When coupled with the issues inherited from her colonial period, Mexico’s War for Independence further hampered her development. Beginning with the War of Spanish Succession, the futures of Spanish and French Empires were joined. Bourbon kings ruled both empires. Spain, and her empire, suffered greatly as the French Revolution and then Napoleon constant war which drain Spain’s treasury. Trade was disrupted, further stunting economic development in the colonies, especially in Mexico. Spain’s ability to govern her colonies weakened as the empire’s two stabilizing institutions, the monarchy and the church, fought to maintain their existence and influence against revolution and Bonapartism. Some Bourbon reforms, initiated in Spain, proved problematic for colonial Mexican society. Charles III’s expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767 interrupted educational activity in Mexico. Many Mexican’s believed that for Mexico to secure a prosperous future significant political change needed to occur. Serious differences existed over the nature of those needed changes. As Spain’s troubles deepened Mexican patriots, loyalists, and opportunists entered a struggle for dominance. Although Mexico’s War for Independence ended in 1821 the struggle to establish a stable political system continued for many years.
Mexican independence resulted more from a reaction to the political turmoil in Spain than from a deep desire for self- determination. Enlightenment ideas concerning governance and trade had a foothold in Mexico during the late 1700 and 1800’s, but they were not widely accepted. Most Mexicans believed that the path to prosperity ran through two institutions: the monarchy, and the Roman Catholic Church. In the highly stratified society, these institutions provided different things to different groups. For the Iberian born Spaniards living in Mexico (peninsulares), the crown and the church supported their authority over everything. For Mexican born Spaniards (creoles), they provided order and financial services. For Mexican people of mixed (castes), and native heritage the monarchy provided a type of paternal benevolence while the church provided one of the few threads connecting them to the greater society. Both institutions tempered, or suppressed, the contempt each group held for the others. Independence carried not only the possibility of self-determination, it also threatened to unleash the anger of Mexico’s impoverished masses. For this reason, many creoles preferred autonomy within the Spanish Empire over independence. Mexico’s castes and Indian population constituted sixty per cent of the population, so the peninsulare and creole minorities feared any situation that might empower the castes and Indians.
Fearing that Britain might invade New Spain (Mexico), Spanish officials looked for ways to defend the province. Desperation drove Spain to organize local militias of creoles and castes to supplement the small army (around 4,000 men) of Spanish peninsulares. Because they were poorly funded (most taxes went to Spain to support Napoleon’s European wars) few wanted to serve. Militias were led by local chieftains, a development that contributed to the creation of regional power centers. In 1804, Spanish officials issued the Laws of Consolidation that confiscated church wealth to support the war. Church benevolence was critically hampered. When one in a succession of famines struck Mexico in 1809, no authority or institution was prepared to deal with the crisis. As the monarchy collapsed due to Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808, many cities in Spain and throughout the empire established juntas to assume political authority. A local junta was formed in Mexico City, but its authority was soon challenged by the leading juntas in Spain and monarchist in Mexico.
On September 16, 1810 Mexico’s War for Independence began. Led by a priest from Mexico’s north, the rebellion did unleash the anger of Mexico’s impoverished masses. Part of a conspiracy that had been betrayed; Father Miguel Hidalgo issued his call to arms in the town of Dolores during Sunday Mass. Reflecting Mexico’s attachment to the Bourbon monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church, Father Hidalgo’s Cry of Dolores reportedly exhorted his followers to defend both institutions against French intrigues to acquire Mexico. The actual contents of Hidalgo’s speech are uncertain; however, it is believed that he called “death for the Gauchupines (peninsulares)”1 and “Long live Ferdinand VII! Long live America! Long live religion, and death to bad government!”2 Had Hidalgo told his followers that his goal was to create a Mexico independent from Spain, they may not have followed him. The priest and his rebel army set out across Mexico, quickly gaining the support of Mexico’s poor. Armed with pikes, machetes, knives, clubs, slings, bows and arrows, and farm tools the rebels brought destruction to northern Mexico. Atrocities were committed with regularity. Spanish men, women, and children were massacred. Rape and looting were commonplace. Such was the level of violence that Hidalgo’s military leader, Ignacio Allende, questioned Hidalgo’s ability to lead the rebellion. Allende was creole who was weary of the castes and Indians in Hidalgo’s army.3 Many creoles reacted negatively to the rebellions extreme violence and sided with the loyalists. Once Spanish forces engaged Hidalgo’s army, Spanish superiority in arms and training compensated for their smaller numbers.
