In 1800, New Spain was the richest region of the Americas, socially diverse, deeply unequal, stabilized by a regime of judicial mediation. The Iguala movement, led by Agustín de Iturbide, in 1821 severed the tie between Spain and New Spain, the bond that had long sustained the power of the Spanish Empire. But the Mexico proclaimed in 1821 came out of years of revolution. The break began when Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808, setting off debates about sovereignty in Mexico City, leading to military a coup that kept silver flowing to Spain. Two years of political debates and social predations led to the 1810 Hidalgo revolt. Attacks on property and trade broke silver capitalism by 1812, when the Cádiz Constitution promised liberal rights to back armed powers in Spain and New Spain. Insurgents fought on, making new communities and breaking oligarchic families while women challenged patriarchy. New Spain was gone in 1821, when military commanders and struggling oligarchs claimed independence. This essay offers a synthesis of the pivotal transformations—underway from 1808—that made the break with Spain possible, perhaps inevitable—and made the construction of the Mexico envisioned in Iguala impossible.

En 1800, Nueva España representaba la región más rica de las Américas. Socialmente diversa, profundamente desigual, era estabilizada por un régimen de mediación judicial. En 1821, el movimiento de Iguala, liderado por Agustín de Iturbide, rompió los lazos entre España y Nueva España, y los vínculos que sostenían el poder del Imperio español. Pero el México proclamado en 1821 llegó después de años de revolución. El resquebrajamiento comenzó cuando Napoleón invadió España en 1808. Estableció en la ciudad de México debates sobre la soberanía y provocó un golpe militar que evitó que la plata siguiera fluyendo a España. Dos años de debates políticos y depredaciones sociales llevaron a la insurrección liderada por Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla en 1810. Ataques a la propiedad y al comercio rompieron el capitalismo platero en 1812, cuando la Constitución de Cádiz prometió derechos liberales para apoyar a las fuerzas armadas en España y Nueva España. Los insurgentes lucharon y, en el proceso, crearon nuevas comunidades y trastocaron familias oligarcas, mientras que las mujeres retaban al patriarcado. Finalmente, Nueva España desapareció cuando los militares trigarantes y los oligarcas en apuros declararon la independencia. Este ensayo ofrece una síntesis de las transformaciones cruciales iniciadas en 1808 que hicieron la ruptura con España posible, quizá inevitable –y que también hicieron imposible al México soñado en Iguala–.

The Iguala movement, led by don Agustín de Iturbide in 1821, severed the tie between Spain and New Spain, the bond that had long sustained the power of the Spanish Empire. Throughout the eighteenth century, New Spain had prospered, while Spain struggled—struggles that came to a head during the wars set off by the French Revolution and Napoleonic expansion. Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808 began political conflicts in New Spain that, by 1810, led to insurgencies in the Bajío and beyond, which broke the American kingdom’s economy and led to Iturbide, Iguala, and Mexican independence in 1821. By the time of the break with Spain, New Spain had been transformed by a decade of political and social conflicts. Iguala marked a definitive end—and uncertain beginnings.

In 1808, New Spain remained the richest, most globally important, most socially stable society in the Americas. Its silver drove global trades and paid for imperial wars. Mexico City was the largest city in the hemisphere, with a population approaching 150,000; its financial-commercial-landed oligarchs were the richest, most economically powerful people in the Americas (Tutino 2018b). In the heartland around the capital, a mix of landed indigenous republics and commercial estates sustained the city and nearby mines (Tutino 2018a); in the Bajío just north, mining, textile manufacturing, and commercial cultivation drove a dynamic economy grounded in ethnic amalgamations; across the plateau country extending north, social amalgamations spread on commercial grazing properties interspersed with oases of irrigated cropping—all three regions linked in a dynamic silver capitalism that generated profit, drove global trades, and maintained social stability (Tutino 2011). In contrast, across diverse Mesoamerican regions to the south, the stimulus of silver was scarce and commercial life limited. There, indigenous republics held strong as the focus of life and sustenance after 1800. And along coasts, Africans coming out of slavery mixed with indigenous peoples to forge distinct amalgamating communities (García de León 2011). New Spain was a kingdom of dynamic wealth, sociocultural diversity, and solid stability.

In 1808, New Spain and the world of silver capitalism began to face radical, transforming, and destabilizing changes. In the wake of Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, a summer of mobilization in Mexico City opened new public politics that debated ways to popular sovereignty—until a September coup broke the rule of the mediating judicial regime and forced a turn to militarized power. In 1810, insurgents in the Bajío—facing mounting social predations as silver production peaked—rose in armed insurgencies, provoked but not led by don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. They broke the economy that made New Spain rich and pivotal to world trade. In 1812, the liberal Cádiz Constitution offered new—if limited—political rights to men across Spain’s empire—excluding those of African ancestry, while turning against the rights of diverse citizenship that sustained indigenous republics across Mesoamerican regions. Meanwhile, the insurgents who broke silver capitalism persisted and claimed control of cultivation across Guanajuato’s basin lands; by 1820, commercial cropping had ended in the region that was once the engine of silver capitalism. And a decade of conflictive change saw women challenge patriarchy to claim new roles in politics, producing communities, and oligarchic families.

These five pivotal transformations had broken New Spain by 1820. Two were fully entrenched: military power would contest and shape politics in Mexico for decades to come; silver would never reclaim its role as an engine of capitalist dynamism and global trades. The other three were underway and accelerating: the rise of popular sovereignty and the turn toward singular citizenship (both backed by militarized powers) were presented as liberations yet threatened the indigenous republics that enabled self-rule and sustenance for the Mesoamerican majority. The corrosion of commercial cultivation undermined oligarchic powers as family production spread beyond indigenous republics into regions long ruled by commercial estates. And challenges to patriarchy seemed to be everywhere—in politics, production, and oligarchic families, too.

