Agustin de Iturbide: Biography & Significance

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Mexican independence did not go quite as planned, and at the center of this was a man named Agustin de Iturbide. In this lesson, we'll get to know this controversial figure and see how he impacted Mexican history.

Agustín de Iturbide

Here's a fun plot for a revisionist history novel: George Washington begins the American Revolution, but is killed just under a year into the war. Benjamin Franklin then takes over, but he's killed too. At this point, the revolution is split between Paul Revere and Thomas Jefferson until, just as all seems lost, General Cornwallis switches sides, wins the war and declares himself emperor of the United States. Crazy, right? Like, that could never happen. Except it did. In Mexico.

Mexico's independence wars did not go smoothly. Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla was killed in 1811, and José María Morelos died in 1815. However, out of this chaos arose a general named Agustín de Iturbide. He was so tough and formidable that he was known as El Dragón de Hierro, the Iron Dragon. The only problem: he was fighting for the Spanish. So, how did Spain's Iron Dragon become the champion and emperor of Mexico? Let's find out.

Emperor Agustin de Iturbide
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The Early Life of Augustín de Iturbide

Agustín Cosme Damian de Iturbide y Arámburu was born in the colony of New Spain (today Mexico) in 1783. His father was a noble Spanish landowner, and Augustín was raised to be a good, Spanish gentleman. His mother was born in New Spain, which made her a criolla and slightly inferior in the Spanish racial caste system to his father, but his family adamantly insisted that she (and therefore their son) was of full Spanish blood. Any Amerindian heritage could, after all, threaten his future in the Spanish military and government. Agustín would be formally recognized as a criollo, a Spaniard born in the Americas.

As a teenager, Iturbide decided that he would pursue a military career, which was very respectable. By 1806, he had risen through the ranks to become a lieutenant in the Spanish royalist army.

Independence Begins

By 1810, Iturbide had established a reputation for himself in the military. He'd helped put down a few minor rebellions, but then news of a new one appeared. It was being led by a distant relative of his, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. Hidalgo offered Iturbide a place in this new revolutionary army, but after considering it, Iturbide refused. Hidalgo's army was composed almost entirely of Mexican peasants, armed with little more than sticks and generations of pent up aggression against their tyrannous Spanish overlords.

Like many, however, Iturbide underestimated this army. Hidalgo's forces made it nearly to the gates of Mexico City, cutting through Spanish forces as they went. Iturbide was one of the commanders defeated by this army, although he further distinguished himself for his bravery, tactical skills, and leadership during the battle.

After Hidalgo was killed, the revolution fell to José María Morelos. Iturbide fought Morelos for three years, before landing a crushing defeat against him in 1814. A year later, Morelos was captured and executed. Iturbide became a hero to Spanish loyalists in New Spain, but lost briefly lost his commission in 1816 due to surfacing accounts of cruelties committed by troops under his command.

The Plan de Iguala

After a few years of regaining favor with the right people, Iturbide was finally placed back in command of royalist forces in 1820. His task was to defeat the last remaining revolutionary leader, Vicente Guerrero. By this point, the colonial administrators of New Spain were so confident that they began offering pardons to anyone who abandoned the revolutionary army. Finally, Iturbide and Guerrero met. Iturbide marched his forces towards battle, then without warning switched sides, joined Guerrero and offered the royalist army to the revolutionary cause.

Wait, what? What just happened? If you're confused, you're not alone. Historians have debated Iturbide's sudden change of heart for decades. Why did he switch sides? Most likely, he saw an opportunity for himself. Spain was revamping its own constitution, and those changes could have threatened the landed elites of New Spain. To Iturbide, the best way to secure the future of Mexico's nobility was to seize control of the nation and turn it into an independent kingdom, free of the threat of becoming a republic.

Together, Iturbide and Guerrero drafted the Plan de Iguala, the aim of their new, joint movement in 1821. Under this plan, Mexico would become an independent monarchy, adopt Catholicism as the official religion, and guarantee political and racial equality. These were known as the Three Guarantees, represented by the flag of green, white, and red. Iturbide was named General of the Army of the Three Guarantees, and he marched into Mexico City virtually unopposed. Mexican independence had been won.

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