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Mexico’s First Decades of Independence

Summary and Keywords

By 1821, a decade of bloody warfare had fragmented the viceroyalty of New Spain, divided the population into hostile factions of patriots and royalists, and intensified old hatreds among peninsular, or European-born, Spaniards (gachupines), American-born criollos, the complex racially mixed groups, and the indigenous population. In many regions, the native villagers were angry, resentful, and politically mobilized. The war had taught different segments of the population that mobilization and the effective use of political action—even violence—could address their political demands, their interminable grievances concerning landholding, and their chronic disputes over taxation.

These campesino insurgent and guerrilla fighters, many of whom knew little Spanish, fought tenaciously and often successfully for different factions and regions. Although some sought to escape combat and brutal suppression by fleeing into rugged mountains or posing as neutral noncombatants, guerrilla warfare, endemic banditry, and pervasive violence changed the lives of ordinary people.

In the cities, large floating populations of vagabonds, gamblers, and petty criminals frequented cockfights, bullfights, and other popular entertainments; loitering in parks and public markets, they made the night extremely dangerous for respectable urban residents. Nevertheless, even as indigenous and mestizo people suffered from the dislocations of war, arbitrary conscription, heavy taxation, and narrow paternalism, some also developed feelings of pride and empowerment that would find new expression in the post-independence decades.

By the outbreak of the war with the United States twenty-five years later, Mexico was ill-equipped and unprepared to defend its territory. Its economy was in ruins, its army lacked modern weapons and training, and many of its citizens were unwilling to engage in the defense of a nation that they did not fully comprehend. Others rose to lead the republic in its heroic, but impossible, defense.

Keywords: Independent Mexico, caudillismo, pronunciamientos, military, Texas Revolution, French Pastry War, federalism, nation, Agustín de Iturbide, freemasons, criollos, bandits, insurgency, centralism, Antonio López de Santa Anna, Juan Ruiz de Apodoca

On September 27, 1821, Agustín de Iturbide, liberator of Mexico under the Plan of Iguala, entered Mexico City in triumph. Soon, prisoners held in the infamous presidio prison—some of them criminals, others army deserters or civilians held on suspicion that they were enemies of the now defunct regime—received their freedom and three pesos in cash with which to support themselves as they commenced new lives. They emerged from prison into a shaken nation.

A decade of bloody warfare had fragmented the viceroyalty of New Spain, divided the population into hostile factions of patriots and royalists, and intensified old hatreds among peninsular, or European-born, gachupines (Spaniards), American-born criollos, the complex racially mixed groups, and the indigenous population. In many regions, the native villagers were angry, resentful, and politically mobilized. The war had taught different segments of the population that mobilization and the effective use of political action—even violence—could address their political demands, their interminable grievances concerning landholding, and their chronic disputes over taxation. These campesino insurgent and guerrilla fighters, many of whom knew little Spanish, fought tenaciously and often successfully for different factions and regions. Although some sought to escape combat and brutal suppression by fleeing into rugged mountains or posing as neutral noncombatants, guerrilla warfare, endemic banditry, and pervasive violence changed the lives of village people. Many Indians and racially mixed people first served under the banners of Fathers Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos. Later they hardened their attitudes—and their affinity for violence—in the multitude of guerrilla-bandit gangs that became ubiquitous in Mexico. Part-time bandits raided businesses and elite-owned haciendas, prospering during wartime’s anarchy by occupying the agricultural and grazing lands that lay beyond the command of hacendados and government authorities. In the cities, large floating populations of vagabonds, gamblers, and petty criminals frequented cockfights, bullfights, and other popular entertainments; loitering in parks and public markets, they made the night extremely dangerous for respectable urban residents. Nevertheless, as indigenous and mixed-blood people suffered from the dislocations of rebellion, war, domination, arbitrary military duty, heavy taxation, and narrow paternalism that reinforced low esteem, some also developed feelings of pride and empowerment that would find new expression in the postindependence decades.

Although the decade of war affected Mexican regions unevenly, an entire generation grew up questioning old certainties and learning to live with chronic insurgency, counterinsurgency, and political disorder. Whether royalist or patriot, urban resident or rural campesino, rich or poor, everyone had to deal with interdicted commerce and communications, banditry, and other criminal activities, arbitrary demands for recruits to serve the different military factions, and oppressive taxation levied by both sides in support of the war effort.

In the following years, from 1820s to 1840s, Mexicans of all classes fashioned a nation from the ruined frames of the colonial era. They did not contribute equally. From the onset, certain elements dominated the national government and Mexico City. Old promises of colonial policies now forgotten, indigenous communities and municipal leaders found, to their rage, that they had been left behind. Liberal secularism undermined the church and its institutions. Newly awakened popular masses in city and countryside brought the voice of the poor into the fray. Yet repeatedly high-ranking army officers shaped the national political scene, and often they did not cater to the demands of ordinary people.

The crushing authoritarianism of the military-dominated regime in Mexico City proved both repressive and reactionary. The regime’s leaders—supported by senior army officers, much of the urban elite, and segments of the old landowning, administrative, clerical, and merchant classes—reflected a strong centralism based upon concepts that would be retooled for the future. But this politico military authoritarianism emanating from Mexico City, and from regional capitals such as Puebla, Valladolid (now Morelia), Querétaro, San Luis Potosí, and Guadalajara had lost ground when the imperial government implemented the liberal Spanish Constitution of 1812. In many far-flung regions, particularly where rugged geography, sparse population, and endemic tropical diseases made military operations hazardous, centralized power never gained effective control.

Even when the combatants in Mexico’s struggle had worked out actual programs in advance, during the disruptions of warfare most participants lost track of the theoretical principles of liberty and reformed governance. Slogans such as “Death to bad government and the gachupines,” “Long live religion,” “Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe,” “Long live America,” and “Long live the king” lost impact, having been repeated for so many years. Royalists wondered whether la causa buena (the good cause) was any better than la causa mala (the bad cause) of the insurgents. Sometimes there seemed little difference between the two. Insurgents and bandits tracked down by royalist military detachments could petition for amnesty if they agreed to change sides, although often they rebelled again once the army was no longer present to enforce compliance. Pardons (indultos) promised conciliation between factions, but often favored leaders over the populations they led, and betrayed old moral economies of tribute, military service, and indigenous identity, as was the case in Colotlán. The people of rural Mexico, confronted by regulations and sometimes quite brutal counterinsurgency, strengthened their resolve to control their own destinies. The precipitous collapse of the royalist armies and of the Spanish colonial regime in 1821 opened a future obscured by competing visions.

Iturbide, Federalists, and Selling the Plan of Iguala

In many respects, Iturbide’s victory was the product of universal war fatigue rather than a clear decision in favor of a particular plan or new direction. The Plan of Iguala with its three pillars—independence, religion, and union—offered a healing process or a timely compromise program rather than a detailed plan for the creation of a new nation. The 1820 liberal revolt in Spain that restored the Constitution of 1812 throughout the empire presented a model for the reform of colonial governance and an alternative to the highly centralized and authoritarian Bourbon regime that had ruled New Spain. Throughout Mexico in 1820 and 1821, officials read the document clause by clause to the assembled populace. Attentive listeners realized immediately that the liberal charter opposed the local military taxation that had been crucial to royalist counterinsurgency programs and that it transferred significant powers away from major centers to towns and villages. Cities, towns, and villages embraced the constitution with unbridled enthusiasm, although many demonstrations surrounding its reception were carefully choreographed, not spontaneous. Such celebrations usually included a high mass in the main district or town church, profuse decoration of the streets with garlands of flowers and banners, evening fireworks and orchestral performances, artillery salvos, several days of fiestas, and the liberation of prisoners from local jails. Clearly, the organizers and the populace recognized the occasion as an important turning point.

In the city of Zacatecas, the formal meetings organized to celebrate the constitution soon drifted out of control and fueled the rising expectations of the newly empowered classes. When urban authorities suspended popular assemblies, spontaneous, informal mass meetings took place outside the city. Municipal leaders and elites feared that such gatherings would incite violence and possibly spark a popular uprising; for example, soldiers of the Zacatecas Mixed Provincial Battalion, known locally as the Pelones (the Dull Ones or Baldies), joined civilians in subversive talk about outright independence. Elsewhere, lawyers, priests, merchants, and minor criollo bureaucrats in many towns and cities participated in informal political clubs and discussion groups. In addition to examining autonomy or independence, they supported the growth of regional political power against the old central regime and underscored their arguments with agitated calls for the “total destruction of the evil gachupines.”

By granting absolute liberty of movement, the new constitution abolished many of the restrictive controls of the militarized regime. It terminated the policy of regulating travel through a system of passports and checkpoints that had helped to maintain wartime order. Then and for decades to come, the escorts of civilian travelers and commercial caravans carried an arsenal of weapons, from muskets and pistols to swords, machetes, and knives, for defense against bandits. Without documents to identify individuals, the authorities could no longer know whether they were dealing with honest merchants and travelers, with rebels, or with bandits. Vagabonds—including escaped criminals, army deserters, and other unsavory elements—mocked police and judicial officers, often addressing each other by the revolutionary term ciudadano (citizen) and rejecting the jurisdiction and legal powers of all officials.

In promulgating new guidelines for governing Mexico, Iturbide went beyond the model proposed in the Spanish constitution. His disingenuous suggestion in the Plan of Iguala, that King Ferdinand VII or some other member of the Spanish Bourbon dynasty might come to govern an autonomous and monarchist Mexico, made some form of home rule or even outright independence more palatable to former royalists. In addition, the new government would protect the Catholic religion, a widely popular idea. Everyone, regardless of race, was a citizen of the empire, and, in theory, all had equal access to employment according to their individual merits. Despite this leveling, many people of European Spanish origin, who had much to fear from the mass of the population, joined Iturbide with almost indecent haste.

Iturbide pressed the view that the Plan of Iguala was for the general good of a nation threatened by domination and internal collapse. He played upon old xenophobia and upon the fear of invasion by a foreign power that had long been directed against Protestant England and atheist revolutionary France. Such fears, although quite illusory, remained a popular rallying theme and the subject for Sunday sermons by village priests. The elites were more interested in Iturbide’s declaration that the government would protect the property of all citizens. Word of the Iguala guarantees spread like wildfire until people of the smallest towns and villages spoke of the program as if it had been accepted by everyone. Even the most implacable of the remaining insurgents—“El Indio” Pedro Ascencio, known for his sanguinary ways—was said to have been so swayed by Iturbide’s project that he discontinued raiding and began returning goods and property stolen from his opponents.

The immense popularity of Iturbide and the Plan of Iguala temporarily obscured deep divisions that made the new nation almost ungovernable. Throughout 1821, most European and criollo Spanish royalist commanders of the highest and intermediate ranks rushed to place their swords at Iturbide’s service. Unreconstructed in their political and social thinking, they made the transition from colony to empire and then to republic as opportunists who clung tenaciously to rank, status, and power. Ramón Dominguez, one European Spanish officer who remained loyal to the royalist cause, observed with dismay in 1821 that “the evil [of the Plan of Iguala] has progressed colossally to compromise the commanders of the different garrisons.” Army officers and many civilian leaders accepted Iturbide’s warning that his approach provided the only means to avoid the danger of catastrophic social violence in all the provinces of New Spain. Although some senior former royalist army officers were later expelled from Mexico under anti-Spanish laws, many others who had once upheld the Spanish cause with vigor made the transitions necessary to rule Mexico and its regions until the 1850s.

The Constitution of 1812 and the Plan of Iguala reflected underlying forces that in the aftermath of war helped to mold a complex new civic and political culture. After years of centralism dictated by wartime conditions and militarization, the regions, towns, and district populations reached out to grasp a much larger share of power. While the army officers were deciding to support Iturbide, many towns held elections to form ayuntamientos constitucionales (constitutional town councils). They then refused to pay taxes or to heed any directives from the central government. Their representatives endlessly quoted articles of the Spanish constitution in support of their position that Mexico City, the provincial authorities, and any other level of government must find funds elsewhere. Hundreds of municipal governments disbanded local defense forces and abolished military support taxes that had funded and maintained the royalist militias. Many understood this as an issue of sovereignty, others simply reorganized communities to minimize the prestige and special fueros that militias enjoyed.

