Mexico followed a path to independence that both resembled and differed from the path taken by other Latin American nations in the Age of Revolution. As in South America, the Napoleonic invasion of Iberia in 1807–08 generated a crisis of authority in New Spain, prompting the formation of a cabildo abierto (open city council) in Mexico City.
Of the various plots and conspiracies hatched against the Spanish colonial government in the Basin of Mexico and beyond, one in particular would have major repercussions for the process of independence.
On September 16, 1810, the Creole priest Miguel Hidalgo issued his famous Grito de Dolores (Cry of Dolores), denouncing the bad government of the Spanish and demanding an end to the Spanish colonial rule of Mexico.
The Hidalgo rebellion rapidly snowballed, reaching its height in late October 1810, when as many as 100,000 of the priest’s impoverished mestizo and Indian followers stood on the outskirts of Mexico City, posing the threat of an all-out race and class war in the heart of Spain’s overseas empire.
The Hidalgo rebellion thus played much the same role in New Spain as the Haitian Revolution two decades earlier across the Caribbean. It could be seen as a cautionary tale for Creole elites who wished to achieve independence, but not at the cost of subverting the colony’s rigid race-class hierarchy and thus risking their own privileges and power.
After the Spanish defeated Hidalgo’s insurgency, autonomist Creoles bided their time, most refusing to support the simmering rebellion waged in the regions surrounding the basin of Mexico by another parish priest, José María Morelos. The Morelos rebellion fizzled, despite the 1813 Congress of Chilpacingo (in the province of Guerrero) in which delegates formally declared independence.
In 1815 Spanish fortunes improved with their capture and execution of Morelos and, back in Europe, with the defeat of Napoleon I and restoration of King Ferdinand VII to the throne.
For the next five years, until 1820, the independence movement in New Spain remained relatively quiescent, though the Spanish proved unable to snuff out the numerous guerrilla bands led by Vicente Guerrero, Guadalupe Victoria (both future presidents), and others.
In 1820 it was once again events in Spain that triggered a movement toward independence in the colony: the Riego Revolt against King Ferdinand, in which Colonel Rafael Riego led an uprising of army officers demanding that the king adhere to the provisions of the liberal 1812 Constitution, in effect establishing a constitutional monarchy.
The king had little choice but to yield to Riego’s demands. Back in New Spain, the conservative Creole elite felt threatened at this latest turn of events. One such conservative Creole, Colonel Agustín de Iturbide abandoned his royalist allegiances and struck out for independence.
Iturbide sought an alliance with his erstwhile foe, the rebel leader Vicente Guerrero, and after a series of conferences the two agreed on a plan to make New Spain independent: the Plan de Iguala.
It boasted 23 articles and three guarantees: that the new nation would be ruled under a constitutional monarchy; that Roman Catholicism would be the state religion; and that equality would reign between Creoles (Spaniards born in New Spain) and peninsulares (Spaniards born in Spain).
Under Iturbide’s command, the so-called Army of the Three Guarantees (Ejército Trigarante) attracted allies from throughout the colony, and in September 1821 marched triumphantly into Mexico City, effectively making Mexico independent after almost exactly 300 years of colonial rule.
As elsewhere in Latin America, the devastation wrought during the independence period was immense. Mines were flooded, crops destroyed, livestock slaughtered, and commerce crippled. As many as half a million people died in the violence. The range and depth of the problems facing the new nation were immense.
While the actual date of Mexican independence was thus September 28, 1821, Mexicans celebrate independence on September 15–16, in commemoration of Hidalgo’s Grito de Dolores of 1810—a national memory that reveres the courage and sacrifice of the renegade parish priest and his followers while ignoring the legacy of the turncoat conservative-cum-emperor.