José María Morelos

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José María Morelos

José María Morelos (1765-1815) was a Mexican parish priest who joined the forces seeking to liberate Mexico from Spanish rule. He became the greatest of the insurgent military commanders, and as a statesman he advocated far-reaching political and social reforms.

The struggle for independence began with the celebrated revolt initiated by Miguel Hidalgo, the parish priest of Dolores, on Sept. 16, 1810, now one of Mexico's great national holidays. Although the effort achieved some initial successes, Hidalgo failed to clarify the aims of the revolt or to provide effective leadership. With his capture, trial, and execution in 1811, the movement was suppressed. By that time, however, another figure had emerged to assume leadership—José María Morelos

Morelos was born in Valladolid (now Morelia, the capital of the state of Michoacán) on Sept. 30, 1765. A mestizo (of mixed Spanish and Indian blood), he was thus a member of the lower classes in the Spanish colonial social system. His parents were respectable though poor, and young Morelos went to work at an early age as a mule driver in the tierra caliente of southern Mexico.

Schooling and Priesthood

In 1790 Morelos, with money he had saved and the barest rudiments of an education, enrolled at San Nicolás College in Valladolid to begin training for a career in the Church. Hidalgo was rector of the college during Morelos's 2 years of residence there. After further study at the Seminario Tridentino in Valladolid, Morelos in 1795 journeyed to the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico to take his final examinations and receive a bachelor of arts degree. In 1797 he was ordained a priest and 2 years later was assigned to the parish of Carácuaro, in the heart of the tierra caliente, where he remained until 1810.

Carácuaro, with its nearly 2,000 Indian parishioners, was one of the most remote and poverty-stricken curacies in all Mexico, and the work of the priest was extremely demanding and burdensome. Although Morelos performed manifold duties diligently, he became increasingly frustrated about the future of his ministry and irritated with his ecclesiastical superiors, who ignored or rejected his petitions. Yet he probably would have remained in Carácuaro for the rest of his life, outside the stream of history, had he not received news in 1810 of the revolt led by Hidalgo.

In a conference between the two men, Hidalgo convinced Morelos that the revolt was in defense of country and religion, inasmuch as the Spanish officials in Mexico were about to surrender the country to Napoleon Bonaparte and the French. When Morelos responded sympathetically and agreed to join the cause, Hidalgo gave him a military commission and directed him to capture the port of Acapulco and spread the revolution southward.

Revolutionary Leader

During the next 3 years Morelos displayed the kind of leadership and ability for which he became famous in Mexican history. He raised and trained armies, instilled discipline and morale, planned campaigns, selected his commanders, and brought under his control an area south of Mexico City which stretched from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec on the east to Valladolid on the west. His most brilliant achievements were the conquest of the province of Oaxaca and his gallant defense of Cuautla, where he withstood a siege for 2 1/2 months.

Morelos captured Acapulco in 1813 after a long siege, giving Spanish forces elsewhere, however, an opportunity to reorganize and seize the initiative. Thus, the taking of Acapulco, in compliance with Hidalgo's orders, marked the beginning of Morelos's decline.

Political and Social Programs

While Morelos was engaged in the conquest of southern Mexico, he was also formulating a revolutionary political and social program and laying plans for the establishment of an insurgent government. In September 1813 Morelos—the "Servant of the Nation," as he liked to style himself—called the Congress of Chilpancingo, composed of representatives of the provinces under his control, to consider a program which he outlined in a document entitled "Sentiments of the Nation."

In it, Morelos called for the independence of Mexico and for the abolition of all class distinctions, such as Indian, mulatto, and mestizo, in favor of the designation "American" for all native-born persons. Sovereignty, he declared, was vested in the people and should be exercised by a representative congress. He also recommended republican institutions, a strong executive authority, respect for property, voluntary Church contributions, and the abolition of slavery, torture, and the tribute. The cornerstone of a Mexican nation had been laid at Chilpancingo, but the completion of the structure would require military victories during 1814. Such, however, was not to be; Morelos's congress, other than declaring independence and naming him generalissimo, did little.

Military Reverses

A succession of military disasters beginning at Valladolid late in 1813 brought a decline in Morelos's prestige and power, and the congress became an itinerant body relentlessly pursued by the viceroy's forces. In an attempt to salvage something from a dying cause, the congress completed a constitution at Apatzingán in October 1814 which featured a weak executive and a powerful legislature. Morelos voiced his disapproval of the document but conceded that it was the best that could have been framed under the circumstances. His authority by this time was reduced to protecting the new insurgent congress, which had been installed in accordance with the constitution; and when, in November 1815, Morelos attempted to escort that body to a location near the east coast of Mexico, he was captured and brought to Mexico City in chains.

Morelos stood trial before three separate tribunals. A joint civil-ecclesiastical tribunal sentenced him to be degraded from the priesthood for heresy; the Inquisition, in a painful ceremony, carried out the act of degradation; and a civil court sentenced him to be executed for treason. On Dec. 22, 1815, at the village of San Cristóbal Ecatépec, a short distance from Mexico City, the sentence was carried out.

Further Reading

Most of the writing on Morelos is in Spanish. The only full-length treatment in English is Wilbert H. Timmons, Morelos: Priest, Soldier, Statesman of Mexico (rev. ed. 1970). A useful biographical sketch of him is in James Aloysius Magner, Men of Mexico (1942), and John Anthony Caruso, The Liberators of Mexico (1954). Recommended for historical background are Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of Mexico, vol. 4 (rev. ed. 1914); Henry Bamford Parkes, A History of Mexico (3d rev. ed. 1960); Hugh M. Hamill, Jr., The Hidalgo Revolt (1966); and Lesley Byrd Simpson, Many Mexicos (4th ed. rev. 1966). □