This varied considerably. The councils of small, mostly native communities such as Miacatlán complained that the abusive system of military taxation had been a terrible burden upon the common people. Men who lacked funds had been stripped naked by tax collectors, who sometimes seized their few “miserable rags” of clothing. Some who resisted suffered beatings and cruel tortures and later committed suicide. In the city of Puebla, a cabildo extraordinario (an extraordinary city council meeting) met to discuss reestablishing militias, but soon turned instead to condemning the central government in Mexico City that had sanctioned the free import of foreign manufactured goods at Veracruz—a policy that had damaged Puebla’s industry and eroded its tax base. In May 1821, the commander of the province, Brigadier Ciriaco de Llano, went to the municipal governments and regional hacendados seeking permission to recruit militia forces and levy taxes to combat Iturbide’s rebellion. Local authorities shielded themselves from having to comply by reciting clauses of the constitution. Llano was not the only one to find his constituents refractory. From the village of Santa Anna on the outskirts of Mexico City, Subdelegate Joseph María Torres complained that the townspeople in his jurisdiction believed that the constitution “is some printed patent that authorizes them to evade the recognition of any authority.” Torres lacked police officers or soldiers to maintain order. Especially on fiesta days, when drunken quarrels and fights broke out, the villages of his district became almost ungovernable. Churches stood nearly empty, schoolmasters suffered insults from Indian pupils who had lost respect for authority, and vendors sold pulque (maguey liquor) openly in the markets before mass on Sundays.

Once the Spanish constitution had decentralized political power even to indigenous towns, much of the elite believed that anarchy had taken its throne, and many of those who opposed decentralization would later reject the federalist Constitution of 1824 and support centralism and conservatism in the 1830s and 1840s. Within rural communities, villagers developed their own politics to resist large landowners, outside tenants, and servile supporters of the state administrators. With quite broad male suffrage through the 1820s and early 1830s, peasants not only managed to control many communities, but also could delay, ignore, or reinterpret laws passed by other levels of government. It was not surprising that frustrated elites in district towns, state capitals, and Mexico City would come to despise unbridled federalism and view centralism as essential for national progress.

Twilight of Viceroy Apodoca’s Colonial Army

The last days of New Spain saw the disintegration of the royalist army, with the flight of officers and troops to join Iturbide’s army and the total collapse of the royalist central regime. Viceroy Juan Ruiz de Apodaca suffered humiliation after humiliation as his forces deserted to join Iturbide and previously loyal officers reassessed their immediate futures. Earlier, the Viceroy had hardly been able to believe the news that Iturbide, his own hand-picked commander, had joined forces with the insurgent chief Vicente Guerrero at Tlacotepec near Iguala “in the motherland of rebellion” and that together, the two had robbed the Manila convoy for funds to finance their future operations. Apodaca described Iturbide as “a perfidious and ungrateful chief who has forgotten his duties and abused the extraordinary confidence that I placed in him.” Other European Spanish commanders, such as the military governor of Querétaro and the former intendant-governor of Oaxaca, also expressed horror at the news. Later they would forsake their own roots and careers to join Iturbide. Unlike many other senior army officers who had come to New Spain with the Spanish expeditionary regiments to crush insurgency, Iturbide was an hijo del país, a son of the country. Apodaca knew that Iturbide possessed a complete knowledge of the country—particularly his home territories of Michoacán and Guanajuato—and experience with military tactics and strategies that dated back to the beginning of the Hidalgo revolt. More than any other threat to date, Iturbide was un enemigo terrible (a fearful enemy) who, with the Plan of Iguala, had a popular program. Of even greater concern, Apodaca recognized that Iturbide possessed the raw energy and charisma of the caudillo—the capacity to seduce the gullible and flatter the interests and ambitions of many who desired the emancipation of these provinces.

He was a dangerous prototype for successive caudillos. As though the blow of Iturbide’s defection were not enough, a few days later Apodaca received word that Brigadier Pedro Celestino Negrete, one of the most highly respected royalist commanders in New Spain and second in command of Nueva Galicia, had joined Iturbide. Before long, Negrete grew rich selling exit passports to anxious peninsulares who wished to abandon the country.

The rest was a story of falling dominoes. Each dispatch brought word of new desertions by military, civil, and religious leaders. Before the end of March, troops of Valle de Santiago and Pénjamo under Colonel Anastasio Bustamante (later to serve as president of Mexico, 1830–32, 1837–39, and 1842) accepted the Plan of Iguala and occupied Guanajuato without firing a single shot. Lieutenant Colonel Luis Cortázar, the commander of the Salvatierra garrison, withdrew detachments from the towns of Apasco, Tenería, Amoles, and Sarabia, confiscated funds from local treasuries, and issued receipts that he signed as commander of the Second Section, Army of the South for Independence. With this force, Cortázar marched to join the new command headed by Bustamante. Only 257 troops showed up for duty of a garrison of 2,225 royalist soldiers and officers in New Galicia. The captain-general of New Galicia, Field Marshal José de la Cruz, angrily resisted the sweet blandishments of Iturbide and remained loyal to Spain, but he recognized that revolutionary and separatist thinking infected the city of Guadalajara.

The viceroy ordered the few remaining regular royalist army units to fall back upon the capital, where plotting and recriminations made reorganization impossible. In the abandoned garrisons, small detachments of local soldiers—many of whom were amnestied former insurgents—were quick to join Iturbide’s rebellion. An incident in the local garrison at Zacatecas showed the high potential for danger. Two soldiers, one European and the other Mexican, fought with bayonets and knives after they spotted a coin on the ground. Although military police arrested both men before they could do much more than inflict minor cuts, a patrol of the Mexican soldiers commanded by a very inebriated sublieutenant appeared at the scene. Employing the foulest of language imaginable, he told his men that they should not allow gachupines to get away with wounding one of their comrades. He encouraged his men to open fire, pointing out that if the Spanish were killed, he could become commander of Zacatecas. The shouting and commotion attracted a crowd, who began throwing stones at some men of the European soldier’s regiment who guarded a nearby fort. In response, they fixed bayonets and opened fire, driving the civilians and the provincial troops up the slopes of a nearby mountain. After much firing and many exchanges of volleys of stones, the Zacatecas commander managed to get the troops back to their respective barracks; he then reinforced patrols and doubled the guards at local jails. The incident, unimportant in itself, illustrated how a spark could blow up into a conflagration.

In Puebla, a large mob gathered when the local newspaper reported—wrongly—that an independent government had been proclaimed in Mexico City. The news provoked a spontaneous celebration in which townsfolk rang church bells and fired rockets. The governor and military commander, Brigadier Ciriaco de Llano, was under intense pressure to order his soldiers to fire salutes. Fearing violence, he authorized several celebratory cannonades and called out the town musicians for concerts. It took days for local officials to restore calm and explain that there had been no proclamation of independence.

The confusion at Puebla continued to boil. By the beginning of April, pro-Iturbide rebels occupied Atlixco, Izúcar de Matamoros, Tepeaca, Huamantla, and many nearby districts surrounding Puebla. Among them were Nicolás Bravo (later vice president of Mexico, 1825–1829), José Joaquín de Herrera (president of Mexico in 1844, 1845, and 1848–1851), and José Francisco Osorno (an old insurgent chief). Llano’s agents reported the devastating failures of royalist garrisons that had simply gone over to Iturbide’s force, the Army of the Three Guarantees. A Carmelite friar, sent as a spy, interviewed some peninsulares fleeing to Veracruz, who spoke in awe of the Army of the Three Guarantees and reported that the entire country had embraced Iturbide.

In late April, Lieutenant Colonel Antonio López de Santa Anna, formerly a scourge of rebel leaders in Veracruz province, joined Iturbide. The rapidly eroding royalist regime had few supporters left among the officers. Each night, thirty or forty cavalrymen and dragoons of the Puebla garrison armed themselves with the best weapons available, emptied their company treasuries, and rode out of the city to join the rebels. One group of officers stationed guards on rooftops and armed local residents to protect their escape from Puebla with sixty dragoons. Even more scandalous, a captain deserted with almost his entire regiment. In most cases, these men left their wives and dependents behind to serve as spies who informed the insurgents of every move made by the royalists. As Elizabeth Salas has argued, the soldadera has been a fixture in the Mexican army throughout its history, and essential as sentinels, cooks, companions, and venders. Nonetheless, by the time Brigadier Llano ordered a captain and another officer to sleep in the barracks to prevent further desertions, only the most useless soldiers remained. Viceroy Apodaca’s harsh orders that officers condemn deserters by summary trials and execute them by firing squads proved not only ineffective, but also ridiculous. Officers with whole garrisons, detachments, and companies simply changed sides.

In many towns, wealthy residents who had hoped to protect their assets during a smooth transition lost control to radical popular elements. One evening in Puebla, about two hundred men, women, and children assembled in front of the bishop’s palace shouting, “Long live religion, long live the bishop, and death to those who want to take him from us.” Fearing that their controversial bishop, Antonio Pérez Martínez, might have been arrested and deposed on orders of the viceroy because he had written in favor of the Spanish constitution and made positive remarks about the Iturbide uprising, the crowd yelled for him to appear on his balcony. Some people tried to break into his palace to conduct a search, while others beat upon the cathedral doors, intending to ring the bells and arouse the entire city. Brigadier Llano strengthened army patrols and alerted the artillery. While soldiers kept the populace out of the palace and cathedral, an angry crowd of more than four thousand people gathered in front of the bishop’s palace. There were scattered shouts of “Viva la independencia: Muere el gobierno y los gachupines” (Long live independence: death to the government and the Spaniards).

Llano tried to control the mob, and ecclesiastics and members of the city government attempted to explain that there was no order to arrest Bishop Pérez Martínez or anyone else, but to no avail. After demonstrating their feverish support for the bishop, large bands of men left the main demonstration for other points in the city. Some went to the barracks of the Urban Regiment of Commerce and tried to force their way into the barracks to distribute arms or to mobilize the troops. Unable to resist the pressure of so many people, the commander of the barracks agreed to dispatch twenty-five soldiers to the bishop’s palace. By 11:00 p.m. there was still no sign of the bishop, but a great crowd of men was now armed with shotguns, pistols, swords, machetes, and lances consisting of knives tied to long staves. Tension built until someone in the crowd fired a shot. Without apparent orders, soldiers stationed on the roof of the nearby jail opened fire. Two men fell mortally wounded, and eight suffered lesser wounds. Although the mob dispersed almost instantly, Llano commented that some troops of the Battalion of Commerce appeared to have joined the rioters rather than trying to restore order. At 11:15 p.m., Llano convoked the municipal council to consider steps to prevent further outbreaks of violence. Bishop Pérez Martínez emerged from a hiding place when he was certain that there was no viceregal order for his apprehension. By midnight, the city was calm, except for a few errant shots fired at the army barracks. Llano expressed confidence in his remaining men, who had generally acted with moderation and prudence, but he knew that the situation would have been much more serious if insurgent forces outside the city had intervened. He warned that Puebla had old traditions of popular ferment, as well as a significant number of people predisposed toward revolution.

Viceroy Apodaca dispatched a division of loyal troops to suppress insurgents around Puebla and reopen communications with Veracruz. Senior commanders—including Francisco Novella, who would soon overthrow Apodaca as Iturbide’s insurgents swept toward Mexico City—argued that it was foolish to concentrate artillery and munitions in Puebla, where the party of revolution was so strong. By mid-May, insurgent forces entirely cut Puebla off.

Irregular units, described by the royalists as bandits, occupied the roads and threatened the remaining royalist towns. The commander of the royalist expeditionary force died in combat when insurgents defeated his troops at Córdoba. At Puebla, Llano surrendered on July 28 after a short siege and an hour of resistance that claimed the lives of four soldiers. A relief force dispatched from Mexico City with orders to take any risks necessary to save Puebla bogged down in rainy weather at Texcoco and was recalled without achieving success.

