History of Mexico

Empire and Early Republic, 1821-55

The Abortive Empire, 1821-23

According to the Plan of Iguala, a provisional government was set up while an independent congress deliberated on the future of the nation. Congress was able to agree on two major issues: to cut the size of the Army of the Three Guarantees and to determine the eligibility of officials for the planned regency that eventually would replace the provisional government. As congress deliberated, Iturbide realized that power was slipping from his hands and decided to stage a dramatic demonstration on his behalf. On the evening of May 18, 1822, his troops were ordered to march through Mexico City in support of their commander. The demonstration by the Army of the Three Guarantees was joined by other soldiers and by the populace as it proceeded toward Iturbide's residence. "Long live Agustín I, Emperor of Mexico!" was the acclamation, at which Iturbide pretended surprise. The following day, congress named Iturbide as the constitutional emperor of Mexico. The arrangements for the coronation were pretentious but still in accord with Iturbide's understanding of the Mexican ethos. Iturbide recalled the importance of the monarchy in maintaining stability and control during the colonial period, and he decided to take full advantage of tradition.

The new empire faced serious economic problems. After the wars, the public coffers were empty, and the bureaucracy had grown. Modest tax adjustments were tried, but the results were meager. In congress, discontented factions sharply criticized the government, and Iturbide's recourse was to dissolve the legislative branch and to have all opposition delegates arrested in August 1822. In Veracruz, the commander of the garrison, Antonio López de Santa Anna Pérez de Lebrón, rose against Iturbide and proclaimed a republic on December 1, 1822. Santa Anna was quickly joined by other revolutionaries--including a disenchanted Vicente Guerrero, Nicolás Bravo, and Guadalupe Victoria. Together, they drew up the Plan of Casa Mata on February 1, 1823. By midmonth, Iturbide, realizing the failure of his efforts, abdicated the throne. Rebel forces encountered no opposition when they arrived in Mexico City. In July the United Provinces of Central America (consisting of Spanish-speaking Central America except for present-day Panama), which had been forcibly incorporated into the empire by Iturbide, declared their independence. (The province of Chiapas, belonging to the Captaincy General of Guatemala, opted to remain a part of Mexico.) The experience of an empire had failed, and the idea of a monarchical system for Mexico would be dismissed for four decades. Iturbide's excesses had worked to the benefit of the republicans.

The Federalist Republic, 1824-36

After the fall of the empire, a provisional government was installed consisting of Bravo, Victoria, and Pedro Celestino Negrete. Delegates were elected to the Constitutional Congress that entered into session on November 27, 1823. The congress had two major factions: the federalists, who feared control from a conservative Mexico City and were supported by liberal criollos and mestizos; and the more conservative centralists, who preferred the rule of tradition and drew their allegiance from the clergy, conservative criollos, the landowners, and the military.

Although the federalist forces largely prevailed in writing the new constitution, the centralists won three major concessions. The constitution of 1824, which was strongly influenced by the United States constitution and Mexico's legislative relationship with Spain since 1810, established the United Mexican States (Estados Unidos Mexicanos) as a federal republic composed of nineteen states and four territories. Power was distributed among executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Legislative power was wielded by the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, while executive power was exercised by a president and a vice president elected by the state legislatures for four-year terms. In spite of the liberal outlook of the constitution, certain traditional privileges were maintained: Roman Catholicism remained the official religion, the fueros were retained by the military and clergy, and in national emergencies the president could exercise unlimited powers.

During the administration of Mexico's first president, Guadalupe Victoria, economic conditions worsened as government expenditures soared beyond revenues. Declining economic conditions convinced the criollos that there was more behind the economic decline than bad management by peninsulares . One of the government's major burdens was the assumption of all debts contracted during the late colonial period and the empire, a substantial sum. The government's ability to service the debt was severely constrained by the costs of maintaining a 50,000-strong standing army and the insufficiency of revenues generated by tariffs, taxes, and government monopolies. To cover the shortfall, Victoria accepted two large loans on stiff terms from British merchant houses. The British had supported independence movements in Spanish colonies and saw the loans as an opportunity to further displace Spain as the New World's dominant mercantile power.

