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Mexican creditors pressured their home countries—the United Kingdom, Spain, and France—to intervene (send troops) in Mexico to force Mexico to pay its debts. They refused to accept the assurances of the government that the debts would be paid and many Mexican conservatives, who were vehemently opposed to the liberal government (presided over by an Indian at that!) also encouraged European intervention.
In December, 1861, Spain landed troops in Veracruz, followed in January, 1862 by British and French troops. The Spanish and British quickly figured out that President Benito Juárez fully intended to pay the debts when he could, so they withdrew. They also realized that the French had other intentions, indicated by the arrival of reinforcements, and had no desire to help France achieve its ambitions.
As often happens, several different factors played a role in the decision by the French to conquer Mexico and install a puppet government. Mexican Conservatives had been effective in convincing French Christians that Christianity was being attacked in Mexico. It wasn't, of course. Frenchmen were sensitive to the issue, for the Papacy had complained loudly when French troops under French Emperor Napoleon III had aided the Italian unification movement, which had wrested most of the Papal States from the Pope. Intervening in Mexico to "protect Christianity" gave Louis Napoleon [Napoleon III] the opportunity to regain support from the devout in his own country. This Napoleon, the nephew of the great Napoleon, also saw the opportunity to achieve what his uncle had failed to do—establish a French empire in the New World. He would also ally himself more closely with the House of Hapsburg, the most important royal family in Europe, and give more legitimacy to his own questionable claim to royal status.
French armies took control of the most important parts of Mexico rather quickly after they began marching to Mexico City in April, 1862. There was an initial setback at Puebla on May 5, 1862, when a Mexican army led by General Ignacio Zaragoza beat them, but French troops rallied and pressed forward. The Puebla defeat, honored in Mexican history, diminished the prestige of France. Napoleon III sent fresh troops and a new commander to Mexico in 1863. By June, 1863, 30,000 French troops entered Mexico City and began pacifying the core region of the nation. To head the government they created, they made General Juan Almonte president.
Juárez failed to rally Mexicans to resist the French invasion. Perhaps they were simply tired of the constant turmoil and fighting; perhaps many decided that resistance was futile. Nevertheless, Juárez refused to accept defeat and always asserted that he was President of Mexico and that the intervention was illegal, immoral, and unconstitutional. His steadfast patriotism would eventually pay off but not until many Mexicans tired of the French and the Austrian emperor they imposed on the country.
Initially, Maximilian, the young Austrian Archduke, and his wife, Carlota, were very popular. They were an attractive royal couple deeply in love with one another. People enjoy romance; they also enjoy the pageantry that comes with royalty. Maximilian loved the nation and its people and took great pains to "Mexicanize" himself. Many Liberals joined others in supporting him. Other than being a prince (archduke in the Austrian system), he had little to recommend him as ruler of a vast territory torn by ethnic and religious splits.
He had been born in Schönbrunn palace in Vienna on the 6th July, 1832, as His Imperial Highness Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, Archduke of Austria, Prince of Hungary and Bohemia Maximilian of the House of Hapsburg. He was the second son of the Emperor. His older brother, Franz Josef, would become Emperor in 1848. As a young man, Maximilian became interested in science, particularly botany, and in the navy. His naval interests led him to create the naval port of Trieste. In February 1857, his brother named him viceroy of the Lombardo-Venetian kingdom. On July 27, 1857, he married Carlota of Belgium, daughter of Leopold I, King of the Belgians, in Brussels. They lived in Milan on the Italian peninsula until 1859 until his brother, Franz Josef , dismissed him for being too liberal.
Maximilian stayed near Trieste, where he built the beautiful chateau of Miramar on the coast, and pursued the interests of a rich 29-year-old young man. In 1859, he was approached by Mexican conservatives who had lost power to the liberals and hoped to recoup their fortunes by recreating a monarchy with a European prince as king/emperor. He turned them down and concentrated his efforts on a botanical expedition.
