World History 2 117 - 8.2.1 The Mexican War of Independence

Napoléon’s assault on the Bourbons in the Napoleonic Wars immediately transformed European politics, but it had a delayed effect on the Spanish colonies. Spanish American colonial elites took their time weighing the risks, and the majority of their junta members, both in Spain and in the Americas, first swore their loyalty to the absent Spanish king. In 1808, initial meetings with the viceroy of New Spain led to the establishment of an autonomous conservative junta in Mexico City, formed by creoles and peninsulares, who favored maintaining their loyalty to Spain at all costs. Representatives of New Spain, by far the richest Spanish colony, seemed to adapt to the junta system. However, in 1810, when peninsular judges deposed the viceroy and installed their own leader in the position, creole royalists were inspired to take full control of the government.

Between 1808 and 1810, a cycle of bad harvests and famine in Mexico had harmed Indigenous peasants and creole farmers. An economic recession that occurred at the same time led to high unemployment among mestizo silver miners. The effects of these downturns were worsened by the Act of Consolidation, passed by the Spanish government in 1804, demanding that the Catholic Church deposit its wealth with the government. Because the Catholic Church had loaned money to people who bought land or started businesses, in order to comply, it now had to ask that the loans be repaid in full. This hurt many creole merchants and landowners. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the first insurrection for independence in New Spain took the form of a violent multiethnic uprising, coming from the bottom layers of the social hierarchy and led by parish priests in mostly mestizo regions. Creole shopkeepers, professionals, minor political officials, and priests blamed the viceroyalty’s government for their problems.

Concerned with recent political changes and the plight of the poor and exploited, a well-educated creole priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla took the initiative to start a movement for independence (Figure 8.10). Although Hidalgo intended to deliver a blow to the status quo and called for radical action, he proclaimed the most conservative of motives. The revolution was to be fought in the name of Fernando VII and the Virgin of Guadalupe—the ultimate symbol of Mexican Catholic piety.

Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla points at a document that is on his desk. A painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe appears above his desk.
Figure 8.10 This ca. 1880 portrait of the revolutionary priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla is by an unknown artist. An image of the Virgin of Guadalupe hangs on the wall behind him. (credit: “Don Miguel Hidalgo” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

When conservative political authorities in Mexico City learned of his plans, Hidalgo issued a declaration in the town of Dolores on September 16, 1810. In this Grito de Dolores (grito means “cry”), he called upon peasants and unemployed miners to overthrow the viceroyalty’s government. He demanded the abolition of slavery and tribute, the redistribution of wealth, and the return of land to the Indigenous people. Another key demand was respect for the Virgin of Guadalupe, who would later become the patron saint of Mexico. The Grito de Dolores proclaimed independence as its goal, but it was unclear about the means. Hidalgo’s plan envisioned a more tolerable form of government that provided benefits for the poor by seeking an end to abuses by the elite, but it lacked a program and effective leadership.

The tale of the Virgin of Guadalupe (Figure 8.11) is an expressive example of a symbol of Christian devotion, the Virgin Mary, transformed and adapted into a Mexican national emblem. According to the story of the Virgin, in 1531 she appeared to the Aztec peasant Juan Diego and spoke to him in his native language. Many Spanish clergy refused to believe Diego’s claims, and the Virgin of Guadalupe’s early worshippers seem to have been largely Indigenous people. Hidalgo proclaimed the Virgin to be the rebellion’s guardian and protector. Her image encouraged lower-class casta peasants to join the movement and fight under her banner. She was also later appropriated by creole nationalists as a uniquely Mexican saint in order to advance their nineteenth-century struggle for autonomy.

This is an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. She wears a long dress and blue cloak, decorated with gold stars and trim. Her hands are clasped in prayer. A small child appears below her feet.
Figure 8.11 According to legend, the Virgin of Guadalupe, who became the patron saint of Mexico, appeared to an Indigenous peasant named Juan Diego in 1531 and left this image of herself on his cloak as proof. (credit: “Virgin of Guadalupe” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Word of Hidalgo’s rebellion quickly spread among the desperate and dispossessed castas in the region, who could now vent their grievances against the colonial administration. Within a few days, the priest had enlisted thousands of recruits in his army, which at its height totaled around sixty thousand people, 55 percent Indigenous people and 20 percent of mixed race. Hidalgo’s forces thus totaled more than one-third of the population of the capital of New Spain. (Mexico City, the largest city on the North American continent in 1811, had a total population of almost 170,000 people.)

