The movement for Mexican independence from Spanish rule began in the early 19th century and culminated in the declaration of independence in 1821. There were several factors that contributed to the push for independence, but the main reason was growing resentment against Spanish colonial rule and desire for self-governance among the Mexican people, especially the Creole class.
Background – Spanish Colonial Rule
Mexico had been under Spanish colonial rule for nearly 300 years since the early 16th century. The Spanish crown exercised strict control over its colonies in Latin America including Mexico which was known as New Spain. Under this colonial system, political and economic power was concentrated in the hands of Spanish-born Spaniards known as Peninsulares. The Mexican people or native Indians and Creoles (Spaniards born in Mexico) occupied lower rungs of the social order and had limited rights and privileges.
Over the years, the Creoles began chafing under the restrictions and inequalities of Spanish colonial rule. Though they were of Spanish ancestry, the Creoles were prevented from occupying higher positions in the government, military and church. These positions were reserved for Peninsulares who had been born in Spain. The Creoles were also not allowed to trade freely with other countries. The colonial system enriched Spain but limited economic opportunities for locals. As the Creole population grew in size and wealth, their resentment at being treated as second-class citizens intensified. Calls for equality and self-rule began stirring.
Enlightenment Ideas & the American and French Revolutions
In the late 18th century, radical new philosophical and political ideas of the European Enlightenment spread across the Atlantic to the Spanish colonies. The Enlightenment emphasized reason, liberty, progress and individual rights. It criticized the absolute monarchies and advocated self-governance. Writings of Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire circulated secretly in Spain’s colonies inspiring dreams of freedom and national liberation.
The American Revolution (1775-83) and French Revolution (1789-99) also had a huge impact in sparking independence movements across Latin America. The colonists in British America had successfully broken free and founded a new nation – the United States of America. The French Revolution had overthrown the Bourbon monarchy in France. If the British and French colonists could become self-ruling, why not the Spanish colonists in Latin America? The winds of change were blowing across the Atlantic world.
The Napoleonic Invasion of Spain
In 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte of France invaded Spain, overthrew the Spanish Bourbon king and placed his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne. This forced abdication of the Spanish king created a power vacuum and political chaos throughout the Spanish Empire. In Mexico, the Creole elites were now faced with a crisis. The hated Peninsulares were temporarily paralyzed without clear leadership from Spain. Sensing an opportunity, the Creoles decided to take matters into their own hands.
In 1809, Creole rebels and Mexican-born Spaniards began staging local uprisings against Spanish rule across Mexico. They formed local juntas (councils) to rule in the absence of Spanish authority. This launched the first phase of the Mexican independence struggle. Had there been no Napoleonic invasion and the Spanish crown retained control, colonial rule might have continued for longer in Mexico. Napolean’s invasion was the spark that pushed the Creoles into open revolt. They would not return to status quo once the French were defeated in 1813. The genie was out of the bottle.
Father Miguel Hidalgo’s Revolt – The Cry of Dolores
In September 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo, a parish priest in the small town of Dolores, issued the sacred Cry of Dolores call to arms against Spanish tyranny. Along with several other rebel leaders, Hidalgo raised an army of Native Indians, mestizos and Creoles. In the town of Dolores on September 16, 1810, Hidalgo called for Mexican independence from Spain. This famous event is called the Grito de Dolores or Cry of Dolores – considered the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence.
Hidalgo and his followers captured nearby towns and cities provoking rebellions across Mexico. They marched towards Mexico City, the centre of Spanish power. Though Hidalgo was eventually captured and executed in 1811, he is remembered as the Father of Mexican Independence for igniting the separatist movement. His call for rebellion energized and unified Mexicans across class and race to fight for freedom. The insurgency continued for over a decade led by other rebel leaders like Jose Morelos until victory was finally achieved.
Conservative Creole Vision of Independence
Though the independence movement was sparked by Hidalgo’s radical revolt, it was eventually led to victory by conservative Creole elites like Agustin de Iturbide. The Creoles were alarmed by Hidalgo’s attacks on the privileged classess, the racial violence against elite whites, and the involvement of lower class Natives and mestizos. They preferred a conservative independence aimed at removing Spanish control but still preserving their dominant social positions and protecting elite interests.
