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.

All the while the republican Juaristas, operating in Brownsville, Texas, were continuing to recruit volunteers for the insurgent forces and planning Juárez’s return to the presidency. As the war continued to go badly for Maximilian’s forces, those Mexicans still fighting under his flag, “many of whom had not been paid for months, took the view that Maximilian’s empire was not a cause worth dying for and surrendered before fighting.” Years later, many of the Afghan National Security Forces who had been fighting alongside the units of the American-led coalition would do exactly the same thing, and for precisely the same reasons.

At last, seemingly coming to terms with reality, Maximilian became serious about abdication. He prepared letters to that effect and packed his belongings for shipment to Europe. Even so, he wavered, and he allowed a conniving ultra-conservative priest named Augustin Fischer to convince him to stay on. Maximilian had another reason for hesitating. He wanted to gain back his right to succeed to the Austrian throne, which Franz Joseph had insisted he relinquish as a condition for initially supporting his brother’s Mexican adventure, and to which Maximilian had consented. Franz Joseph would not relent.

Fischer also convinced the emperor to throw his lot with the conservatives, as the liberals had abandoned him. Though he found the idea repugnant, Maximilian had little choice but to do so, despite being urged to the contrary by Napoleon’s aide-de-camp, Général François Castelnau, whom Napoleon had dispatched from Paris to urge abdication. Maximilian’s volte-face accomplished virtually nothing. The Juarista forces continued their inexorable march to the capital.

Maximilian now decided that it was up to him to lead his forces into battle against Juárez’s troops. He headquartered in the conservative, pro-imperial town of Queretaro, but soon found himself under assault from three separate republican armies. When it became clear that he had no hope of prevailing, Maximilian finally agreed to an escape plan. Even then he delayed his escape by a day; it proved critical because he was then captured by the Juarista forces.

It was not obvious that Maximilian would be executed; regicide had become something of a rarity since the French Revolution. Juárez granted him a trial, and Maximilian received support for clemency from world leaders, including Ulysses S. Grant. It made no difference; the trial was a sham. Juárez sealed Maximilian’s fate by insisting that treason was punishable by death. He died alongside two of his generals at the hands of a firing squad; Eduard Manet immortalized the scene in his painting “The Execution of Maximilian.” Maximilian thus met the same fate as Mexico’s previous emperor, Agustín de Iturbide. As for Carlota, she never fully recovered from her paranoia and delusions, living in seclusion in a Belgian palace.

SHAWCROSS’ ACCOUNT of Maximilian’s rule is not without some flaws. Despite his heavily researched effort, Shawcross has a tendency, Bob Woodward-like, to delve into the minds of his protagonists. Like Woodward, he does so without citations or sources of any kind. He also can be annoyingly repetitious, most notably when focusing on Maximilian’s rather extensive love life. And at times he simply gets his facts wrong. For example, when he asserts that Napoleon III’s “unique insight, and it was unique at the time, was that conservatism could be popular,” he overlooks Benjamin Disraeli’s Tory democracy, which the future British prime minister was articulating at the very same time. In adding, however, that “carefully managed, the people could legitimize an authoritarian regime through the ballot box,” Shawcross appears to have several European governments in mind, or, perhaps, Donald Trump.

Indeed, Shawcross sees with some justification the entire Maximilian episode as an antecedent for America’s failures in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He nevertheless overstates his case when he asserts that “as the American imperial project proceeded into the twentieth century … it would frequently employ the strategy that failed in Mexico—regime change.” While one might criticize American interventions in Latin America, Iran, and Iraq in those terms, surely there was good cause for regime change in Afghanistan in 2001—NATO invoked Article V, and even Russia was supportive—and even more so in Nazi Germany, and for that matter when the Reagan administration forced the resignation of Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

Many Americans nowadays tend to associate Mexico almost exclusively with immigration issues. They tend to forget that the United States invaded Mexico on several occasions, notably the 1846–47 Mexican War and General “Black Jack” Pershing’s pursuit of the bandit Pancho Villa in 1916–17. For their part, on the other hand, many Mexicans do recall that history and still resent their powerful neighbor to the north. But neither Americans nor Mexicans know much about Maximilian or his short-lived empire. With the publication of Shawcross’ book, that no longer need be the case.

Dov S. Zakheim served as the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller) and Chief Financial Officer for the U.S. Department of Defense (dod) from 2001–2004 and as the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Planning and Resources) from 1985-1987. He also served as the dod’s civilian coordinator for Afghan reconstruction from 2002–2004. He is Vice Chairman of the Center for the National Interest.

Image: Wikipedia.