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History of Mexico
___ History of Mexico
|Early Settlement and Pre-Columbian Civilizations
Nomadic paleo-Indian societies are widely believed to have migrated from North America into Mexico as early as 20,000 B.C.
Permanent settlements based on intensive farming of native plants such as corn, squash, and
beans were established by 1,500 B.C. Between 200 B.C. and A.D. 900, several advanced
indigenous societies emerged. During this “Classic Period,” urban centers were built at
Teotihuacán (in central Mexico), Monte Albán (in the territory now making up the state of
Oaxaca), and in the Mayan complexes (in the modern-day states of Chiapas, Tabasco,
Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo, as well as at sites in the modern-day countries of
Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize). These advanced societies developed written languages,
displayed high levels of occupational specialization and social stratification, and produced
elaborate art, architecture, and public works. After the unexplained collapse of the Teotihuacán
society around A.D. 650, the early civilizations of central Mexico were eclipsed by the Mayan
city-states of the Yucatan Peninsula. The lowland Mayan communities flourished from A.D. 600
to A.D. 900, when they, too, abruptly declined. The Post-Classic period (from about 900 to
1500) was characterized by widespread migration throughout Mesoamerica and the re
emergence of the central valley of Mexico as the site of large-scale urban settlement and political
power. By the 1300s, the Aztecs had established themselves on the site of present-day Mexico
City. The militaristic and bureaucratic Aztec state ruled a far-flung tributary empire spanning
much of Central Mexico.
Spanish Conquest, Colonization, and Christianization During the early sixteenth century, Spanish military adventurers based in Cuba organized expeditions to the North American mainland. The first major military expedition to Mexico, led by Hernán Cortés, landed near present-day Veracruz in 1519 and advanced inland toward the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán hoping to conquer central Mexico. By 1521 Spanish forces under Cortés, reinforced by rebellious Indian tribes, had overthrown the Aztec empire and executed the last Aztec king, Cuauhtémoc. The Spanish subsequently grafted their administrative and religious institutions onto the remnants of the Aztec empire. During the early years of colonial rule, the conquistadors and their descendants vied for royal land titles (encomiendas) and Indian labor allotments (repartimientos). The early colonial economic system was based largely on the ability of the encomienda holders (encomenderos) to divert Indian labor from agriculture to the mining of precious metals for export to Spain. The encomienda became the basis for a semi-autonomous feudal society that was only loosely accountable to the central authorities in Madrid.
New Spain and the Mercantile Economy During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Mexico experienced far-reaching demographic, cultural, and political change. New Spanish-style cities and towns were founded throughout central Mexico, serving as commercial, administrative, and religious centers that attracted an increasingly Hispanicized and Christianized mestizo population from the countryside. Mexico City, built on the ruins of Tenochtitlán, became the capital of Spain’s North American empire. Colonial society was stratified by race and wealth into three main groups: whites (European- and American-born), castas (mestizos), and native peoples; each had specific rights or privileges (fueros) and obligations in colonial society. New Spain was ruled by a viceroy appointed by the Spanish crown but in practice enjoyed a large degree of autonomy from Madrid.
Throughout the colonial period, Mexico’s economic relationship with Spain was based on the philosophy of mercantilism. Mexico was required to supply raw materials to Spain, which would then produce finished goods to be sold at a profit to the colonies. Trade duties that placed stringent restrictions on the colonial economies protected manufacturers and merchants in Spain from outside competition in the colonies. In the mid-eighteenth century, the third Bourbon king of Spain, Charles III, reorganized the political structure of Spain’s overseas empire in an effort to bolster central authority, reinvigorate the mercantile economy, and increase tax revenues. New Spain was divided into 12 military departments (intendencias) under a single commandant general in Mexico City who was independent of the viceroy and reported directly to the king.
War of Independence The spread of late eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy, together with the egalitarian example of the American and French revolutions, motivated Mexican-born whites (criollos) to seek greater autonomy and social status within the colonial system. Discrimination against criollos in the granting of high offices had long been a source of contention between Spain and Mexico City. In 1808 the invasion of the Iberian Peninsula by Napoleon Bonaparte and the forced abdication of the Spanish king, Charles IV, disrupted Spain’s faltering authority over Mexico. Rejecting the puppet regime installed by France, the incumbent viceroy allied himself with the criollos and declared an independent junta ostensibly loyal to Charles IV. Allies of the Napoleonic regime responded by staging a coup and installing a new viceroy, an action that set the stage for war between criollos and Spanish loyalists.
