Heritage History | Homeschool History Curriculum | Story of Mexico by Charles Morris
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The Career of Porfirio Diaz

Among the many men who have ruled over Mexico from time to time, more than one in nearly every year from 1829 until 1858, during which period there were six presidents within the limit of one year and five within each of two other years, only two of signal ability appeared, Benito Juarez, of whom we have already spoken, and Porfirio Diaz, a brief sketch of whose career is now in order. It would be difficult to find in history a country that has been more convulsed by revolutions and changes of government than unhappy Mexico. Others of the Latin-American republics have had a similar experience, but the incessant change in the governmental head of Mexico is probably without a parallel. The only men who remained for any considerable time at the head of the government during the period under review were Guadaloupe Victoria, from 1824 to 1828; Benito Juarez, from 1858 to his death in 1872, he being a fugitive during several years of that time; and Porfirio Diaz, from 1876 to 1880, and 1884 to 1910. This is the longest term of office held by any President in the history of the world, a fact which makes the career of this famous man one of high importance. During most of this period, indeed, he was President only in name, Dictator in fact, a king without a crown, an emperor without a scepter, but this serves to add to the interest of his career.

Porfirio Diaz was the son of an innkeeper, born at Oaxaca, in the south of Mexico, September 15, 1830. He was of mixed Spanish and Indian descent, his grandmother having been a member of the Mixteca Indian tribe. When he was three years of age his father died, leaving his mother with a hard struggle in the care of her six children. It was her purpose to educate Porfirio for the Church, but this was so alien to his character and aspirations that he soon abandoned his studies for the priesthood for study of the law.

Porfirio Diaz
PORFIRIO DIAZ, THE GRAND OLD MAN OF MEXICO, HAS HAD ONE OF THE MOST SPECTACULAR OF CAREERS. BORN IN 1830, HE WAS EDUCATED FOR THE PRIESTHOOD BUT AT SIXTEEN FORSOOK THAT FOR THE LAW. HE TOOK PART IN A NUMBER OF REVOLUTIONS AND ATTAINED HIGH RANK IN THE ARMY, BECAME PRESIDENT OF MEXICO IN 1876 AND RULED WITH ONLY A FOUR-YEAR INTERVAL UNTIL 1910, WHEN HE WAS DEPOSED BY THE MADERO REVOLUTIONISTS.


An opportunity to indicate the trend of his future career came in 1847, when war began between Mexico and the United States. The law students of Oaxaca at once formed a battalion for the defense of their native city, Diaz being prominent in this patriotic movement. Benito Juarez, the future President, was then the leading lawyer in Oaxaca, and took the bright young law student into his office, where he made rapid progress in his studies, continuing these until he won a degree.

He did not, however, confine himself to the law, politics early attracting his attention, his activity in which brought him the office of mayor of the small town of Ixtlan in 1855. While there he organized a company of militia, which in later years did good service in the field. He took an active part in the revolt against Santa Anna and in the disturbances that followed, and in 1861 was elected a deputy to the Federal Congress. Here his interest in military affairs continued, and in the following year, when France began its efforts to found an empire in Mexico, Diaz, then thirty-two, was made a brigadier-general.

He was now in the work for which he was specially fitted, taking a leading part in the defense of Puebla, and displaying great courage and ability in the signal victory of May 5, 1862, in which a small Mexican force put to rout a much larger French army. A year later the French took Puebla, Diaz being made prisoner. He refused to give his parole and succeeded in escaping, reaching Oaxaca after various interesting adventures. His activity in the field continued during the following years, and in 1864 he was besieged in Oaxaca by a French army under Marshal Bazaine. His defense was stubborn, and not until he and his men were dying of starvation was the place given up, he escaping. In 1865 he was again shut up in Puebla, again escaped, and continued in the field until April, 1867, when Puebla once more fell into his hands. The long struggle was now near its end, and on the 27th of June Diaz marched with his victorious army into the city of Mexico. His popularity had become unbounded, and he could readily have ousted Juarez from the presidency. But, true to his old friend and patron, he resigned his commission and retired to Oaxaca. It cannot be said that this good faith to Juarez was permanent, ambition subsequently leading Diaz into a not very reputable course. Before speaking further of this, we must return to the story of President Juarez.

On the 5th of July, 1867, Juarez, victor in a contest which had continued for six years, once more entered the Mexican capital, where he was received with enthusiasm by the populace and many of the better class of citizens, though the members of the high society, who had been partisans of the late imperial regime, remained indoors, mourning for the dead emperor. Juarez had persistently retained his title of President, retaining his Cabinet and keeping up his official state during his years of practical exile, through much of which time his place of abode was in mountain fastnesses. War was now at an end. For the first time for years Mexico was at peace, internally and externally. A general election was held and Juarez again legally installed in the Presidential dignity, while in the country tranquil satisfaction with the course of events generally prevailed and quiet industry once more lifted its head.