Mexico's financial crisis was overshadowed in 1827 by a conservative rebellion led by Vice President Bravo. The revolt was quickly suppressed by generals Santa Anna and Guerrero, but political tensions remained high as the presidential elections of 1828 approached. The September 1828 elections pitted General Guerrero as the liberal candidate for the federalists against conservative Manuel Gómez Pedraza, who had served as secretary of war in Victoria's bipartisan cabinet. The voting results from the state legislatures showed Gómez Pedraza to be the winner in ten of the nineteen states, but the liberals refused to turn over the government, claiming that Gómez Pedraza had used his authority over the army to pressure the states into voting in his favor. A period of confusion ensued as two rival governments and their respective military factions battled over the presidential succession. The liberals finally emerged victorious after Gómez Pedraza abandoned the presidential palace under sustained pressure from rebels commanded by Santa Anna and Lorenzo de Zavala.

President Guerrero took power over a liberal government shrouded in questionable legality and dependent upon the loyalty of the military. Immediately upon assuming office, Guerrero experienced his first major crisis when the Spanish attempted to retake Mexico. A Spanish force of 3,000 soldiers under the command of General Isidro Barradas landed at Tampico in July 1829. Guerrero sent Santa Anna to dislodge the Spanish force in August, but the Mexican general could not launch an effective assault and instead dug in for a siege. Cut off from supplies and weakened by disease, the Spanish surrendered to the Mexicans in October. In the aftermath of the Spanish withdrawal, Santa Anna was widely hailed as the savior of the republic.

With the Spanish threat gone, Guerrero enacted several liberal reforms, including the abolition of slavery in September 1829. His forceful style of governing, made possible by his retention of emergency presidential powers obtained during the Spanish invasion, gave the conservatives renewed cause to rebel. In early 1830, the conservative vice president, Anastasio Bustamante, led a successful military-backed revolt against Guerrero and installed himself as Mexico's third president. While attempting to flee the country in January 1831, Guerrero was captured and executed by government soldiers on Bustamante's orders. Bustamante's conservative government was highly unpopular and repressive. In early 1832, Santa Anna denounced Bustamante in Veracruz, occupied the city, and appropriated its custom revenues. Santa Anna's defiance spurred additional revolts throughout the states, leading to the eventual collapse of the conservative government and the return of the liberals.

The highly popular Santa Anna was elected president under the liberal banner in early 1833. Instead of assuming office, however, he withdrew into semiretirement and delegated the presidency to his vice president, Valentín Gómez Farías. The liberal Gómez Farías government was strongly reformist, to the detriment of traditional church and military privileges. Among its reforms, the new administration decreed that payment of tithes would no longer be compulsory, and it transferred to the nation the right to make ecclesiastical appointments. In addition, Gómez Farías reduced the size of the army and eliminated its fueros .

Gómez Farías's far-reaching reforms drew a characteristically strong response from conservative elites, the army, and the church hierarchy. Under the banner of religión y fueros , the inevitable conservative backlash gained strength throughout the winter of 1833. In April 1834, Santa Anna abandoned the liberal cause and deposed Gómez Farías. The renowned general promptly dismissed congress and assumed dictatorial powers, bringing an end to liberal rule under the federal republic.

Centralism and the Caudillo State, 1836-55

In the two decades after the 1834 collapse of the federal republic, Santa Anna dominated Mexico's politics. Between 1833 and 1855, the caudillo occupied the presidency eleven times, completing none of his terms and frequently leaving the government in the hands of weak caretaker administrations. During this period, Mexico went to war on three separate occasions and lost half of its territory through sale or military defeat. Fiscal insufficiency kept Mexico constantly on the verge of bankruptcy and foreign military intervention.