While the rebellion raged across northern Mexico, reformers in Spain called for a Cortes (legislative assembly) for the entire empire. First meeting on September 24, 1810 the Cortes debated policies with the aim of establishing an imperial constitution. Their hopes were to replace the absolute monarchy that existed before Napoleon’s invasion with a constitutional monarchy once Napoleon was defeated. They also understood that a restored monarchy would benefit if the empire could be saved. Spanish delegates certainly wanted reforms for Spain, but the colonies faced different realities. For Spanish delegates, the major question was how few concessions Spain could grant the colonies without losing control over them. Some delegates from the Americas did not arrive for years. Spanish delegates looked to maintain a system that continued a prominent place for the empire’s European population while restricting opportunities for colonial born Europeans and people of mixed racial heritage. Some New World delegates lobbied for the abolishment of these policies and looked to broaden their representation in the Cortes. New World delegates to the Cortes were certainly interested in maintaining the empire in some form, and they tried to persuade the Spanish that for the empire to continue real change would have to be occur in the colonies. The debates lasted two years.
Back in Mexico, regional governors and local strong men shifted allegiances as the revolution’s fortunes rose and fell. Texas joined the rebellion when the Captain of San Antonio, Juan Bautista de las Casas, arrested the governor and informed Hidalgo of his support. Casas quickly grew unpopular and his junior officers joined with a local priest, Juan Manuel Zambrano to lead a counter-revolution in Texas. Unfortunately for the rebels, a delegation charged with contacting the U.S. and negotiating aid for the rebellion was captured with Casas. All were executed. Like events in Texas, the Captain of Monclova had also arrested the royalist governor, declared his support for the rebellion, and lobbied for a rank promotion. More an opportunist than an ideologue, Captain Ignacio Elizondo was convinced by his prisoner (the governor), and the lack of a rank promotion, to betray the rebels. Opportunity, again, came to Elizondo when he learned that the rebel army was marching to Monclova. He set a trap to capture the army and its leaders. On March 21, 1811 Hidalgo, Allende, and more than 800 rebels were captured, and many were executed. Military trials for the rebels were convened and three of the rebellion’s top leaders (Juan Aldama, Allende, and Hidalgo’s brother Mariano) were executed on June 26, 1811. Law required that Hidalgo be devested from the priesthood before he could be executed. His execution occurred on July 30, 1811. Royalists hung the heads of four prominent rebel leaders (Hidalgo, Allende, Aldama, and Jiménez) from the four corners of the granary in Guanajuato, site of one of the rebellion’s worst atrocities. Their heads hung there until independence was achieved in 1821.
With the deaths of Hidalgo and Allende the rebellion entered its second phase when other leaders and armies continued the struggle. José Maria Morelos and Ignacio López Rayón assumed major positions of leadership with Morelos assuming the role of military leader. Morelos did not employ Hidalgo’s brutal tactics and many creole elites came to support his cause which was initially successful. Although his greatest support was in south, Morelos was able to hold some territory across the north and his supporters were able to disrupt trade between Vera Cruz (Mexico’s only eastern port) and Mexico City. Several cities near the capital had also been captured. It appeared that the rebellion was gaining momentum.
Events in Spain, again, changed the direction of the revolt in Mexico. A new constitution for the Spanish Empire was presented by the Cortes in March of 1812. Many reforms that New World delegates desired were included. Spanish monopolies of some industries (tobacco and salt) were eliminated, farmers in the Americas could now grow agricultural products that competed with produce from Spain (olives and grapes), however the most restrictive trade policies remained. Spain’s American possessions were not allowed to trade freely within the empire. Mexicans could not trade directly with the Philippines or any other empirical province. Neither could provincial merchants trade with peoples outside the empire. While the fortunes of a small number of castes would improve under the constitution, most castes, Indians, and Africans saw no change in their status. The Constitution did allow the colonies a small degree of autonomy and provided popular elections for city councils. One concession that later proved to be a negative was the establishment of a new political bodies, the Provincial Deputations. Provincial Deputations consisted of elected representatives and executive appointees. They contributed to further regionalization in the colonies. Predictably, Francisco Venegas the Viceroy in Mexico chose not to implement the new constitution, instead delaying its enactment while he continued to fight the rebels.
Morales and Rayón began writing their own constitution for an independent Mexico. In 1813, they issued a call for representatives meet at Chilpancingo for the purpose of issuing a declaration of independence, establishing a government, and drafting a constitution. Morales’ congress was forced to travel with the rebel army or risk capture.4 Morelos committed a strategic error which lead to a significant defeat at Cuautla. His army of 4,000 was largely destroyed and he barely escaped. Soon after this victory Venegas felt comfortable enough to allowed provisions of the Constitution of 1812 to be enacted in limited form. Freedom of the press was allowed, though censorship was heavy. Elections were held, though Venegas nullified most results. Morelos became bogged down with his attack on Acapulco, and loyalist generals were able to defeat several smaller rebel armies.
