Despite the reforms of Spain's Bourbon rulers in the late 18th century, Mexico's criollos continued to chafe under a caste system that relegated them to second-class citizenship. The censorship that both Church and state continued to enforce on the colony did not prevent the bold new ideas of the "Enlightenment" from stimulating the thinking of Mexican intellectuals. The writings of political philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau, John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, caused them to re-examine the archaic institutions under which they lived and to question the rigid inequalities of the class system, the burdensome restrictions on economic development, the religious intolerance, and the political absolutism which was their inheritance. They watched as similar causes for discontent had led to the rise in revolt of the English colonies against their mother country in 1776, but such radical notions as that which proclaimed, "all men were created equal" frightened them. Certainly no criollo, much less a peninsular or gachupín from Spain, would ever entertain the idea that an Indian or other lower-caste Mexican should be deemed equal to himself. And, when France was torn by revolution little more than a dozen years later, they were shocked at the executions of the royal family, by the restrictions imposed on the church, and by the continued spread of such dangerous beliefs as "liberty, fraternity, and equality". Closer to home, when they witnessed the Haitian blacks rise in revolt against their white masters from 1790-1804, they were horrified by the widespread massacres of whites which paved the way for that country's independence.
While Mexican criollos clambered for reform, they gave little thought to breaking the umbilical cord to the mother country. Yet, the march of events in Europe in the early 19th century changed the scene so swiftly and completely that such a move not only became a possibility but also eventually seemed almost a necessity. In 1807 Napoleon demanded from Spain the right for his army to cross the country to occupy Portugal and, once this was granted, he set out to conquer Spain as well. When the Spanish King Charles IV abdicated in favor of his son, Ferdinand VII, Napoleon took both men into "protective custody" in France and put his own brother, Joseph, on the throne of Spain. In response to the imprisonment of the country's royal family, a junta sprang up in southern Spain claiming to govern on behalf of the deposed Ferdinand VII.
When word of these events reached New Spain, the local authorities were at a loss as how to proceed. The judges of the audencia argued that the colony should give its allegiance to the junta in southern Spain, while the cabildo, or assembly, which was dominated by criollos, opted to set up a local junta to rule in the name of Ferdinand VII. The viceroy, who foresaw an opportunity to enhance his own personal power if Mexico became independent, suggested that a local junta be created with him serving as its head.
In the face of such indecision, a group of peninsulares who called themselves the "Volunteers of Ferdinand VII" seized the viceroy and dispatched him to Veracruz for exile back to Spain. They also arrested several of the criollo leaders and then proclaimed the colony's submission to the junta in southern Spain. The latter body, in turn, named the archbishop of Mexico as the interim viceroy.
At this juncture, groups of criollos meeting in provincial centers throughout the country began for the first time considering the desirability of separating the colony from Spain. Interestingly, it was the criollo clergy in particular who voiced such thoughts, because, as the most literate class in the country, they were the most aware of the currents of the "Enlightenment". Moreover, it was also the clergy who had most sorely felt the heavy hand of the colonial administration. The central government had not only banned the creation of further monasteries in New Spain, but it had also decreed the expulsion of the Jesuits, the sequestering of the charitable funds of the Church and appropriating them to the royal coffers back home, and obliged the church to call in all its mortgages, thereby alienating many of the largest land-owners. Furthermore, only peninsulares could rise to the highest positions in the church, and they invariably received appointment to the richest congregations. For example, when Alexander von Humboldt, the German geographer visited Mexico in 1803-04, he recorded that priests in Indian villages might earn an annual salary of 100 pesos whereas the yearly revenue from the archbishop's diocese could easily have amounted to as much as 130,000 pesos!
Late in 1809 a Franciscan priest by the name of Fray Vicente Santa Maria, together with the town fathers of Valladolid (the present city of Morelia), some brother clergymen, and an army lieutenant hatched a plot to declare the colony's independence. In return for a promise to terminate the annual head-tax levied upon the natives, they likewise assured themselves of winning the support of local Indian leaders. Just before the uprising was to take place, however, it was betrayed and its ringleaders were captured and imprisoned. Not deeming the threat posed by such a plan as being particularly serious, the archbishop-viceroy dealt with the conspirators very leniently.
