Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2017
New Spain or Mexico got its independence in 1821 1
after more than a decade of fighting and uncertainty but the
country was only a geographical expression over which the men in Mexico City had little
control. When Mexico became an independent nation, it stretched from the Panamanian
border with Costa Rica north to what is now Oregon. It was over 4,000 square
kilometers in area. The will of the government in Mexico City was contested or ignored
in Guadalajara, Puebla, Zacatecas, Oaxaca, Mérida, and the other locales. People
in San José (now Costa Rica) or in California could ignore the national
government. The new nation was not part of the United States or Gran Colombia
but it was not clear what it was. Regionalism was important at independence and
would remain so into the 20th century. The country was ruled by local
strongmen or warlords or, caudillos. For a national leader to rule effectively,
he had to make peace with them, make them fear him, or bribe them. The average person,
someone who did not even speak Spanish, did not count.
Ominously, the army had become an important factor in Mexican politics and would remain until the 1930s. Colonial Mexico had no standing army. Even in the last fifty years of Spanish rule, the Crown had created a militia to use in the defense of New Spain. The Royal army was a latecomer, sent to New Spain when the rebellion led by Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and continued by José María Morelos y Pavón, Juan Alvarez, and Vicente Guerrero, necessitated it. Agustín de Iturbide had been a young creole Royalist officer until he switched sides. Many ambitious men, persons who would have never been allowed to lead men under the old aristocratic regime, found that violence and the threat of violence worked. Even in small places, these could become warlords and extract wealth and obedience from the population. The national army could not defeat the local warlords (caudillos or caciques) but it could demand that most national revenue go to it. There arose an officer class that prospered with independence. And they were protected by privilege, by the fuero militar, the right to be free of civilian prosecution for civilian crimes. They were legally privileged until the 1830s when liberals ended the military and ecclesiastical fueros.
It was Agustín de Iturbide
with his Plan de Iguala
and the Three Guarantees (Mexico would become a constitutional monarchy, Roman
Catholic Christianity would be the religion of the country; and creole and
peninsular Spaniards would be treated equally) who won independence. He got
the liberal rebels, Juan Alvarez and Vicente Guerrero, to join with him in
declaring Mexican independence. Iturbide signed the Treaty of Córdoba with
Viceroy Juan de O´ Donujú. Although Spain rejected the treaty and eventually
made a half-hearted attempt to reconquer Mexico, the country was
Its territorial integrity was not settled, however. In 1823, the provinces of Guatemala and of Central America managed to secede from Mexico and form the Central American Federation. Guadalajara, the other important colonial administrative center, resisted rule from Mexico City and rebelled in 1823 as well. That rebellion was defeated and Mexico City authorities would reduce the size of Jalisco state in the 19th century.
The problems the nation faced were numerous. The excellent article "Down From Colonialism" by Jamie Rodríguez O. enumerates many of them. They included the differing visions of the conservatives and liberals of what Mexico should be. Local folks, as is common, wanted to run local affairs and, thus supported federalism.2 Mexican conservatives enshrined ancient Hispanic traditions and aristocracy; they wanted a monarchy but, failing that, strong central government as much like the royal of New Spain as possible. They believed in unwritten customs, charters; monopolies whereas the liberals and Republicans wanted a written constitution. They tended to believe in individual rights while conservatives argued that individuals rights only existed with the context of the family, the church, the community. the guilds, the social class or some other collective body. Regionalism or sectionalism was the impossible phenomenon. People in the Empire had little in common; the tendency to pull away from rule from Mexico City was always there.
The wars of independence had destroyed much of the economy as well as investor confidence. The fighting was fierce; mines (especially silver) mines were destroyed; livestock slaughtered; money moved out of the country; crops were destroyed; people moved because they fled the many armies or because they were in one of the armies or, simply, because some of the traditional bonds were broken. Mexico went into a depression, one that would last for decades. The fighting and then the uncertainty as to who would role or what the rules would be discouraged investment and encouraged capital flight. Funds were not available to rebuild the economy. The government could do little. Most of its revenue was going to pay off army officers, men who had realized that killing people or threatening to kill them paid. They extorted money from the government.
Iturbide was not an ideal leader. He had been cruel to his enemies and had developed a bloody reputation against the Insurgents. He seemed different when he had power, for he was not so blood-thirsty but his reputation gave his political opponents pause. Although he was a devout Christian and sought to protect his religion, the church hierarchy did not want to be ruled by a Mexican creole; it was loyal to the Pope. He had to contend with empleomanía, the desire of so many to get a government job. Although he bestowed jobs and honors on many, he could not satisfy demand.
