Historical Essays and Studies/The Rise and Fall of the Mexican Empire
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE MEXICAN EMPIRE
The scene of the tragedy which I will attempt to describe is a country on which Nature's fairest gifts have been lavished with an unsparing hand, but where man has done his utmost to thwart the designs of Providence. Its social condition is so far removed from our experience that I must ask you to forget this evening the maxims and even the political terms we use nearer home.
Mexico possesses a territory more than thrice as large as France, with the fertility of the tropics, and the climate of the temperate zone, seated between two oceans, in the future centre of the commerce of the world. Its wealth in precious metals is so enormous that the time will come when the market will be flooded with silver, and its price will not allow the mines to be worked with profit. The only drawbacks on its prosperity are the badness of the harbours, the excessive dryness of the plains, and the disappearance of the forest timber, a curse which almost always follows the footstep of the Spaniard.
When England recognised the independence of the Spanish colonies, Mr. Canning declared that he had called a new world into existence to redress the balance of the old. But it was long before the new States justified the boast, and it is still generally believed that in point of political and material success they contrast much to their disadvantage with the North American Republic. In the greater part of South America this is no longer true, for in several of those vast communities population and trade are growing at a rate that exceeds that of the Union.
Mexico is the saddest and most conspicuous exception in the midst of the general improvement. It is the pride of the colonial system of Spain, and the one merit in which it was superior to our own, that it succeeded in preserving and partially civilising the native race. The English settled in a region where the natives were hunters and wanderers, unskilled in the cultivation of the soil, who roamed into the West to elude the grasp of civilisation, or perished by its contact. The colonists retained their own congenial laws, the purity of European blood was maintained, and the portentous problem of race was happily averted. But in Mexico Cortez found a numerous and settled population, dwelling in cities, tilling the land, and brilliantly though superficially civilised. It was part of the Spanish system to protect, to preserve, and to convert the conquered heathens, whose number vastly exceeded that of their masters; a people of mixed blood sprang up between them, and thus there were three races separated by a very broad line, and isolated by the pride and the jealousy of colour. The Indian nobles were mostly exterminated, and the land was distributed among the families of a small group of conquerors. This arrangement of property remains unchanged. The natives are still without any interest in the land, and the immense estates have not been subdivided. In one of the richest districts on the Atlantic, the coast, for one hundred and fifty miles, is owned by one proprietor.
A society so constituted could not make a nation. There was no middle class, no impulse to industry, no common civilisation, no public spirit, no sense of patriotism. The Indians were not suffered to acquire wealth or knowledge, and every class was kept in ignorance and in rigorous seclusion ; when, therefore, the Mexicans made themselves independent, the difficulty was to throw off, not the bondage, but the nonage in which they had been held, and to overcome the mental incapacity, the want of enterprise, the want of combination among themselves, and the want of the enlightenment which comes from intercourse with other nations. They formed a republic after the model of their more fortunate neighbours, and accepted those principles which are so inflexible in their consequences, and so unrelenting in their consistency. It soon appeared that there was not propelling power in the State equal to the heavy burden of a half-barbarous population. The intelligent minority was too undisciplined and too demoralised to elevate and to sway the degraded millions of the Indian race. The habits of authority and subordination departed with the Spaniards, and the faculty of organisation could not exist in a people that had never learned to help themselves. No man of very superior character and understanding arose. The leading men in the various provinces sought to maintain their own power by the continuance of anarchy ; they combined against the central authority as fast as it changed hands, and overthrew thirty Presidents in thirty years. The requisite conditions of a Republican government did not exist. There was the greatest social inequality that can be conceived between the wealthy landowners and the Indian masses, who possessed neither the mental independence conferred by education nor the material independence which belongs to property. There was Democracy in the State, while society was intensely aristocratic.
The largest landowner in Mexico was the Church ; and as there was no religious toleration, it was the Church of the whole nation, the only teacher of the moral law to the natives, the sole channel through which the majority of the people had access to the civilisation of Christendom. Therefore the clergy enjoyed an influence of which there has been no example in Europe for the last five hundred years, and formed a strong basis of aristocracy and the most serious barrier to the realisation of the Democratic principle that nominally prevailed. To establish a real Democracy the first thing to be done was to reduce this immense and artificial influence. For the last twelve years this has been the one constant object of the Democratic party. It was a war of principles, a struggle for existence, on either side, in which conciliation was impossible, and which could only terminate by the ruin of one of the contending forces.
Now, as long as the conflict was confined to America, the Republicans could not be utterly defeated, for they could fall back on the unfailing sympathy and resources of the United States. Sooner or later the end would be the confiscation of the lands in mortmain, and the downfall of the Conservatives. Their only hope was in the assistance of Europe, and the establishment of a monarchy under foreign protection. Long before the antagonism became so definite and so extreme, the idea had begun to gain ground that a monarchy was the only form of government adapted to the character of Mexican society, and capable of arresting its decay ; and the monarch, if he was not to be a party chief, must be a European prince. Negotiations for this object were opened as early as 1846 ; Mexican emissaries, acting in concert with the then President, addressed themselves to Prince Metternich, who received them coldly, to Bavaria, and then to France, where the plan was favourably entertained, when it was interrupted by the revolution of 1848. It was revived twelve years later by the progress of events in Mexico. In 1857 the Democratic party carried a new Constitution, abridging the privileges of the clergy, and including a law of mortmain which obliged them to convert their estates into money.