It was a state of affairs to which the people of Mexico were not accustomed, and which was not likely to last with so many malcontents abroad. Juarez was a man of superior ability, an able statesman and executive, one able to bear adversity with equanimity and prosperity without losing his mental poise. Long enduring and patient under misfortune, he possessed the qualities of sound sense, a executive ability, and wise discretion, while his long experience in governmental affairs fitted him admirably for the post he occupied.

Yet the unstable element of the population, born and bred in disorder, soon began to grow restive under his rule, and a clamor was raised that he had been President long enough, too long, indeed, for worthies of the type of his opponents. Diversity of political sentiment continued, the late adherents of Maximilian had not become converted to Liberalism, and when the time for a new election for the presidency drew near in 1871, there appeared a sharp party division. The steady-minded, patriotic citizens felt that in the interests of reform and progress Juarez, whose presidency had been largely in the saddle, should be given another term. But a second party, disbanded soldiers, lovers of military glory, became partisans of General Diaz, whom they regarded as the hero of the war against imperialism. There was in addition a third party which supported Lerdo de Tejada, an able and capable man, who had been minister and faithful comrade of Juarez throughout his presidency in the field. He it was whose voice had turned the tide against Maximilian during the moment in which Juarez hesitated to sign the death warrant. This fact added much to his popularity with a certain class of the people.

There was a vigorous campaign, but the Juaristas had the greater strength, and their candidate was elected by a fair majority. It might have been expected that tranquillity would follow, but that was not the way in Mexico. The old story was repeated, the defeated parties refused to abide by the decision of the ballot, and the bane of civil war once more infested the country. It was not much to the credit of Diaz that he became a prominent leader in this rebellion and sought the overthrow of his old friend and benefactor. The fight went on in the usual desultory fashion, with its periods of ebb and flow, yet despite the ability of General Diaz and his trained military skill the government defended itself with resolute energy for more than a year. Then, at dawn on the 19th of July, 1872, the sound of cannon, fired from the citadel at slow intervals, roused the citizens of the capital to a sense of disaster, and soon the tidings spread through the streets that the President had died during the night. Heart disease had suddenly carried away this able man and faithful citizen, who had had the unique experience in the career of a Mexican president of dying in office.

Lerdo de Tejada, president of the Supreme Court, at once assumed the executive authority in accordance with the Constitutional provision for such cases, and was elected president at the ensuing election, not as the choice of his people, but of his faction. For the time being the struggle was at an end. Diaz had withdrawn from the struggle and for three years Lerdo held the reins of government. It is a matter of interest that during his term of office the railroad from Vera Cruz to the capital was completed and opened, the city of Mexico for the first time gaining railroad connection with the outer world.

Lerdo had not made himself popular during his administration, and as its end approached the spectre of civil war once more appeared. Fighting took place during the summer of 1876, the enemies of the administration again entering the field in the usual method. In this outbreak Diaz took so prominent a part that a description of it needs to be given, especially as it illustrates one phase of the character of this man of affairs.

When Lerdo took the President's seat Diaz had sold his property and made the United States his abode. Evidently his relations with the new President were not friendly, and his continued residence in Mexico not safe. His sentiment towards the administration was shown in 1876, when he returned to Mexico, gathered a body of four hundred men and took possession of the city of Matamoros. This movement of insurrection failed through the prompt action of President Lerdo, who sent troops in hot haste to the frontier, too many for Diaz to face with his small support, and the convenient soil of the United States served him again as a place of refuge.

But the lure of rule in Mexico was upon him and he soon after took ship at New Orleans for his native land. Now comes a record of stirring adventure and hairbreadth escape. The vessel was headed for Vera Cruz, but called at Tampico, where a body of Mexican troops took passage for the southward voyage. One of the officers recognized Diaz and bided his time until they should set foot on the soil of Mexico. Alert to his peril, Diaz sprang overboard while the ship was four miles out, and attempted to swim ashore. He was picked up half drowned, brought on board while the Mexican officer was below; and was hidden in a wardrobe by the friendly purser. The officer, informed of the rescue, was told that Diaz had again leaped into the sea and had been drowned in the second attempt to escape. In Vera Cruz a detachment of soldiers, warned by wire from Tampico, was waiting to arrest him, but he escaped their scrutiny by going ashore in a cargo boat, disguised as a soldier. Obtaining horses and an escort, the daring insurgent rode to Oaxaca and was soon at the head of an insurgent army, with which he marched against the capital. A battle followed in which Diaz put the government troops to flight and took possession of the city. Lerdo and his principal friends and officials had hastily fled, they in turn seeking the friendly soil of the United States. On the 24th of November Diaz was proclaimed Provisional President, and began his long career in the executive office.

