REVIEW: 'The Last Emperor of Mexico'

'The Last Emperor' by Edward Shawcross /
November 7, 2021

After France recalled its ambassador from Washington last September to protest a submarine deal between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, many remarked that we had reached the lowest point in Franco-American relations since the 1790s. In some ways this is true, but Edward Shawcross reminds us of an even more dangerous moment and offers a warning for our foreign policy class in his engaging new book, The Last Emperor of Mexico.

That emperor was Maximilian, the artistically minded second son of the Austrian Habsburgs. He had capably administered the Austrian Navy and a province in Italy but had been replaced because he disapproved of his older brother Franz Joseph's autocratic tendencies.

In Mexico, meanwhile, conservatives were willing to give monarchy a chance, having lost the Mexican-American War, the 1855 election, and a civil war. They thought an underemployed Habsburg would make an excellent choice.

But since their countrymen disagreed, the conservatives needed an army—from Napoleon III. The nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon III was elected president of France in 1848 and, after winning 90 percent of a plebiscite, crowned emperor in 1852. He had overseen rapid economic growth, broken France out of its post-Waterloo diplomatic isolation, and added onto the French empire in Africa and Asia.

At the same time, prominent French intellectuals began to view the United States as the newest Anglo-Saxon rival to the Latin people, and these pan-Latinists clamored for France to protect Central and South America (dubbed "Latin America") from American and British expansion.

By 1861, France had the opportunity and motive to strike: Benito Juárez's Mexican government suspended foreign debt payment as its U.S. benefactor was engulfed in the Civil War. Britain, France, and Spain agreed to invade Mexico to force repayment but not interfere with Mexico's internal politics. The French attempted to do so anyway and lost the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, which is celebrated today as Cinco de Mayo. Napoleon III massively reinforced the French expeditionary force, which occupied Mexico City in 1863, and proclaimed the new Mexican empire.

This empire, however, still needed an emperor. Napoleon III and the Mexican conservatives courted Maximilian, who agreed to take the throne once he had the "clearly expressed" support of the Mexican people and backing from both Britain and France. Napoleon III eventually persuaded Maximilian to take the throne without fulfilling either precondition, but Franz Joseph forced his brother to renounce his place in Austrian succession before departing (Maximilian burst into tears as he boarded the ship for Mexico).

Maximilian had several urgent tasks when he reached his destination in May 1864. Juárez had retreated north, and French and imperial troops occupied central Mexico and some key towns on the periphery, but little else. Defeating the Juáristas required a capable imperial military, but the empire's finances were tightly constrained by Napoleon III's onerous loan terms. Economizing was a challenge for Maximilian, whose monthly spending quadrupled the annual presidential salary of the Juárez government that had reneged on its debts.

Maximilian, who wanted to rule as a liberal monarch, tried to win over the Juáristas by issuing a manifesto patterning his empire after Napoleon III's. He then went to work on his main passions: authoring codes of court etiquette, building imperial residences, and undertaking multi-month tours of his new empire.

The main political fault line concerned church property that the liberal government had seized, sparking the earlier civil war. Conservatives expected Maximilian to return the property to the Catholic Church, but he hoped that a papal envoy would endorse his decision not to. Unfortunately for him, that envoy represented Pope Pius IX, who had just published the anti-liberal Syllabus of Errors. Maximilian decided to authorize the earlier confiscations anyway, which infuriated his supporters and forced him to disband a large part of his army.

By 1865, the tide turned against the emperor: The Union won the Civil War and was finally able to deal with France. A month after Appomattox, a flood of American volunteers and surplus weapons was on its way to reinforce Juárez, and General Ulysses S. Grant sent a large force to the Texas border. Secretary of State Henry Seward, meanwhile, sent a special envoy to Napoleon III to warn him of the consequences of a continued French presence in Mexico. An intimidated Napoleon III informed Maximilian that French troops would withdraw in 1867.

Finally roused to action, Maximilian tried to organize his government and deployed his most formidable negotiator. Empress Carlota, who was only 26, had already faced off with Franz Joseph and the papal envoy when her husband shrank back. In many ways the most interesting character in the book, Carlota had effectively ruled when her husband was off on his interminable tours of the countryside and was by far the more decisive of the two. After steeling Maximilian's resolve against abdicating, she sailed for France to persuade Napoleon III to renew aid. She failed in Paris, however, and by the time she reached the pope in Rome she had succumbed to a mental illness that plagued her until her death in 1927.

Maximilian was not as lucky. The French nearly convinced him to abdicate and leave, but after weeks of delay he decided to lead his remaining forces into battle. His chronic dithering doomed him: Rather than attack any of the three Juárista armies converging on him, he held off until they combined and besieged him in Querétaro. He broke a hole in their siege line, but the Juáristas called in reinforcements and cut off his line of retreat. He delayed a second attack long enough for one of his officers to betray him and deliver the town to the Juáristas. And as the republicans prepared to court martial and execute him, he slow-rolled an escape plan until the bribed guards were replaced. Over the objections of U.S. and other diplomats, Maximilian and two of his generals were executed by firing squad in 1867.

Like many defeats, this one had many fathers: Maximilian suffered the same fate as nearly every monarch who attempted to liberalize without relinquishing his hold on power, and he wasted his time on vanity projects rather than address the issues that were obviously destroying his empire. The largest portion of the blame, however, lies with Napoleon III. He could not afford to allocate enough resources to Mexico to maintain control of the country, so he sent only enough French troops to infuriate Mexican nationalists. An effective Mexican imperial government was the only hope of finding a settlement favorable to his interests, but he chose a flawed emperor, whom he crippled with unfavorable loan terms. This empire-on-the-cheap strategy ultimately prevented France from recouping those loans. This was not Napoleon III's only foreign policy blunder: His failed attempts to outwit Otto von Bismarck doomed his empire a few years later.

After our own humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, American policymakers should take a hard look at the extent to which our foreign policy resembles Napoleon III's. Failures in Mexico and Afghanistan were embarrassing; losing to Bismarck or Xi Jinping would be far more dangerous.

The Last Emperor of Mexico: The Dramatic Story of the Habsburg Archduke Who Created a Kingdom in the New World
by Edward Shawcross
Basic Books, 336 pp., $30

Mike Watson is the associate director of Hudson Institute's Center for the Future of Liberal Society.

Published under: Book reviews