Who signed Guatemala’s Declaration of Independence?

In reviewing my ancestry, I found that my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, John Witherspoon (New Jersey), signed the Declaration of Independence of the United States. Perhaps that is why I became more interested in who signed the Declaration of Independence of Guatemala on September 15, 1821.

The 18th century brought rising commerce and an emerging merchant community in Guatemala. The Free Trade Act of 1778 authorized new merchant guides (consulados de comercio) with their own courts. These later became the principal builders of roads, bridges and ports until 1871. The Crown-appointed superintendents for Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Chiapas, and Guatemala remained under the direct administration of the Captain General in the capital. The 1773 earthquake, which triggered moving the capital from what is now La Antigua Guatemala to Guatemala City, also had its economic and political consequences, not to mention the changes in the cochineal market, causing financial hardship. Other changes came with the Economic Society (Sociedad Económica) of Guatemala. Founded in 1795, it promoted “ways to improve the economy, the arts, education, and industry. It supported the new newspaper, Gazeta de Guatemala, and sponsored classes in political economy.” (See A Short History of Guatemala by Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr.)

The 19th century brought more change. The promulgation of the Constitution of 1812 by the Cortes of Cádiz restored the Economic Society and created three legislative councils: Guatemala, León (Nicaragua) and Ciudad Real (Chiapas). New 1816 taxes imposed by Spain—after heavy rains —were not welcomed. By 1820, free trade became a leading issue.

By now, the Spanish Empire was no longer as powerful and Britain had become a major economic influence. Leaders emerged but as Woodward states well, “the tendency of the Guatemalan elite not to directly run for elected office, but instead to work through middle-sector politicians was a tendency that would only grow stronger over the next two centuries.”

In March 1821, Brigadier Gabino Gainza arrived from Chile and assumed temporary command. Mexico’s Agustín de Iturbide’s Plan de Iguala had been implemented and many feared a civil war.

On Sept. 14, 1821, Brigadier Gainza hastily called for a meeting. The following morning, representatives from the government, City Hall, Catholic Church, University of San Carlos, Commerce Council, Law Board and other groups were invited to meet at 8 a.m. at the National Palace (now located where the Parque Centenario is in zone 1). They approved the Declaration of Independence, but the vote was 23 to 7.

The Fathers of the Guatemala Independence are called “Próceres de la Independencia.” They were Mario de Beltranena, Mario Calderón, José Matías Delgado, Manuel Antonio de Molina, Mariano de Larrave, Antonio de Rivera, J. Antonio Larrave, Isidro del Valle y Castriciones, Mariano de Aycinena, Pedro de Arroyave, Lorenzo de Romaña, Domingo Diéguez, José Cecilio del Valle, Pedro Molina and Brigadier Gabino Gainza. Alas, María Dolores Bedoya was the first to shout “independence” after the declaration was signed.

Brigadier Gainza continued as chief executive and governed until June 23, 1822. Guatemala was annexed to Mexico on Jan. 5, 1822, but great opposition emerged and three comandancias were created: Ciudad Real (Chiapas and Los Altos), Guatemala (Guatemala and El Salvador) and León (Honduras, Nicargaua and Costa Rica).

The first Congress met on June 14, 1823, and the annexation to Mexico was deemed null. After further discussion, the Declaration of Independence was formally approved on July 1, 1823, and Dr. Pedro Molina became the President of the Junta del Supremo Poder Ejecutivo. The abdication of Iturbide in March 1823 led to a declaration of absolute Central American independence on July 1, 1823 and the provisional junta with little authority took over.

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