The last emperor of Mexico

I already announced, that I would tell you the story of Maximilian I. of Habsburg and his experiences as the last emperor of Mexico. In fact, this story is full of oddities. It’s a story about culture, societal upheavals, a naive second-born of the house of Habsburg and a Frenchman, promising him the heaven on earth.

The flag of the second Mexican Empire
1864 to 1867

Let’s start with the basics. There was a Second Empire of Mexico and its emperor was Maximilian I. of Habsburg. It began after the Mexican Civil War, where Liberals fought against the Conservatives – the Liberals won and Benito Juárez was elected president. After the Civil War the Mexican economy was flat on its back, which gave the new parliament a reason to stop payment of debts to its debtees. Amongst them were France, Great Britain and Spain, which all signed the London Contract. In it they negotiated, that they would get back their money with all necessary actions.

Immediate actions followed and all three sent troops to Mexico. Quickly however, Spain and Great Britain realized, that Napoleon III. as the Emperor of France (not the famous one) didn’t just want to get his money back, but that he also wanted to conquer whole Mexico. They withdrawed their troops and France got serious, which is nowadays remembered as the French Intervention in Mexico.

Bonjour, ça va?
Napoleon III.

Many battles later, the French had prevailed largely, even conquered the capital of Mexico. We should however notice one very special battle: The Battle of Puebla, in which Mexican troops won against a much larger French division at the 5th of May 1862. Still today this is a national celebration in Mexico, called Cinco de Mayo. And it’s understandable to celebrate that battle, when there are so many lost.

With French control over the majority of Mexico, the conservative Forces now proclaimed the second Mexican Empire – of course this was significantly influenced by Napoleon III. He wanted to pass the crown to someone from the house of Habsburg, someone who didn’t really have the opportunity to become King in his life and therefore would probably grab the crown without questions; under the control of France. Now, Maximilian I. enters the stage. As the second-born, his future didn’t promise him an own empire. Napoleon III. however did. He was told, that there will be a formal election in Mexico, in which his name was on the list. He was told, that the Mexican people wouldn’t wish anything more than being reigned by an emperor of Habsburg.

Wohooo, I have an empire
Maximilian I. as emperor of Mexico

There was indeed an election of the people, but as we can imagine, they didn’t vote for an emperor. The conservative junta and Napoleon however managed to fake the results in order to show how much Maximilian is wanted. They announced the second empire of Mexico. Maximilian believed it and boarded a ship. He has been to America before, namely to Brazil and was fascinated by so much there. He was an adventurer and wanted to realize his dreams of a modern, liberal nation in his empire, although his family smelled a rat there. Upon arrival however, he was shocked.

The great welcome in Veracruz with music, notability and a big celebration didn’t happen. The notability turned out to be tattered beggars, the music was terrible instrument play and bawling just for mocking him. The built up triumphal arch had been blown down by strong winds and instead of being picked up and brought to his castle by a carriage, he and his wife had to stump through the mud. At arrival at the national palace in Mexico City, it still didn’t improve for them. The palace was in a desolate state, no lights and many animals. We talk about loads of insects in the beds here. In fact, the first night of stay in the national palace, Maximilian slept on the Billiard table, since there was no better place to find.

Had no insects in the beds
Chapultepec Castle between 1880 and 1897

They quickly moved to Chapultepec castle, an old military academy, which they picked as residence. Maximilian ordered some renovations and let built a long straight street from the castle to his official residence in the city center. It was an imitation of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris. It had many names since that day. He called it Paseo de la Emperatriz (“Alley of the empress”), the people called it Calzada del Emperador (“Road of the Emperor”). After Maximilian’s reign it was called Paseo de los Hombres Ilustres (“Alley of the famous men”), because of the many statues that were along the road. The reader, who has read the article about Benito Juárez knows its name today.

We can’t blame him of not trying to get the trust of the people. His political program was that of a limited monarchy, which shares power with an elected congress. This program was too liberal for the Conservatives and the Liberals didn’t accept a monarchy anyway. So, he was an emperor without any power and therefore tried to get the support in other ways. He adopted the grandchild of the former empress Agustín de Iturbide – nothing. He even appointed ex-dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna as Imperial Marshal – nothing (Santa Anna is another object of virtu in Mexican history and we will cover him later – I look forward to it).

The death of Maximilian I. (the one with the sombrero)
Painted by Édouard Manet

The real problems began in 1866, when the US-American Civil War ended and the USA put pressure on France to withdraw their troops. They were interpreted as an inappropriate influence by Europe and so the French did. Now without any military strength, Maximilian quickly realized how popular Benito Juárez was with the people. In May 1867 he was disempowered, sentenced to death by a court-martial and quickly afterwards shot. In his last minutes, he told the soldiers, that they just do their duty, gave them some gold coins and asked them to aim well and to not shoot him in the face, so his mother would be able to identify him. He died on June 19th, 1867. With him died the last emperor of Mexico. The empire lasted just 3 years.

UPDATE: Don’t miss a follow-up on this point here.

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