Middle-class Creoles were obsessed with the idea of independence. But even the rich Creole owners of haciendas and mines did not want to share the wealth of their country with the people of the Spanish nation.
They all had a common goal: to give the orders in their own house and to be master of all its furnishings. The opportunity to free themselves from the yoke came in 1808, which was the year that Napoleon, one of the greatest conquistadors of all time, occupied Spain. The Spaniards fought the invader; and the Mexicans, who no longer felt themselves to be Spanish, tried to take advantage of this crisis to become independent, as may be seen in the verses that one morning appeared on the walls of the capital: “Open your eyes, Mexican people, and use this opportunity. Beloved compatriots, fate has placed freedom in your hands; if you don not shake off the Spanish yoke, you will be wretched indeed.”
At about the same time, friar Melchor de Talamantes circulated subversive literature in which he declared that because Mexico had “all the resources and abilities needed to ensure the sustenance, preservation, and happiness of its inhabitants,” it could become independent. He went on to say that independence was not only possible but desirable because the Spanish government was not as concerned with the general welfare of New Spain as would be a free government set up by the Mexicans themselves. To deal with this situation, the viceroy called a series of juntas of representatives of the colony. The ayuntamiento (town council, generally called cabildo in the colonies) proposed in these juntas that a national congress be convened. Having accepted but not acted on the idea, the viceroy was deposed on the night of September 15, by a wealthy Spanish merchant and hacendado and his following of peons, office workers, and gachupines. The Spaniard imprisoned the patriots Francisco Azcárate, Primo de Verdad, and Melchor de Talamantes and he took the liberty of appointing as successors of the viceroy first a high-ranking army officer and then the top cleric of the country.
The coup d’état was counterproductive. While Spaniards denounced Creoles before the internal security committee that had been appointed to judge and punish those suspected of disloyalty, middle-class Creoles decided to resort to revolutionary solutions.
Plots were widespread, but it was the conspirators of Querétaro, San Miguel, and Dolores who, when they were discovered, first took up arms. The morning of Sunday, September 16, 1810, the cleric and teacher Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, an old man who was well-to-do, influential, and brilliant, had studied with the Jesuits, and was priest of the village of Dolores, freed the prisoners and locked up the Spanish authorities. Calling his parishioners to mass, he urged them from the portal of his church to join a “cause” dedicated to the overthrow of bad government. This exhortation is officially known as the “Grito de Dolores” and is considered the high point in Mexican history.
Hidalgo left his parish with 600 followers but within a few days they had swelled to about 100,000 men—both Creole and darker skinned—from mines, haciendas, and obrajes. Although this multitude seemed to be more a mass demonstration armed with shovels and slings than an army, it encountered no resistance in San Miguel, Celaya, and Salamanca. The important mining city, Guanajuato, fell after a bloody battle and was pillaged.
The Bishop of Michoacán excommunicated Hidalgo, but the latter led his “army” against the Michoacán capital and forced the cathedral council to lift his excommunication. After Valladolid, he set out for Mexico City, which was relatively unprotected. He won the battle of Monte de las Cruces, requested a parley with the viceroy and then, without waiting for a reply, ordered a retreat during which he was defeated in San Jerónimo Aculco by the Spanish General Félix María Calleja.
Meanwhile, there had been uprisings in many parts of the country. Rafael Iriarte led insurgents in León and Zacatecas, and the friars Herrera and Villerías took possession of San Luis Potosí. In the northwest Juan B. Casas arrested the governor of Texas, in Nuevo León the governor declared its independence, ad viceregal troops defected in Coahuila and Tamaulipas. In central Mexico were the troops of Tomás Ortiz, Benedicto López, Julián and Chito Villagrán, Miguel Sánchez, and others. In the south José María Morelos, parish priest of Carácuaro and Nocupétaro, began his campaign. In the west there were three important movements. One was headed by José María Mercado, parish priest of Ahualulco, who captured Tepic and the port of San Blas. Another, under José María González Hermosillo, won almost all of Sinaloa, including the port of Mazatlán. The third was led by José Antonio Torres, born in the Bajío of Guanajuato, who entered Zamora with his army of insurgents. “The flower of Guadalajara youth” tried to stop them just outside of Zacualco. With their slings the Torres troops hurled such a shower of stones on the young men of Guadalajara that they killed many and put the rest to flight. Torres and his men entered Guadalajara on November 11, 1810.
