Edward Shawcross, The Last Emperor of Mexico: The Dramatic Story of the Habsburg Archduke Who Created a Kingdom in the New World (New York: Core Books). Vii+324 pp., $30.00.
LATIN AMERICA has had two empires in its post-colonial history. One was the Brazilian Empire, which came into being in September 1822 as a representative parliamentary constitutional monarchy under Dom Pedro I. The empire continued under his son, Dom Pedro II, who reigned for fifty-eight years , but was overthrown by a military coup. which led to the creation of a republic. During his reign, however, the country experienced political stability, economic growth, freedom of speech, and respect for the civil rights of his subjects, although he continued to maintain the institution of slavery.
The other Latin American empire initially only lasted two years and was re-established three decades later to last a bit longer. The Second Empire was supported by foreign invaders two years before its creation and was marked by political instability, a civil war of ferocious brutality and economic difficulties. The empire was Mexico, the foreign invaders were the French, and the emperor they installed was a Habsburg archduke named Maximilian. Long forgotten, particularly in Mexico but also in the United States, the story of Maximilian’s rise to the throne and sudden downfall is not only fascinating, but offers disturbing lessons for contemporary American policymakers.
Edward Shawcross brings the tragicomic story of Maximilian’s short-lived reign to life in a quick and highly readable volume titled The Last Emperor of Mexico. The book relies heavily on archival material in three languages - English, French and German – as well as personal memoirs in these languages and in Spanish. It is unlikely to be exceeded.
SHAWCROSS BEGINS its story fifteen years before the first European soldiers set foot on Mexican soil in 1862. Mexico had just emerged from the rubble of its disastrous 1846-1847 war with the United States, which saw American troops parading in his capital and had cost him dearly. the territories that are now California, Nevada, and Utah; most of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado; as well as parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Wyoming. The war had been followed by a period of instability stemming from tensions between the liberals, who sought to create an enlightened secular state, and the conservatives, in reality reactionaries, who wanted not only to maintain the absolute primacy of the Catholic Church, but also something akin to the Spanish monarchy. Spain was expelled in 1821 when a rebel leader named Agustín de Iturbide made himself emperor. He only ruled for two years before he was finally executed for treason.
In 1855, the Liberals came to power and sought to dissolve the Catholic Church, seize its property, and enshrine these actions in a constitution it enacted two years later. The reactionaries responded by overthrowing the government. The result was a three-year civil war, which in some ways was a class conflict. Its opposing leaders were, on the one hand, Miguel Miramon, the wealthy conservative descendant of the colonizing Spaniards, and on the other, Benito Juárez, the liberal leader of the Mexican Supreme Court, a Zapotec native who rose from poverty to become lawyer. before becoming a politician.
Although Juárez emerged victorious and president of the country, his government was saddled with a large debt to Britain and France. The British simply wanted their debts paid off, but the French Emperor, Napoleon III, saw an opportunity to create a European counterweight, that is, as it still is for many French people today. today a French counterbalance to the increasingly powerful American republic. Additionally, Napoleon subscribed to what came to be called “pan-Latinism”, which linked Catholic Latin France to its American counterparts, and, in fact, was the ideology that prompted the designation of the lands of the South America as “Latin America”.
Mexican conservatives, angered by the liberal regime, had even more reason to share Napoleon’s unease with American power. Far more explicitly than the French leader, who actually supported freedom of religion, speech, and the press, Mexican conservatives viewed American Protestantism and liberal values as a fundamental threat to their nation’s security. The Mexican Catholic Church was even more reactionary than the politicians – it had the support of Pope Pius IX, who refused to accept the legitimacy of any religion other than Christianity or any church other than Catholicism.
The challenge for the conservatives was to convince Napoleon to intervene in Mexican affairs and place a European royal on a restored Mexican throne. Their lobbying foreshadowed the efforts of Ahmed Chalabi in the late 1990s and early 2000s, whose flattery convinced the neoconservatives to overthrow Saddam Hussein. And like the neoconservatives, Napoleon didn’t need much convincing. Not only did he hope to check American power, but like the British, he also wanted Mexico to repay the sums it owed France. What he needed, however, was a suitable royal to install on the Mexican throne.
