Mexican "Adventure"

Napoleon III engaged France in a military expenditure in Mexico from 1861 to 1867 under the pretense of collecting large amounts of debt from the Mexican government, but his true aspirations were to establish a French satellite in the state of Mexico.  Napoleon III presided over the Second French Empire from 1852-1870, and, living in the shadow of his mythical uncle Napoleon Bonaparte, dreamed of glory by expanding the French empire.  Furthermore, Napoleon III’s wife, Empress Eugenie, was Spanish royalty, and had ambitions of restoring the Catholic Mexican monarchy.  Napoleon III thus had his sights set on Mexico, and in 1861 slipped his military into Mexico with the ostensible excuse of demanding debt, but history had other plans for Napoleon III’s ill-fated vision.

In 1833, Santa Anna captured the presidency of the recently established Mexican republic.  However, Santa Anna proved to be a terrible leader, losing large amounts of land to American in the Mexican-American War (1864-1868) and the Gadsden Purchase, and was finally ousted from power in the revolution of Ayutla in 1855, and replaced by Don Benito Juárez of the Mexican Constitutional Government, who was backed by the United States.  Juárez was very liberal, and immediately initiated sweeping reforms, including severely cracking down on the Catholic Church.  His political ambitions led to a costly civil war, the Mexico Reform War, that pitted the conservatives against the liberals, spanning from 1857-1860, and Juárez incurred a large amount of debt mostly from European countries, which was added to an already large debt from the Mexican-American War.  Facing a financial crisis at home, Juárez declared that he was suspending Mexico’s payments for foreign debts, which provoked a swift European response.

The countries of Great Britain, France, and Spain demanded payment from the Mexican government, but Juárez refused to comply.  The three counties, none of which had ever formally recognizing the Monroe Doctrine, and seeing the United States embroiled in their own Civil War at home, moved in their military forces and occupied the port of Veracruz in 1861.  Britain threatened Juárez that it would forcefully seize Mexican customs houses, and use customs revenues to pay off the debt.  Juárez realized the seriousness of the three powers, and paid back most of his debt, as well as promising to pay back the rest in the near future.  Britain and Spain, receiving what they came for, withdrew from Mexico and returned to Europe.  However, Napoleon III had his own plans, and so the French troops stayed.1 

Napoleon III clandestinely hoped to create a French satellite state in Mexico by plating within it a puppet emperor.  Here, capitol and exports could flourish, and France could participate in lucrative South American markets.  Furthermore, Napoleon III wanted to check the United States and its southward expansion, which had already captured Texas, California, Arizona, and New Mexico.  Thus, when Britain and Spain withdrew from Mexico, France remained, and almost immediately began marching towards the capitol of Mexico City.  France found itself supported by Mexico’s plutocratic and conservative landowners, who were afraid that the liberal Juárez would strip them of their land and political power, and consequently they supported the creation of an empire.  Juárez declared martial law, and prepared to fight the approaching French army.

On April 28, 1962, Mexican troops under General Ignacio Zaragoza faced French troops under General Count of Lorencez at Acultzingo, and the Mexican army was weakened, and was forced to retreat.  After receiving reinforcements, the French army of 7,000 men marched toward Mexico City, and faced a Mexican force of 2,000 men again under General Zaragoza, outside the city of Puebla.  This time, the French lost badly, suffered over 1,000 casualties, and this defeat marks the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo.  However, French General Élie-Frédéric Forey soon received roughly 30,000 reinforcement troops, and finally succeeded in capturing Mexico City.2 

On April 10, 1864, Austrian archduke Maximilian accepted Napoleon III’s offer of the crown of the Mexican empire.  Maximilian falsely believed that he was popular to the Mexican population because the French had created a dubious plebiscite in order to convince Maximilian to accept the throne.  The truth is that most of the country remained loyal to Juárez, who was driven north by French armies, and there set up his own government.  Maximilian doomed any possibility for a successful empire right from the start.  He alienated his conservative supporters by upholding many of the liberal reforms proposed under Juárez, and he enraged his liberal opponents by ordering all of Juárez’ followers be executed.  Napoleon III found himself very disappointed in Maximilian, who did not rule in the interest of France, but instead truly desired to represent the Mexican people.  Maximilian passed land reform, extended suffrage, expanded religious freedom, and passed laws protecting the worker.3  However, he was never accepted by the Mexican people, and found heated opposition in the loyalists, but never really understood why.  Meanwhile, Juárez and his supporters were building their influence across the country. Mexico remained deadlocked in a civil war from the commencement of Maximilian’s rule, and in fact, Maximilian was told not to venture outside of Mexico City because it was far too dangerous.

Within a year of Maximilian’s rule, the American Civil War ended with a Union victory—meaning that the time had run out for French rule in Mexico.  The now stable United States government, acknowledging France’s breach of the Monroe Doctrine, began sending money and weapons to Juárez and his supporters, and a number of American troops even waited at the Mexican-American boarder.  Napoleon III finally decided that his Mexico adventure was too costly, and the last thing he wanted to do was engage militarily with the United States.  Pushed also by heated domestic demands, French troops began withdrawing from Mexico in 1866.  Napoleon III urged Maximilian to abdicate the throne, but he refused, wanting to remain in Mexico and face his fate.  Meanwhile, Mexican conservatives joined the sides of the Mexican liberals, seeing their chance to oust the now much disliked Maxililian.4  Maximilian then led 8,000 of his loyal Mexican supporters in a battle at Querétaro.  Maximilian attempted to escape but was caught by enemy forces, and was later sentenced to death before a military tribunal.  Many prominent Europeans, including people in the United States, called for Juárez to spare the life of Maximilian, but Juárez, now back in power, refused to listen, and on June 19, 1867, Maximilian and two of his generals were executed by a firing squad.

France’s attempted intervention in Mexico lasted a mere three years, and was ultimately a severe loss to Napoleon III and his country.  This event was, first of all, a great victory for the United States’ Monroe Doctrine, which emerged as a powerful force against European intervention in the Americas in the later nineteenth century and into the twentieth century.  Napoleon’s disaster in Mexico delivered a severe blow to French prestige, not to mention being very financially costly.  Napoleon III’s dreams of imperialism were defeated, as the Mexico adventure marked the beginning of the end for Napoleon III and the Second French Empire.  Their eastern neighbor, Prussia, looked to unify Germany and thus needed to end French influence over the region, and Napoleon III, desperate for glory three years after his humiliation in Mexico, was drawn into the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and there faced his demise.

Works Cited

1. Palmer, R.R, and Joel Colton. A History of the Modern World. New York: McGraw-Hill,


2. “Cinco de Mayo.” 22 November 2004. <>.

3. “Maximilian of Mexico.” Wikipedia Encyclopedia. 22 September 2004.


4. “War of the Reform in Mexico 1858-1861.” 16 December 2000.