When Iturbide raised an alliance of military forces and struggling oligarchs to proclaim the Plan de Iguala in 1821, they faced a radically different and still-changing New Spain. They aimed to mobilize entrenched military powers to defend oligarchic rule—after silver capitalism had fallen and as commercial cultivation faced assaults from below. Could once powerful patriarchs revive mining, contain the spread of family cultivation, and limit women’s assertions? In 1821, they proclaimed a Mexican monarchy, imagining that military force tied to claims of popular sovereignty might restore oligarchic power in a society radically transformed by the fall of silver capitalism at the hands of insurgent communities—while women challenged old ways within oligarchic families and in producing communities.

Arguably, Iturbide’s 1821 Plan de Iguala proposed the impossible. This essay offers a synthesis of my ongoing work, aimed less at scholars of the era of insurgencies and independence and more at those with broader interests in Mexican history. It explores the pivotal transformations underway from 1808 that made the break with Spain possible—perhaps inevitable—and made the construction of the Mexico envisioned in Iguala impossible. The silver dynamism, judicial rule, oligarchic power, and social stability that made New Spain were gone. Patriarchal power faced challenge. An uncertain, conflictive search to invent Mexico followed.

In May 1808, Napoleon’s armies occupied Madrid and captured Spain’s monarchs, Carlos IV and Fernando VII, father and son, breaking the regime that had overseen Spain’s empire for centuries. Across Spain, regional leaders quickly mobilized long-established rights of the pueblos, cities, and towns to reclaim sovereignty, call juntas, and seek ways forward. In Mexico City, officials, oligarchs, and everyday people took to the halls of power and public plazas to debate ways to popular sovereignty: Did it belong to the pueblos of Spanish tradition? To the people in the British innovation? Or to the nation, as French revolutionaries insisted? With debates unresolved, Viceroy don José de Iturrigaray, backed by leading financial and landed oligarchs, moved to call a Junta/Congress of New Spain—in the Spanish tradition. Then, on the evening of September 15–16, military forces mobilized to enforce subordination to a junta that had declared itself supreme in Seville. Armed forces captured the viceroy, replaced him with a military commander, and quashed political debates in order to keep silver flowing to Seville.

The military coup deposed an established leader as he called representatives to debate an uncertain future, a defining moment in the history that would break New Spain and make Mexico (Tutino 2018b). While it is widely recognized that the ferment in the summer of 1808 opened new possibilities and that the September coup blocked the new politics, it also marked a turn from a regime of judicial mediation to one of militarized assertion and enforcement—while claiming to act as “the people.”

The prevalence and pivotal importance of judicial and mediating rule in New Spain’s centuries of silver dynamism has been long known—and too long ignored. Key studies (Taylor 1979; Borah 1983; Owensby 2008) have detailed the judicial engagements that sustained the rights of indigenous republics and kept social peace. When communities in the basins around Mexico City and across Oaxaca rioted, they did so briefly, usually for a day, to get the attention of courts that found stabilizing resolutions (Taylor 1979). More recently, analysts have revealed the pivotal role of judicial and corporate mediations in sustaining commercial dynamism and social peace (Cañeque 2004; Irigoín and Grafe 2008; Lempérière 2013; Sánchez de Tagle 2014; Albi 2021).

Bourbon reformers had tried to build military power in New Spain since the 1760s, but, except along the far northern frontier, they created militias funded and led by local oligarchs, along with small urban constabularies to assist local magistrates. Standing forces were minimal. In the face of the popular risings in and near the Bajío in 1766–76 (provoked by the reformers’ revenue demands), it took months to mobilize militia responses; then, after exemplary repressions, judicial mediation brought pacification and returns to production (Archer 1977; Ladd 1988; Castro Gutiérrez 1996; Tutino 2011). After that time of conflict, silver capitalism revived to soar to new heights as judicial and mediating rule reconsolidated. Madrid might appoint military men as viceroys, but they had to negotiate power and stability with minimal armed backing (Tutino 2018b; Albi 2021).

The change imposed in September 1808 proved dramatic and transforming. In the short term, officials and oligarchs in New Spain acquiesced in the coup. They watched silver flow in peak amounts to sustain Seville’s fight against Napoleon, while the landed among them took profits from two years of drought-driven scarcity. Two years later, the failure to stop the French march to Seville, despite peak shipments of New Spain’s silver, led regional elites in the Bajío to debate new demands for political participations, reviving the politics of popular rights—while the producing majority faced social predations deepened by the elite profiteering from drought and scarcity (Hamill 1966; Tutino 1998; Tutino 2011; Herrejón Peredo 2011; Tutino, forthcoming, ch. 3).

Powerful men in search of political rights worried that a call to insurrection would unleash a desperate and angry populace. The plotters could not act, enabling the regime to arrest key participants at Querétaro. Alerted to the collapse, Allende joined Hidalgo at Dolores on the night of September 15–16, 1810. The next morning, the cura called his parishioners to arms, backed by provincial militias mobilized by Allende. Within days, political rebels and their militias were surrounded by tens of thousands of rural producers attacking estates to claim maize to sustain families. Simultaneously yet separately, political provincials and irate producers opened a decade of insurgency that would transform New Spain in militarized conflicts.

From 1810, the regime power militarized in the 1808 coup was contested militarily in political and social conflicts that began in Guanajuato, spread to the Mezquital and the pulque zones between Mexico City and the Real del Monte mines, reached greater Guadalajara, and later settled across Pacific coastal lowlands (Tutino 1986; 2018a, ch. 4–5). In response, the regime deepened its militarization, built unprecedent standing forces, and in 1813 appointed as viceroy don Felix Calleja, the primary field commander in the fight against political and popular insurgencies since 1810 (Ortiz Escamilla 2013, 2017). Military command and viceregal power fused.

Iturbide had been part of the militarization of power since 1808. He and Calleja were present in Mexico City in 1808, leading provincial militias called to control the city at time of the coup (Ortiz 2017; Tutino 2018b). Iturbide fought political and popular insurgents in and near the Bajío, defeating José María Morelos before he was demobilized in 1816 (Lemoine 1979). Recalled in 1820 to root out guerrilla leader Vicente Guerrero, still at arms in Pacific lowlands, Iturbide drew Guerrero to the Plan de Iguala early in 1821. They forged a united military force to proclaim a Mexican monarchy (Arenal Fenocchio 2002; Moreno Gutiérrez 2016; Tutino 2018a, ch. 10). Iguala confirmed the militarization of power in New Spain, a radical change begun in 1808 that would mark Mexico’s early national history.