This was the signal for civil war. The Conservatives, led by a young man who, at the age of twenty-seven, had shown a remarkable capacity for war, Miguel Miramon, gained possession of the capital, and their President was recognised by Europe. The Constitutional President held the important seaport of Vera Cruz, and was recognised by the United States. His name, destined like that of his rival to a wide and melancholy celebrity, was Benito Juarez. He was an Indian of pure blood, nearly sixty years old. He had ascended to power by means of his eminence as a lawyer, and because, in the midst of almost universal corruption, he was deemed incorruptible. Unlike the intriguers and the soldiers of fortune who were his rivals, he had risen slowly, without perfidy and without violence,—a patient, steadfast man, and, as we should say, a man of extreme opinions. It would seem that in this educated, ambitious, successful Indian, the pent-up hatred of the oppressed race for the oppressor had broken forth, and formed his strongest political motive; and that he was striving for the social and political emancipation of his people when he tore down the privileges and annihilated the power of the class that lorded over them. He professed the principles of 1789, principles which had triumphed in France by a civil war, a reign of terror, ten years of military despotism, and sixty years of intermittent revolution. There was no reason to think they would succeed more easily in a country so backward as Mexico, but Juarez was ready to abide the issue. As there was no system of regular taxation, and all manufactured articles were imported by sea, the customs were the chief source of revenue. It was an advantage to Juarez to possess the chief seaport of the country, and as he dwelt under the cannon of European men-of-war, he was careful not to make enemies by plundering the foreigners.
Miramon, up in the interior, had neither the same resources nor the same restraint. There was no money to be had but that of foreign residents, or of the Church. He could not rob his own party, so he determined to turn to the other source of supply. He had so used his power, and his lieutenant, Marquez, had acted so ferociously, that the English Minister had left Mexico, when Miramon seized a sum of £130,000 belonging to British landholders, which was deposited at the Legation. He also contracted a loan with the Swiss banker, Jecker, on terms so exorbitant that it seems to have been a stratagem to embarrass those who were to come after him. These two measures were eventually fatal to Miramon, for they were the cause of the European intervention.
Juarez immediately obtained his recognition by England by promising to restore the stolen money, and to satisfy other British claims. He made the same promise to France. With this moral support, and by undertaking to grant away to his partisans the property of the Church, he obtained the means of expelling Miramon from Mexico, and in 1861 he was elected President for a term of four years. He at once dismissed the Spanish and the Papal envoys, decreed the absolute confiscation of the Church lands, and carried out with ruthless energy the triumph of his opinions. But he proved incapable as a ruler, and utterly unequal to the desperate task of restoring order in a country distracted by passion and ruined by anarchy.
The condition of affairs in the summer of 1861 is described by the English Minister in the following passages, which are important because they determined the policy of England : "As long as the present dishonest and incapable administration remains in power, things will go from bad to worse ; but with a government formed of respectable men, could such be found, the resources of the country are so great that it might easily fulfil its engagements, and increase threefold the amount of its exportations, not only of the precious metals, but of those productions for which they receive British manufactured goods in exchange. Mexico furnishes two-thirds of the silver now in circulation, and might be made one of the richest and most prosperous countries of the world ; so that it becomes the interest of Great Britain to put a stop by force, if necessary, to its present state of anarchy, and insist on its government paying what it owes to British subjects. All the respectable classes look forward with hope to a foreign intervention as the sole means of saving them from ruin, and preventing a dissolution of the Confederation, as well as a general rising of the Indians against the white population. Every day's experience duly tends to prove the utter absurdity of attempting to govern the country with the limited powers granted to the Executive by the present ultra-liberal Constitution, and I see no hope of improve ment unless it comes from a foreign intervention, or the formation of a rational government, composed of the leading men of the moderate party, who, at present, are void of moral courage and afraid to move, unless with some material support from abroad. If the question was, what form of government would most conduce to the welfare of Mexico, by the establishment of order and a permanent state of things, there can be no doubt that a Constitutional monarchy is the one most likely to have central power sufficient to enable it to consolidate the nation, perhaps the only form of government that would give much hope of such a result ; but as the question is not what is best for Mexico, but what are the wishes of the Mexican people, I fear that the answer must be that the great mass of the intelligent population are in favour of Republican institutions. Many well-educated and intelligent individuals who stand well in society form a well-grounded desire for a strong government, but these people are unfortunately timid, and passive in action, ready to accept what is done for them, but incapable of doing anything to bring about what they desire."
As it turned out, these were prophetic words. The sale of the Church property was carried on in a very disorderly way, and the money was squandered. A scheme to satisfy the urgent European claims with money lent by the United States, though entertained by the American Government, was rejected by the Senate, and in July 1861 the Mexican Congress resolved that all payments on European agreements should be suspended for two years.
The Powers most concerned in this act of repudiation — France, Spain, and Great Britain — now determined to intervene jointly, and to obtain by force of arms some real security for the property of their subjects, and for the establishment, if necessary, of a more trustworthy government. The conjuncture was favourable, for the Civil War had just broken out in the United States, and from that quarter there was no immediate danger of interruption. Spain took the lead, her military establishment at Cuba enabling her to act promptly, with some suspicion of a desire to recover her ancient dominion. England followed warily, with an eye only to mercantile interests. France did not yet reveal her intentions, and probably had not yet matured them.
The allied forces, amounting to about 6000 men, without means of transport or materials for a campaign in the interior, were placed under the command of the Spanish general Prim, a clever, showy, and ambitious officer, but a capricious and unstable politician. On their arrival, the town and fort of Vera Cruz were evacuated by the Mexican troops. In this extremity Juarez strengthened himself by putting at the head of the Ministry General Doblado, the leader of the moderate party, a man whose reputation for caution and ability stood high, and whose acts in office prove that it was well-deserved. In January 1862, he issued a decree directing all those who should be taken in arms against the Republic to be tried by court-martial and put to death as traitors. This is the law by which the Emperor was to die, and which gave a legal character to his execution. Doblado had an interview with Prim, expatiated on the deplorable condition of the country, and undertook that the legitimate demands of the allies should be faithfully complied with, provided only they would recognise the existing government. These terms seemed acceptable to the allies, who were not equipped for a campaign, and they took Doblado at his word. But the agreement had to be sent to Europe for approval, and in the meantime it was arranged that the allies should move up from the pestilential swamp of Vera Cruz to healthier quarters on the first range of hills. This placed them within the outer line of the Mexican defences, and it was stipulated that if the preliminaries were not ratified, before commencing hostilities they should first withdraw to the plain below.
The claims of the three Powers had now to be specified. Those of Spain and England were clear, and easily ascertained. The French commissioners demanded, in addition to other large sums, three millions sterling for the banker Jecker. Their colleagues protested against this excessive demand. They affirmed that the sum advanced by the banker to Miramon was only £160,000, and they pointed out that he was not a Frenchman but a Swiss, and that the guardianship of Swiss interests in Mexico pertained to the American Legation. Jecker was immediately naturalised a Frenchman, and the French Government bought up his bonds. Agents were sent for this purpose with sealed instructions to America, two of whom, when they discovered the errand upon which they were employed, indignantly threw up the commission. Whilst this transaction was sowing discord in the allied camp, several Mexican exiles of the Conservative party made their appearance at Vera Cruz. One of these was Miramon. He was arrested and sent away by the British Commodore, on the ground that the expedition could not connect itself with one party while acknowledging the government of the other.
Miramon was speedily followed by General Almonte, for many years the chief agent of the Conservative party in Europe, and the secret councillor of the French Government, a man of high character and great influence. He stated that he came with a mission from France to establish a provisional government, to introduce a monarchy, and to procure the election of the Archduke Maximilian. The English and Spanish Commissioners demanded his expulsion, when General Lorencez arrived with French reinforcements, and announced that Napoleon had rejected the convention with Doblado, that he had sent Almonte to Mexico, and meant war. The alliance of the three Powers was at once dissolved ; the Spaniards sailed for Cuba in English ships, and France was left alone, to accomplish the avowed design of erecting a throne beyond the Atlantic.
In the intention of the Emperor Napoleon, the Mexican expedition was the first step towards the execution of a bold and magnificent scheme, to which he gave the name of the regeneration of the Latin world. The ancient rivalry between France and England was expanded into the rivalry of the Latin with the Anglo-Saxon race. If we carry back our thoughts for a century, it will not be difficult to find in the history of the two nations the motives which suggested the idea. Scarcely one hundred years ago vast territories in Canada, on the Mississippi, and in the West Indies belonged to the Crown of France, and French adventurers of great daring and ability were laying the foundation of an Empire in Hindostan. One by one these possessions have gone, and France, watched by jealous neighbours, has nearly lost the power of expansion in Europe.
What has been, in the meantime, the progress of England? The colonies which France has lost have almost all been won by her. England, not France, wields the sceptre of the Great Mogul. Her people have encircled the globe with a girdle of British settlements. New continents, I may almost say, have arisen out of the Southern ocean to receive the incessant overflow of her population. Her colonial empire is a nursery of mighty nations, that carries to the distant places of the earth the language and the laws of home. George III. inherited dominions peopled perhaps by ten million human beings. His grand-daughter reigns over two hundred millions. In America the children of our race are waiting the time when the whole continent shall be theirs.
But on that continent there are thirty millions of men, not of French descent, but of a stock allied with the French, who derive their literary culture and intellectual impulse from Paris, whose traffic is carried on with French ports, who look up to France as their head, and turn to her to protect them from being absorbed by an alien race. The trade of France with South America is nearly equal to her trade with the United States, and is more profitable because it is carried in French ships. In the ten years before the expedition, it had grown from £6,000,000 to £20,000,000 a year. South America is the largest and safest opening that remains for the development of French commerce, the most increasing market for French industry. It was manifestly the interest of France to prevent it from falling under the control of the narrow mercantile policy of the United States, and to secure her own influence over nations with such a future. In the words of the Emperor : "It is not our interest that the United States should grasp the whole Gulf of Mexico, the Antilles, and South America, and become the sole dispensers of the produce of the New World. We have seen by sad experience how precarious is the fate of an industry which is forced to seek its raw material in a single market, under all the vicissitudes to which that market is liable." The establishment of a French dependency in Mexico would have checked the southward progress of the Union, and have cut the continent in two.
When Juarez repudiated his engagements with European creditors the Confederates had won their first victories, and the North was not able to repel the intervention upon its frontier. Shortly after, the Southern Commissioners were seized on board the Trent, and England began to arm. The French Emperor calculated that he would be able to do his work without interruption, and that England, in case of need, would help him to support the South. Therefore, from the end of 1861 he lent a willing ear to the Mexican exiles, who displayed the sufferings and the capabilities of their country, and allured him with the splendid vision of a nation to be regenerated by France. They persuaded him that the presence of his troops would be welcomed, that there would be no serious resistance, and that a powerful party would rally to his standard. In this belief, and with Almonte in their camp, the French advanced against Mexico, 6000 strong. On the 5th of May 1862, they appeared before Puebla, the second city in the land, on the road from Vera Cruz to the capital. They were received with so vigorous a cannonade that they were forced to retire to a position where they could await reinforcements without danger of being dislodged. After this military repulse, public opinion in France supported the Emperor in despatching an army of 30,000 men, provided with all the appliances of war. They landed in the autumn, and the winter was spent in preparations.
A whole year had been lost before Puebla fell, after an obstinate defence, and in June 1863 the French entered the city of Mexico. The early reverses and the long delays of the French greatly strengthened the position of Juarez. The invasion exalted the Indian leader of an extreme party into a champion of the dignity and the independence of the country, and his tenacity in upholding the cause did not allow this halo to depart from him even in the worst times. The capital was not fortified, and when the French appeared, Juarez carried the seat of his government to one of the Northern towns.