After his defeat at Aculco, Hidalgo retired to Guadalajara where he issued decrees to give exclusive use of communal lands to their owners, to emancipate 6,000 Negro slaves, to eliminate state monopolies of tobacco, gunpowder, and playing cards, and to abolish the tributes paid by Indians. He also tried to organize a government, an army, and a newspaper. The army, composed of more than 30,000 men, was routed by Calleja’s forces at Puente de Calderón. The remnants of the insurgent troops then set off for Zacatecas in search of support from Iriarte but, pursued by Calleja, they continued north where they fell into a trap that had been laid for them by the former chief of the independence movement of Coahuila. The captives were taken before a council of war and Hidalgo was condemned to death and executed on July 30, 1811.
Nevertheless, the fight for independence was carried on by Ignacio López Rayón, who tried to unite the insurgents in the Junta of Zitácuaro, and by a group who went to represent Mexico at a convention in Spain. While part of the Mexican population fought against the viceregal government with sticks and stones and whatever else they could lay their hands on, another part accepted the invitation of the new Spanish government that had emerged from the struggle against Napoleon to send delegates to a convention that was to meet in Cádiz in 1811. The sixteen representatives were all Creoles except one and they were mainly clerics and young men of the middle class. In Cádiz they demanded equality before the law for Spaniards and Spanish-Americans, the elimination of caste distinctions, equal justice for all, the construction of roads, industrialization, government of Mexico for the Mexicans, schools, the return of the Jesuits, a free press, and the declaration that “sovereignty resides in the people.” Some of the Creole demands were accepted and incorporated into the constitution drafted by this convention in March 1812.
The Political Constitution of the Spanish Monarchy produced in Cádiz made Spain a constitutional monarchy. It gave real power to the executive branch and it took away the other two powers from the king. It was a liberal constitution guaranteeing individual rights, freedom of speech, and equal treatment for Spaniards and Spanish-Americans. Viceroy Venegas promulgated it in Mexico in September 1813 and immediately proceeded to hold elections for the ayuntamientos, the deputies to the Cortes, and the deputies to the five provincial districts that operated in Mexico. However, the Cádiz Constitution was too little and too late; and it remained in force for only about a year. Opposed by the Spanish group and by the wealthy Creoles, it was finally abolished in August 1814 by Viceroy Calleja, who succeeded Venegas. The reaction to this measure was to swell the ranks of the insurgents. On reestablishment of the authoritarian regime, several Creole intellectuals decided to join the army of the village priest Morelos. An intelligent but unlettered man who had been initially ignored and scorned, Morelos had been growing “in power and importance and, like those storm clouds born in the south, he soon covered a vast stretch of land.” With the passionate support of his devoted followers, he waged brilliant campaigns in 1812 and 1813. In a lightning maneuver, he captured Oaxaca and seized General González Saravia, supreme commander of the viceregal armies.
On april 12, 1813, Acapulco fell to Morelos, who confirmed his victory with these words: “The nation wants to be governed by the Creoles and since it has not been heeded, it has taken arms to make itself understood and obeyed.”
