The Robinson LibraryTHE ROBINSON LIBRARY
The Robinson Library >> American History >> Mexico >> History
Porfirio DiazPorfírio Díaz

revolutionary leader and two-time President of Mexico

Porfírio Díaz was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, on September 15, 1830. (Although his birth name was José de la Cruz Porfírio Díaz Mori, he was always known as Porfirio Diaz.) His father died in 1833, leaving his mother to raise a family of seven children by herself. In 1843, his mother sent him to Seminario Pontifical to study for the priesthood, but he proved to be a mediocre and sometimes rebellious student. When war with the United States broke out in 1846, Díaz saw an opportunity and decided to join the National Guard. He traveled about 250 miles to join a frontline unit (walking most of the way), but arrived after the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo had been signed (1848) and his services were no longer needed. Frustrated, he returned home and began studying law. His mother was able to scrape enough money together to buy him his first book, but he paid his own fees at the Law Institute by taking in students and doing a variety of jobs. He passed his first law exams in 1853, but political events would forever delay his practice of the law.

Revolutionary Leader

While studying for the law, Díaz came under the tutelage of Benito Juárez, a leader of the Mexican Liberals, who were at the time engaged in a struggle against the rule of Antonio Santa Anna. In 1854, Díaz publicly voted against a plebiscite rigged by Santa Anna, and was forced to go into hiding. He didn't hide for long, however, and quickly placed himself at the head of a few revolting peasants. When the Liberals gained control of Oaxaca in 1855, Díaz was rewarded by being named subprefect of the Inxtlan District, and by promotion to Captain in the State National Guard in 1856.

War of Reform (1857-1860) Juárez had gained a following by calling for an end to government by a central elite, but soon established himself as just another in a long line of elitist rulers. Civil war broke out once again, during which Díaz distinguished himself several times. He was made a Lieutenant Colonel in the National Guard in 1859, and a Colonel in the National Army later that same year; he was elevated to Brigadier General in 1861.

The French Invasion (1862-1867) In 1862, Napoleon III of France saw the turmoil in Mexico as an opportunity to invade and conquer Mexico. Although Díaz was able to initially stop the French army's advance on Mexico City at Puebla on May 5, 1862, the French regrouped and took the capital in 1863. In 1864, Napoleon named Maximilian, brother of the Austrian emperor, to be emperor of Mexico. Díaz, by now General of the Army of the East, took a very active part in the Mexican fight against Maximilian, during which he was twice seriously wounded and three times imprisoned, and led the recapture of Mexico City on June 20, 1867.

With the French driven out, the country united under Juárez. Although Díaz had done much to secure Juárez's return to power, he was not rewarded with a government position, so he decided to return to Oaxaca and wait for another opportunity.

President of Mexico

Juárez died in 1872 and was succeeded by Vice-President Sabastian Lerdo de Tejada. Lerdo's term was racked by discord throughout the country, and when he announced his desire for a second term (which was supposedly prohibited by the Mexican Constitution), Díaz came out of "retirement" to oppose his re-election. He accused the Lerdo government of malfeasance and corruption, and called upon the government to carry out a truly fair election and for elected officials to uphold the principles of the 1857 Constitution. When it was announced that Lerdo had won the election, Díaz led a brief revolt which resulted in Lerdo being removed from office, and he was declared President on November 24, 1876.

Since he had consistently called upon Mexico's leaders to stand by the Constitution, Díaz wisely chose not to challenge the provision against the President serving more than one four-year term and stepped aside in 1880. He was succeeded by Manual Gonzàlez, the former Minister of War.

In 1884, with the term limit provision of the Constitution conveniently set aside, Díaz was unanimously re-elected President of Mexico. He subsequently "managed" to get re-elected every four years until his ouster in 1911.

As President, Díaz did much to improve the Mexican economy. He created a solid banking system and an effective tax collection system; abolished statetariffs, taxes on production, and sales taxes; balanced the national budget for the first in Mexican history; and paid off Mexico's creditors. By putting the nation on the international gold standard, he made the Mexican Peso one of the world's soundest currencies.

To spark foreign investment in Mexico, Díaz had the Constitution amended to allow foreigners to own subsoil minerals, thus opening Mexico's vast mines and oil fields to foreign ownership. He also modified the land laws instituted during the War of Reform to allow surveyors to keep huge chunks of national lands they surveyed. All this foreign land and mineral ownership in turn led to the laying of vast railroad, telephone, and telegraph networks.

Unfortunately, virtually none of the economic reforms instituted by Díaz ever reached the general population. Foreigners owned more land than Mexican nationals did, and few of the railroad, telephone or telegraph networks made it into peasant communities. This, coupled with the fact that Díaz consistently found excuses to retain the presidency led to general discontent among the population.

Opposition to Díaz's rule began to grow after 1900. Francisco I. Madero, a very prominent landowner, decided to run against him in 1910. During the campaign, Madero became widely popular, and Díaz had him jailed until after the election. Not surprisingly, Díaz won the election, and Madero fled to the United States. Although Madero initially opposed violence, he saw no other way to get Díaz out of power, and called upon his backers to take up arms. On May 25, 1911, members of Díaz's government removed him from office in order to prevent further bloodshed. Díaz went into exile in France, and died in Paris on July 2, 1915.

SEE ALSO
Mexican-American War
Santa Anna
Francisco I. Madero

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> American History >> Mexico >> History

This page was last updated on 06/19/2017.