Rogue States! The Mexican Secessions


As a continuation of my return to blogging, I’m writing an installment for what could turn into series on a subject that I have been researching a great deal since the last time I posted: Proposals for partition and secession in North America. For the first trial installment, I will be covering several potential entries in one go, the various attempts by states of present-day Mexico to secede into new and independent nations.

Convention would dictate that an account of attempts to secede from Mexico with an overview of the Mexico itself. I believe two fairly peculiar features are worth noting. First, there is Mexico City, a regional power center going back to the days of the Aztecs, which currently holds almost 8% of Mexico’s population in less than 0.01% of its land area- an arrangement roughly equivalent to putting the population of Texas in the state of Delaware. Second, there are the internal borders of Mexico’s states, for the most part corresponding at least recognizably to Spanish colonies of the 1500s, which by any standard are quite ridiculously convoluted. Among the more egregious examples is the north-central state of Zacatecas, with about four near-enclaves intruding into the neighboring states of Jalisco and Nayarit, protuberances of Durango and San Luis de Potosi pressing against its northern borders, and the miniscule state of Aguas Calientes tucked into the southeast. Such insane contortions in intra-national boundaries can scarcely be regarding as anything short of a direct obstacle to effective local government and mutual self-defense, which, given Mexico’s history, could have been precisely the idea. To state the obvious rather mildly, the conquistadores who carved out future Mexico for God, gold and glory had no intention of laying the foundation of a unified nation-state. What they created was a jumble of feudal territories for convenient and generally short-term exploitation. We should therefore not be surprised that Mexico has experienced more than a fair share of instability. If anything, we should be impressed that it has survived at all. A study of attempts to secede from Mexico just might give us some answers to how Mexico stayed Mexico.

Republic of Texas
Area: 389,166 mi^2
Active: 1835-1845
Status: Annexed by United States of America

In making selections, my inclination was to avoid Mexican territories that joined or tried to join other nations, which meant paring away several good entries. But I decided this essay wouldn’t be complete or coherent without covering the Republic of Texas. The events of will need little introduction: In 1835-1836, settlers from the United States staged a rebellion in the Mexican territory of Tejas and declared an independent Republic of Texas, about half again the size of the present day state (which in turn is about twice the size of the original Tejas). While the revolution and the formation of the Republic were carried out almost entirely by settlers from the United States with extensive further support from the US, Texas did not formally join the United States until mid-1845, in the face of growing tensions with Mexico that would culminate in the Mexican-American War.

Strictly speaking, given the prominent role of the United States, the Texas secession has little place in a list of Mexican revolutionary movements. However, the Republic of Texas remained at least nominally independent for a full decade, enough to establish the partition of Mexican territory into new nations as a viable option. It is also only fair to note that Mexico relied very heavily on aid from European colonial powers, including Spain, with an obvious interest in containing the spread of United States territory and influence. For discontented Mexicans caught in the middle, following the example of Texas and breaking up their own country would have presented, at worst, one of the lesser of multiple evils. As we shall see, it was precisely during the window of Texas’ independent existence that revolutionary movements in Mexico would most actively pursue the goal of secession.

“Republic” of Zacatecas
Area: 31,235 mi^2
Active: 1835
Status: Dissolved into Zacatecas and Aguas Calientes

The second of our rogue states is the above-mentioned state of Zacatecas, historically including Aguas Calientes, a geographically transitional region best known (if at all) for containing literally the most productive silver mines in the world. From the earliest days of independent Mexico, Zacatecas was outspoken for autonomy for individual states and the preservation of of Mexico’s 1824 Federalist constitution. Steady resistance and occasional rebellions peaked when recurring Centralist President Santa Anna revoked the 1824 constitution in 1835, at which point Zacatecas staged a revolt nearly simultaneously with the Texas revolution. Some accounts mentions a declaration of independence from the national government or an actual Republic of Zacatecas, but details of the rebels’ objectives are difficult to find (let alone verify!). If Zacatecas had achieved even moderate success in its drive for autonomy, it could very well have reshaped the political and cultural landscape of Mexico, perhaps acting as a neutral Switzerland between other emergent republics.

