In the period from 1910 to 1920, Mexico experienced a bloody and widespread revolution, which left almost no one in the country untouched. Although often characterised as a peasant uprising, the events leading to the revolution were much more varied and complex. Political, economic, and cultural issues, building up over a period of many years, all contributed to the ensuing revolt.
Two bloody and destructive wars had ravaged Mexico in the mid 1800s, and it was no surprise that a young general of the French Wars, Porfirio Diaz, came into power in 1876 (Calvert 1968). Recognising the need for political stability and foreign investment, Diaz began a programme to first quell unrest in the countryside (Tuck 2005). Ingeniously, he first recruited local bandit groups to become rural police, thereby both creating a trained security force and eliminating much of the lawlessness with which the country struggled. The Mexican state had previously promoted an ideal of masculine honour defined by performance in warfare against ‘barbaric Indians,’ with rewards of “reputation, access to land, and membership in a corporate community” (Vaughan 1997, 173). Culturally, Mexican males held land ownership, reputation, and power or standing in the local community as signs of their masculine dominance. Diaz appealed to the bandit / police c ulturally by giving them both land and positions of power in the local community. They, in turn, kept down any local uprisings or unrest.
Following this success, Diaz began to actively court foreign investors. He promoted Mexican stability, and played both the Americans and the British and Europeans, encouraging investment from each as a “counterbalance” to the other (Tuck 2005). With Mexico the most stable and therefore profitable Latin country in the region, foreign investments poured in. These developments greatly increased both the political power and wealth of Diaz and his inner circle. He placed one of his advisors in the position of President at the end of his term to officially continue to govern by the country’s Constitution, but reassumed the Executive Office immediately after, and continued to be “re-elected” until his death in 1910 (Calvert 1968). Diaz appointed both the legislature and the courts, and in the 1910 election actually jailed his opponents to ensure his own victory (Knight 1980). As he became older, growing con cern regarding his successor and the future stability of Mexico was voiced, and done so for good reason. Diaz failure to train and promote a successor, possibly from fear of his displacement before he wanted to leave, caused political instability that contributed to the Mexican revolution (Gonzales 2002).
Not surprisingly, the lack of checks and balances in the Diaz government, combined with an influx of capital, led to widespread corruption. Supporters of Diaz became wealthy and powerful, eventually dividing themselves into two rival groups. The cientificos were European-educated elitists who prized intellectualism and acted as advisors to the Diaz regime, holding many government positions. They developed their wealth through the acceptance of bribes and other such corrupt practises, using their political power for personal wealth (Cockcroft 1968). Provincial landowners joined with high-level businessmen to oppose the cientificos. The landowners controlled large, lucrative plantations called haciendas. Both they and native businessmen felt threatened by foreign capitalists, whom they perceived the cientificos favoured at their expense (Tuck 2005). Diaz was able to balance these two groups against each other, much as he did the US and the British and European inv estors, for much of his reign. As he finally began to lean toward the cientificos, the landowner / businessmen coalition successfully rallied much of the middle class to their side, effectively ensuring Diaz’ eventual downfall (Knight 1980).
Several political parties began to organize against Diaz in the early 1900s. One of the most active, the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM), drafted a revolutionary programme in 1906 that later was incorporated into the 1917 Constitution (Cockcroft 1968). The PLM went to great lengths to publish materials opposing the corruption in the Diaz administration and its lack of focus on the true needs of its citizens. The government responded by hiring detectives to arrest or harass PLM members, even those who had moved to the United States or Canada (Cockcroft 1968). Much of their literary efforts did reach Mexico, however, and they were able to stir many of the peasant and labourer class into opposition to the Diaz regime (Cockcroft 1968).
They were particularly adept at labour organisation. The Diaz government, in its zeal to encourage foreign capital and economic stimulus, adopted a policy whereby foreign employees were paid more than local Mexicans for the same job and the same amount of work (Tuck 2005). The PLM was able to rouse these workers, as well as others, to the fact that foreign investors and corrupt government officials were growing extremely wealthy off their labour, while they were working long hours for an impoverished existence (Cockcroft 1968). By 1906, widespread labour strikes and unrests were occurring. The government responded with use of force, sometimes even opening fire on groups of striking workers (Calvert 1968). This only served to further infuriate the working classes; large group of wage earners were ripe for a political uprising.
