The Mexican Declaration of Independence

Josefina Zoraida Vázquez

The Declaration of Independence in Spanish

As much as they partake of similar historical momentum, it is difficult to compare the declarations of independence of the United States and Mexico. My goal is simply to outline essential facts and ideas in order to explore basic differences between the two founding documents of 1776 and 1821.

News of the English colonies' independence had resonance in the Spanish territories, including New Spain (later called Mexico), but mostly as an event. In papers that Mexican insurgents published in 1810 and later, they mentioned George Washington and the United States as models and hoped for plentiful aid. But they did not read the document signed July 4, 1776. We have to consider that even after the United States took possession of the Louisiana Territory in 1804, when the United States and New Spain became neighbors, the notions they had of each other were very vague. It is significant that the Constitution of 1787 was published in 1812 in New Spain, although only after 1823, when the Mexican Empire, the first independent postcolonial government of Mexico, had failed and a republic was chosen as the form of government, could it be considered of great importance. 1

In the 1820s a flurry of publications indicated increased interest in American institutions. The Declaration of Independence of 1776 was printed by José María Luis Mora in 1821 in his influential liberal newspaper Semanario Político, Económico y Literario. Mora expressed his wish to publish documents "relating to the first revolution on the continent." The first document published was the declaration of the representatives of the United States of North America, July 6, 1775 (the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms), followed by the declaration of July 4, 1776, and several constitutions. He announced that printing those documents was important in view of the upcoming meeting of the Mexican Congress in February 1822. Mora did not offer any particular remarks about the Declaration of Independence. 2

The writings of Fray Servando Teresa de Mier and Vicente Rocafuerte, enthusiastic publicists of the American system, began to circulate as a way to combat the Mexican Empire. 3And, indeed, during the 1823 and 1824 debates in the Mexican Congress, American institutions became the center of attention, and thus began their idealization.

Of course, we can detect the use of similar language in the two documents, both of which were influenced by a global liberal context. But that similarity does not demonstrate that the earlier, United States declaration helped shape the later, Mexican one. The historian David Brading has insisted that, in spite of the cultural debts resulting from Spanish America's cultural liaison with Europe, Spanish Americans "succeeded in creating an intellectual tradition that, by reason of its engagements with the historical experience and contemporary reality of America, was original, idiosyncratic, complex, and quite distinct from any European model" -- and of the United States model, I would add. 4

By the mid-eighteenth century, in North America there were thirteen small English colonies, two large French colonies, and the enormous and prosperous viceroyalty of New Spain. In the profitable trade of the Caribbean, Mexican silver played an important role as an instrument of exchange. But the Seven Years' War (1756 - 1763) disrupted that order.

One aftermath of the Seven Years' War was the failure of France and Spain to limit the growing economic predominance of Great Britain. As a consequence of the war, France was almost excluded from the Americas. But the war also bankrupted all three powers. This forced them to impose new taxes and to modernize their imperial systems. New taxes and new institutions for fiscal control were established, which produced the malaise that led to independence in the Americas (and the revolution in France).

Interpreting the fiscal and administrative changes as violations of their constitutional rights, leaders of the English colonists reacted immediately. They were sensitized by their knowledge of law and politics. A long debate with the English Parliament took place within the context of the Enlightenment, with glimpses of classical thought, the radical writers of the seventeenth century, and the entire spectrum of Protestantism. This helped the thirteen colonies to "discover" a unified identity based on their experience and grievances. The radicalization of their position in debate with Parliament culminated in the Declaration of Independence.

The road to independence in Spanish America was quite different. The arrival of the Bourbons on the Spanish throne in 1700 meant extensive French political and intellectual influence. Jansenism and the Enlightenment were spread throughout the Spanish Empire in spite of the Inquisition and produced a form of thought that was Catholic with neo-Thomist hues. French and other European writers were also read throughout the empire, but their influence surfaced later, when the break with Spain was occurring. In the New World, such Spanish thinkers as Melchor Gaspar de Jovellanos and Francisco Martínez Marina were widely read and quoted. Both of these enlightened Spaniards stressed the existence of a historical constitution -- the "democratic" medieval Spanish institutions derived from the Visigoth period. This constitution assured that the Spanish monarchy had to listen to the Cortes, which included representatives not only of the church and nobility but also of the cities. This was a status quo that had been infringed since the sixteenth century by the Habsburgs. 5The focus on Spanish history elicited a great concern over such Spanish legal documents as the Siete Partidas and the Recopilación de Leyes de Castilla, still in effect in the eighteenth century, and in the Americas, the Leyes de Indias. Therefore, while the movement toward independence was preceded in English America by a present-mindedness that re-imagined the future, in Spanish America it was preceded by an innovative reconsideration of the past.

