Mexico – the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867 (7/1)


Besides the unrelenting Juárez, the mountain of problems that awaited the new sovereigns would have dispirited the blithest of optimists. Afterwards, in a letter to the French financial advisor Langlais, Maximilian describes what he found: “only a tenth of the country was pacified. At our heels, two hours away, Porfirio Diaz disputed the road to the capital. The treasury was completely empty. A national army did not exist. Numerous undisciplined bands, assembled under the name of auxiliaries, devoured the public means. Little time I needed to be struck by the chimera of the edifice, and to understand how much they have played on the trust of the Emperor Napoleon”.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867
Nonetheless, the most urgent task he can think of is the refurbishment of the castle of Chapultepec, which is to become their “Mexican Schönbrunn”. He sees no reason to economise: a charming little theatre is added to the plans, and a long boulevard “like the Champs Elysées” is to connect the castle with the Plaza Mayor in the city.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867
And then, hardly two months after his arrival, he hands the affairs of government over to his wife, and leaves the capital for a long tour of his new country. The heavy guard of French cavalry that accompanies him is no superfluous luxury. For the first time he begins to realise the truth behind the “vote of the people” he had so keenly insisted upon as a condition for his acceptance of the throne: “the populace was very excitable and, when leaving, very dangerous”. Moreover, he is shocked to find corrupt judges and immoral clergymen everywhere. “I found that this Mexico was quite different from the one described to us at Miramar.”
On his return, he immediately sets about drafting instructions for the prefects. But instead of simply and clearly pointing out the problems, he writes a veritable novel of great confusion, mixing in brigandage, bribery, religion, agriculture, the state of the roads, the amelioration of the equine race, the search for minerals, the abandonment of uncultivated land and schooling. Then, in seven enormous volumes, he lays down his new laws, aiming to immediately remedy problems of such dimensions as would take the work of generations to solve.

“Once again,” Charlotte writes admiringly, “Max has given proof of unusual wisdom. What he has done for the prefects is a model of everything one could call liberal, noble and just.”

Liberal, noble and just. Here is in three words the whole impossibility of Maximilian’s policy. The conservatives, who were instrumental in putting him on his throne, don’t want liberal, noble and just: they simply want their property and their status back. The French, on whose army his throne depends, don’t want liberal, noble and just either: they want their money back, and on top of that they want control of the economy of Latin America, if they can get away with it. And the liberals, the only ones who want -or at least say they want- liberal, noble and just, will have none of this throne nor of its occupant, who is to them a puppet of the French invader and of the conservative oppressor.

Maximilian can issue as much laws as he wants: nothing moves as long as he holds on to his policy of courting his adversaries and alienating his supporters. And at this point his friends pose more danger to his position than his enemies: the question of the return of the church lands has come to a complete standstill, and everything else with it.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867
Charlotte, by the way, is quite a success as regent: Countess de Courcy, Bazaine’s Chief of Staff General Roussel de Courcy’s wife, writes that her husband found that the Empress ruled “…to the satisfaction of everyone and the great advantage of the public cause (…) She loves movement extremely, the ceremonial tasks as well as the care for politics, very different from her husband, who likes nothing as much as calm, rest, and the relative solitude that is only permitted to princes.”

As troubles are piling up, Maximilian’s trips become more frequent: tours of his country, or prolonged stays at his hacienda in Cuernavaca, where he seeks comfort in wine and young ladies. But instead of thanking his lucky stars that he can leave the government in such capable hands, the praise for his wife’s capacities makes him jealous: Charlotte is ordered back to her parlour.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867Anxiously the sovereigns await the arrival of a Papal Nonce, Mgr. Meglia. But if Max expects that the Pope sends his envoy to make the Mexican Bishops understand that they’ll have to do “water by their altar wine”, he has another thing coming. Far from tempering the demands of the clergy, the Nonce exacerbates them: according to him, the church must have everything back without having to answer to anyone, not even to the emperor. Every attempt to reach a compromise is haughtily and without discussion rejected. The Nonce’s attitude is so extreme that Maximilian holds him for a madman.

Charlotte: “Nothing has given me a more clear idea of hell than that conversation, because hell is nothing else but an impasse without outcome. Everything glides from that man as from polished marble”. To Bazaine she confides that “the best thing to do would be to throw the Nonce out of the window”.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867
The attitude of Mgr. Meglia shouldn’t have surprised anyone who took the trouble to look at the state of affairs in Italy at that time, and indeed, least of all the former Viceroys of Lombardy. On 15 September 1864 the French had agreed with Piedmont to pull out the two regiments they have in the eternal city for the pope’s protection, which would inevitably lead to the annexation of the Patrimony of St. Peter by the new, unified Italy. The beleaguered pope, whose temporal power as King of the Papal States is now hanging by a thread, responds with an encyclical on 8 December: “Quanta Cura” (“with how much care”) in which he, with the reactionary irrationality of the despairing, condemns practically every modern idea such as freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, of religion, of education; the principle of precedence of the state over the church, the concept of liberalism, socialism, and so on and so forth. Particularly distasteful to His Holiness is the idea that the state has a right to claim “a right of property in those goods which are possessed by the Church, by the Religious Orders, and by other pious establishments”, and that “in the political order accomplished facts, from the very circumstance that they are accomplished, have the force of right”. From now on the Pope has but one answer for everyone, including Emperor Max: “non possumus”.

The Church may be unbending, Max is no less unbending: he declares his intention to ratify the laws of Satan Juárez on the nationalisation of church properties and the tolerance of other cults. Before his first year as head of state is over, he has managed to add the clergy to his growing list of enemies.

Now, in his inexperience and clumsiness, he sets about to alienate the French commander, Achille Bazaine, who is by now made Marshal of France.

©2010, M.S.F. Wick


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