How Mexico experienced a constitutional monarchy two centuries ago

A stable and solid Executive Power was sought to emanate from the newly independent country with the approval of Congress. On July 21, 1822, the coronation of Agustín de Iturbide, first considered a hero of Independence and then a traitor to the country, took place.

How Mexico experienced a constitutional monarchy two centuries ago
A stable and solid Executive Power was sought to emanate from the newly independent country with the approval of Congress. Photos: UNAM

In Mexico that emerged from the Independence from Spain, 200 years ago, there was a historical experiment: Agustín Cosme Damián de Iturbide y Arámburu was proclaimed emperor of the country, from May 22, 1822, to March 19, 1823, under the title of Agustín I.

"The Independence achieved in 1821 foresaw the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. That is to say, it was not a republican project," says Alfredo Avila Rueda, a researcher at UNAM's Institute of Historical Research (IIH).

Remembering the anniversary, the university historian points out that the monarchy was established in the Plan of Iguala and the Treaties of Córdoba, signed between Agustín de Iturbide and Juan de O'Donojú, the last Spanish political leader in New Spain. These agreements established that the crown would be offered to the King of Spain himself, Ferdinand VII, or one of the princes of the Spanish royal house. In case they did not accept, the Congress, which would meet in now independent Mexico, would be free to choose an emperor.

"It is important that this is a monarchy because Agustín de Iturbide himself pointed out in the Plan de Iguala, that his goal was to have a ready-made monarch and avoid the disasters that ambition can bring. What he wanted was a stable Executive Power, to prevent the ambition of the military and politicians from bringing anarchy to the new country," he explains.

For the historian, "they were trying to reconcile two extremes that we may think are irreconcilable: on the one hand, the new country was born from the natural right of society to become independent and form a new country; and, on the other hand, the need to establish a stable, solid, lasting government that would not be affected by that right to insurrection. These are two extremes and Iturbide believed that with a monarchy they could be reconciled".

Spain refused to accept the Independence of the Mexican nation, so neither the Spanish monarch nor his family would come to rule. It was left in the hands of the Mexican Congress to choose a monarch. From the beginning of Mexico's independent life, there was great support for the emperor to be sought here. "There were some proposals, such as that of Guadalupe Victoria and Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, that some descendant of the ancient Mexica royalty should be crowned emperor. Guadalupe Victoria proposed to look for a patriot who fought for Independence and that he should marry a descendant of the Mexica", Avila Rueda specifies.

Agustín Cosme Damián de Iturbide y Arámburu as a Newly Proclaimed Emperor of the Mexican Republic.
Agustín Cosme Damián de Iturbide y Arámburu as a Newly Proclaimed Emperor of the Mexican Republic.

Agustín de Iturbide's popularity from the beginning was enormous. "Today very few people remember Iturbide, and most consider him humiliated in the history of Mexico. But at the time, after the entrance of the Army of the Three Guarantees in September 1821 to Mexico City, Iturbide was tremendously acclaimed and flattered, there were sermons in which he was compared to Moses, who took his people out of oppression to give them freedom, he was the one sent by God, he was the liberator", the researcher points out.

For him to be crowned, there was spontaneous support from deputies, to demonstrations of the people in the streets with infiltrators. Iturbide's vision was that they were spontaneous popular demonstrations, "and his enemies said he was manipulating the process. The truth is a little in between".

The proposal for his coronation reached Congress. It had the support of numerous legislators, but there was also pressure to force the will of Congress.

We have, says Avila Rueda, the story of a country that was born out of the rupture with Spain, but that seeks to establish a stable government and seeks a constitutional monarchy to give it stability. On the other hand, there is the popularity of Iturbide, the demonstrations, and finally the decision of the Congress in his favor. The constitutional monarchy could not reconcile these two extremes.

The expert explains that Iturbide could never have control over the country, nor did he have control over the collection of taxes, most of which did not reach Mexico City, nor did he have the capacity for that money to enter the capital's coffers.

He did not even "have the capacity to impose his will on all the provinces, it was difficult in a country that was very disjointed after more than a decade of war. He immediately had problems with Congress. Iturbide wanted to impose a national police system (a national gendarmerie) for the security of the empire because there was a lot of violence and he wanted to centralize the command to pursue bandits, criminals, and people who took up arms. But the Congress was opposed because it represented the interests of each province and was not interested in giving so much power to the centralized state," he says.

He ended up dissolving that legislative body, there was even a republican conspiracy but it was not so important, they could never have defeated it, says the university student.

The dissolution generated political discontent and in December 1822 Antonio López de Santa Ana rebelled against him in favor of the Republic; he did not have enough military capacity when he left Veracruz, where the insurrection took place. Iturbide sent troops to put an end to Santa Ana and Guadalupe Victoria, but the problem was that they lacked economic resources and could not defeat them.

Agustín de Iturbide's popularity from the beginning was enormous.
Agustín de Iturbide's popularity from the beginning was enormous.

What they did was return to Mexico City to reestablish the Congress. "The very troops that Iturbide sent turned on him, and from then on the provinces took the baton of the government and were the ones who decided to start building the new country, while Iturbide quickly understood that he had no chance of maintaining himself," he points out.

Some deputies wanted the death penalty for him because he dissolved Congress and was therefore considered a traitor. But other legislators thought he was the great hero of Independence.

"Today we have lost the dimension, but he is the man who achieved Independence. They sent him into exile to Livorno, in Italy, and gave him a pension. But at that time constitutional governments were established in southern Europe (Spain, Italy, Greece), and it is a period of liberal revolutions in that area. In 1823, when Iturbide was in Italy, the reactionaries, the absolutists, established again anti-constitutional governments and there was a revival of absolutism. And Iturbide, who was in exile in Italy, suddenly found himself in danger because the absolutist governments accused him of being the one who favored Mexico's independence from Spain, and therefore he was an enemy of Spain," he explains.

He then sent correspondence to his contacts in Mexican territory fearing for his life. He left for London and thus violated the agreements made by the Congress, which exiled him. But in England, he felt more protected.

"In London, he came into contact with some Spanish agents, from New Spain, and explored the possibility of returning to Mexico. There are people in Guadalajara who are very opposed to the republican government in Mexico City, in Tamaulipas, in Zacatecas, and in what is now the State of Mexico. The Mexican government thinks that he is coming to re-crown himself, but he says he is not. That he is coming to occupy the place that the country wants to give him and to defend Mexico from absolutism, which already exists in Europe and he fears that they could reconquer Mexico. The truth is between the two things".

He arrived in Mexican territory, but the government had discovered some of these conspiracies, he informed Congress and Congress decreed that as soon as he set foot here he was considered a traitor to the homeland and deserved to be shot, which happened in Soto La Marina, Tamaulipas.

It was a great dilemma for our country, for those in Latin America, and even for Europeans, this principle of how to reconcile the popular will with the need to establish a stable government. "It is like an experiment, but the problem continued with the first government of Guadalupe Victoria, who was not able to bring about the election of his successor. There was a coup d'état and Vicente Guerrero became President," adds the specialist.

According to Avila Rueda, "Mexico is a very large country, and this has historically made regional interests important when it comes to governing. In the states of the Republic, the most important politician is the governor. Regional interests are very big and this is something Iturbide could not foresee. He thought that this country was still New Spain, with a viceroy who had control of more or less all the regions. But that fell with the War of Independence, which brought about the atomization of the whole territory".