A new provisional government was instituted, in which Almonte was associated with the Archbishop of Mexico, and an assembly of notables, selected and convened by the French, met to decide on the future of the country. Many of the principal men in the capital who had been invited, refused to attend, and the assembly was composed of Conservatives who took their orders from Almonte and the French. The orders were to proclaim a monarchy, and to offer the Crown to the Archduke. They were obeyed on the 8th July 1863. The long-deferred hopes of the Mexican royalists seemed to be fulfilled, when a deputation proceeded to Europe to invite the Archduke to ascend the throne of Montezuma. Ferdinand Maximilian, the next brother of the Emperor of Austria, had long occupied a peculiar and exceptional position in his native country. There were circumstances which made him appear a possible rival to his brother, and the many errors of Francis Joseph, the waning confidence in his fortune and his judgment, kept alive the habit of looking to the Archduke, who was altogether excluded from the conduct of affairs, as a refuge in extremity. He possessed some of the best qualities of a ruler, honesty and firmness of purpose, a kind and true heart, and a mind fixed on high designs. In spite of much and various experience of mankind, he retained an unpractical imaginativeness, which is often connected with extreme cultivation, and a certain impetuous generosity frequently marred the effect of his sagacity. Though undoubtedly very intelligent, he was so often deceived that he must have lacked the faculty of judging men and choosing friends, without which there is no success in government. His ardent, lofty spirit, perpetually curbed and chafed by the prevailing dulness, selfishness, and incapacity in Austria, imparted something that was cold and sarcastic to his manner. His outspoken censure of his brother's unstable policy caused an estrangement between them, which was increased by his marriage with the daughter of the wise Leopold, a clever and accomplished woman, whose family has grown great by renouncing those principles of strict legitimacy which Austria specially represents. The Archduke was the last Austrian Governor of Lombardy. In that thankless office it was impossible to conciliate the Italians, and he could not permanently serve the interests of his country. But he made many friends, and men believed that he would willingly have been the Minister of a less unpopular system. It was even whispered that he had wished to set up a throne for himself in Lombardy and Venice, separate from the Austrian monarchy. At least he had so far deserted the ancient ways of his family as to fall under the ban of distrust and suspicion at Vienna. About the time of the marriage of the Princess Royal he visited the British Court, and made so favourable an impression that there were some who regretted that he could not have been a candidate for her hand. For who could then have dreamed that the reserved and unpretending Prussian was to be the spoilt darling of victory, while the genial, frank, and brilliant Austrian was destined to a traitor's death? He devoted his care to the navy, a department always neglected in Austria, and the virtue of his administration became apparent when the fleet which he had created won the greatest sea-fight of our time. The war of 1859 deprived him of his high position, and reproaches and recriminations followed, which separated him yet more from the Emperor. He dwelt in his castle of Miramar at the head of the Adriatic, mourning over wasted talents, a ruined career, and an unsatisfied ambition.
Very soon the prospect of a new adventure opened before him. By a strange fatality his wife, the daughter of a Princess of the House of Orleans, was an enthusiastic Bonapartist, and not only admired, but trusted the Emperor Napoleon. When, therefore, he proposed to hand over his conquest to the Archduke, hoping thereby to conciliate Austria, the Archduchess Charlotte urged her husband to accept it. Their unsettled position must have become very irksome to her, for when they left their home Maximilian wept bitterly, and she showed no emotions but hope and joy. His brother's government employed strong measures to dissuade him from accepting, and it was decided that he must renounce his place in the succession, and be counted last after all the princes of the line.
When the vote of the Assembly of Notables was made known to him, he replied that he could not accept the crown unless he was assured of the support of the great Powers, or until it was offered to him by the free choice of the whole Mexican people. The French are skilled in managing the machinery of a spontaneous election ; and in April 1864, a second deputation carried to Miramar a sceptre of Mexican gold, with the assurance that the whole nation had elected Maximilian Emperor. In reality the French were masters of a very small portion of the country, and the vast majority were not polled at all. Where the French were present there was no serious difficulty, though in some places the chief inhabitants were thrown into prison before they gave in their adhesion. Maximilian was fully informed that the pretended election was nothing but a ceremonious farce. A Mexican Republican made his way to Miramar, and warned him that the real feeling of the country was adverse to the invaders, and that the expedition would end in disaster.
But the promises of France were excessively enticing. The French army was to complete the pacification of the country, and a powerful corps was to be left for several years in the service of Maximilian. France negotiated a loan in his behalf, and seventeen chests filled with gold pieces found their way to Miramar. The Archduke was not in a position to disregard such inducements, for his private fortune was in disorder, and the first £300,000 of the Mexican loan went to clear his debts. Other points were raised which have been kept secret, and the friends of Maximilian still look for important revelations.
At his trial he instructed his counsel to say that Napoleon had required the cession of a portion of Mexican territory as large as Great Britain, and that he had indignantly refused to dismember the country which had given him a crown. He accepted it at a time when the tide of success had turned in the American War, and the prospects of the Confederacy were no longer hopeful. The Archduke demanded a pledge that he should be supported by a French alliance in case of war with the United States ; and it is positively asserted that Napoleon gave the required pledge. He gave it believing that England would join him in recognising the South, if it was found that its resistance would be crushed without aid from Europe, and the time came when he made the proposal of a joint recognition to Lord Palmerston. It happened that the two foremost statesmen in the Ministry had made speeches in the provinces which appeared to show a disposition favourable to the Confederates ; and the Emperor believed that they would carry their colleagues with them. This was the gravest miscalculation he made in the whole Mexican affair. The Cabinet, taking one of the most momentous resolutions ever adopted by a Ministry, rejected the proposal, and the Emperor shrank from a war single-handed with the United States.
Maximilian, on his part, undertook to pay a million a year while the French remained, and to liquidate all those accumulated claims which Juarez had rejected. In fact, he submitted to conditions impossible to meet, and commenced an undertaking predestined to financial ruin. He reached Mexico in June 1864, and was favourably if not warmly received. The French had ruled the country through the provisional government for a whole year, with almost uninterrupted military success. But they had encountered a difficulty of a formidable and unexpected kind. Juarez had had more than two years to accomplish the overthrow of the clergy, and their property had passed into the hands of speculators, chiefly foreigners, who, it was thought, would not easily be compelled to restore it. The Church party had called for intervention in the hope of recovering these losses, and when the French placed the leaders of the party at the head of the State, they preferred their claims with a sure expectation of success.
The Church in France is supported by the State, and owns no independent property. The French supposed that the practice of their own country could not be unsuitable to Mexico, where a revolution would be required to restore the ancient order, and where the clergy would not bear a comparison with the salaried priesthood of France. The demand was summarily refused. The Episcopate united to denounce the sacrilegious invaders, and the Archbishop ceased to be a member of the provisional government. The breach, for the moment, was complete ; and the only hope of the clergy was in Maximilian. He knew that, for a Sovereign to be strong, he must be identified with no party. It was his mission to conciliate and blend together interests severed by years of antagonism. In declining the crown for the first time, he had signified that he would consent to receive it only as the gift of the entire nation. In accepting it afterwards, he made known that he looked upon himself as the elect of the nation, not as the nominee of a powerful interest. From the moment of his arrival he held out the olive branch to the Republicans, and sought their confidence by offering them place and power. Many accepted his offers, and he was surrounded by men who were hateful to those who had seated him on the throne. In adopting this policy it was impossible to draw a line, to examine antecedents, or to reject utterly any candidate for favour. The Emperor was often deceived, and lost on one side without gaining on the other.
After a long delay, which exasperated the trembling holders of Church property, as well as those whom they had despoiled, he decided that all legal purchases should be confirmed, and those which were fraudulent revised, but that nothing should be restored to the clergy, who were to be paid by the State. The Nuncio quarrelled with him upon this, and left the country. Maximilian, irritated by the hostile attitude of the clergy, went further, and restored what was called the Exequatur, a law forbidding any document to be published in ecclesiastical affairs without the consent of the civil power. This right has been abandoned by his brother, in Austria ; by the Italian Government, last year ; and even in Mexico, by Juarez, who adopted the voluntary principle. It could not be defended as a liberal law, and its revival seemed to be simply a blow at the independence of religion. The clergy protested that they had not borne the burden of civil war and brought foreign armies into the country, in order that a prince of their choosing should confirm decrees which had made their property the spoil of their enemies.
They declared that their position was worse under their friend then it had been under their persecutor Juarez. Thenceforth they withdrew their support, and observed a hostile neutrality, watching the time when the Emperor, driven to extremities, would be ready to purchase their assistance at any sacrifice they might demand. In some instances they even fomented the Republican opposition.
This was the first great and visible disaster that the Empire incurred. Another was soon known to be imminent. Financial capacity, rare in every country, was not to be found in Mexico ; and Napoleon, who wished his creation to succeed, sent out a Chancellor of the Exchequer from France, with a staff of clerks. But the imported Minister died, and could not be replaced. The finances broke down so completely that Maximilian was obliged to ask for money from the military chest of the French army, and thus fell into the power of its com mander. As he could not fulfil his engagements with the Emperor Napoleon, he was guilty of a breach of the treaty signed between them, and gave France an excuse, when her turn came, to justify her own breach of faith.
The year 1865 passed prosperously, on the whole. Maximilian visited many of the towns, saw what he could with his own eyes, and devoted his time to the fabrication of decrees by which he hoped to regenerate the country. These decrees are generally sensible and just ; they incline in a good direction, but not always by the right road, and ornamental superfluities sometimes usurp the place of more difficult but more essential things. Maximilian was an anxious and determined educator, and his zeal was praiseworthy, for ninety per cent of the people could neither read or write. But it shows a want of practical capacity when in a community wanting the first necessaries of popular instruction the Sovereign founds an Academy of Sciences, and gravely inculcates on his Ministers the importance of encouraging the study of metaphysics. He found himself in the rare position of a lawgiver called to legislate in a country for which everything remained to be done, and he enjoyed the luxury of carrying out, at least on paper, systems nurtured in days of visionary retirement. He had not time or vigour to execute much of what he had projected.
There was one question that called for an act of high and generous statesmanship. The Indians had been reduced by their poverty and want of energy to the position of serfs. They were in debt to their landlords, and the whole hopeless labour of their lives, without the chance of profit or release, was due to their creditors. They had greeted the coming of Maximilian as the dawn of their deliverance, and he might have made them the willing prop of the imperial throne. In the 800,000 square miles of Mexico, peopled by 8,000,000 of men, but capable of sustaining 100,000,000, it would have been easy, without any spoliation, to distribute land among the countrymen of its ancient owners. Maximilian adopted a half measure. He abolished the debts of the Indians, and thus made them free ; but he did no more, and left them to relapse, under pressure of the old causes, into the old degradation. The Indians were not satisfied, and the landowners were alienated.
Something, but not enough, was done for the creation of a native army to defend the crown and country when the French should depart. An Austrian and a Belgian corps were formed, but did not answer expectation. Next to the French, the most efficient body was the division of the Indian general Mejia, a man of a very pure fame. But the French were successful in all they undertook during the whole of 1865. The Republican bands were scattered, many of their generals made their submission, and Juarez, driven from place to place, disappeared at last at a point in the extreme north of Mexico, on the American frontier, more than a thousand miles from the capital. It was reported that he had escaped into the United States. At this time also the four years for which he had been elected expired, and it was impossible to convene a Congress for a new election. Many of his followers now held that he had ceased to govern, and the Vice-President Ortega, the defender of Puebla, claimed the vacant post. The strict legality which had been the strength of the position of Juarez was seriously impaired, and his authority was unquestionably shaken. The country was in a wretched state of insecurity and misery. Plunderers and assassins plied their trade under pretence of being real combatants. Mexican warfare is often scarcely distinguishable from armed robbery, and, as it was the plan of the Republicans to fight in small guerilla bands, the line separating the soldier from the brigand was often indistinct. The Government thought the time had come to exterminate these bands, and to protect the inhabitants against their incursions. The victory over the regular army was complete, and it seemed that men who infested the roads, when organised resistance was over, did not deserve the treatment of prisoners of war.
