Mexican California

To understand the political situation in California following the emergence of Mexico as an independent state it is necessary to understand the main political developments in Mexico proper. The years of warfare that surrounded the independence movement from 1810 to 1821 left the economy shattered, the traditional social order overturned, and a populace in poverty. Disease was widespread, and law and order absent from most areas of the country. Conditions were aggravated by the flight of the penninsulares back to Spain taking their capital and expertise with them. Inexperience, strong disagreements, and extensive corruption characterized the newly emerging governing elite.

Inevitably the army became the real focal point for political power in Mexico. In 1822 General Augustin de Iturbide, a principal figure in the war for independence, was crowned Emperor of Mexico. His short reign was authoritarian, corrupt, ineffective, and increasingly unpopular. It ended with his execution in 1824. Opposition to Iturbide was led by three men: Guadalupe Victoria, Vicente Guerrero, and General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Victoria and Guerrero had long liberal records in the Mexico of the day and Santa Anna professed similar views. The triumvirate issued the Plan of Casa Mata which among other things called for a constitution to be written.

Conservative concepts vied with a variety of liberal ideas drawn from recent revolutions in Europe and the United States. The Constitution of 1824, in part modeled on that of the United States, called for a federal republic composed of nineteen states and four territories. (California was one of the territories.) A balance of power was called for between the executive, judicial and legislative branches. Catholicism was declared to be the state religion. Many of the political leaders in both Mexico and California hailed this constitution as the beginning of a new era in their newly independent country.

Unfortunately the constitution was not respected, the legislative process was corrupted, and a series of executives proved incompetent to deal substantively with the problems facing the country. Elections were very often rigged or ignored and executive power was usually transferred by coup d'etat or rebellion. Violence and instability characterized daily life at the political center. Mexico's elite had little time, fewer resources, and virtually no interest in far off California. Although Californios complained vigorously of Mexico City's neglect they benefited from it in being shielded from much of the violent unrest that characterized most other parts of the country.

Europe and the United States watched events in Mexico with interest and frequently were directly involved in the political scene. Spain wanted to reestablish its old colonial empire. France flirted with the idea of adding Mexico to its list of colonies. Great Britain saw an independent Mexico with strong ties to England as being useful in limiting the growth of the United States. The United States wanted Europeans out of all of the Americas including Mexico and President Monroe issued the Monroe Doctrine to that effect in 1823. In California various leaders espoused theories that would see one or the other of these countries take a leading role in the affairs of Mexico and California but no consensus was achieved.

In 1829 Santa Anna defeated an armed Spanish effort to reestablish it's control of Mexico. Following his victory he was named the Savior of the Country. He was elected President for the first time in 1833, but he retired to his estate near Vera Cruz and permitted his liberal Vice President, Valentin Gomez Farias, to run the government. Within a short time conservative opposition to Farias' liberal policies generated strong opposition among powerful conservative elements in society. Santa Anna returned to Mexico City and in 1836 issued a new constitution know as the Seven Laws. It reversed the liberal policies of Farias and identified Santa Anna as a proponent of conservative values. Most Californios preferred the Constitution of 1824 and some actively protested the Seven Laws that replaced it.

In 1835 Texas declared it's independence from Mexico. Santa Anna marched north in response and overran the Alamo on March 6, 1836. On April 21, 1836, at San Jacinto, Sam Huston's Texans defeated and captured Santa Anna. He gained his release by promising to respect the independence of Texas with a southern boundary on the Rio Grande. On his return to Mexico in 1837 he maintained that his promises had been made under duress and need not be honored by Mexico. In 1838 France attempted to land troops at Vera Cruz in support of efforts to collect debts. Santa Anna led the resistance successfully but was wounded in the battle. As a result he was once again honored as a defender of the fatherland.

Santa Anna was out of power following his defeat in Texas, back in power after defeating the French, and exiled to Cuba in 1845 for abusing his power. The Mexican political scene continued to be unstable and relations with the United States were worsening. Mexico did not recognize the independence of Texas, believed that the United States intended to annex it into the Union, and wanted to take control of California as well. On April 25, 1846, war broke out between the United States and Mexico. President Polk believed that he could negotiate an acceptable peace with Santa Anna and assisted him to return to Mexico and take command of the army. Armed Mexican resistance in California ended in January 1847. By September 1847 the Mexican forces were defeated in Mexico proper. On February 2, 1848, Mexico and the Untied States signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.

Californios who had predicted that California would go the way of Texas unless Mexico strengthened it's hold on the territory were proven to be correct, but in reality there was very little that Mexico could have done to have changed the outcome of the war. The United States Army was better trained, better supplied, better equipped, and had superior leadership and troop morale. Few in California made any serious effort to resist the American takeover of their territory. A very short time after the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was signed the Gold Rush overwhelmed the Californios and their way of life.

Spanish California...   California and the Gold Rush...