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Iturbide and the new republic

24 July 2019

Maybe this post should have been entitled “Chronicle of a chronicle foretold”… after so many fits and starts (and a few bumps in the road… one of which ended up costing me a leg)… I am back to revising my 2008 Gods, Gachupines and Gringos.

Besides the first editor having died, and the publishing business he founded long gone, I’ve been reluctant to work on it, mostly out of a realization that “serious” History (the capital H kind of history) isn’t much published outside academia, and I am not an academic.  That, and, from my own not all that happy experience trying to keep he small publishing business going, one either has to find a niche of a niche of a niche publisher for a book like this, or self-publish:  becoming writer, editor, book designer, printer, and marketer… or pay someone to do all that.  Not seeing my role as anything more than a writer willing to work with a good editor, …  attacking the mass of files, documents, revisions, and loose notes (not to speak of links that were lost when I changed computers a few years back) is enough to handle.  I’d prefer a well-designed book, and — of course — would like to make it known that the book is available, those are extras.  For now, I’ll be publishing draft excerpts here (I haven’t found the editor I need yet) and when there is a full section suitable for a small ebook, and/or POD, I’ll release that.   My original intention was to make the book “student friendly” (i.e., cheap!) anyway.  Which doesn’t mean you have to be, and it’d be appreciated if users kicked in something. 

Of all the anti-colonial independence movements in the Americas, Mexico’s had changed the most dramatically. The United States, Haiti, the countries in the south, all benefited from a leadership, or leader, who had steered the movement from the beginning. George Washington, Simón Bolivar ad José de San Martín were all military professionals or had military training, whereas the Mexican independence movement had lost its military professionals (like Allende) early in the struggle, and those professions at the end of the struggle, like Iturbide and Santa Anna were won over only after negotiations that would preserve their rank and priviliges.

Furthermore, where the United States, Haiti, and South America had all received the benefit of foreign assistance, financial and military advisers, Mexico had largely “winged it”. No Marquis de Lafayette, no Daniel Florence O’Leary, no Baron von Stuben had come to Mexico, merely adventurers like Franciso Javiar Mina. Nor had the Mexicans been able to play off the European powers against each other… the United States receiving Spanish and French support fighting the British, Tousante L’Overture calling upon British and Spanish troops to drive out the French oppressors, and Bolivar, in turn, to seek assistance from the Haitians.

What foreign assistance Mexico, as in the rest of the former Spanish Empire, could expect was in the form of British loans. As Prime Minister George Canning said in 1825 when the first Latin American Ambassador arrived in England, “”Spanish America is free, and if we do not mismanage our affairs she is English … the New World established and if we do not throw it away, ours.1” Mexico, and indeed all of Latin America, would find itself with a “neo-colonial” status: their independence limited by their dependence on continued loans (and interest payments) to foreign bankers and control of their natural resources and exports in the hands of foreign businesses.

And, unlike the other newly independent American nations, Mexico had an aggressive, expansionist neighbor: the United States. In 1823, Secretary of State John Quincey Adams penned the position paper later known as the “Monroe Doctrine” (after the then-president James Monroe). Meant to warn off returning colonial powers like France and Spain, it also was aimed at the “Holy Alliance” (Prussia, Austria, and Russia), potential European powers that conceivably could take a role in the new nations or provide alternative export opportunities.

The United States, from the earliest English colonial era, had been a “settler state”, that is, unlike Mexico, where the Spanish rulers did not so much seek to replace the native population and import their own people as they did to extend their power over the natives and assimilate them into their own system, the English (and later Americans2) equated filling their territory with their own people with expanding power. Indeed, the country’s domestic economy was based on real estate, and land sales. Having acquired the Louisana territory in the “real estate deal of the century” back in 1803 when Napoleon took back the region from Spain and flipped it to the United States, the borderlands between what was New Spain and the United States had rapidly filled with new residents, as the native population was continually harrassed and forced to move further west into sparsely populated and little explored territory in what became Mexico. Stephen F. Austin was champing at the bit to begin legally selling land in Mexican Texas to U.S. Settlers, but U.S. Residents, stymied by already rising real estate prices in the what was then the western states, were already beginning to pour in, overwhelming what local authorities there were.

Mexico, however it was constituted, like the United States, was a massive territory, stretching from what is now Wyoming to Nicaragua, but a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural one, and whose people were not so much given to acquiring new land, as to holding on to what they had. The United States had worked out a political system based for the most part on British traditions, but republics were still a new thing in the world, and there was no consensus on how they would be organized.

The “three-guarantees” that had led to a successful revolutionary coalition had given more rights to the people than the United States, and British, systems did. Voting rights were not limited to Protestant land-owners (as in Britain) or to those of European descent (as in the United States, along with land-owning requirements) but to every adult male. Although slavery had not been officially abolished, during the independence struggle, there had been massive emancipations by various war-lords, and there was no thought (as in Haiti) or re-enslaving these new, theoretically equal, citizens.

