in none of the immediate advantages from that source should have muttered that Mexico was the "mother of foreigners and the stepmother of Mexicans." And, since so much of the capital came from the United States, the antiforeign sentiment singled Americans out for its particular dislike.

If Diaz appeared unable to appreciate the significance of the educational and industrial awakening, he was no less oblivious of the political outcome. He knew, of course, that the Mexican constitution made impossible demands upon the political capacity of the people. He was himself mainly of Indian blood and he believed that he understood the temperament and limitations of most Mexicans. Knowing how tenaciously they clung to political notions, he believed that it was safer and wiser to forego, at least for a time, real popular government and to concentrate power in the hands of a strong man who could maintain order.

Accordingly, backed by his political adherents, known as cientificos (doctrinaires), some of whom had acquired a sinister ascendancy over him, and also by the Church, the landed proprietors, and the foreign capitalists, Diaz centered the entire administration more and more in himself. Elections became mere farces. Not only the federal officials themselves but the state governors, the members of the state legislatures, and all others in authority during the later years of his rule owed their selection primarily to him and held their positions only if personally loyal to him. Confident of his support and certain that protests against misgovernment would be regarded by the President as seditious, many of them abused their power at will. Notable among them were the local officials, called jefes politicos, whose control of the police force enabled them to indulge in practices of intimidation and extortion which ultimately became unendurable.

Though symptoms of popular wrath against the Diaz regime, or diazpotism as the Mexicans termed it, were apparent as early as 1908, it was not until January, 1911, that the actual revolution came. It was headed by Francisco I. Madero, a member of a wealthy and distinguished family of landed proprietors in one of the northern States. What the revolutionists demanded in substance was the retirement of the President, Vice President, and Cabinet; a return to the principle of no reelection to the chief magistracy; a guarantee of fair elections at all times; the choice of capable, honest, and impartial judges, jefes politicos, and other officials; and, in particular, a series of agrarian and industrial reforms which would break up the great estates, create peasant proprietorships, and better the conditions of the working classes. Disposed at first to treat the insurrection lightly, Diaz soon found that he had underestimated its strength. Grants of some of the demands and promises of reform were met with a dogged insistence upon his own resignation. Then, as the rebellion spread to the southward, the masterful old man realized that his thirty-one years of rule were at an end. On the 25th of May, therefore, he gave up his power and sailed for Europe.

Madero was chosen President five months later, but the revolution soon passed beyond his control. He was a sincere idealist, if not something of a visionary, actuated by humane and kindly sentiments, but he lacked resoluteness and the art of managing men. He was too prolific, also, of promises which he must have known he could not keep. Yielding to family influence, he let his followers get out of hand. Ambitious chieftains and groups of Radicals blocked and thwarted him at every turn. When he could find no means of carrying out his program without wholesale confiscation and the disruption of business interests, he was accused of abandoning his duty. One officer after another deserted him and turned rebel. Brigandage and insurrection swept over the country and threatened to involve it in ugly complications with the United States and European powers. At length, in February, 1913, came the blow that put an end to all of Madero’s efforts and aspirations. A military uprising in the city of Mexico made him prisoner, forced him to resign, and set up a provisional government under the dictatorship of Victoriano Huerta, one of his chief lieutenants. Two weeks later both Madero and the Vice President were assassinated while on their way supposedly to a place of safety.

Huerta was a rough soldier of Indian origin, possessed of unusual force of character and strength of will, ruthless, cunning, and in bearing alternately dignified and vulgar. A cientifico in political faith, he was disposed to restore the Diaz regime, so far as an application of shrewdness and force could make it possible. But from the outset he found an obstacle confronting him that he could not surmount. Though acknowledged by European countries and by many of the Hispanic republics, he could not win recognition from the United States, either as provisional President or as a candidate for regular election to the office. Whether personally responsible for the murder of Madero or not, he was not regarded by the American Government as entitled to recognition, on the ground that he was not the choice of the Mexican people. In its refusal to recognize an administration set up merely by brute force, the United States was upheld by Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Cuba. The elimination of Huerta became the chief feature for a while of its Mexican policy.

