Understanding the Second Empire of Mexico and American Involvement in the War for Monarchy

Joseph A Crisp, Royalist Party of America

The "Second Empire" of Mexico is a government that remains largely ignored or misunderstood. What lessons have been drawn from it have been largely backward and nonsensical. Even the term "second" empire may not be entirely correct. As the heirs of the Iturbide dynasty were adopted and restored to their rights of succession, the empire can be seen as simply the restoration of Mexico's original independent government after a lengthy interregnum of about 43 years. It is also very much untrue that the throne of Emperor Maximilian lacked legitimacy. As a descendant of the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, he had perhaps more legitimacy than either the Bourbon kings of Spain or the Mexican Emperor Agustin. This ancestry was a major point in the selection of Archduke Maximilian as the ideal choice to become the Emperor of Mexico. In fact, if there was a more legitimate candidate than a Hapsburg for the throne of Mexico, one would have to look back to the Montezuma dynasty of the Aztecs.

There has also been a great deal of obstruction, if not outright deceit, in the portrayal of the republican regime and the origins of French involvement in Mexico. The foundation of the government of President Benito Juarez was far from being above question, being in fact founded on military force rather than the democratic process. Power was hotly contested between the liberal and conservative elements until the end of the "Reform War" when Juarez drove into exile all conservative opposition. He then rewrote the Mexican constitution, which he himself later disposed of when it failed to be convenient.

The idea that the struggle between Juarez and Napoleon III or later Maximilian was one of democracy versus tyranny is absurd in the extreme. Napoleon III was far from being a reactionary, his policies most often falling in the realm of a moderate or a liberal. It was only by the influence of his devoutly Catholic wife, Empress Eugenie that any conservatism managed to creep into his agenda. In fact, Napoleon III is more a representation of the dangers of republicanism rather than of monarchy as he was legally and democratically elected president, then president-for-life and finally his elevation to the rank of Emperor of the French was democratically approved by the public. Similarly, when Juarez was driven from Mexico City the Congress voted to sidestep his own democratic constitution and grant the President absolute power for an indefinite period. It could, therefore, be argued that even Emperor Maximilian sat at the head of a government more "democratic" than Juarez, a government whose power was certainly more limited than that of Juarez even if it was limited in the slightest.

The idea of Juarez' contemporary popularity must also be taken with a grain of salt. Today, no one in Mexico would dare stand opposed to his image, but there are certain facts, which imply that he was far from being universally worshipped at the time. The popular reception given to Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlota when they arrived in Mexico City is one indication of this, as is the fact that the French army, early on, so often outnumbered their Juarista enemies. With an entire population close at hand to draw from, Juarez should have been able to outnumber the French at every turn, yet, for some reason a great many Mexicans refused to fight for his presidency.

In fact, through the attitudes of the world at large, modern political watchers may well have referred to the Juarez government as a "rogue nation". Naturally France, Austria and Belgium were supportive of the Empire of Mexico. Pope Pius IX applauded the restoration of a traditional Catholic monarchy in Mexico, as Juarez had been well-known for his seizure of Church property, attempts to break Mexico from Rome, a number of anti-clerical policies as well as being a Mason. However, the British were also in favour of Maximilian taking the imperial crown. The Archduke was, after all, very much a constitutional monarchist, with many liberal opinions, and Britain was always in favour of any change that would bring stability, which was always good for business.

Mexico was in dire need of stability, and the religious aspect, which so aroused the sympathy of Empress Eugenie, should not be underestimated. When the property of the Church was seized by the liberals in 1857 many clergymen who opposed the measure were exiled. However, the new constitution failed to even last out the year before the president fled and the liberals installed Juarez, who had been chief justice, as the new leader of Mexico. The conservatives put forward their own president and repealed liberal legislation while Juarez instigated rebellions among the populace. When it came to war, the conservatives were mostly victorious, but Juarez managed to remain at large long enough to bankrupt the treasury.

Here, Juarez first attempted to sell out his country to the United States. He requested a loan from the U.S. in 1859 in return for extensive concessions against Mexican sovereignty. Britain and France opposed the move, as did a huge number of independent-minded Mexicans, and the loan failed to come through. The conservatives, under the leadership of General Felix Zuloaga obtained a $15 million loan from France and Britain, but Juarez obtained recognition from the United States as the legitimate President of Mexico, though why his claim was more valid in the eyes of Washington, when neither was elected by popular vote, we can only wonder. Perhaps his previous offer of extensive rights over the sovereignty of his country had something to do with it?

