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Two Presidents and a Wannabe Emperor


Today the leaders of the NAFTA states are holding an important summit to help chart the regional trade association’s future. NAFTA is the largest free trade association in the world and in terms of volume of goods and services flowing across its frontiers is second only to the European Union. Unlike the EU, however, political issues take a backseat, and one nation is clearly in the driver’s seat: the United States. But the domestic political winds of the United States also present NAFTA’s biggest challenge—and particularly the internal politics of the Republican Party. Bush launched his presidency with a meeting with Mexico’s Vincente Fox in which he promised that NAFTA would progress towards liberalization of the movement of services, promising immigration reform that would benefit the millions of Mexicans who now reside in the United States. Bush failed to deliver on any of his promises. Moreover, the Republican Party today is in the grips of xenophobic delusions worthy of the Know Nothings.

So when I saw an article in Mexico City’s left-leaning La Jornada talking about two democratic leaders and a wannabe emperor (¿Quién mató al emperador?), I was sure it was about the summit in Montebello, Quebec between Prime Minister Harper, President Calderon, and aspiring emperor George W. Bush. But to my surprise, the article focused on something altogether different: Benito Juárez, Abraham Lincoln, and Emperor Maximilian. It was a review of the role played by Lincoln in Mexico’s struggle to regain its national independence, a struggle which arguably had its start one hundred and fifty years ago.


The milestones of that little-questioned history are well known. Conservative General Zuloaga rises up against the government, dissolves Congress, declares the Constitution invalid and seizes Benito Juárez , who had been named head of the Supreme Court, a position that put him second in line to the Presidency. President Comonfort sets Juárez free, who flees to the north, where the liberals proclaim him President. The nation has two presidents (a scene that a former-presidential candidate wanted to repeat in 2006). A Civil War was unleashed (a scene that was not repeated in 2006). The triumph of the liberals in 1861 caused such damage to the public treasury that a few months later, Juárez needed to decree a moratorium [on foreign debt payments] to get out of bankruptcy. Weeks later at the London Convention, representatives of Queen Isabel II (Spain), Queen Victoria (Great Britain) and Napoleon III (France) decide to intervene in Mexico militarily to recover the debts .

In the 19th century imagination of the Europeans, sending a military expedition – first to punish and then to colonize – a territory unoccupied by any other of the great powers, was part of the everyday inventory of geopolitics. “Business as usual.” But in the Mexican case there was a unique ingredient: The War of Secession [The Civil War] that had begun in the United States in April 1861. It’s not by chance that the European incursion into Mexico and the rebellion of 11 Confederate states against the North occurred at the same time. The armies of the South received logistical and financial support from the leading European nations, while in Mexico, a new Empire based on monarchy is established in an attempt to restore that form of social order. The plan was to surround and strangle that new and emerging power, whose political organization Alexis de Tocqueville had vindicated for Europe. The occupation of Mexico was the key piece of this strategy, as has been shown, for example, by the research of Kenneth M. Stampp (The Causes of the Civil War is most eloquent ).

President Abraham Lincoln supports Juárez because at stake is the entire rearguard of a war in which the North is fighting for the very survival of the United States. Juárez supports Lincoln – and yields everything – because the life of the [Mexican] Republic is at stake. When in 1867, liberal troops took Maximilian prisoner, the dilemma was what to do with the fallen emperor. In other words: whether to execute a monarch who had only just begun wearing the crown. All of the official documentation shows that it’s the very same Juárez who decides on summary judgment. The not-necessarily public reason he offered was that only the death of Maximiliano would make civil peace in Mexico possible and revenge against the Conservatives couldn’t be stopped. Strictly speaking, it never was stopped. One of the chapters of history that has yet to be written is the massacre of conservatives that followed the [French] intervention. It was a massacre provoked by local disputes over the takeover of property of those who supported the intervention, etc.


But what do United States documents show? Washington was radically divided over the destiny of Maximilian. President Andrew Johnson extended an aloof request for clemency. Edwin Stanton, the most powerful man in the U.S. Army, openly sympathized with Juárez, along with a majority of officials that had provided support to the Mexican Army. It’s obvious that it would have been much better for Juárez to negotiate with Maximilian rather than shoot him. But those who longed to demonstrate that Europeans no longer had anything to do with the Americas were the strongest and most radical wing in United States politics. Was it a settling of accounts with the support of U.S. Southerners? Perhaps Juárez was not so alone, as the legend usually goes, in deciding to finish off Maximilian.

The thesis is that Lincoln’s neutrality was not so neutral. He and key members of his cabinet saw in the project to create a new European empire in Mexico a calculated threat to the United States. It was a clear challenge to Washington’s claims to hemispheric primacy, dating back to Monroe, but it was also a challenge to the republican form of government. It’s difficult perhaps for the modern reader to push back to the situation in 1860. But consider the perspective of the European Revolutionaries who came to populate the upper echelons of the Republican Party—men like Francis Lieber and Carl Schurz. For them, there was only one real democracy on the face of the planet, the American Republic, and it was in extremis. The challenge that the south presented was manifold—it had to do with lifestyle, with the basis of economic existence, with slavery, and also with a genuinely republican form of government. The effort to overthrow Mexico’s democracy and to install Maximilian as a proxy monarch was very properly viewed as an assault on the spirit of democracy in the New World, for the protection of the authoritarian values of the Old World.

It’s very appropriate for La Jornada to do this as it does—during the NAFTA summit. If we needed a pair of patron saints for NAFTA, we’d never do better than Abraham Lincoln and Benito Juárez. And the Emperor Maximilian reminds us of forces which, alas, have still not receded from the field.

(translation: Douglas Myles Rasmussen, h/t

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