On September 16, 1810, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a criollo parish priest, issued the Grito de Dolores (Cry of Dolores), a call to arms against Spanish rule that mobilized the Indian and mestizo populations and launched the Mexican war of independence. After a brief siege of Mexico City by insurgents in 1814, Spanish forces waged a successful counteroffensive that had nearly annihilated the rebels by 1820. However, the tide turned in favor of the criollos in February 1821, when a loyalist officer, Augustín de Iturbide, spurned the newly established constitutional monarchy in Spain and defected with his army to the rebels. Under the conservative Plan of Iguala, the rebel army agreed to respect the rights of Spanish-born whites (peninsulares) and to preserve the traditional privileges (fueros) and land titles of the Roman Catholic Church. The Spanish, now outmaneuvered politically as well as militarily, lost the will to continue the war and recognized Mexican independence in September 1821.
Empire and Early Republic Upon the withdrawal of Spain, Iturbide declared himself emperor of Mexico and Central America. Within months, however, his imperial regime was bankrupt and had lost the support of the criollo elite. In February 1823, Iturbide was overthrown by republican forces led by General Antonio López de Santa Anna. The Mexican empire was dissolved when the United Provinces of Central America declared their independence in July 1823.
Clashes between the conservative and liberal parties dominated politics during the early republic. Conservatives, who advocated a centralized republic governed from Mexico City and the maintenance of clerical and military fueros, had the support of the Roman Catholic Church and much of the army. Liberals, on the other hand, advocated federalism, secularism, and the elimination of fueros. Under the federal republic in effect from 1824 to 1836, Mexico was ruled by a series of weak and perennially bankrupt liberal governments. General Santa Anna and his allies fashioned a centralized republic that held power from 1836 to 1855. Although nominally a liberal, Santa Anna was primarily a nationalist who dominated Mexico’s politics for two decades. Santa Anna’s efforts to assert Mexican government authority over Anglo-American settlements in Texas spurred that region’s secession from Mexico in 1835. Excesses committed by a punitive Mexican expedition against Texan garrisons at the Alamo and Goliad provoked strong anti-Mexican sentiment in the United States and galvanized U.S. public support for Texan independence. In April 1836, Texan forces defeated and captured Santa Anna at San Jacinto. During a brief captivity, the Mexican general signed a treaty recognizing Texan independence from Mexico.
Mexican-American War, Civil War, and French Intervention A dispute with the United States over the boundaries of Texas led to war between the United States and Mexico in April 1846. Two U.S. Army columns advancing southward from Texas quickly captured northern Mexico, California, and New Mexico, repelling Santa Anna’s forces at Buena Vista. An amphibious expeditionary force led by General Winfield Scott captured the Gulf Coast city of Veracruz after a brief siege and naval blockade. Scott’s forces subdued Mexico City in September 1847, following a series of pitched battles along the route inland to the Mexican capital and its surrounding bastions. In the ensuing Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, U.S. withdrawal was contingent on Mexico’s ceding of the territories of New Mexico and Upper California (the present-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming) and its acceptance of the incorporation of Texas into the United States.
In 1855 Santa Anna was ousted and forced into exile by a revolt of liberal army officers. A liberal government under President Ignacio Comonfort oversaw a constitutional convention that drafted the progressive constitution of 1857. The new constitution contained a bill of rights that included habeas corpus protection and religious freedom and mandated the secularization of education and the confiscation of Catholic Church lands. It was strongly opposed by conservatives and church officials who objected to its anticlerical provisions. Seeking to avoid armed conflict, President Comonfort delayed its promulgation and instead decreed his own moderate reform agenda known as the Three Laws. However, in January 1858, after unsuccessful efforts by Comonfort to craft a political compromise, the factions took up arms, and the government was forced from office. A three-year civil war between conservative and liberal armies, known as the War of the Reform, engulfed the country. After initial setbacks, the liberals, led by the prominent Zapotec Indian politician and former vice president Benito Juárez, gained the upper hand. In January 1861, the liberals regained control of Mexico City and elected Juárez president.
