When State Building Backfires

Engraving by Francisco Mora. In José María Morelos, el Siervo de la Nación, 1957, Sociedad de Amigos del Libro Mexicano.

By Francisco Garfias and Emily Sellars

This month, the Mexican government is celebrating its 200th anniversary of independence from Spain. The nation’s independence was won after a protracted conflict sparked by an event celebrated across the country every year on this date (September 15th): Miguel Hidalgo’s Cry of Dolores in 1810. Hidalgo’s uprising heralded the beginning of a tumultuous period of civil unrest that led to the eventual collapse of colonial order and the creation of an independent government under a different coalition of conservative elites.

The bicentennial is one of the emblematic anniversaries marked in the Mexico’s “Year of Independence” in 2021. The other major commemoration, mentioned in our previous post, is the 500th anniversary of the symbolic beginning of colonial rule with the Fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521. These dual anniversaries call attention both to the remarkable resilience of colonial rule, which survived for three centuries after the Aztec Empire’s defeat, and to its relatively rapid collapse over the decade following Hidalgo’s uprising. What precipitated this breakdown of the longstanding political order?

Hidalgo’s revolt came after a period of unprecedented growth in the power and capacity of the colonial state. In the second half of the 18th century, the Crown implemented a series of reforms that centralized political authority, improved revenue collection, and streamlined colonial administration. While successful in many respects, these state-building efforts later backfired when a series of unrelated shocks tested the ties between local elites, commoners, and the Crown that had held the colonial system together for centuries.

The “Alliance for Repression”

As we described in our earlier post, the process of political centralization under Spanish colonial rule was uneven across time and space (driven in part, we argue, by the evolving threat of domestic conflict). Still, regional elites remained key players in the colonial political order as institutions evolved. In addition to serving as the backbone of the commercial economy, local merchants, landowners, and mining barons were also critical partners in funding and organizing the repressive apparatus of the state.

As part of their participation in colonial society, economic elites had to invest in local militias, either directly via donations or through their control of local cabildos. As historian John Tutino argues, the “alliance for repression” between elites and the central government was crucial in maintaining political order during times of crisis as the Crown maintained little direct military presence on the continent.[1]

The “alliance for repression” proved to be effective. Following the wars of the Conquest, there was an exceptional absence of mass social rebellion for most of the colonial period, in what has sometimes been referred to as the “Pax Hispanica.” The relative peace was not due to a lack of grievances. As we and others have discussed in recent work, suffering from severe droughts, famines, epidemic disease, and the brutal extraction of colonial authorities and elites was widespread under colonial rule. However, efforts to organize mass revolt in the periphery were often undermined by the threat of repression by elite-funded militias or by traditional authorities collaborating with the Spanish.[2] This collaborative effort between the state and local elites, along with the catastrophic demographic collapse of the Indigenous population in the early colonial period and the establishment of judicial institutions to address Indigenous grievances, depressed the threat of rebellion.

Figure 1: Village uprisings and regional rebellions from 1700 to 1819. The blue and yellow bars indicate years of regional rebellions in Mexico and Peru, respectively.

This is not to say that social unrest was nonexistent. As Figure 1 illustrates, small-scale village rebellions were not uncommon.[3] However, these uprisings did not typically spread into broader rebellion. In his classic study, William B. Taylor describes village uprisings in central Mexico as “localized mass attacks, generally limited to restoring a customary equilibrium,” as opposed to seeking revolutionary change. [4] Uprisings were generally motivated by localized concerns, such as encroachment on village lands, food shortages, or increased extraction. They were also almost always limited to a single community and brought under control within a day or two. Colonial authority thus remained remarkably resilient in the wake of even severe localized crises like droughts.

The Bourbon Reforms: State Building at the Expense of Elite Intermediaries

How did colonial rule, which had survived for centuries, unravel so quickly in the early 1800s?  Political reform and economic change can create new incentives for mass rebellion, as Dmitrii Kofanov and Scott Gehlbach and Evgeny Finkel discuss in earlier posts. In a recently published article, we argue that efforts to strengthen the colonial state during the 18th century backfired by undermining the “alliance for repression” with local elites, paradoxically making the political system more vulnerable to crises.

Under Bourbon rule, the monarchy undertook several reforms to modernize and centralize the administrative state. The rationale for these reforms is clear. The Crown wanted to exert greater political control over and extract more revenue from its overseas holdings, in part to finance military defense against Britain. By these measures, the reforms were successful. Revenue collection and the quality of colonial administration improved in Mexico and across the Spanish Empire.

