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The Spanish Empire got off to a bad start at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. In addition to her Caribbean, Central American, and Mexican possessions, Spain had gained possession of France’s extensive Louisiana territory in 1769. However, in 1800, Emperor Napoleon of France forced Spain to return Louisiana to France by the Treaty of San Ildefonso. Three years later, France sold Louisiana to the United States. 

The Spanish Empire

At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, Mexico was a colony of Spain, a European nation located approximately 5,500 miles (8,850 kilometers) from its Gulf Coast shoreline. In 1810, the Spanish Empire consisted of 13.7 million square kilometers (5.3 million square miles) and occupied 9.2% of the world’s land area, most of which was in the Americas. Spain had the fifth largest empire in world history, which is illustrated in the following map [Resvoluci, “Revoluciones Hispanoamericanas” (2007)].

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Emperor Napoleon Occupies Spain

The loss of Louisiana was the beginning of the end for Spain’s large American empire. The stage for the political revolutions about to take place was set by an important development that took place in Europe early in the Nineteenth Century. In 1807, Emperor Napoleon lured King Carlos IV of Spain and his family to France for a visit. Once there, the Spanish royal family was thrown into prison, and King Carlos was forced to abdicate the throne. Napoleon thereupon announced that his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, would become the new King of Spain. 

In March 1808, 100,000 French troops invaded Spain under the pretense of protecting the country’s coast line from the British, with whom France was in a state of war. Emperor Napoleon I quickly defeated the Spanish and entered Madrid in triumph. But the Spanish people, true to their tradition of defiance toward invaders, resisted the French occupation bitterly and carried on an effective guerrilla warfare against the uninvited invaders. 

In spite of the 300,000 French troops standing on Spanish soil, the guerrilla tactics of the Spanish people never left the conquerors secure in their position. By 1813, the Spanish people, with the help of British forces, were able to drive the French from the Iberian Peninsula. In the following year, King Ferdinand VII, the son of King Carlos IV, was restored to his throne. 

Rumblings of Discontent in Mexico

However, the rumblings of discontent in Mexico had become more visible in recent decades. The stratification of Mexican society was probably the most important problem contributing to this discontent. Professor Martha Menchaca’s “Recovering History, Reconstructing Race: The Indian, Black, and White Roots of Mexican Americans,” observed that: 

“Spain [had] instituted a racial order called the casta system through which Mexico’s population came to be legally distinguished based on race. This system was used to deny and prescribe legal rights to individuals and to assign them social prestige. In particular, distinguishing the population on the basis of parental origin became an adequate legal method of according economic privilege and social prestige to Spaniards.” The Spanish colonial system that existed at this time is illustrated in the following graphic [Amber Russell, “Social Structure of the Spanish Colonies” (Smithsonian Learning Lab). Online: [Accessed Oct. 3, 2019]].

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While the Spaniards and Europeans living in Mexico “enjoyed the highest social prestige and were accorded the most extensive legal and economic privileges,” Professor Menchaca notes that “the social and economic mobility of the rest of the population.” Indians, Mestizos, Afro-mestizos and people of other racial classifications, were “seriously limited by the legal statuses ascribed to their ancestral groups.”         

The Status of Indians

As a matter of fact, Professor Menchaca continues, “Indians were accorded little social prestige in Mexican society and were legally confined to subservient social and economic roles regulated by the Spanish elite. Most Indians were forced to live in a perpetual state of tutelage controlled by the church, state, or Spanish landowners.”

However, Professor Menchaca also notes that “Indians were economically more privileged than mestizos because they held title to large parcels of communal land protected by the crown and the Catholic Church” through the corregimiento system. On the other hand, the Mestizos and Mulatos did not have land reserved for their use, as the indigenous people did. In addition, mestizos were, according to Professor Menchaca, “barred by royal decree from obtaining high and mid-level positions in the royal and ecclesiastical governments.” 

Worse still was the social classification of Afromestizos. “Because they were of partially African descent,” states Professor Menchaca, “…they were stigmatized and considered socially inferior to Indians and mestizos… afromestizos were subjected to racist laws designed to distinguish them from mestizos and to impose financial and social penalties upon them.” By 1810, Mexico’s total population of six million people included 3,676,281 Indians and 1,328,707 castas (mestizos and afromestizos) of various racial mixtures. Together, these racial groups constituted 84 percent of Mexico’s population. 

Reforms of the Caste System

During “the absence of Spain’s legitimate monarch,” observes Professor Martha Menchaca, the Cortes (Spain’s parliament) “was composed of liberal thinkers, including representatives from Mexico, who passed legislation reforming the autocratic government into a constitutional monarchy.” These reforms were directed at both Indians and mestizos in the hope of making them “loyal subjects by accelerating the Indians’ assimilation and opening economic opportunities for both peoples.” 

“To implement these desired objectives,” Professor Menchaca comments, “the Cortes abolished the ‘racial caste system” and gave Indians, mestizos, and free afromestizos many of the legal rights of Whites.” Then, on September 25, 1810, Indians in Mexico were released from their centuries-old obligation of paying tribute to the crown and local government authorities. Henceforth, they would be taxed in the same manner as other subjects of the Empire. 

