By David Fitzpatrick from the August 2010 Edition
Part ll: The Empire
Emporer Napoleon lll of France
From a European point of view, Napoleon had made an inspired choice in selecting Maximilian to be Emperor of Mexico: the Habsburg dynasty was singularly well equipped to provide a candidate for this sort of power grab. Beginning in the Middle Ages as a small provincial dukedom in Switzerland, the Habsburgs had managed a phenomenal expansion, largely through a long series of astute marriages which brought them new territories with every generation. By the sixteenth century the Habsburgs ruled Austria and most of south-eastern Europe. In addition, the Habsburg Emperor of Austria was almost always elected to be Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (modern day Germany).
The most brilliant marriage in their history came in 1496 when Philip I, Austrian Emperor and Duke of Burgundy married Juana * of Castille, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Their son, Charles V, was Emperor or Austria, Duke of Burgundy, HolyAll Roman Emperor, and King of Spain. After Charles, there were two royal branches of the Habsburg family: one in Vienna and one in Madrid. Charles diligently acquired all the linguistic skills required by his various responsibilities, once famously remarking:
“I speak Latin to God, Spanish to men, French to women, and German to my horse!”
By the nineteenth century, the Habsburgs had cousins in virtually every royal family in Europe. In 700 years, no Habsburg ever forgot the age-old motto of their House: Bellum gerant alii, tu felix Austria, nube! (Let the others wage war; but you, happy Austria, marry!)
The prestige of the house of Habsburg and the multiplicity of their family connections greatly facilitated the installation of Maximilian on the throne of Mexico. Many European powers, which might have opposed such a blatant power grab, acquiesced when close relations were involved. Even America which could, and perhaps should have invoked the Monroe Doctrine1 was silent at first. In 1862, President Lincoln had other things to worry about Following the departure of the British and Spanish, Napoleon mounted an invasion in force of the East Coast and interior of Mexico. His troops advanced steadily towards the capital over a period of several months. Their one great setback was the battle of bases seemed to have been covered to ensure the cooperation, or at least acquiescence, of the great European powers. But what of Mexico? Far less effort had been deployed to encourage the support of the political forces and the public most directly concerned.
There was a strong conservative element in the Mexican population, particularly among the rich and powerful who exercised an almost feudal power over the common people and the peons (rural peasants who lived at a bare subsistence level). The conservatives were entirely in favour of a monarchy and, at first, they strongly supported the new Emperor. . Moreover, they were mindful of the long period when their ancestors were ruled by the Spanish Habsburgs. When Maximilian, uncertain of the attitude of the Mexican public, hesitated to accept the throne, they collected a large number of signatures on a petition requesting him to come to Mexico.
But the forces of Republicanism were also very strong. President Juarez never recognized the new Monarchy and continued a “Government in exile” in the state of Chihuahua. Military resistance to the new regime never ceased and a low-level civil war simmered throughout the period of Maximilian’s “reign”.