Santa Anna repeatedly rose to the presidency, only to be cast out in the wake of scandals and military defeats. Invariably, he returned--even from exile--to lead the republic once more into military glory or out of insolvency. Santa Anna's bravery, energy, and organizational abilities were often matched by his vanity, cruelty, and opportunism. His feats of heroism in victorious battle, his bold interventions in the political life of the country, and his countless shifts from one side of the political spectrum to the other responded to the insecurities of Mexican nationalists and the vacillations of the republic's fractious political class.

The Constitution of 1836

Upon assuming dictatorial powers, Santa Anna promptly annulled Gómez Farías's reforms and abolished the constitution of 1824. The authoritarian principles that underlay Santa Anna's rule were subsequently codified in the constitution of 1836, also known as the Siete Leyes (Seven Laws). Under the constitution of 1836, Mexico became a centralist regime in which power was concentrated in the president and his immediate subordinates. The states of the former federal republic were refashioned as military districts administered by regional caudillos appointed by the president, and property qualifications were decreed for congressional officeholders and voters.

The nationalist and authoritarian style of the new centralist regime soon brought it into conflict with the loosely governed lands of Mexico's northern frontier. Santa Anna's efforts to exert central authority over the English-speaking settlements in the northern state of Coahuila-Tejas eventually collided with the growing assertiveness of the frontier population that described itself as Texan.

The Loss of Texas

Texas (known as Tejas) had been part of New Spain since the early colonial period. In 1821 in an effort to colonize and populate Texas, the Spanish commander in Monterrey granted a concession to a United States pioneer, Moses Austin, to settle the area under the Roman Catholic faith. Land could be acquired for a nominal charge of US$0.25 per hectare, and soon colonists from the United States started to pour into the area. By 1835 they outnumbered the Mexicans, four to one. Texas had no autonomous government and was politically attached to the state of Coahuila. Most Mexicans began to fear the incursions by North Americans and the possibility of losing Texas to the United States. Restrictions were placed on the future immigration of colonists from the United States, and slavery was abolished in 1829 in the hope of discouraging United States southerners from moving into the area.

Santa Anna's move to bring Texas under the political domination of Mexico City pushed the Texans to secede from Mexico on November 7, 1835, and to declare their independence in March 1836. In 1835 Santa Anna marched north in the direction of San Antonio with an army of 3,000 men. He reached San Antonio in March 1836 and learned that about 150 armed Texans had taken refuge at an old Franciscan mission, called the Alamo. He laid siege to the mission for several days before the final attack on March 6, 1836. The Mexican force took the mission the next day, killing all but five of the defenders in battle (the five prisoners were later executed). On March 23, the Texan town of Goliad was surrounded by Mexican forces, who compelled the Texan commander in charge to surrender. On express orders from Santa Anna, 365 prisoners were executed. The events at the Alamo and at Goliad stirred strong anti-Mexican sentiment in the United States. Volunteer fighters poured into Texas to stage a decisive blow against Santa Anna. The Mexican commander in chief and his army were ambushed and roundly defeated near the San Jacinto River by a force commanded by Sam Houston on April 21. Santa Anna, who had fled the scene of the battle, was captured by the Texans two days later.

While under custody of the Texans, Santa Anna signed two treaties with the Texas government: one ended hostilities by pledging the withdrawal of Mexican troops to positions south of the Río Bravo del Norte (Rio Grande), and the other, a secret treaty, recognized Texan independence from Mexico.

The Mexican-American War

After Texas attained its independence, the idea of its incorporation into the United States gained support both in Texas and in the United States Congress. Definitive action on the measure was delayed for several years, however, because of the divisive issue of admitting another slave state into the United States and the likely prospect that annexation would provoke a war with Mexico. In early 1845, the United States Congress passed a resolution in favor of the annexation of Texas, which prompted Mexico to sever diplomatic relations with the United States. The Mexican congress had never ratified Santa Anna's secret treaty with the Texans, and to underscore its opposition to Texas's independence, the Mexican congress passed a law that retroactively annulled any treaties signed by a Mexican negotiator while in captivity.

