The Mexican Revolution

Modern Mexico was born from the fires of revolution. It was long and bloody, and nobody managed to hold power for too long before the revolution finally ended. It was a complicated time, but also a very important one in the history of the Americas.

What Was the Mexican Revolution?

Political corruption and economic concerns lead to the revolution breaking out. The president of Mexico of the time, Porfirio Díaz, made many enemies due to his corrupt government and his meddling in the Mexican economy. Those enemies were happy when it looked like he might finally retire from the presidency, and they attempted to oppose him in a fair election.

Legal methods failed them, so they took up arms and began the revolution to remove him by force. They succeeded in forcing Díaz out of office but not in establishing a functional government to replace him, with the result that Mexico spent the next decade in a power struggle.

What Were the Mexican Revolution's Causes?

Porfirio Díaz

© Jorge Elías - Porfirio Díaz

Porfirio Díaz dominated Mexican politics in the period before the revolution. He ruled Mexico from 1876 until 1911, with only a short break between 1880 and 1884, when one of this allies held the presidency and amended the law to allow for presidents to serve more than one term.

Díaz held elections while he ran the country, but their legitimacy was questionable at best. He held power through a mixture of his private military force and rigged elections. He brought foreign wealth into Mexico and encouraged industrialization, which won him the support of the industrial leaders, but at the same time he made enemies by suppressing labor unions and oppressing agricultural workers. Díaz had allies, but he also had plenty of opponents.

The presidential election of 1910 was allegedly open to the public because Díaz was getting too old to run the country. A man named Franciso Madero challenged Díaz for the presidency, and Díaz responded by throwing him in jail and rigging the election.

When one of Madero's supporters, Toribio Ortega, discovered that the election had been rigged, he responded by taking up arms and leading an army to oppose Díaz and his government by force. Madero wrote a letter from jail that declared the Díaz presidency illegitimate and called on contacts in the United States to help overthrow him. Battle broke out between the rebels and the government, and so the Mexican revolution began.

Who Led the Revolution?

The revolution lasted for a decade, and many people rose to fame and infamy during that time. Some, like Pancho Villa, are still famous for their actions.

Franciso Madero

Francisco Madero

Franciso Madero was the first man to seriously oppose Porfirio Díaz, and it was his arrest that led to the revolution breaking out in the first place. He was an idealist who believed in democracy and workers' rights, but he had no political or military experience. He managed to bring people together to start a revolution, but he didn't have the skill or inclination to hold them together after they defeated their common enemy.

Emiliano Zapata

Emiliano Zapata

Zapata was a peasant who became a military and revolutionary hero. He supported radical land reform that favored farm workers, but that often put him at odds with other revolutionaries. Sometimes he was their ally, and other times he was their enemy, but he was rarely their friend. He became a hero of the common man, but he was eventually assassinated and largely failed to accomplish his goals.

Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa

Francisco Villa, most often known as Pancho Villa, cultivated a reputation as a dashing military hero. He became one of the most important generals in the war, and he seemed like he could bring order to Mexico until his army was defeated by the forces of his main rival, Carranza. He later fought against the United States, made a second attempt to seize Mexico, and was assassinated.

Victoriano Huerta

Victoriano Huerta

Huerta took power in Mexico by leading a coup against Madero. He was little more than a dictator who wanted to maintain his own power, and he only managed to rule for a short time before the various revolutionary factions deposed him.

Venustiano Carranza

Venustiano Carranza

Carranza cared for the constitution. He led the opposition against Huerta, and eventually managed to take power and run Mexico near the end of the Mexican Revolution. He was notable both for his military success and because he was willing to leave the presidency peacefully after his term. His attempt to name a successor went over poorly, and resulted in a new uprising and his assassination.

Álvaro Obregón

Álvaro Obregón

Obregón was Carranza's eventual successor and had previously been one of his greatest generals. The presidency passed on peacefully after he retired, although he remained influential in the Mexican government until his death.


Madero and Zapata in Cuernavaca

Madero and Zapata in Cuernavaca


The Revolutionary Timeline

The revolution began with Madero's coup against Porfirio Díaz. Madero took office as president in October 1911, after his forces sent Díaz into exile in May. His presidency lasted until 1913, but it was marked by discontent from the military and marked by many rebellions.

Huerta took over from Madero, and he ruled until 1914. He was a dictator who enraged the revolutionaries, and Mexico descended into civil war.

Revolutionaries led by Zapata

Revolutionaries led by Zapata

1914 and 1915 saw a period of war between several revolutionary factions, including those of Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Venustanio Carranza. The war ended in Carranza's favor, and he broke the power of both Zapata and Villa.

Carranza ruled until 1920, when fighting broke out once more as he tried to leave office. Power eventually passed to Álvaro Obregón. The revolutionary period as a whole can be said to end with his death, because the presidency passed from president to president relatively peacefully after his term.

What Was the Role of the USA?

The United States was a major force in the Mexican Revolution. It is most famous for going to war against Pancho Villa, but the bulk of its influence was economic. Many businesses in America were very interested in having a Mexican government that was willing to work with them.

Díaz had encouraged them to invest to help industrialize his country, and those corporations were willing to support people who favored their investments. Foreign investment had also become a major political issues, and the economic changes associated with industrialization were one of the driving forces behind the push against Díaz and the start of the Revolution.

American Reinforcements, circa 1916

© ABQ Museum Photoarchives - American Reinforcements, circa 1916

What Was the Role of the Catholic Church?

The church and state had long been in conflict in Mexico. Most Mexicans were Catholic, but laws had been passed to keep the church out of the government. Those laws were mostly ignored, so the conflict had been minimal at the start of the revolution. The Catholics formed a major part of the opposition to Madero once he took power, and he embraced them as a rival political party that could encourage democracy without destabilizing the country.

That proved to be a mistake, for the church had its own goals and supported the coup that forced Madero out of power. In general, the church proved to be a powerful force for reactionary politics, but it rarely got along well with the military powers that ruled Mexico because those powers did not want the church as a rival.

The Mexican Revolution's Legacy

The Mexican Revolution was one of the most significant events of the 20th century. It showed the massive social changes were still possible, and that the social issues surrounding industrialization could easily turn violent if people thought peaceful change was impossible. It was a useful lesson for many other nations to learn, and it helped to encourage them to give dissatisfied citizens a peaceful outlet for their complaints.

Mexico still recognizes the revolution as one of the most important events in the country's history. The nation is filled with monuments to revolutionary heroes, and the modern country's political parties can still trace their lineage back to those that fought during the revolutionary period.

Monumento a la Revolución, Mexico City

© Haakon S. Krohn - Monumento a la Revolución, Mexico City

Quick Facts

  • The revolution's most famous heroes in the modern era, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, both lost their wars to Carranza and died by assassination. Carranza is less famous despite being more successful, but was also assassinated.
  • Wealth and corruption were the driving forces behind the revolution.
  • Zapata's beliefs about land reform and support for the peasant class still hold sway in some parts of modern Latin America.
  • Porfirio Díaz had one of his supporters amend the Mexican legal code so that he could be reelected.
  • The revolution was a precursor to the Cold War in that many foreign powers sought to intervene due to economic and political concerns, but never deployed their armies in Mexico.