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“Our rulers bide their time…”: The Monroe Doctrine and the Mexican Empire

Posted on 01/23/2024

December 23, 2023, marked the 200th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine. The doctrine has ebbed and flowed in the American public’s awareness throughout two centuries, often dormant, but resurgent when specific events challenged the understanding of this totem of American foreign policy.

The doctrine was introduced by President Monroe in his annual message to the Eighteenth Congress.

We owe it, therefore, to candor, and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those [European] powers, to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.

Source: U.S. Congressional Serial Set. From Readex.

A significant challenge to the doctrine, the Mexican Empire, had been a provocation to the United States throughout our Civil War. In 1864, Napoleon III concurred with the Mexican monarchists who invited Austrian Archduke Maximillian to become their emperor. The United States was preoccupied, but as the inevitable result of the war became manifest in early 1865, the Mexican issue became front page news. In some quarters it became a call for a reunited country confronting the European encroachers.

Source: Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922. From Readex.

In January of 1865, as the U.S. Civil War was reaching its now predictable conclusion, the New York Herald reported on news from Richmond that a former U.S. Senator from California,

…had been dubbed a Duke of Mexico by the Emperor Maximillian; that the Mexican states of Sonora, Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Durango and Lower California, had been ceded by Maximillian to Louis Napoleon, in payment for the French subjugation of the republic, and that Dr. Gwin had been appointed, as the representative of Napoleon, Viceroy over said states, soon to enter upon the duties of his office. This is certainly extraordinary news. It reads very much like a proclamation from Baron Munchausen; and yet we are so strongly inclined to believe it substantially true.

Dr. William McKendree Gwin was one of the first two senators from California and understood to be an advocate of the Confederated States of America. However, there does not seem to be any substantiation of the claim regarding his Viceroyalty. Still, the news from Richmond seemed fixated on this scenario.

Now we come to a larger view of the subject. The design of Louis Napoleon is the permanent occupation, as French colonies, of the Mexican States indicated; the development of their vast mineral wealth, and the erection of a powerful commercial and naval establishment for the Pacific at the outlet of the great Gulf of California, How [sic] does the idea strike President Lincoln? We cannot tell, but we shall probably learn in his inaugural address on the 4th of March touching his future foreign policy. What do you think of this French vice royalty of Doctor Gwin at Richmond? The Enquirer of that city, in a recent significant article on the Monroe doctrine, has ‘let the cat out of the bag.’ They do not like it. The Enquirer broadly intimates, in fact, that the expulsion of Napoleon and Maximillian may yet become the bond of union between our loyal and rebellious States, and draws a glowing picture of the grand results that will follow a reconciliation upon this basis.

The New York Herald. January 26, 1867. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922. 

While Gwin’s story is diverting, the more serious matter was the end of our fraternal war and the French Emperor’s designs on Mexico. This issue did seem to gather interest as a means of easing the reunion of the warring states. An editorial appeared in the Oregonian on February 7th, 1865, which anticipated the implementation of the doctrine and concluded:

The Monroe Doctrine is one that all parties second, and that has been incorporated into our national policy most properly. There is no room for the aristocratic and privileged classes of Europe upon American soil; no opportunity should be allowed for the spreading of imperial power over the Western Hemisphere. Let the old world jog along apace with what improvement and progress it can command, and we of the West will try the effect of free institutions, unhindered and unprejudiced by feudal pride or imperial power.

Morning Oregonian. February 7, 1865. 
From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922.

Two months before Lee’s surrender, the Boston Recorder, in ardent support of the doctrine, included lines of a poem by Bishop [George] Berkely:

…when he wrote of our country the familiar, but too grand and prophetic lines ever to be commonplace.

   ‘Westward the course of Empire takes its way;

       The four first acts already past,

   The fifth shall close the drama with the day;

         Time’s noblest offspring is the last.’

Yes, westward the course of empire does take its way. On this western continent is to be performed the last, prolonged act of the great drama of human progress and human happiness. In all sorts of forms, all sorts of men contribute to the development of the plot, often unconscious of their agency. Thus, the leaders of the slaveholder’s rebellion, seeking to establish slavery and spread it over a continent, have hastened its overthrow even in its own peculiar field.

In harmony with the great principle that the American continent is appropriated for the domain of freedom is the Monroe Doctrine.

The Boston Recorder. March 17, 1865. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922

On May 5th, The Daily Age of Philadelphia reprinted a bellicose article from the New York Journal of Commerce which warned the European powers that Americans, having settled their internal war, were growing restive about imperial pretensions in Mexico. It described “the signs of the times” which should serve as warnings to the imperialists.