These new ideas flourished in New Spain within a context of nascent "nationalism" that had as its central symbol the Virgin of Guadalupe. This identification, born in the sixteenth century, developed during the eighteenth when people in the kingdom of New Spain became more aware of the greatness of the Aztec empire and felt pride in its prosperity and its great past. The preference for calling themselves American Spaniards was the way the Creoles, Spaniards born in the colonies, expressed their sense of this new identity. But the "vague creole patriotism," what the historian Brian Hamnett has called, "Creole identity based on common interest, local authority, religion, pride in the Aztec past," really developed during the wars of independence. 6

After their ascent to the Spanish throne, the Bourbons undertook the "modernization" of the bureaucracy in order to strengthen the Crown and to restore the old glory of the Spanish Empire. But the defeat suffered by Spain in the Seven Years' War made it urgent to transform the bureaucracy, not only to generate income, but also to reverse the incorporation of New Spain into a system of world trade that centered on Britain. 7The goal was to transform the American possessions into real colonies.

Toward the mid-1760s, measures known as the Bourbon reforms were implemented. The visitador José de Gálvez arrived in Mexico City in 1765, just after the arrival of military troops that were sent to create a Spanish army in the viceroyalty. In 1767 the first drastic measure carried out was the expulsion of the Jesuits, and New Spain lost some of its most outstanding intellectuals and educators. A series of innovations followed: new taxes, state monopolies, an end to the practice of having fleets convoyed by warships, free commerce within the empire, a new territorial division of the viceroyalty through the creation of the intendencias, replacement of part of the old bureaucracy by a professionalized one in charge of collecting taxes and controlling the royal treasury. Not all the innovations were negative, but many disturbed local interests. To strengthen the Crown, privileges formerly granted to corporate groups and the church were annulled. The prevalent regalism, that is, the Spanish monarchy's control of the church, made that institution the favorite target of the Bourbons: The clergy was taxed, and the religious orders were removed from parishes and replaced by diocesan clergy.

The reforms produced discontent, because they destroyed the virtual autonomy that Spanish America had enjoyed until the mid-eighteenth century. American Spaniards considered them a violation of traditional order; thus the reforms had "a consciousness raising impact." 8But the process of independence took longer in New Spain, "the most precious jewel of the Spanish Crown," than elsewhere in Spanish America because of closer ties with the metropolis and the prosperity that the kingdom enjoyed.

All social groups were affected and resented the new taxes, the state monopolies, and the economic prohibitions. The old Spanish bureaucracy lost significant authority; the Creole elite saw with dismay how their access to representative positions and high dignities was limited. The Consulado de México, the union of merchants, resisted free-trade policies. And the popular classes reacted violently to the expulsion of the Jesuits and the tobacco monopoly. They did not interpret the measures as a conspiracy against the American provinces, but as the transgression of government officials against the old pact. They had recourse to the justice of the king. In this traditional practice, the ayuntamiento (council) of Mexico City prepared a document to the king, protesting the exclusion of Creoles from the administrative organs ordered by Galvez. The document sent to Carlos III in 1771 by the municipal authorities was a long description of their traditional rights. Frequently in the past, Creoles had claimed their rights as descendants of the conquerors, but in 1771 they invoked both principles of natural justice and Crown and church legislation currently in effect. They insisted that any attempt to deprive American Spaniards of high office in their own countries was "to seek to transform the derechos de gente [common law]"; they phrased in traditional terms their right to participate in their own government. Insisting that the European-born were foreigners in the land, they rejected being considered inferior to them and claimed their suitability to serve in any high position in the kingdom. They were better informed about the land and its conditions, and as inhabitants of New Spain, their service could not only save the high costs of bringing over Spaniards but also prevent corruption, as they were not so eager to make a fortune in a few years as the Spaniards. 9The document expressed American resentment toward the European Enlightenment's negative judgments about America and Americans (appearing in the works of naturalists and men of letters such as William Robertson, Corneille de Pauw, the abbé Guillaume Raynal, and Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon). It also demanded respect for concrete traditional rights, different from the abstract rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789.

During the 1770s and 1780s, prosperity eased the malaise produced by the reforms, as did Creole pressure and the viceroy's relaxing the measures. But by the 1790s, the constant involvement of Spain in wars (among them the American Revolution) increased financial demands and led to bankruptcy. The Crown placed heavy burdens on her richest kingdom, New Spain; it imposed more taxes on the entire population as well as voluntary and forced loans. But it was the Crown's 1804 appropriation of ecclesiastical funds -- by which it hoped to amortize its debts -- that produced indignation, because the funds served as a bank for ranchers, miners, and merchants. The appropriation not only left the kingdom without credit but also forced the debtors to repay their loans inmediately.

New Spain had lost its luster; decapitalized and impoverished, it started to suffer a deep general discontent. The grievances of the kingdom multiplied, and Americans began to express openly their desire for autonomy. They considered the sending of Mexican silver to Spain, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Floridas, and the Philippines as an unfair drain of their resources. They resented being treated as colonies, insisting on their status as kingdoms of the Crown, equal to those on the peninsula.

The collapse of Spain's Bourbon monarchy in 1808 presented the Creoles with the opportunity to reflect on their lack of representation and on the measures to be taken in the new situation. Startling news reached New Spain: Carlos IV had abdicated in favor of his son Fernando VII, and later both abdicated their rights in favor of Napoleon Bonaparte. The ayuntamiento of Mexico City, the most representative body in the kingdom, faced the absence of a legitimate king, the possibility of being invaded and ruled by the "heretical French," and the issue of what those events meant for New Spain. Based on contractual theory, the council maintained that because American kingdoms were ruled by the Crown, which no longer existed, the nation had recovered its sovereignty.

Meanwhile, Spain was fighting for its own independence against Napoleon. The juntas (congresses) established in the peninsula sent representatives to New Spain to ask for recognition and support. The members of the ayuntamiento refused to recognize the peninsular juntas. The Peruvian-born Fray Melchor de Talamantes defended the right of the kingdom of New Spain to convene its own national junta with representatives from the military, the clergy, the audiencia (the chief organ of royal judicial authority in the viceroyalty), the ayuntamientos, and other corporations. The ayuntamiento believed that such a junta ought to decide how to govern while Fernando VII remained a captive of the French. Some of the proposed solutions were radical, but rooted in the Spanish legal tradition. The viceroy went along with the idea of a congress, but the bureaucracy and the audiencia, controlled by people born in Spain, did not accept it, and declared: "In the present state of things, nothing has altered the nature of legitimately established authority, and all should continue as it has until now." 10 The result was a coup d'état by the audiencia against the viceroy and the leaders of the ayuntamiento, who were imprisoned. European Spaniards interrupted the peaceful movement and showed the road to violence. A rebellion with popular participation exploded in September 1810 with the uprising led by the priest Miguel Hidalgo.

Meanwhile, in Spain the juntas merged into a Supreme Central Junta that through a decree of January 22, 1809, proclaimed "that the vast and precious dominions that Spain possess in the Indias, are not colonies nor factories like those of other nations, but an integral part of the monarchy." 11 This was in fact a recognition of the equal status that American territories had. Although the decree did not specifically mention the American kingdoms, it recognized part of the traditional American argument. In May, Spanish Americans were called to elect deputies to the Spanish Cortes (1810 - 1814).

The predominance of liberals (a word used for the first time in this forum) in the Cortes, with the influence of the French Constitution of 1791, led to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. The Spanish Constitution of 1812 placed sovereignty in the "nation," defined as "the union of all Spaniards of both hemispheres," with all having the right to representation in the Cortes in the peninsula.

The debates in the Cortes provided a political experience for the American deputies and the publication of the constitution spread liberal ideas. Some Americans were satisfied with the rights and representation granted, but others considered the constitution a modification of their traditional rights, a new form of metropolitan supremacy. During the rebellion, the insurgents radicalized their aims of social reform. Hidalgo issued a decree in 1810 abolishing the tribute paid by the Indians and black slavery, remarkable measures if compared with the American Revolution.

The insurgent leaders in New Spain considered the United States as a natural ally because of its former colonial status. They expected aid in the form of arms, munitions, and volunteers. They sent several agents, but the only one who was able to get to Washington and be received by the secretary of state in 1812 was disappointed when he discovered the expansionist intentions of the United States. Both the United States and Britain were interested in the independence of Hispanic America, but Mexico did not receive the support that the thirteen colonies found in France and its ally, Spain. The United States tried to avoid giving Spain any pretext for helping the British during the War of 1812, and later on, its leaders were interested in assuring possession of the Floridas. 12

