Guadalupe Victoria: Mexico's unknown first president
History has rarely furnished a more striking example of high-profile-low-profile than that of the first presidents of the United States and Mexico. George Washington was and is the quintessential household word -- Father of his Country, leader of the Continental armies during the Revolutionary War and two-time president whose name is every bit as much a legend today as it was in his lifetime.
And Guadalupe Victoria? In the first place, it wasn't even his name. Christened Manuel Felix Fernández, he took the name Guadalupe Victoria for its symbolic value -- "Victoria" for "victory" and "Guadalupe" from the name of Mexico's patron saint.
Guadalupe Victoria -- and we'll call him that from now on -- was born in 1786 in Tamazula, Durango. Though little is known about his origins and early life, he was teaching school at the time the Independence War began. Serving under José Maria Morelos, he took part in the attack on Oaxaca on November 25, 1812. In 1814, on orders from the Chilpancingo Congress that declared Mexico's independence, heassumed the leadership of the rebel movement in Veracruz. He seized several royalist convoys but after being defeated at Palmillas in 1817 he was forced to go into hiding. His hiding place was the Paseo de Ovejas hacienda in the state of Veracruz.
Victoria reappeared in April 1821, two months after Agustin de Iturbide and Vicente Guerrero had issued the Plan de Iguala that called for Mexico to become an independent constitutional monarchy. Expressing republican views, he urged that Mexico be led by a revolutionary leader who would serve as president rather than by a king or emperor. This greatly displeased Iturbide, who stripped Victoria of his command and put him in prison. Victoria escaped and took command of the forces in Veracruz rebelling against Iturbide's imperial rule.
When Iturbide was forced to abdicate, Victoria arranged his passage into exile on the British frigate H.M.S. Rowlins. Though Mexico was now independent, a Spanish garrison remained at the Fort of San Juan de Ulua in Veracruz harbor. When the garrison opened fire on the port, Victoria organized resistance and then negotiated an armistice so that the soldiers in the garrison could be sent back to Spain.
After Iturbide's fall, Victoria, Nicolás Bravo and Pedro Celestino Negrete formed a triumvirate that held temporary executive power until October 1824, when Victoria took office as Mexico's first president.
Victoria's main distinction as president was that of being the only chief executive in the first fifty years of Mexico's history to serve out his full term. But he was hampered by severe financial problems. His expenses averaged eighteen million pesos annually but he was only collecting half that amount in revenues.
So Victoria was forced to seek foreign aid -- in this case from Britain. The 19th century was a high noon of British imperialism, both military and economic. While British troops were marching through China and India, diplomatic envoys in Latin America were instructed to seek favorable trade pacts backed by loans.
The key figure in these negotiations was H. G. Hart, a competent diplomat who served as British chargé d'affaires in Mexico. Knowing how hard-pressed Victoria was (the Army alone accounted for twelve million pesos of the budget), Hart persuaded him to accept two loans, each of over three million pounds. These loans, negotiated through such banking houses as Barclay and Goldschmidt, averted bankruptcy and contributed toward social peace, factors that undoubtedly enabled Victoria to serve out his full term. At the same time, they turned Mexico into an economic satellite of the British empire.
Despite these financial problems, there were some highly positive aspects to Victoria's administration. Two of the first president's most positive achievements were establishment of the National Treasury and abolition of slavery. In addition, he improved education, accorded amnesty to political prisoners, laid plans for a canal in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, opened new ports for shipping, began construction on the National Museum, garrisoned Yucatan to thwart a contemplated Cuba-based Spanish invasion and unmasked a conspiracy led by a monk named Joaquin Arenas to restore Spanish rule.
During Victoria's reign there was a political struggle that was remarkably similar to that waged in the American colonies between supporters of independence and Tories, or, as they preferred to be called, Loyalists. Such large cities as New York and Philadelphia were hotbeds of Tory intrigue and it will be recalled that Benedict Arnold's treason was partly fueled by his marriage to Peggy Shippen, a beautiful young girl from a Loyalist family. The same situation prevailed in Mexico and independence-minded Mexicans were continually accusing rightists of subversive activity aimed toward restoration of Spanish rule. In some cases (notably that of the Arenas conspiracy) these suspicions were justified but in other cases they were not. The able conservative Lucas Alamán was forced out of Victoria's cabinet in 1825 because he was considered too friendly toward Spain. Though Alamán did not favor a return to Spanish rule, he was friendly to the idea of a Mexican monarchy ruled by a European prince. Stung by suggestions that they were disloyal, the conservatives shot back that Victoria and other liberals were under the thumb of the American minister Joel Poinsett, a Protestant and York rite Mason.
Victoria was only forty-two when he finished his term of office. But years of strenuous military campaigning and political activity had taken their toll. Withdrawing from public life, he retired to his estate at El Jobo, on the coast of Veracruz. There he died in 1843, at the age of fifty-seven.