To the west, during March and April, Colonel José Joaquín Márquez y Donallo led one last expedition in a futile attempt to overwhelm rebel forces on the road to Acapulco. He left Mexico City for Cuernavaca with six hundred troops, but many men deserted each day. Overexertion of the horses and lack of good feed left the road scattered with dead and dying cavalry animals. When Márquez went to the barracks at Cuernavaca to ask his men why they were deserting, they responded that many of them had not been paid for months. Some lacked even a single shirt. Many soldiers were weak from dysentery. Some officers appeared unable to mount their horses. Loyal Spanish officers and bureaucrats everywhere looked on dumbfounded at the similar erosion of their forces. At Guadalajara, Field Marshal José de la Cruz corresponded with Iturbide but refused to break his oath to defend the Spanish king and constitution. He informed Viceroy Apodaca that he could not compromise his reputation and honor, which he valued more than life itself.

When Guadalajara collapsed in May, Cruz fled on foot, making his way first to Zacatecas and then north into exile. Other loyal officers were not so fortunate. The commander of Guanajuato province, Colonel Antonio Linares, escaped to Celaya when his troops joined Bustamante and Cortázar and then tried to capture him. Linares started fortifying Celaya, but one night, young men of the city opened the gates and, with the compliance of the garrison officers and troops, assumed control. A small loyal force of twenty-three men and one officer from Querétaro refused to surrender the barracks, but Linares ordered them to lay down their arms; he did not want these valiant men slaughtered uselessly by the mob of insurgents. Remarkably, Linares was left alone in his house under loose observation, and he was able to continue sending dispatches from Celaya to the viceroy in Mexico City. He reported that the young officers were the most committed to Iturbide’s insurrection; he doubted that without the young officers’ enthusiasm, the common soldiers would have joined the uprising. On March 25, Linares reported the fall of Guanajuato without a single shot fired. San Miguel and other towns in the Bajío provinces changed sides simply because no one remained to defend the Spanish cause.

A Sea of Insurgency

The sudden collapse of the regime and its army severely damaged commerce, mining, and agricultural production. Subdelegates, town administrators, magistrates, militia commanders, tax collectors, and other officials—particularly those of Spanish origin—often found their lives endangered. In March, Manuel de la Hoz, subdelegate at Huichapan, learned of a conspiracy to declare independence that was to be launched on Sunday during mass, when the militiamen on duty would be at prayer without their weapons. The plan was to capture the militiamen, rob the customs house and other government offices that held tax funds, and loot the houses of Spaniards. Hoz was petrified by the threat. He remembered an incident in 1817 when rebels had not only captured him for a short time but also dragged him to the same gallows where he had displayed the severed heads of a powerful rebel clan. Gathering up government funds and his archive, Hoz fled to Jilotepec, closer to the capital.

On the roads, gangs of robbers and army deserters took advantage of the growing state of anarchy to attack merchant convoys and rob any traveler who appeared to have money. Other armed groups, even if more political in their goals, the government simply labeled as bandits. Town treasuries lost income, which compounded other financial difficulties. At Pachuca, silver mining came to a standstill. As the provinces went over to Iturbide, senior administrative officials, clergymen, loyal army officers, and even some troops saw the capital as the only possible safe destination.

As the royalist system collapsed, Apodaca drew increasingly sharp criticism from loyal senior army officers and officials, who also blamed the constitution and new freedoms for giving rise to Iturbide and regenerating revolution. Some arrogant peninsular Spaniards were certain that a few battalions of disciplined European troops and some exemplary punishments would be sufficient to restore peace. The pressures upon the capital increased with the failure to open communications with either coast or with the north and south and finally with the disastrous defeat of the expeditionary column at Córdoba.

The intendant of Valladolid, Manuel Merino, reported that he had always feared the prospect of rebel forces recruiting the small garrisons of royalist troops stationed in outpost towns and isolated detachments scattered throughout his province. Through April and May, troops and officers under Merino’s command abandoned their posts and joined the rebels until the garrison of Valladolid fell from thirty-five hundred to fewer than fifteen hundred men. Merino was anxious to send a cavalry force to Zamora and Jiquilpan to rescue government funds deposited in the district treasuries. He discovered to his horror that he could not trust any of his commanders or those of neighboring jurisdictions. When Merino ordered Colonel Miguel Barragán’s column of six hundred troops from Pátzcuaro to help defend the city of Valladolid, he received an outright refusal. Barragán (who would later serve as minister of war, 1833–1834, and president, 1835–1836) responded that Valladolid should take the oath for independence under the Plan of Iguala as he and the people of Pátzcuaro already had done. Merino’s other senior commander, Colonel Luis Quintanar, sent his son-in-law to convince Barragán to return to loyalty. This produced no result; in fact, Quintanar proclaimed for Iturbide, confirming Merino’s opinion that he was “a man of little talent, lacking energy, and without resolution.” Merino knew that there was a dangerous split within his declining garrison between the loyal and would-be rebels. He begged the viceroy to send a loyal force of eight hundred cavalry and five hundred infantry so that he could drive Barragán, Negrete, and Iturbide back to being mere vagabonds.

On April 25, Barragán and eight hundred or nine hundred troops appeared on a hill less than a league from Valladolid. Several officers went out to parley; as a result, the insurgent force moved off to join Iturbide. Inside the city, loyal officers and troops chafed at the inaction and demanded permission to go out and fight Barragán’s column. Merino, who also continued to negotiate with Negrete, stated that he simply could not understand why no loyal force could be sent to smash the rebels who toured the country with apparent impunity. What the intendant neglected to consider was the fact that officers and soldiers of both sides knew each other. As would become evident during the instability of the next decades, even with the emergence of caudillos, caciques, and factions, soldiers seldom wished to settle their differences in combat to the death. Together with young, better-educated civilian political leaders who reflected local and regional issues, army officers and soldiers played significant roles in the emergence of the new civic culture.

With the old edifice of New Spain collapsing around him, Apodaca had no idea what to do or whom to trust for sage advice. By the end of May, Mexico City was a defended island of Spanish rule surrounded by a sea of insurgency. Many provinces had declared for Iturbide, and the desertion of troops and civilian administrators left even defended places ripe for capitulation with the slightest push. Apodaca recognized that the insurgents had achieved such strength that it was only a matter of time before they succeeded in isolating and besieging Mexico City. By June, his remaining army numbered only about six thousand troops—mostly Spanish expeditionary soldiers. In addition, there was a heterogeneous force of Mexican regular and provincial militia troops—infantry, dragoons, and cavalry from all units. Some stayed loyal to Spain and others remained caught in the capital, biding their time until they could defect to the insurgents. Apodaca also enlisted urban militia companies and volunteer groups and mobilized the old merchant Urban Regiment of Commerce.

Until the very end, Apodaca maintained a brave countenance and claimed optimism that the insurgency could be crushed. He took steps to make certain that the troops actually received their normal wages, field rations, and wartime bonuses, unlike many governments afterward. During June, garrisons at Chapultepec and Guadalupe protected access to the city, and civilian laborers constructed a new system of trenches, parapets, and barricades. A mobile division of more than one thousand troops observed enemy movements. Dragoon forces protected outlying posts at Chalco and Texcoco, San Agustín de las Cuevas to Huichilango, and Cuernavaca. When the subinspector-general of the army and military governor of Mexico resigned his post, Apodaca appointed the subinspector-general of artillery, Field Marshal Francisco Novella, to replace him. The viceroy worked day and night with a junta of his senior officers to work out strategies.

Apodaca was hopelessly trapped between hard-line European Spanish officers who demanded the restoration of the absolutist regime and others, including Mexicans, who wanted more moderate solutions. His position soon became untenable. By the end of June, Iturbide’s forces had so successfully blocked communications that Apodaca had to write dispatches destined for Spain on tiny pieces of paper that could be smuggled out of the country by couriers. In one, he begged the Spanish government to send eight thousand to ten thousand troops, concluding that the situation was extremely critical and the Spanish cause was “within an inch of total loss.” In near desperation, on June 28, Apodaca informed the imperial government that he was sending his own personal agent, Colonel José Joaquín Márquez y Donallo, commander of the Infantry Regiment of El Infante Don Carlos and the most senior leader of the Spanish expeditionary forces, to present a full situation report and to strengthen his requests for fresh European reinforcements. Ironically, this letter did not arrive in Spain until March 28, 1822—well after Mexican independence. Neither did Márquez y Donallo appear to make the final appeal for assistance. Only a week after Apodaca wrote the letter, officers and troops of the Regiments of El Infante Don Carlos, Castilla, and Ordenes Militares surrounded the viceregal palace, blocked nearby streets, and threatened to open fire on Apodaca’s loyal guards. The viceroy, who was in a meeting with his senior commanders, met with rebel officers, who demanded that he resign in favor of Novella. Apodaca conversed with the troops and begged them to desist from a plan that would undermine public order, but they responded with “a profound silence.” Without any alternative, the viceroy signed a letter handing over military and political command of New Spain to Novella. He stated that he had done so voluntarily after what was termed a respectful petition made by the Spanish expeditionary officers and troops. Apodaca requested that the security of his family members be guaranteed and that he be escorted to Veracruz for the voyage back to Spain.

Questions for a New Nation

Apodaca arrived in Havana on November 11, 1821, suffering from illness and exhaustion. Later he admitted that he had seen trouble coming after the proclamation of the constitution in 1820. Squeezed between the politics of the Mexican people demanding autonomy or independence and much more regional and local authority on one side and the intransigence of European Spanish army officers backed by supporters of the old regime on the other, he lacked room for negotiated settlements or half measures. As the new Mexican nation would illustrate time and again, polarization between mutually hostile factions over intractable issues produced golpes de estado (coups d’état) and pronunciamientos (barracks-based political uprisings), with officers and soldiers playing major roles in support of civilian leaders. As recent scholarship has shown, the pronunciamientos represented an extraconstitutional political practice of negotiations from peripheral regions. Through actas de adhesión they also brought the local military into allegiance with civilian participants, and opened the possibility for political changes with threats rather than open bloodshed. With more than twenty of these uprisings during the period, they offer an important facet of military–civilian political cultures. Yet in the meantime, traditional leadership continued in its dominance from the capital city.

The imperial government appointed General Juan O’Donojú captain-general of New Spain. His arrival in Veracruz from Spain provided the framework for the definitive surrender of the remaining Spanish forces. The Treaty of Córdoba that O’Donojú and Iturbide signed recognized the independence of what had been the Viceroyalty of New Spain as a new entity called the Mexican Empire. O’Donojú accepted the mission of withdrawing the Mexico City garrison. Although Novella and his hard-line supporters in the capital had played no part in the negotiations, the settlement was inevitable. The fall of Puebla, Veracruz, and other strategic points, along with the tightening siege of the capital, had created a near frenzy amongst both those who wished to join Iturbide and those who wanted to flee the country. Novella said later that he knew that the end was in sight when O’Donojú arrived without a Spanish army. He also noted that judges of the Audiencia, senior tax administrators, public officials, and much of wider society had joined what he described as the general “treachery.” Those who were Mexican-born wanted to blur their Spanish connections and establish new credentials. Among them were army officers and soldiers, government bureaucrats, wealthy priests and friars, and women of all classes.

O’Donojú met with Novella at Guadalupe, outside Mexico City, and told him that New Spain had fallen and that Spain would not raise a finger to assist any remaining loyalists. He went on to point out that any further resistance or clash of arms would serve only to make life impossible in the future for the European Spanish in Mexico. Novella agreed to surrender only when O’Donojú threatened either to return to Spain or to ask Iturbide to use force against the capital. Novella then gave interim command to another officer and went to Veracruz, where he discovered that the remnant of Spanish forces had retired to the offshore fortress of San Juan de Ulúa, swearing to continue the struggle. Proceeding to Havana, Novella met with the captain-general of Cuba, who had no forces available to support the vestiges of the Spanish cause in Mexico. O’Donojú fell ill and died—which saved him from facing Spain’s renunciation of the Treaty of Córdoba. Novella’s interim commander oversaw the withdrawal of the 492 expeditionary officers and the 3,699 noncommissioned officers and soldiers who had petitioned to return to Spain.