Political disruption was also boiling amongst the peasant agricultural workers. Their unrest stemmed from much more basic concerns than the ideological opposition to foreign investment (Calvert 1968). These were former small landowners, whether individually or collectively, who had lost many of their rights in addition to their property. Over time, this led to a deep-seated distrust and dislike for the Diaz government (Calvert 1968). Continued poverty and lack of concern for their basic needs, both from their employers and their government, led to imminent political explosion. It is the involvement of the working-class and peasantry that makes the Mexican revolution truly a classic in terms of cause. Large groups of marginalised people who were formerly inactive in government rose up and organised to overthrow the authorities above them (Knight 1980). The result, albeit eventually, was a freer Mexico.
An ever-growing tension was emerging between the lower class and their demands for social justice and the upper class, who were concerned about Mexico’s social and political stability (Gonzales 2002). However, both saw their concerns being brushed aside by the Diaz administration. Although once politically adept at balancing such groups, toward the end of his career Diaz began to make blunders, doing less than he had previously to appease such groups (Cockcroft 1968).
Up from this political quagmire rose Francisco Madero. He came from a rich, landowning family in Northern Mexico, and was concerned about a number of issues in Mexican communities. He was a supporter of honest government, and entered the 1910 campaign for President with a call for a return to government according to the 1857 Constitution (Knight 1980). His election slogan, “A Real Vote and No Boss Rule,” addressed the two main political issues of concern to the Mexican people. First, that the corruption in government, which appeared to favour foreign investors, be brought to an end. Second, that the working-class population virtual slave rule of foreign owners of businesses and large plantations. On the eve of the election, Diaz had Madero and his associates jailed, thereby ensuring his re-election through corruption and coercion (Gonzales 2002). “Rather than capitulate to Diaz, Madero called upon the Mexican people to rise in arms on Nove mber 20th, 1910 (Knight 1980, 30).
Madero had expected strong support from middle class liberals, but was surprised by the overwhelming response of the working-class and agricultural peasants, who took to arms. Once in power, Madero tried to accommodate both major groups responsible for his establishment as President, the working-class / agricultural peasants and the middle-class professionals with their ideological concerns. However, unable to appease both groups, he soon lost control and Mexico was plunged into a period of military aggressions, bandit leaders, and local uprisings (Cockcroft 1968). Madero was assassinated during a military coup in 1913, and General Victoriano Huerta began a short, brutal, dictatorial military regime (Knight 1980). Heurta tried to militarily suppress the various uprisings, vowing “peace, cost what it may,” but was unable to control the revolution. He soon lost power, and a number of local leaders controlled various areas of Mexico until 1915 (Knight 19 80).
At this time a group called the Constitutionalists emerged, called as such supposedly because of their allegiance to Constitutional rule. They returned land to the peasants, although more for political reasons, and encouraged a popular base of support. By 1917, the Constitutionalists had taken over the Mexican government, rewritten the Constitution, and installed a new President (Knight 1980).
Economics were another major cause of the Mexican Revolution. Although the Diaz government strived for rapid economic growth and development throughout Mexico, these very economic policies aimed at Mexican development ultimately played a role in leading to the revolution. Specifically, they contributed to the overall growth of the Mexican economy, but at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable workers. The nation’s GNP rose, while its quality of life for most citizens plummeted (Tuck 2005).
Statistically, the Diaz regime succeeded economically, but at great cost to the average Mexican. Thousands of miles of railroads were built across Mexico, allowing the rapid transport of goods for export. Mining of precious metals grew exponentially, facilitated by changes in land ownership laws to favour rich foreign investment in the mining sector (Gonzales 2002). Across Mexico in the late 1800s and early 1900s, tremendous wealth was being generated through the country’s industrialisation and exploitation of its natural resources (Tuck 2005).
Quality of life for the average worker, however, declined dramatically. The infant mortality rate in Mexico City was three times that of similar urban areas in the UK or US. Basic necessities, such as food, clothing, shelter, and health services were often poor quality or lacking. The 1910 census “classified fifty percent of Mexican houses as unfit for human habitation,” while sixteen percent of the families in Mexico City (approximately 15,000 family units), were homeless. Life expectation nationwide was just under 30 years (Tuck 2005).
Rural communities hardly fared better than urban cities. Large plantations, or haciendas, engulfed and absorbed local family farms and rural collectives. The hacienda owners then became focused on producing cash crops for exports, such as sugar, cotton, and coffee. This resulted in less and less workable land for the populace to produce its food supply (Knight 1980). Many workers were virtual slaves on the plantations. When two years in a row, 1908 and 1909, both saw poor harvests, much of the rural areas of Mexico were left facing hunger and even increased impoverishment (Knight 1980). These communities harked back to their situations before the Diaz government, and were ready for a change, by force or otherwise.