Then, on February 9, 1811, the Royal Crown decree that Indians were permitted to raise any crop they wanted. They were also given the right to enter any profession and to transact business with whomever they chose. “In sum,” Professor Menchaca concludes, “all economic and occupational restrictions were lifted.” 

The Rebellion Begins in Guanajuato

By this time, revolution had become inevitable and the first shots of the Mexico’s War of Independence had already been heard throughout the land. Early on the morning of September 16, 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla (1753-1811) summoned the largely Indian and mestizo congregation of his Dolores parish church in Guanajuato and urged them to take up arms and fight for Mexico’s independence from Spain. His Grito de Delores (Cry of Dolores) maintained the equality of all races and called for redistribution of land. 

Within days, a motley band of poorly-armed Indians and mestizos made their way to San Miguel, enlisting hundreds of recruits along the way. San Miguel fell to the rebel forces, but when Hidalgo’s forces reached the city of Guanajuato on September 28, they met with stiff resistance from royalist forces. Before the day was over, a fierce battle had cost the lives of 500 Spaniards and 2,200 Indians. But the rebels had captured the city and in October, they moved on to take Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, and Valladolid. By October, Hidalgo, with a revolutionary army now numbering 80,000 men, approached Mexico City. 

Although Hidalgo’s army defeated a small, well-equipped Spanish army outside of the city, Hidalgo, short on ammunition, ordered a northward retreat. From this point, the Spanish forces began a campaign to recapture lost territory. In March 1811, Hidalgo and other rebel leaders were captured in Coahuila. Most of the rebel leaders were executed as traitors. Found guilty of heresy and treason, Father Hidalgo was executed on July 31st.

Morelos Takes Control of the Rebellion

The revolutionary cause was next taken up by Father José María Morelos y Pavón (1765-1815). By the spring of 1813, Morelos’ rebel army had encircled Mexico City and isolated the capital from both coasts. However, within six months, the Spanish military was able to break the siege and recapture lost territory once again. In the Fall of 1815, Morelos was captured and executed by a firing squad. With his execution, the Independence movement reached its nadir.

The Independence Movement Evolves

Over the next five years, some sporadic guerilla warfare continued to plague the Spanish military. However, the Mexican Independence movement would receive unexpected help from a foreign ally. In 1820, a revolt of the Spanish military in Spain brought about a renewed vitality on the part of the Mexican people. In December of 1820, a royalist officer, Agustín de Iturbide (1783-1824), switched allegiance and made common cause with the rebel movement.


On February 24, 1821, Agustín de Iturbide declared the Plan of Iguala, calling for an independent, constitutional monarchy headed by an emperor. He entered Mexico City on September 27, 1821, and took power soon after. The Treaty of Córdoba was signed by Agustín de Iturbide and the last Viceroy, Juan O’Donojú, on August 24, 1821. This treaty recognized Mexico’s independence. However, on May 19, 1822, the Congress named Iturbide as the constitutional emperor of Mexico. 

The Republic of Mexico

It soon became apparent that Iturbide did not have the support he needed to remain Emperor of Mexico. On December 1, 1822, the commander of the Veracruz garrison, Antonio López de Santa Anna Pérez de Lebrón (1794-1876), leading a force of 400 troops, rose in rebellion against Iturbide. On that day, Santa Anna proclaimed a republic. On February 1, 1823, José Antonio Echáverri, the Captain General of Veracruz, joined forces with Santa Anna. Within two weeks, Itrubide abdicated his throne and fled into exile. Mexico had finally become a true Republic without a monarch. 

The early years of independence were difficult years for Mexico. The War of Independence and the subsequent separation from Spain, according to the historian Mark Wasserman, had taken “an enormous toll politically, psychologically, and financially.” The colonial economy was “devastated” and “mining, its fulcrum, was in ruins.” But the worst was yet to come, and “a long series of foreign invasions and civil wars followed, consuming immeasurable human and material resources.” 

War, Insurrection, and Instability

In 1829, the Mexican army defeated an attempt by Spain to re-conquer Mexico. At about the same time, Mexico was forced to deal with an insurrection by the American inhabitants of Texas. In 1836, Texas won its independence. Two years later, a French invasion of Mexico was defeated. But the most disastrous war of all was the War of 1846-1848 with the United States. By the end of this war, Mexico had lost almost half of her territory to the United States. In the meantime, the Caste (race) War erupted in the Yucatán (1847). From 1857-1860, a devastating civil war (The War of the Reform) polarized the entire country. This war was followed by a French invasion and occupation that lasted from 1861 to 1867. 

A Constant State of Turmoil

In the decades following her independence, Mexico’s political situation seemed to be in a constant state of turmoil. Between 1824 and 1857, Mexico had 16 presidents and 33 provisional chief executives, for a total of 49 national administrations. In 1829, the office of President changed hands three times, and in 1833, the same office changed hands seven times. In 1844, 1846, 1855, the office would change hands four times in each of those years. 