Iturbide’s successful campaign of six or seven months had been remarkable for its political simplicity and for its capacity to enlist support from the military and all other sectors. War weariness, new optimism about a better future, and the message of the Plan of Iguala had made Iturbide the right man in the right place at the right time. Victory was thrilling. Nevertheless, Mexico’s new rulers—a provisional governing junta and five-man regency—soon confronted the staggering problems of governing the new nation.

A congress convoked from the intendancies, provinces, and certain professions dominated by conservative urban leaders grappled with a host of questions: What sort of nation should Mexico be, monarchy or republic? What sort of government should it have, centralized or decentralized? What to do with the bloated but victorious army led mostly by unreconstructed royalists and many peninsulares? How to rebuild an economy and society fragmented by eleven years of war? Where to find a balance in the developing struggle between executive power and legislative supremacy? How to respond to the different expectations of people from all classes who united temporarily against Spain under the Three Guarantees?

Even the borders of the country were fluid. When Iturbide sent an army to Guatemala in December 1821, a Central American congress that had been meeting to discuss the future agreed to join with Mexico. Until Central America declared its independence in July of 1823, the fragile empire of Mexico extended from California, Colorado, and Texas in the north to Costa Rica in the south. For a time, ambitious Mexican leaders even contemplated a plan to reclaim the North American Pacific Ocean littoral as far north as Russian Alaska. Nonetheless, of twenty-eight provinces, ten would either leave or attempt to secede from Mexico in the few decades to come. For those that remained, a leader needed to seize the reins.

Although the Treaty of Córdoba provided for a European monarch to rule Mexico, it left open the possibility that the Mexican congress might choose an American-born candidate. Taking full advantage of his popularity, Iturbide surrendered to his ambitions and accepted the crown. His ten-month reign—from May 1822 until his abdication in March 1823—compounded the divisions within Mexico and underscored the fact that fragmentation would make nation-building almost impossible. Equally ambitious army officers supported by civilian leaders—many of them former royalists like Iturbide himself—repeated the process Iturbide had begun, issuing their own plans and rebelling against the government. Those who had received pardons from government sought to improve their positions. Brigadier Santa Anna at Veracruz, supported by former insurgents Vicente Guerrero and Nicolás Bravo, issued the divisive Plan of Veracruz to oppose Iturbide and to reiterate the guarantees enshrined in the Plan of Iguala. Besieged at Veracruz and accused of conspiring with the Spanish, who controlled the fortress of San Juan de Ulúa there, Santa Anna faced a bleak future. But the imperial officers sent to destroy him joined him in proclaiming the Plan of Casa Mata, which reiterated the view that arbitrary centralism enforced by a Mexico City regime was unacceptable to people of the regions. In the provinces, local authorities abolished central government taxes, rejected paper money, and refused where possible to contribute to forced loans. Clearly, some form of decentralized government or federalism was essential to satisfy the needs of the Mexican provinces.

Throughout 1823, the provinces of Oaxaca, Yucatán, Jalisco, and Zacatecas declared themselves sovereign states and raised militia forces for defense, if necessary, against the regular army. A constituent congress convened to draft a new national constitution had to recognize that most provinces now described themselves as states. A small minority, including Carlos María de Bustamante, opposed federalism. Yet those who believed that Mexico required a strong centralized government—including many church leaders, wealthy merchants, and senior army officers—could not stand in the way of a charter that would grant considerable sovereignty to the states. Others advocated moderation, pointing out that Mexico was still technically at war with Spain and that the national government needed to be strong enough to deal with internal social and economic dislocations. In the end, the moderate delegates’ concept of shared sovereignty won approval.

The Constitution of 1824 incorporated many principles of the Spanish Constitution of 1812, with modifications to reflect federalism and republicanism. Despite strong reservations about dangers inherent in establishing a powerful executive, for the sake of efficiency the convention dropped the idea of a controllable executive committee in favor of a single president of the nation. In many respects, the constitution dealt with realistic demands and the unique circumstances of molding a Mexican nation. Unfortunately, internal chaos, violence, and external forces would erode the effectiveness of the First Federal Republic.

Unfortunately for the infant Mexican nation, the Spanish imperial government angrily rejected O’Donojú’s Treaty of Córdoba and refused to recognize Mexican independence. Adopting an intransigent position, Spain set a disastrous course that made life hell for many peninsular Spaniards who remained in Mexico; at least part of the powerful thrust to expel the Spanish during the 1820s and 1830s might have been avoided had Spain recognized the new nation. And because Spain posed a clear danger to Mexican independence, the army and defense remained major priorities despite their high cost. Indeed, an abortive attack on Tampico in 1829 by an expeditionary force from Cuba proved to Mexicans that military preparedness was essential. This need accentuated the importance of martial institutions and individual army commanders such as Antonio López de Santa Anna, who, as the hero of Tampico, strengthened his already powerful support in the province of Veracruz. That his success stemmed largely from favorable weather and rampant yellow fever mattered little. His ability to capture political power as the foremost national caudillo of the coming period would owe much to his reputation for having defeated the Spanish.

Spain’s Corrosive Role

The taint of Spanish interference deeply influenced the making of the nation. Many peninsular officers abandoned their Spanish army careers to embrace the Plan of Iguala and remain in Mexico with high military and civil posts—a fact that made many Mexican-born officers jealous. With Spain continuing to threaten Mexican independence, ambitious Mexicans did not have far to look when they wished to attack the Spanish as disloyal, dangerous, and evil. After eleven years of war, the militarization of society, and the fostering of deeply entrenched guerrilla and bandit traditions, Mexico needed a long stretch of peace in which to settle divisions, establish institutions, and make fundamental assessments directed toward the formulation of the nation. Finances also lay in ruins. Sadly, Mexico did not get peace. But if the fashioning of democratic institutions was a messy, complex, time-consuming process, there were those who believed that they could short-circuit gradual evolutionary processes and impose more immediate arbitrary solutions.

The presence of external enemies such as Spain (and later, France, Britain, and the United States) created an ideal atmosphere for the rise of individual caudillos and caciques. Critics then and today of military men and martial institutions have failed to recognize that army commanders often believed sincerely that they alone could end disorder and anarchy. The regular army and provincial civic militias became the tools of ambitious politician-commanders who took on dual roles, defending both the new nation and their individual regional fiefdoms. Politics and attitudes would be hardened by unwavering principles, narrow philosophies, stubborn regional interests, and a palpable unwillingness by Mexicans of different views to make the concessions necessary for national consensus.

Spain’s corrosive role in all of this commenced with Iturbide’s victory and rested upon the mistaken belief that a powerful expeditionary force could restore Spanish rule and that the insurgents had failed to deliver on their promises to produce a better nation. In this vein, a Veracruz resident named Aryoso Garrido reported at length in December 1821 that Mexican towns suffered heavy unpopular taxation, that former soldiers of European birth labored at trivial tasks for pay below subsistence levels, and that there was an air of general insubordination in the country. In Madrid, Ministry of War officials developed plans to retake the Americas, with Mexico as their principal target. Although the Spanish liberal regime decided that it could not order army units to Cuba as a staging area for an invasion at Veracruz, in September 1821, the Ministry War authorized the creation of a volunteer force that would enroll soldiers from existing regiments. By December, despite an effort to advertise for volunteers, only four lieutenants and 837 noncommissioned officers and soldiers had come forward from the Spanish army.

In the meantime, exiled Spanish officers such as Apodaca, Novella, and many others, with their families, arrived at the port of La Coruña in Spain. Brigadier Ciriaco de Llano, former governor and commander of Puebla, wrote from Havana in January 1822, offering his services for the re-conquest of New Spain. He had arrived in Cuba with 126 soldiers and some officers of his old unit. The officer who had remained behind in Mexico City to assist the transport of departing royalist soldiers arrived at La Coruña on June 1, having been expelled from Jalapa with only twenty-four hours’ notice to assemble the ragtag band of Spanish expeditionaries.

The Spanish fifth column in Mexico centered upon the fortress of San Juan de Ulúa in Veracruz until 1825; later, a succession of agents would travel in Mexico covertly to observe the political situation, to meet disaffected supporters, and to collect a broad range of published data. As might be expected, relations between Mexican authorities in the port of Veracruz and Spanish defenders of the offshore fortress often flared into conflict. Episodes of random shelling back and forth, or mere threats of destruction, interrupted the normal commerce through Veracruz, which continued to be Mexico’s main port of import and export. In 1822, Brigadier Domingo Luaces, who had surrendered Querétaro to join Iturbide, took charge of negotiations at Veracruz. His intention was to get the old and highly eccentric Field Marshal José Dávila at San Juan de Ulúa to give up the spoiler’s role in a lost cause. As might be expected, Dávila would have nothing to do with Luaces’s request; he refused even to consider a withdrawal of Spanish forces from San Juan de Ulúa. Responding to critical remarks by Luaces, Dávila answered in a similar vein and rubbed in the element of treason to belittle his adversary. He informed Luaces: “I am neither stubborn nor insubordinate. I am a Spaniard, a soldier, and believer in my views. Do not think that you could make me a criminal against my government and my nation.” Members of Veracruz’s merchant guild complained bitterly that Dávila had locked himself up in San Juan de Ulúa, from whence he interfered with the flow of commerce. The merchants appealed directly to the minister of overseas affairs in Madrid, arguing that they wanted open trade with Spain and the removal of Dávila to prevent rivalries and “a horrible effusion of blood.”

Although such a peaceful solution would have been wise, the Spanish government vacillated between planning military reconquest and seeking other means to achieve a negotiated return of Mexican dependency. Dávila’s successor at San Juan de Ulúa, interim captain general of New Spain Francisco Limaur, would observe the uprising of Santa Anna against Iturbide and, later, the overthrow of the Mexican Empire. Although the fortress capitulated in 1825, Spanish archives for the 1820s contain many reports by spies and plans to retake Mexico. For many Spaniards, the loss of Mexico seemed a mortal blow that simply could not be accepted. Spanish observers misunderstood Mexican internal instability and believed erroneously that Spain alone could restore Mexican peace and good government, although such a conclusion required the Spanish to forget eleven years of bloody conflict and all the reports by knowledgeable observers that the vast majority of Mexicans wanted to control their own affairs. Spanish observers were gleeful at the 1822 uprising of Santa Anna and the 1823 overthrow of Iturbide, who abdicated after military revolts by Santa Anna, Guadalupe Victoria, Vicente Guerrero, Nicolás Bravo, and other officers.

The animosity was not all on one side. In Mexico, hostility towards European Spaniards—especially those who had served in the royalist army—led to restrictive decrees that foreshadowed the 1827 laws expelling the gachupines. Whereas the disaster of Colonel Barradas’s 1829 expedition from Cuba to Tampico ended all belief in widespread residual support for Spanish rule in Mexico, the ongoing threat ruined the lives of many Spaniards still in residence. It also made those who governed the new nation maintain a wartime military footing in anticipation of further expeditions from Cuba.

The independence war left the new nation prostrate and, for a time, almost unable to restore basic communications and commerce. Foreign travelers described the perils, miseries, and deprivations encountered as they attempted to move about the country. Customs officials fell upon them and caused excessive delays during surprise inspections and at the numerous internal customs posts situated at the entrances to cities. These officers examined passports, searched baggage carefully, and collected inflated taxes on commercial goods—although the payment of bribes sped the process. Inns were dirty, and food and drink (including dried beef and pulque) made many foreign travelers suffer diarrhea, dysentery, and stomach cramps.