Silver was the engine that drove New Spain and Spanish America from the middle of the sixteenth century when, in the midst of the devastating disease-driven depopulation that swept the Americas, the Chinese Empire turned to silver as its money of account for overseas trade, internal revenues, and large commercial transactions (Flynn and Giráldez 1995). Silver led the rise of Potosí to dominance in Andean America and world trade in the decades from 1570 to 1640. New Spain, with mines extending from the heartland around Mexico City, through the fertile Bajío, and across arid regions north, rose from a strong complement to Potosí before 1640 to dominate silver capitalism and the global trades it sustained through the eighteenth century. Silver capitalism had distinct social and cultural impacts in regions of diverse ecologies and social ancestries.1

For centuries, about a third of New Spain’s silver went through Manila to draw Chinese silks and porcelains and South Asian cotton wares to the Americas. Two-thirds went to Spain and Europe to fund trade, regimes, and wars, then on to India to buy the cotton cloth essential to African slave trades, and finally to China, where both flows settled as the monetary base of the world’s largest, most productive economy (Pomeranz 2000; Yuste López 2007; Tutino 2011; Parthasarathi 2011; Lovejoy 2011; Tutino 2016a).

New Spain’s silver output rose to hit a historic peak in 1809, as flows were diverted to sustain Britain and France more than Spain in times of escalating wars (Marichal 1999). New Spain’s silver economy held strong, until it crashed amid the insurgencies begun in the fall of 1810. Hidalgo, Allende, and other political insurgents sought participations to make silver capitalism serve regional interests. Popular insurgents, mostly rural, fought to claim sustenance on the land. In the four months of Hidalgo’s first insurgency, Guanajuato was twice invaded and sacked, in part by its own mine workers, while the rural produce that sustained the city was taken by insurgents to provision massed armies and home communities (Granados 2016; Tutino, forthcoming, ch. 3).

Had Hidalgo’s defeat outside Guadalajara early in 1811 ended insurgency, Guanajuato’s mines might have revived. But while political leaders faced capture and execution, or fled to distant parts, popular insurgents came home to Guanajuato to sustain a decade of insurgency. By early 1812, they had claimed control of production on the land, strangling local mining in the process. That year, New Spain’s silver flowed at half the level of 1800–1809—and held near that low throughout the decade and long after. Years of extraction without infrastructure investment led to the drowning of the Valenciana mines in the great flood of 1820, thus punctuating silver capitalism’s end as pacification set in (Velasco Ávila et al. 1988; Romero Sotelo 1997; Tutino 2018a, ch. 5, tables A. 7, 8).

The fall of silver capitalism had global ramifications that fell back on New Spain, preventing any revival in Mexico. By 1816, the end of silver flows through Manila had brought down silk and porcelain manufacturing and exports in China, setting off a commercial collapse that began a century of economic struggle marked by the rise of opium imports brought by British merchants from India—and paid for by the silver long accumulated in Chinese vaults. Imperial decline marked by drug dependency shaped China’s nineteenth century. Linked in a dynamic axis of global trade since the sixteenth century, New Spain and China saw their economies fall together when Guanajuato insurgents broke silver capitalism after 1810. Neither China nor New Spain, as it became Mexico, could revive it (Lin 2006; Tutino 2016a).

Simultaneously, the end of silver flows cut the exports of the fine South Asian cotton wares long demanded by African kings and merchants in exchange for enslaved people. From the 1780s, English innovators had worked to make cotton cloth by machines, aiming to compete with Indian goods in the trade that forced bound humans to the Americas. Two cotton flows, both in British hands, shared global markets until 1810. Then, with the fall of New Spain’s silver, cloth exports from India plummeted, enabling British-manufactured cottons (using slave-grown US fiber) to soar to global dominance (Allen 2009; Parthasarathi 2011; Tutino 2016a). Neither British manufacturing nor US slave plantations required silver.

After insurgents broke silver production in New Spain between 1810 and 1812, global trades and manufacturing shifted to adapt to a world without silver—making a revival of silver capitalism all but impossible. As if to announce the change, England turned to a gold standard in the 1820s (Tutino 2018a, ch. 5–6; Beckert 2014). New Spain’s oligarchs’ dreams of reviving silver and the power and prosperity it sustained were delusions in 1821—though they could not see the full scope of the global turn that was then underway (Tutino, forthcoming).

The liberal Cádiz Constitution of 1812 promised new political rights and participations shared across the empire, aiming to hold it together in the fight to expel Napoleon’s armies from Spain. People in Mexico City had mobilized to assert and define political rights in 1808, followed by people in Querétaro in 1810. Both faced militarized repressions aimed to support the fight against Napoleon in Spain. The Querétaro repression set off insurgencies led by provincials pursuing political rights, while driven by popular forces taking sustenance and then land. Together they had broken silver capitalism by 1812.

The regency left by a collapsing junta in Seville called a Cortes to meet in Cádiz in September 1810, before the outbreak of insurgency in New Spain. It built on the Spanish tradition of the sovereignty of the pueblos: in the absence of a legitimate monarch, cities and towns with councils would send representatives to meet and plot a route forward. After powers based in Seville had used military force to block New Spain’s right to a junta, powers fleeing Seville in the face of Napoleon’s armies called a Cortes that would include representatives of Iberian and American cities—a clear expansion of political participations. The exclusion of indigenous republics among the towns recognized as pueblos ensured that Spain was over-represented. The Americas would be present in limited Hispanic voices and votes; indigenous peoples would remain in distant shadows. Most cities and towns in Spain, then under French occupation, were “represented” by men who happened to be in Cádiz; most American cities sent delegates chosen by their councils, adding to a contradictory imbalance in deliberations aimed to create new political participations and sustain military efforts against Napoleon’s forces (Benson 1968, 1992; Guerra 2001; Breña 2006; on wider political context, Ávila 2002).