Hidalgo’s followers sacked several towns and committed other destructive actions, including carrying out a mob attack that killed the city elite of Guanajuato, who had barricaded themselves in the public granary for safety. In the face of this violent turn of events, creole and Spanish elites, even those who had originally supported Hidalgo, set aside their differences to protect their privileged positions—and their lives. In doing so, they resembled the creoles and peninsulares of Peru who had banded together to confront Túpac Amaru’s rebellion in the 1780s. In March 1811, royalist forces captured and executed Hidalgo. Yet his army marched on, and today he is remembered as the father of independence and one of Mexico’s greatest national heroes. September 16, the day of the Grito de Dolores, is Mexico’s Independence Day.

In 1812, another rural priest, José María Morelos y Pavón, from a poor mestizo family in southern Mexico, took charge of the independence movement (Figure 8.12). His army was organized, and he galvanized an insurrection of artisans and peasants. Closer to Indigenous people than even Hidalgo was, Morelos outlined clear sociopolitical objectives: an end to slavery and the casta system, abolition of Indigenous tribute, and institution of land reform. In 1813, at the apex of his military career, Morelos convened a wartime congress in the town of Chilpancingo that declared Mexico’s independence from Spain. The congress was also charged with producing a constitution, and to guide its efforts Morelos composed Sentiments of the Nation, a document outlining plans for social reforms (as well as the introduction of an income tax).

In the painting, Pavón wears dark clothing, decorated with red accents, and gold embroidery. A cross on a necklace hangs around Pavon’s neck. Pavón wears a sword on his hip and holds a walking cane.
Figure 8.12 This portrait was painted in 1812 by an unknown Mixtec Indian artist. The painting’s caption identifies Morelos as “captain of the armies of America.” (credit: “Retrato del excelentísimo señor don José María Morelos” by Museo Nacional de Historia/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Although the congress produced a constitution for the nation its members officially named Mexico, Morelos’s efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. He brought some order to a committed but largely undisciplined insurrection force, but he was not able to broaden his support base. He failed to persuade moderate creoles to join the cause, and mestizos continued to make up the majority of his supporters. In December 1815, royalist forces caught and executed him, bringing the first phase of the war for Mexican independence to an end.

It was the viceroyalty’s government, not the Spanish Crown, that fought both Hidalgo’s and Morelos’s rebellions in New Spain. That is, the royalist armies that met the revolutionary forces were 95 percent Mexican, mostly creole and mixed-race. The rebellions thus represented struggles in which the people’s loyalties were divided and the final outcome was not inevitable; Mexico was experiencing a revolutionary civil war. After Morelos’s death, his follower, the casta Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña, whose father supported the Spanish Crown and whose uncle served in the Spanish militia, continued guerrilla operations against Spanish authorities for several more years (Figure 8.13). While the patriots had not yet succeeded in getting enough people on their side, Spain’s hold on its colony was weakened even more. By 1820, the Viceroyalty of New Spain was relatively calm. Rebellion was about to break out again, however, as a result of events in Spain.

In the painting, Saldana wears an ornate military uniform consisting of white pants, a blue sash, and a dark jacket decorated with red accents and gold trim. His right-hand rests on a cannon. A flag is visible in the background.
Figure 8.13 This portrait was painted in 1850, nineteen years after Guerrero’s death, by the artist Anacleto Escutia. Guerrero served as the second president of Mexico from April 1 to December 17, 1829. (credit: “Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña” by Museo Nacional de Historia/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In Their Own Words

Sentiments of the Nation

In 1813, José María Morelos y Pavón composed Sentiments of the Nation to guide the congress he had charged with writing a constitution for the new nation of Mexico. In this treatise, Morelos listed twenty-three points he believed would create a strong nation capable of protecting and meeting the needs of all its citizens. Some of these were familiar from revolutions in the United States and France. Many, though, specifically reflected the concerns of people living in Spanish America, such as protecting the Catholic Church. Here are some of Morelos’s points:

1. America is free and independent of Spain and all other nations, governments, or monarchies.

2. The Catholic faith is the sole religion, and no others will be tolerated.

4. Dogma is established by church hierarchy: the pope, bishops, and priests.

5. Sovereignty emanates from the people and is placed in a Supreme National American Congress, made up of representatives from the provinces in equal numbers.

6. Power is divided among appropriate executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

11. Liberal government is to replace tyranny with the expulsion of the Spaniards.

12. Laws should promote patriotism and industry, moderate opulence and idleness, and improve the lot and the education of the poor.

13. Laws should apply to all, with no privileges.

15. Slavery is prohibited forever, as are the distinctions of caste, with all being equal and only vice and virtue distinguishing one American from the other.

19. 12 December is to be dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe and celebrated.

22. The payment of tributes is ended; a tax of 5% or similar light amount will be levied.

—Don José María Morelos, “Sentiments of the Nation”

  • Which of the points listed here would appeal most to American Indians and mestizos? Which seem designed to address the concerns of creoles?
  • Which points protect the Roman Catholic Church? Why would Morelos include these directives?

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax