Reader Goldie wants to know how and why the French came to occupy Mexico in the 1860’s. Goldie, I’d be happy to tell you.
The road from a Spanish territory to an independent nation was a rocky one for Mexico. Though the country gained independence from Spain in 1821, a series of political upheavals followed immediately afterward. First it became the First Mexican Empire, then the United Mexican States, then several different independent nations, then the Second Mexican Empire before it finally settled, more or less, into the nation we now know. That was in 1876.
The period of French intervention in Mexico, known as “The Maximilian Affair”, began in 1861. That was the year that Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte and second Emperor of France) decided it would be a good idea to begin installing European monarchs in the New World. Mexico, being in disarray after a recent civil war, seemed like a good place to start.
At the time Mexico owed lots of money to France, Spain and Britain, money it had borrowed to fund that civil war I mentioned. When President Benito Juárez stopped payment on the debt in 1861 it gave Napoleon all the pretext he needed to invade. At first the Spaniards and Brits were happy to go along on the adventure. However once it became clear that Napoleon was conducting a war of conquest rather than a simple repo operation, they quickly packed up and went home.
The French fought on. It took them nearly a year and a half, but in time they succeeded in occupying most of the northeast of the country including the capital of Mexico City, which fell on June 7th, 1863. Napoleon’s puppet dictator, Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, an Austrian and a Habsburg, was installed as Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico on October 3rd of that year.
It’s fair to ask at this point: where was the United States in all this? Wouldn’t the installation of a Hapsburg monarch on our southern border have violated the — what do you call it — Monroe Doctrine? Which is to say, wasn’t it standing US policy not to allow European states to establish new footholds in North, Central or South America? Indeed it was, but as it happened there was a little something else going on in America in the early 1860’s that consumed all our energy and attention: the American Civil War. Because of that the US Government could only stand by and watch as the Napoleon took more and more territory. By 1865 most of what is now Mexico was under French control.
Fortunately for Mexican resistance forces our Civil War ended in 1865, which freed up money and supplies for the cause. Almost immediately American cash, rifles, cannons and ammo began flowing to Benito Juárez’ government in exile. Napoleon quickly realized that the U.S. Government’s next move would be to declare open war upon him. Not willing to risk a conflict on that scale he began to withdraw his troops in the spring of 1866. The new Emperor hung on nonetheless and tried to make a stand with the few forces he had left. However by 1867 republican troops managed to take back Mexico City. Maximilian was summarily executed by firing squad.
Which ended the Maximilian Affair. Still it’s important to remember that the French had managed to hold a good chunk of Mexico for nearly a full six years. Which was plenty of time for imperial bakers to show the locals how to laminate dough.