The constitution proclaimed in 1812 kept Spanish tradition by maintaining Catholicism as the established religion of empire (while abolishing the Inquisition). In other aspects, it was radically innovative. It proclaimed universal individual citizenship and political rights for adult men—excluding women and people of African ancestry (the latter an attempt to hold Cuba in the monarchy as its slave-plantation society expanded in the wake of Haiti’s revolution). In support of individual equality, Cádiz ended the separate political rights and judicial access of New Spain’s indigenous republics. It privileged individual property, denying explicit sanction to the community lands that grounded indigenous republics. A Cortes called to defend Spanish rights and rule against French intrusion generated a constitution that rejected core Hispanic traditions, often by adapting French innovations. A look at key details is illuminating.

A Cortes called in the Spanish tradition to exercise the sovereignty of the pueblos opened its constitution declaring that sovereignty now resided in “la nación” (art. 1–4, in Moreno Alonso, 2011, 228–30)—adopting a core French principle in a document written to contest French rule. Article 4 emphasized that the nation granted and protected individual rights to civil liberty and property. From those first premises flowed challenges to established ways of life, property, and rule in New Spain, some explicit, some masked. Article 18 granted “Spanish” citizenship to all who traced ancestry within current Spanish dominions, including the Americas and the Philippines, excluding people with African roots, thus marginalizing majorities along New Spain’s coasts and many in the Bajío and regions north (238). Article 248 made civil and criminal justice equal for “all classes of people,”2 ending the separate jurisdiction pivotal to preserving indigenous republics—and social peace in New Spain. It was followed by articles preserving separate fueros for the clergy and military—pivotal to the fight against Napoleon (306). Universal individualism attacked indigenous rights while preserving privileges for the powerful.

Later, articles 309–23 prescribed that elected ayuntamientos—with rotating membership, open to all, and chosen by all citizens—would govern “pueblos,” which were no longer sovereign. They would promote health and comfort (a euphemism for prosperity), and the security of the people and citizens’ goods (including property). Again, individualism reigned. The goal was equal rights for all people, presented as liberating, yet debilitating to indigenous republics, which were denied rights to local rule and separate justice, while their corporate properties were left unrecognized.

Near the end, article 356 mandated “a permanent national military force, on land and at sea, to defend the state from external enemies”—the traditional military role—“and to conserve internal order”—an innovation of the era of peninsular wars and popular insurgencies (Moreno Alonso, 2011, 338). Cádiz liberalism sought a Weberian state grounded in a monopoly of armed force, implemented and limited by individual rights of citizen participation.

The Cádiz Constitution reopened politics in New Spain in ways that aimed to forge a new dependency on Spain. It recognized the militarization of rule begun in 1808 to protect Spanish power. It sanctioned new citizenship rights and created new politics—defined in Spain. Citizen participation in elections to choose councilmen in New Spain’s Hispanic cities and towns was a radical innovation. In indigenous republics, the same participations enabled men of Spanish and mixed status to participate in new ayuntamientos that replaced the cabildos of rule by indigenous principales—expanding voting rights to commoners and opening council seats to nonindigenous men.3 Hispanic men gained access to local power, indigenous commoners gained voting rights, while the native leaders who had long ruled and defended the republics lost power in the proclaimed liberal order.

The constitution arrived in New Spain in the fall of 1812, while political and popular insurgencies raged across dispersed regions. Mexico City authorities—led by Commander and now Viceroy Calleja from March 1813—acted with caution. They hoped new political rights and participations would draw political dissidents to the regime, with little success (Tutino 2014a). They turned many indigenous republics into municipalities with multi-ethnic ayuntamientos, most elected by native majorities. They respected community properties. A disruption of the latter might break the peace that kept republics in the heartland and southern regions in peace and production (Guarisco 2003). In regions of insurgency across the Bajío, between Mexico City and the Real del Monte mines, and in coastal lowlands, implementation was limited, perhaps impossible and surely unwise (Tutino 2018a, ch. 4–5).

During its brief first reign from 1812 into 1814, Cádiz liberalism opened politics and debates across New Spain. As mediating judicial rule dissolved and silver capitalism vanished, new political participations created expectations and uncertainties. Then in 1814, Fernando, returned to his throne by forces loyal to Cádiz, abrogated the constitution written in his name. Restored absolutism blocked participations while expectations and uncertainties remained. Under his distant oversight, military power contained political insurgents by 1816, then pacified Guanajuato insurgent communities by 1820 (Serrano Ortega 2014; Tutino 2018a, ch. 5; forthcoming, ch. 4–6).

The same year, as pacification finally settled across New Spain, Fernando reimposed the Cádiz Constitution—pressed by Spanish military officers as a prerequisite to their departure to fight for the empire in South America. Military power and constitutional politics could not be more clearly linked (Stites 2014). When Iturbide mobilized the Iguala coalition as 1820 became 1821, he acted in part against Fernando’s reimposition of the liberal constitution. Churchmen in New Spain worried about a recent turn to anticlericalism among Spanish liberals. The Iguala Plan invited Fernando to come to New Spain to lead a monarchy that would write a new constitution appropriate to Mexican needs. The goal was a constitutional monarchy grounded in military power; political rights and participations remained to be determined (Moreno Gutiérrez 2016). The military means of the new regime were set; ways of citizenship would be negotiated in a post-Cádiz world. The old order could not return.

While military power rose, silver capitalism collapsed, and liberal dreams opened and faded, the capitalist agrarian order that had sustained the regime and silver capitalism in the Bajío faced insurgent assaults that brought transforming changes to lives on the land—and to those who presumed to profit from them. When Hidalgo’s revolt collapsed in January 1811, insurgents returned home to estate communities across Guanajuato. While Calleja held the mining center and failed to restore silver production, rural cultivators took salaries and wages for another season, then turned again to insurgency in 1812. They expelled managers, claimed crops for which they had received pay to plant and harvest, and took the land for family production (Tutino 1998, forthcoming).