Ubiquitous bandits, robbers, and pickpockets waited to remove possessions and threaten lives. Even in Mexico City, the American minister Joel Poinsett and other visitors noted that despite good lighting and patrols, robberies, murders, and assassinations were so frequent that everyone of substance went about heavily armed. Lieutenant Robert Hardy reported violent crimes in districts of the capital involving léperos (vagabonds and homeless paupers) who engaged in gang attacks, assaults, and stabbings. When one visitor reported to a magistrate that he had run through an attacker with his sword and wounded others, he was told that the best advice was to keep quiet about the incident. In the countryside, muleteers hired guards and armed themselves and their employees with machetes and firearms to protect their caravans against bandit attacks. As late as the early 1840s, Frances Calderón de la Barca described a “pestilence of robbers” throughout the country. Cloaking themselves as insurgents, these robbers were able to remain active because of civil conflicts and political instability. She noted, as did other travelers, that murderous bandit gangs infested the road between the capital and Veracruz—ruining commerce and paying no attention to political opinions. Nevertheless, banditry and the social, legal, and literary discourses surrounding it represented their own form of politics that would continue developing throughout the century.

Wartime damage to towns, burned-down villages, destroyed haciendas, ruined bridges, and impassable roads made travel in many parts of Mexico both difficult and dangerous. In 1832, British traveler H. G. Ward reported that Veracruz presented a “mournful sight” with houses riddled by shot, ruined churches, and rotting carcasses of animals lying in the streets. The small towns just inland from the coast were ruined, and even Mexico City showed the ravages of the long war. Dark streets, broken pavement, abandoned houses, and obvious poverty were signs of a country that required peace to restore the economy and society. It is often said that half a million people were killed during the independence war; that figure seems inflated, but epidemics, population dislocations, and disruptions of agriculture took a heavy toll in human lives. In mining districts, the abandonment of drainage systems and public works and the dispersal of skilled workers slowed economic recovery.

Caudillos, Mobs, and Rising Factionalism

From independence to the mid-1850s, military leaders who had developed their careers on both sides during the war, and who were now backed by powerful civilian politicians, governed Mexico and its states. The executive office alone changed hands some fifty times in only a few decades. Former insurgents Guadalupe Victoria (1824–1829), Vicente Guerrero (1829), Nicolás Bravo (on various occasions, 1839–46), and Juan Álvarez (1855) became president. Famous former royalists who served as chief executive included Anastasio Bustamante (1830–32, 1837–39, and 1842), Manuel Gómez Pedraza (1832), Antonio López de Santa Anna (who became president eleven times), Miguel Barragán (1835–36) José Joaquín de Herrera (1844, 1845, and 1848–51), and Mariano Arista (1851–53). Many others served as cabinet ministers, governors, military region commandants, generals, and diplomats. Former soldiers such as Santa Anna and Álvarez not only attained national prominence but also dominated their regional strongholds. Santa Anna operated from his estates between Jalapa and Veracruz, whereas former insurgent commander Álvarez made the enormous territory that became the state of Guerrero in 1849 almost his personal fiefdom.

Given the level of political, regional, and local instability in postindependence Mexico, the emergence of ambitious caudillos (political leaders backed by military force) should not come as a great surprise. From the interior to the borderlands and within each sector of the population, the independence wars had left the new nation driven by violence, political clashes between those who supported centralized or decentralized forms of government, and incessant controversies over the power to hold the land, tax the people, and wield district or regional command. In the absence of any other arbiter, those who possessed armed power intervened at every level to force solutions favorable to their views. Army officers backed by civilian factions launched pronunciamientos in which they attempted to apply their own favored solutions and to expel or intimidate opponents. This they often did in coordination with their community as local politics and popular classes made their demands known. Some military commanders who became regional caudillos benefited from the disorder, acquiring significant fortunes and vast landed estates. Nevertheless, despite the proliferation of these leaders, no one possessed sufficient power to unravel the national political conundrum, to solve social and economic crises, or to craft solutions acceptable to the central and peripheral regions of the new nation. The loss of the frontier province of Texas and the persistence of chronic separatist movements in the Yucatán were symptomatic of the deep fissures that divided Mexicans. In later life, when he came to write his autobiography, Santa Anna described his own desire to achieve success for his “magnificent country” and his frustration at the “constant upheavals and surges of revolution that opposed me.” Although he was most certainly self-serving in his analysis, Santa Anna, like other Mexican leaders, failed to discover the key to stability.

Many of the military caudillos of the postindependence epoch found it most difficult to make the transition from powerful regional army commander to political leader constrained by laws and constitutions. These men were accustomed to employing force and often to winning significant rewards through confiscations, control of commerce, and quite arbitrary use of martial law. European Spanish officers who supported Mexican independence often possessed unsavory records that made them the special targets of the state and federal anti-Spanish expulsion laws of the 1820s and 1830s. Even criollo officers such as Agustín de Iturbide faced criticism for his wartime record and his continuing tendency to use force when other means of persuasion failed. Iturbide was well known for his abuses as commander at Guanajuato during the war years; there were so many complaints that in 1816 he was ordered to Mexico City for investigation. For four years, Iturbide complained that he suffered “the degrading metamorphosis from warrior to litigant.” He knew very well that his career as a Spanish officer had been damaged beyond repair, and when the opportunity arose, he joined the side of independence. Many of the ideas attributed to Iturbide came from his contacts in Mexico City and elsewhere who were more sophisticated in their thinking. In assessing Iturbide, Joel Poinsett concluded: “I do not think him a man of talents. He is prompt, bold, and decisive, and not scrupulous about the means he employs to obtain his ends.” Although some historians have attempted to rehabilitate Iturbide, his support for monarchy and centralism and his inability to tolerate opposition during his brief period as emperor led inevitably to his exile and execution when, in 1824, he foolishly returned to Mexico from Europe.

Much more important than Iturbide, Antonio López de Santa Anna, a product of the independence wars, is perhaps the principal inhabitant even today of Mexico’s black pantheon of those who failed the nation. Lucas Alamán, historian, senior bureaucrat, and leading conservative thinker, characterized the postindependence period as the history of Santa Anna’s revolutions. Many textbook writers agreed and called the period before the Revolution of Ayutla in the early 1850s “the Age of Santa Anna.” Santa Anna aroused strong emotions. His supporters glorified him as “Defender of the Homeland,” “Illustrious Hero of Tampico against the Spaniards,” and “Intrepid Son of Mars,” whereas his detractors called him “Traitor to the Homeland,” “devious,” “overambitious,” “vulgar,” and “corrupt.” Like Iturbide and many other post-independence leaders, Santa Anna commenced his career as an ardent royalist army officer. So anxious was he to stamp out insurgency that he sometimes exceeded his orders to produce an enemy body count. As a young acting captain, Santa Anna soon won the attention of senior officers, who described him as “active, gallant, zealous, indefatigable in the royal service, and of a fairly good level of education.” Disgusted by the lack of initiative on the part of timid royalist commanders in Veracruz province, Santa Anna chased rebel bands, hounded Guadalupe Victoria, and executed rebel gang leaders in direct contravention of orders. Commanded to resettle tropical lowland towns and villages such as Medellín, Xamapa, and Santa María, Santa Anna used his knowledge of the region to redistribute land to former rebels, gain the confidence of the populace, and establish the foundation of a permanent regional base. Upon independence, Santa Anna first supported Iturbide. Then, like many other army commanders, he wavered back and forth in the turbulence of the 1820s, courted by civilian politicians of different factions and driven by his own ambitions. Although he succeeded in achieving high military command in Veracruz, had he not defeated the Spanish at Tampico in 1829, Santa Anna might not have emerged as an enduring figure on the national scene.

The politics of the 1820s and 1830s reflected the division of views and the personalities that emerged from the independence period. In the 1820s, previously clandestine groups in Mexico City and other urban centers formed factions centered about Masonic lodges. They supported leaders such as Santa Anna, Vicente Guerrero, Manuel Gómez Pedraza, and other regional caudillos and army chiefs who made good figureheads because of their powerful regional bases, recognition, and capacity to raise armed forces. The secret conspiracies and earlier political groups coalesced into two major Masonic lodges, first the escoceses (the Scottish rite) and a little later the yorkinos (the York rite). The escoceses attracted conservatives and moderates, including many former aristocratic royalist leaders who advanced the view that Mexico should adopt a centralized system that would recreate some elements of the old viceroyalty. The yorkinos included liberals and radicals who advocated federalism and nationalism and who resented the European Spaniards who had remained in Mexico and were fearful of Spain’s projects to regain control of the country. They also counted considerable support from urban masses. Radicals who supported the decentralization of power to the regions or states especially resented former royalists who had enjoyed relatively smooth transitions to high positions in the army, church, and civil bureaucracy as well as in mining, manufacturing, and commerce. In some respects, the winners of the war of independence felt themselves losers of the peace.

Even within the church, independence brought deep divisions that were difficult to heal. The Mexican clergy reflected broader society. Many rural village priests and friars supported indigenous peoples and regional issues, whereas others held more centralist, urban, criollo views. Some clergy believed that by supporting independence, they opposed earlier Spanish Bourbon efforts to reduce clerical privileges and to seize church assets to redeem war debts. Traditionally, the church had played an enormous role in the daily life of Mexico. It kept registries of births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths and dominated education, hospitals, orphanages, pension funds, and other charitable institutions. Mexicans of liberal views, however, criticized ecclesiastical privileges and immunities, attacked the church’s role in education, and demanded the secularization of schools, up to and including the University of Mexico. Liberals argued that with independence, the old power to appoint officials (patronato real) that had permitted the Spanish state to control church appointments had transferred to the new Mexican national government. Peninsular Spanish priests and friars left the country after independence; the archbishop of Mexico was gone by 1827, leaving only three bishops in the country. They could look for little help from Pope Leo XII, who opposed the rebellion and supported a return of Spanish colonial rule. The Mexican clergy had good reason to fear that the impecunious new government would pursue church wealth and property. Although the Mexican government negotiated an agreement with Rome in 1832 to replace clerical appointments, church leaders felt threatened by increased criticism and projects designed to transfer wealth into the civil sector. A national law in 1833 that abolished legal enforcement of tithing interfered with efforts to rebuild the church’s economic position. Presidential and Masonic partisans set their own terms with the conservative church.

The first true election set these varied factions into partisan frames. In the presidential elections of 1824, former insurgent General Nicolás Bravo, grand master of the escoceses, competed with General Guadalupe Victoria. Bravo, who had accepted amnesty from the royalist regime during the war, was considered the more sympathetic to conservative centralists and to European Spaniards. When Victoria won the presidency, the constitution made Bravo, who came second, his vice president. Victoria’s administration stood out for decades, if only because the first republican executive managed to complete his term in office. His successors, who held the presidency from the 1820s to the 1840s, exercised insufficient power to overcome opposition forces arrayed against them, partly because the Constitution of 1824 had been designed to restrict the powers of the executive branch.

To confuse matters further, regional yorkino factions based in the states emerged to defend radical federalism and regional autonomy. Whereas the escoceses attracted men of position and authority, the yorkinos drew upon the large numbers of aggressive and ambitious individuals from less affluent segments of the population, such as government civil servants and clerks, artisans, and noncommissioned officers, many of whom organized lodges. By the late 1820s, populist yorkino lodges could be found in many cities and towns, from California and Texas in the north to Chiapas and Yucatán in the south. Their campaigns and virulent attacks, conducted in the press and through pamphlets, broadsheets, and slogans, disseminated their political views. Some yorkinos supported radical state legislatures that passed laws to enlist state civic militias for self-defense and to enshrine regional power against the centralism of Mexico City. For example, in Zacatecas Governor Francisco García raised a militia force that totaled almost seventeen thousand men. Often, state and local militias represented opposition to the federal army and to the fuero militar, which gave the military special legal exemptions and privileges—such as soldiers’ rights to have their legal cases tried by court martial rather than by the ordinary criminal and civil courts of the nation.

In states such as Michoacán, Oaxaca, and Mexico, legislatures anxious to defend regional interests ensured that recruits for the regular national army came from jails and included those men considered useless to society—unemployed drunks, gamblers, beggars, petty criminals, chronic social misfits, and other unproductive delinquents. In general, Mexicans had a tradition of disliking military service beyond the defense of their home provinces and communities, and that feeling remained strong after independence. In the years to come, this reluctance heightened as the army locked soldiers in barracks and generally treated recruits as prisoners. With the deepening financial crises of the republican regimes, unpaid soldiers often deserted, sold their uniforms, and carried off any military equipment they could steal. These patterns continued into the early 20th century.