He began to organize a government soon after he freed Mexico. He created a junta and Council of Regents (Iturbide, former viceroy Juan de O´ Donujú, Manuel de la Barcena, José Isidro Yáñez, and Manuel Velázquez de León) to govern initially. As the leader, Iturbide received a salary of 120,000 pesos 3 and had himself named Generalíssmo and High Admiral. On February 22, 1822, Congress met. No one could not find a Bourbon prince to be Emperor of Mexico. The Spanish did not recognize Mexican independence and still occupied the fortress, San Juan de Ullua, in Veracruz harbor.
Under Iturbide's guidance, the dilemma was resolved. Sergeant Pío Marcha led his barracks on May 18, 1822 in the proclamation of Iturbide as the Emperor of Mexico, followed quickly by other barracks and a mob. Thus, Iturbide could pretend that the "people" wanted him to become the leader. The next day, the Congress elected him Emperor by a vote of 77-15. He was sworn in on May 22nd, facing numerous political and economic problems as well as the hostility of many who had helped him defeat the Spanish and get independence. After all, he certainly had no better claim to royalty than many Mexican creoles.
Antonio López de Santa Anna Pérez de Lebrón, known as Santa Anna, initially supported Iturbide. He courted Iturbide's sister, who was over 60 years old! In 1821, Irtubide sent Colonel Santa Anna to be governor of the state of Veracruz and Santa Anna tried and failed to drive the Spanish out of the fortress, San Juan de Ullua, in Veracruz harbor. Iturbide had to reassign Santa Anna but, Santa Anna was instrumental in capturing Veracruz city in October, 1822, and Iturbide promoted him to brigadier general and made him commander of the Veracruz province.
The Republicans were accused of a plot to overthrow, engendering bitterness between the crown and Congress. Enough strife that he arrested 15 of them, some were congressmen. Then he abolished Congress in October, 1822.
Santa Anna proclaimed a plan of opposition to Iturbide in December, 1822, proclaiming himself a supporter of Republicanism and federalism, a position which was consistent with the views of Veracruz merchants; they were accustomed to having a monopoly of the trade between Mexico and the outside world and were afraid that Iturbide would go to free trade. Spain, which did not recognize Mexican independence, had been Mexico's almost-exclusive trading partner but was not about the help the Iturbide government. But Santa Anna soon joined Guadalupe Victoria and Nicolás Bravo in the Plan de Casa Mata February, 1823 in a rebellion to overthrow Iturbide. The Emperor had dissolved congress in October, 1822 and created a rump group, a Junta Instituyente, to give the semblance of shared power. Nicolás Bravo, a conservative like Iturbide, and Vicente Guerrero, the old independence warhorse, launched rebellions. Faced with such resistance, Iturbide reinstalled the Congress on March 4, 1823 but it was too late. The Congress rescinded its naming him emperor. On March 19, he abdicated. He claimed that Mexico owed him 150,000 pesos, which he never collected. He went into exile but returned the next year thinking that the political disorder meant that Mexican leaders would welcome him. They did not. They caught him; tried him; and executed him.
On March 31, 1823, Congress named a provisional government, the Supreme Executive Power who three members--Nicolás Bravo, Manuel Fernández Guadalupe Victoria y Pedro Celestino Negrete--would alternate in the presidency each month. On April 1st, it named as alternates José María Michelena y Miguel Domínguez. On June 12th, it started the process of electing a new Congress, which met in November. The Iturbide experience had turned Mexican leaders against a creole monarchy.
José Miguel Ramos Arizpe , the father of Mexican federalism, headed the constituent congress which wrote the federalist Constitution of 1824. Each state would elect representatives to the Chamber of Deputies (lower house) based on one representative per 80,000 people and two senators. Each state legislature would vote for a president and the vice president of the nation. The nation contained 19 states and 4 territories. Ramos Arizpe, although a clergyman originally, saw a danger in the church controlling education so it deprived of its monopoly. New states created by the constitution were Durango, Chihuahua, and Occidente but the last became two states, Sonora and Sinaloa, in 1830. Power was in the states. This liberal document was modeled after the constitution of the United States, another liberal North American nation. Liberals sought written constitutions, equality before the law, economic and political freedom, individual initiative, and the right to vote. Mexican Indians, most of whom spoke their own languages and lived outside Hispanic culture, did not figure in this equation. The constitution gave public lands to the states not the nation.
The new government would last but a few years. Guadalupe Victoria and Nicolás Bravo were elected president and vice president respectively. Guadalupe Victoria brought the conservative Lucas Alamán into his cabinet in order to get more political unity. But the new government faced a daunting fiscal problem. It received its revenues from customs (25%), the alcabala or sales tax (18%), excise taxes, and from monopolies, and borrowing. Receipts from custom duties fluctuated with the demand for imports and exports . Revenues were between nine and ten million pesos annually but expenditures totaled more than 18 million with the army alone receiving more than 12 million. In 1806, revenues had totaled of 39 million pesos but only 5.4 million in 1823. The internal debt amounted to 76 million; debt service was difficult. It got two large foreign loans in 1824 and 1825, enabling his administration to have some fiscal room to maneuver. When Mexico had trouble servicing its foreign debts, creditors were not anxious to loan more money. In 1827, conservatives, led by Nicolás Bravo, rebelled but were put down. Guadalupe Victoria managed to serve his full term, the only president for decades who would do so.