In Mexico the desire to create a separate sovereign state was clear in 1813. The congress meeting in Chilpancingo issued a very brief Act of Independence, promising to maintain the Catholic religion and announcing recovery of "its usurped sovereignty" under "the present circumstances in Europe" and "the inscrutable designs of Providence." The constitution enacted in 1814 reflected Spanish and French influences and included a program of social reform. To achieve social equality, José María Morelos, Hidalgo's successor, at the inauguration of the Congress had recommended enacting laws that would "moderate opulence and indigence." 13

While rebellion continued in the Americas, in Spain upon the return of Fernando VII in 1814, the constitution was annulled. This action eroded the prestige of the Crown in New Spain even more. But by 1820 peace seemed restored in New Spain. A military coup d'état against absolutism in Spain offered Mexicans a new opportunity with the restoration of the Constitution of 1812, freedom of speech, the right of representation, and the liberation of imprisoned rebels. But unease returned to New Spain.

Out of the long war between supporters and opponents of independence from Spain that had raged since 1810, a totally transformed New Spain emerged. The disruption of life meant that by 1820 everyone was eager to restore order and was convinced of the inevitability of independence. Both former rebels and loyalists were thinking of the advantages of joining in a common effort.

The man who took the lead was Agustin de Iturbide, a Creole from the royal army who had distinguished himself in the war. As a Creole, he favored New Spain's autonomy, but he rejected the insurgent violence. He was convinced of the possibility of accomplishing independence through an alliance of the two opposing parties, together with the people's support. Vicente Guerrero, the main leader of the insurgency, realized that his isolated position made success very difficult.

Iturbide was able to convince Guerrero to accept the alliance and on February 24, 1821, enacted his Plan of Iguala, declaring the separation of New Spain. The plan identified all the inhabitants of New Spain as Americans, regardless of their race and place of birth. Under the influence of Dominique de Pradt, who had argued that American independence was an inevitable consequence of the maturation of colonies, Iturbide considered the dissolution of empires as natural. From this point of view, despite the generosity of pious Spain, the emancipation of New Spain was necessary and inevitable. 14

Success was complete. With hardly any violence, by August most of the country had endorsed the Plan of Iguala. At that time, the new jefe político Juan O'Donojú, named by the liberal Cortes, arrived in New Spain. O'Donojú realized that independence was a fact. Thus he signed the Treaty of Córdoba with Iturbide, recognizing the independence of "the Mexican Empire," to be governed by a prince of the Bourbon dynasty. After the capitulation of the Spanish troops that occupied Mexico City, on September 27, 1821, Iturbide, Guerrero, and O'Donojú presided over the festivities for the establishment of the new state.

On September 28, the Act of Independence of the Mexican Empire was signed. The rhetoric of the act had a less moderate tone than that of the Iguala plan. The wording of the act showed the influence of liberal Spain and France but maintained traditional New Spain views that interpreted the conquest as a loss of original liberty. The short document -- three paragraphs -- began: "The Mexican nation, which for three hundred years has neither had its own will nor free use of its voice, today leaves the oppression in which it has lived." The deed, thanks to the "heroic efforts of its children," had been consumated by the memorable enterprise began at Iguala. "Restored to all its recognized and sacred rights, the Mexican nation is free to constitute itself through its representatives, in any way convenient to its happiness." The Supreme Imperial Junta declared that Mexico was a sovereign nation, independent from old Spain. 15

The act expressed "Creole patriotism," with its predominant historical and religious forms of address "all cast in a particular, rather than a universal mode." 16 But the universalist sentence of the American Declaration of Independence, "all men are created equal," was not a novelty for Spanish Americans. Long before, during the sixteenth-century debates over the conquest of the indigenous people of America, the Thomist thinkers Francisco de Vitoria, Domingo de Soto, and Francisco Suárez emphatically supported the equality of men.

The purposes of Mexican independence sharply contrasted with those of the independence of the United States. While in Mexico the emphasis was on concrete goals of social reform and form of goverment, in the United States the goals were phrased in the language of abstract principles and social aspects were discussed much later. In the United States the principle of a societal democracy was forgotten when the 1787 Constitution legalized slavery. In Mexico, equality had been legally acknowledged since the beginning of the independence movement. The problem was how to incorporate it into the social and political realm.

The independence of the United States was a paramount point of reference for the rest of the continent. The Mexican Declaration of Independence, however, was not a reflection of any particular document or the product of a direct and single American or European influence. It was rather the culmination of a long process of change during the viceroyalty of New Spain, a change in search of autonomy and sovereign rights. The words were liberal, but the content sometimes traditional.

Josefina Zoraida Vázquez is professor of history at El Colegio de México.

