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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 Caribbean territories.
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 soon.
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 order.
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 Roo.
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 mountains.
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.
By 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 offering nationalism.
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 pursued him.
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 gap.
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.