[magazine article introduction] In this remarkable article the greatest man of the continent speaks fully to the world through Pearson’s Magazine. By previous arrangement Mr. Creelman went to Mexico and was received at Chapultepec Castle. He had unusual opportunities for conversation with President Diaz and has brought out with great clearness the dramatic and impressive contrast between his stern, autocratic government and his stirring tribute to the democratic idea. Through Mr. Creelman the President announces his intention to retire from power, and predicts a peaceful future for Mexico under free institutions. The story of a nation maker. – EDITOR.
From the heights of Chapultepec Castle President Diaz looked down upon the venerable capital of his country, spread out on a vast plain, with a ring of mountains flung up grandly about it, and I, who had come nearly four thousand miles from New York to see the master and hero of modern Mexico — the inscrutable leader in whose veins is blended the blood of the primitive Mixtecs with that of the invading Spaniards — watched the slender, erect form, the strong, soldierly head and commanding, but sensitive, countenance with an interest beyond words to express.
A high, wide forehead that slopes up to crisp white hair and overhangs deep-set, dark brown eyes that search your soul, soften into inexpressible kindliness and then dart quick side looks — terrible eyes, threatening eyes, loving, confiding, humorous eyes — a straight, powerful, broad and somewhat fleshy nose, whose curved nostrils lift and dilate with every emotion; huge, virile jaws that sweep from large, flat, fine ears, set close to the head, to the tremendous, square, fighting chin; a wide, firm mouth shaded by a white mustache; a full, short, muscular neck; wide shoulders, deep chest; a curiously tense and rigid carriage that gives great distinction to a personality suggestive of singular power and dignity — that is Porfirio Diaz in his seventy-eighth year, as I saw him a few weeks ago on the spot where, forty years before, he stood — with his besieging army surrounding the City of Mexico, and the young Emperor Maximilian being shot to death in Querétaro, beyond those blue mountains to the north — waiting grimly for the thrilling end of the last interference of European monarchy with the republics of America.
There is not a more romantic or heroic figure in all the world, nor one more intensely watched by both the friends and foes of democracy, than the soldier-statesman, whose adventurous youth pales the pages of Dumas, and whose iron rule has converted the warring, ignorant, superstitious and impoverished masses of Mexico, oppressed by centuries of Spanish cruelty and greed, into a strong, steady, peaceful, debt-paying and progressive nation.
For twenty-seven years he has governed the Mexican Republic with such power that national elections have become mere formalities. He might easily have set a crown upon his head.
Yet to-day, in the supremacy of his career, this astonishing man — foremost figure of the American hemisphere and unreadable mystery to students of human government — announces that he will insist on retiring from the Presidency at the end of his present term, so that he may see his successor peacefully established and that, with his assistance, the people of the Mexican Republic may show the world that they have entered serenely and preparedly upon the last complete phase of their liberties, that the nation is emerging from ignorance and revolutionary passion, and that it can choose and change presidents without weakness or war.
It is something to come from the money-mad gambling congeries of Wall Street and in the same week to stand on the rock of Chapultepec, in surroundings of almost unreal grandeur and loveliness, beside one who is said to have transformed a republic into an autocracy by the absolute compulsion of courage and character, and to hear him speak of democracy as the hope of mankind.
This, too, at a time when the American soul shudders at the mere thought of a third term for any President.
The President surveyed the majestic, sunlit scene below the ancient castle and turned away with a smile, brushing a curtain of scarlet trumpet-flowers and vine-like pink geraniums as he moved along the terrace toward the inner garden, where a fountain set among palms and flowers sparkled with water from the spring at which Montezuma used to drink, under the mighty cypresses that still rear their branches about the rock on which we stood.
[Diaz] “It is a mistake to suppose that the future of democracy in Mexico has been endangered by the long continuance in office of one President,” he said quietly. “I can say sincerely that office has not corrupted my political ideals and that I believe democracy to be the one true, just principle of government, although in practice it is possible only to highly developed peoples.”
For a moment the straight figure paused and the brown eyes looked over the great valley to where snow-covered Popocatépetl lifted its volcanic peak nearly eighteen thousand feet among the clouds beside the snowy craters of Ixtaccihuatl – a land of dead volcanoes, human and otherwise.
[Diaz] “I can lay down the Presidency of Mexico without a pang of regret, but I cannot cease to serve this country while I live,” he added.
The sun shone full in the President’s face but his eyes did not shrink from the ordeal. The green landscape, the smoking city, the blue tumult of mountains, the thin, exhilarating, scented air, seemed to stir him, and the color came to his cheeks as he clasped his hands behind him and threw his head backward. His nostrils opened wide.