The problem with such a scenario is that Mexico’s political factions have not been greatly constrained by geography. In the Reform War of 1857-1861, for example, the neighboring states of Durango and San Luis Potosi both sided with the ruling Conservatives. Even more tellingly, the Zacatecans themselves quite actively aided the Liberal rebels, even though their stated goal of sweeping national reforms was a far cry from the Federalist ideal of local self-government. Thus, whether or not the Zacatecas rebellion is counted as separatist per se, it is very representative of the prospects for secession: In the earlier years of Mexico, the partition of the country into new nations or otherwise autonomous entities could at least have won support from significant segments of the public. By the middle of the century, the politics and culture of Mexico had evolved too far for secession to be either acceptable or viable. If the “what if” of the division of Mexico into new countries were going to happen by the Mexicans’ consent, it would have had to be in a relatively narrow window of time.

Republic of Rio Grande
Area: 115,831 mi^2
Active: 1840
Status: Unrealized

After Texas, this is the most famous of Mexican secession movements, and perhaps even more than the Texas Republic, it is necessary to get through a good deal of uncritical legendry to get to a realistic picture of historical fact. Various appraisals of the “Republic” have been as disparate as an internal Mexican secessionist movement, a barely-veiled expansion scheme by Texas, or even an intended base of operations for a Federalist coup. (A page at Flags of the World gives a good appraisal of controversies, including a little-known dispute over the colors of the frequently-reprinted flag.) Ironically, the one thing almost all serious accounts agree on is that the short-lived “Republic” had little or no chance of long-term success.

The hard facts are that it 1840, Mexican governor Jesus Cardenas of Tamaulipas governor and other notables met in Laredo, Texas to plan the partition of a second Republic with Texas’ aid. The core territory of the proposed republic were states with territory already disputed between Texas and Mexico: Coahuila, Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, and potentially Chihuahua. The inclusion of Zacatecas, Durango and some or all of the territory of New Mexico was also proposed. The rebels were able to muster a mixed force of several hundred Mexicans, Texans and Native Americans for a series of incursions into the projected Republic, including the unopposed capture of Tamaulipas capitol Ciudad Victoria. However, there are no indications of significant progress in setting up a local government, and several recorded engagements with the Mexican army (which staged operations from neighboring San Luis Potosi) all ended in defeat for the rebels. The would-be republic was dissolved after Cardenas and other leaders made terms with the Mexican government. In 1851, former council secretary Jose Maria Jesus Carbajal led another bid for secession, this time dubbed the Republic of Sierra Madre, only to be defeated in part by former commander-in-chief Antonio Canales Rosillo.

Despite the poor showing of the Rebellion, the Republic of Rio Grande presents a tantalizingly viable alternate-history scenario, with implications as profound as averting the Mexican-American War. The states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila form (for once!) a cohesive geographic region with further unifying sociopolitical similarities. For example, during the War of Reform all three states aligned with the Liberals the War of Reform in an otherwise Conservative North. However, these strengths are an equally clear warning that we are dealing with an unusual case, a fact which more ambitious plans for the Republic’s territory clearly did not take into account. But the greatest weakness of the plan is one which must have been clear enough at the time: the perennially loyalist state of San Luis de Potosi directly adjoining Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon. Without this obviously strategic state, any nominal Rio Grande nation would have remained effectively under the dominion of Mexico (a potentially advantageous arrangement for the Mexicans!). Almost worse, annexing the state (or for that matter Zacatecas) would necessarily have extended the Republic’s sphere of influence into the same morass of entangled territories and radical politics that kept Mexico in near-anarchy for generations afterward. It thus becomes quite evident that, even under the most ideal conditions, it is quite simply even harder to separate from Mexico than to rule it.

Republic of Yucatan
Area: 53,833 mi^2
Active: 1841-1848
Status: Failed

The final entry in this rogues’ gallery, and by almost any standard the most successful, is the improbable Republic of Yucatan, which has the distinction of applying for membership in the United States. The original state of Yucatan, now subdivided into a northern state of the same name plus Campeche and Quintana Roo, covered almost all of the peninsula of the Yucatan Peninsula, and represented the furthest extremity of Mexico: Bordered mainly by Guatemala and present-day Belize (then a British colony), Yucatan’s only land connections with the rest of Mexico are through the state of Tobasco, which in turn is nearly trisected by the notoriously troubled state of Chiapas. In 1839-1840, Federalists in Yucatan and Tobasco staged a renewed rebellion against the Centralist government, coinciding with an escalation of international border disputes over Texas and Chiapas. In 1841, the state of Yucatan formally seceded from Mexico and quickly established a constitution, a local government based in present-day Yucatan’s capitol of Merida and diplomatic relations with the Republic of Texas. Initial reactions from Mexico were so mild as to border on tacit consent, though it is safe to assume that the government was primarily concerned with dealing with more pressing problems first.