Meanwhile the followers of Madero and the pronounced Radicals had found a new northern leader in the person of Venustiano Carranza. They called themselves Constitutionalists, as indicative of their purpose to reestablish the constitution and to choose a successor to Madero in a constitutional manner. What they really desired was those radical changes along social, industrial, and political lines, which Madero had championed in theory. They sought to introduce a species of socialistic regime that would provide the Mexicans with an opportunity for self-regeneration. While Diaz had believed in economic progress supported by the great landed proprietors, the moral influence of the Church, and the application of foreign capital, the Constitutionalists, personified in Carranza, were convinced that these agencies, if left free and undisturbed to work their will, would ruin Mexico. Though not exactly antiforeign in their attitude, they wished to curb the power of the foreigner; they would accept his aid whenever desirable for the economic development of the country, but they would not submit to his virtual control of public affairs. In any case they would tolerate no interference by the United States. Compromise with the Huerta regime, therefore, was impossible. Huerta, the "strong man" of the Diaz type, must go. On this point, at least, the Constitutionalists were in thorough agreement with the United States.

A variety of international complications ensued. Both Huertistas and Carranzistas perpetrated outrages on foreigners, which evoked sharp protests and threats from the United States and European powers. While careful not to recognize his opponents officially, the American Government resorted to all kinds of means to oust the dictator. An embargo was laid on the export of arms and munitions; all efforts to procure financial help from abroad were balked. The power of Huerta was waning perceptibly and that of the Constitutionalists was increasing when an incident that occurred in April, 1914, at Tampico brought matters to a climax. A number of American sailors who had gone ashore to obtain supplies were arrested and temporarily detained. The United States demanded that the American flag be saluted as reparation for the insult. Upon the refusal of Huerta to comply, the United States sent a naval expedition to occupy Vera Cruz.

Both Carranza and Huerta regarded this move as equivalent to an act of war. Argentina, Brazil, and Chile then offered their mediation. But the conference arranged for this purpose at Niagara Falls, Canada, had before it a task altogether impossible of accomplishment. Though Carranza was willing to have the Constitutionalists represented, if the discussion related solely to the immediate issue between the United States and Huerta, he declined to extend the scope of the conference so as to admit the right of the United States to interfere in the internal affairs of Mexico. The conference accomplished nothing so far as the immediate issue was concerned. The dictator did not make reparation for the "affronts and indignities" he had committed; but his day was over. The advance of the Constitutionalists southward compelled him in July to abandon the capital and leave the country. Four months later the American forces were withdrawn from Vera Cruz. The "A B C" Conference, however barren it was of direct results, helped to allay suspicions of the United States in Hispanic America and brought appreciably nearer a "concert of the western world."

While far from exercising full control throughout Mexico, the "first chief" of the Constitutionalists was easily the dominant figure in the situation. At home a ranchman, in public affairs a statesman of considerable ability, knowing how to insist and yet how to temporize, Carranza carried on a struggle, both in arms and in diplomacy, which singled him out as a remarkable character. Shrewdly aware of the advantageous circumstances afforded him by the war in Europe, he turned them to account with a degree of skill that blocked every attempt at defeat or compromise. No matter how serious the opposition to him in Mexico itself, how menacing the attitude of the United States, or how persuasive the conciliatory disposition of Hispanic American nations, he clung stubbornly and tenaciously to his program.

Even after Huerta had been eliminated, Carranza’s position was not assured, for Francisco, or "Pancho," Villa, a chieftain whose personal qualities resembled those of the fallen dictator, was equally determined to eliminate him. For a brief moment, indeed, peace reigned. Under an alleged agreement between them, a convention of Constitutionalist officers was to choose a provisional President, who should be ineligible as a candidate for the permanent presidency at the regular elections. When Carranza assumed both of these positions, Villa declared his act a violation of their understanding and insisted upon his retirement. Inasmuch as the convention was dominated by Villa, the "first chief" decided to ignore its election of a provisional President.

The struggle between the Conventionalists headed by Villa and the Constitutionalists under Carranza plunged Mexico into worse discord and misery than ever. Indeed it became a sort of three-cornered contest. The third party was Emiliano Zapata, an Indian bandit, nominally a supporter of Villa but actually favorable to neither of the rivals. Operating near the capital, he plundered Conventionalists and Constitutionalists with equal impartiality, and as a diversion occasionally occupied the city itself. These circumstances gave force to the saying that Mexico was a "land where peace breaks out once in a while!"