Who would be governed (from Apaches to Zapotecs, not to mention criollos, mestizos, “africanos” and every variety in between) was perplexing enough, but the immediate question at independence was HOW to govern. In broad terms the United States Constitution was seen as a good model, but not one that fit the situation. France had been a Republic, and the French Revolution, being more a social uprising than, like in the United States, a question of whether or not the local elites should rule rather than the foreign elites, was another. France had drifted into anarchy until Napoleon emerged as Emperor. Among military men, even the die-hard democrat Simón Bolivar, he was greatly admired. And, among those intellectuals and activists who had survived the long independence struggle, there was a sense that a strongman ruler was needed to control the vast “empire”. And, being an empire, why not an emperor?

In 1820, as the Independence War was finally coming to an end, returning Spanish troops had rebelled against the absolute monarchy and forced a constitution on their king. Although, just as Mexico and Spain were negotiating independence, there was a royalist counter-coup that would restore absolutism, the idea of a constitution monarchy had its supporters: republics didn’t always work out (as in France and Haiti), and… frankly… a good number of the elites wanted a strong and stable leadership that would keep down those cries for “liberté, egalité, fraternité”.

As it was, the Treaty of Cordoba (24 August 1821) assumed that Mexico would be a monarchy. Appointing a Mexican emperor was not that bizarre an idea. Haiti had become a monarchy, and what is now Argentina also was debating the idea. Brazil went further. Portugal’s ruling family, and the imperial bureaucracy having sat out Napoleón’s occupation in Brazil, for a time Portugal became a colony of Brazil. Only when the Portuguese threatened to secede from Brazil, did the king return home, leaving his son as Portuguese Emperor and at least preserving family ties (and, it was hoped, economic and miltiary ones) between the rulers of the former colony and the mother country3.

Iturbide loved symbols, and he modeled himself on Napoleón. The French had a tri-colored flag representing their three ideals—liberty, equality, brotherhood—so México needed a three color flag—green for independence; white for church privileges; red for the mixed indigenous and European blood of the people. An alternative explanation, favored at the time by comedians and humorists, was that the down-to-earth Vicente Guerrero and Iturbide had watermelon for lunch when they met. Guerrero, with peasant humor, looked at the watermelon’s green husk, white rind and red fruit, suggested the color combination and just sat back as Iturbide concocted an explanation.

While there was a new flag, and a treaty with Spain recognizing Mexico’s independence, there was no real government. With Nicholas Bravo and Guadalupe Victoria, Iturbide entered Mexico City (21 September 1821) creating a provision government until an emperor could be found.

Iturbide, as head of the provisional government, stayed busy creating the symbols of a new country and creating the right tone for a new empire in the making. The rotting heads of Hidalgo, Allende, Aldama and Jiménez were finally taken down from the alhóndiga in Guanajuato and given a military burial.

There was a new Congress left in charge until an emperor could be selected. Some assumed they would be choosing a member of the Spanish royal family. However, with Ferdinand VII’s supporters openly warring with the Spanish liberals, and the royal family in low regard, there wasn’t much enthusiasm for the idea. A few in Congress thought of those of Moctezoma’s distant relatives who had become Spanish nobility. A few others talked about the Hapsburgs, who had plenty of unemployed relatives to select from.

María Ignacia Rodríguez de Velasco Osorio y Barba, aka La Güera Rodriguez

La Güera Rodríguez, the “femme-fatale” of the late Bourbon era, and underground Independence leader, had her own nominee. At the end of the war, Agustín Iturbide was among her… admirers. It is generally assumed it was she, more than anyone else, who convinced the professional soldier to switch from the Royalist to the Independista side. Given that Independence had been dragging on for ten years, and had become a war of attrition, only resolved when the military began to defect en masse, Iturbide was not necessarily wrong in seeing military men as essential to gaining, and more importantly, maintaining, independence, nor in seeing himself as THE essential leader for a new nation. Besides, he certainly looked the part4.

And so… like Napoleon Bonapart, the nation’s most celebrated soldier, Iturbide, simply decided that rather than wait, as suggested, for a European prince to assume the role of Constitutional Emperor, he would rule as Agustin I.

There would be no Agustin II.

Napoleón Bonaparte had also been a military commander and head of government in revolutionary France. Agustín Iturbide had been a military commander and head of government in revolutionary Mexico. Napoleón, as a member of a three-man ruling committee, had eased his two co-rulers out of the picture and made himself dictator. Itubide did the same, forcing Bravo and Victoria into secondary roles, then accusing dissenting congressmen of treason and having them arrested, Nicholas Bravo was jailed, and Guadalupe Victoria headed back into the woods. Congress’ crime was their realization that they couldn’t afford to pay the old colonial army that had been folded into the new national army, along with all the insurgent officers and the criollo draftees already on the army payroll. They had to cut the army down to sixty thousand men.