The following year Fray Vicente escaped detention to join an insurrection headed by another priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, who had long served as a lecturer in philosophy and theology at the College of San Nicolás Obispo in Valladolid and later had been named its rector. Father Hidalgo had already come to the attention of the Inquisition on two occasions, for he had been accused of not only reading prohibited books but also of questioning the virgin birth of Mary, of subscribing to the doctrines of the French revolution, of gambling, and of keeping a mistress. Because his ideas were deemed too liberal, he had been dismissed from the College and assigned in turn to three relatively minor congregations, the last being in the town of Dolores. Even there he was suspected of such "improprieties" as keeping a household composed of "two half-sisters, his younger brother, Mariano, and two daughters by Josefa Quintana".
Having become fluent in as many as four of the native languages, Father Hidalgo had also worked incessantly to improve the living conditions of his Indian parishioners and was much loved by them. In night classes he had taught them arts and crafts and had established a number of shops for blacksmithing, carpentry, pottery making, tanning, and weaving. He even went so far as to introduce wine-making and sericulture, which, being contrary to Spanish law, led the Spanish authorities to send in troops to root out the vineyards and mulberry trees.
Father Hidalgo was also a member of a "literary club" in the town of Querétaro, some fifty miles to the southeast, and together with some prominent town officials, a couple of army officers, and a small group of other criollos, they had begun plotting the separation of Mexico from Spain early in 1810. They worked out a plan to raise an army, occupy some of the most important towns, drive out the peninsulares and seize their property. At first they would pretend to be rising in support of Ferdinand VII, but at the appropriate moment they would reveal their true colors and proclaim the country's independence. Hidalgo was appointed the leader of the uprising and one of the army officers would assume its military command. The timing of the revolt was scheduled to coincide with a large regional fair to be held in December of that year.
Once again treachery tipped the hands of the conspirators and in mid-September the government learned of the impending plot. Several of the ringleaders were arrested but not before they were able to dispatch a warning to Hidalgo. Realizing that it was a question of "now or never", Hidalgo summoned his parishioners early on the morning of September 16 by ringing the bells of his church and telling them that the time had come to drive out the Spaniards. In his speech, which subsequently became known as the Grito de Dolores ("The Cry of Dolores"), he is said to have announced the abolition of the Indian head-tax, a move that insured broad and immediate support from his native constituents. Lacking a strategic plan of action, Hidalgo's rag-tag army of seven hundred set out for San Miguel armed with whatever weapons they could find. There they were joined by the local militia headed by one of the officers from the Querétaro "literary club". By the time that the rebel forces had marched southward to the town of Celaya, their numbers had swelled to nearly twenty thousand, aided, no doubt, by the fact that along the way, Hidalgo had taken a banner depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe from a local church and made it the flag of his revolution, thereby further strengthening the emotional appeal of his movement to both Indians and mestizos alike.
Hidalgo's next objective was the great mining center of Guanajuato, the capital of the intendancy, and, as his motley horde approached the city, Hidalgo wrote to the intendant and requested him to surrender. When the latter refused and ensconced himself, his three hundred soldiers, and all the resident Spaniards of the city in the granary, together with a treasury valued at over three million pesos, the siege of Guanajuato was joined. The heavily fortified structure was a substantial redoubt and not until a young miner nicknamed "El Pipila" (The Turkey) managed to creep up to its heavy wooden door and set it afire could the attackers gain entry into it. Once inside they killed everyone who resisted, took prisoner everyone who was still alive, and then confiscated the treasury and all the supplies they could find. In the days that followed, mobs of savage rebels looted and sacked all the homes of the peninsulares in the city, despite Hidalgo's stern warning not to do so. By the time the siege was over, more than 300 Spanish royalists had been killed whereas the toll of the rebels was undoubtedly far higher.