1. For an apostrophe to George Washington, see El Despertador Americano (Guadalajara), Dec. 20, 1810: "Washington . . . que tiene encantados nuestros corazones con el admirable conjunto de sus virtudes populares y republicanas." (Washington . . . how our hearts are haunted by the admirable totality of your popular and republican virtues.) For one to Americans, see ibid. , Jan. 11, 1811: "¡ Americanos del Norte! . . . Tú eres nuestro Amigo más seguro, el Aliado más fiel que nos ha dado la naturaleza, estableciendonos en un mismo continente. Tu eres nuestro modelo y nuestro recurso, tus intereses son nuestros, de ti esperamos los más prontos y abundantes socorros." (Americans of the North! . . . You are our surest friend, the most faithful ally that nature has given us, placing us on the same continent. You are our model and our resource, your interests are ours, from you we hope for the quickest and most abundant help.) See also La Avispa de Chilpancingo (Chilpancingo), no. 3, 1821. El Diario de México (Mexico City), Oct. 23 - Nov. 7, 1812, pp. 2579 - 94.

2. Semanario Político, Económico y Literario (Mexico City), Nov. 28, 1821 - Jan. 9, 1822. The Declaration of Independence is printed ibid. , Dec. 12, 1821. The intention to publish the French Constitution of 1791 and others and their relevance to the Mexican Congress are announced ibid. , Jan. 23, 1822.

3. For the theory that America was providentially destined to be republican and extensive quotations from Common Sense by Thomas Paine, see José Servando Teresa de Mier Noriega y Guerra, Memoria politico-instructiva enviada desde Filadelfia en agosto de 1821 á los gefes independientes del Anáhuac (An educational political memorandum sent from Philadelphia in August 1821 to the independent leaders of Anáhuac) (Philadelphia, 1821).

4. David Brading, The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State, 1492 - 1867 (New York, 1991), 5.

5. See Richard Herr, The Eighteenth-Century Revolution in Spain (Princeton, 1958), 341 - 45; and Raymond Carr, Spain, 1808 - 1975 (New York, 1982), 93, 526.

6. Brian Hamnett, "Process and Pattern: A Re-examination of the Ibero-American Independence Movements, 1808 - 1826," Journal of Latin American Studies, 29 (May 1997), 279 - 328.

7. Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th - 18th Century (2 vols., New York, 1979), I, 261.

8. Hamnett, "Process and Pattern," 284.

9. "Representación que hizo la ciudad de Mexico al rey C. Carlos III en 1771 sobre que los criollos deben ser preferidos a los europeos en la distribución de empleos y beneficios de estos reinos" (Remonstrance that the city of Mexico made to King Carlos III in 1771 arguing that Creoles ought to be preferred to the European-born in the distribution of the public offices and benefices of these kingdoms), in Colección de documentos para la historia de la guerra de independencia de México (A collection of documents on the history of the Mexican War for independence), ed. J. E. Hernández y Dávolos, vol. I (Mexico City, 1877), 427 - 55.

10. "Voto consultivo del Real Acuerdo sobre la representación del Ayuntamiento de Mexico" (Advisory vote of the Real Acuerdo on the memorial from the Ayuntamiento of Mexico), in Documentos históricos mexicanos (Mexican historical documents), ed. Genaro García (Mexico City, 1985), 11, 57.

11. Manuel Dublán y José María Lozano, Legislación mexicana o colección completa de las disposiciones legislativas expedidas desde la independencia de la República (Mexican legislation; or, a complete collection of legislative measures since the independence of the republic), vol. I (Mexico City, 1876), 326 - 27.

12. Arthur P. Whitaker, The United States and the Independence of Latin America, 1800 - 1830 (Baltimore, 1941), 65 - 97.

13. Brading, First America, 580 - 81; Ernesto de la Torre Villar, Moisés González Navarro, and Stanley R. Ross, Historia documental de México (Documentary history of Mexico), vol. II (Mexico City, 1964).

14. "Americanos; bajo cuyo nombre comprendo no solo a los nuestros en America, sino a los Europeos, Africanos y Asiaticos, que en ella residen." (Americans -- under which name I include not only our own people in America but also the Europeans, Africans, and Asians who live here.) Guadalupe Jimenez Codinach, Planes en la nación mexicana (Plans for the Mexican nation), vol. I (Mexico City, 1987), 125. See Dominique de Pradt, The Colonies and the Present American Revolution (London, 1817).

15. Jimenez Codinach, Planes en la nación mexicana, I, 129.

16. Brading, First America, 601.