During this period, the military dominated the highest echelons of the federal government. From 1821 to 1851, only six civilians served as President, while a total of 15 generals also held the office. Three of the civilian presidents lasted mere days in office. Anastasio Bustamante (1780-1853) held the position of President for the longest consecutive period of time (four and a half years), while General Santa Anna served as chief executive a total of eleven times. 

Campaign of Vengeance against Spaniards

Starting in 1827, a campaign of vengeance against the Spaniards in Mexico commenced. According to the historian Stanley C. Green, Spaniards “formed a numerically small but influential component of Mexican society.” Numbering about 10,000 at the time of independence, they were “found at all levels of society” and “had been highly visible in the better circles, as merchants, country gentlemen, military officers, bishops, canons, and monks.” 

In May of 1927, the Mexican Congress passed a bill that purged all Spaniards from the federal bureaucracy, army, and regular clergy. Jalisco, “the most strident center of anti-Spanish feeling,” writes Mr. Green, “took the lead.” On September 3, 1827, the Jalisco legislature became the first in Mexico to expel Spaniards from the state. Within four months, all of the other states would follow suit. 

The Core of Everyday Life

During these perilous years of instability, writes Mr. Wasserman, “the core of everyday life retained its essential characteristics.” Many Mexican citizens lived in the countryside on haciendas (large land-holdings). Most haciendas employed both permanent inhabitants and temporary laborers. The permanent employees included resident peons, tenants, or sharecroppers, while temporary laborers would be brought in from neighboring villages. Many villagers relied on the estates for work that would supplement their meager earnings from working their own lands. However, the hacienda system in Mexico was severely weakened starting in 1821 because of shrinking markets for their products and uncertain political conditions. 

The Porfiriato

Mexico started to experience profound social and political changes. The era of Mexican politics that lasted from 1876 to 1910 is usually referred to as The Porfiriato, for Porfirio Díaz, who served as President through six terms of office starting in 1876. During this period, according to Mr. Meyer, “Mexico entered a period of sustained economic growth the likes of which she had never before experienced.” 

However, writes Mr. Meyer, the peace, prosperity, and stability of this era was preserved in part by the use of “brute force.” Through “adroit political maneuvering, threats, intimidation, and, whenever necessary, callous use of the federal army,” Porfirio Díaz maintained himself in power. In spite of the modernization of Mexico’s industry and the prosperity of the small upper class, Mexico remained an “overwhelmingly rural country… dominated by the hacienda complex.” And, unfortunately for the average Mexican citizen, “the abuses of the system were exacerbated markedly during the Díaz regime.” 

By 1894, one-fifth of the total land mass of Mexico was owned by land companies “and some 134 million acres of the best land had passed into the hands of a few hundred fantastically wealthy families.” According to the Mexican census of 1910, 8,245 haciendas existed in the Republic and half of all rural Mexicans lived and worked on them. Mr. Meyer writes that these millions of laborers “were worse off financially than their rural ancestors a century before” and “in terms of purchasing power correlated with the price of corn or cheap cloth,” the Mexican peón was actually twelve times poorer than the average American farm laborer. 

The Revolution Begins

By 1910, President Díaz had come under sharp criticism from his political opponents for the autocratic nature of his rule. It was only a matter of time before a social revolution would become necessary. The opposition eventually coalesced around an eccentric northern landowner, Francisco I. Madero (1873-1913). On November 20, 1910, Madero, who had taken refuge in the United States, issued a call for an armed uprising. By May of the next year, President Díaz was forced to resign and flee the country. 

However, the resignation of Díaz did not bring stability to Mexico. Instead, the turmoil became more intense, especially after the overthrow and assassination of Madero in February 1913. General Victoriano Huerta, a general who was born in a small Jalisco village, assumed the office of President after having overthrown Madero. But Huerta’s stay in office came to an end on July 8, 1914, when he was forced to resign. “The years following Victoriano Huerta’s ouster,” according to Mr. Meyer, “are the most chaotic in Mexican revolutionary history as the quarrels among erstwhile allies began.” 

The Cost of the Revolution

Some have estimated that the lost of life in the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) was between 1.5 and 2 million. “In a country with a population of roughly 15 million in 1910,” writes Mr. Meyer, “few families did not directly feel the pain as one in every eight Mexicans was killed. Even Mexico’s high birthrate could not offset the casualties of war. The census takers in 1920 counted almost a million fewer Mexicans than they had found only a decade before.” 

With this major loss of life, the already fragile Mexican economy was nearly destroyed. Jobs were scarce in many parts of the country, and the average daily wage of the common farm laborer in Mexico did not exceed twenty-five cents a day. Railway laborers in Mexico were making fifty to seventy-five cents a day in 1910. By comparison, railway workers in the United States made $1.25 a day.

From 1810 to the end of the 1920s, Mexico suffered through one conflagration after another.  The Mexican people watch the battlefield maneuvers of the Spanish Royal Army, French troops, Conservatives, Liberals, Revolutionaries, Federal Forces and Cristeros.  With the end of this period, Mexico has at least achieved some measure of peace, albeit an uneasy peace in some areas of the country.

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