In January 1862, the navies of Spain, Britain, and France jointly occupied the Mexican Gulf coast in an attempt to compel the repayment of public debts. Britain and Spain quickly withdrew, but the French remained and, in May 1863, occupied Mexico City. Drawing on the support of the Mexican conservatives, Napoleon III installed Austrian prince Ferdinand Maximilian von Habsburg as Mexican Emperor Maximilian I. By February 1867, a growing liberal insurgency under Juárez and the threat of war with Prussia had compelled France’s withdrawal from Mexico. Maximilian was captured and executed by Juárez’s forces shortly thereafter. Juárez was restored to the presidency and remained in office until his death in 1872.
Porfirio Díaz Era From 1876 until 1910, governments controlled by the liberal caudillo Porfirio Díaz pursued economic modernization while maintaining authoritarian political control. In contrast to his liberal predecessors, Díaz established cordial relations with the Catholic Church, an institution he considered central to Mexican national identity. The Díaz years, known as the “Porfiriato” saw heavy state investment in urban public works, railroads, and ports—all of which contributed to sustained, export-led economic growth. The Porfiriato governments encouraged foreign investment in export agriculture and the concentration of arable land in the form of haciendas. Although the urban middle class experienced substantial improvements in quality of life, Mexico’s peasant majority found its livelihood threatened by the loss of communal lands to the haciendas. In response to growing unrest in the countryside, Díaz created the Rural Guard, a paramilitary force that became notorious for its repressive tactics.
Mexican Revolution and Aftermath By the turn of the century, opposition to Díaz had spread among dissident liberals who sought a return to the principles of the constitution of 1857.
Following Díaz’s fraudulent re-election in 1910, several isolated rural revolts coalesced into a nationwide insurrection. Unable to regain control of several rebellious state capitals, Díaz resigned the presidency in May 1911 and fled to France. A provisional government under the liberal reformer Francisco I. Madero was installed but failed to maintain the support of radical peasants led by Emiliano Zapata, who was conducting a rural insurgency in southern Mexico. Amid general unrest, a counterrevolutionary government under Victoriano Huerta assumed power in February 1913. Huerta’s authority was undermined when U.S. Marines occupied Veracruz in response to a minor incident. Following Huerta’s resignation in July 1914, fighting continued among rival bands loosely allied with Venustiano Carranza and Francisco “Pancho” Villa. U.S. support for Carranza prompted Villa to retaliate by raiding several U.S. border towns. In response, the United States dispatched troops under General John J. Pershing on an unsuccessful expedition into northern Mexico to either kill or capture Villa. Carranza negotiated a cease-fire among several of the warring Mexican factions in December 1916 and restored order to most of the country by accepting the radical constitution of 1917. Rural violence continued in the south, however, until the assassination of Zapata by Carranza’s forces in November 1920. The Mexican Revolution exacted a heavy human and economic toll; more than 1 million deaths were attributed to the violence.
Consolidation of the Revolution From the 1920s through the 1940s, a series of strong central governments led by former generals of the revolutionary armies governed Mexico. Most Mexican presidents complied with the constitutional provision mandating a single six-year term (sexenio) with no re-election. During the late 1920s, President Plutarco Elías Calles established many of the institutions that would define the Mexican political system throughout the twentieth century. This system was based on an authoritarian state controlled by a hegemonic “revolutionary” party headed by a powerful president, economic nationalism, limited land collectivization, military subordination to civilian authority, anticlericalism, and the peaceful resolution of social conflict through corporatist representation of group interests. Tactics such as extensive use of state patronage, manipulation of electoral laws and electoral fraud, government propaganda and restrictions on the press, and intimidation of the opposition helped ensure the decades-long domination of government at all levels by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional—PRI). Through their top-down control of the PRI, presidents acquired the power to handpick their successors, decree laws, and amend the constitution virtually at will.
