I know, it’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? Mexico, that most republican-oriented of nations, once had an emperor – in fact, it had two, and both of them ended up being overthrown and executed.
It was the nation’s later dictator Porfirio Diaz who memorably said of his country that it was ‘so far from God, and so close to the United States,’ but in Mexico’s earlier years its principal problem was finding heads of state who could command nationwide legitimacy without getting too far up themselves. One of the leaders of Mexico’s struggle for independence from Spain, Agustín Iturbide, was declared emperor Agustín I in 1822, but the idea of swapping one authoritarian monarchy in Madrid for one in Mexico City was too much for most Mexican liberals, and less than a year later Iturbide was forced to abdicate, and the First Empire was dissolved. Iturbide was executed a year later on returning from exile, after being double-crossed by a former opponent. The next few decades would be a turbulent time – as with most other Latin American nations – in which conservative and liberal forces, backed respectively by the Church and rural landowners on the one hand and the mercantile classes and town-dwellers on the other, would fight for Mexico’s political power and soul.
Mexico’s next monarchical experiment would come nearly forty years later. After falling heavily into debt amid loans from European nations, the Mexican government had to default on the debts. Indignant, the British, Spaniards and French sent gunboats to Mexican ports in order demand that the debts be honoured. A deal was struck with Spain and the UK, but the French, under their second emperor Louis-Napoleon, decided to capitalize on Mexico’s weakness by giving that country a second emperor, and establishing an empire on Mexican territory. They thus installed a puppet monarch in Mexico City – in the form of an Austrian Hasburg aristocrat by the name of Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, who took the title Emperor Maximilian I.
It couldn’t last: France’s emperor was, after all, only slightly more deluded (and not just about the prospects of a French Mexican empire) than his puppet in Mexico City, and before long, pressure from Washington (in the aftermath of America’s Civil War), together with worries about their relations with the Prussians in Europe, forced the French to withdraw their forces in 1867, leaving Maximilian at the mercy of his subjects.
The man the French had deposed from the Mexican presidency, Benito Juárez, returned with a vengeance to reclaim the leadership of his country. Ultimately, Maximilian was doomed not because he was an alien implant in a country unused to monarchy, but because he tried too hard to please both Mexico’s conservative and liberal forces. Already an affront to liberals, he ended up being too liberal for most Mexican conservatives. His last words before being shot, on 19 June 1867, offer an indication as to how comparatively liberal-minded he was:
Mexicans: men of my class and race are created by God to be the happiness of nations or their martyrs…
I forgive everybody. I pray that everyone may also forgive me and I wish that my blood which is now to be shed may be for the good of the country. Viva Méjico, viva la independencia!
As the historian Andrew Wheatcroft has argued, the ex-emperor’s use of the word “race” is often misinterpreted:
When Maximilian used it, the word meant pedigree (as in a pedigree dog) or lineage, not some claim for racial superiority over the inferior Mexicans. He had not taken up the “white man’s burden” in Kipling’s phrase. Maximilian meant: I am a Habsburg, and we serve our peoples. Words spoken under such circumstances are not uttered carelessly, and Maximilian had his eye on posterity.
It would not be the last tragedy that the Habsburg family would suffer before their final downfall at the end of the First World War. Meanwhile, the ages-old struggle between conservatives and liberals in the restored Mexican republic would continue, and still continue to this day…