He was born in Parras, Coahuila, the son of Francisco Madero and Mercedes González Treviño. (His middle initial, I, stood for either "Ignacio" or "Indalecio".) His parents were one of the richest families in Mexico, of Portuguese descent. Madero was educated in Baltimore, Versailles, and at the University of California, Berkeley.
Affected by the plight of the poor under the dictator Porfirio Díaz, in 1904 Madero became involved in politics with the Benito Juárez Democratic Club.
He was a liberal capitalist who feared that the existing regime under Díaz would inevitably breed true social revolution — a fear that proved accurate with the subsequent rise of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. Madero favored an oligarchic façade democracy that would protect the elite from popular insurrection; he wrote that "the ignorant public... should take no direct part in determining who should be the candidate for public office." Madero thus criticized Díaz's regime as counterproductive; he proposed some concessions to peasants and the proletariat that would guarantee the climate of order and stability from which the elite, foreign and domestic, benefited under Díaz. Madero also hoped such concessions would curb the growth of radical ideas.
He ran for president against Díaz in 1910, as candidate for the Anti-reelectionist movement. He was arrested in June and then released conditionally in July. Díaz was declared president, with an improbably massive majority, in October 1910. Madero refused to recognize the result and assumed the provisional presidency, designating November 20 for the start of what was later called the Mexican Revolution. The government discovered the action being prepared and Madero fled to San Antonio, Texas. But the Revolution had spread in the north, where Francisco Villa occupied Chihuahua and Ciudad Juárez. The overthrow of Díaz was accomplished on May 17, when Madero signed the Treaty of Ciudad Juárez, in which he demanded the resignation of Díaz as a condition for an armistice. Díaz resigned on May 25, 1911.
Madero appointed Francisco León de la Barra as Interim President. De la Barra was strongly conservative and acted to neutralise the more radical ideas of the Revolution. Madero was called a traitor and Emiliano Zapata abandoned him.
When Madero won the presidential elections in November 1911, the division among the revolutionaries was enormous. Both the Zapatistas and the conservatives became disenchanted with Madero's handling of agrarian problems.
In early 1913 Victoriano Huerta, the commander of the armed forces, conspired with Félix Díaz (Porfirio's nephew) and US Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson. Following their coup d'état on February 18, 1913, Madero was forced to resign. After a very brief term of office by Pedro Lascuráin, Huerta took over the presidency later that day. Francisco Madero was executed four days later, aged 39. His brother Gustavo A. Madero was also killed.