The Rise and Fall of Mexico’s Last Emperor

The Rise and Fall of Mexico’s Last Emperor

Edward Shawcross’ The Last Emperor of Mexico: The Dramatic Story of the Hapsburg Archduke Who Created a Kingdom in the New World details the brief reign of Maximilian I over the Second Mexican Empire.

MAXIMILIAN, TRUE to his nature, continued to dither. He desperately continued to seek British support in addition to that of Napoleon, who flattered him by treating him as an equal. He also wanted an invitation from the Mexican people. When a delegation of Mexican émigré conservatives traveled to Miramar in October 1863 to formally  offer him the crown, Maximilian “reiterated the conditions stated nearly two years earlier: the empire must be guaranteed by France and Britain, and a popular vote must proclaim him sovereign.” These conditions were impossible to fulfill; French troops occupied less than half of the country and not all of those who did live under French occupation supported the notion of a foreign prince ruling over them. As for that portion of the populace not yet under French control, their loyalties were even more problematic.

Nor had there been any change in Britain’s reluctance to participate in the adventure. When Napoleon and Carlotta, who after all was Queen Victoria’s niece, persuaded Prime Minister Lord Palmerston to meet with one of the Mexican conservatives who would put the case for British support for Maximilian, the meeting went badly. Palmerston “merely mentioned to his foreign secretary, Lord John Russell, that a Mexican with an unpronounceable name had come to speak with him.”

Nevertheless, the Whig government hid its reluctance to support Maximilian. The government was no lover of the United States, and for that reason, although slavery was repugnant to them, Palmerston and Russell sympathized with the Confederacy. While not formally recognizing the South, Britain did declare it a belligerent. A strong Mexico under a European ruler with European support represented a further check on its neighbor to the north.

Britain’s ambiguity led the gullible Maximilian to believe that London would ultimately come ‘round and support him. At the same time, he began to conclude that British support was becoming less important because the American Civil War was dragging on, meaning that the United States would be preoccupied with its internal crisis for some time. Moreover, his Confederate contacts assured him that the Confederacy could win the war. Palmerston and Russell secretly shared the same belief.

Maximilian also sought his brother’s support. Much as he may have wanted his brother as far away from Vienna as possible, however, Franz-Joseph had no interest in enmeshing his country into the affairs of the Western Hemisphere. Carlota, who was far more eager to become an empress than Maximilian was to be emperor, tried to convince Franz Joseph’s mother, Sophie of Bavaria, to get her oldest son to reverse his position. But the dowager empress was equally adamant: “Maximilian no doubt ... would be seen as a foreign ruler imposed by French bayonets.” The Taliban said the same about Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, who had lived many years in the United States and was supported by the modern-day equivalent of American bayonets.

Carlota did win the support of her father, King Leopold of Belgium. But his tiny country was in no position to play a major role in support of her husband. Meanwhile, Maximilian felt that he had yet to be sure the Mexicans wanted him. In the end, it was Napoleon who misled him into believing that not only would he ultimately win full-throated British support, but that an assembly ratifying his rule would be called as soon as the country was fully stabilized. Under pressure from his wife, with the support of his father-in-law, the entreaties of the Mexican conservatives, and Napoleon’s blandishments, Maximilian finally gave in and agreed to accept the crown.

In the meantime, the French forces, led by General Élie Frédéric Forey made little progress on the ground in Mexico. A frustrated Napoleon kicked Forey upstairs by making him marshal of France and ordered his return to Paris. He also sacked Saligny, who, despite orders from the Foreign Ministry, remained in Mexico for six months both to enrich himself and to marry a Mexican woman. Forey’s replacement was Achille Bazaine, a lifelong soldier who had risen from the ranks to become a general officer. He had seen action in Algeria, Spain, and the Crimean War and spoke Spanish. Whereas Forey, like his contemporary counterpart George McLellan, commander of the Union’s Army of the Potomac, was slow to capitalize on whatever military advantages he might have had, Bazaine actively engaged the Juarista forces once his predecessor had left the scene.

