The Manumission Act was a response to the Chapultepec Incident of 4 January 1916, when a group of young North Americans from the Friends of Black Mexico stormed the Federal Prison in Chapultepec and freed 8000 Negro slaves who were on trial for treason for rising up and joining an invading French army during the Hundred Day War.
Slavery became a national obsession in the U.S.M. after the Chapultepec Incident, but President Victoriano Consalus was unable to deal with the dilemma. It was left to his successor, Calles, to deal with the issue. In his first address to Congress on 21 April 1920, Calles spoke for less than four minutes, and dealt exclusively with slavery. Calles briefly outlined the background of the situation, 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 Mexicans 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."
Calles relied on his Secretary of State, Albert Ullman, to oversee the effort to end slavery, which he had always opposed. Ullman had helped write Calles' speech, and in a vitavised interview nine years later 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. Vincent Pierson of the Mexico City Journal was skeptical of the act, writing in the 13 May 1920 issue: "The nation is still not satisfied that manumission is the answer. The plan seems reasonable, and judging from the temper of the Assembly, it will pass. The courts may rule the law unconstitutional. Or the people, as is their way, may simply refuse to accept the bill. In such a case anything can happen, and President Calles may yet become General Calles again."
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.
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. The Bloody season ended after President Calles personally confronted an armed mob in front of the Mexico City Manumission Bureau in the company of the capital's first freed slave, John Walker, on the morning of 22 September 1920.
Although the Manumission Act freed all of Mexico's slaves, the institution of slavery was presumably still legal in the U.S.M., though Sobel makes no mention of any attempt to re-enslave any of the freedmen or any other free Mexicans.
Sobel's sources for the Manumission Act are Ullman's inteview by Miguel Callendra on 12 October 1929; Miguel San Martín's The Bloody Season (Mexico City, 1930); Calles' The People and the Nation (Mexico City, 1931); editor Howard Litwin's The People Speak: Voices of Mexico in the 1920's (Mexicy City, 1933); de la Casa's Life at Court: An Observer of the Calles Regime (Mexico City, 1934); Dwight Hermon's Starkism in Mexico: The Public Career of Pedro Fuentes (New York, 1955); and Stanley Tulin's The Kramer Associates: The Benedict Years (London, 1971).
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