Cinco de Mayo - Reflecting on Mexico's Ill-fated Experiments with Monarchy

Today, May 5th, a.k.a. Cinco de Mayo, is renowned in parts of Mexico, and especially in the United States, as a celebration of Mexican culture, Mexican food, and, perhaps most notably, Mexican liquor. The fascinating story behind the historic events of Cinco de Mayo correlates with one of the two attempts at monarchy that Mexico experimented with in the 19th century. 
Archduke Maximilian of Austria, later Emperor of Mexico

Cinco de Mayo became a holiday to commemorate the Battle of Puebla, which took place on May 5, 1862. This marked a surprise victory for Mexico against the invading army of France sent by Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, in what turned out to be a cynical and disastrous attempt to extend French imperialism. The whole skirmish began in 1861, when Benito Juarez, President of Mexico, defaulted on his country's massive foreign debts to various European powers. Incensed by Mexico's failure to pay, Emperor Napoleon III sent a task force along with troops from Great Britain and Spain to land at Veracruz, Mexico, to force the Mexican government into honoring its debts. While the British and Spanish drew up an agreement with Juarez and subsequently left the country alone, Napoleon III decided to further his involvement in Mexico as an opportunity to expand French imperial influence. More French troops arrived in Mexico and began pushing inland. 

On May 5, 1862, General Ignacio Zaragoza led his troops into battle near the town of Puebla de Los Angeles and scored a surprise victory against a larger, better-trained French battalion. While the Battle of Puebla was not a decisive one, news of the Mexican victory spread across the country and rallied feelings of patriotism against the foreign invaders. Four days later, President Juarez declared that May 5 would be celebrated as a holiday to commemorate the victory achieved by Mexico on that day. The commemoration continues to this day, despite it being admittedly more popular in the United States than in Mexico itself. 

Maximilian and Charlotte depart from Europe for Mexico.
Yet there is more to the story beyond Cinco de Mayo. In fact, the success of May 5, 1862 proved to be a short-lived one. The French ultimately succeeded in overrunning Mexico and the following year Napoleon's scheme went into effect. The Archduke Maximilian of Austria was approached with an offer to become Emperor of Mexico. A small faction of wealthy, conservative, and landowning Mexican elites presented the offer to the archduke, believing that the creation of a monarchy would lend support to an aristocratic class which they would make up. Maximilian, the brother of Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria, was encouraged by Napoleon III to accept the crown with French military support to help secure his newly-minted throne. 

Maximilian and his wife, Charlotte, daughter of King Leopold I of Belgium, made their way from Europe to Veracruz, arriving with great pomp as well as French troops guarding them on the way to the capital. The new Emperor and Empress installed themselves at Chapultepec Castle, atop a hill overlooking Mexico City. While the imperial couple were sincere in their desire to serve the Mexican people, their subjects were deeply unhappy with the foreign monarchy that had been imposed upon them. The presence of French troops was the only element preserving Maximilian's shaky throne, as uprisings and Franco-Mexican clashes frequently erupted all across the country. 

Mexico's northern neighbor, the United States, had been too distracted by its own bloody civil war to get involved. Once the war ended, however, the American government made clear to Napoleon III their strong opposition to a monarchy imposed by foreign powers so close to their shores. In 1866, responding to American pressure as well as the cost of maintaining a military presence there, Napoleon III withdrew French troops from Mexico. Emperor Maximilian now stood as a vulnerable figure, with defeat inevitable. The French emperor advised him to flee back to Europe, but Maximilian refused, delusional in his belief that he owed his life to the service of Mexico. Empress Charlotte raced across the Atlantic to appeal directly to Napoleon, begging him not to withdraw military support for her husband's throne. Charlotte's requests were refused, and at an audience with the Pope she went hysterical and slipped towards a nervous collapse. Sadly for the empress, all of her efforts to save her husband failed, and she would never see her beloved Maximilian again. On May 16, 1867, Maximilian was captured by Mexican forces and sentenced to death. President Juarez had admired Maximilian as a person, but denounced his involvement in the foreign invasion of his country and refused appeals from European heads of state to spare the emperor's life. On June 19, 1867, Maximilian von Habsburg, Emperor of Mexico was executed by firing squad in the town of Queretaro, thus ending the short-lived Second Mexican Empire. 
Execution of Emperor Maximilian

This bizarre and disastrous affair was not the first time that Mexico tried its hand at monarchy, however. The First Mexican Empire had briefly existed some forty years before. 

Augustin de Iturbide
After Mexico broke free from the Spanish crown in 1821, the country declared itself to be the independent Mexican Empire. King Ferdinand VII of Span was actually invited through this initial declaration to resume his position as monarch of Mexico albeit ruling it as a separate nation entirely independent of his throne in Spain. If he did not want the crown, he could offer it to a member of the Spanish royal family of his choosing, but Spain's refusal to recognize Mexico's independence at all led to a full severance of any ties with the former motherland. Instead, the Mexican Empire would be ruled over by General Augustin de Iturbide, who had been instrumental in leading Mexico's final push towards victory against the Spanish army during the wars of independence. He was proclaimed Emperor Augustin I on May 19, 1822, and crowned on July 21 at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City. Augustin's wife, Ana Maria de Huarte, was likewise crowned as his empress consort. 

The reign of Augustin I proved short and unstable. Severe economic strain, the withholding of political recognition from a number of foreign powers, and competing factions within the country made life difficult for the emperor. After less than a year on the throne, Emperor Augustin decided to abdicate on March 19, 1823. The imperial family went into exile, but the following year Augustin returned and unsuccessfully attempted to retake control of Mexico. He was captured and executed on July 19, 1824. 


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