WHEN MAXIMILIAN finally arrived in Mexico, to what he thought was the welcome of adoring crowds, he hoped to act as a constitutional monarch, governing more in consonance with the views of the liberals. As Shawcross puts it, “Maximilian set out to establish a modern, popular monarchy that married tradition with ideas of democracy closer to those of Juárez than to the caricature of aristocratic European courts”—this included, it might be added, the constricting atmosphere of his brother’s court in Vienna. At the same time, however, he also thought he might be able to retain the support of conservative monarchists, which he still needed, although both he and his empress ridiculed them in private.

Maximilian failed to satisfy either constituency. Though some liberals supported him, in part because, like the French, he had no desire to return anything that had been seized from the Catholic Church, many still backed Juárez, whose forces conducted a guerilla campaign to drive him out of the country. Indeed, Maximilian’s writ extended only to Mexico’s central states; elsewhere in the country Juárez still ruled. Although Juárez commanded an army of just 15,000, half the size of the French forces and even smaller than the Mexican fighters that supported Maximilian, the emperor’s troops “would need to end Juárez’ regular and guerilla resistance in a country of nearly 760,000 square miles.” If that alone were not a virtually impossible task, the French forces, like Maximilian himself, were unfamiliar with the local culture or terrain, further complicating their military prospects.

The situation was similar to that which the United States would encounter in Afghanistan 150 years later. Most of America’s troops, and those of its allies, and especially the thousands of American contractors supporting those troops, had little if any understanding of Afghanistan’s culture, which had hardly changed over the centuries, especially in its rural areas. The Washington-backed government controlled only the major urban centers, and not even all of those. It was the Taliban that controlled the countryside. So did the Juaristas.

Maximilian’s lack of familiarity with local conditions and values undermined his ability to draw away the majority of Juárez supporters. Ironically, the very same progressive instincts that won Maximilian at least some degree of liberal backing alienated the hardline reactionaries. They had expected him to restore both church lands and Catholicism as the country’s only licit faith. True to his liberal instincts, he did nothing of the sort.

It did not help that Maximilian was a terrible administrator. He was much more interested in designing residences and gardens than he was in governing. He was exceedingly dilatory when it came to making any decisions, much to the frustration not only of his Mexican advisors, but, of far greater consequence, Napoleon III.

The French emperor had viewed Mexico not only as a potential political counterweight to the powerful United States but also as an economic milk cow. He anticipated that France would reap the benefits of a neo-mercantile relationship with the country, importing its wealth of raw materials for French manufacture. In addition, he not only expected Mexico to repay its prior debts, a concern that he shared with the British, but also to finance the operations of his forces, including interest on the cost of those operations, in accordance with the terms to which Maximilian foolishly agreed in the Treaty of Miramar, signed at and named for his Italian palace.

Maximilian, on the other hand, displayed little interest and even less ability to deal with the country’s deepening financial hole. He preferred to go on royal tours and give what he thought were rousing speeches, but which actually tended to fall flat on his audiences. He also spent his time and extravagant sums that his treasury did not have redesigning his royal residences, including handpicking the china, crystal, and furniture. He detested formal balls, but his wife loved them and held them at great expense; she also accumulated a large staff of her own that accompanied her everywhere. This too added to the treasury’s woes. 

Maximilian did have regular meetings with his ministers, but his most immediate staff advisors were Europeans like himself. This did not endear him to the Mexicans, whether liberal or conservative. Indeed, his chef de cabinet, a Belgian named Felix Eloin, spoke no Spanish, was a Protestant, knew nothing about Mexico, and had never previously held a government position. Yet he insisted, like many far more capable chiefs of staff before and since, that all government documents pass through him before reaching the emperor. In the words of Francisco de Paula de Arrangoiz, the man with the unpronounceable name who had met with Palmerston but also had previously served as Mexico’s finance minister, Maximilian’s advisors were “a polyglot, a sort of Tower of Babel, composed of French, Belgians, Hungarians and I do not know what other nationalities.” His description would equally well apply many years later to Paul Bremer’s Congressional Provincial Authority team that sought to govern Iraq after the American invasion.