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France, Mexico, and Informal Empire in Latin America, 1820-1867 Review

Updated on September 9, 2018

Latin America has been a region particularly renowned for the domination of foreign nations through the institutions of informal imperialism. First at the behest of the Europeans, and then the Americans, it has seen extensive foreign military, political, economic, and commercial influence, which have effectively controlled many of the states and particularly their economies, while leaving these nations technically independent. During the 19th century, it was principally Britain and France that exercised this type of informal imperialism in Latin America. Both intervened at multiple points, but the biggest, and perhaps the most disastrous, intervention of all was the French Second Empire's Mexican Intervention of 1861-1867, when it attempted to set up the Second Mexican Empire in Mexico. This has often be critiqued as a folly and an addled dream, but Edward's Shawcross' book France, Mexico, and Informal Empire in Latin America, 1820-1867: Equilibrium in the New World by contrast lays out the context which had sparked the French intervention, French policy in Latin America, the reasons why the intervention was welcomed by some segments of the Mexican population - particularly the conservative one, although a broader spectrum rallied to the Empire than one might have thought - and ultimately, why it failed.

The French victory at the second battle of Pueblo, in 1863, after a shock reverse in 1862 at the same battle.
The French victory at the second battle of Pueblo, in 1863, after a shock reverse in 1862 at the same battle.


The introduction covers the historiography behind the French Second Empire’s intervention in Mexico, where the broader political leanings and goals of Mexican conservatives who supported it have been ignored, and how it has been viewed in isolation instead of as part of a broader French Latin American policy. Instead, there needs to be an examination that puts the French intervention into context, by studying French policy throughout the entire period of early Mexican and Latin American history, the role of pan-latinism, and how Mexican conservatives conceived of their international role and stance.

Chapter 2, “French Policy towards Latin America” covers the French interest in informal empire, after abandoning its support for the Spanish to reclaim their American colonies after 1830. All elements of French political opinion were of accord for expanding French influence, in a region where French trade was already important as one of its largest export regions but which was also seen as in need of European guidance, and France conducted multiple interventions in Argentina, Uruguay, and Mexico. These were also in accordance with British interests, which largely supported them. Where failures occurred, they were assumed to be because insufficient resources had been invested.

Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, a Hapsburg archduke who became emperor of Mexico.
Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, a Hapsburg archduke who became emperor of Mexico.

Chapter 3, “Monarchy and the Search for Order in Mexico”, relates how Monarchism in Mexico harked back to the foundation of the country, when it was visualized that it would be a constitutional monarchy under the Spanish king. Conservatives had argued that the country was not suited for a republic, that it was a pernicious import from the United States, and disorder during the decades following independence had not changed their views. Although attempts to implement their ideas and the Mexican Empire both failed, the idea of a European king to rule over Mexico did not, and a constitutional monarchy would help to end disorder and chaos in Mexico. Although they were a minority of the population and there was no monarchist party per se, they nevertheless existed. European thinkers and politicians meanwhile, considered monarchy as the best way to provide stability for the country.

The Latin American countries, a geographic product of the idea of pan-latinism.
The Latin American countries, a geographic product of the idea of pan-latinism.

Chapter 4, “Towards Pan-Latinism” contradicts the normal presupposition that Pan-Latinim, predicated upon the defining of a distinct “Latin America” separate from Anglo-Saxon America, was a product of Napoleon III’s imperialism in the 1850, and rather traces such beliefs, even if not expressed with the same precise terminology, back to the 1830s. In Mexico, anti-Americanism developed quickly, and by the 1850s notions of pan-Latinism were mobilized as a tool to attempt to garner foreign support for defense of Mexico against American encroachment.

Manifest destiny raised severe concerns about the balance of power in North America, with the spectre of American domination of the continent.
Manifest destiny raised severe concerns about the balance of power in North America, with the spectre of American domination of the continent.

Chapter 5, “The Western Question”, deals with the continuing conservative Mexican fear of United States expansionism - not an idle concern - and their rallying around the political and economic model of the French Second Empire, including an increased appreciation for elections upon seeing the success that the French President and then Emperor had had, newspaper censorship, and national economic development. They compared their fate to that of the Ottoman Empire under Russian aggression, seeking European support, and accusing the liberals of treasonous cooperation with the United States. It was not a small band nor the French diplomatic corps who misled Napoleon III into sending French troops into the country, but rather an important segment of Mexican elites, with the interest of preserving the balance of power in the Western hemisphere: the question would be whether Mexico would be under US hegemony or European influence.