It was no secret that, despite their military success at Guanajuato, Hidalgo and his criollo military commander were both surprised and shocked at the savagery displayed by their undisciplined army. It was as though the mestizo and Indian masses that made up the bulk of their fighting force were wreaking three hundred years of vengeance on their Spanish overlords. For all the frustrations the criollos had experienced at the hands of their fellow whites, the peninsulares, there had been no real expectation of turning their expulsion into a blood bath. But, now that the revolt had been set in motion, there was little hope that it could be halted, short of its being terminated by a military disaster, particularly since several other mining towns in the north joined in the struggle as well.
When news of the rebellion reached Mexico City, the viceroy declared the rebels outlaws, raised an army, and, in effort to gain Indian assistance, abolished the hated tribute on the natives. The bishop of Michoacán, immediately excommunicated Hidalgo and his followers, and threatened anyone who aided their cause with the same punishment. However, when Hidalgo approached Valladolid a few weeks later, the bishop and all of the Spanish residents of the city fled, fearing the same kind of massacre that had earlier befallen Guanajuato.
Once in the city where he had spent the bulk of his academic life, Hidalgo repeated his proclamation of freedom for all black slaves and the abolition of the Indian head-tax. He also helped himself to some 400,000 pesos of church funds to finance his movement and then, at the head of an army that now numbered some 60,000, he began his march toward Mexico City.
In a high mountain pass between the valleys of Toluca and Mexico City, a much smaller but better-trained force of royalist soldiers met him. As the waves of fanatic rebels attacked the Spanish, the latter were forced to give way and retreat toward the capital, but for some unknown reason the rebels did not pursue them. What might have been a quick coup de grace that ended the war turned into a hesitant and faltering moment of indecision instead. Had the heavy loss of life among the rebels cooled their ardor? Had widespread desertions weakened not only their resolve but their ability to give pursuit as well? Were they already running out of ammunition and supplies? Or were Hidalgo and his criollo commanders afraid of another Guanajuato-like rampage against the whites of Mexico City? In any case, instead of following up his military advantage, Hidalgo turned his army away from the capital and back to the northwest whence it had come. Near the town of Querétaro his troops were surprised and put to flight by a royalist army, and only after they could regroup did Hidalgo turn west toward Guadalajara. Perhaps the savagery of the conflict was now coming home to Hidalgo himself, because he suddenly reversed his policy about executing peninsular prisoners and from this point on they were no longer spared.
A royalist army now came in pursuit of Hidalgo and as it advanced, a wanton slaughter of peasants and villagers thought to have given aid to the rebels was begun. Even though the Spanish regulars were outnumbered twelve-to-one when they met Hidalgo's army outside of Guadalajara, their superior training and discipline would probably have been sufficient to carry the day. However, when a Spanish artillery shell made a lucky hit in the midst of a rebel ammunition wagon, the resulting rain of fireworks and flame created such chaos that the rebels scattered in panic.
Fleeing northward in the hope of mustering aid along the frontier or in the United States, Hidalgo and his skeleton-army were surprised by a Spanish ambush in the desert. He and the other rebel leaders were carted off to Chihuahua in chains where the non-clerics were quickly dispatched by a firing squad. As a priest, Hidalgo was once more taken before the Inquisition and after a prolonged hearing he was found guilty of both heresy and treason. Once he was defrocked and released to the civil authorities, he was executed by a firing squad on July 30, 1811. To serve as a warning to any other would-be revolutionaries, the heads of Hidalgo and his nearest associates were placed on display in cages at the four corners of the granary in Guanajuato.
Though Hidalgo's uprising had been ill timed and poorly planned, it had awakened the lower classes of New Spain to the realization that it yet might be possible to throw off the yoke of their colonial masters. The spirit of revolt did not die with Hidalgo but lived on in others who shared his conviction that independence was overdue. One of these was a mestizo priest by the name of José María Morelos, who had been a student of Hidalgo's. Before being ordained as a priest, however, he had worked as a mule-driver between Acapulco and Mexico City, and after his ordination he served in a small church in the hot, desert-like valley of the Balsas River. In October 1810, Hidalgo had given him a military commission and also a charge: to recruit an army in the south of Mexico. Finding little support amongst the criollos, Morelos quickly turned instead to the mestizos and Indians for his support, and though his forces were never numerous, they were skilled in the hit-and-run tactics of guerrilla warfare. Cognizant of the importance of transportation in the conduct of both commerce and war, Morelos set as his strategic goal the isolation of the capital from its southern hinterland, capturing the city of Oaxaca to block access from Tehuantepec in 1811, Orizaba on the Veracruz road to block access from the Gulf of Mexico in 1812, and finally capturing the port of Acapulco itself in 1813.
