The French Occupation of Mexico

The French occupation of Mexico in the 1860s is an intriguing period in American diplomacy, as various historical factors caused a unique situation, eventually resulting in a success in the eyes of America. Napoleon III of France had the intentions of transforming nations of the Western Hemisphere to monarchies and pulling them into the sphere of French power and influence. American ideology, in stark contrast, insisted that republics must succeed. The French occupation of Mexico occurred when Napoleon III attempted to transform Mexico into a monarchy, in which he succeeded for a short period, but eventually American republican ideas overcame, and Mexico regained its sovereignty.

In July of 1861, recently following a Mexican civil war putting the government into debt, the Mexican Congress voted to stop debt payments to France, Britain and Spain. Benito Juarez, Mexico’s President, issued a moratorium on these payments, but the European creditors would not accept this. The European nations proceeded in using force to coerce Mexico to pay after signing the Treaty of London in 1861.

Americans became concerned, especially President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State William H. Seward and Mexican representative Matías Romero. They recognized the potential danger of French leader Napoleon III and his intentions in Mexico, but the Civil War impeded US ability to protect Mexico from invasion.

In January 1862, French, British and Spanish troops invaded Mexico to force them to pay their debts after the Mexican President postponed payments for two years due to lack of funds. Mexico looked to the United States for help, but the US did not want to risk France recognizing the Southern Confederacy as a sovereign nation, separate from the North. It merely informed France of its opinion that the recent policy in Mexico was wrong, but took no decisive action to change French policy at this time, and focused on the pressing Civil War at hand.

Soon after the three European nations set forth in Mexico, the British and Spanish abandoned the cause, leaving the French to continue the attempt to occupy France. Months of battles between Napoleon III’s and Juarez’s armies ensued, with significant victories such as the Battle of Puebla, in which Mexican forces defeated occupying French, prolonging the struggle between the two sides. When French troops finally took over Mexico City in July 1863, it set up a provisional government, called the Superior Junta.

Napoleon III went on to choose Maximilian of Hapsburg as the Mexican monarch. At the time, Italy had been under occupation of both Austrian and, more recently, French control. Napoleon III’s influence over the Italian territories led him to Maximilian, who resided outside of Trieste in present-day Northern Italy. Maximilian of Hapsburg accepted the crown in 1863, while America took the opposing viewpoint that France was violating the sovereignty of Mexico, a distinct transgression of the Monroe Doctrine. This doctrine sought to oppose European intervention over the newly sovereign Latin American states, such as Mexico.

Napoleon III violated the sovereignty of the Republic of Mexico by occupying it and ousting Republican Benito Juarez from power, with Maximilian in replacement. The French leader’s plan was to create enlightened monarchies in Latin America, but remain dominant, thus using them for economic prosperity. Napoleon III wanted to have profound influence on the world – economically of course, but also culturally, politically, and even religiously. He chose Maximilian van Hapsburg; however, when he and his wife Charlotte came to rule over Mexico, their empire never developed fully. They were young, and as historian Alfred Jackson Hanna describes, “incompetent, indecisive, ambitious, and stubborn.” Though he was liberal in that he believed in parliamentary monarchy, he met opposition from all parts of the political spectrum in Mexico for various reasons.

In 1864, the US Congress issued a resolution declaring its opposition to the monarchy in Mexico. American foreign policy during this time of occupation was characterized by disapproval of France, and attempted unification of the Americas against European monarchs. President Abraham Lincoln created a new Latin American policy in order to do this, in addition to the existing Monroe Doctrine seeking to keep newly developed Latin American sovereigns autonomous and free from European colonization. Matias Romero, the Mexican representative, contributed greatly in defending Mexican sovereignty and republicanism. By the time the United States was able to intervene, President Lincoln had been assassinated and President Andrew Johnson took action to push French occupation out of Mexico. Maximilian was executed by loyalists to President Benito Juarez, who regained power to rule the Republic of Mexico.

This episode of American diplomacy exemplifies the differing attitudes in government between Europe and America at the time. American republicanism was still less than 100 years old, and therefore the nation still had to deal with powerful monarchies in the rest of the world. Luckily, American ideology prevailed in Mexico, and Napoleon III met his political demise, but the Civil War impeded America from pushing harder to help Mexico for some time.

Sources: Hanna, Alfred Jackson. Napoleon III and Mexico: American Triumph over Monarchy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971.

Faculty of Political Science at Colombia University. Political Science Quarterly. “The French in Mexico and the Monroe Doctrine.” New York: Ginn and Company, 1896.

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