For years, loyalist forces led by Calleja, Iturbide, and others chased political rebels and popular guerrillas across the Bajío and beyond. Political rebels demanded participatory rights—and defended property. Popular guerrillas attacked property and protected insurgent communities across Guanajuato, from the bottomlands around Celaya and Salvatierra, through basins from San Miguel to León, into uplands all around. The two ways of insurgency, political and popular, remained distinct; their views of property were irreconcilable. Loyal forces could not engage both simultaneously, thus enabling both to carry on (Hamnett 1986; Van Young 2001; Tutino 2014a; forthcoming, ch. 4).

Iturbide’s armed pursuit led to the defeat, capture, and execution of Morelos as 1815 ended; political insurgency ceased to threaten regime rule. Popular insurgents would dominate rural Guanajuato for another five years. With remaining political rebels isolated—Guerrero in Pacific lowlands, Guadalupe Victoria in Gulf-coast uplands—loyal troops struggled to engage guerrilla bands sustained by insurgent communities cultivating New Spain’s richest lands. Guanajuato communities claimed landed independence before Mexico attained political independence (Tutino, forthcoming, ch. 4). In the pivotal Bajío, the agrarian capitalism of 1810 was gone in 1820.

The early and enduring insurgency of Guanajuato rural communities demands explanation. Most were settlements on estate lands, developing from the late sixteenth century to sustain local mines. They were populated by migrants from Mesoamerica—Mexica, Otomí, and Tarasco—along with enslaved Africans, mostly men who reproduced with indigenous women to free their children. Over centuries, they mixed to become indios and/or mulattoes. Most lived as secure sirvientes gaining salaries and maize rations, as tenants on small holdings, and as day laborers seasonally planting and harvesting estate crops. As long as mining and markets held strong and regional population held sparse, lives in Bajío estate communities remained viable—without the community lands, political rights, or access to justice provided to Mesoamerican majorities by indigenous republics in southern regions.

After 1770, the balance of rural social relations turned in the Bajío. Silver entered a new era of boom led by Guanajuato mines, while population grew beyond local labor needs. Meanwhile, escalating imperial wars boosted demand for silver while disrupting trade. In that new context, Bajío estate operators pressed hard on producing communities: cutting salaries, rations, and wages; raising rents; and evicting many who could not pay. Capitalist predations on producing communities escalated from 1780 to 1810, peaking in years of drought, scarcity, and profiteering in sustenance in 1785–86 and 1808–10—the second time pummeling producing families amid proclamations of popular sovereignty and impositions of new militarized powers. Social predations struck mixed peoples—some classed as indios, some as mulattoes, living as economic dependents without the rights, lands, and access to the justice provided to indigenous republics—in times of political ferment, amid proclamations of popular sovereignty, while military assertions limited access to justice. An unprecedented convergence of predations, promises, and constraints set off the insurgencies that rattled the Bajío beginning in 1810 (Tutino 2011, part 2; Tutino 2018a, part 1; Tutino 2018b).

By 1812, communities across Guanajuato had claimed control of production on the land, feeding families and sustaining guerrilla forces. They cut New Spain’s silver outflow by half, breaking the trades fueled by silver capitalism. Mining at Guanajuato carried on as teams of workers extracted ores, delivered shares to proprietors, then sold their yield to refiners who bid in open markets. With production down and the stimulus of trade gone, proprietors struggled while producers took control of mining and cultivation. Sparse regime forces protected mining, and guerrilla bands protected producing communities; both took revenues as they could. With silver capitalism gone, a new economy of worker and family production ruled urban and rural Guanajuato through the decade of insurgency after 1810.

When loyal military forces pacified rural Guanajuato from 1818 into 1820, they knew that the only way to gain regional peace was to grant communities the right to work lands they had taken in insurgency—in exchange for small rents that recognized estate property. Local militias of ex-insurgents gained rights to keep arms to defend communities and family production. For a decade, loyal troops had fought to protect estate property, while guerrilla bands protected community production. To end the stalemate, cultivating communities acquiesced in property, while loyal troops and ex-guerillas joined to defend community production. Communities entrenched on the land ruled rural Guanajuato as Iturbide dreamed of a Mexican monarchy (Tutino, forthcoming, ch. 4).

The insurgent destruction of silver capitalism, followed by community control of cultivation across Guanajauto, broke the agrarian capitalism that had sustained New Spain’s landed oligarchs. For centuries, immigrants from Spain took profit in risky domains of finance, mining, and trade to then invest in the relative security of profit-seeking estate agriculture, often by marrying American Spanish landed heiresses. Capital from finance and trade enabled landed oligarchs to hold staples until periodic droughts made years of scarcity, drove prices to peak, and enabled profit-taking, which was masked as Christian charity. That flow of capital from finance to the land sustained a fusion of immigrant and American Spaniards at the heights of oligarchic power—the social cement that sustained silver capitalism (Brading 1973; Tutino 2011; 2018a, ch. 2–3; 2018b, part 1).

Insurgency inverted everything after 1810. Mining, finance, and trade collapsed, making capitalist estate operations impossible. Markets dissolved internationally and locally. Community growers fed themselves first and flooded the region with maize and more, holding prices down—thus eliminating the spikes that had profited oligarchs for decades. Once-powerful landlords saw the ways that had made them rich dissolve at the hands of insurgents who had made their crops and sustained their wealth—until profit-seeking predations drove dependent producers to desperation, insurgency, and autonomy on the land. By 1820, oligarchic power was gone in Guanajuato, rattled across the Bajío and fading in the heartland around Mexico City. In Iturbide’s Iguala coalition, military commanders fought to preserve powers recently reclaimed and now threatened by events in Spain; oligarchs joined the dream of reclaiming vanishing landed powers.

There was more. As the historic fusion of commercial and landed wealth that forged and sustained oligarchic power in New Spain broke after 1810, a new fusion began—evidenced in Iguala. As commercial wealth collapsed, military men began to take landed power. Calleja (by means inevitably unrecorded) claimed riches during his fight to preserve silver capitalism, took them home to Spain in 1817, and invested in lands around Valencia—arguably the last to take the riches of silver to make a life of secure wealth on the land (Ortiz Escamilla 2017). Iturbide, during his years away from command after 1816, took the lease to operate the great San José Chalco estate—once a leading Jesuit property, now held by the regime—operating it to supply Mexico City granaries and markets. Iturbide never gained property rights, but military rank and political sway enabled him to profit by not paying the lease—before Iguala, during the drive to power, and through his brief monarchical reign. Calleja and Iturbide not only consolidated military power in the regime as New Spain became Mexico but also opened a route from armed power to the land, another innovation of 1808–20 that would mark life, power, and instability into the nineteenth century (Tutino 1975; 2018a, ch. 6–7).

Through centuries of silver capitalism, hierarchies of patriarchy structured New Spain’s dynamic economy and stratified society. Men ruled regime power and economic life (along with a minority of inheriting, landed women). They orchestrated production and social relations by delegating administration, justice, management, and most trade to male intermediaries, who in turn delivered access to land, labor, and more overwhelmingly to men. And men, set in key roles from the top to the bottom of society, claimed the wealth and/or sustenance to consolidate patriarchal power in households at every level.

Men oversaw and implemented regime administration: men mediated justice; men were privileged in court. Nearly all merchants and financiers were men, as were most local traders. Active mine operators were overwhelmingly men (a few women inherited shares); all mine workers were men (until women began to sort ores in Guanajuato refineries after 1770—a way to drive men’s earnings down, part of late eighteenth-century predations). Most estate owners and operators were men (plus a few inheriting women); the great landed entails that sustained leading oligarchic clans entrenched male preferences. And proprietors, male and female, employed male managers who employed only men as permanent salaried workers, only men and boys as wage workers, and preferred men as tenants (again, inheritance delivered land to very few women).

Within households, patriarchy came with legitimations that provoked conversations, negotiations, and sometimes conflicts. Men repeatedly asserted that they ruled because they provided—whether wealth, comfort, or basic sustenance. Women regularly responded that they would accept male precedence if they provided, and she would decide. As long as silver capitalism kept New Spain economically strong, patriarchs generally provided; and women adapted, while they produced children, meals, cloth, and more that was essential to family and community life (Stern 1995; Tutino 2018a).

Not all patriarchal hierarchies were alike: from the Bajío into regions north, where private property and commercial ways ruled, hierarchies of patriarchy linked landed proprietors, administrators, managers, and producing families in unbroken chains of power, subordinating women to men at every level. Women never received salaries, wages, or rations, and no more that 10 percent of tenants were women, usually widows with minor sons (Tutino 2011).

In the heartland and extending south, regions grounded in Mesoamerican pasts and organized by indigenous republics, Spanish hierarchies of patriarchy linked urban merchants and landlords to town merchants (also often local officials), estate managers, and minorities of dependent workers—again subordinating women. But there, majorities approaching 90 percent lived in landed republics where native principales, all men, ruled local councils, and men were favored in rights to community lands—thus subordinating women in local hierarchies of patriarchy (Stern 1995; Tutino 2018a). Across Mesoamerican New Spain, dual hierarchies of patriarchy—one Hispanic, the other indigenous—organized life, yet they were never separate. Mediating justice linked regime tribunals to indigenous councils, all ruled by men. In the heartland, where population growth after 1800 made community lands scarce, men and boys increasingly depended on seasonal wage work at nearby estates; village labor captains, always men, negotiated work and wages with male estate managers to lock patriarchy into labor relations, reinforcing village men’s power as family providers and thus limiting insurgencies after 1810 (Tutino 2018a).

Patriarchal structures of power, production, and social integration did not marginalize women: they locked them in subordinate roles essential to production and reproduction. Women were essential to childbearing and child rearing; they kept gardens and small animals; they made staples into meals (grinding maize to make tortillas for hours every day); they spun fiber into yarn, wove cloth, and made family clothing; they traded in local markets.

Some women did find roles of power inside entrenched patriarchies. In southern regions, where Mesoamerican communities and socio-political traditions held strong, far from the powers of silver capitalism, women periodically inherited and exercised indigenous power (Sousa 2017). In the regions shaped by silver capitalism, oligarchic women empowered by inheritance and without husbands, whether unmarried or widowed, could and did take leading roles: doña Josefa Teresa de Busto y Moya, widowed inheritor of mine shares and landed estates, in the 1730s led Guanajuato power holders in founding and funding a Jesuit presence aimed at educating the few and pacifying the working majority (Tutino 2011, ch. 3). In the 1780s, don Pedro Romero de Terreros, Conde de Regla, mine operator, estate accumulator, and the richest man in New Spain and the Americas, named his eldest daughter, doña María Micaela, who was unmarried and held the title of Marquesa de San Francisco, as executor to oversee the distribution of his rich properties among two sons and four daughters. Don Pedro clearly saw her as more capable than her brother, the primary heir and second Conde de Regla (Tutino 2018b, ch. 2).

In the 1790s, the vast properties that made the Condes de Santiago the greatest estate operators in New Spain came to an unmarried condesa, whose younger sister, doña María Josefa de Velasco y Ovando—also unmarried—ran them profitably with an iron hand (Tutino 1983; 2018b, ch. 2). In 1809, amid the crises that led to insurgency, doña María Josefa Vergara, a widowed landed proprietor, left her estate to the Querétaro City Council, led by don Miguel Domínguez, with explicit instructions on economic operations, social reforms, and cultural integrations (Tutino 2011, ch. 8). Women exerted power when openings came.

Nor were women in producing communities inevitably subordinate. During the depopulation and reconstruction of the late sixteenth century, women at Culhuacan, south of Mexico City, asserted local power in diverse ways linked to property, cultivation, trade, and religious innovation (Cline 1986). In the eighteenth-century chinampa community at Xochimilco, where family production on irrigated plots supplied Mexico City, women’s dominance of market life brought them leading roles in social and religious life (Andrews Barton 2020). In the same era, when local riots asserted community rights in the basins around the capital, women led a quarter of the risings and comprised a majority of the rioters in three quarters. They forced disputes into court, where male magistrates and principales negotiated resolutions (Taylor 1979). And during times of mounting predations on producing lives in the Bajío, women took leading roles in protest, while men adapted to hold on as workers, tenants, and household patriarchs. At Puerto de Nieto, in Guanajuato east of San Miguel, amid a spate of evictions after 1800, men acquiesced, while their daughters—las muchachas—occupied the manager’s home and office (Tutino 2011, ch. 7).

