Mexico: Stages of Independence, 1808-21
New Spain was ruled by the
viceroy whose capital was Mexico City.
There were audiencias (high courts which also had
legislative and executive powers) in
Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Guatemala. The
viceroyalty was vast, stretching from the
borders of Panama north to Oregon and including the
Floridas, the Philippines and
In 1808, Napoleon invaded Spain. He held Ferdinand
VII, the king, captive, and put his
brother Joseph on the throne. This raised the question
of who was the legitimate ruler.
Who should be obeyed when the divine-right monarch is
not sitting in his throne? Who was
the rightful leader of the colonies? Should the
colonies obey the agents that Joseph
Bonaparte sent to them?
The Spanish resisted the
Napoleonic imposition. They fought
little wars (guerrillas) against French imperial
troops which would tie down hundreds of
thousands of soldiers. They created juntas and a
regency to govern.
Should New Spain in 1808 renew
its loyalty and submission by an oath
of vassalage and obedience to the junta of Seville?
The political causes of the Mexican
independence depended upon the acceptance or rejection
of this question.
The audiencia in Mexico City
was the unrelenting watchdog of
royal authority and was determined to maintain
obedience to the regency and the junta of
Seville. Viceroy Iturrigaray was cautious and careful,
practicing watchful waiting. The
audiencia became suspicious of him when he accepted
suggestions from the Mexico City
cabildo and other individuals to call a junta in the
viceroyalty. The cabildo was composed
of wealthy creole Spaniards who had no love for
the dominant peninsular Spaniards.
The request of the cabildo to
summon a junta was the first step
towards independence even though it was too
Great care had to be taken to
make sure that the junta's powers
were limited. There was a real fear that it might
become a congress, which even most
creoles feared. Neither junta proponents not its
detractors wanted it to be representative
of the population. After all, they believed that only
Spaniards should rule.
From the viewpoint of the
audiencia and those who supported the
Seville junta, the cabildo had overstepped its bounds
and endangered authority by going
over their heads to seek such a junta. To them,
Iturrigaray had cleared violated his trust
by authorizing the meeting of the junta.
The cabildo pushed the
junta idea, for it was trying to
establish itself as equal in importance to the
audiencia and as spokesman for New Spain.
Veracruz and Guadalajara were not happy at this
attempt by Mexico City to dominate the
viceroyalty. This regionalism would be a constant
problem in Mexican history.
The junta met beginning
August 9, 1808 under the presidency of
Iturrigaray but it was short-lived. There was
considerable opposition to it for it
was a radical departure from established procedures.
Two commissioners arrived from Spain
to observe it. On September 16th, several hundred
Spanish conservatives and their men
armed themselves to end the junta and take Iturrigaray
prisoner. Spanish conservatives
were determined to prevent the creoles from achieving
self-government or independence. To
do so, they had to lead a revolt against law and
The audiencia installed Pedro
Garibay as viceroy, a man who was
old, senile, and easily manipulated. It seemed that
they were in control again. But, on
September 16, 1810, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a
priest, led the second independence
movement, this time from the provinces.
The independence movement had
been kept alive in several ways.
Liberals in Spain had invited colonials to a meeting
in Cádiz in 1811 and Mexican creoles
went, led by Miguel Ramos Arizpe of northern Coahuila.
These people tended to be
moderates. Radicals discussed ideas about freedom,
rights, and independence in literary
societies, salons, and other places.
The Literary and Social Club
of Querétaro, which included
Hidalgo, was more radical than most such groups and it
became the spark of the
independence movement. It had begun to talk of
declaring independence. Its membership
included Hidalgo, Ignacio Allende, Juan Aldama, and
Miguel Domínguez, all leaders of
independence. Within its orbit were other
leaders such as José María Morelos,
Vicente Guerrero, and Andres Quintana
News leaked about the
conspiracy and date of the group and Father
Hidalgo quickly went to the little town of Dolores,
rang the church bells, and called for
rebellion with the cry: "Death to the gachupines!
Long live Independence! Long live
Our Lady of Guadalupe!" With his Indian hoard, he
headed north, west, and south,
sweeping all before him. By the end of September, he
had captured the city of Guanajuato,
slaughtering the Spaniards who had taken refuge in the
granary. The rebels got
millions in peso plus other loot. More joined the
movement. He took Toluca but did not
attack Mexico City.