The ideology of the revolutionary regime took a leftward turn during the sexenio of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–40). Cárdenas nationalized Mexico’s oil industry and vastly expanded the acreage of nontransferable collectivized farms (ejidos) set aside for peasant communities. During World War II and the early years of the Cold War, the governments of Miguel Avila Camacho (1940–46) and Miguel Alemán Valdés (1946–52) repaired strained relations with the United States and returned to more conservative policies. In the postwar years, Mexico pursued an economic development strategy of “stabilizing development” that relied on heavy public-sector investment to modernize the national economy. Concurrently, Mexican governments followed conservative policies on interest and exchange rates that helped maintain low rates of inflation and attracted external capital to support industrialization. This dual strategy helped maintain steady economic growth and low rates of inflation through the 1960s.
Crisis and Recovery During the presidencies of Luis Echeverría (1970–76) and José López Portilllo (1976–82), the public sector grew dramatically, and state-owned enterprises became a mainstay of the national economy. Massive government spending was sustained in part by revenues from the export of newly discovered offshore oil deposits. By the late 1970s, oil and petrochemicals had become the economy’s most dynamic sectors. However, the windfall from high world demand for oil would be temporary. In mid-1981, Mexico was beset by falling oil prices, higher world interest rates, rising inflation, a chronically overvalued peso, and a deteriorating balance of payments that spurred massive capital flight. In August 1982, the Mexican government defaulted on scheduled debt repayments—an event that heralded a regionwide debt crisis. President López Portillo responded to the crisis by nationalizing the banking industry, further undermining investor confidence. His successor, Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado (1982–88), implemented economic austerity measures that laid the groundwork for economic recovery. In September 1985, the country suffered another blow when two major earthquakes struck central Mexico. Between 5,000 and 10,000 people are believed to have died and 300,000 left homeless in the worst natural disaster in Mexico’s modern history. Many victims lost their lives in modern high-rise buildings constructed in violation of safety codes. The high death toll and the government’s inadequate response to the disaster further undermined public confidence in the PRI-dominated political system.
In the run-up to the 1988 presidential and congressional elections, a splinter faction of left-wing former PRI members opposed to market reforms rallied behind the independent presidential candidacy of Cuahtemoc Cárdenas. In the first competitive presidential election in decades, the PRI candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, was declared the winner with a bare majority of the vote. Numerous irregularities in the vote tally, including an unexplained shutdown of the electoral commission’s computer system, led to widespread charges of fraud. Overcoming a weak mandate and strong opposition from organized labor, President Salinas undertook a sweeping liberalization of the economy. Reforms included the privatization of hundreds of state-owned enterprises, liberalization of foreign investment laws, deregulation of the financial services sector, and across-the-board reductions in tariffs and nontariff trade barriers. Economic liberalization culminated in the negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and the United States in 1992. Salinas’s reforms were overshadowed by subsequent revelations of corruption within the top echelons of the PRI, as well as by the unexpected emergence of a rural insurgency in the southern state of Chiapas.
Despite the assassination of the original PRI candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, the presidential election proceeded as scheduled in the fall of 1994. The replacement PRI candidate, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, managed to stave off a serious challenge from the center-right National Action Party (Partido de Acción Nacional—PAN) to win the presidency.
Transition to Democracy During the mid-1990s, an economic crisis stemming from an unsustainable current account deficit and mismanagement of the government bond market plunged Mexico into a severe recession. President Zedillo spent much of his sexenio restoring macroeconomic balance and responding to demands for greater accountability and transparency of public institutions. Zedillo also had to contend with the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, which highlighted the poverty and marginalization that characterized many of Mexico’s indigenous communities. In the political realm, the Zedillo administration advanced electoral system reforms that leveled the playing field for opposition parties and set the stage for a genuine transition to democracy. The July 1997 midterm elections left the PRI with a minority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of Congress), expanded opposition control of state governorships, and gave the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido de la Revolución Democrática—PRD) control of Mexico City’s government.
