Biography of Francisco Madero

Father of the Mexican Revolution

Francisco Madero. Public Domain Image

Francisco I. Madero (1873-1913) was a reformist politician and writer who served as President of Mexico from 1911 to 1913. This unlikely revolutionary helped engineer the overthrow of entrenched dictator Porfirio Díaz by kick-starting the Mexican Revolution. Unfortunately for Madero, he found himself caught between the remnants of Díaz' power structure (who hated him for overthrowing the old regime) and the revolutionary forces he unleashed (who despised him for not being radical enough).

He was deposed and executed in 1913 by Victoriano Huerta, a general who had served under Díaz.

Early Life and Career

Madero was born in the state of Coahuila to extremely wealthy parents. By some accounts, they were the fifth-richest family in Mexico. His grandfather Evaristo made many lucrative investments and was involved in, among other interests, ranching, wine-making, silver, textiles, and cotton. As a young man, Francisco was very well educated, studying in the United States, Austria, and France.

When he returned from his travels in the United States and Europe, he was placed in charge of some of the family interests including the San Pedro de las Colonias hacienda, which he operated at a tidy profit while managing to treat his workers very well.

Political Life Before 1910

When Bernardo Reyes, Governor of Nuevo León, brutally broke up a political demonstration in 1903, Madero decided to become more politically involved.

Although his early attempts to be elected to public office failed, he funded his own newspaper which he used to promote his ideas.

Madero had to overcome his personal image in order to succeed as a politician in macho Mexico. He was a small man with a high-pitched voice, both of which made his it difficult for him to command the respect of soldiers and revolutionaries who saw him as effeminate.

He was a vegetarian and teetotaler at a time when these were considered very peculiar in Mexico and he was also an avowed spiritualist. He claimed to have regular contact with his brother Raúl, who had died at a very young age. Later, he said he had gotten political advice from none other than the spirit of Benito Juarez, who told him to keep up the pressure on Díaz.

Díaz in 1910

Porfirio Díaz was an iron-fisted dictator who had been in power since 1876. Díaz had modernized the country, laying miles of train tracks and encouraging industry and foreign investment, but at a steep price. The poor of Mexico lived a life of abject misery. In the north, miners worked without any safety or insurance, in Central Mexico the peasants were kicked off their land, and in the south, debt peonage meant that thousands worked essentially as slaves. He was the darling of international investors, who commended him for “civilizing” the unruly nation he ruled.

Somewhat paranoid, Díaz was always careful to keep tabs on those who could oppose him. The press was completely controlled by the regime and rogue journalists could be jailed without trial if suspected of libel or sedition. Díaz brilliantly played ambitious politicians and military men off against one another, leaving very few realistic threats to his rule.

He appointed all state governors, who shared in the spoils of his crooked but lucrative system. All other elections were blatantly rigged and only the extremely foolish ever tried to buck the system.

In more than 30 years as dictator, the cunning Díaz had fought off many challenges, but by 1910 cracks were beginning to show. The dictator was in his late 70s and the wealthy class that he represented was beginning to worry about who would replace him. Years of toil and repression meant that the rural poor (as well as the urban working class, to a lesser extent) loathed Díaz and were primed and ready for revolution. A revolt by workers in 1906 at the Cananea copper mine in Sonora that had to be brutally put down (in part by Arizona rangers brought across the border) showed Mexico and the world that Don Porfirio was vulnerable.

The 1910 Elections

Díaz had promised that there would be free elections in 1910. Taking him at his word, Madero organized the “Anti-Re-electionist” (referring to Díaz) Party to challenge the old dictator. He wrote and printed a book entitled  "The Presidential Succession of 1910," which became an instant best-seller. One of Madero's key platforms was that when Díaz had originally come into power in 1876 he had claimed he would not seek re-election, a promise conveniently forgotten later. Madero claimed that no good ever came from one man holding absolute power and pointed out Díaz' shortcomings, including the massacre of Maya Indians in the Yucatan and Yaquis in the north, the crooked system of governors and the incident at the Cananea mine.

Madero's campaign hit a nerve. Mexicans flocked to see him and hear his speeches. He began publishing a new newspaper el anti-reelectionista (the no re-electionist), which was edited by José Vasconcelos, who would later become one of the most important intellectuals of the Revolution. He secured the nomination of his party and selected Francisco Vásquez Gómez as his running mate.

When it became clear that Madero would win, Díaz had second thoughts and had most of the Anti-Reelectionist leaders jailed, including Madero, who was arrested on a falsified charge of plotting armed insurrection. Because Madero came from a wealthy family and was extremely well-connected, Díaz could not simply kill him, as he already had with two generals (Juan Corona and García de la Cadena) who had previously threatened to run against him in the 1910 election.

The election was a sham and Díaz naturally “won.” Madero, bailed out of jail by his wealthy father, crossed the border into Texas and set up shop in San Antonio. There, he declared the election null and void in his “Plan of San Luís Potosí” and called for armed revolution, ironically the same crime he had been charged with when it appeared he would easily win any fair election. The date of November 20 was set for the revolution to begin.

Although there was some fighting before that, November 20 is considered the starting date of the revolution.

The Revolution Begins

Once Madero was in open revolt, Díaz declared open season on his supporters, and many maderistas were rounded up and killed. The call to revolution was heeded by many Mexicans. In the State of Morelos, Emiliano Zapata raised an army of angry peasants and began creating serious trouble for wealthy landowners. In the state of Chihuahua, Pascual Orozco and Casulo Herrera raised sizable armies: one of Herrera's captains was Pancho Villa. The ruthless Villa soon replaced the cautious Herrera and together with Orozco captured cities up and down Chihuahua in the name of the revolution (although Orozco was far more interested in crushing business rivals than he was in social reform).