Further aggravating the dispute was the fact that the Texans had issued a dubious territorial claim that expanded the republic's southern and western boundary from the previously accepted Nueces River to the Río Bravo del Norte. By claiming all of the land up to the headwaters of the Río Bravo del Norte, the Texans more than doubled the size of their republic to include parts of present-day New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, and all of present-day western Texas.

Shortly after Texas was admitted to the Union as the twenty-eighth state, President James K. Polk dispatched a special envoy, John Slidell, to Mexico City to settle the Texas boundary dispute and to arrange the purchase of California. The Mexican president, José Joaquín Herrera, had been willing to recognize an independent Texas but was under intense domestic pressure to reject United States annexation and Texas's expanded territorial claim. As a result, he refused to meet Slidell and began reinforcing Mexican army units along the Río Bravo del Norte.

Hostilities between Mexico and the United States began on April 25, 1846, when several United States soldiers were killed in a cavalry skirmish with Mexican forces in the disputed territory. Shortly after the two sides declared war, Santa Anna was recalled from exile in Cuba to once again lead Mexican troops against a foreign invasion.

The United States Army attacked on three fronts: one column, under General Stephen W. Kearney, occupied California and New Mexico; another column, under General Zachary Taylor, entered northern Mexico; and a third detachment, commanded by General Winfield Scott, landed at Veracruz and marched to Mexico City. California and New Mexico fell with little bloodshed. Northern Mexico was the scene of fierce battles between Taylor and Santa Anna's armies at Buena Vista. Santa Anna initially struck hard at the outnumbered United States forces, but he later abandoned the battle and returned to Mexico City, prematurely claiming victory.

The heaviest fighting was done by Scott's Army of Occupation, which landed at Veracruz on March 9, 1847. Rather than attempt to occupy the city outright, Scott positioned his forces west of it, cutting off Veracruz's supply line from the capital. After several days of heavy naval bombardment that killed hundreds of civilians, Veracruz surrendered on March 27, 1847.

In Mexico City, the situation was chaotic. President once again, Santa Anna denounced both congress and his own subordinates in the executive branch for their lack of resolve in preparing the defense of the capital. They, in turn, denounced him for his failures in battle. On August 20, 1847, the Army of Occupation asked for the surrender of Mexico City, but the battle continued until September 13, 1847, when the last bastion of Mexican resistance fell during the famous Battle of Chapultepec. During the battle, young cadets from the Mexican military academy, the Niños Héroes (or "boy heroes") leapt to their deaths rather than surrender. The United States victory marked the end of the war and the beginning of negotiations for peace.

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

According to the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of February 2, 1848, the boundary between Mexico and the United States was established at the Río Bravo del Norte. Mexico was then required to relinquish its territories of New Mexico and Upper California (the present-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming) and to accept Texas's incorporation into the United States. As compensation, the United States agreed to pay US$15 million for the territories and to assume more than US$3 million in claims from private citizens of these areas against the Mexican government. Mexico lost more than one-half of its territory as a result of the war with the United States. The territorial losses and the brief but traumatic occupation of Mexico City by United States troops engendered a deep-seated mistrust of the United States that still resonates in Mexican popular culture. Anti-United States nationalist sentiment was a major intellectual current in the Mexican Revolution and continues to manifest itself in some aspects of Mexican society.

Santa Anna's last political venture resulted in the sale of more Mexican territory. In what is known in the United States as the Gadsden Purchase, ratified by the United States Congress in 1854, Santa Anna sold 77,692 square kilometers of land in southern New Mexico and Arizona for US$10 million. This additional loss of territory alienated a large, reform-minded group of young Mexicans, who then conspired to oust Santa Anna.

Mexico History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress