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Nation building in Mexico, 1820-25

In 1820, following the liberal uprising that drove Ferdinand VII from power in Spain, conservatives in Mexico broke with Spanish authority and moved toward independence. Their leader was a Crióllo military officer, Agustín de Iturbide, who, on February 24, 1821, launched the Plan of Iguala. Under this plan, the Crióllos and resident Spaniards in Mexico (the Gauchupines) were to be equal in rights and Mexico was to be a constitutional monarchy; Mexico was to be officially Roman Catholic and the Church was to maintain its traditional powers; Mexicans were to have freedom to worship as they pleased; and military commanders were to order no capital punishment against "an accused person."

Iturbide sought broad support, and so the two most prominent revolutionaries, viewed as leaders of common folk, were invited to join as subordinates. One was Crióllo Guadalupe Victoria (whose real name was Manuel Félix Fernández), who had been holding out against Spain's authority in a cave near Puebla. The other was Vicente Guerrero, an uneducated mestizo who had been protected from Spain's military by the rugged mountains around Oaxaca. Both would be future presidents of Mexico.

Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna

Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna in middle age.

Conservatives and moderates in Mexico associated republicanism with radicals and the bloodshed of the French Revolution, and they favored a monarch from an internationally recognized royal family. Trying to accommodate them, Iturbide invited Spain's deposed king, Ferdinand VII, to be Mexico's king, or any prince whom Ferdinand would suggest in his place. This was before Ferdinand was returned to power in Spain and the bloodbath and absolutism that followed, but no matter, Ferdinand was not interested. And no prince came in his stead. So it was Iturbide, considered the father of independent Mexico, who became Mexico's king in May 1822, declared so by a National Constituent Congress that had been created two months before. Iturbide was crowned king in a Church ritual in July, Iturbide taking the title of Emperor Agustín I.

The liberal government in Spain had signed a treaty recognizing Mexico's independence in August 1821 – the Treaty of Cordoba. Into 1822, however, Spain did not yet fully accept Mexico as independent.

With Mexico, Central America had been a part of New Spain, but between 1825 and 1838 it split from Mexico, forming what it called the United Provinces of Central America. Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras became sovereign republics in 1838. El Salvador and Guatemala would become independent republics in 1839.

Constitutional Government in Mexico

Mexicans were blissful about independence and expected prosperity. Instead there was a rise in prices and stagnation. In fact, the economy of Mexico and Spain's American colonies in general had been stagnate since the early 1700s. Britain's colonies since 1700 had been growing at a rate of 0.5 percent per year. Mexico in the 1700s had been exporting a lot of silver to Spain, and Spain had been drawing taxes from Mexico to meet its own needs, while Mexicans had little wealth to invest in their own growth. Mexico is described as having a GDP in 1820 that was 38.8 percent of the US GDP and a population that was 68 percent. In other words Mexico's per capita GDP in 1820 was 57 percent that of the United States. note30

Mexico was short of fertile land. It was mountainous and much of it was desert. It needed to develop what there was of its agriculture potential. It needed better roads for transporting goods. It needed freedom from the huge debt that the Spaniards had left behind for the government in Mexico City. And it needed peace, stability and confidence that investing in growth would produce benefits.

Emperor Iturbide's government had too little money, and a convenient way for him to raise money (and to reward followers) was to sell commissions in the army. Congress was also short of money, and it left the army starved for funds.

Iturbide could not get legislation passed as congressmen quibbled over procedural matters. Iturbide quarreled with Congress and he learned of a move within Congress to strip him of his power and to proclaim a republic. Iturbide had sixty-six arrested. On October 31, 1822, he ordered the army to dissolve Congress, and he replaced Congress with a junta packed with his supporters.

Most of those who had been arrested were free again by December. And it was in December that a young and ambitious Crióllo military commander in the province of Vera Cruz along the gulf coast east of Mexico City. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna led a revolt against Iturbide. Santa Anna had begun his career at age eighteen as a junior officer in Spain's army of occupation. He had continued losing money at gambling and had managed to stave off debt collectors by less than honest means. He had another weakness: admiration for the past pretended glories of Napoleon Bonaparte. Santa Anna combed his hair as he imagined Bonaparte combed his, and he enjoyed riding a white horse.

Santa Anna had gone over to the side of revolution not out of conviction; he had switched sides when it was opportune to do so. Emperor Iturbide had seen Santa Anna for what he was – extremely ambitious – including the courtship of a woman more than thirty years his senior: Iturbide's sister. After Santa Anna was aware that he was out of favor with the emperor, he moved against him. He joined his army with others who wanted a republic, led by Guadalupe Victoria of Puebla cave fame. Victoria's force attracted Mexico's other anti-Iturbide military commanders and together they forced Iturbide into exile, to Britain – Iturbide leaving behind a large government debt piled upon the debt left behind by the Spaniards.

In Mexico City, on December 6, 1822, a republic was proclaimed. Congress was reconvened, and it worked toward the creation of a federalist constitution modeled after the U.S. Constitution. This became the Constitution of 1824. It proclaimed "The United Mexican States" to be a federated republic, with federal powers divided between its legislature, executive and judiciary. The chief executive, or president, was to serve one four-year term without succession. Congressmen were to be elected every other year, and individual states were to establish who was to be eligible to vote.

Congress declared Iturbide a traitor and an outlaw and forbade his return to Mexico. Iturbide did not learn of this, and when he sailed back to Mexico he was arrested when he landed, and he was shot a few days later – on July 19, 1824.

Santa Anna was living comfortably as a prestigious and popular military commander at the age of thirty-one, and he married a fourteen-year-old with a dowry from a wealthy enough Gauchupina family. He was to become a leading figure in a coming conflict in Texas.

Guadalupe Victoria became President of Mexico on October 1824. He favored increases in social justice, freedom of the press and other reforms. For the sake of balance, a conservative had been made vice president. This was Nicolás Bravo, and with conservative allies Bravo attempted a coup in December 1825. The rising was easily crushed, and President Victoria served out his four-year term, the only Mexican president to do so in the coming forty years. The stability that Mexico needed was not forthcoming.

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.