Everything seemed to indicate that the end of Spanish domination was imminent. Therefore, Morelos decided to convene a national assembly to give a political constitution to the nascent country. The Anáhuac Congress met for four months in Chilpancingo and it included such distinguished Creoles—both scholars and clerics—as Carlos María de Bustamante, former editor of the Diario de México; Ignacio López Rayón, former president of the Junta of Zitácuaro and author of Elementos constitucionales (Constitutional Elements); Father José María Cos, “a man of great talent and inventive genius,” former editor of two insurgent newspapers; Andrés Quintana Roo, famous poet, journalist, and jurist; Sixto Verduzco, physician; José María Liceaga, army officer; and Father Manuel Herrera. At the opening of the convention, Morelos asked the delegates to declare that Mexico was free and independent of Spain, that Catholicism was the only true religion, that sovereignty was vested in the people, and that laws “should moderate opulence and poverty” and banish “ignorance, plunder, and theft.” On November 6, the convention approved the Act of Independence and proclaimed that “there is not nor can there be peace with the tyrants.”
Although Morelos left Chilpancingo the following day in search of new triumphs, his political activities had permitted Calleja to regroup and mobilize the troops of the viceroyalty. Morelos was defeated in Valladolid and the royalists advanced on the south. After wandering from place to place, the Congress reached Apatzingán in October, 1814, and announced the constitution, which had been inspired in the French constitution of 1793 and the Spanish constitution of 1812. In its first forty-one articles it declared Catholicism to be the state religion, the sovereignty of the people to be exercised through Congress, law to be the expression of general will, and the happiness of citizens to consist in enjoying equality, security, property, and liberty. Almost two hundred articles referred to the form of government, which was to be centralist republican and divided into three branches of power. The legislative, composed of seventeen deputies, was above the executive with three sharing the title of president, and the judicial commanded by a supreme court of five people.
The Apatzingán Constitution was never put into practice because by the time it was promulgated, the insurgents had been dislodged from the southern provinces and Morelos had only 1,000 men left to face Calleja’s troops of 80,000. After a last desperate stand he was taken prisoner and executed on December 22, 1815, in San Cristóbal Ecatepec, near Mexico City.
With the death of the “Southern Thunderbolt,” the struggle for independence lost the last of its famous leaders but not its fighting spirit. Groups continued the battle from fortified points and redoubts; others waged guerrilla warfare; and others made sudden and brilliant raids on the enemy. Father Marcos Castellanos reinforced his position on an island in Lake Chapala; Ramón Rayón dug in at Cóporo, where he fought off several attacks; Ignacio López Rayón was entrenched at Zacatlán; Manuel Mier y Terán retreated to Cerro Colorado, Pedro Moreno to Sombrerete, and Pedro Ascensio to Barrabás.
Outside the fortified strongholds, bands of Indians, mestizos and mulattoes roamed the countryside. Driven by poverty and a desire for vengeance, they took over properties and murdered property owners. The troops of Villagrán and Osorno overran the outskirts of Pachuca and the plains of Apan. The followers of Gómez de Lara (“The Crate”), Gómez (“The Castrator”), Bocardo (“Colonel of the Colonels”), Arroyo, the Ortiz brothers, Olarte, Pedro el Negro, and others became notorious for their crimes. Detested by the rich Creoles, they nonetheless enjoyed the sympathy of most of the population. Francisco Xavier Mina, who came to New Spain in 1817 to fight “for liberty and for the interests of the Spanish Empire,” went over to the insurgent side, taking with him the men, arms, and money he had brought from England and the United States. After winning battles as far as Guanajuato, he was taken prisoner and executed at Fuerte de los Remedios. Most of the leaders entrenched on islands, hilltops, and bluffs, were quickly disposed of. Castellanos surrendered at the end of 1816, and Rayón and Mier y Terán at the beginning of 1817. The forts at Los Remedios and Jaujilla fell in 1818. Furthermore, Viceroy Apodaca, who succeeded Calleja, offered amnesty to resistance fighters, many of whom gave up their arms. Others, like Guadalupe Victoria, went into hiding and several were routed. By 1819 only a few minor guerrilleros like Pedro Ascencio and Vicente Guerrero continued to fight in the wilderness of the south.