Meanwhile, living conditions in Mexico City deteriorated. Years of continuous war, sporadic trade, exorbitant taxes, heavy rains, and poor sanitation collected their tolls. Crime was rampant and most schools were closed. Approximately 30,000 children lived in the city, but fewer than 3,000 attended school. A typhus epidemic struck and by summer half of the residents were sick. In order to quickly bury the dead, mass graves were dug in streets and vacant lots. Heavy rains brought further misery. The city was invaded by flood waters and packs of wild dogs. Once the plague, dogs, and flood waters abated the city had lost one-eighth of its population. War had also devasted the countryside. Loyalists had executed a great number of rebels, real or suspected. Towns and villages had been destroyed.5 Unfortunately, neither side was able to gain the upper hand, and neither was willing to quit.
Once again, events in Spain had great effect on events in Mexico. The monarchy was reestablished when Ferdinand VII returned. Ferdinand quickly moved to reverse all moves toward constitutionalism. Colonial Viceroys were encouraged to meet rebellions with all severity. A development that caught the rebels at a particularly bad time. A rivalry of sorts developed between Morales and Rayón. Their dysfunction hampered the cause. Many rebel fighters were castes and Indians, that had been fighting to reinstate the monarchy and to support the church. Loyalists and rebels appeared to be fighting for the same cause. Support for the rebels among the castes and Indians weakened. Further harm was done to the rebel cause when Morales was defeated at Valladolid, largely through the actions of loyalist Colonel Agustin Iturbide. Loyalists quickly drove the rebels from most of southern Mexico. Though they finally produced a constitution, the rebel congress squabbled their way to in-effectiveness. Rayón successfully lobbied to strip Morelos’ of military responsibility, appointing three different generals to replace him further splintering rebel efforts. Worse damage was done when in February a loyalist army attacked a Congressional camp and captured archives that included information on collaborators in Mexico City. Ferdinand’s restoration allowed the Viceroy in Mexico City to abandon all pretenses to constitutionalism. The Inquisition was re-established, and many rebel sympathizers were jailed or deported. 1815 looked to be a bad year for the independence movement in Mexico.
A rebel constitution was finally produced late in 1814. The Constitution of Apatzingán contained many reforms. It called for a separation of powers, indirect election of representatives, and a weakened executive. It also claimed the Roman Catholicism as the only sanctioned religion. Their hope was to gain official support for their cause in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, the United States was at war Britain and could not help until 1815. Surplus munitions were supplied through New Orleans once the war was concluded. Infighting among the rebel factions continued through most of 1815. One rebel general executed a congressional appointee that attempted to investigate his conduct. With their fortunes fading, the rebel congress decided to relocate to more advantageous location. On September 29 Congress left the town of Uruapan for the 450-mile trip to Tehuacán. Morelos’ was chosen to lead the move, providing a military escort. He avoided the loyalist armies trying to locate the convoy for more than a month before being spotted on November 2. Loyalist forces lead by Lieutenant Colonel Concha attacked on November 5. Congress and most of the rebel army scattered, later regathering at Tehuacán Morelos was captured and eventually transported to Mexico City. After his trial, in which he was found guilty of many crimes, he was placed in the custody of the Inquisition to be defrocked. A process which saw him, and his family humiliated and stiped of all standing. Morelos was returned to the custody of the government. He was executed on December 22. Originally, the sentence called for his dismemberment, with his head being displayed in capitol.
With the capture of Morelos, the rebellion floundered. Rebel military leaders and congress fought among themselves. Congress was dissolved before Morelos was executed. Ferdinand VII replaced the hated Viceroy Félix María Calleja with Juan Ruíz de Apodaca. Apodaca eased the tax burden and granted captured rebels with a measure of leniency. His policies stifled support for the rebellion. Guerilla warfare was a feature of Mexico’s War for Independence between 1816 and 1820. With no leading central figure to which the effort could coalesce, the rebellion defused into many smaller rebellions. However, Spanish power was still not enough to end the rebellion or to exercise control over a large portion of Mexico. Spain stopped assigning battalions to Mexico, further weakening the central government. Regional strongmen increased their power with the rebellion’s dispersal. For five years the colony was plagued by incessant guerilla war.