Alcabala customs house in Monte de Singuiluca, Tulancingo, Hgo., Antonio Montero, AGN.

However, the reforms also entailed important costs. Centralizing control of taxation, for instance, required the state to invest in the construction of royal treasuries, customs houses, and a specialized bureaucracy that could directly collect taxes. There were political costs as well. Reforms often came at the expense of local elites, who had enjoyed greater political and economic autonomy under earlier decentralized arrangements. The move to centralize authority thus eroded the ties between elites and the central government, ties that were essential to maintaining the “alliance for repression.”

We empirically examine the move to centralize the administration of the alcabala, an important sales and turnover tax, in 1776. Before centralization, the alcabala had been collected across districts in three different ways: directly by colonial authorities, through tax farms that were auctioned off to individuals, or via fixed-term charters to city councils or merchant consortia. The fiscal benefits of centralizing alcabala administration were large; on average, revenue collection increased by around 80% between 1775 and 1778. However, the reform was very unpopular among provincial elites. Tax farms and charters had given these elites the right to enforce local tax policy, thus protecting them from taxation by overzealous officials and positioning them to extract rents from others. Under a centralized tax administration, they were stripped of these sources of revenue and power, increasing their dissatisfaction with the Crown.

These centralizing reforms prompted a forceful legal and political resistance by elites.[5] There was also a rise in the number and intensity of popular uprisings during this time, as Figure 1 illustrates. Some Bourbon-era reforms, like the expropriation of community trusts (bienes de comunidad) of Indigenous villages, targeted peasants directly. However, commoners were also indirectly affected by the reforms targeting elites through the “alliance for repression.”

We develop this idea formally in our paper. Even when commoners have little direct stake in anti-elite reforms, these reforms can increase incentives for rebellion by lowering the threat of repression by elite intermediaries. Conversely, elite defection becomes more attractive during subsistence shocks that only affect commoners because the increased risk of unrest raises the expected cost of repression. Importantly, the weakening of repressive capacity is not necessarily apparent right away but may only manifest later, during unrelated shocks when elites’ loyalties to central authorities are truly tested. Because of the positive feedback between state weakness, elite defection, and commoner revolt, there is a very fine line between maintaining political control and complete system collapse.

Battle between insurgents and royalists, anonymous, 1812, AGN.

The Mexican War of Independence

Hidalgo’s revolt in 1810 was preceded by political shocks at every level. At the national/imperial level, Napoleon’s invasion of Spain and the abdication of King Ferdinand VII in 1808 undermined the state’s political legitimacy and sowed doubt about the strength and future of Spanish rule. At the provincial level, elite resentment over the Bourbon reforms weakened ties to colonial authorities. At the local level, a severe drought in 1808 and ongoing anger over the expropriation of community trusts exacerbated peasant grievances at exactly the time when centralizing reforms had reduced elites’ willingness to absorb the costs of repression and when the weakening of the Crown due to external crisis had lowered the anticipated costs of elite defection.

Figure 2: This figure plots the proportion of districts experiencing insurgency over 1808 drought conditions. In the left panel, we pool all districts together. In the right panel, we disaggregate by pre-reform tax administration: direct, farmed or chartered. Circles represent the districts that did (top) and did not (bottom) rebel by space-weighted average PDSI in 1808. Negative PDSI values indicate drier-than-usual conditions.

The positive feedback between these events led the crisis to grow out of control. Subnational patterns of rebellion during the insurgency provide evidence on the complementarity between these shocks. Local drought conditions predict insurgent violence during the war (Figure 2A), but the political consequences of the 1808 drought were clearly structured by elite interests. Rebellion was more likely in areas where elites had been adversely affected by the centralization of alcabala administration: districts where the alcabala had been farmed or chartered prior to 1776 (Figure 2B).[6] As we discuss in the paper, the timing of the outbreak of violence is also strongly suggestive of the role of the Napoleonic invasion; the marginal effect of drought on village rebellion increased markedly after 1808, consistent with a weakening of the ties between elites and the government.

An observer in 1800 might well have thought that the colonial state’s centralization gamble in Mexico had paid off. The reforms strengthened the state by almost every measure—fiscal capacity increased, bureaucratic control tightened, and revenue collection grew—with little immediate cost to political stability. It was only later when the system came under pressure following the twin crises of famine and external invasion in 1808 that the true costs became apparent.