[Creelman] “You know that in the United States we are troubled about the question of electing a President for three terms?”
He smiled and then looked grave, nodding his head gently and pursing his lips. It is hard to describe the look of concentrated interest that suddenly came into his strong, intelligent countenance.
[Diaz] “Yes, yes, I know,” he replied. “It is a natural sentiment of democratic peoples that their officials should be often changed. I agree with that sentiment.”
It seemed hard to realize that I was listening to a soldier who had ruled a republic continuously for more than a quarter of a century with a personal authority unknown to most kings. Yet he spoke with a simple and convincing manner, as one whose place was great and secure beyond the need of hypocrisy.
[Diaz] “It is quite true that when a man has occupied a powerful office for a very long time he is likely to begin to look upon it as his personal property, and it is well that a free people should guard themselves against the tendencies of individual ambition.”
[Diaz] “Yet the abstract theories of democracy and the practical, effective application of them are often necessarily different — that is when you are seeking for the substance rather than the mere form.”
[Diaz] “I can see no good reason why President Theodore Roosevelt should not be elected again if a majority of the American people desire to have him continue in office. I believe that he has thought more of his country than of himself. He has done and is doing a great work for the United States, a work that will cause him, whether he serves again or not, to be remembered in history as one of the great Presidents. I look upon the trusts as a great and real power in the United States, and President Roosevelt has had the patriotism and courage to defy them. Mankind understands the meaning of his attitude and its bearing upon the future. He stands before the world as a statesman whose victories have been moral victories.”
[Diaz] “In my judgement the fight to restrain the power of the trusts and keep them from oppressing the people of the United States marks one of the most important and significant periods in your history. Mr. Roosevelt has faced the crisis like a great man.”
[Diaz] “There can be no doubt that Mr. Roosevelt is a strong, pure man, a patriot who understands his country and loves it as well. The American fear of a third term seems to be to be without any just reason. There can be no question of principle in the matter if a majority of the people approve his policies and want him to continue his work. That is the real, the vital thing — whether a majority of the people need him and desire him to go on.”
[Diaz] “Here in Mexico we have had different conditions. I received this government from the hands of a victorious army at a time when the people were divided and unprepared for the exercise of the extreme principles of democratic government. To have thrown upon the masses the whole responsibility of government at once would have produced conditions that might have discredited the cause of free government.”
[Diaz] “Yet, although I got power at first from the army, an election was held as soon as possible and then my authority came from the people. I have tried to leave the Presidency several times, but it has been pressed upon me and I remained in office for the sake of the nation which trusted me. The fact that the price of Mexican securities dropped eleven points when I was ill at Cuernavaca indicates the kind of evidence that persuaded me to overcome my personal inclination to retire to private life.”
[Diaz] “We preserved the republican and democratic form of government. We defended the theory and kept it intact. Yet we adopted a patriarchal policy in the actual administration of the nation’s affairs, guiding and restraining popular tendencies, with full faith that an enforced peace would allow education, industry and commerce to develop elements of stability and unity in a naturally intelligent, gentle and affectionate people.”
[Diaz] “I have waited patiently for the day when the people of the Mexican Republic would be prepared to choose and change their government at every election without danger of armed revolutions and without injury to the national credit or interference with national progress. I believe that day has come.”
Again the soldierly figure turned toward the glorious scene lying between the mountains. It was plain to see that the President was deeply moved. The strong face was as sensitive as a child’s. The dark eyes were moist.
And what an unforgettable vision of color, movement and romance it was!
Beneath the giant trees still surrounding the rock of Chapultepec – the only rise in the flat valley – Montezuma, the Aztec monarch, used to walk in his hours of ease before Cortés and Alvarado came with the cross of Christ and the pitiless sword of Spain, to be followed by three hundred terrible years in which the country writhed and wept under Spanish viceroys and five governors, to be succeeded by a ridiculous native emperor [Augustín de Iturbide, crowned as Augustín I of Mexico in 1822] and a succession of dictators and presidents, with Emperor Maximilian’s invasion between, until Diaz, the hero of fifty battles, decided that Mexico should cease to fight, and learn to work and pay her debts.
Here, on the hillside of Chapultepec, were red and white roses blooming in December, passion flowers, daises, strange splashes of scarlet blossoms; white jessamine wreathing itself over rocks sculpted by the Aztecs; stretches of blue myrtles that made the heart leap with an emotion born of color; violets, poppies, lilies, laurels.
To the rear was a pink-walled, crumbling mill where Winfield Scott stood with his artillery in 1847, when swift lines of American bayonets came through the swamp, the cypresses and the laurels, and the American flag was borne to the summit of Chapultepec over the dead bodies of the young Mexican cadets whose white monument is decorated once a year by American veterans.