Politics were even more complicated. In 1825, Joel Poinsett arrived to represent the US in Mexico. He began organizing York Rite Masonic lodges. These were liberal, Republican lodges. Conservatives organized into Scottish Rite lodges. Much of the politics of the period were conducted by these secret lodges. Alamán complained that government should not be in the control of secret groups but his comments went unheeded. At least Mexico received diplomatic recognition from Great Britain in 1825 for Great Britain was the commercial giant of the century. On the other hand, the bitter anti-Spanish feelings by so many of the creole elite caused the government to expel them in 1827, dealing an economic blow to the country.
In 1828, Vicente Guerrero ran for the presidency against his Minister of War, Manuel Gómez Pedraza, who was backed by the conservatives. Gómez Pedraza and his vice presidential running mate, Anastasio Bustamante won, 10-9 but Guerrero and his followers refused to accept defeat and revolted. Santa Anna pronounced in favor of Guerrero in September. The election went to Congress which in 1829 declared Guerrero president.
In the sort time that Guerrero was president, he faced several crises which he did not resolve. A Spanish army from Cuba attacked Tampico in 1829 but Santa Anna defeated it, becoming a. national hero and, thus, a threat to the regime. In September, 1829, Congress abolished slavery, provoking protests from Texas colonizers. Vice President General Anastasio Bustamante seized power in 1830 and named conservative Alamán as chief minister. He raised tariffs to protect the textile industry. Guerrero rebelled, lost, ran and accepted passage on an Italian ship, the Colombo, not knowing that the captain had accepted a bribe to turn him over to the government. He was tried and executed on February 14, 1831. Bustamante operated a very conservative government.
In 1832, Santa Anna championed the liberal cause and wins the presidency in 1833 with Valentín Gómez Farías as his vice president. He never takes office, retiring instead to his hacienda, Manga de Clavo in Veracruz state. The liberals passed what became know as the "Laws of '33," an effort to abolish special privilege by outlawing fueros. They had abolished the Inquisition in 1824 but the Laws of '33 still saw Roman Catholicism as the only acceptable religion in Mexico but it had to obey secular laws. Gómez Farías also secularized the Franciscan missions in California. On another front, his government secularized the National University as well and made its curriculum more modern.
In 1834, conservatives rose up at all this change and found their champion in Santa Anna, who argued that the Laws of '33 were not what he meant at all. He repealed the laws. The conservative congress nullified the Constitution of 1824 in favor of a strong central government. The Poder Conservador, a national strongman, was created. The new constitution of 1836, the Siete Leyes, turned the states into military departments ruled by men the president picked. The president was given an eight-year term. In order to vote or hold office or both, a man had to have a high income, how much depended on high one wanted to go. His destruction of state liberty and power caused a rebellion in the Texas part of Coahuila state, to which it had been joined. Sectional outbreaks occurred in Jalisco in 1841 and Yucatán, where the Caste War broke out in 1839 and continued for more than a decade. The Caste War was about the treatment of the common people by the tiny elite class but also about resistance to Mexico City rule. The Jalisco rebellion was an attempt to preserve the rights the conservatives took away. When Texas was lost in 1836, Bustamante was brought into the presidency but Santa Anna was back before long. He was the national hero and he was ambitious. Much of Mexican history was a struggle between the liberals and conservatives.
Santa Anna dominated Mexican history until his overthrow in 1855 but the struggle between liberals and conservatives continued fir decades.
1. Mexicans celebrate the 16th of September, 1810 as the beginning of independence because this was when the liberal priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Castilla, issued the Grito de Dolores in the village of Dolores, Guanajuato. It called for the end of bad government and death to the Spanish. He and his undisciplined volunteer soldiers wreaked havoc for a time but he lost. He did not take the viceregal capital, Mexico City, when he might have had a chance; he was not a military man and, thus, missed opportunities. Since most of his "soldiers" were poor Amerindians, his movement scared peninsular and creole Spaniards and most mestizos. They feared a race war. He was caught, defrocked, tried, and executed in 1811. Heroic and well-intentioned as he might have been, he was a loser. So, too, were those who continued the battle after his death. The Crown still ruled.2. Federal systems are characterized by an attempt to share power between the national government and the states or provinces. Such systems always have tension and even fighting because the boundaries are not cleared. Those in power tend to favor a strong central government while those out of power want the states to have the majority if the power. For example, Thomas Jefferson argued for states' right until he became president. Underlying these arguments are (1 ) selfishness and (2) lack of trust.
3. The peso and dollar were equal. Perhaps the average US citizen earned $100 a year.