Biography of Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, Mexico's Founding Father

He was a most unlikely revolutionary

Painting of Hidalgo the father of Mexico
Antonio Fabres/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla (May 8, 1753–July 30, 1811) is today remembered as the Father of his Country, the great hero of Mexico's War for Independence. His position has become cemented in lore, and there are any number of hagiographic biographies available featuring him as their subject.

The truth about Hidalgo is a little more complex. The facts and dates leave no doubt: his was the first serious insurrection on Mexican soil against Spanish authority, and he managed to get quite far with his poorly armed mob. He was a charismatic leader and made a good team with the military man Ignacio Allende despite their mutual hatred.

Fast Facts: Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla

  • Known For: Considered Mexico's founding father.
  • Also Known As: Miguel Gregorio Antonio Francisco Ignacio Hidalgo-Costilla y Gallaga Mandarte Villaseñor
  • Born: May 8, 1753, Pénjamo, Mexico
  • Parents: Cristóbal Hidalgo y Costilla, Ana María Gallaga
  • Died: July 30, 1811, Chihuahua, Mexico
  • Education: Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico (degree in philosophy and theology, 1773)
  • Publications: Ordered the publication of a newspaper, Despertador Americano (American Wake Up Call)
  • Honors: Dolores Hidalgo, the town where his parish was located, is named in his honor and the state of Hidalgo was created in 1869, also in his honor.
  • Notable Quote: "Action must be taken at once; there is no time to be lost; we shall yet see the oppressors' yoke broken and the fragments scattered on the ground."

Early Life

Born in 1753, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla was the second of 11 children fathered by Cristóbal Hidalgo, an estate administrator. He and his elder brother attended a school run by the Jesuits, and both decided to join the priesthood. They studied at San Nicolás Obispo, a prestigious school in Valladolid (now Morelia).

Hidalgo distinguished himself as a student and received top marks in his class. He would go on to become rector of his old school, becoming known as a top theologian. When his elder brother died in 1803, Miguel took over for him as the priest of the town of Dolores.

Conspiracy

Hidalgo often hosted gatherings at his home where he would talk about whether it was the duty of the people to obey or overthrow an unjust tyrant. Hidalgo believed the Spanish crown was such a tyrant: a royal collection of debt had ruined the finances of the Hidalgo family, and he saw injustice daily in his work with the poor.

There was a conspiracy for independence in Querétaro at this time: The conspiracy felt that they needed someone with moral authority, a relationship with the lower classes and good connections. Hidalgo was recruited and joined without reservation.

El Grito de Dolores/The Cry of Dolores:

Hidalgo was in Dolores on September 15, 1810, with other leaders of the conspiracy including military commander Allende, when word came to them that the conspiracy had been found out. Needing to move immediately, Hidalgo rang the church bells on the morning of the sixteenth, calling in all of the locals who happened to be in the market on that day. From the pulpit, he announced his intention to strike for independence and exhorted the people of Dolores to join him. Most did: Hidalgo had an army of some 600 men within minutes. This became known as the "Cry of Dolores."

The Siege of Guanajuato

Hidalgo and Allende marched their growing army through the towns of San Miguel and Celaya, where the angry rabble killed all Spaniards they could find and looted their homes. Along the way, they adopted the Virgin of Guadalupe as their symbol. On Sept. 28, 1810, they reached the mining city of Guanajuato, where the Spaniards and royalist forced had barricaded themselves inside the public granary.

The battle, that became known as the siege of Guanajuato, was horrific: The rebel horde, which by then numbered some 30,000, overran the fortifications and slaughtered the 500 Spaniards inside. Then the town of Guanajuato was looted: creoles, as well as Spaniards, suffered.