As we paced the castle terrace we could see long processions of Mexican Indians accompanies by the wives and children, with monstrous hats, bright-colored blankets and bare or sandled feet, moving continuously from all parts of the valley and from the mountain passes toward Guadalupe; and two days later I was to see a hundred thousand aboriginal Americans gather about that holiest of American shrines, where under a crown of emeralds, rubies, diamonds and sapphires that cost thirty thousand dollars merely to fashion, and before a multitude of blanketed Indians, kneeling with their wives and babies, holding candles and flowers, and worshipping with a devotion that smote the most cynical spectator into reverence, the resplendent Archbishop of Mexico celebrated mass before the altar-enclosed blanket of the pious Indian, Juan Diego, upon whose woven surface the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared in 1531.
We could see faintly the little chapel on the hill where the holy blanket originally hung.
[Creelman] “It is commonly held that true democratic institutions are impossible in a country with no middle class,” I suggested.
President Diaz turned, with a keen look and nodded his head.
Before its door Santa Anna, the dictator, who overthrew the native emperor, Iturbide, ceded to the conquering forces of the United States, for fifteen million dollars, California, Nevada, Utah, part of Colorado and most of New Mexico and Arizona, which, with Texas, brought about eight hundred and fifty thousand square miles of Mexican territory under the Stars and Stripes – and this, nine days after gold was discovered in California.
In the little cemetery beside the chapel is the neglected grave of the dictator Santa Anna, and in the jumble of the city we could discern the roof of the church in which, with glittering pomp, he buried his amputated leg, which was afterward torn from its tomb by a jeering mob, who tied it to a rope and dragged it joyously through the streets.
[Diaz] “It is true,” he said. “Mexico has a middle class now; but she had none before. The middle class is the active element of society, here as elsewhere.”
[Diaz] “The rich are too much preoccupied in their riches and in their dignities to be of much use in advancing the general welfare. Their children do not try very hard to improve their education or their character.”
[Diaz] “On the other hand, the poor are usually too ignorant to have power.”
[Diaz] “It is upon the middle class, drawn largely from the poor, but somewhat from the rich, the active, hard-working, self-improving middle class, that a democracy must depend for its development. It is the middle class that concerns itself with politics and with the general progress.”
[Diaz] “In the old days we had no middle class in Mexico because the minds of the people and their energies were wholly absorbed in politics and war. Spanish tyranny and misgovernment had disorganized society. The productive activities of the nation were abandoned in successive struggles. There was general confusion. Neither life nor property was safe. A middle class could not appear under such conditions.”
[Creelman] “General Diaz,” I interrupted, “you have had an unprecedented experience in the history of republics. For thirty years the destinies of this nation have been in your hands, to mold them as you will; but men die, while nations must continue to live. Do you believe that Mexico can continue to exist in peace as a republic? Are you satisfied that its future is assured under free institutions?”
It was worthwhile to have come from New York to Chapultepec Castle to see the hero’s face at that moment. Strength, patriotism, warriorship, prophethood seemed suddenly to shine in his brown eyes.
[Diaz] “The future of Mexico is assured,” he said in a clear voice. “The principles of democracy have not been planted very deep in our people, I fear. But the nation has grown and it loves liberty. Our difficulty has been that the people do not concern themselves enough about public matters for a democracy. The individual Mexican as a rule thinks much about his own rights and is always ready to assert them. But he does not think so much about the rights of others. He thinks of his privileges, but not of his duties. Capacity for self-restraint is the basis of democratic government, and self-restraint is possible only to those who recognize the rights of their neighbors.”
[Diaz] “The Indians, who are more than half of our population, care little for politics. They are accustomed to look to those in authority for leadership instead of thinking for themselves. That is a tendency they inherited from the Spaniards, who taught them to refrain from meddling in public affairs and rely on the government for guidance.”
[Diaz] “Yet I firmly believe that the principles of democracy have grown and will grow in Mexico.”
[Creelman] “But you have no opposition party in the Republic, Mr. President. How can free institutions flourish when there is no opposition to keep the majority, or governing party, in check?”
[Diaz] “It is true there is no opposition party. I have so many friends in the republic that my enemies seem unwilling to identify themselves with so small a minority. I appreciate the kindness of my friends and the confidence of my country; but such absolute confidence imposes responsibilities and duties that tire me more and more.”
[Diaz] “No matter what my friends and supporters say, I retire when my present term of office ends, and I shall not serve again. I shall be eighty years old then.”
