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President Emiliano Calles.

Emiliano Calles (1874 - 1931?) was the tenth President of the United States of Mexico, serving from April 1920 to April 1926.

Hundred Day War[]

During the Hundred Day War with France, General Calles was the commander of the Durango district. At that time, he was the Mexican Army's only Mexicano general officer, and its youngest. The French expeditionary force under General Jacques Beauchamp began to advance on Mexico City from their beachhead in Tampico in late July 1914. The Mexican army under General Vincent Collins was driven back steadily by Beauchamp until 13 August, when President Victoriano Consalus replaced him with Calles. Sobel states that the choice of Calles was dictated primarily by the fact that he was the only general available at the time, but adds that French appeals to the Mexicano population to rise up against Consalus doubtless also influenced Consalus' decision.

Calles marched fresh regiments up to the front, and on 28 August, engaged Beauchamp in the Battle of Chapultepec. Calles sent airmobiles to bomb the French artillery positions while Mexican infantry surrounded the French troops with a barbed-wire barricade. Beauchamp led three charges against the barbed-wire barriers, each of which were driven back by Mexican mortar and machine gun fire, and by strafing airmobiles. Beauchamp died in the course of the third charge, and French forces ceased their efforts to break out of the trap. On the morning of the 29th, Beauchamp's second-in-command, General Pierre Bordagary, surrendered unconditionally to Calles.

Some 8,000 Negro slaves who had joined the French advance on Mexico City were captured along with the expeditionary force. President Consalus ordered them arrested and placed on trial for treason. Meanwhile, Calles advanced from Chapultepec to Tampico, placing the port under siege. The Mexican Caribbean Fleet, following its victory at the Battle of Campeche Bay, was able to blockade Tampico, ensuring that French forces holding the city could neither be reinforced or evacuated. The French defenders of Tampico finally surrendered on 29 September.

Although Calles' victory over the French made him the most popular man in Mexico, he was a withdrawn, scholarly man who preferred to avoid publicity and concentrate on military matters. Following the end of the war in October, he withdrew from public life, rejecting all efforts to persuade him to follow a political career. Although he could have gained either party's nomination for the presidency, he insisted that he "would rather die than serve in that awful office."

Slavery and the Presidency[]

The treason trials of the Negro slaves caused an international outcry, especially in the Confederation of North America. The Governor of Southern Vandalia, Howard Washburne, gave a speech on 10 February 1915 in which he demanded the abolition of slavery in Mexico. Washburne's speech led to the formation of the Friends of Black Mexico in the C.N.A., which held protest vigils outside the country's Mexican consulates.

On the morning of 4 January 1916, the day before the Mexico Tribunal would announce its verdict in the treason trials, a mob of young people stormed the Federal Prison in Chapultepec and freed the imprisoned slaves at a cost of hundreds of lives. The Chapultepec Incident came close to sparking war with the C.N.A., and made slavery into the leading political issue in Mexico. Although Consalus established several commissions to study the matter, he was unable to find a political solution. In 1918, he said, "If I retain the institution I will be pilloried. Should I ask for its end, I will be crushed."

Although Calles continued to insist that he had no desire for a political career, he made several short political speeches in the summer of 1919. The speeches showed that he was aware of the problems facing the U.S.M., though he offered no solutions to them. Consalus met with Calles in December 1919 to offer him the United Mexican Party's presidential nomination. Consalus wished to run for another term, but knew that Calles' popularity would make him the better candidate. "There is no reason to hurry your reply, Emiliano," Consalus told him, "but if you are interested, it would be best that some of us know now." Calles responded by again saying that he had no interest in politics.

Two months later, on 15 February 1920, Senator Albert Ullman of the Liberty Party arranged to meet Calles at a government dinner, and the two spoke at length afterwards. The details of the conversation were never made public, but it is known that they spoke about Mexican slavery and "related subjects." When reporters asked Calles afterwards if he was interested in the Libertarian nomination, he responded that he planned "to remain in the army the rest of my life. In any case, Mr. Ullman will doubtless be that party's nominee."

The U.M.P. renominated Consalus at their convention in Mexico City. However, at the Libertarian convention, Ullman and Senator Frank Armstrong of Jefferson secretly arranged for a "draft Calles" campaign to sweep the delegates and give him the nomination. Calles did not know of Ullman's plan, but he was told that he might be nominated "by acclimation." Calles accepted the nomination in a speech full of trivialities and meaningless generalizations that promised the party nothing. Ullman supposedly told Armstrong, "I think I know what we are getting, but I'm not certain. We are throwing dice with destiny."

