Juan O’Donojú y O’Ryan (1762–1821) served as the Spanish Crown’s last Jefe Político Superior (Viceroy) of New Spain (Mexico).
As the king’s agent, he has the distinction of having granted Mexico its independence in 1821. Accepting for the revolutionaries was General Agustín de Iturbide.
What little is taught in U.S. and Texas history books about Mexico’s independence implies that in a spontaneous outburst, the Mexican people exploded against Spanish tyranny. In truth, the story is much more extensive than that. Spanish passion in Europe against absolute monarchs directly led to Mexico’s own independence in America. Yet, Father Miguel Hidalgo’s “Grito” story is typically presented as detached from those outside influences.
Rather than occurring in a vacuum, the quest for autonomy equally originates in Spain. It’s there where liberalism fervor had produced results, such as the establishment of the legislative Cádiz cortes generales (Chamber of Deputies).
That’s why, in addition to Mexico’s homegrown heroes Hidalgo, Morelos, Dominguez, Aldama, Guerrero, Iturbide, et al, the name of an unlikely independence ally, Viceroy O’Donojú can be added to the list. Truly, O’Donojú exemplifies the many Spanish citizens who first formed the freedom path, questioning the divine rights of kings.
Also, the 1807-1814 Peninsular War and the Spanish Constitution of 1812 were big factors. They’re partially the reason why September is a month of independence, not only in Mexico, but in other American countries, as well.
Most of what we learn in the classroom about viceroys is limited and is usually enveloped in negative terms. Generally, it’s suggested that such officials represent Spain’s monarchial power. Thus, one gets the clear impression that occupiers of the position were ruthless, ambitious bureaucrats, unquestionably obedient to the decadent whims of the Spanish king. However, in Viceroy O’Donojú, the opposite is true.
Juan O’Donojú was born in Seville, Spain, of Irish-descent parents (Irish Name: O’Donoghue). He was a liberal who dedicated his life to balancing service to the king on one hand, and in the other, his belief in liberty. His principles were similar to those of another New Spain Viceroy, General Bernardo Gálvez. O’Donojú counted Spanish General Rafael del Riego as a close friend. (General Riego is one of the initial liberalism movement leaders in the early 1800s.)
As General Gálvez, Juan joined the military at an early age. His superiors first noticed him during the Peninsular War. That military engagement was initiated by the Spanish people against Napoleon Bonaparte’s decision to add Spain to the French Empire. Specifically, the war for national identity in Spain was the result of Napoleon installing his brother Joseph to the Spanish throne, replacing Fernando VII de Borbón, the legitimate monarch.
Being bilingual, O’Donojú was appointed as interpreter between the strong-willed Spanish forces commander, General Gregorio Garcia de la Cuesta, and Irish-born General Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington, one of Britain’s foremost military geniuses. (For the record, Spain and England allied themselves (and Portugal) against France, ensuring victory in 1814.)
A fortunate result of the Peninsular Wars was the key role of the Cádiz cortes generales. Through this chamber, civilian leaders established a constitutional government body with two aims. First, unite the citizens against French occupation; and second, set in motion a people’s legislature to run national affairs, replacing the old absolute power Spanish kingdom.
After the Peninsular Wars, O’Donojú became minister of war and later, aide de camp to Rey Fernando VII. Then, the cortes generales appointed Lt. General O’Donojú as New Spain Viceroy. As soon as he arrived in Veracruz, he realized that the same passion for freedom in Spain had engulfed almost the entire span of New Spain. True to his ideals, he began a dialogue with the revolutionaries.
General O’Donojú proved to be a focused overseer. He had just arrived in Veracruz in July 1821 and by August, he arranged to meet with rebel General Agustín de Iturbide. The result was the Treaty of Córdoba, establishing the First Mexican Empire, a constitutional monarchy. He then skillfully managed an orderly Spanish army withdrawal.
Together, O’Donojú and Iturbide achieved the transfer of power, not as adversaries, but as co-creators of peace for Mexico. Thus, they avoided a bloody military confrontation. It’s as if U.S. General Washington and British General Cornwallis had avoided fighting the Battle of Yorktown by talking first and then arranging a peaceful U.S. independence.
Initially, the Mexican crown was offered to Fernando VII, but he declined, since he was again King of Spain. It’s suspected that Iturbide manipulated this part of the treaty so that he could take the throne himself. After much political maneuvering, Iturbide did just that in May 1822. His rule was brief though; serving as Mexico’s emperor less than one year.
O’Donojú had been in Mexico for about two and a half months. Yet, his astute character as a liberal-minded official swiftly ensured Mexican independence. Today, he would’ve been considered for the Nobel Peace Prize for his statesmanship, courage, and wisdom. Regrettably, his brilliant negotiating skills are lost in the pages of history. Alas, General O’Donojú died from a viral infection shortly after Mexico’s independence. He is buried in the main vault of Mexico City’s Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen Maria a los cielos.
In summary, Texas history classrooms have yet to provide students with the seamless story of Texas, deliberately denying its fascinating role as a province (state) of Mexico. It’s also regrettable that the reason most Mexican-descent Texans avoid the topic altogether is that they have been denied learning of their pre-1836 Texas heritage.
That’s why descendants of the first citizens of Texas must learn to appreciate the true roots of Texas Independence, whose ideals were planted by their Spanish Mexican ancestors long before Sam Houston. Only then can they familiarize themselves with heroes they didn’t know they had, such as Spanish-Irish General Juan O’Donojú, “The Last Viceroy”.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this guest column shows Juan O’Donojú, who served as the Spanish Crown’s last Jefe Político Superior (Viceroy) of New Spain (Mexico). With Agustín de Iturbide, he signed the Treaty of Córdoba, ending Spain’s rule of New Spain (Mexico), August 24, 1821.