[Diaz] “My country has relied on me and it has been kind to me. My friends have praised my merits and overlooked my faults. But they may not be willing to deal so generously with my successor and he may need my advice and support; therefore I desire to be alive when he assumes office so that I may help him.”
He folded his arms over his deep chest and spoke with great emphasis.
[Diaz] “I welcome an opposition party in the Mexican Republic,” he said. “If it appears, I will regard it as a blessing, not as an evil. And if it can develop power, not to exploit but to govern, I will stand by it, support it, advise it and forget myself in the successful inauguration of complete democratic government in the country.”
[Diaz] “It is enough for me that I have seen Mexico rise among the peaceful and useful nations. I have no desire to continue in the Presidency. This nation is ready for her ultimate life of freedom. At the age of seventy-seven years I am satisfied with robust health. That is one thing which neither law nor force can create. I would not exchange it for all the millions of your American oil king [John D. Rockefeller].”
His ruddy skin, sparkling eyes and light, elastic step went well with his words. For one who has endured the privations of war and imprisonment, and who today rises at six o’clock in the morning, working until late at night at the full of his powers, the physical condition of President Diaz, who is even now a notable hunter and who usually ascends the palace stairway two steps at a time is almost unbelievable.
[Diaz] “The railway has played a great part in the peace of Mexico,” he continued. “When I became President at first there were only two small lines, one connecting the capital with Vera Cruz, the other connecting it with Querétaro. Now we have more than nineteen thousand miles of railways. Then we had a slow and costly mail service, carried on by stage coaches, and the mail coach between the capital and Puebla would be stopped by highwaymen two or three times in a trip, the last robbers to attack it generally finding nothing left to steal. Now we have a cheap, safe and fairly rapid mail service throughout the country with more than twenty-two hundred post-offices. Telegraphing was a difficult thing in those times. To-day we have more than forty-five thousand miles of telegraph wires in operation.”
[Diaz] “We began by making robbery punishable by death and compelling the execution of offenders within a few hours after they were caught and condemned. We ordered that wherever telegraph wires were cut and the chief officer of the district did not catch the criminal, he should himself suffer; and in case the cutting occurred on a plantation the proprietor who failed to prevent it should be hanged to the nearest telegraph pole. These were military orders, remember.”
[Diaz] “We were harsh. Sometimes we were harsh to the point of cruelty. But it was all necessary then to the life and progress of the nation. If there was cruelty, results have justified it.”
The nostrils dilated and quivered. The mouth was a straight line.
[Diaz] “It was better that a little blood should be shed that much blood should be saved. The blood that was shed was bad blood; the blood that was saved was good blood.”
[Diaz] “Peace was necessary, even an enforced peace, that the nation might have time to think and work. Education and industry have carried on the task begun by the army.”
He moved slowly along the terrace, sweeping the scene below with his glances, as though the old days were upon him again – the slaughter and victory at Puebla, the march on Mexico City; the visit of the stately Princess Salm-Salm to his lines and her vain pleadings for the life of the Emperor Maximilian, preparing to die at Querétaro; the stealthy interview of Maximilian’s priest-secretary; the pale Señora Donna Luciana Arrazola de Baz, wife of Maximilian’s war minister, who came out to offer the surrender of the capital if Diaz would abandon the republic; the attempts of traitorous generals, here on Chapultepec rock, to betray the young Emperor to save themselves — all, heroines, heroes, priests and soldiers, sent back hopeless, and the lines of sharp steel, already glorious with the blood of the foreign oppressors, strengthened and tightened about the doomed city. And then, the white flag flying from the towers of yonder gray cathedral, the end of the bastard empire and the entry of the dusty republican army, Diaz at its head, between multitudes of great-hatted, blanketed, barefooted peons, weeping for gratitude.
[Creelman] “And which do you regard as the greatest force for peace, the army or the schoolhouse?” I asked.
The soldier’s face flushed slightly and the splendid white head was held a little higher.
[Diaz] “You speak of the present time?”
[Diaz] “The schoolhouse. There can be no doubt of that. I want to see education throughout the Republic carried on by the national government. I hope to see it before I die. It is important that all citizens of a republic should receive the same training, so that their ideals and methods may be harmonized and the national unity intensified. When men read alike and think alike they are more likely to act alike.”
[Creelman] “And you believe that the vast Indian population of Mexico is capable of high development?”
[Diaz] “I do. The Indians are gentle and they are grateful, all except the Yacquis and some of the Mayas. They have the traditions of an ancient civilization of their own. They are to be found among the lawyers, engineers, physicians, army officers and other professional men.”
Over the city drifted the smoke of many factories.
[Creelman] “It is better than cannon smoke,” I said.