This might have been acceptable to the hacendados – hacienda owners – who had been drafted along with their workers, but for a lot of junior officers and sergeants the army was their only source of income. They had nothing to loose when Iturbide paid them to shout, “¡Viva Agustín Primero!” – “Long live Agustín the First!” – and threaten the congressmen. Napoleón Bonaparte had become Emperor of France through a military coup. Agustín Iturbide could do the same.

The Emperor Agustín was crowned 21 July 1822. No one seems to have considered what to do after the coronation…or given much thought to how much the coronation had dipped into the almost empty national treasury. During the wars, mining equipment had broken down and replacement parts were no longer available. Haciendas had been abandoned or destroyed in the fighting. Unpaid soldiers had turned bandit to survive. When Congress questioned whether an emperor who spent his time designing medals and inventing titles for his new dukes was earning his pay, the emperor threw several more congressmen in jail and told the rest of them to go home.

What are today the Central American countries (Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua), less out of some democratic ideals than a reluctance by the local criollos to accept the Three Guarantees with their recognition of the indigenous and former slaves as citizens, opted for their independence from Mexico City (partially because the local criollos would not accept the three guarantees that recognized the indigenous peoples as citizens5.

If a bankrupt treasury, mounting loans from British banks, secession and a squabbling congress wasn’t enough, Spain had not quite given up on it’s claim to Mexico. As Viceroy O’Donojo was working out the terms of independence, Fernando VII of Spain had regained his absolute power, and labeled O’Donojo a traitor for working out a deal with the previous “constitutional” government6. Spanish troops had not yet withdrawn from San Juan de Ulúa, the fortress castle guarding the entrance to Veracruz, and they fired on the city.

Coming to the city’s defense was a locally popular leader, another career military officer, Antonio López de Santa Anna. In his memoir he claims to have always been a republican at heart, although, given his “changeable” attitudes towards governance, it’s difficult to say exactly what his position was at any given time. At any rate, the eccentric but committed republican, Guadalupe Victoria, having gone underground when Iturbide had declared himself Emperor, emerged from hiding to explain the basics and to buck up Santa Anna, who started to panic after Imperial loyalists put up a token resistance. The new general was ready to run for the United States border, but the old rebel cheerfully told him it wasn’t over until their heads had been chopped off. Besides, the rebellion wasn’t going to take very long.

With almost no army, no government and no money, Agustín realized the game was up. He had the congressmen called back to Mexico City—mostly to arrange his pension. He complained about the terms they offered but finally sailed off into exile.

Emperor Agustín came to a tragic or foolish…or maybe heroic end. When the Spanish landed another token invasion force in 1824, Agustín sailed back to México, planning to help drive out the invaders and retake his throne. After all, Napoleón had done the same thing, returning from exile to drive the Bourbons out of Paris and have the army restore him as emperor of the French, but…México was not France. Congress had warned Agustín he would be shot if he returned. He did…and he was.

Post-independence México was a mess. It would average over one president a year for the next forty years, have four different systems of government, be invaded several times and lose half of its territory. While the chaos and violence might suggest that Huitzilopochtli had come to earth, it was more the era of the trickster god, Tezacatlipoca…and the closest thing México has seen to his human incarnation.



2My preference is for USAnians, or United Statians, both rather clumsy terms, but then again, the United States, being the first past the post in hemispheric independence, called dibs on the name.

3Viceroy Juan O’Donajú was hoped to keep the King of Spain as King of Mexico (an arrangement something like that of today’s British Commonwealth, where former British colonies are independent countries, but the English monarch is the head of state), or failing that, at least keep the ties to Spain intact, though a ruler from the Spanish royal family.

4There is a theory that the United States has had so few professional soldiers as President thanks to a accident. While the first president, George Washington was tall and broad shouldered, and looked good in the gaudy uniforms of the time. The second president, short and chubby John Adams, looked simply ridiculous. Iturbide was tall, broad shouldered and, by the standards of the time, devastatingly handsome.

5 The Central American Republic would quickly break apart as one and another region seceeded. Part of what is now in the state of Chiapas would seceed from Guatemala to return to Mexico in the early 20th century. Costa Rica would not grant their indigenous people citizenship until the late 20th century.

6 O’Donajú was declared an traitor (for doing his job) and was a reluctant exile in Mexico. Negotiating on his own behalf, he pressed the new Mexican government to provide a pension for him … which wouldn’t do him much good. He no sooner rented a house in the Capital (today’s Tacuba 25 in the Centro Historico) than he died. Some suspect he was poisoned. His widow received his pension irregularly, if at all. Unable to keep up her bills, she was eventually evicted, and — despite occasional help from friends — ended up living in a rooming house where she died of starvation.


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