The Challenge of Building State Capacity

This wave of political centralization proved costly elsewhere in the Spanish Empire as well. The erosion of traditional ties between commoners, local elites, and central authorities also contributed to the Tupac Amaru insurgency in Peru and the Comunero rebellion in New Granada. This pattern is recurrent in Mexican history as well. The outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 was caused in no small part by the discontent of those harmed or excluded by Porfirian state building efforts of the late 19th century.[7] Centuries earlier, efforts by the Triple Alliance to increase tribute burdens and expand political control over dependencies just before the Conquest encouraged disaffected Indigenous groups to form alliances with Spanish against Mexica authorities with disastrous consequences.[8] Even earlier than that, archaeological evidence from the collapse of Teotihuacan suggests that “internal actors and grievances were crucially involved” and the collapse may have been preceded by a wave of political centralization at the expense of the periphery.[9]

These examples highlight a general problem. Scholars often argue that strong, centralized, and capable states are more able to facilitate economic growth and political stability. Building state capacity, however, is not straightforward. In weakly institutionalized states, local authorities in the periphery often serve as critical intermediaries between commoners and the central government. Political centralization requires seizing power, autonomy, and resources from these local powerholders. When stripped of their privileges and prestige, local elites may choose to shirk on repressive activities when called to action during a crisis. Because of the positive feedback between elite defection, commoner revolt, and state weakness, low-level unrest can quickly grow out of control and threaten the central government. State weakness may breed instability, but our theory illustrates why a strengthening state may be uniquely vulnerable to shocks.

Header image: Engraving by Francisco Mora. In José María Morelos, el Siervo de la Nación, 1957, Sociedad de Amigos del Libro Mexicano.

[1] Tutino, John 2011. Making a New World: Founding Capitalism in the Bajío and Spanish North America. Duke University Press, pg. 237

[2] See Tutino 2011, Chapter 4 and Katz 1988, p. 78

[3] In Mexico, rebellions include the Tzeltal revolt in Chiapas (1712-13), unrest in Actopan (1756), Canek’s revolt in Yucatan (1761), the rebellion of the followers of “New Savior” in Tulancingo (1769), and the War of Independence (1810-21); in Peru, the rebellion in Huarochiri (1749-50) and the Tupac Amaru rebellion (1780-84). Data not available for Peru during 1780-89; village uprisings linked to the Hidalgo rebellion in Mexico are excluded. Data from Coatsworth, John 1988. “Patterns of Rural Rebellion in Latin America: Mexico in Comparative Perspective.” In Riot, Rebellion, and Revolution: Rural Social Conflict in Mexico, Princeton University Press. Though data are only available starting in 1700, existing sources for social conflict are not exhaustive, and geographic coverage is incomplete, trends are consistent with qualitative historical accounts.

[4] Taylor, Willam. 1979 Drinking, Homicide, and Rebellion in Colonial Mexican Villages, Stanford University Press, p. 114.

[5] See, for example, this description of the politics of alcabala centralization in Hernández Jaimés (2008). The creation of institutions to prevent over-extraction from the mining sector subdued resistance among some elites, but other groups were not similarly appeased.

[6] We complement these results with evidence on two other policies that increased elite dissatisfaction, the expulsion of the Jesuits, and commoner grievance, the expropriation of the community trusts of indigenous villages.

[7] As Haber, Razo, and Maurer write, “The Pax Porfiriana contained the seeds of its own demise.” The Politics of Property Rights, pg. 51. See also Knight’s The Mexican Revolution. Vol 1, pp. 153-155.

[8] Katz, “Rural Rebellions after 1810.” In Riot, Rebellion, and Revolution. p. 554. See also Ross Hassig’s Mexico and the Spanish Conquest.

[9] Knight, Alan Mexico: From the Beginning to the Spanish Conquest, p. 105 and Katz “Rural Rebellions after 1810”, p. 554


  • Francisco Garfias is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy. He studies the political economy of development, with a primary focus on state capacity, taxation, and social conflict. His work is published or forthcoming in leading political science journals such as the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, and the Journal of Politics. His research on state capacity has received several recognitions, including the Michael Wallerstein Award for best published article in Political Economy from the American Political Science Association. He received his Ph.D. in political science and M.A. in Economics from Stanford University.

  • Sellars is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at Yale University, where she is affiliated with the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, the Leitner Program in Political Economy, and the Institution for Social and Policy Studies. Her research interests are at the intersection of comparative political economy, development economics, and economic history. She is particularly interested in the politics of emigration and in the historical political economy in Mexico and Central America. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in the Journal of Politics, the Journal of Development Economics, the Journal of Urban Economics, and the Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy. Sellars received her Ph.D. jointly in Political Science and Agricultural and Applied Economics from University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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