What was life like in Mexico, in the early 1800's?
Well, for one thing, back then, this country was not called Mexico. It was
called New Spain. And things were a mess.
Was Mexico (New Spain) ready for independence from
Spain? Most scholars agree that by the early 1800's, Mexico was ready and
that independence was inevitable. There were many reasons for this:
The inequalities of life under the caste system
The flow of wealth out of New Spain to Spain
The inability of New Spain to feed its own people
The confusion and division in the governments of
both Spain and New Spain
The flow of new ideas on government and peoples
rights arriving from America and France, both of whom had recently
undergone revolutions of their own
The inequalities of life
under the caste system
People in New Spain were organized into a caste
system, by law. This caste system was based on race. Those at
the top lived very well. Those at the bottom lived very harsh lives.
Who's Who in the Caste
System: The Peninsulares or Gauchapine, (European
born whites) considered themselves superior to the Criollos or Creoles
(Colonial born whites) and were supported in this belief by royal decrees
from Spain. Both castes were, by law, politically and socially above the
mixed bloods, the Mestizo and Mulattos, who were socially and legally
superior to the Indians, who were socially superior to the Negroes.
|European born whites
||Colonial born whites
||Mixed blood (Spanish-Indian)
||Mixed blood (Spanish-Negro)
In New Spain, when a baby was baptized, it was assigned
for life to a caste by the baptismal priest. This made the baptismal
priest very important since he decided and declared at the baptismal to
which caste the baby belonged. This led to corruption in the priesthood
as a well placed bribe to a priest could improve your child's standing for
the rest of its life. If you angered or upset the priest, he could decide
that your child belonged in a lower caste.
The social stratification created by the caste system
was rigidly enforced. Since it was based on race, it was impossible to
move from ones birth caste into a higher caste. A woman could improve her
social standing by marrying up in caste, but neither men nor women could
move out of the caste into which they were baptized. This caste system led
to many problems and hatreds between the castes.
Parents wanted their children to marry into a higher
caste if possible, or at least within their own caste. As a result, many
Criollo women (Colonial born whites) married Gauchipine men (European born
whites). This caused a shortage of wives for Criollo men in their own
caste, and forced them to marry women from lower castes, which affected
children. The Criollo men (Colonial born whites) were already
angry, as they were prevented by law from holding the highest ranking
positions in the church and the government, positions their parents held,
simply because their parents had been born in Europe and they had been
born in New Spain. This created a great deal of jealously and discontent.
The Indians and Blacks, for most of the
colonial period, were subject to the "Tribute", which was
a tax placed on every Indian or Black. This tribute was normally paid by
an individual's village or employer. If the tribute was not paid, that
individual could be thrown in jail. The tribute was one way for the
empowered class (the top guys) to keep the lower castes under control.
The affect of the inequalities of the caste system
was to cause great dissatisfaction in every caste level, except perhaps
the highest. The Criollos and the Mestizos blamed the Spanish government
for policies that limited their ability to socially advance. The Indians
and Blacks blamed the government of New Spain for the harsh life they were
forced to live.
The flow of wealth out of
New Spain to Spain
Meanwhile, back in Spain ....The Spanish
government was seemingly unaware of colonial dissatisfaction. They had
problems of their own. Spain was embroiled in the Napoleonic wars. To
raise money to fight these wars, the Spanish government increasingly
demanded more money from its colonies. Of all Spain's colonies, New Spain
had the most wealth. From New Spain, Spain expected the most.
When the government of Spain found that
raising taxes was not generating enough needed income to fund their
wars, it decided upon a different course of action. In addition to
raising taxes, the Spanish government passed the Consolidacion de Vales
Reales, often called either the Consolidation decree or the
Sequestration decree. The purpose of this decree was to appropriate the
wealth of the Church in New Spain.
The middle class & the
priesthood: What the Spanish government did not seem
to realize was that the church did not have much actual money, but had its
capital tied up in loans to the colonists. To pay the government of Spain,
the church was forced to call in those debts.
