- Historic Sites
The Emergence Of Modern Mexico
The period between Mexican independence and the constitution of 1917 was turbulent and painful
April 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 3
By 1820 independence seemed a lost cause. In 1821, by an ironical twist of fate, it was an accomplished fact. A new colonial government with liberal, anticlerical ideas came to power in Spain in 1820 and frightened the Mexican conservatives. They plotted for independence, which they hoped to gain without making concessions to Guadalupe Victoria and Vicente Guerrero, the socialrevolutionary successors of Hidalgo and Morelos. Their tool in capturing power from the crown was Agustin de Iturbide, an officer in the royalist army. But the opportunistic Iturbide betrayed them, took matters into his own hands, and made peace with Victoria and Guerrero. With their help and with popular support, he expelled the viceroy and declared himself Augustin I, emperor of independent Mexico. But his talent for getting into power far outshone his talent for staying there. After a palace revolution, he was executed in 1824 and a federal republican constitution was adopted. In effect, the conservative créoles had won after all, for the independence that had been achieved was their kind of independence, not the kind for which Hidalgo and Morelos had fought. Although the first two Presidents of the Republic were the popular war heroes Victoria and Guerrero, they failed to bring much order out of the chaos into which the country had fallen. The federal constitution, on paper an imitation of the American, concealed a disorganized political situation in which powerful conservatives in Mexico City and local bosses in the states managed affairs to suit their private ends. Expulsion of the Spaniards, the créoles soon discovered, did not automatically solve the country’s problems, and so far as economic and social progress was concerned, the shift from colony to republic seemed only a change from one kind of stagnation to another.
The Zócalo, the main square of Mexico City, is shown above as it appeared in the late eighteen twenties. The National Palace (right) and the cathedral (center) continued to be the seats of power in independent, as in colonial, Mexico. Despite the adoption of a federal system in 1824, Mexico City remained overwhelmingly dominant. About the only political actions that did not emanate from the capital were rebellions, and the immediate objective of each of these was control of the city. Its location, although in the most populated part of the country, had disadvantages. When chosen by the Aztecs in the thirteenth century as their new capital, the site was a small island in a lake. Later, in colonial times, the lake was gradually filled in as the city grew; but parts of the metropolis remained marshy, and even today some areas are sinking at the rate of a foot a year. Furthermore, while the altitude of 7,400 feet and the mountainous approaches to the city presented difficulties to invaders, they were likewise the despair of road makers. Until the first railroad was built in the mid-nineteenth century, access to the capital was expensive and often hazardous.
Antonio L’pez de Santa Anna became President of Mexico on eleven different occasions between 1830 and 1855, using the office as a flying trapeze to attract the attention and excite the patriotism of the populace. Restless and overconfident, he saw himself as the Napoleon of the New World. His fame began in 1829 when he crushed a Spanish attempt to reconquer Mexico. After that he walked grandly and gallantly into the open arms of American Manifest Destiny. Mexico lost Texas in 1836, but with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican War, it lost half of its remaining territory. Ulysses S. Grant, who first saw action in Mexico, de- scribed the war as “the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” There is no doubt that with cooler heads than Santa Anna’s the results might not have been so damaging to Mexico. Nevertheless, Santa Anna regained the Presidency in 1853 and proceeded to sell the Mesilla Valley to the United States for ten million dollars—the Gadsden Purchase—to buy another year’s loyalty from his military cronies. In 1855 he was sent packing for the last time. A bankrupt, shrunken Mexico awoke from her most painful episode since the conquest. The country has no monuments to Cortes, but chances are he will get one before Santa Anna.