Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla

Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla (1753-1811), a Mexican revolutionary priest, is considered the foremost patriot of Mexican independence. He led a revolt against Spanish rule that inaugurated a series of military and political episodes culminating in the achievement of Mexican independence in 1821.

Miguel Hidalgo was born a Creole on May 8, 1753. His father was the administrator of a hacienda in the Bajío (in the present state of Guanajuato). Miguel was trained briefly in a Jesuit school before the order was expelled from the empire in 1767. Later that year he matriculated in the diocesan College of San Nicolás in Valladolid (now Morelia). Hidalgo was intellectually oriented and chose to remain part of the academic community long after he had earned degrees in theology and had been ordained. By 1776 he was a member of the San Nicolás faculty and remained in Valladolid until 1792 as an academician, an exponent of the Enlightenment, and a Don Juan. In 1790 he became rector of the college, but his advanced ideas and mismanagement of funds soon led to his ouster.

From 1792 until 1810 Hidalgo served as parish priest in a succession of curacies. While in San Felipe (1793-1803), he made his house a salon and promoted French theatrical works (which he translated), orchestral music, dances, and literary discussions. The Inquisition investigated his activities (1800-1801) but did not press charges. On his arrival in Dolores near Guanajuato in 1803, Hidalgo turned to more socioeconomic interests. These he expressed through his development of local craft industries (ceramics, tanning, sericulture) for the benefit of the Indian and caste population.

Start of a Rebellion

With the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1808, Mexico's own crisis began. Hidalgo's search for intellectual companionship had brought him into contact with prominent Creoles throughout the Bajío, Michoacán, and adjacent areas. When the Creoles in Querétaro organized a plot to expel the dominant peninsular Spaniards and to substitute themselves in power, Hidalgo joined. Articulate, well informed, and charismatic, he soon emerged as the uprising's leader, with Ignacio Allende, a militia captain, as second in command.

Exposed in early September 1810, the conspirators were forced to revolt prematurely. In a dramatic episode, Hidalgo put the plan into effect on September 16 by delivering an impassioned speech, the Grito de Dolores, to his parishioners. Avoiding abstractions like "independence, " which were meaningless to the untutored villagers, he couched his revolutionary appeals in traditional protest language: the Catholic religion and the exiled king, Ferdinand VII, were extolled, and "death to bad government, " represented by the peninsular Spaniards, was urged. The native patroness, the Virgin of Guadalupe, was added to the slogans, and her image became the banner of the revolt.

Hidalgo permitted Indians and castes to join his holy war of redemption in such numbers that the original white Creole motives of the insurrection were obscured. The jacquerie swept through the Bajío, burning and looting, until it engulfed the mining center of Guanajuato on September 28. The massacre of the Spanish defenders of the fortress granary and the subsequent sack of the city set the tone for the Hidalgo revolt. Hidalgo took Valladolid in mid-October and then marched on Mexico City. His horde numbered some 80, 000 as it approached the viceregal capital.

Turn of the Tide

Meanwhile, the royalist government in Mexico City, under the leadership of Viceroy Francisco Venegas, had prepared defenses as much psychological as military. An intensive propaganda campaign had advertised the destructive horrors of the social revolution and revealed its threat to vested Creole interests. Hidalgo won a Pyrrhic victory on October 30 at Monte de las Cruces on the divide between Toluca and the capital but found the sedentary Indians and castes of the Valley of Mexico as much opposed to the Bajío intruders as were the Creoles and Spaniards. Threatened from the north by an army under the royalist general Félix Calleja, Hidalgo withdrew to Guadalajara to recoup without attacking Mexico City.

From his new base, Hidalgo made rudimentary efforts to establish a separatist government and to ameliorate the economic plight of the lower sectors of society (abolition of slavery and tribute were confirmed, and lands were ordered restored to Indian communities). Hidalgo, a strong egoist, however, assumed grandiose airs and exacerbated a growing schism with Allende's Creole faction. In January 1811 Calleja threatened Guadalajara, and Hidalgo advanced east to meet him at the bridge of Calderón with nearly 100, 000 men. Calleja's disciplined army of 7, 000 men defeated Hidalgo's horde on January 17, and Hidalgo fled north.

Suspended from command by the Allende party, Hidalgo was only a figurehead during the retreat. Allende's attempt in March to reach the United States was thwarted at Baján north of Saltillo, and the major leaders of the rebellion were captured. Hidalgo and his companions were removed to Chihuahua for trial and the inevitable executions. Aware that his enterprise had been a catastrophe, Hidalgo repented and apparently signed a public retraction. He was shot on July 30, 1811, and his body decapitated.

After Hidalgo's death his cause languished in spite of the efforts of José María Morelos, for the Creole majority remained opposed. In 1821 Agustín de Iturbide engineered a conservative independence and established a short-lived empire. After the republican overthrown of Iturbide, Hidalgo emerged as a patriotic hero. Modern Mexico venerates him as the Padre de la Patria, and the anniversary of his Grito is celebrated on September 16 as Mexico's independence day.

Further Reading on Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla

Hugh M. Hamill, Jr., The Hidalgo Revolt: Prelude to Mexican Independence (1966), is more concerned with the nature of the rebellion than with the man. For the general background see Lesley Byrd Simpson, Many Mexicos (1941; 4th ed. 1966), and Charles C. Cumberland, Mexico: The Struggle for Modernity (1968). A wealth of detail about the independence movement is in Hubert H. Bancroft, History of Mexico, vol. 4 (6 vols., 1883-1888).

Additional Biography Sources

De Varona, Frank, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla: father of Mexican independence, Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 1993.

Hamill, Hugh M., The Hidalgo revolt: prelude to Mexican independence, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Noll, Arthur Howard, The life and times of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, New York, Russell & Russell, 1973.

Perlin, D. E., Father Miguel Hidalgo: a cry for freedom, Dallas, Tex.: Hendrick-Long Pub. Co., 1991.

Scott, Bernice, The grito of September sixteenth: biography of Padre Miguel Hidalgo, father of Mexican independence, Ingleside, Tex.: Hemisphere House Books, 1981.

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