On the 2nd of October Maximilian drew up a decree ordering all who should be taken with arms in their hands to be shot, and when he signed it he signed his own death-warrant. Immediately after its publication a Republican force, commanded by Arteaga, was defeated, and the leaders were captured. In obedience to the new order the Imperial General Mendez put them to death. But the Republicans, though dispersed and dispirited, were not destroyed. A report made to the Emperor in November 1865 estimates their force at 24,000 men, and Juarez had not abandoned the struggle. He remained on Mexican territory, in a town on the Rio del Norte, from which a boat could take him in a few minutes to the American bank, and he remained in communication with the generals of his party. There he waited for the deliverance which he knew was coming. For at that moment, near the close of 1865, his cause was taken up by an ally so powerful and so much feared as to be able, without firing a shot or wasting a single life, to expel the French from Mexico, and to lay the Empire in the dust.
The United States had watched the intervention and the erection of the Empire with anger and alarm. They knew that it had sprung from a desire to cripple their influence, and they could not be indifferent to the presence of an European army on their frontier while they were embarrassed by a civil war. They denied that the Empire was the free choice of the Mexicans, and they highly disapproved of an Emperor that was absolute, for he retained in his own hands all the powers of the State. They refused to recognise him, but they remained neutral, determined not to act until they could act decisively. They rejected various schemes for assisting Juarez with money in return for land, and they declined not only the overtures of Napoleon and of Juarez, but one which was still more tempting. During the siege of Richmond the Confederates proposed that they should unite their armies for the conquest of Mexico and of Canada, but the North refused.
When the war of Secession was over, the Government of Washington had to apply a little diplomatic pressure to the Emperor Napoleon to hasten the recall of his troops. The pressure quickly took the form of threats, and Napoleon very speedily gave way. Events were passing in Europe which made him impatient that Maximilian should restore his legions. In June 1866 war broke out in Italy and in Germany, and in the first week of July Prussia had struck a blow that made half Europe tremble, and menaced the military supremacy and the pride of France. In these circumstances it was certain that the offensive language of America could not be resented, and Mr. Seward used his advantage with cruel complacency. Napoleon informed Maximilian that he must provide for himself, and he informed the American Government that he would retire from Mexico in March 1867.
Rumours of this strange correspondence, and of its probable result, reached Mexico and gave new spirit to the Republicans. Maximilian had refused permission to 25,000 confederates to settle in his dominions; but stragglers found their way to the armies of Juarez, and in June 1866 the important town of Matamoros was surrendered to Escobedo by Mejia. From the moment of that reverse fortune began rapidly to change; and as the French retired from more distant posts, swarms of Republicans appeared in every direction.
When Maximilian learnt the altered intention of Napoleon, he foresaw the end, and spoke of abdication. The Empress persuaded him to remain, while she undertook a journey to Europe. She would compel the French Emperor to fulfil his promises. She would induce the Pope to reconcile the clergy with the Empire. She failed utterly in both endeavours, and in her last interview with Pius IX., perceiving that all hope was ended, she went out of her mind. Early in October the news reached her husband, and then his courage gave way. He had lately exchanged what was called a Liberal for a Conservative Ministry, and had offered the principal departments to two French generals. But they were forbidden by Napoleon to accept, and still no substantial help came from the clergy. Worn out with illness and sorrow, deserted on all sides, and knowing that his Empire was crumbling, Maximilian started for the coast with an undefined intention of sailing for Europe. His most trusted adviser, a Belgian, who had accompanied the Empress, attempted at this conjuncture to draw him away by an appeal to his ambition. He described the discontent of the humbled Austrians and assured him that they wished his brother to abdicate, while sympathy for himself was increasing throughout the country.
Francis Joseph was aware of this intrigue, but he made a last effort to save his brother by restoring to him, if he would return, his position at the head of the princes of the blood. An aide-de-camp of Napoleon arrived in Mexico to hasten the departure of the troops, and instructed to use everything but force to induce Maximilian to abdicate. The French did not like the dishonour of leaving him to his fate, and they hoped, if he ceased to reign, to make their own terms with the Mexicans, and to leave behind them a government not utterly hostile to themselves. That the expedition was a gigantic failure, injurious to the reputation of the army and the stability of the throne, could not be disguised. But the blow would be more keenly felt if the man on whom they had made war for four years, and with whom they had refused to treat, remained unshaken in his office, victorious over the arms and arts of Napoleon III. So great was their urgency that Maximilian felt insulted, and at last believed himself betrayed.
Whilst he was wavering and lingering near the coast, an American frigate appeared at Vera Cruz, conveying General Sherman and Mr. Campbell, accredited as envoys to Juarez. They had sailed from New York on the 11th of November, when it was supposed that Maximilian had abdicated, leaving the French in the country. The Government at Washington were determined that in that case their candidate, and not that of Napoleon, should prevail. Mr. Campbell was charged to offer support and aid to the Republic, and the presence of the ablest soldier of the Union indicated ostentatiously of what nature that aid was to be. When these envoys found that Maximilian had not departed, they understood that their mission was a blunder and withdrew. The Emperor did not believe that an American Minister, escorted by such a personage as Sherman, had come all the way to Vera Cruz and had gone away without doing anything. He persuaded himself that France and America had come to an understanding, and had made a bargain of which his crown was to be the price. The pressing invitations to depart with the French appeared to him perfidious, and he thought it would be disgraceful that his life should be rescued by those who had bartered his throne.
Meantime the Church party, which had so long coldly stood aloof, thought that the moment had arrived when it could impose its own conditions. It was represented to the Emperor that the disappearance of the invaders would remove the cause of his unpopularity, and that good patriots would support him now, who had refused to acknowledge the nominee of a foreign Power. Miramon arrived from Europe at the critical moment and offered his sword to Maximilian. The Prussian Minister also advised him to remain. The clergy promised their powerful aid, and he yielded. There was nothing for him to look forward to in Europe. No public career was open to the man who had failed so signally in an enterprise of his own seeking. His position in Austria, which was distressing before, would be intolerable now. He had quarrelled with his family, with his church, with the protector to whose temptations he had hearkened. And for him there was to be no more the happiness of the domestic hearth.