The extremely wealthy could and did pay off their
debt, but most people did not have enough capital to redeem their notes.
This resulted in the seizure and forced sale at auction of many
properties, the bulk of which belonged to the middle class, which was
mostly made up of Criollos (Colonial born whites) and Mestizos (mixed
blood Spanish/Indian). Many people lost fortunes.
Since the priests did not receive as much money from
auctioned properties as they had loaned on those properties, they could
not pay their debt. The priesthood was the hardest hit by the
Consolidation decree. Many priests lost everything. In response, the
priesthood began to act.
The priesthood had almost
total control of the spread of information in the provinces. At
this time, few people could read or write. Printed material was the
jurisdiction of the priesthood. The local priest was usually the
individual who read public announcements and governmental decrees to the
population after the sermon. Therefore, the local priests could control
how and when their congregations heard the news. The local priest could
and did use his sermon itself to slant public opinion. The local priest
was a powerful force in the community, anyway, due to caste assignment at
baptismal. They were believed. Since many of these local priests had lost
everything they owned, many were soon preaching the ills of the money
The inability of New Spain
to feed its own people
There was another problem. In 1808, and again in
1809, New Spain suffered severe droughts. The harvest was poor. The price
of maize (corn), which was one of the staple foods for most of the lower
castes, was skyrocketing. People could not afford to buy enough food to
feed their families. Some people were starving, especially those who lived
in the cities. The government of New Spain tried to regulate the price of
maize to control this problem. To avoid the controls, farmers simply
removed the sale of their crops from controlled markets and sold them in
the flourishing black market. This forced prices even higher. By 1810,
famine descended on New Spain.
The confusion and division
in the governments
of both Spain and New Spain
Back in Europe, in Spain .... these problems went
unheard. Spain's attention was still focused at home. Here's what was
Spain had lost its fight against Napoleon
Bonaparte's France in 1808.
King Charles IV of Spain decided to abdicate the
throne (give his throne) to his son, Prince Ferdinand.
A short time later, King Charles IV changed his
mind, and took the throne back, which did not make his son at all
Napoleon invited King Charles and his son,
Ferdinand, to France. It was a very nice invitation, a sort of
"Come on over. We'll work this out." So they went.
When they arrived, Napoleon had them seized and
Napoleon put his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on
the throne of Spain as king.
The Spanish people did not accept Joseph Bonaparte
as king, and revolted in 1808. Several cities in Spain proclaimed
Juntas (an independent local government).
In 1809, these Juntas dissolved themselves and
turned power over to the Cortes (the Spanish parliament; the word
Cortes means "court officers")
In 1810, the Cortes met and officially proclaimed
Spain's independence from Joseph Bonaparte. The Cortes then drafted a
constitution, which they completed in 1813.
In 1813, Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated in Spain,
and forced to release Ferdinand from prison.
Upon his release, Ferdinand returned to Spain and
proclaimed himself King.
The Spanish people said - Okay, you can be king
provided you honor the new constitution which the Cortes just finished
Ferdinand promised he would do so.
Upon his resumption of the throne, King Ferdinand
suspended the constitution. He wanted to turn back the clock and
become the autocratic ruler of the Spanish Empire.
In the colony of New Spain, these events caused great
confusion. The colonists were torn in their allegiances. Should they
support King Charles? Where was King Charles anyway? Should they support
Prince Ferdinand, who wanted to be king? Should they support Bonaparte, or
the Cortes, or go their own way? Various factions in New Spain supported
all of these ideas.
Father Miguel Hidalgo
Amongst this background of hatred and dissatisfaction
and confusion and famine, revolt broke out in New Spain. The first of
these was the revolt led by Father Miguel Hidalgo. Father Hidalgo is
known as the father of Mexican Independence.
Father Miguel Hidalgo does not appear to be the type
of person to lead a revolt. He was quite elderly for his time. He was in
his 50's, in a place and time when many people died in their 30's. He was
a well entrenched priest who appeared to really care about the people to
whom he was ministering. He was a respected member of the upper class. He
was a property owner, from which he received a nice income in rents. But,
Father Hidalgo held deep seated resentments against the Spanish
He had lost a lot of money through Spain's
consolidation decree, a total of 7000 pesos in lost hacienda rents.
He had been replaced as rector of the San
Nicolas Obispo College in Valladolid, a place where he had been very
happy. (This replacement was rumored to be due to his embezzlement of
church funds to pay his gambling debts.)
He was very upset at the mistreatment of the
Deep in the countryside of the Bajio, Father Miguel
Hidalgo plotted revolution.
Father Hidalgo had talked about an uprising with
several other men, including a captain of the militia, Ignacio de Allende.
They planned to organize and lead an uprising that would give Mexico (New
Spain) independence from Spain, and give power to the Indians. This was
not unusual. Talk of independence and what course that independence should
take was common in New Spain at this time. What was unusual was that
Father Hidalgo and his trusted advisors had directed the Indians in the
parish to begin manufacturing weapons, composed mostly of machetes,
spears, bows and arrows.
If it had not been for several errors on the part of
the Royalist government in New Spain, Hidalgo's short lived revolution
might never have made the history books. One of these errors was the
government's decision to arrest many of these small time plotters. This
decision was reached due to the nervousness of the government of New Spain
who feared an Indian uprising. The second mistake was allowing word of
these impending arrests to get out. Many plotters went into hiding, but
not Father Hidalgo. Instead, he gathered his sympathizers in the village
of Colores and bid them to arm themselves. The following morning,
September 16, 1810, instead of giving morning mass, Hidalgo gathered his
followers in the village of Dolores and gave his famous "Grito de
Dolores", a cry for independence from Spain and power to the
Indians, and set the wheels of revolt in motion.
At this point, there was a possibility that Father
Hidalgo might have become more than just the leader of a short-lived
Indian uprising. He could have become the leader of a unified revolution
against Spanish rule. Most Mexicans were ready for independence. Spain was
in chaos. The government of New Spain was indecisive and divided. The
middle class was frustrated, angry, and jealous. The lower castes were
starving. But Father Hidalgo made a mistake.
Emboldened by his early successes, he led his Indian
followers in an attack on Guanajuato, which was, at that time, the second
largest city in Mexico. After a short battle, Father Hidalgo and his men
captured the city. Father Hidalgo lost control of his Indian followers.
Instead of assuming control of the town, his followers looted and burned
it. They massacred all the whites and mixed breeds they could find. This
one act united the whites and mixed bloods against him. As General Calleja,
one of the generals of the Royalist Army, put it:
"Natives and even Europeans themselves are
convinced of the advantages that would result from an independent
government; and if the absurd insurrection of Hidalgo had been built upon
this base, I should think it would have suffered very little
Through the church, the government of New Spain had
an avenue of effective communication. Using this monopoly on
communications, they started a propaganda campaign against Hidalgo. This campaign included items
such as having the bishops pronounce that all priests working for or with
Hidalgo were excommunicated, and that any mass they gave was a false
unconsecrated mass. This propaganda also capitalized upon the atrocities
committed by Hidalgo's followers on Indians, as well as on whites and
mixed bloods. Since the priests were believed, this caused the Indian
population around Mexico City to fear Hidalgo.
The government's propaganda campaign was most
effective. When Hidalgo neared Mexico City with his army, instead of
rising up to support Hidalgo, the Indians in this area either fled or
actively opposed him. The Indians around Mexico City would not allow
Hidalgo and his army to restock provisions.
Hidalgo's army met the Royalist Army in battle at
Monte de las Cruces. This was the first time Hidalgo's army had fought
trained troops. Hidalgo's army numbered approximately 100,000 men. The
Royalist Army had 12,000 men, but these were trained men. They were better
armed and equipped. They had powerful weapons, including cannons, and they
knew how to use them.
Hidalgo's army won the battle, but their losses were
huge. Actual casualty numbers are unknown because during the battle and
immediately thereafter, large numbers of Hidalgo's army deserted. This
reduction in forces, as well as the approach of General Calleja, with
additional Royalist troops, caused Hidalgo's army to retreat from Mexico
The next time Hidalgo and his supporters met the
Royalist Army in battle, near Guadalajara, Hidalgo and his army were
defeated. Hidalgo led his followers in flight towards Zacatecas, where he
hoped to continue his fight. On March 21, 1811, Father Miguel Hidalgo was
captured by the Royalist Army. On July 31, 1811, Father Hidalgo was
executed by firing squad. As a warning to other revolutionaries, Father
Miguel Hidalgo, Ignatio Allende, and two others of Hidalgo's trusted
lieutenants, had their head cut off and placed on stakes outside the walls
of Guantanano at the site of their original massacre.
This insurrection surprised almost everyone, both
with its initial vigor and growth, as well as its rapid collapse. Father
Hidalgo has been glamorized by some historians. For example, Fisher talks
about "Hidalgo and his brave followers" (2),
and Lynch refers to "the Heroic Father Hidalgo with his armies of the
downtrodden". (3) There are countless
statues of Father Hidalgo in Mexico, as well as several biographies
written about him. Father Hidalgo is known as the father of Mexican
Independence. But, in fact, instead of leading a well planned uprising of
the masses, whose purpose was to give freedom and independence to New
Spain, the Hidalgo led uprising was a poorly organized, poorly executed
The Hidalgo revolt accomplished little except to
unite the rest of Mexico against it. It did bequeath a couple of catchy
slogans to the cause of independence, such as the "Grito de
Dolores" and the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, but in concrete
physical results, it accomplished nothing and only existed for about 6
Father Jose Maria Morelos
In contrast to the short explosive nature of the
revolt led by Father Hidalgo is the revolt led by Father Jose Maria
Morelos. Morelos and his followers fought for several years in the
southern part of Mexico, with similar results to Hidalgo's in the end.
Morelos was also a priest, and a man of property. He
could have supported the establishment, but he didn't. Morelos had studied
at San Luis Obispo while Father Hidalgo was rector. This may have
influenced his decision to rebel against the authority of the Royalist
Father Morelos was leading a quiet life when he heard
of Hidalgo's revolt. He immediately quit his parish and
traveled north to
meet Father Hidalgo. He offered his services as a priest to Hidalgo's
army. Hidalgo refused this offer as he felt he had enough priests.
Instead, Father Hidalgo instructed Morelos to go back to the south and
lead the rebellion on the Pacific Coast.
Morelos was a much better general than Hidalgo. At
one point, in 1813, his forces controlled Acapulco and most of Southwest
Mexico. They even surrounded and cut off Mexico City from reinforcements
and supplies. However, the Royalist army, which had focused its attention
on the destruction of Hidalgo, was now free to focus its attention on
With attention focused on his forces, Morelos
realized that he could not defeat the Royalist army of New Spain in direct
combat. He altered his strategy, and turned his attention to instructing
his followers in the art of guerrilla warfare. His followers became
masters of small group engagements. They did not fight unless they could
win. They took small towns. They ambushed supply wagons and convoys. They
made life miserable for the establishment.
Father Morelos was not just a warrior. In the early
days of his revolt, Morelos gave every consideration to the interests of
the whites and mixed bloods in the area he controlled. He constantly
stated that he wanted and needed Criollo support to bring about an
independent New Spain.
He consistently demonstrated his interest in the
governing of an independent New Spain. He helped to create a Revolutionary
Congress, whose purpose was to draft a constitution and to design laws for
the new country. In 1813, Morelos
traveled to Apatzingan to meet with the
revolutionary congress, and was a signer of the new constitution produced
by this congress.
He also showed interest in International Diplomacy.
He sent several delegations to the United States to seek assistance for
his revolution. These delegations met with failure. At the time, the
United States was embroiled in its own little piece of the Napoleonic
wars, a period known in United States history as the war of 1812.