BETWEEN MAXIMILIAN. The young archduke was not Napoleon’s first choice, but his influential wife, Empress Eugénie, favored him, as did the main Mexican émigrés – the most notable of whom was José Manuel Hidalgo, the Chalabi of his day. . Maximilian was much more popular than his older brother, Emperor Franz Joseph, who after some hesitation decided it was best to keep him as far away from Austria as possible. Maximilian himself hesitated before agreeing to ascend the throne of a country he had never visited and knew little about. It wouldn’t be the last time he would be plagued by indecision. Indeed, he lived in a kind of dream world, building a palace in Italy which he named Miramar to escape the stuffy atmosphere of Vienna and prioritizing gardening over politics.
For his part, Napoleon concluded that the time to intervene in Mexico was particularly propitious, as the United States was embroiled in a civil war and therefore unlikely to intervene. Moreover, having strong sympathies for a Confederacy which at the start of the war had won a number of battlefield victories, he had the correct intuition that the war would last for several years. Napoleon recognized, however, that he had to pave the way for Maximilian’s entry into the country. To this end, in November 1861, he dispatched a first force of 3,000 soldiers, accompanied by 6,000 Spaniards and 800 British. The Spaniards were supporting the Habsburg royal family, while Britain was simply seeking to repay its debts. This was not enough for Maximilian, however, who insisted that any intervention that put him on the throne would have to have active British support, not just debt collection.
Despite the dispatch of a multinational force, Maximilien hesitated to commit to going to Mexico. He resisted both the flattery of Mexican emigrants who offered him the crown and the insistence of his young wife Carlota, daughter of King Leopold I of Belgium and cousin of Queen Victoria, that he accede to the wishes of the emigrated. He feared that without British support, the United States would eventually intervene to dethrone him. He also wanted to be sure that the Mexican people, of whom he knew next to nothing, and who knew even less about him, seriously wanted him to rule over them.
Meanwhile, while trying to convince Maximilian to enlist, Napoleon concluded that his initial expeditionary force was too small. Accordingly, in January 1862 he sent 4,500 additional soldiers to Mexico. However, even this larger force was insufficient to overpower the Juarist fighters; the French forces suffered a defeat at the hands of the Liberals in Puebla, which led Napoleon to give up and commit an additional 25,000 troops to the conflict. In June 1863, the French, in league with the Mexican conservatives, created a governing body of thirty-five men called the Junta Superior del Gobierno (loosely translated as the “Superior Council of Government”). This body, in turn, appointed two arch-curators, Juan Nepomuceno Almonte and a senior priest named Pelagio Antonio Labastida, along with a former general, to act as the Regency Council until the arrival of the new emperor. . The junta also elected an assembly of 215 men (all men, of course) who voted to invite Maximilian to lead the new empire. The whole exercise was staged by the French representative in Mexico – an obnoxious and once obscure French diplomat named Dubois de Saligny.
By creating institutions that theoretically reflected “the will of the people”, Napoleon’s government foreshadowed not only similar undertakings by the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe in the aftermath of World War II, but the creation by the United States of the so-called Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) which nominally ruled the country from July 2003 after the US invasion. Like the junta, the IGC was subordinate to the occupiers, in this case the Coalition Provisional Authority, which Washington organized, controlled and directed. And, as Americans soon discovered in Iraq, huzzahs in the capital meant little outside. Like François Claude du Barail – whom Shawcross describes simply as an officer but who at the time commanded two squadrons of cavalry and later not only rose to the rank of brigadier general but later served as minister of war – recalled bitterly in his memoirs, “while we danced and flirted in Mexico City, in the rest of the country we had a little less fun. And with good reason, for, as Shawcross observes, “Juárez had retired, not capitulated”.