We Texans have the distinct privilege of being able to celebrate three independence days.
Two of these are well known and understood by almost all Texans: March 2, which celebrates the day in 1836 when Texas declared its independence from Mexico, and July 4, celebrating the day in 1776 when the United States declared independence from Britain.
Our third independence day is Sept. 16.
From the day that the first European laid eyes on it in 1619, Texas formed part of the Spanish Empire.
Situated at the extreme northeastern corner of New Spain, Texas remained a neglected frontier outpost for the whole of the Spanish period.
The events of July 4, 1776, in distant Philadelphia passed without note in Texas,
But by the 1790s, the ideas generated by the Enlightenment were beginning to stir among the small class of educated Creoles, American-born people of Spanish ancestry.
The American and French Revolutions provided vivid examples of successful efforts by people to throw off their oppressors and establish governments more respectful of the rights of their people.
In 1808, French Emperor Napoleon’s armies invaded Spain, forced the king to abdicate, and installed Napoleon’s bother Joseph on the Spanish throne. Though Spanish and Mexican people of all political stripes resented the foreign domination of their government, French ideas of democracy and equality resonated more strongly than ever.
The small, wealthy elite of great land owners, generals, merchants, and archbishops, most of them Spanish born, that dominated New Spain both resented the foreign takeover and feared the French ideas. They refused to recognize the new government and continued their tyrannical rule in the name of the imprisoned king.
But among educated middle-class Creoles, the ideals of freedom, democracy, and equality burned more brightly than ever. Some of these people saw in the situation an opportunity to strike for true independence and create a new democratic nation of Mexico.
These ideas were especially strong in the province of Guanajuato. There, a group began to form around the liberal parish priest of Dolores, Father Miguel Hidalgo. The last straw for Hidalgo came when crop failures in 1810 brought famine to the poor people of his parish. Instead or rationing such food as there was, the conservative Spanish merchants hoarded food supplies waiting for prices to go still higher. Hidalgo and his friends began laying plans for an uprising in December of 1810.
Before they could complete their preparations, the conspirators were betrayed to the conservative Viceroy Francisco Venegas. But Hidalgo learned of the betrayal before the viceregal authorities could move. Rather than flee, he decided to act.
Shortly before midnight on September 15, 1810, the bells of the church of Dolores began to ring. In the early morning hours of September 16, 16 de septiembre, Hidalgo issued the fateful Grito de Dolores. No one knows exactly what he said, but he clearly invoked Mexico’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe and called for ridding Mexico of the Spanish tyrants. A huge mass of Indian and mestizo peasants quickly rallied to him. The rebels seized Guanajuato, and marched toward Mexico City, driving the unprepared Spanish army aside.
Word of the revolution reached Texas by early October. Despite the vigorous defensive measures of the capable young royal governor, Manuel de Salcedo, in San Antonio, Texan supporters of Hidalgo quietly laid their plans. Early in the morning of January 22, 1811, pro-independence enlisted men from the San Antonio garrison led by Juan Bautista de las Casas, a retired militia captain, arrested Salcedo. He was packed off to Coahuila, which had already fallen to Hidalgo’s forces. An expedition from San Antonio took Nacogdoches for Hidalgo.
These early successes of the independence forces underwent a quick reversal. Hidalgo suffered a severe defeat outside Guadalajara. Fleeing north, he was ambushed, captured, and executed by the royalists. Royalists staged a counter-coup in San Antonio, and Casas suffered the same fate as Hidalgo. Independence forces found a very able successor to Hidalgo in another liberal priest, Father José Maria Morelos, but in 1815, he too was captured and executed. Collapse of the Napoleonic regime in Spain led to restoration of authoritarian royal government. For the next five years, the torch of Mexican independence was kept lit by several regional leaders who controlled some areas of the countryside while royalists held the cities and other large regions of the country.
In 1820, a rebellion in Spain forced the king to restore the democratic constitution. Unwilling to accept the democratic reforms, many leaders of the conservative aristocracy in Mexico came to see compromise with the independence forces as the only way to preserve their positions. In February 1821, the commander of the royalist forces, Gen. Agustín de Iturbide cut a deal, the Plan de Iguala, with Gen Vicente Guerrero, the most important of the regional independence leaders. Their combined forces quickly overran most of Mexico, and on August 24, 1821, the viceroy signed a treaty recognizing Mexico’s independence.
Ten years of struggle had passed since Father Hidalgo had raised the cry for independence at Dolores. Today, Mexico celebrates 16 de septiembre as its Independence Day and greatest national holiday. For Texans, it marks the beginning of our independence struggle, first from Spain, and then from Mexico. It is truly a momentous day in Texas History and should receive the recognition it deserves from all Texans.