In 1864, Maximilian, the son of Archduke Franz Karl of Austria and a member of the Hapsburg dynasty, arrived in Mexico.
He had never been to Mexico before, but it was a good first trip, considering that when he arrived, within days, he was crowned the emperor of Mexico.
Unfortunately, his rule over Mexico didn’t last that long.
Learn more about Maximilian I and how a member of a European royal family came to rule Mexico on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
From a pure drama and storytelling standpoint, as a general rule, the histories of countries in North America get far more interesting the further south you go.
Mexican history is, in many ways, far more interesting than American history. This can probably be best exemplified by the story of Maximillian I of Mexico.
To understand how Maximillian wound up in Mexico and how Mexico wound up with Maximillian, you need to know what was happening in Mexico and the rest of the world immediately beforehand.
Mexican independence is usually said to have occurred in 1821. The full story of how Mexico achieved independence is for another episode, but that was the year they declared independence and the year that the Spanish control of Mexico fell apart.
Mexico went through a lot in its first few decades. They had a brief fling with an emperor and a monarchy, which was then replaced by a republic.
Much of the first few decades were dominated by the person of Antonio López de Santa Anna. He was elected president of Mexico, Texas revolted and broke away, there was a major war with the United States that resulted in a loss of territory, Santa Anna was exiled and returned, and eventually, in 1855, Benito Juárez became the new president of Mexico.
I’m glossing over quite a bit, but the Juárez administration is where this story really starts.
Juárez was considered a liberal reformer. He was also an indigenous Mexican and not of Spanish ancestry. In fact, he didn’t even know how to read and speak Spanish until he was 12.
In 1857, Mexico adopted a new constitution that put limits on the power of the Catholic Church in the country and established freedom of religion. It also put restrictions on the power of the president and the military,
In 1858, an event known as the Reform War broke out. The Reform War was a civil war fought in Mexico between liberals who supported the 1857 constitution and conservatives who advocated a stronger central government and greater integration of the church in the affairs of Mexico. Within the conservative faction, there was a group that favored a European-style monarchy for Mexico.
As early as 1853, the Mexican monarchists had been floating the idea of a Mexican monarchy to the various royal houses in Europe.
Almost immediately, one name began coming up in discussion about who could be the founder of a Mexican monarchy: Ferdinand Maximilian Josef Maria von Habsburg-Lothringen.
Hereby known for the rest of this episode as Maximillian, he was born the second son of Archduke Franz Karl of Austria in 1832. Franz Karl’s first son and older brother of Maximillian was Emperor Franz Joseph I of the Austrian Empire. Franz Joseph I was placed on the throne in 1848 at the age of 18. Franz Joseph reigned for an incredible 68 years through the First World War, but that, too, is for another episode.
The reason why Maximillian’s name kept coming up was because he was a second son and had no real path to becoming emperor in Austria. He was highly educated and could speak English, French, Italian, Spanish, and Hungarian, in addition to his native German. Also, he had proven himself to be a very capable administrator. In particular, he severed as Vicroy over the region of Lombardy-Venetia, which was a part of the Austrian Empire in what is today northern Italy.
While Viceroy, he overhauled the tax system, dredged the canals of Venice, and opened new ports. As an administrator, he proved himself to be highly competent.
So, it was not a surprise that when the Mexican monarchists asked who they should pick, so many people pointed to Maximillian as being the best candidate.
Not surprisingly, the European powers supported the conservatives in the Reform War, especially Napoleon III in France.
One of the attractive things to the monarchists was that Maximillian was a Hapsburg. The Hapsburgs were the royal family that ruled Spain during the peak of the Spanish empire. To the monarchists, it would be a return to the glory days of Spain.
The idea of becoming the Emperor of Mexico was first brought to Maximillian in 1859, soon after he was dismissed from his position of Viceroy.
He found the offer tempting, but he ultimately declined so he could travel and take part in a botanical mission to Brazil. Shockingly, he was the first descendant of Ferdinand and Isabella to have actually visited the Americas.
Back in Mexico, the Reform War was wreaking havoc on the Mexican economy. The war made it difficult to collect taxes as the central government didn’t control the entire country, and it put the country deep in debt trying to finance the war.
The Americans were supporters of Juarez and the liberals in the civil war. In 1861, the new American administration led by Abraham Lincoln tried to find a way to help the Mexicans with their debt problem but was unable to find a solution.
On July 17, President Benito Juarez announced the suspension of interest payments on Mexico’s debt.
This had enormous ramifications because most of Mexico’s debt was held by European governments. With the suspension of interest payments, the British, Spanish, and especially the French had their reason to intervene in Mexico militarily.
In 1861, they did exactly that. Known as the Tripartite Expedition, British, Spanish, and French forces landed in Vera Cruise and took control of the port on December 14.
Ostensibly, the Europeans were there to collect on their debt. However, Napoleon II had an ulterior motive. He wanted to create a Mexican monarchy that he could manipulate.
