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.

Nevertheless, despite all his shortcomings, Maximilian’s personal charm enabled him initially to win over some liberals, including some key generals, and he did appoint liberals to his council of ministers. The short-term result was that the French and Mexican imperial forces were able to chalk up several victories during the course of 1864, the first year of his reign. In contrast, with his resources dwindling, his forces on the run, and an unfriendly Confederate Army still on the other side of the Rio Grande, it appeared that Juárez was finished.

The Juaristas continued to fight on, however, launching guerilla operations that frustrated the French-led forces. Even when the French were able to seize towns or villages, they had insufficient troops to garrison them. Much as the American-led coalition experienced in Afghanistan when fighting the Taliban, the guerillas “moved in once the French army had left.” In addition, the war became increasingly brutal, with both sides committing atrocities against both men and women.

MAXIMILIAN SEEMED oblivious to developments throughout the country, or, for that matter, to the demands of governance. He embarked on a three-month tour during the summer and early autumn of 1864, throughout which he neglected the management of his country’s affairs. Not surprisingly, Napoleon was increasingly frustrated by Maximilian’s incompetence, especially as he had to raise a second loan to finance his forces’ operations while Maximilian did nothing to reform the treasury in order to pay off the initial borrowing. Maximilian’s response was to blame the French commanders, whom he said should have organized the country in preparation for his arrival. Nevertheless, Maximilian added, he would now resolve all the regime’s outstanding issues. He did nothing of the kind.

In the meantime, Maximilian found himself under increased pressure from the Catholic Church. A new papal nuncio arrived in Mexico City in December, demanding that Catholicism be once again the state religion to the exclusion of all others, and that Maximilian restore church properties that the previous government had seized and sold. Indeed, the very day after the nuncio’s arrival, Pope Pius IX issued an encyclical that denounced “progress, liberalism and modern civilization,” and branded freedom of worship as “a pestilence more deadly than any other.”

Incompetent he may have been, but Maximilian was not easily cowed. After having failed to reach a compromise with the nuncio, on December 27, 1864, he officially accepted most of Juárez’s earlier reforms, including freedom of worship. Moreover, he upheld the government’s appropriation and sale of church property. Anticipating a violent conservative backlash, and worried that the conservatives commanded the loyalty of many of his own troops, he disbanded much of the Mexican army. He then proceeded to pass a series of liberal-inspired laws that outlawed capital punishment, regulated child labor, limited working hours, required large land and factory owners to provide free schooling for workers’ children, and abolished indentured servitude called debt peonage.

Maximilian also reached out to Mexico’s many and varied indigenous peoples, including returning communal lands that the previous liberal government had divided for private sale. Doing so not only further alienated the conservatives, who had little regard for people they still considered to be savages, but also the liberals, whose law he had abrogated, and whose elites shared conservative views of the native Mexicans. Moreover, despite passing all those liberal laws, Maximilian’s inability to govern resulted in few of them ever being implemented. As Shawcross notes, “the emperor was at his happiest when overseeing a paper empire, but his state was much greater in his imagination than in reality.”

Maximilian’s government was riddled with corruption, a sure sign of trouble in a country in the throes of a civil war. The government had no real structure. French troops received orders directly from Paris while Maximilian’s ministers and his cabinet would issue competing instructions that were worth no more than the paper they were written on. When Maximilian actually chaired a ministerial meeting, he rarely decided on anything; it was the young and inexperienced Carlotta who was the only real policymaker. Tragically, the emperor was living in a dream world, as was his empress. They simply did not see that the prospects for the empire’s survival were increasingly dim.

BY THE end of 1865, Napoleon was beginning to write Maximilian off. The Mexican emperor persisted with his grand tours, extravagant meals, and elegant balls. He was more interested in chasing butterflies with one of his advisors than managing the country’s budget or implementing his liberal laws. He clashed with the French military leadership, and increasingly relied on Austrian volunteers and his father-in-law’s Belgian troops. As Édouard Drouyn de Lhuys, who was serving as Napoleon’s foreign minister for a second time put it:

The lustre of a court … and the spread of compulsory education are the lights of the most advanced civilisation … we would applaud these intentions and acts more willingly if we were able to observe at the same time the effects of [the] government on the social, political, administrative, financial and military reorganisation of a country, where, despite our efforts and our sacrifices, everything remains in crisis.