Let us gather a few of the signs together. First and foremost is the Monroe Doctrine, which the people of this country cherish as one of their most sacred traditions. It seemed to be on the point of sacrifice, and was effectually dead under the late Administration. The close of the war is attended by the unexpected and startling change of administration which places Mr. Johnson at the head of affairs. He is understood to be a firm advocate of the doctrine, and his energy and zeal in such a traditional principle are not doubted… In short, nearly all men of all parties ae in favor of asserting it.

The article further describes the conditions in Mexico scoffs at Napoleon’s claim that he installed Maximillian in response to the ‘wishes of the Mexican people' as an “amusing humbug”.

It will be within the line of possibility that Napoleon, when or even before the Mexican armies are strengthened as we have intimated, nay suddenly perceive the change in the ‘wishes of the Mexican people,’ and judiciously closing his eyes to the accessions of force from abroad, withdraw with flying colors from Mexico. He may in short take the track which he has always kept open. If he does this, the throne and dynasty of Maximillian will be ‘airy nothings’ and his empire an amusing episode in the strange history of Mexico. If, on the other hand, Napoleon chooses to demand of the United States that she keep her citizens within her territories and not allow any of them to go to Mexico via Santa Fe, or via Matamoras (which Juarez will soon take if all goes well with him), then it is highly probable that he will find this country in a condition he little expects. There is not one man in ten thousand, from Maine to Mexico. Who would not rejoice in the declaration of the Monroe doctrine as a holy part of the national creed. Nor would the fear of foreign war produce one particle of change in that joy. On the contrary, we are bound to inform our foreign readers that, from our point of view, which is in our opinion one of calm and impartial vision the people of this country are more ready to plunge into a foreign war to-day, with all our debt, and all our responsibility, than ever were at any former period of our history… Therefore if the Emperor of France espouses the cause of Mexico for the year to come, it seems to us highly probable that he will have to meet one of two contingencies. The first is the flow of volunteers by the thousands to Juarez ranks, comprising veteran soldiers and skillful, experienced officers; and the second is the possible result of complaint on his part, namely, the open declaration by our government of the Monroe doctrine, backed by the sword itself unsheathed among the shouts of all people of all parties. Let us hope that France will be wise in time.

Illustrated New Age. May 5, 1865. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922.

The restless and warlike energies of our impulsive nation are again turning to the sunny fields of Mexico, alike eager to vindicate the cherished traditions of the Monroe Doctrine, and to carve out another Anglo-Saxon Republic in the heart of the Tropics.

So began an article in the May 15th issue of the Evening Union (published as the Daily Constitutional Union) of Washington, D.C. It seethes with racist jingoism.

The Monroe Doctrine was no mere enunciation of views entertained upon the policy of the Old World by a single mind, or by a few statesmen. It was the official voicing of the national thought – rather the authoritative announcement of what was the strongest, holiest sentiment of the Nation’s heart. The chivalric spirits who founded the Great Republic upon this virgin continent had dared and done so much for the rights of man, not to leave this sentiment as a sacred legacy to their posterity, to be declared when the fitting time should come, and to be maintained at the hazard of any and every cost…

The call of interest and the voice of sentiment alike imperatively demand that this idea should be imprinted upon the National Standard – and whatever faults may be charged to the Anglo-Saxon he never yet broke faith either with his interests or his passions…

But we mistake the temper of the American Republic – people and Administration – if many months should elapse ere the standard of a foreign prince is not swept with all his mercenaries into the waves of the Mexican Gulf. It makes little difference whether he be Frank, or Teuton, or Spaniard – or for that matter all three combined. This continent belongs of right to the Anglo-Saxon, and is not wide enough for two races.

Daily Constitutional Union. May 15, 1865. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922.

In stark contrast to the opinion of the Daily Constitutional Union, the New York Tribune urged that “[We] henceforth let Mexico alone.” in an article reprinted by the New Orleans Times on May 18th.

There is Maximillian; there is Juarez; there are the priests; there are the people…

’Fight out your differences if you can not peacefully adjust them: we will aid neither, but recognize the victor and establish friendly relations with him.’ Meantime, some of our disbanded soldiers may struggle into Mexico and partially offset Max’s Belgian and Austrian levies; but let France withdraw her regiments, while our Government agrees not to send any, and there can be no occasion for any new war. If the Mexicans like Max’s rule, let them enjoy it; if they choose to be rid of it, let them throw it off. Let France and the United States form a ring and there can be no doubts of fair play to the end of the struggle. And what better tribunal can be found or formed for this dispute than one composed of the Mexicans themselves?

The New Orleans Times. May 18,1865. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922. 

Montgomery Blair served as Postmaster General throughout most of Lincoln’s first administration. In July of 1865 he made a speech at Hagerstown, Maryland which was broadly interpreted to articulate President Johnson’s intention ‘to remove Maximillian from Mexico, and to accomplish that object neither means nor money will be spared.” Blair was close with the new president.