[Diaz] “Yes,” he replied, “and yet there are times when cannon smoke is not such a bad thing. The toiling poor of my country have risen up to support me, but I cannot forget what my comrades in arms and their children have been to me in my severest ordeals.”
There were actually tears in the veteran’s eyes.
[Creelman] “That,” I said, pointing to a hideously modern bull-ring near the castle, “is the only surviving Spanish institution to be seen in this landscape.”
[Diaz] “You-have not noticed the pawnshops,” he exclaimed. “Spain brought to us her pawn-shops, as well as her bull-rings.”
The terrace on which the great American stood still bears the ugly Pompeian decorations which the doomed Emperor Maximilian and the beautiful Empress Carlotta caused to be painted to gratify their Austrian tastes. The patriot who crushed the imperial invader, and in whose blood is to be found the tide ripple of Spanish ancestry and a native American civilization whose ancient monuments are still the wonder of the continent, will not have the gaudy memorials of the crowned adventurer against whom he fought, and whose bribes he scorned, altered or even touched.
Below us, and reaching from the castle gardens to the city, was the wide and beautiful boulevard which the young Empress Carlotta gave to Mexico, she who went mad while pleading with the Pope to save her husband after Napoleon III deserted him, and who to-day, a gray-haired woman, is still shut up in a Belgian castle.
Here in the carriage-way is a monument to Guatemoc [Cuhautémoc] the last of the Montezumas, erected by President Diaz. There is an equestrian monument to Carlos IV [Charles IV], the largest bronze casting in the world, whose maker [Manuel Tolsá] killed himself when he realized that the horse and its imperial rider were without stirrups [probably not true].
Away to the right, among the trees of Coyoacan, is the garden in which Cortés strangled his wife and the spot on which he roasted the feet of Guatemoc in a vain attempt to make the monarch reveal the hiding place of the Aztec treasures.
Still farther away in the valley is the picturesque house and garden of Alvarado, Cortés’s cruel captain, which was the home of an Aztec chief before the Spaniards came, and is now occupied by Mrs. Nutall, the charming California woman who is searching out the mystery of the original Americans in the majestic ruins of Mexico.
To the left is the road over which Cortés and his cut-throats retreated from Montezuma’s capital, when the Aztecs rose up against his murderous oppression, and the still living tree under which he wept on the “Dismal Night” [“La Noche Triste” (“the night of sorrows”)] as he saw his defeated forces file before him.
And throughout the valley moves a wonderful system of electric cars, for even the crumbling house of Cortés is lit by electricity, and an electric elevator runs through the shaft in Chapultepec hill by which the Montezumas used to escape from enemies.
It is hard to remember that this wonderful plain was once a lake and that the Aztecs built their great city on piles, with causeways to the mainland. President Diaz bored a tunnel through the eastern mountain and the Valley of Mexico is now drained to the sea through a system of canals and sewers that cost more than twelve million dollars [the drainage project began much earlier].
Whether you see him at Chapultepec Castle, or in his office in the National Palace), or in the exquisite drawing-room of his modest home in the city, with his young, beautiful wife and his children and grandchildren by his first wife about him, or surrounded by troops, his breast covered with decorations conferred by great nations, he is always the same-simple, direct and full of the dignity of conscious power.
In spite of the iron government he has given to Mexico, in spite of a continuance in office that has caused men to say that he has converted a republic into an autocracy, it is impossible to look into his face when he speaks of the principle of popular sovereignty without believing that even now he would take up arms and shed his blood in defense of it.
Only a few weeks ago U.S. Secretary of State Elihu Root summed up President Diaz when he said:
It has seemed to me that of all the men now living, General Porfirio Diaz, of Mexico, was best worth seeing. Whether one considers the adventurous, daring, chivalric incidents of his early career; whether one considers the vast work of government which his wisdom and courage and commanding character accomplished; whether one considers his singularly attractive personality, no one lives to-day that I would rather see than President Diaz. If I were a poet I would write poetic eulogies. If I were a musician I would compose triumphal marches. If I were a Mexican I should feel that the steadfast loyalty of a lifetime could not be too much in return for the blessings that he had brought to my country. As I am neither poet, musician nor Mexican, but only an American who loves justice and liberty and hopes to see their reign among mankind progress and strengthen and become perpetual, I look to Porfirio Diaz, the President of Mexico, as one of the great men to be held up for the hero-worship of mankind.
Primary Source excerpt and adaptation via:
James Creelman, “President Diaz, Hero of the Americas,” Pearson’s Magazine (Vol. XIX, No. 3 pp., 1908) http://books.google.com/books?id=eLZmAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover, pages 231-277.
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