Before 1810, at the heights of power, oligarchic women asserted economic power when no husband or inheriting son could constrain them; women in producing households took leads in pressing family and community needs in moments of conflict or where market ways heightened women’s traditional role. During and after the explosion of insurgencies in 1810, the conditions of conflict that had enabled popular women’s sporadic assertions became endemic in the Bajío. Women claimed new and enduring roles in production and community life there. And as silver capitalism dissolved, oligarchic women began to claim new powers—even while husbands and inheriting sons lived.

Three examples reveal women’s new assertions of power. In the summer of 1810, the Querétaro debates seeking provincial political rights were often hosted by Corregidor Domínguez, the city’s leading regime magistrate, and his wife doña Josefa Ortiz. As debates polarized around fears of calling a desperate populace to arms, the powers in Mexico City began to arrest participants in September. The corregidor hung back to collaborate with higher authorities. Doña Josefa sent news to Allende at San Miguel and Hidalgo at Dolores, who together called the mass rising that began the decade of conflict and change.

In the face of the rising and its challenge to power and property, Domínguez made peace with the regime, mobilizing forces and resources to fight insurgents. Ortiz remained an active source of information and intelligence among political insurgents for years. They lived in the same home and produced a generation of children—until Mexico City authorities arrested Ortiz in 1816. That led Domínguez to resign as corregidor and move to Mexico City, where he helped sustain and support his politically active and now incarcerated wife and their many children—a radical inversion of gender roles (Tutino 2014b).

Ortiz certainly knew of the widowed Vergara’s instruction of her husband and the Querétaro council a year earlier. Ortiz, the corregidora, married to a powerful man, took a more radical turn in 1810. Vergara aimed to solidify established ways of power, production, and worship; Ortiz worked to break regime power. Domínguez thanked the rich widow; he tried to restrain his wife to, in time, accept a role of support. Ortiz, an independent woman married to a powerful man, pressed for radical change in a newly politicized New Spain.

Just west in rural Guanajuato, a group of women engaged insurgency to claim new roles in producing communities. In 1810, dozens of men from the hacienda Puerto de Nieto joined Hidalgo. They came home early in 1811, took pay for a year, and then, early in 1812, the estate community took the harvest, expelled the manager, claimed the land, and turned to family production to sustain themselves and guerrilla bands. At pacification in 1820, they gained rights to keep working the lands they took in insurgency, paying small rents to a frustrated manager and an owner in Mexico City. Notably, the community that was consolidated during the years of insurgency was headed by clans often led by powerful rancheras. In 1820, a third of leading tenant growers were women, many heading families including subordinate men—a radical break with tradition in times of ongoing conflict and transformation, and a new reality that persisted through the 1820s. Surely many of the rancheras of 1812–20 were among the muchachas who had protested evictions in 1802. The insurgent dissolution of agrarian capitalism and the rise of family production across Guanajuato opened new routes to local power for women on the land. In his Memoria of 1826, the first governor of Guanajuato spent much of the text lamenting the rise of insubordinate women (Tutino 1998; forthcoming, ch. 3 and 6).

During the same decade of conflictive transformation, women claimed power in the richest of New Spain’s oligarchic clans. The second Conde de Regla had operated the family mines at Real del Monte and five of the family’s six landed entails (only his older sister, the unmarried Marquesa de San Francisco, remained independent). He joined in the political debates of 1808, backing the viceroy and the plan for a Congress of New Spain. He died in 1809, before insurgents attacked many of his estates and strangled his mines. His wife, doña María Josefa Rodríguez de Pedroso, Condesa de Jala and owner of great properties in her own right, had begun to assert control over Regla family operations before her husband’s death. Their only son, don Pedro Ramón, third conde, remained a minor, and she ruled the combined family enterprises into the era of insurgency.

Don Pedro Ramón gained his majority, title, mines, estates, and a seat on the Mexico City Council in 1814. Still, his mother ruled family economic, social, and political affairs until her death in 1819. She kept creditors at bay and consolidated the properties of family members who lived and died in Europe. She kept the family patrimony whole while silver capitalism and agrarian capitalism collapsed in concert. After her passing, the third conde, vastly landed and politically connected (including to Iturbide and the Iguala movement) saw creditors begin to claim his properties (Romero de Terreros 1952). The condesa opened a pattern of women taking power within oligarchic families as men struggled in the face of economic collapse—assertions that persisted long after 1820 (Tutino, forthcoming, ch. 8 and 10). New challenges to patriarchy and new openings for women—oligarchs, political activists, and rancheras, too—began in the decade of insurgency.

The year 1820 was a pivotal one. The insurgent communities that had ruled Guanajuato since 1812 were finally pacified by military deals that recognized family rights to work the land. The great Valenciana mine flooded, drowned by waters unleashed by years of production without infrastructure investment—the self-reinforcing result of insurgency and the collapse of silver-fueled global trades. In Spain, Fernando gave in to military pressures to reinstate the Constitution of 1812. Then in late fall, Iturbide gained military command to move against Guerrero and recruited the rebel to the coalition that proclaimed the Plan de Iguala in February 1821 and broke with Spain later that year.

The kingdom that faced Iturbide’s call for a Mexican monarchy with a Mexican constitution had changed radically since 1808. Military powers claimed and contested rule, and debated constitutional principles. Silver capitalism was gone, along with New Spain’s leading role in global trade. Agrarian capitalism was gone in Guanajuato, where family growers ruled life on the land. And across wide regions from the heartland to the Bajío and extending north, the fall of silver capitalism had rattled agrarian capitalism and the oligarchs it sustained, opening new possibilities for producing communities: indigenous republics in the heartland and estate communities in the Bajío. Meanwhile, women challenged patriarchy in politics, in rural production, and within struggling oligarchic clans.