In 1821, the Creole officer Agustin de Iturbide negotiated a path to independence with Viceroy Juan O’Donojú agreeing to make Mexico a constitutional monarchy under a European prince. Iturbide then proclaimed Mexican independence with himself as head of a Regency until the European monarch could be selected. Though Iturbide eventually crowned himself emperor, he was overthrown in 1823. The Creoles established Mexico as a republic with indirect elections and limited suffrage to protect their interests against the radical demands of the masses and Mixed race groups. Thus the conservative Creole vision of limited independence triumphed over a more radical social transformation.
Economic Decline of Mexico Under Spanish Rule
Another major long-term cause of Mexican independence was the economic decline and growing poverty of Mexico under centuries of Spanish colonialism. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Mexico’s silver mines had made it Spain’s economic powerhouse funding the Spanish empire. However, by the late 18th century the mining sector was less productive leading to economic contraction.
The Bourbon reforms starting mid-1700s worsened the financial burdens on Mexicans. Higher Spanish taxes were imposed and trade was restricted further weakening the economy. Revenue collected was used to benefit Spain’s policies not for local investment. Poverty grew while the Peninsulares remained rich heightening class tensions. Poor harvests led to famines and misery. The unfair Spanish tax policies and economic mismanagement created discontent that fueled the independence movement. Promises of fairer taxation and economic development were key reasons for Mexicans to support the rebels.
Growth of Mexican National Identity and Patriotism
Over three centuries of Spanish rule, a distinctive Mexican culture had evolved with intermixing of indigenous and Spanish traditions. The Creoles in particular developed a unique Mexican identity different from their ancestral Spain. Intellectuals wrote about Mexican history, folklore, agriculture and geography fostering patriotic pride.
Works like the book Heroic Mexico by Mexican Creole scholar Carlos Maria Bustamante fueled nationalist sentiments further. Criollo patriotism and a nascent Mexican national identity provided an ideological justification and strong emotional impetus for independence. Love of Mexico motivated the rebels to envision a new nation freed from foreign rulers. They perceived the Spanish not as benevolent colonizers but oppressive tyrants stifling Mexico’s potential. Nationalism and patriotism were compelling reasons for independence.
Resentment Against the Catholic Church
The Catholic Church was an influential pillar of Spanish colonial rule in Mexico. It provided the religious justification for colonization and conversion of the Indigenous peoples. Mexican grievances against Spanish political authority inevitably extended to the Church which acted as an instrument of imperial control.
High Church taxes angered locals. The clergy mostly comprised of Peninsulares were viewed as allies of colonial oppression. Mexicans were barred from the upper ranks of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The Church amassed vast lands and resources. Resentment against the Church became intertwined with the wider anti-colonial struggle.
Hidalgo’s fiery attacks on the Church establishment struck a chord with the masses. His revolt expressed long simmering Mexican anger against the clergy’s privileges and close ties to the Spanish state. Disestablishing the Church was an inspiration for the insurgents. Reducing the Church’s power was a goal of Mexican independence from Spain.
Inspiration From Revolutions in South America
In the early 19th century, independence movements shook Spain’s colonies throughout South America. Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martin led successful revolts against Spanish rule in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina. By 1825, almost all of South America was liberated from Spain and Portuguese rule.
News of these rebellions and victories electrified the Creole elites in Mexico. If South America could defeat the Spanish and gain independence, why not Mexico? They carefully studied the ideas and strategies of the South American revolutionary leaders. Successive liberations of South America showed independence was possible and stoked Mexican desires to revolt. It demonstrated Spain was vulnerable and gave concrete hope that colonial rule could be overthrown with a concerted effort. The South American revolutions were an inspiration for Mexico’s own War of Independence.
In conclusion, while many political, economic and ideological factors fueled the push for ending Spanish rule, the main reason for Mexican independence was growing discontent and dissent among the Mexican people, especially the Creole elites. Three centuries of colonial oppression had bred anger and frustration. The rigid racial hierarchy denied the Mexican-born Creoles political rights and economic opportunities even though they were of Spanish descent. Enlightenment ideas about liberty and self-government resonated with educated Creoles, as did the inspirational examples of the American and French Revolutions. Napoleon’s invasion of Spain provided the sudden opportunity for them to seize control. Though Father Hidalgo’s revolt was soon suppressed, it marked the start of the armed independence struggle. The conservative Creole vision of limited independence ultimately prevailed over more radical aims. The widespread desire for emancipation from colonial shackles, improving economic conditions and establishing Mexican nationhood were the prime motivations to break from Spain. The independence movement arose from the masses’ genuine grievances and aspirations for a better future.