Political and economic tensions were inevitable as Mexicans debated how to arrange new institutions of governance and reorder civil society. Foreign loans negotiated with British banks by the minister of the interior and foreign affairs, Lucas Alamán, helped restore part of the mining industry and kept the administrative bureaucracy afloat, but left Mexico with a growing burden of unemployment and debt. And other stresses were tearing at post-independence society. The gachupines became the focus of resentment that gave rise to riots, demands for their removal from public office, and calls for their expulsion. With Spain at war with Mexico and hispanophobia still strong, anti-gachupín campaigns were to be expected. In 1827, concerns about conspiracies involving European Spaniards, invasion scares, and the machinations of some former royalist soldiers led to the arrests of prominent gachupín leaders, including Generals Negrete and José Antonio Echávarri. After a year’s imprisonment, courts exonerated the two generals from treason charges and abruptly expelled them from the country. In some states, general expulsion laws directed against the Spanish produced violence and divided families. Mexican women married to former Spanish soldiers often could not obtain permission for themselves and their children to leave Mexico with their husbands.

Many of the anti-Spanish political initiatives of these years originated as state movements, particularly in Zacatecas, Jalisco, Oaxaca, Mexico, and Yucatán. By the end of 1827, pressure upon the central government compelled the national Congress to pass an expulsion law directed against surrendered Spanish soldiers and members of the regular clergy. There were special exemptions for the aged, the disabled, and those who had demonstrated their loyalty in the service of Mexico, and many state governors used these loopholes to protect at least part of their resident Spanish minority. Nevertheless, the expulsion laws significantly reduced the Spanish population and removed many productive people. The torrent of emotional, nationalistic, anti-Spanish rhetoric and the expulsion laws underscored invasion fears, concerns about economic failures, and ongoing disputes between centralists and federalists.

Reactions to the Much-Feared Masses

The complex events surrounding the presidential election of 1828 set the scene for the economic crises and political chaos of the 1830s. With the escoceses discredited, the victorious yorkinos now split into moderate and more radical factions. The moderates nominated the minister of war, General Manuel Gómez Pedraza, whereas the more radical elements, led by Lorenzo de Zavala and other leaders, supported former insurgent chief and popular hero General Vicente Guerrero. Gómez Pedraza, with moderate and conservative support, won more states than Guerrero did, whereupon Santa Anna declared himself in revolt. While he occupied the fortress of Perote inland from Jalapa, Zavala organized an uprising called the Acordada Revolt in Mexico City. Incapable of exerting leadership at the end of his mandate, President Victoria failed to suppress violent outbreaks that included skirmishes between soldiers of the different parties and desultory artillery bombardments across sections of the city between the national palace and the Ciudadela arsenal. When Guerrero joined the revolt, Gómez Pedraza gave up and fled into exile. As a direct result of these events, a mob of more than five thousand people pillaged shops in the market located in the Zócalo, the central square of the city.

Also known as the Parían riots, this disturbance represented a change in how political culture included the lower classes. That the mob had brought in soldiers from local garrisons made their threat to leaders even more clear. In the confused aftermath, the city council did not admit to the extent of the uprisings nor credit this event as political. Yet the rioters had particularly targeted Spanish-owned businesses, and one notable foreign bakery, the importance of which would emerge in outrageous French demands for reparations a decade later. The violence spurred political shifts. The chaos hardened conservative anxieties about the political impact of the urban popular masses, and heightened the elite’s repressed terror of dangers seen previously at the Alhóndiga of Guanajuato, or even, in Haitian Revolutions. For the liberals, the lower classes seemed both perilous and an opportunity to attain a broad mandate. This rising proved more important than mere looting and noise.

The emerging government set the stage for conflict. In January 1829, Congress accepted the victory of violence over constitutionalism, annulling the election of Gómez Pedraza, and recognizing the Vicente Guerrero as president with General Anastasio Bustamante, who had come third in the election, as vice president. The new president, with Afro-Mexican and indigenous parentage, faced immediate opposition from within his own government. Whereas Guerrero represented federalist and populist views, Bustamante emerged as the leader of the conservatives and centralists. Confronted by government bankruptcy, continued uprisings, disorders resulting from new expulsion laws, and the long-anticipated Spanish invasion of re-conquest in July 1829, Guerrero not surprisingly failed to restore stability. Desperate to raise funds, the president introduced unpopular new taxes and attempted to nationalize church properties—initiatives that made him extremely unpopular with many moderates and the conservative propertied classes. He also abolished slavery, an act provoking revolution in Coahuila-Tejas where U.S. immigrants had imported many slaves. When a revolt broke out against Guerrero, the vice president, along with Nicolás Bravo (recently returned from exile) and many others, joined it, although Santa Anna remained loyal to the president. Guerrero retired to his home base in the south. In 1830, with his comrade from the independence war, Juan Álvarez, Guerrero organized guerrilla fighters against Bustamante. In January 1831, the central government captured Guerrero at Acapulco through treachery and executed him.

Bustamante assumed the presidency at the end of 1829 and immediately appointed the conservative politician Lucas Alamán to the most powerful post in his cabinet. Like previous and future military presidents, Bustamante depended upon a group of civilian leaders to develop policy, to grapple with the shortage of funds needed to operate the central government, and to search for means to repay Mexico’s foreign debt. Alamán had no faith whatsoever in the anarchic and effervescent political scene that emerged with the yorkino factions. He opposed the proliferation of bellicose bombast in newspapers and pamphlets, and he disapproved of the states’ jealous guardianship of their rights. He admired some aspects of the earlier Bourbon vice regal administrations of the late 18th century, especially their orderly administration and enlightened authoritarianism. Led by Alamán, Bustamante’s government purged state legislatures, governors, and opposition elements. To further these goals, the government sent former royalist commanders to disband the civic militias in states, such as Zacatecas and Yucatán, which had backed radical federalist aspirations.

Despite some successes in the economic sector, the repressive policies of the central government brought increased opposition from the states and regions. By early 1832, several states were again striving to blunt the initiatives of the central government. In radical Zacatecas, the president of the legislature, Valentín Gómez Farías, supported a petition demanding that President Bustamante replace his cabinet. Jalisco and Tamaulipas echoed this view. In Veracruz, Santa Anna established his headquarters in the walled port city, further made impregnable by the mortifying climate, yellow fever, and malaria—a successful siege by troops from the interior was most unlikely. Santa Anna confiscated government funds from the customs house and prepared his troops for combat. Although central government forces defeated the Veracruz rebels on the open battlefield, they did not assault the port city. An expert in irregular warfare within his home region, Santa Anna organized guerrilla attacks and allowed yellow fever to do its terrible work on soldiers from the interior highlands. Even before government troops pulled back from the tropical lowlands, civil war in other states and promises of aid to Santa Anna made Bustamante’s presidency tenuous. Confronting many uprisings, despite a number of victories in bloody skirmishes that defeated state civic militia forces, by December, the government was overwhelmed and compelled to surrender. In a peace agreement heavy with irony, Gómez Pedraza returned from exile to complete the presidential term that he had lost in 1828 to Guerrero. Santa Anna rode in triumph with his old enemy Gómez Pedraza as they entered Mexico City to claim victory. Lorenzo de Zavala and other radicals demanded, without result, that Bustamante’s cabinet members, including Alamán, suffer severe punishment for complicity in the murder of Guerrero.

Politics, Pastry, and Santa Anna in the 1830s

During the 1830s and 1840s, Mexicans struggled over two broad approaches to governance—federalism and centralism—which in some respects were not as distinctive and unremittingly opposed as some historians have suggested. Many federalists who sought to protect the autonomy of their states and regions recognized that centrifugal forces could cause states such as Yucatán, Coahuila and Texas, Zacatecas, Jalisco, and Oaxaca either to separate or to embrace quite radical forms of decentralization. Taken to extremes, federalism could make any form of central government so weak that the nation might fly apart. The goal of caudillos, such as Santa Anna in Veracruz, Juan Álvarez in Guerrero (carved from the state of Mexico in 1849), and many other former royalist and insurgent military politicians, was to protect the people of their regions, restore economic health, and stimulate agriculture, pastoral industries, mining, and manufacturing. Depending upon the nature of their regions’ resources and economies, some regional leaders attempted to protect textile production and other industries with tariffs, whereas others advocated free trade.

Although many Mexicans viewed extreme centralism as a plot to restore control to the discredited system of the Spanish and other reactionaries, within many regions, a backlash developed against the extremely narrow localism caused by the proliferation of autonomous municipal councils. Small towns of a thousand people used their powers to resist taxation and other intrusions from larger district towns (the cabeceras), state capitals, and the central government in Mexico City. Local officials blocked the implementation of laws and prevented encroachments by elite hacendados, merchants, and miners. In some cases, the local people frustrated good governance, prevented economic recovery, and withheld desperately needed tax funds. Forces unleashed in the independence period continued to produce peasant mobilizations, armed resistance, and separatism at the peripheries of Mexico’s regions.

Elites in jurisdictions that had controlled the districts and provinces under the colony often longed for the reestablishment of a more orderly economic and political system. Sometimes the interests of moderate federalists and centralists coincided, and they agreed that too much decentralization of political power was dangerous. Many leaders blamed the economic malaise, instability, and obvious weakness of the nation upon the Constitution of 1824 and recommended replacing it with a national charter that would reduce regional powers. Under the centralist Constitutions of 1836, the Siete Leyes (the seven laws), and 1843, the Bases Orgánicas (the organic bases), the states lost power and became administrative departments. As might be expected, more radical federalists—including peasant villagers in regions such as Guerrero and Oaxaca—viewed these attacks upon state and district autonomy as absolute anathema.

The upper echelons of the army tended to favor conservative factions. Compounding the tendency toward a more centralist outlook was the fact that of nineteen army division generals before 1847, thirteen were former royalists and only six had been insurgents. Of twenty brigade generals, sixteen had served as royalists and only four as insurgents. Many former royalists—including Santa Anna, Anastasio Bustamante, José Joaquín de Herrera, and Manuel Gómez Pedraza—occupied the presidency; others were interim executives, influential cabinet ministers, state and department governors, and leading political figures. Even among the younger generals who came of military age during the independence decade, most who developed successful careers came from urban backgrounds and from families that had sided with the royalists against the insurgency. Many men born in the 1780s and 1790s remained active in politics and the military at mid-century. Of the smaller number of former insurgents, Guadalupe Victoria, Vicente Guerrero, Nicolás Bravo, José Maria Tornel y Mendivil, and, at times, even the more radical Juan Álvarez supported moderate federalism, whereas others became centralist in their political views. As presidents, cabinet ministers, regional bosses, and even former rebels with regional allegiances, they sought solutions designed to keep the nation together.

In the national elections of 1833, the state legislatures elected the Hero of Tampico, General Santa Anna, president. Valentín Gómez Farías became vice president. Having won power with a broad coalition of liberal support, Santa Anna showed no interest in serving his term in the chief executive office. As he would on many future occasions, he remained in the capital for a short while and then, claiming illness, abandoned Mexico City for his Veracruz hacienda, Manga de Clavo.

Vice President Gómez Farías stepped forward to fill the breach. Supported by influential liberals such as José María Luis Mora, he introduced the first radical liberal reform program. In Mexico City as well as in state capitals, governments authorized the removal of centralist bureaucrats, attacked church properties and privileges, appropriated some estates that had belonged to members of the old elite, secularized education, and debated the expulsion of all Spaniards, without exception. Making the church a major reform target, the Gómez Farías government moved to control clerical appointments, canceled civil obligations to pay tithes, eliminated the enforcement of monastic vows upon friars and nuns, and began to disentail church estates and other properties. Gómez Farías also sought to reduce the size of the regular army and eliminate the special privileges of the fuero militar. Conservatives reacted with inflammatory pamphlets and newspaper articles describing the radicals as dangerous revolutionaries and the incarnation of evil. Fueled by such reports, rumors spread that the government contemplated a program to suppress monasteries and convents, confiscate their wealth, and turn church buildings into stables, dance halls, and theaters. Alamán described Gómez Farías as playing the part of Robespierre in a revolution that now careened out of control.