The government policies, therefore, had the most impact on the peasants and rural farm workers, who were denied even the basic necessities of life, such as food and housing. Rapid economic growth only served to dramatically widen the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Wealthy Mexicans were educated in Europe, while the majority of the country had no access to education at all. Those in positions of power had lavish estates, while many poor citizens were either homeless or housed in sub-standard dwellings. As the poor became poorer, they became both economically and politically disenfranchised, and quick to rally around Madero and his call to arms. They had been pushed to the point economically where they had little to lose (Calvert 1968).
Backlash by revolutionaries against foreign control led to the destruction of much of the infrastructure in Mexico, which in turn plunged the nation into economic depression. Large areas of railroad were rendered inoperative. Plantations and businesses were damaged. As the fighting continued, hunger and security issues became paramount for the peasantry. Eventually, revolutionary groups became more like outlaw bandits, with many entering villages and communities to plunder and rape the local citizens rather than free them from tyranny (Vaughan 1997). The country was plunged into chaos for several years. Finally, the Constitutionalists took over the national power vacuum and led the country out of revolutionary warfare.
Cultural causes also contributed to the outbreak of the Mexican revolution. Rapid economic growth was threatening both the cultures and existence of many rural communities. The large estates swallowed whole communities. Historically, many Mexican communities had held land collectively, with the entire tribal or people group working together to farm the land and support themselves as a group (Gonzales 2002). As Diaz began awarding land, first to the Rural Police and later to plantation owners, many peasants had their ancestral land rights simply swept away (Knight 1980). “Proud, often ancient communities found themselves languishing under the arbitrary rule of Diaz’ political bosses, facing increased control and regimentation” (Knight 1980, 30).
Foreign business development such as railroads and mining also displaced entire communities. In addition, restricted land availability caused many to move out of their traditional communities and seek work in factories, mines, oil production, and the like (Gonzales 2002). Power shifts from a traditionally patriarchal system to one based on economic superiority led to anger and resentment amongst native peoples. They felt their communities and traditions were disrespected and were often quite accurate in their assessment (Leyva 1998). This left them receptive to supporting a new government structure, one that would hopefully appreciate or at least respect their cultural values.
In related cultural issues, the primacy of land ownership, military skill, and reputation in the male Mexican’s identity encouraged men to be angered at the reallocation of their property, and quick to respond to such aggression with violence (Vaughan 1997). These men, along with adolescent boys out for adventure, were therefore open to joining revolutionary leaders such as Emilio Zapata and Francisco “Pancho” Villa (Leyva 1998). The revolutionaries were considered champions of the people, and most started off acting from a true desire to address social injustices experienced by the lower class.
Over time, the majority of the population was convinced that the Constitutionalists would honour their cultural needs and values, and supported this group in their ascension into power. The Constitutionalists, a group primarily from the northern states, were equally at home in the cities and the country. They were neither intellectual nor uneducated, but practical with a good sense of what the Mexican people wanted and needed from their government at the time (Knight 1980). The Constitutionalists restored national rule and by 1920 had brought the Mexican revolution to close.
In conclusion, it is important to consider all three causal areas when considering the origins of the Mexican revolution; all these contributed to the unrest from 1910 to1920. Political blunders, such a Diaz’ support of foreign investors and their cientifico friends at the expense of powerful landowners and businessmen turned one of the countries two elite power groups against him. Use of force to mediate labour strikes and attempted suppression of alternative political parties did nothing to endear him to the working classes. Rapid economic growth, fuelled by foreign investment and compounded by government corruption, widened the gap between rich and poor, and made the poor ripe for revolt. Lack of consideration of native culture values, particularly those related to land ownership, also contributed to the outbreak of violence in the second decade of the 1900s. These causes, or origins, led to the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1917, and changed the nation of Mexico forever.
Calvert, P. 1968. The Mexican Revolution 1910-1914. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Cockcroft, J. 1968. Intellectual Precursors of the Mexican Revolution 1900- 1913. Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Texas Press, Austin and London.
Gonzales, M. 2002. The Mexican Revolution, 1910-1940. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, USA.
Knight, A., 1980. The Mexican Revolution. History Today, May 1980, pp. 28-34.
Leyva, Y. 1998. “I Go to Fight for Social Justice”: Children as Revolutionaries in the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920. Peace & Change, vol. 23, no. 4, October 1998, pp. 423-439.
Tuck, J., 2005. Democrat to Autocrat: The Transformation of Porfirio Diaz. Mexico Connect [online]. Available at www.mexconnect.com, accessed on 12 April 2005.
Vaughan, M.K. 1997. Cultural Approaches to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Radical History Review, vol. 68, pp. 172-179.
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