It seemed that by 1859 Juarez was mostly in control, but his administration was not to be peaceful due to his incessant attacks against the Church. He denounced the Church as a royalist, anti-liberal and autocratic element; and nationalised all Church property, reduced priests to voluntary fees and dissolved all religious orders. This act threw even many moderate and liberal Mexicans into the ranks of Juarez' enemies. For longer than either Juarez or Mexico had existed, the Church had been the only help, the only hope and the only refuge of the Mexican people and there were huge numbers who would not stand for anyone making war against it.

The United States was hardly uninvolved in this "Mexican adventure", in spite of the 1861-65 civil war going on north of the Rio Grande. This is hardly surprising given the traditional openness of the Mexican border, with both nations overlapping in the Nueces strip. It is also true that despite the traditional portrait of French invaders marching into a peaceful and benevolent republic, Mexico was in a constant state of civil war even in 1861, before the start of war north of the border. In Matamoros this began with two factions, those under Cipriano Guerrero and those under Jesus de la Serna battling for control of Tamaulipas in the most brutal combat in that state's history.

When one side took the city, the other simply retreated across the river to Brownsville, and likewise, when Union forces captured Brownsville, the Confederates regrouped in the safety of Matamoros. The confused situation in Matamoros is illustrative of Mexico as a whole. Command of the city shifted from Santiago Vidaurri (conservative) to General Manuel Ruíz (liberal) and then to General Jose Cobos of the army of Emperor Maximilian who, after only three days, was assassinated by his second-in-command Juan Nepomuceño Cortinas who then declared himself in support of Benito Juarez and released General Ruíz from jail (though perhaps not trusting the loyalty of his deliverer he immediately left town). Nevertheless, Cortinas was promptly named governor by Juarez, a post he held until 1864.

Cortinas had been a U.S. resident before being driven into Mexico by the Texas Rangers under John S. "R.I.P." Ford, future Confederate commander of the area. When French troops began to arrive, in typical fashion, Cortinas considered becoming a monarchist again, though his vehement racism made this a difficult choice to make. He was also known to help certain Confederate notables find safety in Matamoros due to his many friends in the Union army, playing both sides of the American Civil War as well as his own. Generally, the Confederates favoured the cause of Emperor Maximilian, though due to their inherent bias against foreigners and the airs of royalist government this was a friendship of convenience in many cases. For the Union forces, Benito Juarez remained "their man" in Mexico, and the federal troops on the border always favoured the Juaristas, except in cases where the soldiers in question were Irish Catholics, in which case, knowing full well of Juarez' attacks on the Church, Emperor Maximilian's Catholic monarchy was cheered and Benito Juarez ridiculed.

While General Cortinas ruled Matamoros, he collaborated fairly evenly with both Union and Confederate forces though he trusted neither, detesting all whites equally for his expulsion from Texas. American units frequently crossed the border during the series of battles and skirmishes over control of the supply lines running through Mexico. Things changed when a French naval squadron under Captain A. Véron arrived and captured Boca del Rio and a Mexican Imperial army under the illustrious General Tomás Mejía began moving north. When Colonel Ford sent officers to meet with Véron the French captain announced that he would do all in his power to protect "all persons and property" covered by the Confederate flag, a statement bordering on formal recognition of the rebel government. When Cortinas' forces began attacking the French, Confederate officers found it impossible to prevent their men from firing upon the Mexican troops from the Texas side of the border, in defense of their new Gallic allies.

Cortinas, however, was deeply involved in another intrigue, meant to involve him in the American war. The Matamoros U.S. Consul, Leonard Pierce, offered the Mexican officer the rank of brigadier general in the U.S. army if he would use his men to invade Texas and seize Brownsville from the Confederates. An artillery attack commenced, but bad weather prevented supporting federal forces from engaging and Cortinas never actually moved his troops into Brownsville, his own subordinate being vehemently opposed to the whole enterprise.

On 29th September 1864 troops of the Mexican Imperial Army occupied Brownsville, at which point, true to character, Cortinas denounced Benito Juarez and the republican government. Nonetheless, General Tomás Mejía was given command and the situation began to stabilise. However, amid the reviving economy, operas and rumours of a visit by the Emperor and Empress of Mexico, there were still schemes underway on the part of the U.S. government to bring down the Mexican monarchy.

