The Last King Of Mexico
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
On the morning of June 19, 1867, the Emperor Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph von Hapsburg-Lorraine was stood before a firing squad at Queretaro by forces loyal to President Benito Juarez and shot, ending his brief tenure as ruler of Mexico. He had been proclaimed emperor on April 10, 1864, with the support of Napoleon III of France, and only then after fierce fighting against Mexican forces.
Looking at Maximilian’s portrait today, we sense beneath the elaborate facial shrubbery, fashionable at the time, a hint of Hapsburg hauteur. He was a member of the Hapsburg dynasty that dominated Europe and affected world politics for centuries. But there was more to Maximilian than meets the eye. A student of the Enlightenment, fascinated by such disciplines as botany and entomology and a bit of an idealist, he sincerely wanted what was best for Mexico.
Maximilian dreamed of serving a grateful people as a benevolent monarch, enacting liberal reforms, creating a nation of peace and plenty. If anything, Maximilian was a well-meaning but vague and befuddled victim of historical forces beyond his control. He was a tragic figure whose naivete and good intentions were manipulated by others, including his wife Carlotta, ambitious to see him elevated to the high place she deemed him worthy of. In many ways, he reminds us of Nicolas, the last Czar of Russia.
Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. There followed the Mexican War with the United States, during which Mexico lost vast territories in the north, including Texas and California. The Mexican Civil War in 1858 left the country deep in debt, its economy in shambles. President Benito Juarez was unable to meet the demands of European bankers and governments. Aware of America’s fatal slide into civil war and the unlikelihood of its enforcing the Monroe Doctrine, a coalition of powers—Spain, the United Kingdom and France—intervened militarily, occupying the port of Buena Vista and appropriating the revenues from customs and duties.
Soon, Spain and the United Kingdom withdrew, leaving the incursion in the hands of the scheming French emperor Napoleon III. His first attempt to invade Mexico was stopped at Puebla, on May 5, 1862, by militia armed with antiquated muskets, an event celebrated yet as Cinco de Mayo. Napoleon then dispatched an additional 30,000 troops, pushing President Juarez and his forces north toward the U.S. border. Maximilian I was then placed on the throne of Mexico.
Maximilian had insisted that he would come to Mexico only if the Mexican people chose him. They did in an election rigged by the French. He and the new Empress Carlotta took up residence at Chapultepec, the site of the former Spanish colonial castle, surrounded by the remnants of ancient Aztec gardens. Only Native Americans enthusiastically supported him, thinking he might represent the return of Quetzalcoatl, the god who had been promised by Aztec myth to arrive from the east. Most Mexicans were less enthusiastic. He was promised French military support until 1867, a promise that, like so many others, was not kept. Soon, Mexico was even deeper in debt, and the economy was worse than ever.
Maximilian disappointed his conservative backers by refusing to return clerical lands confiscated by his predecessors, advocating religious freedom, abolishing peonage, building new schools, planning a modern navy and an Empire stretching from the Rio Grande to Panama. His new laws and reform projects filled seven volumes, but he never understood that legal codes were seldom complied with. Captivated by the beauty of the country but dismayed by its terrible poverty, he walked the streets as a commoner, wearing Mexican clothes, including a sombrero, ate Mexican food, and attempted to fit in.
With the end of the U.S. Civil War, Secretary of State William Seward began to pressure Napoleon to pull his troops out. U.S. troops began to mass along the border, and stores of guns and ammunition were left unguarded at El Paso, to be appropriated by Juarez’s forces. Napoleon, fearing a rising, militaristic Prussia led by the heavy-handed Count Otto von Bismarck back in Europe, began to withdraw. Maximilian was urged to abdicate, which, proud of his Hapsburg heritage and fearful of disgracing it, he refused to do. Carlotta argued that abdication was cowardice and returned to Europe to lobby in vain for support from other monarchs.
As the French army withdrew, Juarez’s troops closed in. Maximilian fought on with the diminishing numbers of men and resources available to him, hoping to die courageously in battle. In that he failed. Instead, he was arrested and shot. Juarez was convinced that such a sentence was just, given the large numbers of Mexicans who had died during the struggle.
Three years later, the Prussians, utilizing more effective weapons and strategies, defeated Napoleon III at Sedan and took him prisoner. He lived out his days in bitter exile in the United Kingdom. Carlotta, unrealistic and insane to the end, lived in exile in Belgium, surviving until 1927. Mexico was a republic once again, and Maximilian I, the last king of Mexico, faded into history.