How an Unfinished Mexican Revolution Led to a Bloody Civil War


By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University

In the weeks after Francisco Madero’s assassination, Venustiano Carranza, a large landowner whom Madero had appointed as governor of Coahuila state, issued a political manifesto denouncing General Victoriano Huerta’s coup and calling for the restoration of constitutional government. Mexico was now gripped in a bloody civil war in which tens of thousands participated.

Photo of the Monument to the Heroic Boy Soldiers in Mexico City
General Victoriano Huerta’s surrender initiated a new stage in the Mexican Revolution and civil war. (Image: Kiev.Victor/Shutterstock)

Anti-Huerta Coalition

There was a sizable anti-Huerta coalition, but it was united only by a determination to depose Huerta. For instance, while Carranza was interested in a constitutional democracy, Pancho Villa focused on local autonomy, and Emiliano Zapata was determined to achieve significant land reform.

Peasants and workers seized the property of Mexican elites and of foreign companies. Raids along the border were so effective that Huerta’s central government was forced to divert forces to suppress the marauding. But this enabled the other anti-Huerta armies to make greater headway, forming a pincer movement on the capital from both the south and the north.

Meanwhile, a radical labor union took up arms against Huerta in Mexico City. And in April 1914, US forces occupied Mexico’s southern port of Veracruz. The American forces stymied shipments of arms to Huerta even while ensuring that supplies flowed freely to Carranza’s constitutionalist forces. 

Huerta was seriously undermined, and so when the anti-Huerta coalition reached Mexico City in August, the military dictator Huerta had no choice but to surrender. This initiated a new stage in the Mexican Revolution and civil war.

Contest of Personalities

Without a unified guiding ideology, the revolution became even more a contest of personalities, representing disparate constituencies. The revolution hadn’t one vision of what modern Mexico would look like but many visions. 

Image of Venustiano Carranza
Venustiano Carranza denounced Victoriano Huerta’s coup and issued a political manifesto that led to a civil war. (Image: Harris & Ewing/Public domain)

By mid-1915, the central government under Carranza, and the military forces of General Obregón, pushed Villa and Zapata back. Harvard historian John Womack says, “Although the Carrancistas could not yet dominate the whole nation, they could prevent any other faction from displacing them.” Meanwhile, tensions mounted between Carranza and urban industrial workers.

Divided over issues of wages and price controls, workers initiated widespread strikes and built barricades in defiance of the government in the summer of 1916. Carranza used troops to squash the labor unrest, demonstrating that his allegiance rested with the employers rather than with the workers.

The New Constitution

With the workers’ movement now all but shattered, Carranza and his allies convened a constitutional convention in December 1916 to craft a new constitution. The constitution enumerated the rights of citizenship that Mexicans now enjoyed. In some ways, it was a transformational and progressive document.

It provided for free, obligatory, secular education. It limited foreign use of land and natural resources, ending or reducing the longstanding exploitation of Mexican resources by foreign capital. It established single terms with no opportunity for re-election of the president and state governors. And it set the norms of a minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, an eight-hour workday along with the right of workers to collectively bargain and strike.

But the new constitution did not produce meaningful land reform except to reinforce the concept of private property, including the legal sanctity of the large haciendas. And in a country where 98 percent of the population was at least nominally Catholic, it took away the church’s right to own property, run primary and secondary schools, and the clergy’s right to wear religious clothing in public, to vote, or criticize the nation’s laws and its political authorities.

The new constitution was ratified in February 1917.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Great Revolutions of Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Not a Satisfying Ending

It would have been wonderful if the story of the Mexican Revolution had ended here. This was a fitting climax to a rebellion that had begun in protest against a dictator who had long violated the economic and political rights of his people. But, alas, personalities continued to matter, and the damage wrought by civil war lingered.

When Carranza formally assumed the presidency in May 1917, the treasury was empty, employment scarce, and hunger common. Epidemics were rampant, and armed opposition persisted in many parts of the country. Carranza, however, concentrated on eliminating political rivals, and the new constitution was only selectively implemented.

In April 1919, Zapata was lured into a trap by Carranza, where he was double-crossed, ambushed, and killed. Only a year later, it was Carranza’s turn, who was shot dead by the betrayed General Álvaro Obregón, who was then elected president in 1920.

More Instability and Chaos

Because of the instability, and in some ways unfinished nature, of the Mexican Revolution, some scholars date its end not in 1920 but rather in 1934 or even 1940. The subsequent decade, the 1920s, is often considered to have been a period of reconstruction in Mexico rather than of revolutionary upheaval. But supporters of the Catholic Church warred against the secular state. This combined with a tumultuous rebellion in the northern state of Sonora meant it was a period of continuing unrest. 

The Mexican economy cratered in 1928. In 1927, the now-retired Álvaro Obregón had decided to run for the presidency once more. Obregón won, but before he could be inaugurated, he was assassinated by a disgruntled Catholic.

With the country again on the precipice of complete breakdown, the outgoing president, Plutarco Elias Calles, rallied his fellow countrymen to transition from the “country of a man” to a country of “institutions and laws”. 

Calles himself embodied the model of strongman. So, his sincerity can be questioned. Even after stepping aside as president, he continued to rule in an unofficial capacity as the jefe maximo, or supreme chief, of the revolution. And under his direction, the political organ that Calles founded, the National Revolutionary Party, ruled Mexico uninterrupted for 71 years.

Common Questions about How an Unfinished Mexican Revolution Led to a Bloody Civil War

Q: What were the differences between the leaders of the anti-Huerta coalition?

Though the leaders of the anti-Huerta coalition had a common enemy, they had different priorities. Some wanted to focus on land reforms or local autonomy, while others wanted to focus on building a democratic government.

Q: In what way was the new constitution that Carranza and his allies wrote progressive?

The new constitution was a transformational and progressive document. It provided for a free, secular, obligatory education; it limited the exploitation of Mexico’s resources by foreign powers; it established single terms with no opportunity for re-election of the president and state governors; and it gave workers the right to bargain and strike collectively while standardizing the eight-hour workday.

Q: When did the Mexican revolution end?

Because of the instability, and in some ways unfinished nature, of the Mexican Revolution, some scholars date its end in 1934, or even 1940.

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