Believing that the southern approaches to the capital were now secure, Morelos convened a congress in the town of Chilpancingo (about 50 miles north of Acapulco) in September 1813 in the hope of uniting the rebel forces, of drafting a declaration of independence, and of writing a constitution for the country. On November 6th the congress formally declared Mexico's independence, but continuing military operations kept the congress on the run, and it was not until a year later that it completed work on a constitution in the yet-more isolated town of Apatzingán in the southern interior of Michoacán. Unfortunately, this liberal document would not only have abolished slavery but would also have eliminated all class distinctions had it been put into force, but such was not to be: a Spanish army defeated Morelos at Valladolid in December, 1813, and the following year both Oaxaca and Chilpancingo were re-taken. About a year later, as Morelos was escorting the congress to Tehuacán, the Spanish ambushed him, but, by sacrificing himself, he succeeded in helping the congress to escape. He was immediately taken to Mexico City where the Inquisition convicted him of heresy and treason, and, like Hidalgo, he was defrocked and placed before a firing squad on December 22, 1815.
Morelos' death left the independence movement without any
clear-cut leader, and the congress from which he had expected so much
was soon disbanded. In the back-country of Veracruz in the east and
in the mountains north of Acapulco sporadic warfare continued, in the
first instance under the leadership of a guerrilla chieftain called
Félix Fernández (who exchanged his poetically
alliterative name for the more politically-dramatic moniker of
Guadalupe Victoria), and in the second instance under the command of
the already aptly named Vicente Guerrero ("Vincent Warrior"). As both
of these regional commanders continued the struggle on a local basis,
a third military adventure -- more idealistic than realistic -- was
launched in the northeast of the country by a former Spanish army
officer. With three ships that he had purchased in the United
States and some three hundred volunteers he had recruited there, he made an amphibious landing on the coast of Tamaulipas in April 1817. Leading a company that he called the "Relief Army of the Republic of Mexico", Francisco Javier Mina succeeded in marching as far south as Guanajuato before Spanish troops managed to stop, capture, and execute him, thereby effectively putting a halt to another independence movement in Mexico.
Meanwhile, back in Spain, in the absence of the Spanish monarch who was being held in "protective custody" by Napoleon, the junta based in the southern city of Cádiz convened an assembly which included representatives from both the home country and its overseas colonies, including New Spain. Its function was to write a constitution that it promulgated in 1812. However, when Ferdinand VII was released from captivity two years later and once more took the throne, he immediately abrogated the constitution and abolished the assembly which had drafted it, and then went on to imprison or exile thousands of individuals whom he considered dangerously liberal. Finally, he set about mustering a military force to crush the revolutionary movement that had by now spread from Mexico throughout the other dominions of Spanish America.
These high-handed, reactionary moves were too much even for some of the Spanish military and in 1820 Colonel Rafael Riego led a march on Madrid whose aim was to oblige the king to recognize the constitution of 1812. Its provisions had stipulated that Spain be made a constitutional monarchy; that sovereignty rested with the people; that the country should enjoy a free and unfettered press; and that the privileges and property of the Catholic church be curtailed. Now, with Spain at last moving into the era of the Enlightenment, conservative Mexicans found that they could not stomach such a radical transformation in their own political life. Again, the dangerous ideas of extending equal rights to the mestizo and Indian masses and of limiting in any way the power and prestige of the church were quite unacceptable to them. Therefore, if the mother country chose to go in that direction, they vowed that it would have to do so without Mexico. Thus, at one fell swoop, the once-staunchest supporters of union with Spain suddenly had become the most fervent advocates of Mexican independence!