Although Calles was a poor campaigner, his popularity was so great that Mexican voters did not care. Consalus correctly pointed out that Calles had no political experience, had gone back on his word that he would not run, and had no solutions to Mexico's problems. Ullman advised Calles to challenge Consalus to a debate, and Consalus accepted. During the vitavised debate on 29 March, Calles was visibly ill at ease, and was clearly outclassed by Consalus. The next day, Fernando Mordes of the Mexico City Tribune wrote that "Consalus destroyed Calles as a matador finishes off a dull bull."

None of these setbacks was sufficient to diminish Calles' popularity, and in the 1920 Mexican elections he won a majority of 11,842,690 votes to Consalus' 10,214,835, winning huge majorities in every state but California and Jefferson, and 54% of the popular vote.

Manumission Act[]

Although Calles had no political experience, he was intelligent, and was able to rely on Ullman's advice, appointing him to the office of Secretary of State. For his first two years in office, Ullman served as Calles' mentor and chief advisor. Unlike most Libertarian politicians, Ullman neither underestimated Calles' intelligence nor considered him a wonder-worker. He believed Calles to be a man of good instincts who would learn quickly. Later, Ullman said, "Some of my colleagues seemed to consider the President rather stupid and slothful. Had they forgotten the Battle of Chapultepec? They also considered him a poor politician. Did they realize what it takes to rise to field command in an army commanded by Anglos if you are a Mexicano? They were the fools, not Emiliano Calles." Although Ullman provided Calles with most of his policies in 1920 and 1921, after that Calles had gained enough skill and self-confidence to act on his own behalf.

On 14 April, Calles announced that he would present his legislative program to the Senate within a week. He appeared before the Senate in person on 21 April, the first president to do so since the restoration of democratic rule. Calles' speech was only four minutes long, and dealt exclusively with slavery. He briefly outlined the background of the problem, then offered his solution: "Slavery must be abolished in Mexico. We shall try to do so by constitutional amendment, but if this is not possible, other ways will be found. We have talked long enough of this subject. In all the reports I have yet to find one reasonable argument in favor of keeping the Negro enslaved. The free population of Mexico numbers 132 million. There are some 103,000 Negro slaves in the country. Giving these poor wretches their liberty will not dilute our national bloodstream, nor will it poison our lives. It is a small price to pay for the benefits manumission will bring."

In a vitavised interview nine years later, Ullman said, "We had no specific plan worked out in advance. All we knew was that freedom was the only answer. We were willing to allow the defenders of slavery to guide us in the way they would end the institution, and listened carefully in the next two weeks. Then we acted."

On the morning of 30 April Calles met with Douglas Benedict, who as head of Kramer Associates was the most powerful man in the country. In a guarded meeting the two agreed that the government would not act to hinder K.A.'s power, in return for which Benedict would use his financial control of the Congress to ensure passage of manumission. At noon, Ullman met with Senator Rodrigo de la Casa of Durango, a major pro-slavery leader. De la Casa said that amending the Constitution would be dangerous, and indicated that a simple bill, submitted to the Senate and Assembly and passed by a voice vote, would be far more appealing to the legislators. Ullman told de la Casa that he would report the discussion favorably to Calles.

The Manumission Act was introduced in the Assembly on 13 May. The measure provided for token compensation for slaveowners, and established a one-year "grace period" during which slavery would be "phased out." The act also established the Manumission Bureau to assist freedmen in adjusting to their new status.

Benedict issued orders to those members of the Congress who had received financial support from K.A. to support the bill. However, Assemblyman Pedro Fuentes of Chiapas refused to do so, denouncing the bill as "legal theft." He then turned on Assemblyman Hernando Cromwell, who was spearheading the bill's passage, and shouted, "We know who is behind you in this. It is Kramer Associates, more particularly Douglas Benedict. Kramer gold put you where you are, and Kramer gold is buying manumission for the administration. You were elected on a pledge to retain slavery, and now you have conventiently changed your mind. I challenge you to tell us why you have so acted." Cromwell simply smiled and shrugged his shoulders. The Manumission Bill passed the Assembly by a voice vote that day. There was no similar revolt by any of the Senators, and the bill passed by a voice vote there as well on 14 May. Calles signed the Manumission Act into law on 21 May 1920.

The Bloody Season[]

Passage of the Manumission Act left the U.S.M. deeply divided. Benedict used his power to compel acceptance in the areas K.A. controlled, and support for manumission was strongest in California and Jefferson, the two states with the largest Anglo and Hispano populations. The Indians of Arizona and Mexico del Norte also supported manumission. However, the Mexicano-majority states of Durango and Chiapas were centers of the anti-manumission movement led by Fuentes. During the Bloody Season in the summer of 1920, slaves were attacked by hooded gangs, beaten, and in 154 cases, murdered. Pro-manumission legislators were also attacked; seventeen Assemblymen and two Senators were forced to resign in the face of overwhelming pressure from constituents.