The Mexican campaign to regain Yucatan did not begin until Santa Anna made another of his impressively frequent returns to power in October 1841. Even then, diplomatic overtures prevailed over displays and threats of military force. Mutual negotiation preceded as far as preliminary reunification by 1844, which failed after Mexico belatedly rejected Yucatan’s demands for continuing self-government and freedoms granted under its constitution. Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, the Republic was plagued by internal dissension, including a rival government in Campeche and brewing discontent among the native Maya peasantry centered in the eastern region of present-day Quintana Roo. Then 1846 brought the crisis of open war between the US and Mexico.

The bizarre finale of the saga of Yucatan came in early 1847, when the US navy blockaded or seized several of its ports despite the Republic’s appeals for recognition as a neutral entity. Shortly after, a revolt broke out among the Maya, who overran large portions of the country. In the ensuing crisis, the nominal government went so far as to offer voluntary annexation as a United States territory. This most intriguing of secession bids resulted in a “Yucatan Bill” that got as far as a vote in the United States Senate. Despite endorsement from James Polk, the bill was defeated, and Yucatan and Mexico (or whatever was left of the respective entities!) formally reunited in 1848. Reunification was followed by crackdowns against the Maya, and the states of the former Republic, like Chiapas, would stay on the Conservative side of the Reform War, probably in large part because the Liberals’ aims of anti-clerical land reforms also adversely affected native communities. In a final twist, Quintana Roo remained under effective Mayan control well into the 20th century, leading some to speak of a de facto entity of Chan Santa Cruz.

The Yucatan Republic clearly demonstrates that the unity of Mexico, while deceptively tight in light of its troubled history, was not unbreakable. It is virtually indisputable that Yucatan could have been lost to Mexico, whether as an independent Republic, a holding of the United States, an ethnic indigenous dominion of the Maya, or even a reconquest of Spain, and Tabasco and Chiapas could easily have followed. It is not hard to imagine ways the rest of the country could have unraveled from there: Renewed separatist activity in the northeast, possibly spreading into the Gulf coast. Further expansion by the U.S. New indigenous insurrections within the famous native communities of Oaxaca and other southern and central states. The loss of trade with ceded ports and the diversion of goods to same. Socially-aggravated famine, plague and/or natural disaster in Mexico City. Simple logic would dictate that, beyond some critical mass of resources, population and territory, Mexico would cease to exist as a viable entity or at least be transformed beyond ready recognition. Then again, a look at Mexico’s actual history will show that it can and has come apart into more pieces than any secession scheme ever envisioned. Yet, like Robert Patrick in Terminator 2, the pieces have a way of somehow coming back together into more or less the same shape.

On reviewing these most prominent of Mexican separatist movements, one thing which is absolutely clear that the time for partitioning Mexico, if viable at all, passed relatively quickly. In the aftermath of the Mexican-American War of 1846, secessionist and separatist movements disappear, except for quite blatant (and consistently disastrous) intrusions by “fillibustero” adventurers mainly from the United States (which will be quite sufficient for another installment). An obvious factor is the disastrous territorial losses imposed after war with the US (literally larger than present-day Mexico), which could easily have destroyed any lingering appeal of secession to the Mexican people. Another clearly important issue is that, as already discussed, the dominant political factions of the mid-19th century onward were not separatist in their objectives and in any case would not have been able to divide their support bases into well-defined states.

One more intriguing lesson to be learned from history is that our game of “what if” was played just as freely in the mid-1800s, and more than one guess was quite spectacularly wrong. Well into the 1850’s, US observers such as James Gadsden (of “Purchase” fame) were predicting secessions from Mexico, particularly by the northern states, which in 20-20 hindsight was an almost direct reversal of the developing state of affairs. The most obvious factor in these miscalculations was that, as other contemporaries readily recognized, those making and circulating such “predictions” were mostly the same people who not only advocated claiming more Mexican territory for the United States but were equally openly contemplating secession from the US. Yet, it would not have taken thinly rationalized ambitions for these errant prophecies to make at least a measure of sense. There had been separatist rebellions within Mexico, there would be a Mexican civil war by the end of the decade, and ultimately, whether any of these developments ever could have led to one or more viable secessionist states is hard enough to judge long after the fact. The “what if” game will always be played against the odds, no matter which end of history one is on, but that never stops people from playing.


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