In Mexico there were no hopes to live for, but there was still a cause in which it would be glorious to die. There were friends whom he could not leave to perish in expiation of measures which had been his work. He knew what the vengeance of the victors would be. He knew that those who had been most faithful to him would be most surely slaughtered; and he deemed that he, who had never yet been seen on a field of battle, had no right to fly without fighting. Probably he felt that when a monarch cannot preserve his throne, nothing becomes him better than to make his grave beneath its ruins. He yielded, and returned, sullenly and slowly, to the capital. What concessions had been wrung from the party in whose hands he was, I do not know. But he addressed a letter to the Pope, expressing regret for the policy which had failed, and at Rome, where he was once regarded as a persecutor and almost an apostate, the letter was hailed as a solemn and complete retraction.
From that moment Maximilian was no longer the chief of a national government, but a partisan leader, who had not even the control of his party. He laid aside the pomp of Majesty, and lived in private houses, especially as the guest of the clergy. He declared that he was only provisionally the chief of the State, and held office only until a national assembly had decided what should be the future of Mexico. He invited Juarez to submit his claim to the same peaceful arbitration, and proposed that there should be a general amnesty, to stop the shedding of blood. The Republicans saw nothing in all this but the signs of weakness, and of their own approaching triumph. They opposed no obstacles in the way of the departing French, but they closed in overwhelming numbers upon the feeble army of the Empire.
The defeat of Miramon on the great North road in February compelled Maximilian to take the field. He put himself for the first time at the head of his troops, and joined Miramon at Queretaro. On this day last year he was surrounded and besieged by Escobedo with an army which rose speedily to more than 40,000 men. Marquez was sent to Mexico for reinforcements, but he never returned, and spent the short time that remained in wringing money from the inhabitants. The siege proceeded slowly, and on the 24th of April Miramon made a successful sally, and opened for a moment the road to the capital. But the men were worn out with fighting, and the Emperor refused to leave them. He declared he had not come to Queretaro to fly from danger. To those who saw him during those anxious days, haggard and aged, with a long beard flowing over his breast, and the fever of despair in his eyes, conducting the defence and constantly under fire, it seemed that he was longing for the glory of a soldier's death. At length the supplies were nearly exhausted, the certainty of the treason of Marquez removed all hope of relief, and it was resolved that the garrison should make an attempt to cut its way through the enemy on the 15th of May. It was too late. For four days Lopez, the second in command, had been in communication with Escobedo, and had accepted a bribe of £1400. Late in the night of the 14th he saw the Emperor; and then, at two in the morning, he introduced a Republican general into the fort. This general was disguised, and carried concealed arms. He remained two hours, and examined the interior of the works. Then Lopez withdrew the Imperial sentries, and their posts were silently occupied by the soldiers of Riva Palacio, the only officer who had been excepted, by name, from the decree of October.
At daybreak the bells of the churches of Queretaro announced to the Republican camp that the place was won. The traitor went up to the Emperor's room, and told him that the enemy was in the town. Maximilian rushed forth, and was stopped by Republican soldiers, who did not recognise him. Lopez whispered to the officer who it was. Then the generous Mexican allowed the Emperor to pass, pretending to take him for a civilian; and he escaped to a fortified position at some distance. Here he was joined by the faithful Mejia, and as many officers and men as could hew their way through the columns of Republicans that were now pouring into the town. Miramon alone attempted a forlorn resistance. A shot struck him in the face, and he fell, blinded with blood, into the hands of his enemies.
The position occupied by the Imperialists was swept by artillery and could not be defended, and at eight o'clock they surrendered. Among the prisoners was Mendez, who had caused the decree of October to be executed on Arteaga and his companions. He was shot the same day. The Emperor was shut up, with Miramon and Mejia, in a cell of the Capuchin convent, and it was announced to them that they would be tried by court-martial, under the decree of January. From that moment Maximilian retained no hope of life. He presented his war-horse to Riva Palacio, the most chivalrous of his enemies, and telegraphed to Mexico for the Prussian Minister, and for legal advice in preparing his defence.
Mexico was already besieged by a Republican army, and hollow shells were thrown into the town, stuffed with telegrams proclaiming the fall of Queretaro. But Marquez, the most detested of the Imperial generals, wished to gain time, and he suppressed the news. Maximilian had deposited his abdication in the hands of the President of Council, to be produced if he died or fell a prisoner; but Marquez compelled him to keep it secret, and prevented for several days the departure of the defenders who had been summoned. The most eminent of these was the advocate Riva Palacio, the father of the general, a leading Republican, who had refused all solicitations to serve the Emperor in the days of his power. The others seem to have been less distinguished, but they were all chosen among the Republicans. The Prussian Minister, Baron Magnus, had lived on intimate terms with the Emperor, and had been one of the advisers of the expedition which had ended so fatally. No European Power was less compromised in Mexican affairs, or less obnoxious to the dominant party than Prussia, and it was thought that Baron Magnus would be the best mediator.
The seat of Government was at San Luis, 200 miles beyond Queretaro, but connected with it by telegraph. Two lawyers remained with the Emperor, while Riva Palacio and the Prussian Minister repaired to San Luis to intercede with Juarez. The court-martial which was to try the prisoners met on the stage of the theatre of Queretaro on the morning of Friday, the 14th of June. The house was lighted up and full of spectators. Maximilian had been ill in bed for several days, and self-respect forbad him to appear on such a scene. The two generals were present. Their case was manifestly desperate; yet the defender of Mejia caused a deep impression when he claimed for his client the same mercy, which, in spite of stern decrees, he had always shown to his captives, and appealed to Escobedo to say how he had fared when he was Mejia's prisoner. The defence of Miramon was less dignified and less loyal. He pleaded that he had had no command while the French were in the country, that he had been hostile to the Empire which had sent him on an idle mission to Europe, and that he had offered his services to the chief of the Republic. These facts were true; and at Paris Miramon had said openly that the end of the intervention would be to make him President again. Maximilian knew all this, and he knew the manner of his defence. This must not be forgotten when we come to the last scene of all, and see how the Emperor bore himself towards the brave but ambitious soldier, who had been ready to desert the cause in which he was to die.
