The Imperial System Entrenched
“Do little and do it slowly” had been Viceroy Mendoza’s stated philosophy of administration. It was an attitude less than acceptable to reformers but consistent with royal wishes. The sixteenth-century viceroys, facing many crucial situations, were allowed considerable latitude, but their successors in the seventeenth century were reined in. Later kings and their councils increasingly gathered authority to themselves, discouraging the viceroys and audiencias from independence of thought and action.
Yet given the difficulty of communication and the time lapse between a request for instructions and the response from Spain, a certain amount of autonomy was implicit. Correspondence between colonial officials and the crown was necessarily slow, because for most of the colonial period ships sailed only once a year between Mexico and Spain. It was common for authorities in New Spain to wait many months for guidance. Consequently high officials often made important rulings on their own, pending royal approval. When a crown order seemed contrary to the best interests of the local situation, a viceroy sometimes noted, in all deference, Obedezco pero no cumplo (I obey but do not execute). The process of government was further bogged down by the endless detailed reports, requiring action, sent to Spain by officials, clergymen, and private subjects.
Colonial policy of the Hapsburgs was ponderous and inefficient. But sluggish as the bureaucracy was, the crown concerned itself less with competence than with loyalty. Unable to micromanage a far-flung empire, the Hapsburgs were willing to relinquish considerable control to local elites who could keep the peace in the crown’s name. The preoccupation with conformance and fidelity also manifested itself in the system of checks and balances. Officials were encouraged to comment on and criticize the performance of others. The viceroy was the most powerful individual, but as the judges of the audiencia reported directly to the king and the Council of the Indies and were often at odds