Maximilian was feeling the pressure from another source as well. The American Civil War had ended in the Union’s victory, and several of its most senior generals, led by Ulysses S. Grant, pressed for American support of Juárez’s forces. Shawcross erroneously portrays Grant as seeking to depose Maximilian by all means, including war. It is true that Grant sympathized with Juárez. Indeed, at one point toward the end of the Civil War, Grant appears to have mused about a united Union and Confederate Army entering Mexico to unseat Maximilian (and incidentally bring the Civil War to a peaceful conclusion). Once the war ended, however, Grant no longer advocated a full-blown American invasion to support Juárez. As recounted in Ronald C. White’s American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, a letter that he sent to President Andrew Johnson urging support for Juárez demonstrates that there were limits to Grant’s support for the ousted Mexican president: “I would openly sell, on credit,” he wrote, “to the Government of Mexico all the arms, Munitions, and clothing they want, and aid them with officers to command troops.” Grant also authorized one of his top generals, Philip Sheridan, to command a force of 50,000 troops on the Mexican border, as an “Army of Observation” as much to pressure Maximilian as to obstruct the efforts of General Edmund Kirby Smith, commander of the last remaining Confederate forces, to support the Mexican emperor.

It was Andrew Johnson, however, and not Grant, as Shawcross asserts, who authorized covert American support to Juárez. With the president’s approval, America became a safe haven for Juárez’s units and a supplier of men, money, and equipment for his forces. It was an approach that later American presidents would take in supporting friendly forces in numerous conflicts and civil wars.

Napoleon anticipated an American invasion. He ordered his commander-in-chief, General Achille Bazaine, to withdraw his troops southward. Bazaine did so, but in a brutal scorched earth operation. In October 1865, Bazaine prevailed upon Maximilian to issue what came to be called “the Black Decree,” in which French forces were ordered to take no prisoners but instead kill-or-be-killed in what he termed a “death struggle.” As a result, Maximilian lost the support of all but a tiny minority of the liberals who had previously backed him, while Juárez, bolstered by American support, grew increasingly stronger.

Meanwhile, it was not only Napoleon who was tiring of the Mexican adventure. Opposition in the French National Assembly continued to grow as the emperor sought additional funds to finance Maximilian. Although Napoleon had repeatedly assured the legislators that the intervention was going well and would soon come to end, bad news kept arriving from Mexico that undermined his assertions. Without conceding that his previous optimistic reports were a sham, Napoleon announced to the Assembly in January 1866 that French troops would be coming home.

WHEN MAXIMILIAN failed to convince Napoleon to reverse his decision, he finally began to take the country’s financial troubles seriously. But he was too late. “The disjuncture between what was on paper and reality was astronomical,” writes Shawcross. “The imperial troops remained unpaid and without provisions. The Austrian and Belgian volunteers were owed $1.5 million in back pay. The salaries of government officials had been in arrears for months.”

Maximilian found himself increasingly abandoned on all sides. In addition to Napoleon’s withdrawal order, Leopold II, Maximilian’s brother-in-law who had succeeded his father, responded to American pressure and refused to allow any additional Belgian volunteers to serve in Mexico. Maximilian’s brother likewise bowed to American demands and forced several thousand Austrian volunteers to disband. Maximilian began to talk of abdication, but his wife, as delusional as he was, talked him out of it.

Yet matters continued to worsen for the Mexican emperor. Carlota traveled to Paris to confront Napoleon, but failed to move him. She became paranoid, thinking that the “evil” Napoleon was seeking to kill her. She left France for Rome to plead Maximilian’s case with the pope, but not only failed to win his support, but broke down in public. She was brought to Miramar Palace to convalesce, but never really recovered. Transferred to Belgium, she never saw her husband again. Then two of his leading generals betrayed him, while one of his closest advisors returned to Europe after failing to convince him to abdicate.