By 1820 Spanish actions had, to a large extent, suppressed the rebellion enough to bring some order. Unfortunately for the peninsulares, years of wartime policies had chaffed nearly all segments of Mexican society. Again, events in Spain created both a challenge to colonial authority and an opportunity for Mexico to gain her independence. A revolution in Spain began in January 1820. Soon, Ferdinand VII was forced to accept terms that limited his power. Spain was now a constitutional monarchy. Radical reforms were initiated. Freedom of the press, the end of Indian tribute, and the end of military and clerical privileges. The Inquisition was abolished, and the Jesuits were expelled. In Mexico, much of the loyalist military and church leaders resisted these changes. Independence offered the only means of preserving their status, and their champion would soon rise.
A discredited loyalist military leader, Colonel Agustin de Iturbide experienced a slow conversion to the idea of Mexican independence. Iturbide’s lineage ran through the Basque country of northern Spain. His father immigrated from there while his mother was a creole of Basque descent. Iturbide’s fortunes had risen during the rebellion. He increased his property holdings and engaged in questionable trade enterprises.6 Well known for his brutality, Iturbide enforced a scorched earth program against rebel areas. Any town found to be harboring a rebel, wittingly or not, was razed. He bragged of the large numbers of rebels he killed.7 Eventually, Iturbide was charged with being a “a bad Christian”, for committing crimes against the families of rebels and for self- enrichment. Iturbide was relieved of his command and entered public life. He petitioned the crown to have his prior service honored, but his requests were rejected or ignored. His loyalty to the Spanish government waned. Similarly, most Mexicans were increasingly disenchanted with Spanish rule. Even those that supported the reforms believed that the ones enacted fell far short of what was desired. When, in June of 1821, the Cortes rejected a proposal to create a Spanish commonwealth system wherein the colonial territories would exercise a degree of autonomy most Mexican reformers realized that the only way Mexico would have a hand in creating their future was by becoming an independent nation.8
Another strange turn of events saw Colonel Iturbide being selected by Viceroy Apodaca to lead a military campaign finish off the rebellion. Iturbide believed if he could eliminate the most fervent rebels, he could then convince the rest to support his bid for power. He justified this cruelty; he analogized his actions to those of “…the father who punishes a bad child.” Iturbide greatly feared the rise of a leader who would bring the masses into another wave of senseless violence. Rebel leaders, however, proved difficult to defeat. Iturbide switched tactics and eventually persuaded the prominent rebel leader, Vincente Guerrero to join him. With Iturbide in lead, a new independence effort came to be. On February 24, 1821 Iturbide issued his plan to achieve Mexican independence. The Plan of Iguala (or the Plan of The Three Guarantees) established Roman Catholicism as the only religion while maintained certain clerical privileges, promised a fully independent Mexico, and promised to establish a constitutional monarchy. As a plan it offered something to nearly every segment of Mexican society, it could not detail how Mexico’s deep social divisions would be healed.
Iturbide’s Army of The Three Guarantees marched quickly through Mexico. City after city fell to the rebels. The newly appointed Lieutenant General of the Spanish Army in Mexico, Juan O’Donojú, arrived in time to see that the Spain could not maintain control of Mexico. He quickly established a treaty with Iturbide that, in effect, offered Spanish recognition of Mexican independence. Loyalist opposition soon melted and Iturbide and his Army of The Three Guarantees entered Mexico City on September 27, 1821. Mexico was now an independent nation.
In the end Mexico’s War for Independence had cost 600,000 lives9 and an in-estimable amount of economic damage. As I move forward in this history it is important to understand how few people are involved in the major events that lead to the Mexican American War. 600,000 lives would have populated Texas, New Mexico, and California well beyond the point of stability. Moreover, Mexico’s deep racial divisions were Mexico’s issue to solve. Spanish might could no longer impose order. Neither was the new empire of more than 1.9 million square miles Spain’s to defend. Spain had been unable to defeat the native peoples in New Spain’s northern territories. Now an independent Mexico would need to. In an era that recognized a nation’s ability to develop land as important as that nation’s treaty claims, Mexico was in race to populate and develop its territory. Although independence was achieved after more than a decade of fighting, the battle to establish a stable political system continued for many additional decades. The legacy of Mexico’s War of Independence left the new nation many challenges.
2 Henderson, Timothy J. The Mexican Wars for Independence. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009, p 71.
5 Henderson, Timothy J. The Mexican Wars for Independence. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009, p 134.
6 Henderson, Timothy J. The Mexican Wars for Independence. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009, p 164.
7 Henderson, Timothy J. The Mexican Wars for Independence. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009, p 164.
8 Henderson, Timothy J. The Mexican Wars for Independence. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009, p 167.
9 Henderson, Timothy J. The Mexican Wars for Independence. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009, p 169.