The strongest points of the indictment against Maximilian were, that he had known the decree of January, which had been published long before he came; that the necessity of foreign support must have proved to him that he was not the legitimate, national Sovereign, and that he could not therefore justify the October decree, by which it was pretended, with great exaggeration, that 40,000 Mexicans had suffered death; that he was responsible for the continuance of civil war after the departure of the French, and for the introduction of Belgian and Austrian soldiers, whose Governments were not at war with the Republic, and who came therefore in the character of filibusters and assassins. The reply to these charges was narrow and technical, and not worthy of the occasion. It amounted in substance to that which the Emperor had said himself: "You may dispute the original probability of my success, but not the sincerity of my motives." As to the decree of October, his advocates defied the prosecution to name a single instance in which he had refused a pardon.
A little before midnight on the 15th the prisoners were found guilty, and their sentence having been confirmed by Escobedo on the Sunday morning, they were informed that they would be shot at three o'clock on the same day. Meanwhile the issue of the trial had been foreseen, and the friends of the Emperor were pleading with Juarez for his pardon. On the ground of political expediency their position was undoubtedly more favourable than that of men restricted to legal arguments. During the war in Mexico a yet deadlier struggle had raged beyond the American border. The author of Secession was not a foreigner, like Maximilian, but a citizen of the country in which he had conspired. He too had been defeated and captured, and then, while European monarchies suppressed revolution with atrocious cruelty, Jefferson Davies had been released by the great Republic. Therefore, they said, the honour of Republican institutions was in the keeping of Juarez, and required that Mexico should follow that example of triumphant clemency, and should betray neither hatred for the past nor alarm for the future.
The President and his minister, Lerdo, listened patiently but coldly. They said that Europe could give no guarantee that it would not renew the same attempt, that Maximilian would continue, even in spite of himself, to be a pretext and a rallying cry for faction, and an instrument by which foreign Powers, when complications arose, might gain a party in the country. The decree of October cried for expiation, and the death of its author would enable them to spare the rest. Many Mexicans had been put to death under the decree of January, and the punishment of inferiors could not be justified if that of the leader was remitted. They seem to have believed that if the door-posts of the Republic were marked with the blood of a prince, the angel of destruction would pass them by. They showed no inclination to cast on others the responsibility of their act, but it is difficult to believe that it was determined by reason of state dispassionately weighed.
Juarez possessed but a precarious authority over the army; and the army was infuriated by strife, and thirsted to avenge the comrades who had been executed like murderers. We can imagine what their feelings would be towards the foreigner whose title was a vote extracted by the bayonets of invaders, who had ordered their countrymen and themselves to be slaughtered, and who was now convicted of having been a pretender and a usurper, as he was the champion of the weaker party. It is probable that the real author of the Emperor's execution is Escobedo, and that Juarez was powerless to save him. When the news that he was to die in three hours reached San Luis at noon on the Sunday, the Prussian Minister prayed for a short delay. He knew that Maximilian had matters to settle before death, and there was some hope that foreign intercession would be in time to save his life. But the American Government, at the request of the Emperor of Austria, had already interceded for his brother, and had interceded in vain. A delay of three days was granted, but the order did not reach Queretaro till the last moment, when the prisoners had made themselves ready for immediate death. For himself, indeed, Maximilian had no hope, and was perfectly resigned. A report that his wife was dead made him meet his fate with joy. On the eve of his execution he telegraphed to Juarez requesting that he might be the only victim.
At six in the morning of Wednesday, the 19th of last June, he was led forth to the doom he had not deserved. His last act before going to the place of execution had been to write the following letter to his implacable conqueror: "I give up my life willingly, if the sacrifice can promote the welfare of my new country. But nothing healthy can grow upon a soil saturated with blood, and therefore, I entreat you, let mine be the last you shed. The fortitude with which you upheld the cause that triumphs now won my admiration in happier days, and I pray that it may not fail you in the peaceful work of conciliation that is to come." When they came to the appointed place, he gave money to the soldiers by whose hands he was to fall, asking them to aim at his heart, for he wished that his mother might look upon his face again. The officer who was to give the word assured him that he detested the duty, and implored him not to die with a feeling of resentment against him. Maximilian thanked him, and said that he must obey orders. Mejia was in great trouble and dejection. His wife had just borne him a son, and as he left his prison he had seen her rushing through the streets, raving mad, with the child in her arms. The Emperor bade him farewell affectionately, saying: "There is a reward in the next world for that which is not requited here." He was standing between the Mexicans, but out of humility, or magnanimity, or because a solemn and sacred memory was present to his mind at that last awful moment, he turned to Miramon and said that out of esteem for his courage he would yield to him the place of honour. His last words were: "I die for a just cause—the independence and the liberty of Mexico. May my death close the era of the misfortunes of my adopted country: God save Mexico!" Then he crossed his hands upon his breast and fell, pierced by nine balls.
He fell, and carried with him in his fall the independence of the people he had come to save. Nothing henceforth remains that can permanently arrest the United States in the annexation of Spanish America. If they have prudence to avoid European war, and wisdom to compose their own dissensions, they may grasp the most glorious inheritance the earth affords. The conquest of Spanish America would be easy and certain, but beset with dangers. A confederacy loses its true character when it rules over dependencies; and a Democracy lives a threatened life that admits millions of a strange and inferior race which it can neither assimilate nor absorb. It is more likely that the Americans will bind their neighbours by treaties, which will throw open the whole continent to their own influence and enterprise, without destroying their separate existence.
The memory of the fair-haired stranger, who devoted his life to the good of Mexico, and died for guilt which was not his own, will live in sorrow rather than in anger among the people for whom he strove in vain. Already we may pronounce the verdict of history upon his sad career—his worst crime was in accepting the treacherous gift of Empire, but his misfortune was greater than his fault. I think he was well-nigh the noblest of his race, and fulfilled the promise of his words: "The fame of my ancestors will not degenerate in me."
- A lecture delivered at the Bridgnorth Literary and Scientific Institution on 10th March 1868.