As the conflict wore on in New Spain, the
government's armies became vicious in their attempts to destroy Morelos
and his followers. The Royal militias executed farmers who supported
Morelos. They burned crops and destroyed the property of anyone who gave
Morelos support. In retaliation, Morelos instructed his followers to do
the same to all whites and mixed bloods. Thus, what began as a noble
cause, concerned with the civil rights of all people, degenerated into a
vicious killing circle.
All this death and destruction led to a waning of
support for Morelos. His revolution was dying. Morelos, and the rest of
his revolutionary congress, was forced, time after time, to flee before
the forces of the Royalist Army.
Morelos was finally captured on November 5, 1815 at
Tesmalaca. He was sentenced to death, and executed on December 22, 1815,
at San Cristobal Ecatepec, a village just to the north of Guadalupe. His
followers continued the struggle for about a year more, but finally gave
up. A small group of bandits, composed mostly of Indians, used the name of
Morelos, and continued to commit atrocities for several years afterward.
Independence is Achieved!
Morelos was a much more effective leader than
Hidalgo, and had greater success and impact. Yet neither actually
brought about independence for Mexico. Instead, they caused much
shedding of blood, the loss and destruction of countless amounts of
property, and most importantly, the distrust towards Indians by whites and
Mestizos. This dark legacy of distrust would influence Mexican politics
throughout its history.
Thus, these early revolts against the government of
New Spain did not help the actual movement for independence, with one
possible exception. These revolts did bring about the unification of the
middle class, the Criollos and mixed bloods. It showed these groups that
they had more in common with each other than they did with the Indians or
with the Europeans.
The Criollos and Mestizos had suffered from the
Indian revolts, led by Hidalgo and Morelos, for several years. The thought
of a successful Indian led revolution was alarming. They also realized
that European whites would never voluntarily give up power. This newfound
consensus amongst the Criollos and Mestizos, along with a realization that
there was popular enthusiasm for independence, finally brought about
actual independence. But, it was the Criollos and the Mestizos, not
the armed insurrection of the Indians, who brought about the actual
declaration of independence by New Spain from Spain in 1821.
By Don Donn, USA
Mexican Independence Links
Hidalgo: Mexico's Cradle of Independence
Grito" The Cry!
Mexico: Timeline Overview
Lesson Plans About Mexico
Mexican Holidays K-12
Units & Lesson Plans (Aztecs, Mayas)
A List of Lesson Plans
& Units About Mexico by many authors
Lesson Plans (Related)
For other units, lesson
plans, activities & resources,
by many authors (for Ancient, World & U.S. History) see...
Anna, Timothy E., The Fall of the Royal Government in
Mexico City, Lincoln, NE., University of Nebraska Press, 1978
de Lara, L. Gutierrez and Pinchon, Edgcumb, The Mexican
People: Their Struggle for Freedom, Arno Press & The New York
Times, New York, 1970
Fisher, Lillian Estelle, The Background of the
Revolution for Mexican Independence, Russell & Russell, New York,
1934 (2) pp 58
Hamnett, Brian, "The Appropriation of Mexican Church
Wealth by the Spanish Bourbon Government", Journal of Latin
American Studies, November 1969
Johnson, John J., "One Hundred Years of Historical
Writing on Modern Latin America by United States Historians", Hispanic
American Historical Review, Duke University Press, 1985
Kandell, Jonathan, La Capital, the Biography of Mexico
City, Random House, New York, 1988. (1)
Lynch, John, The Spanish American Revolutions 1808-1826,
W.W. Northon & Company Inc., New York, 1973 (3)
MacLachlan, Colin M., and Rodriquez O., Jaime E., The
Forging of the Cosmic Race, A Reinterpretation of Colonial Mexico,
Expanded Edition, University of California Press, Berkley and Los
Angeles, California, 1990
Ruiz, Ramon Eduardo, Triumphs and Tragedy, a History of
the Mexican People, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1992
Timmons, Wilbert H., Morelos Priest Soldier Statesman
of Mexico, Texas Western Press, El Paso, 1963
Have a great year!