Now Let Us Praise Tragic Men: Maximiliano of México


Cinco de Gringo Mayo is upon us, inaugurating a deluge of white drinking not seen since St. Patrick’s Day was on a Friday. While you’re slamming down your fifth watered down tequila take a little time to pour one out for Maximiliano I of the Second Mexican Empire.

Now strictly speaking Maximiliano technically doesn’t have anything to do with Cinco de Mayo or the Battle of Puebla. But this is my site and I’ll shoehorn whatever I like into wherever I see fit.

Mexican history is inevitably one of lost opportunities and ruined possibilities. From the Conquest to Independence, the Reform War, el Porfiriato, the Revolution, the Cristero War and all the way to the current drug war, justice and peace seem somewhat illusory. While Maximilano was a flawed man, I can’t help but think maybe it was lost juncture for Mexico, possibly a more peaceful and just one.

The Battle Of Puebla, or, “No, Cinco de Mayo isn’t Independence Day

     To make a very long story short, Mexican independence in 1820 left Mexico divided on what kind of country it would be. The nation was soon divided into Conservatives and Liberals. Conservatives wanted a monarchy, the secured place of the Roman Catholic Church and the retention of fueros. In short it wanted the old Spanish, aristocratic system of Crown, altar and locality. Liberals wanted a polity, usually a republic, based on secular Enlightenment principles. Tame the Church, break up the fueros and privatize the land. American conservatives and liberals really can’t find an analog to American politics as we inherit our political tradition, both liberal and conservative, from Protestant Britain and Mexico inherited hers from Spain and the Continent. Here religion and liberty were often friends, elsewhere they were bitter enemies.

     After the internal collapse of the First Mexican Empire in 1823, Mexico was beset by coups, counter-coups and caudillos emerging with their much vaunted “plan” to fix everything. The reign of Santa Ana was a disaster with bankruptcy and rebellions in Tejas and the Yucatan. By the 1840s, Mexico was drawn into conflict with the United States, suffering defeat in 1848 and ceding hundreds of thousands of square miles to their northern neighbor.

     The loss shocked the younger, liberal classes who believed modernization was the way ahead leading to La Reforma. By 1855, liberals like De Tejada, Ocampo and Benito Juarez overthrew Santa Ana and by 1857 they had their liberal constitution. This Second Republic would be one of expanded franchise, privatized lands, state control over education, term limits on the executive and a curtailed Church. The Constitution ignited a civil war that lasted for three years until Liberal forces retook Mexico City. The Reform War had left the country bankrupt and in massive debt to France, Britain and Spain. The Juarez administration cancelled debt repayments, giving France the casus belli to invade in 1862. Internationally a quick French victory seemed imminent until Mexican forces defeated a larger French force outside the town of Puebla in May 1862. The battle itself was, in hindsight, strategically insignificant as the war raged on until 1867 but it served as their Valley Forge moment.

Enter the Emperor

     One of the French war aims was, along with repayment, a friendly government in Mexico and more influence in the Americas. To this end they searched for a potential monarch for Mexico, knowing that monarchist sentiment was still strong in some parts of the country. They settled on the younger brother of the Hapsburg emperor, Maximilian. Maximilian really had very little prospects. He had a not inauspicious career in the Austrian navy and had successfully served as Austria’s man in Venetia. But as the younger brother of the Hapsburg emperor, there was no further opportunity to rise. But during the French invasion he took this as his opportunity to carve out a name for himself. He, and his relatively unwell wife Carlota, accepted the offer and sailed to Mexico.

    For our purposes here, the timeline of Emperor Maximiliano’s career is not long. He landed in Veracruz in 1864 and by 1865 the empire’s position was precarious. In 1866, his wife left to Europe to raise more support and he fought on until 1867 and his execution. In the long history of Mexico, Max’s three year reign seems unimportant. Yet if things had gone differently, one can quite easily imagine Mexican history being a lot less tragic.

Maximilian Misunderstood?

     The mainstream narrative of Max and the second empire is a simple one. He was a foreign prince, foisted upon Mexico by European imperialists propped up by conspiring elites. The fact his reign was so short proved his haplessness and total unpopularity. He is often unfavorably contrasted to President Benito Juarez, Mexico’s first indigenous head of state since the Conquest, a man who created himself from nothing, rose to the Presidency and beat back the invaders.

     I really recommend Enrique Krauze’s book México: un bigrafia de poder, un historia de México moderna, 1810-1996  (very ably translated by Hank Heifetz). He does a superb job contrasting the two leaders. While one inevitably admires Juarez’s serious, dispassionate leadership and his farsighted vision of a Mexico that is both just and ordered, one cannot come away without some sneaking sympathy for Max and his supporters.

From the start Maximiliano told off Napoleon III and rebuked his demand of submission. Maximiliano, even by the begruding admission of his enemies, immediately began to see himself as Mexican first. As Krauze tells it, “He did not come to be emperor of the Conservatives but of all the Mexicans.” To this end he reformed the legal codes, dismissed corrupt judges and sent away criminal military officers.

Most notably Maximiliano had the support of the natives of Mexico. In one of the incongruities of Mexican history, the first indigenous president was not largely supported by the indigenous people of Mexico. Visitors to Mexico were amazed how the natives “showed fanatic enthusiasm for the Emperor.” Krauze argues,

[T]hey were right to do so. It was the first time since the colonial period that the villages and communities could rely on being heard by the authorities when they voiced their complaints on their own terms.

In the bitterest of ironies, it was the Liberals, not the Conservatives who had earlier began a program of liquidating the traditional and legally held lands of the ejidos, the communal holdings. To the modernizers these land grants, often written in archaic Spanish or Nahuatl, dating back to the Crown were backward vestiges of a monarchic age. As such they must be gotten rid of, throwing thousands into deeper poverty and landlessness. Maximiliano righted this wrong, or sought to. He set up a council to restore the stolen land to their legal owners and, in cases of egregious theft, donated additional land to the villages. It wasn’t the Zapotec shepherd turned politician who took the indigenous grievances at face value. It was, bizarrely enough, an Austrian archduke.

The last element of this drama confirms that this was a lost moment. As the violence heightened, Juarez fled to Texas and imperial generals executed Juaristas summarily, Maximiliano offered a truce. In one of the least studied “What Ifs” of Mexican history, he offered Juarez to be his prime minister. Maximiliano had already enforced most of the Liberal reforms, only reversing the land confiscations and moderating their stance on the Church. What if Juarez had accepted? It’s very possible the civil war would have ended right there. With a moderately liberal Hapsburg and Zapotec prime minister, Mexico could have found the balance so lacking since the Conquest and Independence. It’s tempting and more than plausible that a Juarez administration under the Crown would have avoided the troubles of the 1870s, forestalling the rise of Diaz’s dictatorship and the one million lives lost in the later Mexican Revolution. Had he not been executed Maximilano would have likely lived until the early 20th century, if the lives of his father and brother are any guide.

A modern Catholic, constitutional monarchy in Mexico? It could have been. But Juarez rejected the offer, Maximiliano alienated his conservative allies and he was executed after the battle of Querétaro. While not a successful ruler, he was certainly not an evil one and was almost definitely a tragic one. Krauze sums up Maximiliano, the last emperor of Mexico;

[Maximilian] was a kind of Austrian Iturbide, a liberal and romantic…whose admirable designs for the happiness of his subjects clashed with their most basic desire – to decide their own destiny.


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