In the 19th century, Díaz had been a national hero, opposing the French Intervention in the 1860s and distinguishing himself in the Battle of Puebla on 5 May 1862 ("Cinco de Mayo").

Díaz entered politics following the expulsion of the French in 1867.

As a military man himself, and one who had intervened directly in politics to seize the presidency in 1876, Díaz was acutely aware that the Federal Army could oppose him. He augmented the rurales, a police force created by Juárez, making them his personal armed force. The rurales were only 2,500 in number, as opposed to the 30,000 in the Federal Army and another 30,000 in the Federal Auxiliaries, Irregulars, and National Guard. Despite their small numbers, the rurales were highly effective in bringing control to the countryside, especially along the 12,000 miles of railway lines. They were a mobile force, often put on trains with their horses to put down rebellions in relatively remote areas of Mexico.

Díaz had ruled continuously since 1884. The question of presidential succession was an issue as early as 1900, when Díaz turned 70. It was his "undeclared intention to step down from the presidency in 1904."

In 1906, the office of vice president was revived, with Díaz choosing his close ally Ramón Corral from among his Científico advisers to serve in the post.

Mexican copper miners in the northern state of Sonora took action in the 1906 Cananea strike.

In the state of Veracruz, textile workers rioted in January 1907 at the huge Río Blanco factory, the world's largest, protesting against unfair labor practices. They were paid in credit that could be used only at the company store, binding them to the company.

By the 1910 election, the Díaz regime had become highly authoritarian, and opposition to it had increased in many sectors of Mexican society.

Although similar overall to Díaz in his ideology, Madero hoped for other elites to rule alongside the president. Díaz thought he could control this election, as he had the previous seven; however, Madero campaigned vigorously and effectively. To ensure Madero did not win, Díaz had him jailed before the election. Madero escaped and fled for a short period to San Antonio, Texas. Díaz was announced the winner of the election by a "landslide".

In late 1910 revolutionary movements broke out in response to Madero's Plan de San Luis Potosí. Madero's vague promises of land reform in Mexico attracted many peasants throughout Mexico. Spontaneous rebellions arose in which ordinary farm laborers, miners, and other working-class Mexicans, along with much of the country's population of indigenous natives, fought Díaz's forces, with some success.

In 1910, Francisco I. Madero, a young man from a wealthy land-owning family in the northern state of Coahuila, announced his intent to challenge Díaz for the presidency in the next election, under the banner of the Anti-Reelectionist Party. Madero chose as his running mate Francisco Vázquez Gómez, a physician who had opposed Díaz.

On 5 October 1910, Madero issued a "letter from jail," known as the Plan de San Luis Potosí, with its main slogan Sufragio Efectivo, No Re-elección ("free suffrage and no re-election"). It declared the Díaz presidency illegal and called for revolt against Díaz, starting on 20 November 1910. Madero's political plan did not outline major socioeconomic revolution, but it offered the hope of change for many disadvantaged Mexicans.

When it became obvious that the election had been fixed, Madero supporter Toribio Ortega took up arms with a group of followers at Cuchillo Parado, Chihuahua on 10 November 1910.

With the Federal Army defeated in a string of battles, Diaz's government began negotiations with the revolutionaries. One of Madero's representatives in the negotiations was his running mate in the 1910 elections, Francisco Vázquez Gómez. The talks culminated in the 21 May 1911 Treaty of Ciudad Juárez. The signed treaty stated that Díaz would abdicate the presidency along with his vice president Ramón Corral by the end of May 1911, to be replaced by an interim president, Francisco León de la Barra, until elections were held.

Some supporters criticized Madero for displaying weakness in not simply seizing the presidency from Diaz, and for failing to pass immediate reforms; however, by following the electoral process, Madero established a liberal democracy and received support from the United States and popular leaders such as Orozco, Villa, and Zapata. Francisco León de la Barra became interim president of Mexico, pending an election to be held in October 1911. Madero won the election decisively and was inaugurated as president in November 1911.

In response to this lack of action, Zapata promulgated the Plan de Ayala in November 1911, declaring himself in rebellion against Madero. He renewed guerrilla warfare in the state of Morelos. Madero sent the Federal Army to deal with Zapata, unsuccessfully.

The anarcho-syndicalist Casa del Obrero Mundial (House of the World Worker) was founded in September 1912 by Antonio Díaz Soto y Gama, Manuel Sarabia, and Lázaro Gutiérrez de Lara and served as a center of agitation and propaganda, but it was not a formal labor union.

In the summer of 1913, Mexican conservatives who had supported Huerta sought a constitutionally elected civilian alternative to Huerta, brought together in body called National Unifying Junta. Political parties proliferated in this period, so that by the time of the October congressional elections there were 26.

Huerta's presidency is usually characterized as a dictatorship. From the point of view of revolutionaries at the time and the construction of historical memory of the Revolution, it is without any positive aspects. "Despite recent attempts to portray Victoriano Huerta as a reformer, there is little question that he was a self-serving dictator." There are few biographies of Huerta, but one strongly asserts that Huerta should not be labeled simply as a counter-revolutionary, arguing that his regime consisted of two distinct periods: from the coup in February 1913 up to October 1913, during which time he attempted to legitimize his regime and demonstrate its legality by pursuing reformist policies.

When Huerta refused to move faster on land reform, Molina Enríquez disavowed the regime in June 1913, later going on to advise the 1917 constitutional convention on land reform.

After October 1913, Huerta dropped all attempts to rule within a legal framework and began murdering political opponents while battling revolutionary forces that had united in opposition to his regime.

The October 1913 elections were the end of any pretension to constitutional rule in Mexico, with civilian political activity banned. Prominent Catholics were arrested and Catholic newspapers were suppressed.

In April 1914, U.S. opposition to Huerta culminated in the seizure and occupation of the port of Veracruz by U.S. marines and sailors.

Huerta's position continued to deteriorate. In mid-July 1914, after his army suffered several defeats, he stepped down and fled to Puerto México. Seeking to get himself and his family out of Mexico, he turned to the German government, which had generally supported his presidency. The Germans were not eager to allow him to be transported into exile on one of their ships, but relented. Huerta carried "roughly half a million marks in gold with him" as well as paper currency and checks.

The rival armies of Villa and Obregón met on 6–15 April 1915 in the Battle of Celaya.

The U.S. granted Carranza's government diplomatic recognition in October 1915.

In 1916, Villa attacked Columbus, New Mexico.

In exile, Huerta sought to return to Mexico via the United States; U.S. authorities arrested him and he was imprisoned in Fort Bliss, Texas. He died in January 1916, six months after going into exile.

Carranza had consolidated enough power to go forward with the drafting of a new constitution in 1917.

The interim government of Adolfo de la Huerta negotiated Pancho Villa's surrender in 1920, rewarding him with a hacienda where he lived in peace.

Alvaro Obregón was elected president in October 1920, the first of a string of revolutionary generals.

Villa was assassinated in July 1923.