A Spirit Rises
A Brief Biography of Francisco I. Madero, Part 1
In 2024, major elections will be held across the globe, in countries that combined represent half of the world’s population. Seven of the most populous nations in the world will hold elections this year. One discouraging characteristic of many of the world’s elections is the rising popularity of authoritarian leadership and the demise of representative types of governments - what we commonly refer to as democracy. Indeed, even in the modern world’s greatest defender, champion, and role model of democracy - the United States - this year’s U.S. election may see that founding principle meet an ignominious end.
With democracy itself potentially finding itself dying on the crucible of a world that is not able to act with reason based on verified facts, I find myself contemplating the evolution of democracy here in Mexico. And in particular, of the fascinating, tragic, but ultimately inspirational life of a democracy zealot; a true believer and unwavering bearer of the torch of freedom, liberal ideology, and social justice - Mexico’s own Apostle of Democracy, little known outside of this country yet a giant within it - Francisco Ignacio Madero González1.
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In my article last year about Mexico’s Constitution, I briefly spoke about Madero and threatened to write a longer article about him. Here, I am making good on that threat. However, Madero is such a complex and many-faceted figure, that a single Mexico Listo-length article could not do him or his achievements justice. This then is part one. And because I cannot think past my next cup of coffee, the number of subsequent articles remains a mystery even to me. But I promise to give you your lives back at no more than two more.
First, though, let’s get to the spoilers. “Who even is this Madero” you may be asking yourself if you didn’t learn history in a Mexican classroom. Francisco I. Madero, as anyone who did learn history in a Mexican classroom could tell you, was one of the architects of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, and President of Mexico from 1911 until his deposition and assassination in 1913.
Alongside fellow revolutionary leaders Hermila Galindo and Carmen Serdán, Madero appears on Mexico’s 1,000 peso note. Pretty much every town in Mexico with more than a handful of streets includes at least one named after Francisco I. Madero. His statue can be found in cities large and small. What Madero represents is relevant to what is happening socioeconomically and politically in the world today. And in a world where so much wealth is tied up in so few hands - hands preoccupied only with accumulating more wealth - Madero stands out as a bright light reminding us that sometimes (such a very few sometimes) a person of wealth can use their exceptional means to actually attempt to improve the conditions of the people with whom they share the world, even when failure in those attempts means paying the ultimate price.
Swaddled in Luxury
Francisco Madero was born in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila on October 30, 1873. His family was ridiculously wealthy, with a diverse range of business interests that included transportation, mining, coal, cotton, rubber, textiles, etc. As the historian Enrique Krauze put it, “the sun never set on the Madero dominions”. His family’s wealth meant that young Francisco would not want for the best education possible at the time. He was enrolled in a Jesuit college at the age of twelve, which left him with a lasting sense of moral conviction and self-discipline. When he left the Jesuit institution, he was sent briefly to the United States and then to France where he attended the famous Lycée Hoche secondary school as well as the prominent business school École des hautes études commerciales de Paris. After France, Madero returned again to the United States where he continued his collegiate studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
But it was his time in France that left Madero with perhaps the most profound - certainly the most compelling - influence of his life: that of spiritism.
Spiritism is a doctrine introduced by the French writer, banker, and educator Allan Kardec on or around 1857. As a doctrine, spiritism is an offshoot of spiritualism. While spiritualism espouses the idea that a person’s spirit persists after death, and can be contacted and interacted with by the living, spiritism carries the idea of this afterlife spirit forward, intermixing Christian morality, reincarnation of the spirt, and the relationship between the physical and the transcendent worlds. Far from being a fringe philosophical belief, spiritism counted upwards of 7 million followers at the time of Kardec’s death in the late 1800s.
While in France, Madero starting reading the spiritist magazine Revue Spirite. The Christian components of spiritism resonated deeply with the Christian morality Madero had acquired from the Jesuits, and he took to its teachings and ideology immediately and completely.
When he returned from the United States to help run one of his family’s haciendas in San Pedro, Coahuila, Madero received the first of what would become a lifelong series of visits from his brother Raúl, who had died in a fire years before at the age of four. These visits - whether real or imagined - had a profound influence on Madero’s life and character. Raúl compelled upon his brother to dominate matter, to overcome it in favor of the concerns of the spirit. Madero fervently embraced his brother’s suggestions: he became a vegetarian, and he gave up smoking and alcohol for life; and not so much from a moral conviction about any of these things, rather as a demonstration that he had the spiritual strength to suppress and overcome the physical desires of the body.
Later, Raúl would further impress upon his brother the ideals of charity, and the liberation of Mexico’s people from “oppression, slavery and fanaticism”. “You can have”, Raúl explained to his brother, “the only happiness there is in this world solely through practicing charity in the broadest sense of the word”2. Madero dove into his brother’s admonishments, and never looked back.
At his hacienda in San Pedro, Madero fed the hungry children of the surrounding villages. He paid his workers a large salary and took care of their medical needs. He created community kitchens, opened schools and hospitals. Madero had the financial means to make the world a better place, and he threw his money everywhere that he saw need.
Madero, one supposes, could have continued on this way indefinitely: as a gentleman philanthropist, bettering his corner of the world by day, and studying and holding seances by night. By this time he was married, he was living according to his moral principles, he was healthy and happy. But, as the apocryphal saying goes, he lived in interesting times.
For effectively the entirety of Madero’s life up until this time, Mexico was ruled by one man: Porfirio Díaz. While elections were held during the 30 years of Díaz’ presidency, they were done so with pre-determined outcomes. Díaz was the de facto dictator of Mexico. And while Díaz was able to effect an amazing amount of economic development in Mexico, the fruits of that development went to political cronies, and the circle of wealth contracted sharply. Díaz privatized and sold indigenous lands; he suppressed and controlled the press; he stacked the courts with political appointees; he enriched himself and his friends and ignored everyone else.
For someone with Madero’s convictions about Christian charity and social justice, the rule of Mexico by a selfish dictator was an affront that couldn’t be ignored. Madero became political. He ran for a local office, and lost. Soon thereafter, he ran for another office, and lost again. He lost the elections, but not his spirit. He wrote and published political manifestos critical of the Porfiriato - the political machine of president Porfirio Díaz. Rather than giving up on his local political ambitions, he expanded those ambitions, envisioning himself as a future candidate for the entire nation of Mexico.
Around this time, a new spirit - José - began appearing in seances alongside Raúl. More radical than Raúl, José spoke to Madero in words that would have been comfortable on the tongue of Joan of Arc: “Prostrate yourself before your God so that he may make you a knight...a member of the great spiritual family that governs the destinies of this planet, a soldier of liberty and progress...who fights under the magnanimous banners of Jesús of Nazareth”, and “You have been chosen by your Heavenly Father to carry out a great mission on earth...for this divine cause you will have to sacrifice everything material, everything of this world”.
Madero took these words literally, and in the end, he would indeed sacrifice everything, seemingly willingly. Next week: Madero, soldier of liberty3.
Most of the biographical information is taken from the following excellent sources:
Krauze, Enrique (1998). Mexico: Biography of Power. Harper Perennial.
Ross, Stanley R. (1955). Francisco I. Madero: Apostle of Mexican Democracy. Columbia University Press.
Unless these kinds of historical subjects bore you to tears. Let me know in the comments!