The challenge facing the Iguala coalition in 1821 was not to make New Spain into Mexico but to take the remnants of a collapsing New Spain and construct a Mexican monarchy that might rebuild a viable polity, find a new economy, and restore and restabilize social hierarchies. The plan insisted and the coalition guaranteed that military force would set the foundations of regime power. A search for economic renovation aimed to revive oligarchic power. Iguala’s three guarantees—religion, independence, and union—sought to reclaim social hierarchy and stability in a constitutional monarchy grounded in military power.

New Spain could not be restored; Mexico would have to be built anew. Silver capitalism—the economic engine that made New Spain rich and globally important—would not, could not revive. Militarized state power was the antithesis of the mediating judicial rule that had stabilized New Spain’s inequities. Mexicans’ search for a new economy and an integrating polity would prove long and conflictive, challenging the nation for decades (Ávila 2005; Tutino 2016b).

Key innovations of the years after 1808 would mark that history. It 1821, two pillars of New Spain held on: the Church and Catholicism remained established by both the Constitution of 1812 and the Plan de Iguala; indigenous republics—some made ayuntamientos in 1812—held strong on community lands in 1821. Yet, soon a rising Mexican liberalism built on Cádiz precedents would press to disestablish the Church and Catholicism (Hale 1968; Bazant 1971) and to end indigenous republics by privatizing their lands (Pérez Montesinos 2015; Tutino 2018a).

The great challenge of 1821 was not the break with Spain; the challenge was to make a polity, economy, society, and culture anew. An explosion of new ideas and debates in public spaces made the challenges clear and pointed to their uncertain outcomes (Ocampo 1969). Military leaders, broken oligarchs, and liberal visionaries would engage each other in search of power, while producing communities worked to sustain indigenous republics across Mesoamerican Mexico and expand family production everywhere (Tutino 2018a, part 2). A century of conflict followed.

It is worth remembering that it all began with Napoleon’s 1808 invasion of Spain, aiming to gain the wealth and revenues of New Spain’s silver (Stein and Stein 2014), followed by a Mexico City military coup aimed at ensuring that silver continued flowing to Seville and to the fight against Napoleon (Tutino 2018b); at the same time, New Spain’s oligarchs pressed predations to maximize profits, making life untenable for many who made and sustained the wealth of silver capitalism (Tutino 2011, 2018a). Power holders, imperial and entrepreneurial, seeking to claim and sustain the profits of silver capitalism set off the conflicts that destroyed silver capitalism. They—not insurgents seeking better lives, not women seeking new openings—made Mexico an impossible project.

Was the independence gained in 1821 a failure? That depends on the definition(s) of independence. In the years after 1810, communities across Guanajuato, the core region of the silver capitalism that drove New Spain’s prosperity and world trades, took up arms to escape lives of dependence newly marked by predations. They claimed autonomous ways of production and community life, taking a landed, or better, ecological independence that they held long after 1821—as it spread to producing communities across the emerging nation. They won the independence they fought for: a success for families and women in producing communities, a calamity for profit seekers and revenue-seeking state makers (Tutino, forthcoming).

The latter mobilized in the Plan de Iguala, aiming to block—or at least limit—the successes of assertive communities on the land. Military commanders and failing oligarchs took political independence, that is, national-political power, aiming to curtail community independence. They failed, setting family and community producers against landed power seekers in conflicts that would shape Mexican history into the twentieth century. For decades after 1821, community independence prevailed while national independence flailed (Tutino 2018a; forthcoming).

Questions abound: Could nation builders have pursued a dual independence, both national-political and community-ecological? In a nation-making process led by an alliance of military commanders insistent on holding power and oligarchs facing an economic collapse that they blamed not on their own predations but on insurgent destructions, that seems unlikely. Could liberals have promoted democratic participations and commercial expansions while respecting community rights and Catholic institutions? Not as they adopted French revolutionary anticlericalism and saw indigenous republics not as bases of loyal production and social stability, as they had been in New Spain, but as obstacles to commercial individualism. Could mediating judicial ways have revived to stabilize a nation of complexity and enduring inequities? Not while military power backed liberals’ insistence on universal individual rights and singular laws.

Community independence on the land was not the only alternative independence claimed before 1821: women took new independence in politics, in cultivating communities, and also in oligarchic families. Could they have been honored, perhaps celebrated, in a sequence of independencias: insurgent, community, cultivating, gender, and national-political?

Mexico might have been different: Military powers might have respected the drive to autonomy grounded in popular sovereignty in Mexico City in 1808. Oligarchs might have refrained from the destructive predations they imposed on producing families in the years leading up to 1810. In the aftermath of those founding impositions, the diverse independencias claimed by so many might have been cultivated. Women’s new roles might have been honored. Indigenous republics might have kept the autonomies that sustained self-rule and sustenance. Liberal liberations might have opened political participations without constraining community rights and religious cultures. So many independencias can be imagined.

Instead, in 1820 military powers held strong to impose rule. Oligarchs joined them, aiming to revive profits by restoring mining and estate production while curtailing community independence and family autonomies. Liberals readied to break Church powers and indigenous republics. Armed power holders, failing oligarchs, and liberals dreaming of remaking national politics, production, and culture claimed a political independence that aimed to constrain popular independencias. They set off decades of political conflict grounded in economic uncertainties. Communities held strong on the land—until liberals consolidated power in 1867, promoted a new industrial/export capitalism, and turned to dissolve enduring indigenous republics. They set off new corrosions that in time became predations, this time focused on Mesoamerican communities south of the capital and in rapidly commercializing northern borderlands, thus fueling a second wave of revolutionary risings that began in 1910 and shaped Mexico’s twentieth century (Tutino 1986, 2018a).

1.

On the Bajío and regions north, see Tutino 2011; on New Spain’s Gulf coast, see García de León 2011; on the Mesoamerican heartland around Mexico City, see Tutino 2018a; on Potosí and Andean America, see Lane 2019.

2.

All translations mine unless otherwise noted.

3.

On politics in indigenous republics before 1810, see Tutino 1976.

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