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Execution of a Priest Revolutionary: July 30, 1811

Updated: Aug 21, 2019

This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America. Please visit our blog to read our previous post on Padre Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla.

The priest-revolutionary, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla

It is said that [Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla] was at first shocked by his “army’s” violence but that he came to accept it as a necessary evil. He issued a proclamation, ostensibly to rein in the violence — “Nine Laws to Avoid Disorder and Bloodshed.” These “laws” forbade the seizure of “eccle­siastics except in case of high treason” and offered to “respect the security” of the “life and wealth” of the “European [presumably gauchupine or creole] who spontaneously surrenders to us.” The European, however, who spoke against the revolt or who resisted with arms would be “put to the sword.” More bloody was the fifth law, decreeing that “when we are menaced by siege and combat, before engaging in it, and at the same time that we begin hostilities, we shall put the many Europeans who are in our hands to the sword.” Americans (creoles, mestizos, and Indians) fared no better. Those who defended with arms or “maliciously” hid a European would be “put to the sword.” Those “who simply through compassion” hid a European would “suffer the pain of exile and the confiscation of his property.” Anyone who informed about “any of the aforementioned crimes” would be rewarded 500 pesos.

Following the capture of Guanajuato, Hidalgo’s old friend, Manuel Abad y Queipo, now bishop-elect of Michoacán, excommunicated the cura of Dolores and all his followers. In his decree of excommunication, Abad lamented that Hidalgo’s rebellion threatened to visit on New Spain the same atrocities that had stained the revolution in France, where “two million people . . . a tenth of the French population, young people of both sexes in the prime of life had been killed.” Abad raised the spectre of a rebellion in Haiti in 1810, where “anarchy liq­uidated all the whites, leaving not a single one alive, then liquidated four fifths of the other inhabitants, leaving the final fifth, composed of blacks and mulattos, locked in a mortal struggle.” And now, Abad continued, “a minister of the God of Peace, a priest of Jesus Christ, a pastor of souls (I hate to say), the cura of Dolores village, Don Miguel Hidalgo (who until now had merited my confidence and friendship) . . . [has] raised the banner of rebellion, lit the torch of discord and anarchy, and persuaded a number of unsophisticated peasants to take up arms.” Abad deplored the inscription Hidalgo had attached to the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe: “Long Live our Religion! Long Live our Holy Mother, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe! Long live Fernando VII! Long live América! Death to Bad Government!” Abad continued:

Hidalgo's banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Because our religion condemns rebellion, murder, and the mistreatment of innocents, and because the Mother of God cannot protect criminals, the cura of Dolores committed two grave acts of sacrilege when he put that inscription on a banner with the image of Nuestra Señora. He likewise insulted and attacked our government and, thereby, insulted our sovereign, Don Fernando VII. He mistreated the king’s vassals, disrupted law and order, and violated the oath of fidelity to king and country.

Perhaps ironically, only a few months before Hidalgo’s rebellion began, Abad had sent to the king a document in which he called for abolishing Indian tribute payments and class distinctions, as well as for a redistribution of royal lands among the natives. But now that he and other bishops who followed his lead were condemning Hidalgo’s rebellion, the Church was made to appear the enemy of the people and the friend of the “oppressive” government. Using the power of religion against Hidalgo (just as Hidalgo had used religion to further revolution), Abad and his brother bishops accomplished little more than to alienate the pro- Hidalgo masses.

During October 1810 Hidalgo gained control of much of central Mexico west of Mexico City. Everywhere, the same mob violence was repeated — which disgusted Hidalgo’s commanding general, Ignacio Allende. A professional soldier, Allende val­ued discipline; Hidalgo, however, could be too lenient with his followers — as when he rebuked Allende for cruelty to the Indians, when Allende was trying to stop the violence of the mob by striking out at them with the flat of his sword. But when it came to the enemy, Hidalgo did not show such complaisance. At Valladolid, a priest canon of the cathedral bravely approached Hidalgo unarmed and made him promise to spare the city. The city was spared, but Hidalgo was so stung to anger that the cathedral (where he wanted to offer thanks) was locked against him that he imprisoned all the gauchupines and seized the city treasury. Such arbi­trary actions and Hidalgo’s tolerance of violence convinced creoles, who Hidalgo had hoped would rise with the Indians, to instead joined forces with the gauchupines.