In May, 1877, Congress declared him Constitutional President for the ensuing term. It will be of interest to state that, during the height of this struggle for the presidency, the old and once all powerful agitator and leader, Santa Anna, neglected, old, poor, lame and blind, died in his house in the Calle de Vergaza on June 20, 1876, forgotten by the people who had so often hailed him as one of their heroes and recognized him as their president.

As the law then stood, a president was not eligible to succession for more than one term, and in 1880 Manuel Gonzalez was elected to the presidency, which Diaz handed over to him on December 1st of that year. It was the second time in the history of the republic that such a peaceful transfer had taken place. On December 1, 1884, a reversal of this event occurred, Diaz being re-elected and resuming the office, which he was now to hold until 1910, the law of single terms being abrogated at his suggestion. The successive elections of which we have spoken were such as in the United States would be regarded as farces, if not instances of despotic brigandage, in which the highest office in the gift of the Mexican people became the loot of the man in power. The statement has been made that during the whole ninety years of the history of the Mexican nation only two fair and honest elections for a president have been held, those of Arista in 1850 and of Madero in 1910. In the great majority of the remaining cases the voice of the people had next to nothing to do with the result. Intimidation and bribery at the polls, dishonesty in counting the ballot, and deliberate disregard of the Constitution have been potent factors in Mexican elections, and in nearly the whole of the seven consecutive terms of President Diaz no opposition candidate or opposition party ventured to appear. Why they have not will appear later in our story.

As regards Mexican elections, it may be of interest to citizens of the United States to learn how they are usually conducted. The method employed is by no means unknown in the United States, in which the system of repeating at the polls, stuffing of ballot boxes, and other secret methods of carrying elections are not uncommon. But little effort is made to keep these processes secret in Mexico, in which land practical disfranchisement of the lower class of citizens exists to an extraordinary degree. Those opposed to the party in power are often elected in the United States in spite of all that bosses and organization leaders can do to prevent. But down in Mexico this class of worthies manages things better, and the men slated for election do not fail to get the office. The only redress there against being counted out is that of taking up arms and battling for the right, and this method of settling political disputes has grown to be a chronic disease in Mexico.

One has but to read the story of presidential elections in that country to discover that state of affairs exists there which is almost without precedent elsewhere in the modern world. It is safe to say that no actual election took place during the whole period of the rule of Diaz. All the so-called elections were parodies upon the name. In 1876, when he drove Lerdo out of the capital city, he had simply to adopt the ordinary method and declare himself Provisional President. He was soon after "elected" Constitutional President by a method that has since been followed. This was to put soldiers on duty at the polls with orders to let no one but a Diaz supporter vote. For anyone who should prove obstreperous the prison was handy. In this way Diaz, for term after term, succeeded in having himself "elected unanimously." It is incredible to imagine any such thing as happening for successive terms, not a voice being raised against the candidate, no such thing as a difference in political opinion existing, or being made apparent. Let us conceive, if we can, of such a thing happening in the United States, even in the case of a man so popular as was President Roosevelt at the period of his second term.

Thus during his eight elections Diaz was chosen "unanimously," no opponent venturing to contest the election with him. This was also the case, with few exceptions, with the governors of the states, who were safe in office without intermission as long as they continued in favor with President Diaz. We are told of one governor who held office during the whole Diaz period, of several others who occupied the governor's chair for twenty-five, and a number who held the office for over twenty years.

Instances might be given in which those who attempted to vote on an opposition ticket found themselves in prison in consequence. We are told of one election in Yucatan, in which three hundred persons of some prominence, who sought to vote for a candidate of their choice, a man of liberal ideas, were locked behind prison doors for their presumption. A story is told about a foreigner in Mexico, a citizen of San Francisco, who happened to be in a town of one of the Mexican states during an election for governor. To amuse himself he took part in the voting, going from poll to poll until he had voted eight times in succession. He spoke freely of his experience and the case was cited to a Mexican official as an example of election methods in Mexico.

"You must not believe that they let him vote," he said. "We are so courteous. They would never tell him that he was not eligible. What they certainly did, after he had left each of these eight places, was to take the voting paper and tear it into little bits."

