Mexico: Making France Stand Down
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In 1863, when France invaded Mexico with plans to install a conservative puppet government there, Richmond diarist John B. Jones worried that his Confederate government would risk its newfound autonomy by allying with the United States in an effort to expel the invaders. He needn’t have worried.
Confederates, at first, looked favorably on the French intervention. France represented a potential counter-balance to United States power in the Caribbean, and the Mexican government of Benito Juarez that it attempted to topple was markedly liberal and had ideological affinities with the Republican Party. William Preston, a former American ambassador to Spain, insisted that the Republican party was bent on “dedicating the western world to democratic government,” and charged them in assisting “anarchists to overthrow the newly installed French “Emperor of Mexico,” Maximilian. So when the French regency in Mexico suggested a Confederate envoy to Mexico City to improve relations, the Confederate Senate quickly dispatched Preston.
Mexico had been tangled up in its own Civil War since 1857—known there as the Reform War—between liberal reformers led by republicans like Benito Juarez and conservatives with power rooted in the church, the military, and the aristocracy inherited from Spain. The Reform War had devastated Mexico, but Juarez and his party emerged victorious. France sought to take advantage of Mexico’s weakness, and when they sent warships and troops to collect Mexican debt in 1862 (supported by England and Spain) they simply went all in and attempted to take over the entire country.
Preston never made it to Mexico City. He landed in Havana, Cuba, to await a formal invitation from Maximilian. It never came. By 1864, France’s inaction on Confederates’ behalf and Maximilian’s similar disinterest in their fortunes soured their leaders’ view of the entire situation. As dire military picture at home made Confederates more desperate, many leaders began—by 1865—to propose an alliance with the United States against the French in Latin America.
Mexico and Juarez didn’t need American help, southern or northern. Soon after the Confederate government fell in 1865, republican Mexico retook their country from Maximilian and his Mexican and French supporters. In 1867, the year that United States authorities released Jefferson Davis from prison, the Mexican government placed Maximilian in front of a firing squad.