From Valladolid, Hidalgo moved against Mexico City. On October 3, at Monte de Las Cruces in the foothills overlooking the capital, Hidalgo’s 80,000 joined battle with 6,000 Spaniards under General Torcuato Trujillo. Though vastly outnumbered, Trujillo’s force inflicted heavy losses on the rebels; still, Hidalgo’s overwhelming numbers forced the Spaniards to retreat to Mexico City. That night the lurid glow of the rebels’ campfires illumined the hills surround­ing the capital.

A mural by Salvador Almaraz López depicting Hidalgo and his revolution

What to do next? The soldier Allende and others encouraged Hidalgo to strike the city, but Hidalgo hesitated and instead decided to retreat northwest, toward Guadalajara. Demoralized by the loss of a victory that seemed so clearly within their reach, thousands abandoned the rebel army. On November 7, 1810, Spanish troops under General Félix Calleja defeated Hidalgo’s remnant of 40,000 men at Aculco.

Yet, despite the defeat, the people of Guadalajara greeted Hidalgo and his army with fiestas and proclaimed the priest the liberator of his country. Gradually new recruits began to swell the numbers of Hidalgo’s diminished force until it once again boasted over 80,000 men. At Guadalajara, Hidalgo, with the lawyer Ignacio López Rayón, established a government and issued a proclamation granting freedom to slaves and the surrender to the Indians of the lands they cultivated. The Guadalajara government pledged its fidelity to King Fernando VII.

Meanwhile, General Calleja, with 6,000 well-trained and well-armed men, had retaken Guanajuato and was moving against Guadalajara. Against the advice of Allende, Hidalgo chose to meet Calleja’s advance by concentrating his entire force at Calderón bridge on the eastern outskirts of Guadalajara. There, on January 14, 1811, Calleja attacked the rebels; his disciplined campaigners held their own against the unruly, concentrated native force. A cannon ball, flying over the heads of the rebels, struck their munitions dump. An explosion rocked the insurgents from behind while angry flames clawed at the heavens. The explo­sion sparked a grass fire that threw the rebels into confusion. Hidalgo, Allende, and a small remnant of their force retreated through Guadalajara and fled northeast, toward Zacatecas. Calleja entered the city in triumph.

Ignacio Allende

At Zacatecas, a disgusted Allende removed Hidalgo from command of the army. Hoping to connect with rebels in the north and elicit aid from the United States, Allende, with Hidalgo and 1,000 men crossed into the hot and barren deserts of northern Mexico enroute to Texas. On March 21, 1811, near Saltillo, in the wastes of Coahuilla, the small rebel force, betrayed by one of their own, encountered a Spanish force. The Spaniards defeated the rebels and seized Allende and Hidalgo, killing on the spot many of the lesser officers. Allende was later executed ignominiously — he was shot through the back — while Hidalgo, because he was a priest, was delivered over to the bishop of Durango for trial.

A mural next to the spot where Hidalgo was executed, the Government Palace in Chihuahua

“Oh that someone would give water to my head and fountains of tears to my eyes! Or that someone even now would shed the very blood that flows through my pores, not only did I weep day and night for those of my countrymen who have died, but weeping can only bless the unending mercies of the Lord.” So began a recantation, dated May 1811, written allegedly by Hidalgo (some have called it a forgery). In it the writer expresses his fear of divine punish­ment and begs the forgiveness and prayers of those he has wronged. Hidalgo implored those who had joined his revolution to desist and told them to honor the king and obey the priests, “because they watch over you as those who must give account to the Lord for your affairs.”

After trying Hidalgo, the bishop of Durango removed his priestly dignity and delivered him to the state for execution. Standing before a firing squad on July 30, 1811, Hidalgo calmly instructed them to shoot him through his right hand, which he placed over his heart. His head, with the heads of Allende and Aldama, were displayed on the walls of the Alhóndiga in Guanajuato, where for the next ten years they remained, a grim warning to all would-be revolutionaries.

Music Hidalgo May Have Heard

A Te Deum from the Maitines de la Virgen de Guadalupe (Matins of Our Lady of Guadalpue), by Mexican composer Manuel Arenzana (1762-1821)

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