President Lincoln sent General Lew Wallace to the border to arrange a truce with the Confederates. Wallace planned to talk the southerners into surrendering then use them to join forces with Juarez' now faltering republican army and retake Mexico from France and Maximilian. As soon as the Confederate high command learned of the talks, which were actually going rather well, Colonel Ford was reprimanded and Wallace sent home empty handed. Quite unaware that Ford had nearly agreed to take part in an action against his countrymen, Captain Véron actually loaned his southern allies some French naval artillery which was used by Ford in winning the last battle of the American Civil War at Palmito Hill in 1865.

The U.S. government had already dispatched 25,000 troops from Virginia to the Rio Grande in preparation for an attack against the Mexican Emperor. In southern Texas, the Confederate sub-district commander, Brigadier General James E. Slaughter planned to take his forces to Mexico and enlist in the Emperor's army, defeat Juarez and then move north again with French and Mexican support to restore the Confederacy. However, Ford refused to go along with the plan and even turned down an offer from General Mejía to send in imperialist lancers in civilian clothes to help the Confederates hold Brownsville. He did though agree to sell his artillery to Mejía for 20,000 silver pesos.

With the American war over, Confederate officers flocked to Mexico City to offer their services to the Emperor. A colony for southern exiles was planned on the Mexican Gulf coast, however, as the French began fleeing Maximilian's sinking ship, with U.S. forces gathering on the border and promises of parole and amnesty from Washington, most southerners returned home. Soon, all that remained was a devoted corps of Mexican loyalists, a few units of Austrian and Belgian troops and Emperor Maximilian's own noble ideals of honour and integrity which stood against the growing forces of Benito Juarez, armed, equipped and funded by the U.S. government.

Empress Carlota went to Europe in the hope of obtaining foreign aid from Austria, Belgium and the Papal States as well as to persuade Napoleon III to honour the many grandiose promises he made to Maximilian when trying to convince the contented Archduke to accept the crown of a chaotic and indebted Latin American country. She was everywhere unsuccessful and soon began showing signs of a mental breakdown.

Whatever opinion one has of the Second Mexican Empire, absolutely everyone must admire the personal courage of Emperor Maximilian, who refused to abandon his people even when given repeated opportunities for escape. By 1865 it was clear that the monarchy was doomed, opposed by rearmed Juaristas within and a massive American army without, the French in retreat and many of his own supporters deserting at the hint of danger in the air. The French offered him safe conduct back to Europe and even when given the opportunity of escape by the Juaristas after being captured at Queretaro he refused to forsake the cause to which he had lent his name and honour.

He was also motivated by the certain death that awaited his most trusted and loyal officers such as Leonardo Marquez, Miguel Miramon and Tomás Mejía. He hoped to either negotiate to secure their safety or otherwise share their fate, conscious of the fact that they had fought on under hopeless circumstances primarily out of their personal loyalty to him. As it happened, Maximilian died professing his love for Mexico, and his generals were killed shouting, "Long live the Emperor" with their dying breaths. It was a tragic but defiant end to an episode that was itself both tragic and defiant.

The tragedy came not just with the regicide of Emperor Maximilian, the maddening heartbreak of Empress Carlota, the deaths of noble men like Mejía and Miramon or the rough treatment and exile meted out to all of the Mexican monarchists. The greater tragedy was in the victory of Benito Juarez, the increased secularisation of Mexico and the brutal dictatorship of his general Porfirio Diaz in the years to come. The heroic defiance was evident in the subtle spurning of the American claim to hold dominion over all of North America, in the attempt to assert that stable and benevolent government was possible south of the border and that the government of monarchy could make a new beginning even in the backyard of the Great Republic. Today, Maximilian has joined the ranks of other noble but futile causes, from the Jacobites of Britain to the Carlists of Spain, yet as long as the enthusiasts for Mexico's monarchy remain, and as long as the House of Hapsburg-Iturbide continues across the water, the memory of that innovative enterprise will never cease but live on in the minds of those loyal at heart.

Note: This paper was originally published on Joseph Crisp's personal web page. It is reproduced here with the generous permission of Joseph Crisp. What little editing took place was for the sake of stylistic consistency.

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Copyright ©2004 Joseph Crisp II, designed by Trevor Stanley for Australian Monarchist Alliance