Most of the Creoles had accepted defeat, when a new series of events put them on the road to independence, if not to liberty and social reform. In 1820, a liberal revolution forced Fernando VII to reestablish the Constitution of Cádiz. The Cortes, which was made up of fervent liberals, insisted on measures against the wealth and immunities enjoyed by the Church. News of these reforms caused consternation among the Spanish group and the Creole aristocracy of Mexico. Viceroy Apodaca refused to apply the Constitution of Cádiz and instead approved the Plan de La Profesa which declared that as long as the king was under pressure from revolutionaries, his viceroy in Mexico would govern with the Laws of the Indies and with complete independence from Spain. However, when Governor Dávila was forced to proclaim constitutional order in Veracruz, the viceroy declared the constitution to be en effect throughout the viceregal domain. He immediately proceeded to hold municipal elections and institute freedom of the press; and he thereby unwittingly set into motion the activity of organized groups. Spaniards who had supported the Plan de La Profesa tried to have it implemented, while rich Creoles saw the opportunity to achieve independence without the need to introduce social reforms. Both groups agreed that the leader to carry out their objectives was the Creole Colonel Agustín de Iturbide, a courageous, cruel, dissolute, and charming man who was never happier than when waging war.
Supported by the high clergy, the Spaniards, and the Creole owners of mines and haciendas, Iturbide, who had been commissioned to crush Guerrero, made a deal with the latter to join forces and together they announced the Plan of Iguala or the Three Guarantees: Roman Catholicism as the only recognized religion; equality of all Mexican citizens; and an independent Mexico with a constitutional monarch who would be a prefabricated king from one of the ruling houses of Europe. Then he launched a campaign on two fronts—diplomatic and military—which in five months had solved everything. The diplomatic consisted in gaining the friendship of the insurgent leaders against whom he had fought years earlier. The military campaign was brief and almost bloodless; many garrisons joined him willingly. Blaming Apodaca for the successes of Iturbide, the Spaniards in the capital again removed their viceroy, as in 1808, and they named Marshall Novella to replace him. A few days later, Juan O’Donojú arrived from Spain to take over the post of viceroy and he speedily came to terms with Iturbide. On August 24, 1821, he signed the Treaty of Córdoba, which ratified the substance of the Plan of Iguala. Iturbide led his victorious trigarante army into Mexico City on September 27, and the following day he was appointed head of the first independent government.
The consummation of independence produced great enthusiasm. In all the villages, towns, and cities there were parades with allegorical floats, triumphal arches, firework displays, and general rejoicing. Poets composed odes, sonnets, songs, marches, and verses in honor of the liberated nation. Several newspapers appeared and pamphlets were published; leaflets and letters obsessed with the subject of independence were circulated; there was talk of the wealth and economic resources of Mexico; it was said that the “location, fortune, and fertility of the new nation indicated that it had been created to give law to the whole world”; and it was announced that “the richest empire in the world was reestablished.”
Iturbide was acclaimed as a “man of God,” a “saintly man,” and “father of the nation.” Middle-class intellectuals wrote drafts of a political constitution and good laws; they drew up plans to promote agriculture, livestock raising, fishing, mining, trade, and public revenues; schemes to improve working conditions, to increase the population, and to extend education and health. Most of the projects took their inspiration from the experience of other nations. Some wanted to return to forms of Greek and Roman life, others believed that the model to follow was the young republic of the United States, several proposed that the Aztec Empire be emulated. Almost no one based his project on current Mexican realities. Perhaps none of the planners was aware at that time of the scarcity of natural resources, the lack of population, and above all the economic decline, social disruption, and political dislocation generated in the long struggle for independence. With very few exceptions, all closed their eyes to the obstacles and opened them only to see the advantages of independent life.
By Luis González y González
Cossío Villegas, Daniel et al. A Compact History of Mexico. Foreword by Robert A. Potash; translated by Marjory Mattingly Urquidi. 3a. ed. México. El Colegio de México, 2006, 1995. (6th repr., 2008). 159 p.