Revered today as Mexico's “father of the nation,” Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla was born on the hacienda of San Diego Corralejo near Pénjamo, Guanajuato, where his father Cristóbal was the administrator. Although Miguel's mother died when he was only 8 years of age, his father was well off and able to send him to Valladolid (today's Morelia) where he studied with the Jesuits, and later at the Colegio de San Nicolás Obispo. Hidalgo excelled in philosophy, theology, and other subjects, earning his baccalaureate degree at the prestigious Royal and Pontifical University in Mexico City. Ordained as a priest in 1778, he continued his studies and returned to Valladolid where he taught philosophy and theology at the Colegio de San Nicolás. He won recognition as a professor that in 1790 led to his promotion to the prestigious post of rector. Having reached the apogee of academic success and purchased three haciendas, information emerged that altered Hidalgo's fortunes. He overspent the Colegio's budget and mismanaged some accounts. Added to these imperfections, he was a gambler and he sired three children. Some evidence indicated that he was heterodox in his political and religious thinking.
In February 1792 the ecclesiastical authorities of Valladolid appointed Hidalgo to serve as interim curate at the town of Colima, and later to San Felipe near Guanajuato. He was an active promoter of a broad range of social and cultural activities — theatrical presentations, literary discussions, concerts, dances, and card games. Hidalgo had an affair with an actress and he fathered two girls. Although his moral laxity did not cause significant problems, occasionally he offered views on theology that attracted attention. In 1800 and 1807 the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition investigated him, but took no action. In 1803 Hidalgo received an appointment to the curacy of the prosperous town of Dolores, where he stayed for seven years. In addition to his religious duties, he was active in supporting the development of industry and agriculture and in Guanajuato he kept company with men who shared his enlightened views. Although it is difficult to trace Hidalgo's political development, his friends such as Ignacio Allende, a militia captain, expressed dissatisfaction with the vice-regal government.
The French invasion and occupation of Spain in 1808 and the overthrow of Viceroy Jośde Iturrigaray in Mexico City by a group of European Spaniards outraged many creoles. In December 1809 the exposure of a group of plotters in what became known as the Valladolid Conspiracy ended a plan to establish a governing junta in the name of King Fernando VII. Although Hidalgo quite likely knew about this plot through his frequent travels and many contacts, he avoided arrest. He then joined another conspiracy at Querétaro with some participants of the Valladolid group, including the corregidor of Querétaro, Miguel Domínguez, and his wife, Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez. Hidalgo participated actively in the planning that embraced the formation of revolutionary juntas and responded to the French invasion of Spain launched by Napoléon Bonaparte. Fearful of a coup attempt, he argued for the expulsion from Mexico of the disliked gachupines (European Spaniards). The choice of Hidalgo as leader reflected his high status as a priest and his popularity among the indigenous and mixed-blood populations.
News of the plot reached the authorities in Mexico City, and at 2:00 a.m. on September 16, 1810, one of Hidalgo's supporters informed him that their plans had been exposed. Following hastily organized discussions, he proclaimed the famous Grito de Dolores (call to arms), beginning an uprising against the Spanish that initiated Mexico's war of independence. Adopting the banner of the venerated Virgin of Guadalupe, Hidalgo ordered prisoners freed from jails and the arrest of gachupín residents. Some experienced provincial militiamen joined the uprising. Other men equipped themselves with lances, machetes, bows and arrows, slings, and even sharpened sticks. Using surprise, the rebels occupied nearby villages and the town of San Miguel el Grande, Ignacio Allende's residence, and later they pillaged the town of Celaya. Now named Captain General of America, Hidalgo led an estimated force of 25,000 men in an attack on the mining town of Guanajuato. The intendant, Antonio Rianño, fortified and garrisoned the Alhóndiga (granary building), which fell following a fierce battle. With Hidalgo's authorization, the victors executed many of the European Spanish inhabitants. Valladolid (today's Morelia) capitulated to Hidalgo on October 17, yielding rich booty and many new recruits from the lower classes. Once again, Hidalgo condoned the executions of hundreds of gachupines. Nevertheless, the insurgent force best described as a disorganized horde expanded to an estimated 60,000 men. The insurgents now moved to occupy the city of Toluca, with their major objective to capture Mexico City and to take control of the government of New Spain.
Although the insurgents vastly outnumbered the royalist forces, their indiscipline and lack of military training were fatal weaknesses. The royalist forces met the much larger insurgent army at Monte de las Cruces and following an inconclusive battle withdrew to defend the capital. The insurgent force lacked training in linear warfare and for this reason their illdisciplined soldiers suffered even higher than normal casualties. On November 2 they gave up their major objective to occupy Mexico City. Though the insurgents remained dominant in numbers and claimed victory at the Battle of Monte de las Cruces, Hidalgo's disorganized forces were no match for the much better disciplined royalist army. On November 7 the insurgents suffered another major setback against the royalist forces at the Battle of Aculco, losing almost a thousand dead and wounded, and much of their artillery, munitions, livestock, and supplies. Disagreements ensued between Hidalgo and his senior commanders. Allende openly opposed Hidalgo's dependence upon the use of almost untrained hordes of Indian and mixed-blood fighters who could not withstand the musket volleys and artillery fire of better disciplined royalist soldiers.
Having been rebuffed by the royalist army of Calleja, Hidalgo moved his forces to occupy the city of Guadalajara, where there was strong support for his cause. For the first time, he was able to set up a rudimentary government and to dispatch an ambassador to the United States who was to seek support and recognition. However, Hidalgo continued his brutal persecution of Spaniards, confiscating their property and jailing or executing those who resisted. Strangely, given his background as a priest, he also took on the affected manner of a monarch, demanding that he be addressed as alteza serenísima (most serene highness). Nevertheless, reports arrived that the royalist Army of the Center commanded by Félix Calleja was in pursuit, followed by a second army commanded by Brigadier Joséde la Cruz. On January 17, 1811, at the Battle of Puente de Calderón (Calderon Bridge), Calleja's army obliterated the poorly armed and illtrained insurgent army. This defeat devastated the insurgents and Hidalgo's own officers removed him from command. On March 21, 1811, royalist troops captured Hidalgo, Ignacio Allende, Juan de Aldama, José Mariano Jiménez, and the remaining insurgent leaders at Bajá in the northern province of Coahuila. Hidalgo was executed by firing squad on July 20, 1811. His head and those of his three senior commanders were hung up in cages suspended from the corners of the Alhóndiga at Guanajuato.
SEE ALSO: Calleja del Rey, Félix María, 1st Count of Calderón (1753–1828); Mexican War of Independence (1810–1821).
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