The Impact of Mexican Independence on Alta California
Prior to the U.S. takeover of Alta California, no other event had such an impact on its people and institutions as the independence of Mexico from Spain. Actions taken as a result of Mexican independence led to conflicts between political factions in Alta California, increased tensions with native peoples, and ultimately the dissolution of the mission system.
And while the influence of Mexican independence wasn’t immediately felt by most Californios, it eventually brought deep changes to the lives of the soldiers, settlers and native Americans and missionaries living in the most distant part of the Spanish Empire.
Origins of Spanish-American Independence
It is hard to understand the Mexican independence movement outside of the context of the larger movement that swept Spanish America in the 19th century. The drive for independence from Spain eventually led to the dissolving of the Spanish Empire in the Americas and the formation of separate and unique nations.
The Spanish-American independence movement had its roots in a number of issues. Some of them originated in the structure of the Spanish Empire itself, while others were related to more recent developments in history.
The Spanish Empire in the Americas
After the initial years of conquest, a pattern developed in Spanish-American society, which lasted almost three hundred years. This structure was remarkably stable and seemed almost unchangeable.
According to this structure, the king of Spain ruled from a distance, with virreyes (viceroys) who represented him in each of the administrative regions of the Western Hemisphere. These regions were known as vireinatos (viceroyalties): Río de la Plata, Peru, New Granada and New Spain (which is what is today Mexico). The viceroys worked together with audiencias (a legal body like a supreme court) to govern their regions. Both the viceroys and the audiencias were overseen by the Council of the Indies, which reported to the king.
A Society of Ancient Traditions
The framework of Spanish-American society was based on ancient traditions. It was also derived from Roman law and the code developed by 13th-century King Alfonso X of Castile, known as Las Siete Partidas (The Seven Law Codes). When it was applied to the Americas, this framework also incorporated many of the traditions and customs of the indigenous peoples of the New World, just as it had incorporated many of the kingdoms that made up Spain. In the 16th century, a new set of laws was added, known as the Leyes de Indias (Laws of the Indies). These were meant to govern the relationships between Spaniards and the peoples of the Americas.
Along with the legal framework, the most important spiritual and moral authority was the Catholic Church. Not only was the Church present through its missionaries and parish churches, but both through its system of schools and charitable organizations. All levels of society in Spanish America participated in her rituals and beliefs.
A Hierarchical Society
Like the Church, Spanish American society was hierarchical, which meant that each person and group had its own function and level of influence. Far away in Madrid was the king, who was the symbol of the empire’s unity. Because he was distant, the king was considered the father figure and often idealized as a wise governor. Even when there were uprisings or revolts against Spanish power in the Americas, rarely would they challenge the authority of the king. Instead, they claimed to be against the colonial administrators, who would be accused of misrepresenting the king.
Those who commanded the most authority in the Americas were Spanish people born in Europe and sent to administer the territories. They occupied the most important positions in society, from the viceroy to the other high government officials.
After them were people of Spanish descent who were born in the Americas, known as criollos. These people, whose families came from Europe, nevertheless saw themselves as Americans and were proud of their birth in the New World. While they often held important positions in society and large properties, Spanish law often barred them from rising to the highest levels of decision-making power.
Finally, there was the vast majority of people who were of native, African or mixed ethnicity (mestizos and mulatos). They were usually not able to hold high rank in American Spanish society. Nevertheless, they made up the basis of culture in the Americas and, therefore, had an influence that was often less visible but much more profound.
A Web of Relationships
Even though it was hierarchical, society was woven together through a series of relationships. The most important of these relationships was the family. Family did not simply mean the core group of father, mother and children, but the larger family unit of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. And because the Catholic Church was such a strong presence, family ties were continually extended through marriage, which combined and created new families.
Families were also extended through baptism, which not only incorporated people into the Church but created another type of bond: that of compadrazgo (godparentage). The Catholic Church normally requires that the parents of the child to be baptized have someone to help them ensure the child will be raised in the faith. These are called godparents, and because of this responsibility, they develop a special relationship with the parents of the baptized child.
In Spanish, parents and godparents are referred to as compadres or “co-parents.” Compadres were expected to support one another and to come to each other’s aid when in need. Throughout the Spanish territories in the Americas, compadrazgo created relationships between people of different ethnicities, social status and influence. These relationships would often extend for generations.
The 18th Century – A Time of Changes
This type of society endured in Spanish America for hundreds of years, with little apparent change. But in the 18th century a series of shifts took place that would have a profound cultural effect on Spanish America.
The family that had ruled Spain for the previous two centuries — the Hapsburgs — failed to produce an heir. King Carlos II, popularly known as El Hechizado (“The Bewitched), died in 1700 with no children to inherit his crown. His death touched off a war between the various European powers to see who would assume the Spanish throne.
The result was that a new family, the Bourbons, distant cousins from France, took power in Spain. With time, new ideas and new ways of doing things begin to take hold in the upper echelons of Spanish society.
Much of these new ideas were connected to a philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment. The thinkers of the Enlightenment put their trust in reason, which they understood as the capacity to organize, analyze and quantify. They emphasized the idea that human knowledge could eventually come to catalog all information in the universe.
According to Enlightenment thinkers, since human capacity was so powerful, reason could eventually find solutions to all problems. In other words, in order to solve humanity’s multiple problems, it was important to have people who knew how to apply reason — who were “enlightened.”
Among rulers in Europe, Enlightenment thought led to the idea that governments should ensure that society functioned efficiently. Administrators from Spain, therefore, began to exert more control over Spanish-American institutions and to reduce the autonomy of local officials. They often view these officials as backward, disorganized and corrupt.
And yet, people in Spanish America were also influenced by the Enlightenment. Many criollos had traveled to Europe or read European books that promoted Enlightenment ideas. These were often members of the upper levels of local society who also became resentful of the more centralized control that the Spanish crown was exerting in the Americas. Many began to chafe at the fact that they could not access the highest levels of power in their own regions.
Toward the end of the 18th century, Enlightenment ideas inspired two revolutions: the American Revolution (1776) and the French Revolution (1789).
These revolutions were very different in their origins and outcomes, but they both were both successful. In North America, thirteen English colonies managed to break away from the mother country and form a new nation. In France, a group of radicals executed the royal family, eliminated the nobility, and struck down the power of the Catholic Church. These two revolutions sent shockwaves throughout Europe and the Americas.
And while the Spanish government looked with horror at what happened in France, it favored the American colonists’ independence from England, who was her enemy and rival. The King of Spain even collected a tax from its presidio soldiers to support the American cause.
But many criollos in the Spanish colonies noticed how a determined group of colonists could successfully defeat the power of a European monarchy. This would lead to important consequences for Spanish America in the coming decades.