Early in 1915 Carranza proceeded to issue a number of radical decrees that exasperated foreigners almost beyond endurance. Rather than resort to extreme measures again, however, the United States invoked the cooperation of the Hispanic republics and proposed a conference to devise some solution of the Mexican problem. To give the proposed conference a wider representation, it invited not only the "A B C" powers, but Bolivia, Uruguay, and Guatemala to participate. Meeting at Washington in August, the mediators encountered the same difficulty which had confronted their predecessors at Niagara Falls. Though the other chieftains assented, Carranza, now certain of success, declined to heed any proposal of conciliation. Characterizing efforts of the kind as an unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of a sister nation, he warned the Hispanic republics against setting up so dangerous a precedent. In reply Argentina stated that the conference obeyed a "lofty inspiration of Pan-American solidarity, and, instead of finding any cause for alarm, the Mexican people should see in it a proof of their friendly consideration that her fate evokes in us, and calls forth our good wishes for her pacification and development." However, as the only apparent escape from more watchful waiting or from armed intervention on the part of the United States, in October the seven Governments decided to accept the facts as they stood, and accordingly recognized Carranza as the de facto ruler of Mexico.

Enraged at this favor shown to his rival, Villa determined deliberately to provoke American intervention by a murderous raid on a town in New Mexico in March, 1916. When the United States dispatched an expedition to avenge the outrage, Carranza protested energetically against its violation of Mexican territory and demanded its withdrawal. Several clashes, in fact, occurred between American soldiers and Carranzistas. Neither the expedition itself, however, nor diplomatic efforts to find some method of cooperation which would prevent constant trouble along the frontier served any useful purpose, since Villa apparently could not be captured and Carranza refused to yield to diplomatic persuasion. Carranza then proposed that a joint commission be appointed to settle these vexed questions. Even this device proved wholly unsatisfactory. The Mexicans would not concede the right of the United States to send an armed expedition into their country at any time, and the Americans refused to accept limitations on the kind of troops that they might employ or on the zone of their operations. In January, 1917, the joint commission was dissolved and the American soldiers were withdrawn. Again the "first chief" had won!

On the 5th of February a convention assembled at Queretaro promulgated a constitution embodying substantially all of the radical program that Carranza had anticipated in his decrees. Besides providing for an elaborate improvement in the condition of the laboring classes and for such a division of great estates as might satisfy their particular needs, the new constitution imposed drastic restrictions upon foreigners and religious bodies. Under its terms, foreigners could not acquire industrial concessions unless they waived their treaty rights and consented to regard themselves for the purpose as Mexican citizens. In all such cases preference was to be shown Mexicans over foreigners. Ecclesiastical corporations were forbidden to own real property. No primary school and no charitable institution could be conducted by any religious mission or denomination, and religious publications must refrain from commenting on public affairs. The presidential term was reduced from six years to four; reelection was prohibited; and the office of Vice President was abolished.

When, on the 1st of May, Venustiano Carranza was chosen President, Mexico had its first constitutional executive in four years. After a cruel and obstinately intolerant struggle that had occasioned indescribable suffering from disease and starvation, as well as the usual slaughter and destruction incident to war, the country began to enjoy once more a measure of peace. Financial exhaustion, however, had to be overcome before recuperation was possible. Industrial progress had become almost paralyzed; vast quantities of depreciated paper money had to be withdrawn from circulation; and an enormous array of claims for the loss of foreign life and property had rolled up.


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Chicago: William Robert Shepherd, "Chapter X. Mexico in Revolution," Hispanic Nations of the New World; a Chronicle of Our Southern Neighbors, ed. Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907 in Hispanic Nations of the New World; a Chronicle of Our Southern Neighbors Original Sources, accessed October 3, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=HZYPJ9BR7BJGCU2.

MLA: Shepherd, William Robert. "Chapter X. Mexico in Revolution." Hispanic Nations of the New World; a Chronicle of Our Southern Neighbors, edited by Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907, in Hispanic Nations of the New World; a Chronicle of Our Southern Neighbors, Original Sources. 3 Oct. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=HZYPJ9BR7BJGCU2.

Harvard: Shepherd, WR, 'Chapter X. Mexico in Revolution' in Hispanic Nations of the New World; a Chronicle of Our Southern Neighbors, ed. . cited in , Hispanic Nations of the New World; a Chronicle of Our Southern Neighbors. Original Sources, retrieved 3 October 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=HZYPJ9BR7BJGCU2.