In 1859, the Austro-Hungarian Empire went to war with the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, aided by Napoleon III of France, whose armies won decisive engagements. Napoleon III, however, made a separate peach with the Empire, which had to cede Lombardy. Moreover, the Pope lost part of the Papal States, which upset Catholics. Revolt broke out in many Italian principalities, most of whom willingly joined the Italy created in 1861 by Piedmont-Sardinia. Napoleon III decided that he was not so liberal after all; he didn't really believe in self-determination and representative government. Nor did Austria-Hungary, which was a polyglot, multi-ethnic conglomeration difficult to rule. Conservatism seemed to be the means of keeping the Croats, Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Poles, and other groups in line and inside the Empire. Napoleon III needed to repair the damage the war had caused with his Roman Catholic political base and with the Hapsburg dynasty. Mexico would give him the chance.
Napoleon III finally convinced Maximilian on April 10, 1864, that Mexicans wanted him to comer be their emperor. Actually, Mexican conservatives and the French, backed by their armies, had rigged a plebiscite to show those results. They protected Maximilian and Carlota as they landed in the port of Vera Cruz and made a triumphal journey to Mexico City.
Maximilian brought Europeans into Mexican life. French architects and engineers created the Paseo de los Heroes [later the Paseo de la Reforma], a wide boulevard like the Champs E'lysee in Paris, stretching from Chapultepec Park and Chapultepec castle where the royal family lived, to within a few blocks of the National Palace. Carlota could stand on the veranda and watch her husband go to and from work. Besides beautifying the city, Maximilian made other improvements.
Maximilian eventually alienated many of his Mexican supporters, for he had no intention of creating a conservative monarchy dominated by priests. He had insisted that he would not take the throne of Mexico unless the people wanted him. The French quickly arranged a plebiscite that, not surprisingly, showed an overwhelming vote for the Archduke. He had democratic sentiments. His view of Church-State relations resembled those of the Liberals and his government also needed the funds generated by the tax on the sale of Church lands.
He was a French puppet, regardless of his mistaken belief that the Mexicans loved him and that he was trying to "do right" by Mexico. Conservatives and even some Liberals supported him but, without French troops backing up the Imperial army, he was doomed. The Liberal Party leadership resisted the Empire as best they could. Conservatives, once they understood Maximilian's democratic sentiments and anticlerical attitudes, began withdrawing their support. The French also began taking what they wanted; their motives for intervention had never been altruistic.
By 1866, the tide had turned against Maximilian and the French. The U.S. had always recognized the Juárez government and, after U.S. forces took Vicksburg, Mississippi in April, 1863, the U.S. began sending supplies to Juárez. After the U.S. victory at Appomattox in 1865, volunteers and arms poured into Mexico as part of the resistance to European imperialism. The Liberal armies gained in strength and the Conservative and French armies began a campaign to suppress any opposition, killing non-combatants along with soldiers. Maximilian decreed in October, 1865 that rebels could be summarily shot. The United States protested the French presence and demanded that Napoleon III withdraw his troops. After the U.S. military victory in 1865, which demonstrated the ability of the U.S. to fight and which meant that the U.S. had large armies in the southern part of the U.S., the Napoleon agreed in February, 1866 to begin withdrawing his troops. Maximilian tried to persuade him to leave them there, but the victory of the North German Confederation over the Austrian Empire in the summer of 1866 convinced Napoleon III that his troops were needed more along the Rhine River than in the lost cause of Mexico. By the end of 1866, the troops were gone. The fight was now just between the Liberal and Conservative armies. In May, 1867, the Liberal armies had taken Querétaro and captured Maximilian and his generals. Foreign invaders and their Mexican collaborators were to be shot.
On July 15, 1867, Juárez entered Mexico City again, facing problems worse than he had faced in 1861.
Carlota went insane when she heard that her husband had been executed. She had gone to Paris to try to convince Napoleon not to remove French troops; he sent her to the Pope. She wouldn't leave the Papal quarters voluntarily. A brother came and took her away to her native Belgium where she stayed locked in a castle until her death in 1929.