Early in 1820, Dr. Matías Monteagudo, who was both rector of the University of Mexico and canon of the Cathedral, headed up a group of conservatives who secretly set about trying to find a way to separate New Spain from the mother country. Although various ideas were advanced, it was quickly agreed that nothing could be achieved without military assistance and the individual who seemed best suited to provide that assistance was a conservative criollo colonel by the name of Agustín de Iturbide.
Iturbide had joined the army at the age of 17 and, when Hidalgo began his revolt, was offered a high rank in the rebel forces. Instead, he took up arms against Hidalgo and Morelos and won rapid promotion in the Spanish army to the rank of colonel. Having been accused but later acquitted of misappropriation of government funds, he resigned from the army in 1816 and settled down in Mexico City. When Monteagudo and his friends began their secret deliberations in 1820, they beseeched the viceroy to reinstate Iturbide and put him in the field against the last remaining rebel leader, Vicente Guerrero. Given the rank of brigadier-general and command over a detachment of 2500 men, Iturbide set off to find his opponent in the rugged mountains south of the capital.
A few inconclusive skirmishes in the hills convinced Iturbide that he could never "beat" Guerrero so he proposed to "join" him instead. After persuading Guerrero to meet him in the town of Iguala on the road to Acapulco, he proposed that the two of them merge their armies and jointly fight for the independence of Mexico. So, on February 24, 1821, under the signatures of both men, the Plan de Iguala was announced. Although it consisted of two-dozen articles in all, its "three guarantees" are what most Mexicans remember it for today: independence, religion, and equality. Mexico would be made a constitutional monarchy with the crown first to be offered to Ferdinand VII of Spain, but should he decline, to another European prince of acceptable pedigree. The Roman Catholic religion would be the state religion and the only one permitted, with the clergy retaining all its rights and privileges. Racial equality was to be guaranteed by a provision that stipulated that no distinction was to be made "between Europeans, Africans, and Indians" and the right to hold any office was to be based solely on "merit and virtue". Until a monarch could be chosen and an assembly elected, a junta was to be entrusted with the administration of governmental affairs, whereas their common army, now to be known as the "Army of the Three Guarantees", or Trigarantes, would uphold the principles upon which the two men had agreed.
Iturbide immediately informed the leaders of the army and the church of the Plan of Iguala to solicit their support and began printing a newspaper to make known the plan to the public. By a stroke of good fortune, he also hijacked a pack train headed for Acapulco carrying a half a million pesos of silver and diverted it to the service of his cause.
As can readily be surmised, the viceroy was furious at having been duped by Monteagudo and his fellow conspirators and promptly denounced both the Plan of Iguala and the perfidious Iturbide. On the other hand, the Plan quickly won the support of most of the military units in the country as well as of the church authorities, and for the man in the street it held an appeal that few of them could resist. Never before had any promise been made to ensure the rights of the mestizos or of the Indians but now even that was "in writing" too. So positive and overwhelming was the public response that the viceroy promptly resigned, knowing that a replacement was already on his way from Spain. The Spanish flag continued to fly only in the capital and over the two main ports of the country; otherwise the tricolor of the Trigarantes -- one color for each guarantee -- was already flying over the remainder of Mexico.
So, when the new viceroy, General Juan O'Donojú, stepped ashore in Veracruz in late July, 1821, he found a country that was already independent, and there was no office for him to assume. In one desperate move to save as much "face" as he could, he met with Iturbide at Córdoba, on the road leading to Mexico City, and there the two men signed the so-called Treaty of Córdoba on August 24, 1821. Mexican independence was formally recognized and most of the provisions of the Plan of Iguala were accepted. One change that was made, no doubt at Iturbide's insistence, broadened the search for a monarch beyond Europe, and another granted O'Donojú a seat on the provisional governing junta. As the highest-ranking Spanish military officer in the country, it also became his responsibility to oversee the departure of all royalist troops from Mexico.
A little over a month later, on September 27, 1821 Iturbide entered Mexico City as a conquering hero: the town-council presented him with the keys to the city, O'Donojú welcomed him to the government palace, the archbishop said a mass in the cathedral in his honor, and the next day the junta was named with Iturbide as its spokesman. In his first decree he announced that New Spain had passed into history and in its place had risen the independent nation of Mexico.