After declaring independence from Spain in 1821 without resistance from the Spanish (who had their own troubles at home), Mexico underwent a period of instability that lasted much of the 19th Century as 30 presidents ruled over its first 50 years as a nation. The dominant figure in early Mexican politics was Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who parlayed shifting alliances between the church, army and landowners to become president no less than 11 times.
Mexico’s original northern border spanned from California to Texas. However, in 1836, Texas broke away from Mexico and declared independence. Santa Anna responded with troops and though he scored a big victory at the Alamo, Mexican troops were defeated at San Jacinto and Texas was independent. When Texas decided to join the United States, the move sparked an American invasion into Mexico in 1848, and the disorganized Mexican army was not able to hold off the invaders. The resulting Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo resulted in the loss of nearly half of Mexico to the Americans, all of which are now states in the USA.
Losing to the Americans was essentially the end of Santa Anna politically. In the 1850’s, an Indian lawyer named Benito Juarez led the way to a new constitution in which church and state were separated, church and corporate owned lands were sold, and all citizens were made equal before the law. The church and army resisted this, but a four-year War of the Reform gave liberals behind the constitution victory…for a time.
One of the things Juarez, who by now was president, did was suspend payments of foreign debts because Mexico itself was in debt. That brought on another invasion, this time by joint forces from Spain, France and England in 1861. Although Mexico won the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1861 (now celebrated as CInco de Mayo), the invaders prevailed and installed Maximilian of Hapsburg as emperor of Mexico. Maximilian, a liberal at heart, knew nothing of Mexico’s internal problems, and his refusal to repeal Juarez’ reforms lost him what few conservative allies he’d had. Eventually, a threat from the USA to intervene on the behalf of Juarez’ resistance helped push the invaders back to Europe, and Maximilian ended up getting shot by a firing squad in 1867.
Juarez resumed power after Maximilian’s death, but died in office in 1872. After another period of instability, a former general under Juarez, Porfirio Diaz, took over the presidency, a position he held with an iron fist for 34 years. A dictator in every sense of the word, Diaz was no humanitarian. Although his modernization policy led to great gains in transportation, communication and industry, much of this was accomplished through brutal repression and by handing over much of the country to foreign investors. Even today, Diaz is almost equally hated and admired.
Things finally came to a head in 1910, when Diaz responded to an election-year challenge from Francisco Madero by ordering him imprisoned and declaring himself the winner at the polls. Madero escaped to Texas, declared himself president, and called on Mexicans to revolt against the aging Diaz. With Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco leading the resistance in the north and Emiliano Zapata doing the same in the south, Diaz eventually fled into exile and Madero returned to rule. Madero liberalized some aspects of Mexico, but did little to help the poor. This led to another uprising by Zapata as well as a plot between American interests and general Victoriano Huerta that led to Madero’s assassination and Huerta declaring himself president.