Negotiations began in early 1862 and eventually broke down. The British soon left, but the French doubled down and announced they were going to establish a new government, and they welcomed Mexicans to join them.
It was now a full-scale invasion in what had been a civil war. The conservatives threw their support behind the French to create a monarchy.
Normally, the Americans would have been all over this, as French intervention was a direct violation of the Monroe Doctrine. However, the United States was a bit preoccupied with a civil war of its own.
Initially, the French didn’t fare well. They were defeated at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, which, if you remember back to my previous episode, is the event that is celebrated on Cinco de Mayo. The small expeditionary force fell back to the coast.
However, by 1863, reinforcements arrived, and they were able to push forward, capturing Mexico City on June 10. In July, the new Mexican assembly met, consisting entirely of conservative monarchists, and extended a formal invitation to Maximillian to become the new Emperor of Mexico.
A staged plebiscite was held on December 4, 1863, which claimed that the Mexican people wanted Maximillian as their ruler.
Juarez fled to Northern Mexico to form a government in exile, but at no point did he ever leave the country.
Maximilian accepted the crown this time, but it was a poisoned crown. He would be entirely dependent on France militarily. Many people question the wisdom of accepting this role.
The French colonel François Claude du Barail, who served in Mexico, told him, “If you succeed in bringing order out of this chaos, fortune into this misery, union into these hearts, you will be the greatest sovereign of modern times. Go, poor fool!
In April 1864, he resigned from his remaining duties in the Austrian Empire, and his wife, the new Empress Charlotte aka Carlota in Spanish, arrived in Vera Cruz on May 29.
Maximilian was not the emperor that the conservative Mexicans thought he would be. They just assumed that he would overturn all of the reforms made by the liberals in 1857. Instead, Maximilian was a reformer himself, albeit a monarch. Moreover, the French didn’t want the conservatives ruling the country either.
Maximillian’s disappointment with the conservatives resulted in him losing his only domestic support.
With the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the Andrew Johnson administration began issuing warnings to France and started to give material aid to the Mexican republican forces in the north. Moreover, American volunteers began signing up to join the Mexican Republicans.
The civil war, which had never really ended, now began to swing back in the favor of the liberals. When the French moved north to try and capture republican territory, it only invited republican activity in the south.
Maximilian issued what was known as the Black Decree, which ordered the execution of anyone aiding or participating in the rebellion. It resulted in the execution of 11,000 Mexicans, and it caused him to lose support amongst the common people.
Throughout 1865, conditions worsened for Maximillian and the monarchy. As the republicans under the command of Jaurez continued to advance, the French eventually decided that the war was unwinnable. In January 1866, Napoleon III announced that he was going to withdraw support and troops from Mexico.
Empress Carlota went to Europe to plead the case of her husband, but she got no response and never returned to Mexico.
Everything was working against Maximillian at this point. He no longer had the support of the French, nor the conservatives who felt betrayed by his liberal reforms, or the liberals who were closing in.
By October 1866, he had retreated to the city of Querétaro. By this point, most people assumed that Maximillian would flee the country and return to Europe.
On March 6, 1867, Republican forces consisting of 40,000 men laid siege to Querétaro, which was defended by only 10,000 men.
Maximilian actually did try to escape on May 11, but he was thwarted by one of his own officers.
Querétaro fell on May 15, and Maximillion was captured the next try trying to escape.
On June 13, Emperor Maximillion was put on trial for conspiring to overthrow the Mexican government and for the Black Decree. The trial lasted a single day. He was found guilty and sentenced to death.
The Mexican government was flooded with telegrams from European heads of state and other 19th-century political liberals to spare the life of Maximillian.
Juarez actually personally respected Maximillian. Maximilian was more of a political reformer than he had expected, and he also realized that he had been manipulated by Napoleon III.
However, Juarez felt that he had to make a firm statement to the rest of the world that foreign interference in Mexico wouldn’t be tolerated, so he refused to pardon Maximillian or rescind the order.
On June 19th at 6:40 am, Maximilian I was executed by firing squad along with two of his generals. He gave each of his executioners a gold coin, and his last words, spoken in Spanish, were, “I forgive everyone, and I ask everyone to forgive me. May my blood, which is about to be spilled, end the bloodshed which has been experienced in my new motherland. Long live Mexico! Long live its independence!”
His body was displayed in public for several days before being returned to Austria for burial.
A depiction of his execution was painted by Édouard Manet. There were some monuments built to honor him in Europe, and some of his possessions are on display at a museum in Vienna.
He has been the subject of books, movies, and orchestral compositions. However, there is very little in Mexico today that can be traced back to his rule other than the Avenida Reforma, aka the Avenue of Reform, in Mexico City, whose construction he ordered.
Maximilian’s rule remains a rather odd episode in Mexican history, out of place with everything that came before or after. While his brother had one of the longest rules in history as emperor, he had one of the shortest. With the death of Maximillian I, Mexico’s flirtation with monarchy permanently ended and was never seriously considered again, making Maximillian not just the first, but the last.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.
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