The radical liberal program united the clergy, the military, and the elite classes in a general cry of “religión y fueros.” Numerous delegations went to Manga de Clavo to demand an end to radical reform, and in April 1834, Santa Anna returned to the capital. Accepting the argument that the liberals had tilted the balance so far that general civil war might result, the president now took up his mandate. He silenced Congress by locking the legislative chambers, overturned radical laws, repatriated exiles, and sent a new batch of exiles abroad, including Gómez Farías and other leading liberals. In fact, he effectively had overthrown his own elected government, surely a historical first. Convinced that the Constitution of 1824 had made the nation ungovernable, Santa Anna and his supporters sought other approaches. In January 1835, a new Congress took office. It was composed of centralists and moderate federalists, including many clerics and army officers who were Santanistas, personal supporters of the president. This Congress tore up the liberal laws of the federalists and accepted Santa Anna’s view that the undisciplined and regionalist state civic militias were both inefficient and a chronic danger to the nation. Restating an old debate about the relative merits of regular and militia forms that had originated in the late 18th century, Santa Anna passed legislation to establish a professional regular army enlisted from the Mexican population. The continuing repugnance of young men toward military service, however, made any form of draft or levy extremely unpopular. Desertion became the escape of choice for those who could not evade enlistment, as it would for almost a century.

Santa Anna once again claimed illness and retired temporarily to the tranquility of his Veracruz hacienda. But the federalist states refused to surrender their freedom and autonomy without a major fight. The redoubtable Juan Álvarez, federalist to the core, organized guerrilla forces and pronounced a revolt against Santa Anna, claiming that the president had replaced the federation with a dictatorship. In Oaxaca and other states, supporters of the Constitution of 1824 condemned the new direction of centralism and contemplated military uprisings. Governor Francisco García of Zacatecas mobilized his civic militias and ordered his people to construct fortifications. The government of Miguel Barragán (1835–1836) recalled Santa Anna to lead a full military expedition to suppress the federalists. Santa Anna’s army defeated the poorly armed and almost untrained militiamen of Zacatecas with relatively few casualties on either side. His troops proceeded to loot much of the city, attacking the populace, destroying commercial houses, and damaging the properties of foreign mining investors. Santa Anna followed up this military victory with viceregal style triumphal visits to Aguascalientes, Guadalajara, Morelia, and Querétaro. Even before his return to the capital, he had his name inscribed once again on a column for his heroic service to the nation. Santa Anna received adulation from his supporters and awarded himself a grand celebration that included special music composed in honor of the victory, displays of fireworks, and the illumination of the main square.

By this point, Santa Anna agreed that centralism was necessary to end the disorder and regional uprisings that blocked economic, political, and social progress. Many Santanistas viewed the state civic militias, radical liberal factions, and politicians who supported dangerous popular movements as principal barriers to national progress. By the end of 1835, the traditional elites, the upper clergy, and powerful army officers of royalist and colonial antecedents were taking action to reestablish the nation on centralist-conservative foundations. The Constitution of the Siete Leyes reduced the autonomous states with their elected legislatures and governors to departments with central regime-appointed governors and councils. Qualified electors would raise the president indirectly to an eight-year term, with consultation from the departments. To avoid dissension, there would be no vice president. Furthermore, many assertive small-town municipal governments lost their status and the ability to speak for people of the surrounding districts when the centralists returned power to larger towns and cities that had ruled their regions before independence. By restricting suffrage to men who earned at least one hundred pesos annually, the centralists believed that they had eliminated many of the weaknesses of federalism and radical democracy. By this, they clearly implied that mob rule, or more properly, the voice of the people, need not be heard.

Unfortunately for the centralists and for Santa Anna, the temporary impotence of federalists in the populated core of Mexico did not extend to the peripheries of the nation. In February 1836, Santa Anna headed north with his army in an exhausting march into Texas, where proslavery Anglo-American settlers had taken advantage of Mexico’s political turmoil to declare independence. Santa Anna captured the Alamo at San Antonio in March 1836, only to suffer a humiliating defeat at the Battle of San Jacinto. With Santa Anna imprisoned by the Texans and discredited in Mexico for his acceptance of Texas independence, the conservatives chose General Anastasio Bustamante as his successor. When Santa Anna returned to Mexico in 1837 following his visit to Washington, he retired to Manga de Clavo, apparently discredited and unpopular with the nation that had granted him so many laurels, yet his supporters in Mexico City and elsewhere refused to hold him responsible for the Texas debacle. Continued turbulence in the nation and the threat of complete national bankruptcy kept Bustamante busy negotiating loans from the church and seeking new ways to raise capital. In many regions, small federalist uprisings against centralism and the new constitution frustrated the centralist efforts to solidify their system. Bustamante wavered and even seemed to favor federalist efforts to restore the Constitution of 1824.

In a Mexico beset by crises invasion loomed. A pervasive spirit of depression affected many leaders, who were already at their wits’ end about how to drag the nation out of anarchy. Then, in March 1838, a French naval squadron arrived to blockade Veracruz. The French demanded the payment of claims for exaggerated financial and property losses suffered by French residents in Mexico since independence, including a Parían Riot claim from a pastry chef that gave its name to the improbable conflict—the Pastry War. When negotiations failed, French warships bombarded the fortress of San Juan de Ulúa and the city of Veracruz. Santa Anna went to Veracruz, and when the Mexican commanders decided to surrender the ill-equipped castle and city, the government ordered him to take command. On December 5, French marines raided the city—and in an instant restored the luster of Santa Anna’s fame. Santa Anna managed to organize some troops and attack the French as they withdrew to their boats. Several Mexican soldiers were killed outright by a blast of grapeshot from a French cannon. Santa Anna’s horse was shot from under him, and he suffered wounds in the left leg and arm. The surgeons decided that his severely injured leg would have to be amputated below the knee. Santa Anna melodramatically dictated a farewell message, for some four hours, to the Mexican nation. He soon recovered from the wound, however, and returned once again a resurrected national hero to the center of the Mexican political stage. The severed limb he ordered buried at Manga de Clavo and disinterred in 1842 for a ceremonial funeral in a luxurious cenotaph in Mexico City. Santa Anna’s enemies now referred to him as “the Cripple,” and historians ever since have relished stories about the leg and its retrieval by an angry mob that dragged it through the streets in 1844.

At the end of the 1830s, Mexico appeared no closer than at the moment of independence to working out a system of governance and a social contract that would bind together the diverse regions and populations. The possible annexation of Texas by the United States was only one of many areas of national concern. In 1839, elite groups in Yucatán deposed the centralist government and severed all ties with Mexico, and until an expeditionary force from Mexico arrived in 1842 to recover the peninsula, it appeared that the Texas secession would be repeated in the distant southeast. During the interregnum, Yucatecan liberals privatized lands controlled by indigenous Mayan communities and set the scene for violent insurgency during the Caste War (1847–1854). In Guerrero, peasants led by Juan Álvarez rose up against the centralists. Conflicts over disputed lands, high taxes, suffrage restrictions, and the removal of local municipal governments produced a resurgence of guerrilla warfare and rebellion that continued through the 1840s. Although the peasant ideology was difficult to define, it is clear that the village populations identified their own demands for local autonomy with the broader federalist movement and the Constitution of 1824. Equally, indigenous communities had their own expectations including millenarian religious understandings and local allegiances. These uprisings, and many other regional outbreaks, illustrated that no central government possessed sufficient military power to restore peace.

In the summer of 1840, the violence spilled from the regions into Mexico City when federalists, led by Gómez Farías and General José Urrea (who had been jailed in the capital for leading a federalist uprising in Tampico), took on the Bustamante regime. Artillery bombardments and heavy musket fire in the downtown area produced many civilian and military casualties. The federalists captured the national palace, temporarily arrested President Bustamante, and demanded the restoration of the 1824 Constitution. Frances Calderón de la Barca, wife of the Spanish ambassador, watched the battles from her rooftop and reported: “All the streets are planted with cannon, and it is pretended that the revolutionary party are giving arms to the léperos. The cannon are roaring now. All along the street people are standing on the balconies, looking anxiously in the direction of the palace, or collected in groups before the doors, and the azoteas (rooftops), which are out of the line of fire are covered with men. They are ringing the tocsin—things seem to be getting serious.” The urban bombardments went on for twelve days and ruined many public and private buildings, including the National Palace. Criminal gangs purportedly used the cover of general anarchy to loot abandoned property and rob anyone who dared move through the streets. The wealthy classes thought that the much-feared social revolution—and the inhuman violence associated with radical liberalism—had arrived. Desperate for a solution, some conservatives concluded again that monarchy, dictatorship, or a combination of the two was the only answer.

The Divided Forties-Shadows of War to Come

The 1840s underscored the deep divisions within Mexican society. Within the regions, continued anarchy and minor pronunciamientos by the army damaged the economy and weakened society. With army service still disdained by young men, the army lost prestige in the Texas debacle, at Veracruz against the French, and in the seemingly mindless combat that ripped apart sections of Zacatecas and Mexico City. The country’s very borders were in peril: Texas and the Yucatán remained burning issues, and there were increasing foreign encroachments on the coasts of the Californias. The vitriolic press called constantly for the retaking of Tejas, politicians agreed vocally and publically, and United States observers pointed out Mexican belligerence, even though no army of reconquest appeared. Santa Anna became interim president again in 1841, more convinced than ever that the nation needed strong centralism and near-dictatorial control to bring peace. Army intervention banished an elected liberal Congress in 1842, paving the way for a revision of the Constitution of 1836 in favor of the Bases Orgánicas of 1843, which further strengthened the presidency. Property and income qualifications for voters rose dramatically to ensure that the conservative and centralist elite would dominate.

After introducing a new round of forced loans upon the church, Santa Anna again claimed illness and returned temporarily to his estates in Veracruz. By 1844, news that the United States planned to admit Texas into the Union led to efforts to raise forces through conscription and to levy new taxes upon a virtually bankrupt nation. This time, Santa Anna lacked sufficient support or reputation to protect his presidency. In December 1844, General José Joaquín de Herrera led a coup, accompanied by mob actions, in Mexico City and other major centers. Rioters tore down Santa Anna’s portraits and statues; in the capital, they broke into the mausoleum that housed his amputated leg. Santa Anna tried to fight, but his forces deserted and locals jailed him in Jalapa. In 1845, the Herrera regime exiled him for life and faced the imminent outbreak of hostilities with the United States. Exile never seemed to stop the caudillo who held the presidency eleven times, and departed or returned from exile with unsettling frequency.

For modern historians, as well as for his contemporaries, Santa Anna has always been an enigma defying easy analysis. He was cunning, devious, and likely corrupt, yet also a magnetic personality who attracted the loyalty of highly intelligent individuals such as Lucas Alamán. Like many other leaders of the period, he was a blend of military leader and regional political boss, capable of inspiring intense loyalty from the Veracruz population. He was not a dictator who grabbed and maintained power in the capital; indeed, he preferred to live a country life at Manga de Clavo and his other haciendas. Because of the violently conflictive nature of Mexican politics, his own well-developed ambitions, and his longevity through many decades, many enemies hated Santa Anna with great passion. He could be blamed for the loss of Texas, for the even worse loss of almost half the national territory in the war that was to come with the United States, and for his inability to control the boisterous new nation. His wavering from royalist to monarchist, liberal, federalist, centralist, conservative, and authoritarian dictator enraged many ideologues. The fact that despite all these shifts he remained popular and powerful through victories and defeats and the tempestuous disorders of the period makes some modern Mexicans question their ancestors’ judgment. Although Santa Anna was an ambitious rogue in some respects, he was also a patriotic Mexican and a reflection of the turmoil of a newborn nation and a society grappling for identity and direction. His long career did not end with his 1845 disgrace. Many twists and turns would come during the war with the United States, the subsequent turbulence of the Reforma, and the French intervention.