The riots and demonstrations were so severe that President Calles was obliged to call out the Mexican army to separate supporters and opponents of manumission, and had it not been for Calles' great personal following in the army, many officers might have deserted to the anti-manumission side. By late August, the opposition had taken to burning down Manumission Bureau offices, and threatening its officials with death if they attempted to rebuild them.

Ullman did his best to calm the anti-manumission movement. He pointed out that although the freedman would no longer be bound to their masters, "most will doubtless prefer to remain where they are." In fact, few household servants left their masters, becoming paid employees rather than bound servants. However, there was a great exodus of fieldhands and dockhands. Only 42% of freed industrial workers remained at their jobs, with the rest leaving either voluntarily or under pressure from Mexicano-led labor unions. Many freedmen made their way to Arizona and Mexico del Norte, where they found refuge and employment in Indian areas.

In September, an anti-manumission organization called the Sons of the Wilderness Walk announced that if any slaves were freed at the Manumission Bureau building in Mexico City, it would be destroyed. The Bureau was due to begin processing slaves on 22 September, and Calles insisted that "Nothing will be allowed to interfere with the orderly processes of government."

An anti-manumission crowd gathered outside the Bureau on the morning of the 22nd, waiting for the first freedman to appear. A government locomobile entered the plaza, and Calles himself emerged from it alone. Although the crowd jeered Calles and threatened him with clubs, he pushed his way through them, staring straight ahead, with no expression, and entered the Bureau. Rumors swept the crowd that Calles would close down the Bureau, or order the army to disperse them. Instead, at 9:30am, Calles emerged from the Bureau accompanied by the first freed slave, John Walker. Calles escorted Walker to the center of the shouting, jeering crowd, then stood and waited. For the next three minutes, the noise from the crowd slowly ebbed, until the plaza was silent. After that, the crowd began to disperse, and by 10:00am the plaza was empty except for Calles, Walker, and a group of about twenty reporters.

One of the reporters, Miguel Casey, published an account in the day's late edition of the Mexico City Herald: "The President said nothing, but his eyes challenged those about him. Never before had I seen such an act of bravery. At that moment Calles was not a president, a general, or even the hero of Chapultepec. He was El Primero, the legendary matador, facing the bull. I do not know whether Calles thought of this before he entered the plaza; I doubt it very much. But, by this act, he won the day not only for manumission, but for his own reputation. Now he has done it all. No Mexican has ever so drained the cup, and so magnificently."

Another reporter, Walter Anderson of the Mexico City Times, was more pessimistic, writing two days later: "Our posterity will consider Calles a great man; the sons and grandsons of his opponents will praise him as a liberator. But their parents will not forgive him. The Mexicanos consider Calles a traitor to his people; the Anglos and Hispanos have not forgotten he is a Mexicano. The Indians will support him, as will the freedmen, but they count for little in the way of numbers. Calles will be president for five more years, and in this time he will lack a constituency. It will be a difficult period for him, and an sorry one for Mexico."

The disorders of the Bloody Season died down soon after Calles faced down the crowd in Mexico City, but sporadic violence against the freedmen continued for another decade.

Statehood Plebiscites[]

Since Calles had alienated most of his Mexicano supporters during the manumission debate, Ullman suggested that he attempt to cultivate support among the Anglos and Hispanos, and in spite of his own distrust of K.A., that he seek the support of Benedict. Calles chose to ignore Ullman's advice. Instead, on 22 March 1922, he appeared before Congress to announce his next reform policy. Calles began by observing that manumission was "proceeding not as smoothly as we might prefer, but proceeding nonetheless." Mexico would shortly be free of slavery, which was, he said, "all to the good." His next proposal would "further broaden the republican base of our nation.

"We are a nation in ideology," Calles continued, "but an empire in form. Our Constitution speaks of the six states, but we control five more, which we rarely discuss. I am referring to New Granada, Guatemala, Hawaii, Alaska, and the Siberian Republic. The Mexican flag does not fly over these lands; each is led by its own government, but otherwise, they are as Mexican as California or Chiapas. We control them, but they have no voice in what we do.

"I propose, therefore, that we permit them to make a choice. Plebiscites shall be scheduled in these nations; I have communicated with their leaders, and believe they will accept. If the peoples there want to join us, they shall be permitted to do so. If not, then we should remove ourselves from their midst."

Ullman had opposed Calles' proposal, saying, "If the leaders of New Granada, Siberia, and Guatemala accept our proposal -- and I doubt they will -- and the people vote for incorporation into the U.S.M., then they will become a burden we can barely afford to carry. If they don't, it will be a slap in the face from which we may not recover for many years. There is everything to lose and nothing to gain from such a proposal."

After Calles' speech, opinion among the members of Congress was divided. Fuentes applauded the plan, saying that "the President will not expunge all his mistakes with this act, but it is right nonetheless, and should be supported." However, Assemblyman Franklin Adams of California, who was under the financial control of K.A., denounced the proposal as "harebrained." K.A. still maintained economic control of the five territories, and Benedict thought that any change would be for the worse. By April, his agents in the five territories were attempting to block the plebiscites.

Benedict's agents were successful in Siberia and New Granada. Both Premier Oleg Khmirinovsky and President Carl Hermión rejected Calles' proposed plebiscites. However, the governments of the other three territories proved to be beyond Benedict's control, and their legislatures accepted the plebiscites. The plebiscites were held early in 1923, and although Guatemala rejected Mexican statehood, the territories of Hawaii and Alaska accepted, and both were admitted as states in November 1923.

Re-election Campaign[]

Between the Manumission Act and the plebiscites, Calles had alienated most of the population of Mexico. Although he proposed additional reforms, including a minimum wage, increased social welfare benefits, and a national scientific research center, he failed to gain passage of any of them. By 1925, it was clear that Calles would be unable to win re-election, but he sought and gained the Libertarian nomination for a second term, out of his desire to prevent Fuentes from winning the presidency and repealing the Manumission Act.

Fuentes did indeed win the U.M.P. presidential nomination at the party's convention late in 1925. In his acceptance speech, he promised to "explore every avenue, every facet of the Calles records, and expose this man for the fraud he is." In the early stages of the campaign, Calles denounced Fuentes as a "would-be tyrant," while Fuentes called Calles "a failure, simple and complete." However, in a vitavised debate held on 5 January 1926, both candidates spoke more cautiously. Finally, on 10 January, in a speech at Tampico, Fuentes said that he considered both the slavery and annexation issues closed. From that point on, the campaign was dull, with neither candidate making a major speech. In the 1926 Mexican elections on 1 April, Fuentes won 13,760,940 votes to Calles' 12,276,777, or 53% of the total vote.

An editorial in the Mexico City Times the day after the election said that "General Calles was important in spite of himself, but he was no republican. Without realizing it, Calles was in the mold of El Jefe. Fortunately for the nation, he lacked the sophistication to know this." However, an editorial published on 3 December 1931, possibly in response to Calles' death, said that "Emiliano Calles was doubtless the greatest president this nation ever had." A public opinion poll conducted in 1934 showed him to be the most popular president in Mexican history.

In a vitavised interview with Miguel Callendra on 12 October 1929, Ullman said, "Calles doesn't care what people think. He lives in his own skull. It isn't that he has contempt for the masses. Having known him all these years, I feel his republican instincts were always strong. It's just that he has always placed personal convictions above all else. Criticize him for this if you will, but without it, the slaves would still be with us and Hawaii and Alaska would not be states."


Sobel's sources for the life and career of Emiliano Calles include Calles' own Wars to Come (Mexico City, 1918) and The People and the Nation (Mexico City, 1931); as well as the 1929 Callendar interview; Samuel Slate's The Rise of Emiliano Calles (New York, 1929); Miguel San Martín's The Bloody Season (Mexico City, 1930); Rodrigo de la Casa's Life at Court: An Observer of the Calles Regime (Mexico City, 1934); Winston Clark's The Calles-Fuentes Campaign of 1926 (Mexico City, 1945); Harry McGraw's Calles and Fuentes: the Yin and the Yang (Mexico City, 1950); Field Marshall Sir Wesley Gabor's Emiliano Calles and the Art of War (London, 1955); Dwight Hermon's Starkism in Mexico: The Public Career of Pedro Fuentes (New York, 1955) and Albert Ullman and the Calles Conspiracy (Mexico City, 1969); Harold Walker's The Chapultapec Affair: Doorway to Today (New York, 1958); Jerome Krinz' Victoriano Consalus and the Politics of Race (New York, 1960); James Clark's The Slate Thesis Vindicated: How Calles Became President (Mexico City, 1966); Phillip Daley's The Hundred Day War (New York, 1966); Clyde Herman's The Gathering Storm: The End of U.S.M. Slavery (New York, 1967); and Stanley Tulin's The Kramer Associates: The Benedict Years (London, 1971).

This was the Featured Article for the week of 16 February 2014.

Heads of State of the U.S.M.
Andrew JacksonMiguel HuddlestonPedro HermiónRaphael BlaineHector NilesArthur ConroyOmar KinkaidGeorge ViningBenito HermiónMartin ColeAnthony FloresVictoriano ConsalusEmiliano CallesPedro FuentesAlvin SilvaFelix GarciaVincent MercatorRaphael Dominguez