The Last Emperor of Mexico

The “Last Emperor of Mexico” is a biography of Maximilian I, the last emperor of Mexico and an Austrian Hapsburg Archduke, written by Edward Shawcross. Maximilian, born in 1832, was a member of the Austrian ruling Hapsburg family, with his brother, Franz Joseph, becoming Emperor in 1848. Maximilian became head of Austria’s navy in 1854 for which he proved to be a competent commander, reorganizing and making the navy more efficient. He went on to to serve as viceroy of the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia in 1857, an Italian province controlled by Austria at the time. He proved to be influenced by the progressive ideas of the time, having a reputation as somewhat of a liberal, favoring granting some republican power to the people, while still having great reverence for the Hapsburg Monarchy. Maximilian married his second cousin Charlotte, the beautiful and devout daughter of Leopold I of Belgium.

In 1859 Maximilian was approached by Mexican monarchists with a proposal to become the emperor of Mexico. With the backing of Napoleon III, Emperor of France, who had invaded Mexico and defeated the more republican government of Juarez, Maximilian consented to accept the Mexican Imperial Crown in 1864. At the time, the United States was in the middle of its Civil War and France saw this as a good time to overthrown the Juarez government which was supported by the United States, while the United States could not intervene. The United States had already invaded, defeated, and obtained large parts of Mexico in 1848 during the Mexican War and it was thought a conservative monarchy could best keep the United States from obtaining more or even all of Mexico via its Manifest Destiny policies.

To the dismay of Maximilian’s conservative Mexican allies, he upheld several of the liberal policies proposed by the Juarez government while maintaining a lavish monarchy which pushed Mexico further into debt. These policies included land reforms, religious freedom, and extending the right to vote beyond the landholding classes. Further, although the French had defeated the Juarez forces and caused them to flee into the hinterland, they continued an effective guerrilla campaign and were never totally defeated by the French. At the end of the American Civil War, the United States recognized the Juarez government as the legitimate government of Mexico and put diplomatic pressure to persuade Napoleon III to withdraw support of Maximilian. At the same time Maximilian invited defeated Confederates and other foreigners to move to Mexico and form colonies, which some did, and he stubbornly refused to abdicate the throne.

With United States pressure and the threat of an invasion, Napoleon III removed the French troops from Mexico. Never having a majority of support among the people and with his French support gone, Maximilian was urged to abandon Mexico. But reluctant to desert his followers and still ambitious he continued to fight the resurgent Juarez forces. Eventually, Maximilian’s forces were defeated and he was captured. Despite pleas from many crowed heads of Europe, he was executed. His final words were “I forgive everybody, I pray that everyone may also forgive me, and I wish that my blood, which is now to be shed, may be for the good of the country. Long live Mexico, long live independence.” Charlotte was spared as she was in Europe at the time trying to raise support for Maximilian. She suffered an emotional breakdown and lived the next 48 years in a deleterious mental state, dying only in 1927.

This was an excellent book on a period of history that is little studied today. It was very well-written which made it easy to read. It provides a fairly sympathetic portrait of Maximilian. Anyone interested in Mexican, Austrian, French or United States history or of that time period would find it a worth-while read.

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