In February 1911, Madero returned to Mexico with about 130 men. Northern leaders such as Villa and Orozco did not really trust him, so in March, his force swollen to about 600, Madero decided to attack the federal garrison at the town of Casas Grandes. He led the attack himself, and it turned out to be a fiasco. Outgunned, Madero and his men had to retreat, and Madero himself was injured. Although it ended badly, the bravery Madero had shown in leading such an attack gained him a great deal of respect among the northern rebels. Orozco himself, at that time leader of the most powerful of the rebel armies, acknowledged Madero as leader of the Revolution.

Not long after the Casas Grandes battle, Madero first met Pancho Villa and the two men hit it off in spite of their obvious differences. Villa knew his limits: he was a good bandit and rebel chief, but he was no visionary or politician. Madero knew his limits, too. He was a man of words, not action, and he considered Villa a sort of Robin Hood and just the man he needed to drive Díaz out of power. Madero allowed his men to join Villa's force: his days of soldiering were done. Villa and Orozco, with Madero in tow, began a push towards Mexico City, repeatedly scoring important victories over federal forces along the way.

Meanwhile, in the south, Zapata's peasant army was capturing towns in his native state of Morelos. His army fought bravely against federal forces with superior arms and training, winning with a combination of bravery and numbers. In May of 1911, Zapata scored a huge win with a bloody victory over federal forces in the town of Cuautla. These rebel armies caused a great deal of trouble for Díaz. Because they were so spread out, he could not concentrate his forces enough to corner and annihilate any one of them. By May of 1911, Díaz could see that his rule was falling to pieces.

Díaz Steps Down

Once Díaz saw the writing on the wall, he negotiated a surrender with Madero, who generously allowed the former dictator to leave the country in May of 1911. Madero was greeted as a hero when he rode into Mexico City on June 7, 1911. Once he arrived, however, he made a series of mistakes that would prove fatal. His first was to accept Francisco León de la Barra as an interim president: the former Díaz crony was able to coalesce the anti-Madero movement. He also erred in demobilizing the armies of Orozco and Villa in the north.

Madero's Presidency

After an election which was a foregone conclusion, Madero assumed the Presidency in November of 1911. Never a true revolutionary, Madero simply felt that Mexico was ready for democracy and that the time had come for Díaz to step down. He never intended to carry out any truly radical changes, such as land reform. He spent much of his time as president trying to reassure the privileged class that he would not dismantle the power structure left in place by Díaz.

Meanwhile, Zapata's patience with Madero was wearing thin. He eventually realized that Madero would never approve real land reform, and took up arms once again. León de la Barra, still interim president and working against Madero, sent General Victoriano Huerta, a violent alcoholic and brutal remnant of the Díaz regime, down into Morelos to put a lid on Zapata. Huerta's strong-arm tactics only succeeded in making the situation much worse. Eventually called back to Mexico City, Huerta (who despised Madero) began conspiring against the president.

When he finally was elected to the presidency in October of 1911, the only friend Madero still had was Pancho Villa, still in the north with his army demobilized. Orozco, who had never gotten the huge rewards he had expected from Madero, took to the field and many of his former soldiers eagerly joined him.

Downfall and Execution

The politically naïve Madero did not realize that he was surrounded by danger. Huerta was conspiring with American ambassador Henry Lane Wilson to remove Madero as Félix Díaz (Porfirio's nephew) took up arms along with Bernardo Reyes. Although Villa rejoined the fight in favor of Madero, he ended up in a sort of military stalemate with Orozco in the north. Madero's reputation suffered further when United States President William Howard Taft, concerned at the strife in Mexico, sent an army to the Rio Grande in a conspicuous show of force and warning to confine the unrest to the south of the border.

Félix Díaz began conspiring with Huerta, who had been relieved of command but still counted on the loyalty of many of his former troops. Several other generals were also involved. Madero, alerted to the danger, refused to believe that his generals would turn on him. The forces of Félix Díaz entered Mexico City, and a ten-day standoff known as la decena trágica (“the tragic fortnight”) ensued between Díaz and federal forces. Accepting Huerta's “protection,” Madero fell into his trap: he was arrested by Huerta on February 18, 1913, and executed four days later. According to Huerta, he was killed when his supporters tried to free him by force, but it is far more likely that Huerta gave the order himself. With Madero gone, Huerta turned on his fellow conspirators and made himself president.

Legacy

Although he was personally not very radical, Francisco Madero was the spark that set off the Mexican Revolution. He was just clever, rich, well-connected and charismatic enough to get the ball rolling and drive off an already weakened Porfirio Díaz, but could not manage or hold onto power once he had attained it. The Mexican Revolution was fought out by brutal, ruthless men who asked and received no quarter from one another, and the idealistic Madero was simply out of his depth around them.

Still, after his death, his name became a rallying cry, especially for Pancho Villa and his men. Villa was very disappointed that Madero had failed and spent the rest of the revolution looking for a replacement, another politician in whom Villa felt he could entrust the future of his country. Madero's brothers were among Villa's staunchest supporters.

Madero was not the last to try and fail to unite the nation. Other politicians would try only to be crushed just as he had. It would not be until 1920, when Alvaro Obregón seized power, that anyone would be able to impose his will on the unruly factions still fighting in different regions.

Today, Madero is seen as a hero by the government and people of Mexico, who see him as the father of the revolution that eventually would do much to level the playing field between the rich and the poor. He is seen as weak but idealistic, an honest, decent man who was destroyed by the demons he helped unleash. He was executed before the bloodiest years of the revolution and his image is therefore relatively unsullied by later events. Even Zapata, so beloved by Mexico's poor today, has a lot of blood on his hands, much more than Madero.

Source: McLynn, Frank. Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000.