The execution of the Mexican emperor.
The execution of the Mexican emperor.

Chapter 6, “The Limits of Informal Empire: French Intervention and the Second Mexican Empire” attests to the difficulties inherent in the relationship between the French Empire and the Mexican Empire. there were personnel conflicts due to the aim of the regime to Mexicanise itself, while the French found its degree of independence disconcerting at time. French policy required a moderate, even liberal, stance on the part of the Mexican government, which opened rifts with conservatives, particularly over the question of religious worship. However, it advances the claim that this was successful in rallying political figures from across the spectrum ultimately to the cause of the Empire. The ultimate failure of the project it insists, was not a lack of military success or popular support, but rather the excessive financial costs of the expedition which were not paid for by the riches of Mexico as hoped, leading to the French to withdraw from the region, hurried along by American pressure.

The conclusion largely summarizes the previous arguments made in the book, although it does add on additional information concerning the French plan, seeing it as a rapid attempt to constitute a stable and pro-French regime, which was undermined by the lengthy period of time that it took to constitute it, and the excessive resources required. It also makes some historiographical arguments, such as arguing against the notion of it being as part of an alliance with the reactionary Confederacy, and that it had deeper and broader support and ideas behind it than has been assumed.

There are a number of fascinating elements which are brought up throughout this text, which is obviously the product of substantial research. The in depth analysis of the development of pan-Latin ideas is intriguing, providing a well-supported counter-point to the idea of them being an idea which rose quickly in the 1850s and was latched upon by the French alone as a tool for their imperial expansion. Similarly the political element of the book in dealing with the Mexican political scene throughout the period displays well how the idea of monarchism persisted from the independence of Mexico to the French intervention, despite the collapse of one monarchy and 40 years of Republicanism. Indeed, it is very clear that the political section has benefited from great exposure to Mexican political historiography. The ideas of informal empire, and what the author sees as it being, and how the French aimed to achieve their own informal empire in the Americans and to expand their influence, all receive focus. Most of its conclusions are well supported, and well integrated.

At the same time, there are also severe problems inherent in the book. For one, it has a rather narrow view of the French informal empire in Mexico, indeed in Latin America as a whole, and despite the title focuses above all else simply on how the French intervention in Mexico came about, and to some extent how it failed. While Argentina and Uruguay are invoked as examples of similar informal interventions, alongside that of Mexico, during the 1830s and 1840s, it has very little about other countries in the region. Most importantly, beyond a light sheen of information on trade and commerce, French influence and interests throughout the rest of Latin America receive no real treatment. Simply treating informal empire as those territories that France engaged in militarily but did not wish to make into direct colonies is excessively narrow.

Perhaps the most critical revisionist argument raised in the book - that the French intervention in Mexico failed in large part due to financial overstretch and the size of the commitments needed, rather than being purely the result of American diplomatic influence - receives strangely little attention, being treated with in just a few pages and with official pronunciations which, as Shawcross himself admits in the conclusion, were face-saving measures. While it forms an intriguing aspect upon the Mexico crisis, the brevity of the description of it removes much of its punch.

There is also little about the broader spectrum of French public opinion, particularly that of the Republican side. Surely this group of opinion did not share the same opinions of the value of constituting a monarchy in the New World? Furthermore, the same can be said about the Mexican side, where only the Mexican Conservatives receive any significant attention. Nor, why the public as a whole found the idea of a monarchy unappetizing is not explained. It makes for a much less nuanced and detailed political description.

Minor stylistic problems also exist, like the constant repetition of points, particularly evident in the conclusion. There are also various typos throughout.

Such problems aside, there is a great degree of fascinating information within the book. It does place the Mexican intervention of France into context, and present a new portrait of it. Despite its title which paints too broad a picture of what it actually covers, there is clearly much research put into it. For those interested in Mexican history, French history, French colonialism, 19th century Latin America, the formation of pan-Latin ideas, and the institutions and methods of informal imperialism, it makes for a useful, if incomplete, read.

3 stars for France, Mexico, and Informal Empire in Latin America

© 2018 Ryan Thomas


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