Historians dismiss Agustín Itúrbide with a few lines and most Mexicans have never heard of him. He deserves better. Factually, he was the one who cut the chains that bound Mexico in servitude to Spain. Perhaps historians are uneasy with him because he proposed an Empire rather than a Republic. In fairness to him we must recognize that, save for the United States, in 1820-21 there were no Republics anywhere in Europe. Although, in 1792, France had abolished its Monarchy, in 1815 Napoleon Bonaparte had been proclaimed Emperor. Even when Napoleon was defeated and exiled, it was a Constitutional Monarchy, not a Republic that succeeded him. Mexico’s debt to Agustín Itúrbide is for the “Plan of Iguala.” It called for an Independent Mexico and set forth principles that were to later become the foundation of the Mexican Constitution.
He certainly received support and some ideas from Vicente Guerrero who had kept insurgency alive after the death of both Father Hidalgo and his successor, José María Morales. But it is Itúrbide alone who conceived and proposed his plan. While Father Hidalgo is credited with launching the drive for freedom from Spain, his efforts were really focused on breaking the hold of the “born in Spain Gachupines” literally “spur wearers.” There is some evidence that what he actually envisioned was a Mexico, free from Spain, but still owing allegiance to the Spanish Crown, specifically Ferdinand VII. Elimination of this “born in Spain” elite who dominated those of pure Spanish descent, born in the Colony, was almost as important a goal as true independence. Called Creoles, many had achieved financial success but could aspire only to secondary positions in the Government, the Church and the Army. Itúrbide’s career, despite being a Creole, marks him as a man of exceptional ability. Contemporaries describe him as ambitious and conniving, but also label him plausible and persuasive.
Born in 1783, his father had been born in Spain. His mother, born in Mexico, was a Creole. But the family was prosperous, owned several haciendas, and came from distinguished stock. Indeed he was a distant cousin of Father Hidalgo. At the age of 15 he abandoned the study of Latin in a seminary and became the manager of one of the family haciendas. He also launched his military career in a provincial regiment. In 1810, when Father Hidalgo launched his insurgency, he implored his cousin to join him as a Lieutenant General, but without success. In later years Itúrbide was to say that he felt that the program of the rebels was too destructive and divisive to succeed. Despite his Creole background, he rose rapidly in the forces loyal to the Crown as they moved against the rebels and in 1816 was made a General and given command of the Army of the North. He also became Governor of Guanajuato and Querétaro. Shortly thereafter, charges of impropriety were brought against him and, although acquitted, he was dismissed from the Army. There can be little doubt that the “born in Spain Spaniards” were uneasy with a Creole in so high a position of power.
Moving to Mexico City, Itúrbide became associated with a group dedicated to an independent Mexico. Events in Spain also contributed to discontent with the status quo. The new Spanish Constitution of 1812, that promised reforms, had been quickly suspended. In 1820, in Spain, a military revolt, led by anti-clerical “Masons”, restored it. It affirmed the supremacy of the Catholic Church but mandated the suppression of the Jesuits and other religious orders. In Nueva España, new revolts broke out. Now the Viceroy recalled Itúrbide to the Army, gave him the rank of Colonel, and command over the Army of the South with orders to suppress the revolt led by Guerrero. Already committed to a coupe d’état against the Government, rather than attacking the rebels, he met with the rebel leader and convinced him to join him. It was now that he announced the “Plan of Iguala.” It called for freedom from Spain, a provisional Government and the ultimate formation of an independent “Empire of Mexico” with either King Ferdinand VII, who was considering abdication from the Spanish Throne, or some other member of the Spanish Royal family, heading a Constitutional Monarchy. The plan also proclaimed the supremacy of the Catholic Church, called for a union between Americans (those born in the Colony), Europeans (those born in Spain), Asiatics, Africans and Indians. It also provided for the election of a Congress.
The incumbent Viceroy, Juan Ruíz de Apadoca, was nominated to head the new government. He refused the post, sent troops against Itúrbide, but all to no avail. Finally, he fled the Colony. Now a new Viceroy, Juan O’Donojú took over. It was him and Itúrbide who were the midwives that presided over the birth of an Independent Mexico. Meeting with Itúrbide, he signed the “Treaty of Cordoba”, in the name of the Crown, that clearly established Mexican independence. Although repudiated by the Spanish Cortes, it was like locking the barn after the horse is stolen. Although loyalist troops still offered token resistance, in September 1821, Itúrbide and his army entered the Capital. There is some evidence that he was ready to give up his command but the Junta that ran the country proclaimed him “General of the Armies” and insisted that he remain the head of the Regency that awaited the arrival of a new Monarch.
By May of 1822 it was obvious that no member of the Spanish Royal Family was interested in ruling Mexico. Additionally, there was now a movement to reject the “Plan of Iguala. On May 18th, a crowd moved toward Itúrbide’s home and shouted “¡Viva Agustín I !”. Publicly reluctant, he accepted the throne. Although the Congress confirmed his status, after ten months, all turbulent, he abdicated and fled the country. Chaos followed. Unaware he had been condemned to death in absentia, he returned to attempt to restore order, was arrested and executed. The first attempt to establish freedom, led by Father Hidalgo, failed, but has been glorified. The second try, led by Agustín Itúrbide, succeeded, but has been ignored. He certainly deserved a better fate.