With clashes of righteous ideologies, different realities from region to region, fears of domination by one class and population segment over others, and the aggressive ambitions of those who sought to guide the nation, the dynamic process of nation-building continued. Ideological themes, traceable to the late 18th century, hardened into the politics of liberalism and conservatism after 1821 and shaped Mexico’s process of state-building.

The church took part in these developments. During the first years of independence, clergy participated actively in state and national government. Like the former royalist and insurgent army commanders who emerged as soldier-politicians throughout the country, leading prelates served in the first regency and promoted their conceptions of the new nation; for example, the dean of the Cathedral Chapter of Puebla was also a member of the national Congress, as well as being the minister of justice and of the treasury. Although there were some restrictions upon high-ranking clerics, the Constitution of 1824 and most state constitutions allowed curates and parish priests to serve in state and national offices; the prohibitions were aimed mainly at the friars of the regular clergy. Especially during the centralist regimes of the 1830s, clerical politicians played significant roles in protecting church interests and opposing liberal designs to reduce church wealth and attack other privileged corporations. José Maria Luis Mora was an exception. A cleric who was also a great scholar and doctrinaire liberal, he advised Gómez Farias to eliminate tithes and separate the church from the education of Mexico’s youth. He praised the concept of the proprietary farmer, attacked the great landed estates, and opposed the system of indigenous communal land tenure.

Although liberal reformers did not attempt truly radical approaches until the 1850s, many became convinced that church, army, and communal indigenous communities must lose their corporate powers if the new nation was to prosper. Conservatives, most often centralist in outlook, held tightly to their fueros, their estates, and to the preeminence of Mexico City. Neither party truly accounted for the ordinary mestizo and indigenous population, save as a danger to order.

The common Mexicans in city and countryside, and the indigenous as well, had their own conceptions or imaginings of the new nation. Some denied its full reality or authority—Maya, Yaqui, and others believed they had earned autonomy, or at least, the favorable continuation of colonial practices such as tax exemption for militia service. Large demonstrations and occasional riots in cities had energized the urban masses’ demands for political inclusion. In towns and villages the municipal governments and grassroots populace had built on traditional and legal structures of rights to refashion their own relations to the political culture of the nation, in ways nationalistic, if not necessarily hegemonic. Wandering bands of armed men, often ascribed to banditry by press and law, varied between criminality and rebellion. In the second half of the century, the elite finally unified in a shared objective; they believed the government must manage and order the troublesome lower classes. Trouble, nonetheless, had already found the shaky nation.

At the outbreak of the war with the United States, Mexico was ill-equipped and unprepared to defend its territory. Its economy was in ruins, its army lacked modern weapons and training, and many of its citizens were unwilling to engage in the defense of a nation that occupied a continental expanse that they did not fully comprehend. On the positive side, through the tortuous first decades, the Mexican nation had achieved success in framing basic questions about the future, and had there not been an aggressive, expansionist nation on its northern border hungry to absorb the almost empty expanses Mexico had inherited from Spain, the nation might have avoided the loss of territory and some other disasters. But that neighbor, the United States, indubitably existed, and conflict loomed. In 1846, Santa Anna returned from his “lifetime exile” to lead the republic in its heroic, but impossible, defense.

Discussion of the Literature

Scholars of the first decades in Mexico’s Independence period (1821–1846) have focused largely on questions of exactly what sort of nation the Republic sought to become, and on who, or what, determined the outcome of these debates. They questioned the degree to which the nation actually existed as concept and in practice, they examined the degree of continuity or rupture from colonial era governance, and they sought to unravel the complex and multiple layers of the evolving political culture in the nascent State. Within this, some have emphasized the role of the individual participants, others have looked to broader institutions, and the range of active groups has widened to include previously misunderstood agents from popular or indigenous origins.

In contemporary and early works, scholars tended to set their attentions on the powerful and the overtly political men of their era. Memoirs by Agustín de Iturbide and Joel Poinsett, and the chronicles of conservative politicians such as Lucas Alamán and Carlos María de Bustamante placed the action in Mexico City and envisioned changes as the struggle between founding factions. Typically, their works stressed the rupture with colony, as without this their own contributions meant less. In their vision, the conflicts between liberal and conservative, federalist and centralist, as well as yorkino and escoseses, became explanation for the tardiness of Mexico to recover from its wars to emerge as a unified country. The blame for this also fell on the predatory interference of foreign powers, but in their eyes, the lowly poor of the country had done their own damage to bringing peace. In 1906, Guillermo Prieto’s Memorias de mis tiempos de 1828 a 1840 began to address this with more attention to the failings of early rulers, particularly ones like Santa Anna, and redeemed the lower classes at least somewhat.

For many decades, the scholarship remained political, somewhat binary, and the idea that there existed a nation in the years after 1821 became a common starting point. Many of those writing between 1960 and 1990 looked at institutional histories, seeking in structuralist ways to describe and explain the Mexican nation via nobility, 1 church, 2 or military.3 Charles Hale4 fleshed out liberalism as a concept in the late 1960s. But writers also began, by mid 1970s, to take on Independence as a process and sovereignty as a multifaceted idea for framing rule. Barbara Tenenbaum5 took an economic approach to examine politics through debt and taxation. Having devoted a career to understanding the period, Jaime E. Rodríguez O. offers least seven edited anthologies that develop a nuanced political and economic vision of the era, all published between 1975 through 1998, and a new monograph in 2012. His insistence on the colonial continuity and on the complex nature of what might become the political culture has shaped the field. Similarly, in the Spanish language Josefina Zoraida Vázquez has dominated the publishing, with over a dozen insightful edited volumes since the 1980s. Between these two authors, the political realm of the 1820s through 1840s became clear.

By the 1990s a change, coincident with the cultural turn and the new global histories, appears in the type of works that scholars pursued. With the political cultures that they sought, and the agents that they examined, these writers brought in ambiguities and syncretic developments that complicated ideas of sovereignty. Donald Stevens6 challenged the existing political studies by questioning accepted factions and uncovering economic inequality as a driving force. Subaltern studies and hegemonic frames became the common parlance of the field. While some older texts saw common people as too isolated or too insular to engage truly with national politics, others found the roots of nationality firmly planted in regional, municipal, or indigenous polities. Silvia Arrom revealed the political significance of the Parián riots in 1988. Peter Guardino has repeatedly shown the importance of provincial groups in his work on Guerrero (1996)7 and more recently for Oaxaca (2005).8 His argument that national hegemony begins at grassroots levels, and carried with it colonial legacies and cultural knowledge, has shaped our field. Timothy Anna’s 1990 and 1998 works called into question some long held assumptions about the idea of Mexico as a nation, arguing that the nation represented a process and something new to the years after Independence as citizens worked out the meanings of a representative popular federal republic in their own ways. Richard Warren9 brought light to the importance of the urban masses in affecting changes in Mexico. In the same year, Eric Van Young’s work on the war of independence itself raised questions about community and about popular insurgency as a means of cultural resistance. In 2007, the role of the military also faced revisions, as Will Fowler’s edited work on the pronunciamiento as community engagements with politics challenged conventional visions of the army such as that of William de Palo.10

In the last decade, a balanced appraisal of the Independence era has brought much of this together. New biographies of important figures like Santa Anna and Iturbide have challenged old myths and brought gender into the discussion. The role of race in the new nation emerged as a crucial point of departure from the oldest studies; scholars including Barry Robinson (2016)11 and Raquel Güereca Duran (2016)12 have reinserted significant indigenous contributions to the historiography.

Primary Sources

Archival sources for the early years of the republic and the first empire can be located at the following archives and collections:

Archivo Histórico de Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, Mexico City

Acervos Históricos

Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico City

Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, Mexico City

Universidad Autónoma de México, Mexico City

Hemeroteca Nacional

Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection (BLAC) at the University of Texas at Austin,

For pamphlets and newspapers from the period, in Mexico see: Biblioteca Nacional, Fondo Reservado, Colección Lafragua, Mexico City; Biblioteca Nacional, Hemeroteca; and UNAM Hemeroteca (website below).

In the United States, see: the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection (BLAC) at the University of Texas at Austin.

For contemporary printed accounts, the works of the following authors are well worth reading: Lucas Alamán, Carlos María de Bustamante, Madame Fanny Calderón de la Barca, José María Luis Mora, and Joel Poinsett. Agustín de Iturbide’s published memoirs and manifiestos are also widely available.

Digital Sources

UNAM hermeroteca

Database of Pronunciamientos

Project Gutenberg (includes Fanny Calderon de la Barca, Life in Mexico, and many other traveler accounts)

Further Reading

Archer, Christon I. The Birth of Modern Mexico, 1780–1824. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2003.Find this resource:

    Beezley, William H. Mexican National Identity: Memory, Innuendo, and Popular Culture. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2008.Find this resource:

      Beezley, William, and David Lorey, eds. ¡Viva México! ¡Viva la Independencia! Celebrations of September 16. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2000.Find this resource:

        Cosía Villegas, Daniel, et al. Historia general de México-Versión 2000. México: Colegio de México, 2005.Find this resource:

          Florescano, Enrique, ed. Espejo mexicana. México: Fonda de cultura económica, 2010.Find this resource:

            Fowler, Will. Santa Anna of Mexico. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.Find this resource:

              Fowler, Will, ed. Forceful Negotiations: The Origins of the Pronunciamiento in Nineteenth- Century Mexico. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                Frazer, Chris. Bandit Nation: A History of Outlaws and Cultural Struggle in Mexico, 1810–1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.Find this resource:

                  Guardino, Peter. The Time of Liberty: Popular Political Culture in Oaxaca, 1750–1850. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                    Robinson, Barry. The Mark of Rebels: Indios Fronterizos and the War of Independence. Tuscaloosa: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.Find this resource:

                      Rodriguez O., Jaime E., ed. The Divine Charter: Constitutionalism and Liberalism in Nineteenth-Century Mexico. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.Find this resource:

                        Rodríguez O., Jaime E. We are Now the True Spaniards: Sovereignty, Revolution, Independence, and the Emergence of the Federal Republic of Mexico, 1808–1824. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                          Warren, Richard A. Vagrants and Citizens: Politics and the Masses in Mexico City. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2001.Find this resource:

                            Van Young, Eric. The Other Rebellion: Popular Violence, Ideology, and the Mexican Struggle for Independence, 1810–1821. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

                              Vázquez, Josefina Zoraida, ed. El Establecimiento del Federalismo en México (1821–1827). México, DF: El Colegio de México, 2003.Find this resource:


                                (1.) Doris Ladd, Mexican Nobility at Independence, 1780–1826 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977).

                                (2.) Jan Bazant, Alienation of Church Wealth in Mexico: Social and Economic Aspects of the Liberal Revolution 1856–1875, trans. M. Costeloe (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1971).

                                (3.) Christon Archer, The Army in Bourbon Mexico, 1760–1810 (Albaquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1977).

                                (4.) Charles Hale, Mexican Liberalism in the Age of Mora, 1821–1853 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968).

                                (5.) Barbara Tenenbaum, The Politics of Penury: Debt and Taxes in Mexico 1821–1856 (Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 1986).

                                (6.) Donald Stevens, The Origins of Instability in Early Republican Mexico (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991).

                                (7.) Peter Guardino, Peasants, Politics, and the Formation of Mexico’s National State, 1800–1857 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996).

                                (8.) Peter Guardino, The Time of Liberty: Popular Political Culture in Oaxaca, 1750–1850 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).

                                (9.) Richard A. Warren, Vagrants and Citizens: Politics and the Masses in Mexico City (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2001).

                                (10.) William de Palo, The Mexican National Army, 1822–1852 (Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 1997).

                                (11.) Barry Robinson, The Mark of Rebels: Indios Fronterizos and the War of Independence (Tuscaloosa: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016).

                                (12.) Raquel Güereca Duran, Milicias indígenas en la Nueva España: Reflexiones del derecho indiano sobre los derechos de guerra (México: UNAM, 2016).