MAXIMILIAN—Emperor of Mexico
By Herbert W. Piekow
In December of 1857, a coup led to the Mexican Congress being dissolved on January 19th of 1858. Benito Juarez, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, proclaimed himself President of Mexico though he lacked a cabinet, and popular support. Mexico was in the midst of a civil war when in 1863 a Mexican delegation from the assembly of Notables was sent to the Palace of Miramar near Trieste, Italy. The assembly consisted of 215 members and all but two voted to offer Maximilian of Hapsburg, brother of Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, the throne of Mexico.
At the same time Maximilian was considering an offer from the Greeks to be their new king. After much consideration he accepted the offer to rule in the Americas since he thought he would have a better future there and his goal was to establish a strong Mexican government and save Mexico from chaos and draw it into the modern world.
Maximiliano, as he was known in Mexico, renounced his right to succeed to the throne of Austria. Before leaving for Mexico he sought support from European countries and he signed the Convention of Miramar with Napoleon III, agreeing to French military support for six years and that preferential treatment would be given to French officials over Mexicans. Maximiliano agreed to a debt of 54 million pesos and further agreed to pay 1,000 francs a year for each of the 30,000 French soldiers posted to Mexico and to compensate all the French citizens affected by the Mexican war.
Maximiliano and his wife, the Belgian princess Charlotte Amélie, named Carlota by the Mexicans, sailed for Mexico on an Austrian ship and when the imperial couple reached Veracruz in May 1864, they received a cold reception; only a few members of the provisional government greeted them. However, a month later, when they reached Mexico City, they were lavishly greeted with triumphal arches, pavilions, garlands of flowers and receptions. Within a few days the emperor formed his cabinet which included moderate conservatives and liberals because he wanted all Mexicans to realize his interests were for everyone. He did antagonize the conservatives by refusing to include the Cross in the imperial coat of arms and his unwillingness to agree to the phrase “By the Grace of God” on all official documents.
Every Sunday he gave audiences to the city’s poor that further alienated the emperor from both the liberals and conservatives; in addition the imperial couple showed a philanthropic spirit towards the Indians. The couple hoped to improve the living conditions of the ethnic groups. The emperor initiated laws designed to make the life of the peasants less hard; he tried to abolish the tiendas de raya (company stores) and prohibited forced conscription. Further he decreed that uncultivated land be given to peasants who had no property. However, his decrees were not enforced and the Indians felt his promises were just words to placate them—thus alienating a group who, although they had no political power, had supported his policies.
At this time there were two governments in Mexico, the Imperial Government of Maximiliano and the non-functional government of Juárez. Benito Juárez had no Congress and his government, which he ran from his black coach, had no power and was considered unconstitutional. (The black coach is now displayed in the Chapultepec Castle Museum.)
Meanwhile, Maximiliano was working to create a government that would allow Mexico to grow into a world power. He recognized the vast natural wealth of the country; its ideal shipping possibilities and the fact that Mexico had an industrious population which he felt were capable of producing anything given the raw materials.
Maximiliano and Carlota thought Mexico City was more of a provincial city than a world capitol. The monarchs began a campaign to beautify the city. Maximiliano believed that Mexico possessed everything to be a great empire. He created public parks, ordered statues and changed the face of the city by designing and constructing today’s Paseo de la Reforma, the wide avenue running from Chapultepec Castle to the city’s center.
He also tore down the small country homes of the viceroys and the military academy to construct Chapultepec Castle. The castle, although occupied for only a brief time by the royals, is one of the most attractive architectural monuments in Mexico. The royal couple initiated a sense of pride in the beauty of the city and many of today’s plazas and public spaces reflect the love they shared for their adopted country.
It is unfortunate that their detractors used the excuse of excess to negate much of what was created but it remains as a part of Mexico’s pride and beauty. Maximiliano had an understanding of architecture and the importance of beautiful and functional public spaces and buildings. When he brought his European tastes to Mexico, he transformed the way Mexicans perceived their public image.
In 1867 Maximiliano lost French support and Napoleon III ordered the withdrawal of French troops in preparation for war with Prussia. These were not peaceful times for Mexico which suffered economic problems and lack of growth that required Maximiliano’s government to borrow an additional 46 million pesos and go further into debt. His detractors blamed the debt on the emperor’s public works and the building of his lavish residence. His father-in-law, the King of Belgium, refused to help and so Carlota, as ambassador from Mexico, went to Rome to ask Pope Pius IX for support which would require other Catholic countries to lend support to Mexico.
Carlota failed in her efforts and afterward suffered several bouts of insanity. She died in Belgium in 1927 at the age of 86. Maximiliano’s relations with the Vatican had never been good because he had earlier refused the Pope’s request to return all church property to the church. Maximiliano also believed every man had the right to choose to worship in his own way and refused to allow the Catholic Church to regain its former power, wealth and influence; this not only alienated him from the Church in Rome but also from many of the conservatives in his own government.
In the meantime the US had ended its Civil War and the US made a loan of $20 million dollars to Juárez. The US preferred to support the provisional government than recognize what they considered the foreign threat of France and Austria at US borders. Also, five thousand Southern soldiers had immigrated to Mexico and the US Government feared they would lend their battle experience to Maximiliano’s troops.
The loan to Juárez enabled him to form, equip and train an army. In return Juárez allowed the US to settle land in Baja California and gave the US concessions to build the El Paso, Guaymas, Matamoros and Mazatlán railroads. The loan also allowed Juárez to reorganize his government and to consolidate his power and increase his fight to overthrow the imperial government of Maximiliano.
The emperor joined his generals in the fight against the federalists but his remaining French troops lacked motivation to fight for the Mexicans and eventually the well-trained and equipped army of Juárez defeated the French at Puebla on May 5, 1867.
Ten days later, Juárez’s troops captured Maximiliano in Querétaro and Juárez ordered the emperor to be executed by firing squad. Maximiliano gave each man on the firing squad a gold piece and asked them to aim for his heart. They required two volleys and shattered his face. Eventually Maximilian’s body was returned to Europe on the same ship that brought him to Mexico, the country he believed would one day be a world power. Maximiliano was justified, however, in his belief in Mexico for according to many financial experts, Mexico will become the world’s 5th largest economy by 2040!