This sounds like a joke, but it is stated as a fact. All it would go to indicate is the farcical manner of Mexican elections. But they pass beyond the domain of farce when those who venture to vote an opposition ticket are thrown into prison for their temerity. Why, it may be asked, have not those in opposition during the Diaz administration availed themselves of the time-honored—or dishonored—Mexican method of taking arms in support of their candidate and fighting in the field for what they could not obtain at the polls? It may be said that efforts of this kind have been made at intervals, but were all nipped in the bud by the promptness of Diaz, who, a born and practical soldier, and backed by : the army and his efficient corps of rural police, made short work of every incipient rebellion. The method, a common one for many years past in Mexico, of standing up prisoners against a wall and shooting them down, has aided in the disposition of malcontents of this type. The result was that discontent had to spread in Mexico until it was well nigh universal before an insurrection arose that could not be thus put down.

That Porfirio Diaz showed himself a ruler of great ability during his dictatorial career as President of Mexico is widely acknowledged. The country flourished under his rule. The "era of glorious progress" is a Mexican term that has been applied to his period of public service, and with much warrant so far as physical development was concerned. He surrounded his administration with a corps of talented men, the so-called cientificos  (scientists), brought the country up from its long era of chaos, and founded a stable government under which industry began to flourish and the resources of the country were rapidly developed.

While so far as this is concerned we cannot give Porfirio Diaz all the credit, much of it is due to his staunch character and wise foresight. As one writer phrases it, "the man and the hour arrived together, and Diaz deserves to rank among the historic statesmen of the world."

The fact is that he took in hand the helm of the state at a fortunate period, when the abundant resources of Mexico had become apparent to the capitalists and business men of the world, and a movement towards investment in Mexican mines, railroads and other industries was ready to show itself on a large scale. As has been well said, "A time had arrived in the natural evolution of America when even the most turbulent states were called upon to perform their function and carry out their destiny."

The main features of the Diaz policy were two. One was to put down turbulence and clear the way for a peaceful development of Mexico and its resources. His agencies in this were his dictatorial authority and complete and ready control of the army and police forces of the nation. The second was to offer the fullest encouragement to foreign capital and foreign engineers and business men desiring to take part in developing these resources. Under these favoring auspices the railroad spread its iron way in all directions, until in this line of enterprise Mexico became the leading country in Latin America. The mines of precious and other metals were taken in hand, supplied with abundant capital, worked under able engineers with the best of modern mining appliances, with the result of a great cheapening of and increase in their productiveness. So valuable are these mines that even yet, we are told, they have only been "scratched." The splendid petroleum deposits—of which Mexico appears to have the largest in the world—were similarly taken in hand and made a large source of wealth. Coal fields were discovered and worked, the textile, fruit and forest resources of the country were greatly increased, and large numbers of foreign, especially American, business men settled in the country, where they took hold of affairs with a vim that caused the procrastinating Mexican to open his eyes in wonder. Manama, "tomorrow," was no longer the business motto; "today" had replaced it. Latest among the discoveries of mineral wealth in Mexico have been those of its petroleum deposits, above mentioned, and the vast extent of which is only slowly being recognized. We are told that while the oil fields in the whole United States cover a total of 8,200,000 acres, those of the Tampico district of Mexico alone cover 5,000,000 acres, and that this is only one out of numerous extensive oil fields in that country.

We may see in these developments, and the enforced tranquillity brought about by Diaz which rendered them possible, the conditions to which he owed the high estimation in which he was held. These were results which loomed largely outside of Mexico, as also did his earnest interest in education and other elements of advanced civilization. We have elsewhere shown that education made but little advance despite his encouragement, and that in other important respects little solid progress appeared.

The weak point in his system of administration was that it worked more for the advantage of the foreigner than of the Mexican. The desired capital could not be obtained without hypothecating the property of the country, and the people saw with growing discontent the mines, the oil wells, the cattle ranges, the tobacco plantations, and other valuable possessions of the state falling into the hands of foreigners. What was especially objected to was the bringing of great landlord estates under alien control. The lands, which had once been the property of the people at large, were in this way handed over to wealthy strangers, their former owners being obliged to work as laborers upon the soil which had been held by their forefathers for generations. And the most irritating feature of the case was the oppressive manner in which much of this was done, the seizure of lands that had been in one family for many generations on the plea that they had no written documents on which to base their claim, and the use of these homestead estates for speculative purposes by those whose only claim to them was that of recording them as theirs. Such was the condition of affairs in the first decade of the twentieth century. It was one which led to a growing enmity to the Diaz rule and the final outbreak of 1910.