The War of Independence was costly for Mexico. After achieving independence in 1821, the country was left devastated and impoverished. Agricultural, mining, and industrial production ceased during the war, and over half a million Mexicans died.
As a new country, Mexico struggled internally to achieve nationhood. The transformation from a colony to a self-governing country was painful and difficult.
During the next 30 years, Mexico had close to 50 governments, almost all as the result of military coups. Eleven of them were presided by one man, General Antonio López de Santa Anna, discussed below. It was a century of great strife and change. Politically, Mexico was deeply divided between two groups that wanted to rule Mexico in a different way: the Liberals and the Conservatives.
The Conservatives wanted to maintain the old Spanish Monarchy model to govern Mexico, but the Liberals wanted a Federal republic system similar to that of the United States. Conservatives and Liberals disagreed over education, work, system of government, the influence of the Church, the army, and more. In fact, they disagreed over almost everything!
Agustín de Iturbide
Agustín de Iturbide was proclaimed the first Emperor of Mexico after leading Mexicans to victory and independence from Spain. He was part of the Conservatives, a group that wanted the newly independent Mexico to be a monarchy. Iturbide was crowned emperor in 1822 and ruled the country for less than a year. He was removed from power by General Antonio López de Santa Anna and was exiled to England. In 1824, Iturbide returned to Mexico where he was arrested and executed.
General Antonio López de Santa Anna
In 1833, General Antonio López de Santa Anna assumed the presidency of Mexico for the first time. Over the next 20 years, he would declare himself president 10 more times.
The Mexican government, far away in Mexico City, could not extend its rule effectively to the northernmost provinces of the country. In 1836, the state of Texas declared independence from Mexico and formed its own independent territory. In 1845, the USA admitted the independent state of Texas into the Union, an act that sparked the Mexican-American War that would begin one year later with the US Army's invasion of Mexico City.
The final battle of the war was fought in the Chapultepec Castle, where young cadets defended the military academy. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned, they continued to fight bravely to death against the invading troops. Today, they are still commemorated as the Niños Héroes (Heroic Children).
In order to stop the war, Santa Anna signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848, selling more than half of Mexican territory—including all of present day Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Texas, New Mexico, and California—to the US for $15 million dollars. Santa Anna was then forced into exile by the government established after the war.
In 1857 a new Constitution was written, establishing a Federal Republic, just as the Liberals wanted. In 1858, Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian from Oaxaca, became president. That same year, a 3-year civil war called the War of Reform broke out between the Liberals and the Conservatives.
The war was the result of a set of laws called the Reform Laws, which made all Church land and buildings the property of the State. The laws reduced the power and influence of the Catholic Church, which had been very powerful until then. Juárez was forced to leave the Mexico, but returned in 1867 to serve as president for 10 more years following the execution of Emperor Maximilian.
The Mexican-American War and the War of Reform left Mexico very weak. In 1861, Benito Juárez determined that the country was too poor to repay its debt to Spain, England, and France. When Mexico stopped repaying its debt, England, Spain and France sent armies to Mexico to obtain payment by force.
After negotiations, Spain and England left, but France opted to stay, and try to impose a monarchy in Mexico. The timing was perfect for the French because the United States was in the middle of its Civil War and could not aid the Mexican Liberals in defending the country. French troops landed in Veracruz in 1862 and marched towards the Mexican capital. On May 5th, 1862, Mexican forces under the command of Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín defeated the French in the vicinity of the city of Puebla de los Angeles. This was an inspirational event for Mexico and for the people of the state of Puebla, who commemorate the date as a state holiday. Nevertheless, Cinco de Mayo has been observed in the United States with even more zeal by Mexican-Americans and Hispanic people as a celebration of cultural heritage.
Despite the victory at Puebla, the Liberal army was later defeated and the French took possession of Mexico City. Benito Juárez was forced to leave the city and establish his government in the north of Mexico, near the United States border, where he led a resistance government.
Emperor Maximilian of Hapsburg
In 1864, two years after the army invasion, Napoleon III sent Austrian Archduke Maximilian of Habsburg, with his wife Charlotte of Belgium, to be Emperors of Mexico. At the end of the American Civil War, the United States was in no position to help Mexico. Thus, the French Empire was established, and the French army returned to France.
Without armed forces to defend the new empire, Maximilian was unable withstand the Liberals. He surrendered in 1867 and was executed, along with some supporting Mexican conservative leaders, after just three years as Emperor.
Benito Juárez returned to the capital, restored the Republic and governed until his death in 1872.
Porfirio Díaz was one of the generals of the Liberal army who fought against Maximilian and the invading French army. Widely popular after the war, he started his career as a politician and was elected President in 1876. However, Diaz held power until 1911, in a 30-year period known as the Porfiriato. During this period of relative peace, the economy grew, new railways and telephone networks were built, and industry, and mining, agriculture and commerce were expanded.
Although Díaz brought many benefits to Mexico, he was a dictator, a leader who abused his power and did not listen to the Mexican people. During his presidency, elections were not fair, and the opposing parties were silenced. Under Díaz, a few land owners became very wealthy while the majority of Mexicans remained poor.
As his tenure as president was about to come to a close, Porfirio Diaz signaled in 1910 he would retire. Around that time, a new generation of educated Mexicans opposing the Diaz regime, under the leadership of Francisco I. Madero, started to discuss a change of the political circumstances in Mexico. Madero announced his candidacy for President, but was arrested before the election by Diaz, on charges of treason. With Madero in prison, Diaz declared himself winner of the elections of 1910.
After escaping prison, Madero fled to San Antonio, TX for refuge, and published a declaration known as the Plan de San Luis, in which he denounced the Diaz regime, promised land retribution for peasants, and called for a full-scale revolt to begin on November 20, 1910. After the declaration reached different parts of the country, leaders rose to the calling and took over government buildings and armories, laying siege to entire cities, and eventually forcing Diaz out of office and into exile to France in 1911.
Interestingly, the Mexican Revolution was the first social and political revolution of modern times, preceding the Russian Revolution of 1917.
After the ousting of Diaz, Madero won a special presidential election and started his presidency amid tensions and frustrations. Some groups that participated in the revolution were impatient, and Madero proved unable to swiftly restore order to an upheaved country, or materialize the promises of land retribution. In 1913, a military coup led by General Victoriano Huerta, an army general who initially fought against Diaz, overthrew and executed Madero and instated a dictatorship.
When Huerta assumed power by force, several Mexican Revolutionary leaders, including Francisco "Pancho" Villa in the north, and Emiliano Zapata in the south, initiated an armed struggle to overthrow him, initiating a bloody and costly civil war all across the battered nation.
In July of 1914, Huerta resigned the presidency, and Venustiano Carranza became Mexico's president. With the country in political turmoil, it was necessary for the social revolution to take place and secure the rights that the revolutionaries fought for. Carranza's presidency quickly bore fruit with the establishment of a new Constitution in 1917.
The Constitution recognized individual and social rights, particularly to protect laborers and peasants. It also declared the equality of men and women, secured protection for child welfare, and became the first constitution in the world to include social rights. Abolishing the office of the Vice-president and forbidding presidential reelection, this Constitution continues to govern Mexico today.