Monte de Las Cruces

Hidalgo and Allende, their army now some 80,000 strong, continued their march on Mexico City. The Viceroy hastily organized a defense, sending out Spanish general Torcuato Trujillo with 1,000 men, 400 horsemen and two cannons: all that could be found on such short notice. The two armies clashed on Monte de las Cruces (Mount of the Crosses) on Oct. 30, 1810. The result was predictable: The Royalists fought bravely (a young officer named Agustín de Iturbide distinguished himself) but could not win against such overwhelming odds. When the cannons were captured in combat, the surviving royalists retreated to the city.

Retreat

Although his army had the advantage and could easily have taken Mexico City, Hidalgo retreated, against the counsel of Allende. This retreat when victory was at hand has puzzled historians and biographers ever since. Some feel that Hidalgo feared that the largest Royalist army in Mexico, some 4,000 veterans under the command of General Félix Calleja, was nearby (it was, but not close enough to save Mexico City had Hidalgo attacked). Others say that Hidalgo wanted to spare the citizens of Mexico City the inevitable sacking and plunder. In any event, Hidalgo’s retreat was his greatest tactical error.

The Battle of Calderon Bridge

The rebels split for a while as Allende went to Guanajuato and Hidalgo to Guadalajara. They reunited, however, although things were tense between the two men. Spanish General Félix Calleja and his army caught up with the rebels at Calderón Bridge near the entrance to Guadalajara on Jan. 17, 1811. Although Calleja was vastly outnumbered, he caught a break when a lucky cannonball exploded a rebel munitions wagon. In the ensuing smoke, fire, and chaos, Hidalgo's undisciplined soldiers broke.

Betrayal and Capture

Hidalgo and Allende were forced to head north to the United States in the hope of finding weapons and mercenaries there. Allende was by then sick of Hidalgo and placed him under arrest: he went north as a prisoner. In the north, they were betrayed by local insurrection leader Ignacio Elizondo and captured. In short order, they were given to Spanish authorities and sent to the city of Chihuahua to stand trial. Also captured were insurgent leaders Juan Aldama, Mariano Abasolo and Mariano Jiménez, men who had been involved in the conspiracy since the start.

Hidalgo's Execution

All of the rebel leaders were found guilty and sentenced to death, except for Mariano Abasolo, who was sent to Spain to serve a life sentence. Allende, Jiménez, and Aldama were executed on June 26, 1811, shot in the back as a sign of dishonor. Hidalgo, as a priest, had to undergo a civil trial as well as a visit from the Inquisition. He was eventually stripped of his priesthood, found guilty, and executed on July 30. The heads of Hidalgo, Allende, Aldama, and Jiménez were preserved and hung from the four corners of the granary of Guanajuato as a warning to those who would follow in their footsteps.

Legacy

After decades of abuse of Creoles and poor Mexicans, there was a vast well of resentment and hatred that Hidalgo was able to tap into: even he seemed surprised by the level of anger released on the Spaniards by his mob. He provided the catalyst for Mexico's poor to vent their anger on the hated "gachipines" or Spaniards, but his "army" was more like a swarm of locusts, and about as impossible to control.

His questionable leadership also contributed to his downfall. Historians can only wonder what might have happened had Hidalgo pushed into Mexico City in November 1810: History certainly would be different. In this, Hidalgo was too proud or stubborn to listen to the sound military advice offered by Allende and others and press his advantage.

Finally, Hidalgo's approval of the violent sacking and looting by his forces alienated the group most vital to any independence movement: middle-class and wealthy Creoles like himself. Poor peasants and Indians only had the power to burn, pillage and destroy: They could not create a new identity for Mexico, one that would allow Mexicans to psychologically break from Spain and craft a national conscience for themselves.

Still, Hidalgo became a great leader: After his death. His timely martyrdom allowed others to pick up the fallen banner of freedom and independence. His influence on later fighters such as José María Morelos, Guadalupe Victoria and others are considerable. Today, Hidalgo's remains lie in a Mexico City monument known as "the Angel of Independence" along with other Revolutionary heroes.

Sources