Miguel Hidalgo
Calderon Bridge
Santa Anna
Benito Juarez
Porfirio Díaz

The Road to Independence

The beginning of the eighteenth century in Spain coincided with the crowning of Spain's first Bourbon king. Under the Habsburgs, Spain had been ruined by wars abroad and conflicts at home. The new Bourbon administration that assumed power in 1707 was determined to effect structural changes in Spain's government and the economy to centralize power in the monarch. The colonies also received increased attention, mainly in terms of their defense and the reorganization of their economies.

The Bourbon Reforms

During the reign of the third Bourbon king of Spain, Charles III (1759-88), the Bourbons introduced important reforms at home and in the colonies. To modernize Mexico, higher taxes and more direct military control seemed to be necessary; to effect these changes, the government reorganized the political structure of New Spain into twelve intendencias , each headed by an intendente under a single commandant general in Mexico City, who was independent of the viceroy and reported directly to the king.

The economic reforms were directed primarily at the mining and trade sectors. Miners were given fueros and were allowed to organize themselves into a guild. Commerce was liberalized by allowing most Spanish ports to trade with the colonies, thus destroying the old monopoly held by the merchants of the Spanish port of Cádiz.

The Bourbon reforms changed the character of New Spain by revising governmental and economic structures. The reforms also prompted renewed migration of Spaniards to the colonies to occupy newly created government and military positions. At the same time, commerce, both legal and illegal, was growing, and independent merchants were also welcomed. The new monied classes of miners and merchants were the real promoters of the successes of the reforms enacted by the Bourbons.

Early Discontent: Criollos and Clergy

Economic expansion and a certain degree of political relaxation in the 1700s gave rise to greater expectations of autonomy by the colonists, especially after the republican revolutions in the United States (1776), France (1789), and Haiti (1804). Social stratification in New Spain, marked by discrepancies between the rich and the poor and between criollos and peninsulares , however, worked to prevent the necessary social cohesion for a revolutionary undertaking, even though the tensions for a revolution continued to build. Peninsulares from all walks of life believed themselves superior to their American-born counterparts. In reaction to such discrimination, criollos showed pride in things that pertained to Mexico. Criollos considered themselves subjects of the Spanish crown, however, and also abided by the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. More important, criollos did not want an egalitarian society--privileges were fine as long as they benefited from them.

In Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 1808. When French troops entered Madrid, the Habsburg king, Charles IV, abdicated, and Napoleon named his brother Joseph Bonaparte as the new king. Many Spanish patriots in unoccupied parts of Spain declared Ferdinand VII, son of Charles IV, as the new monarch. When the news of Charles IV's abdication reached New Spain, considerable turmoil arose over the question of whether Ferdinand VII or Joseph was the legitimate ruler of the colony. Hoping to be named king of a newly independent country, Viceroy José de Iturrigaray supported the criollos of New Spain when they proposed a junta to govern the colony. Peninsulares realized the danger of such an association between criollos and the administration and thus orchestrated a coup d'état in 1808 to defend their privileges and standing in colonial society. After the coup, Iturrigaray was replaced by a senile puppet Spaniard, Pedro Garibay, much to the despair of the criollos.

Wars of Independence, 1810-21

The eleven-year period of civil war that marked the Mexican wars of independence was largely a byproduct of the crisis and breakdown of Spanish royal political authority throughout the American colonies. A successful independence movement in the United States had demonstrated the feasibility of a republican alternative to the European crown. For most politically articulate criollos, however, a strong cultural affinity with the mother country, a preference for stability and continuity, and alienation from Mexico's native and poor mestizo populations were significant disincentives to a radical break with the established order. Dissatisfaction with peninsular administrative practices and anti-criollo discrimination at many levels of the colonial government and society were important foci of discontent, but beyond small pockets of radical conspirators, these grievances had not yet spawned a pronounced wave of proindependence criollo sentiment at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The French occupation of Spain and the overthrow of the Iturrigaray junta created a vacuum of legitimacy, as it was no longer clear that the ad hoc peninsular administration represented any authority or interests other than its own. A revolt would no longer necessarily be a challenge to the paternal crown and the faith that it ostensibly defended, but would instead shake off the rule of the increasingly despised gachupines , as the peninsulares were derisively called. It was in this context that a radical criollo parish priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, was able to lead the first truly widespread insurrection for Mexican independence.

 Hidalgo was at first successful, but lost (1811) the decisive battle of Calderón Bridge. By 1815, Morelos and Matamoros had been defeated, and Guerrero had been driven into the wilds. When the liberals came to power in Spain in 1820, the more conservative elements in Mexico (primarily the higher clergy and the creoles) sought independence as a means of maintaining the status quo. The royalist general Augustín de Iturbide negotiated with Guerrero, and they arrived (Feb., 1821) at the Plan of Iguala, which called for an independent monarchy, equality for gachupines and creoles, and the maintenance of the privileged position of the church. Spain accepted Mexican independence in Sept., 1821, and a short-lived empire with Iturbide at its head was established (1822).

In 1823, the republican leaders Santa Anna and Guadalupe Victoria drove out Iturbide and a republic was set up with Guadalupe Victoria as its first president. Politics were dominated by groups formed around individuals (mostly army officers), each seeking his personal ends. There was a frequent turnover of governments, and the national budget usually ran a deficit. Guerrero, with the support of Santa Anna, became president in 1829, but was ousted in 1830 by Anastasio Bustamante. In 1832, the ambitious Santa Anna, who had a great influence over Mexican politics until 1855, toppled Bustamante and became president. Santa Anna fell from power after being captured during the Texas revolution (1836), but he served again as president from 1841 to 1844. Waste, corruption, and inefficiency were widespread at the time, as inequities in the social order went unchallenged.

The war with Texas led to an all-out war with the United States, the Mexican War (1846-48), which was ended by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, by which Mexico lost a large block of territory. After the war, Santa Anna returned to power as perpetual dictator but he was overthrown (1855) by a revolution started (1854) at Ayutla. A group of reform-minded men came to the fore—Juan Álvarez, Ignacio Comonfort, Miguel and Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, and, especially, Benito Juárez—and drafted the liberal constitution of 1857, which secularized church property and reduced the privileges of the army.

Conservative opposition was bitter, and civil war ensued; Juárez led the liberals to victory in the War of Reform (1858-61). The conservatives then sought foreign aid and received it from Napoleon III of France, who had colonial ambitions. French intervention followed and led to a brief and ill-starred interlude of empire (1864-67) under Maximilian, a Hapsburg prince. With the end of French aid the empire collapsed and Juárez again ruled Mexico, but political disturbances prevented the accomplishment of his reform program. Porfirio Díaz led a successful armed revolt in 1876 and, except for the period from 1880 to 1884, firmly held the reins of power as president until 1911. It was a period of considerable economic growth, but social inequality was increased by the favoritism shown the great landowners and foreign investors; the indigenous population sank deeper into peonage. The democratic institutions remained only as a veneer for oligarchic rule.

Contact WebMaster