Although Hidalgo got some
creole and mestizo support, most
creoles sided with the peninsular Spaniards for they
feared a race war. Viceregal armies
swung into action and began winning. Guadalajara was
taken; Guanajuato recaptured, and
Hidalgo drive into northern Mexico, where he was
captured by the winter of 1810. The
Church defrocked him and the civil authorities tried
and executed him. He died in
Chihuahua in July, 1811.
Morelos took over. He was the
independence movement from
October, 1810 to October, 1815. He operated primarily
in the south. He had a clear
political program and more specific objectives than
Hidalgo. In October, 1811, he entered
into a Supreme Junta which included Vicente Guerrero
and Juan Alvarez. The movement,
however, only survived in the hills and
Sectionalism was a factor in how people looked at
independence. Those in port cities, like Verazcruz,
favored it because it would bring more trade. Those
concerned with the Mexico City-Veracruz dominance
didn't favor independence.
1812, the possibility of success
looked slim. In October, the viceroy swore allegiance
to the new and liberal constitution
of 1812 in Spain. Constitution promised amnesty to
certain political prisoners, allowed
Spaniards liberty of opinion, provided political
equality between peninsular and creole
Spaniards, and made the monarch more representative
and limited by sharing theoretical
sovereignty with the people. Moderate Mexicans had
come back with written achievements.
Ferdinand VII repudiated the constitution in 1814 and
the Mexican moderates living in Spain were jailed. he
made it clear that the decisions would be made in
Spain not the colonies.
Morelos in 1814 was offering something different. His
group declared independence in November, 1813. He was
In 1814, the first Mexican constitutional congress was
called at Apatzigan, Morelos. The delegates included
Andres Quintanna Roo and Carlos Bustamante. This document called for popular sovereignty, republican government,
abolition of slavery, equality before the law,
representative government, the Roman Catholic Church
as the state religion but no longer state supported,
and the abolition of privilege. It had little effect
because Morelos was in flight as the royalist armies
Morelos was captured, defrocked, tried and
executed but the fight continued, on a lesser level,
because Vicente Guerrero, Juan Alvarez, Quintana Roo
continued to fight. But the conservative (royalist)
forces had retaken the major regions of Mexico by
1815. It looked as if the independence movement in
Mexico (and elsewhere in Latin America) was over. From
1815 to 1820, the royalists were winning.
In 1820, a creole officer, Agustin de Iturbide, was
given the command to root out Guerrero in the south
but he would bring about independence instead. Spanish
soldiers, about to be sent to the New World to put
down rebellion, revolted and forced the king to adopt
the liberal constitution of 1812. Mexican
conservatives were appalled (but loyal) and swore
allegiance to the constitution, even to popular
sovereignty! For Mexican liberals, the decision was to
support the Spanish liberal constitution or the
Mexican one. Iturbide figured out how to bridge the
When Guerrero decided that independence was the better option and threw in with Iturbide, the latter declared the Plan de Iguala on February 24, 1821. This plan of Three Guarantees was the basis of conservatism for much of the 19th century just as the consitution of Apatzingan was the basis of liberalism. The three guarantees were that New Spain would be free, sovereign, and independent. The Roman Catholic Church's supremacy was guaranteed. Mexico would be a monarchy with a dynasty separate from Spain. Iturbide managed the unify the older, republican, liberal independence movement with the newer conservative movement. The clerical and aristocratic elements now feared liberal Spain than independence.
Iturbide intercepted the viceroy (Juan O'Donohu) sent out from Spain in 1821 and got him to sign a treaty recognizing Mexican independence. On September 27, 1821, Iturbide entered the capital as the man who got independence.
He began the process of creating a new government. He would remain in charge, for he was ambitious. He had a committee of notables named as a regency which was to call a constitutional congress. It met in 1822. Before too much time passed, Iturbide used soldiers to force the naming of himself as Agustin I, Emperor of Mexico.
This new era in Mexican history was started by a military man making a military pronouncement and forcing his will on the country. Mexico would be plagued by such men for over a hundred years. All Iturbide had accomplished was independence. Not resolved were the issue of what the territorial limits would be, who would rule, whether it would be a monarchy or a republic, and creation of a sense of mexicanidad. Those issues were the source of turmoil throughout the century.