The revolutionary examples of the United States and France encouraged creole elites in the Spanish American colonies to dream of independence. These educated people of European ancestry had been born in the Americas and resented both the political power held by the peninsulares and Spain’s economic restrictions. The overthrow of the Spanish monarchy by the French gave creoles the opportunity to participate in local self-governing bodies called juntas, and some were delegates to meetings of the Spanish Cortes, a national parliament that produced a short-lived constitution. This not only reawakened their desire for independence and self-government, but it also showed them that it was possible.
In the first few decades of the nineteenth century, two waves of revolutionary fervor swept New Spain. In 1816, Miguel Hidalgo proclaimed Mexico’s independence from Spain with the Grito de Dolores and led a largely Indigenous and mestizo army to overthrow the colony’s government. However, Hidalgo’s call for widespread social reforms and the violence of his followers led creoles to desert both his movement and the calls of his successor José Maria Morelos for social equality.
The second wave was more successful. Following the adoption of liberal reforms by the Spanish government, Mexican creoles sought independence in order to retain the privileges their status granted them. In 1821, Agustín de Iturbide proclaimed the Plan de Iguala, which declared Mexico’s independence and transformed the country into a constitutional monarchy with protections for the Catholic Church and guarantees of social equality. Iturbide allied himself with Vicente Guerrero, the leader of Indigenous and mixed-race rebels, to form the victorious Army of the Three Guarantees. Iturbide became Mexico’s first emperor in 1822, but in 1823 he abdicated, and Mexico became a republic.
Venezuela’s junta declared its independence from Spain in 1811. In 1812, however, resistant conservative White Venezuelans were aided by mixed-race people who resented liberal creole privileges and remained loyal to the Spanish Crown. Following Fernando VII’s return to the Spanish throne, Spanish troops joined local royalist forces to fight the Venezuelan patriots being led by Simón Bolívar. By promising to abolish slavery, Bolívar won the help of Haiti’s president Alexandre Pétion. He also relied heavily on the mixed-race llaneros. Bolívar’s troops liberated the territories that became Gran Colombia (Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador). The Congress of Cúcuta that formed to govern Gran Colombia provided for the gradual abolition of slavery and granted voting rights to property-owning men.
In the south, the Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata (modern Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay) proclaimed independence from Spain in 1816. The Argentine general José de San Martín then led troops through the Andes to assist Bernardo O’Higgins of Chile. Both San Martín and Bolívar led forces into Peru, the last royalist stronghold, where royalist troops were forced to accept amnesty.
In 1807, when French forces attempted to invade Portugal, the Portuguese royal family and their court fled to Brazil. João VI, the former prince regent, ruled from Rio de Janeiro as head of the government in exile. In 1821, he returned to Portugal, leaving his son Pedro I to rule Brazil. When the Portuguese Cortes ordered Pedro I to return to Europe, he refused, and on September 7, 1822, he declared Brazil independent of Portugal. With the assistance of Thomas Cochrane, he defeated Portugal’s military forces.
Pedro I wrote a constitution for Brazil that while providing for independent legislative and judiciary branches, preserved the bulk of political power for the emperor in his role as “moderator” between the other branches of government. Following the July Revolution in France in 1830, Brazilians called for the autocratic Pedro I to abdicate his throne, which he did in favor of his son Pedro II in April 1831.