Revolutionary Coins: Money and Sovereignty During Mexico’s Independence Era

This paper examines the relationship between money, especially fractional currency, and sovereignty during Mexico’s wars for independence in the early nineteenth century. Beginning in the 1760s, Spanish proyectistas (projectors) urged the Spanish Crown to mint copper coins for everyday purchases in the shops and markets of New Spain. For centuries, those small transactions had taken place with cacao beans and tlacos—tokens that storekeepers issued to their customers as change—which reformers derided as “imaginary money.” Spanish authorities debated but did not act on proposals to replace the tokens with copper coins for decades, bowing to opposition from merchants and colonial officials who feared that minting copper would disrupt the silver trade. The outbreak of revolutionary violence in Mexico in 1810, however, changed their calculus. Beginning in 1814, both insurgent and royalist leaders minted copper coins, using them to pay their armies, facilitate everyday commerce, and foster trust for their regimes among Mexicans. Using numismatic collections, mint records, and royalist and insurgent correspondence during Mexico’s wars for independence, this paper shows how money helped make and unmake nations during Mexico’s independence era. The production and circulation of money were critical components of the struggle between royalist and insurgent forces, though one that has previously attracted little attention outside of the numismatic scholarship. Both royalist and revolutionary leaders viewed minting—especially the minting of copper coins—as an essential means of raising revenue for their cash-strapped governments and a way to curry favor with local populations desperate for currency. In this paper, I argue that crises of sovereignty were reflected in and amplified by monetary practices. I seek to demonstrate that the production and circulation of money were essential to state-building and consolidating projects in Mexico in the independence era.