The opposition’s momentum carried over into the September 2000 general elections. The PAN candidate, Vicente Fox Quesada, won the historic presidential race, becoming the first opposition head of state since the consolidation of the revolution. President Fox promised a deepening of Mexico’s economic and political reforms, declared “war” on organized crime, and planned to negotiate an immigrant “guest worker” program with the United States. Despite strong public support early in its term, the Fox administration was weakened by the PAN’s loss of congressional seats during the 2003 midterm elections and the government’s failure to craft a legislative coalition in support of its reform agenda. By the end of his term in 2006, much of President Fox’s structural reform program remained unfulfilled.
On July 2, 2006, Mexico held general elections for president, all seats in Congress, and several state governorships. The presidential race was closely contested between the PAN candidate, former Fox administration energy minister Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, and the PRD candidate, populist former mayor of Mexico City Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The PRI candidate, former Tabasco governor Roberto Madrazo Pintado, trailed in the race, as voters appeared wary of returning the PRI to the presidency. Opinion polls indicated that the election was largely a referendum on Mexico’s two decades of market-oriented economic reforms. Calderón promised to continue the reform agenda by promoting greater foreign investment and increasing the competitiveness of Mexico’s economy through structural reforms of the pension and labor laws. He also pledged to continue the government’s fight against the drug cartels and to improve public safety. By contrast, López Obrador vowed to focus on Mexico’s domestic problems, such as poverty and social inequality, and to halt so-called “neo-liberal” reforms. He promised to create thousands of jobs by funding massive public works projects and affirmed that he would seek to renegotiate NAFTA in order to protect Mexican farmers from an influx of imported U.S. corn. Further, López Obrador vowed to break up the unpopular commercial oligopolies that emerged from the privatization of state assets during the 1990s.
Official tallies showed the results of the presidential election to be extremely close. Initial uncertainty about the accuracy of the preliminary vote count led both of the leading candidates to claim victory. However, subsequent official tabulations by the independent Federal Electoral Institute (Instituto Federal Electoral—IFE) confirmed that Calderón had indeed won the election by a slim plurality of 35.89 percent versus López Obrador’s 35.31 percent of the vote (a margin of victory of 244,000 votes out of 41.8 million cast).
The results of the 2006 congressional races saw both the PAN and the PRD gain seats at the expense of the formerly dominant PRI. For the first time in its history, the PRI lost its plurality of seats in both houses of Congress, an event observers interpreted as a further sign of the party’s decline. Nonetheless, the PRI retained a sufficiently large bloc of seats to remain an influential congressional force and was well positioned to become a coalition partner of any future Mexican government. The PRD retained control of the powerful mayoralty of Mexico City. All three major parties held state governorships.
During 2007, the Calderón administration made public safety and the fight against drug cartels its highest domestic priorities. In response to escalating drug violence, the federal government deployed 24,000 troops to various states and removed hundreds of corrupt police officials. Mexican public opinion strongly backed Calderón’s aggressive tactics against the drug gangs. Under Calderón’s leadership, the center-right PAN government courted the center-left PRI in an effort to advance the president’s legislative agenda. During the 2007 legislative session, Congress passed far-reaching fiscal and pension system reforms that had stalled during the Fox administration.
By mid-2008 successive Mexican governments had made progress in reforming the economy and reducing extreme poverty. However, significant disparities in wealth, high levels of crime, and corruption persisted. The less-developed states in the south continued to lag economically behind the more prosperous north and center, fueling illegal migration to the United States. Mexico’s economy was also lagging behind those of other middle-income countries, such as China, in terms of overall competitiveness. In addition to further consolidating Mexico’s transition to democracy, the 2006 general elections presented an opportunity to overcome executive-legislative stalemate and move toward consensus on economic and public-sector reforms.
Source: Library of Congress
|Related Mexico Pages:
Zoomable map/satellite view of Mexico City
Zoomable map/satellite view of Mexico
Political Map of Mexico
Administrative Map of Mexico
Mexico Country Profile
Mexico in numbers
Mexico key statistical data.
Map of Central America and the Caribbean
Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia
Website of the National Institute of Anthropology and History.
History of Mexico
Mexico and Mexican History - And Introduction from the Pre Columbian Era to Modern Times.
History Time Line
Mexican historical time periods.
Mexican History Directory
Articles and information about Mexican history, famous battles, constitutions, treaties & documents.
The Roots of the City
History of the central region of the Mexican high plateau, the site of Mexico City.
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