Carranza was born in the town of Cuatro Ciénegas, in the state of Coahuila, to a middle-class cattle-ranching family. His father, Jesús Carranza, had been a colonel in the army of Benito Juárez and a staunch supporter of Juárez's liberal party.
He studied at the Ateneo Fuente in Saltillo. In 1874 he went to the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria in Mexico City.
Venustiano Carranza was an early supporter of Francisco I. Madero's efforts to overthrow the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship, and when Madero formed his revolutionary cabinet he appointed Carranza Secretary of War and of the Navy. After Victoriano Huerta's overthrow of the Madero regime, Carranza under the "Plan de Guadalupe" became the leader in the opposition revolt against Huerta. Carranza's forces were known as the Constitutionalist Army, as he advocated reinstatement of the liberal Constitution of 1857.
Also under the "Plan de Guadalupe" Carranza took charge of the executive branch on May 1, 1915. He introduced an independent judiciary, greater decentralization of power, and land reform under the ejido system. Carranza was a man of great intelligence with wide knowledge of Mexican conditions and history. He was strongly built, wore round glasses and a large grey beard, giving him the appearance of a benevolent father figure.
In September 1916 Carranza saw the need for a new Constitution and called for a Constitutional convention. On March 11, 1917 Venustiano Carranza was elected the first president under the new Mexican Constitution of 1917.
Fighting continued with factions who would not accept Carranza's rule, ranging from reactionary landowners and conservative Catholics to the forces of Emiliano Zapata and Francisco Villa for whom Carranza's reforms were too modest. Carranza ordered a bounty put on Zapata's head, leading to Zapata's assassination.
Carranza, as depicted on the obverse of the former $100 Mexican peso.
As his presidential term drew to a close, he supported a civilian Ignacio Bonillas as a candidate against General Álvaro Obregón for the following presidential elections. This earned him the resentment of the military and of some fellow revolutionaries, including Obregón, Plutarco Elías Calles, and Adolfo de la Huerta, who rebelled against Carranza's government. On April 8,
He set out towards Veracruz but was betrayed and assassinated in Tlaxcalantongo in the Sierra Norte of Puebla state by the forces of General Rodolfo Herrero, supporter of Carranza's former allies, on May 21, 1920.
According to General Francisco L. Urquizo, Carranza's last words were: "Licenciado, ya me rompieron una pierna" which roughly translates to "Lawyer, they've broken me a leg". (Carranza was referring to his partner, Licenciado Aguirre Berlanga, when he was ambushed and shot).