The Daily Ohio Statesman of Columbus reprinted an article from The World’s Special on July 20th which continued:

At the present time there are eighty thousand United States soldiers in Texas, scattered along the line of the Rio Grande. Maximillian knows this. Louis Napoleon has by this time been duly informed of it, and the twain cannot but be aware how slight need be the pretense on which these eighty thousand men could be transferred over the river and marched for Maximillian’s capital… There are said to be ten thousand rebels in arms in Mexico, whom our Government may consider it necessary to secure; and this will furnish a cause for fresh demand upon Maximillian… Mr. Blair’s appeal to national pride, his reflections upon the policy of the late Administration, as regards the Mexican question, and his arraignment of Louis Napoleon as unfriendly to the United States, if not intended, are admirably calculated to arouse a popular cry against Maximillian, and thus secure the support of the people in case of an attempted enforcement of the Monroe doctrine… But the general impression seems to be that the Administration is determined to rid Mexico of its Austrian ruler, no matter what the cost be, and enforce to its last extremity the apparently forgotten Monroe doctrine.

It is notable that the article refers to the Monroe Doctrine as “Apparently forgotten.”

The Daily Ohio Statesman. July 20, 1865. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922.

The drumbeats for war were heightened by statements made by former Union generals, among them Philip Sheridan whom U.S. Grant had named to the command of the Gulf Department. As reported by the Albany Evening Journal on August 4th, a letter from Sheridan was read at a gala event for a Mexican Republican General in New York City.

There is no use ‘to beat around the bush’ in this Mexican matter; we should give a permanent Government to that Republic. Our work in crushing the Rebellion will not be done until this takes place. The advent of MAXIMILLIAN was a portion of the Rebellion, and his fall should belong to its history. Most of the Mexican soldiers of MAXIMILLIAN’S army will throw down their arms the moment we cross the Rio Grande. The French influence has governed by sheer impudence.

Albany Journal. August 4, 1865. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922.


The next day, the Springfield Republican in Massachusetts cautioned,

It is very difficult to ascertain the precise condition of affairs in Mexico. Almost all the public dispatches from that country are in interest of one party or the other, and colored accordingly. One account may represent Maximillian as getting along swimmingly, and getting full control of the government, while another of the same date will tell of important successes gained by the liberals. There are good reasons for supposing, however, that the cause of Maximillian is not advancing.

The article outlines republican successes, the liberals being in control of the northern states, and desertions.

One of the French papers at the city of Mexico says it will require at least 100,000 men to ‘pacify’ the country; and another remarks that ‘the empire needs not only soldiers, but the indorsement of public opinion, and the support of the people, which it has not got.’

Despite a need for 

...the enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine that no foreign nation should found a monarchical government on our borders… we have not been and are not now in a condition to go to war with France on account of Mexico. Burdened with a heavy debt and weary of fighting, the people desire peace and a season for recuperation…

[W]e welcome the indications that the people of Mexico themselves are likely to be able to expel their invaders. Judging from the past, they are not likely to get up any better government than Maximillian would give them. But they would have the satisfaction of knowing that it was of their own choice, and the time will surely come, when, if left to themselves, the people will get tired of anarchy and revolution, and be ready for an enlightened and liberal government.

Springfield Weekly Republican. August 5, 1865. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922.

On September 1st the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article which began:

While our people generally attach due importance to the principle which is involved in the American policy popularly known as ‘The Monroe Doctrine,’ there are many of our citizens who have hastily jumped to the conclusion that our policy has been abandoned, and that Maximillian has been permitted to remain for a time in Mexico… It is well, however, that these ardent spirits do not rule in Washington, or rather, if they were aware of the facts which are known in the White House, they would possess their souls in patience and wait the time when the object that they so ardently desire will be gained without any interference on our part. No event in the future is more certain than that Maximillian will leave Mexico, without an American gun being fired to hasten his departure.

This proved to be a prophetic claim.

The Philadelphia Inquirer. September 1, 1865. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922. 

President Johnson did not perceive the occupation of Mexico as his most critical issue. Rather, he asserted that his preeminent duty was to bind up the nation following the devastation of internal war. The New Orleans Times, on October 19th, reported that: 

...the substance of a conversation said to have occurred between President Johnson and a prominent Democrat on the subject of the Monroe doctrine. The Democrat vehemently urged the President to adhere to that traditional policy, to which the latter replied to the following effect:

“My mission is the Union. I feel that if I can, within my term of office, restore all the States to their former relations with each other and with the Union, and can bring about as well a harmonious, if not an absolutely fraternal feeling between North and South, I shall have merited the applause of my countrymen, and earned an honorable place in history… When the Union is restored it will be time for talking about foreign aggressions on this continent. I shall do all I can to make the Southern people happy, and to palliate the bitterness of defeat.”

The New-Orleans Times. October 19, 1865. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922. 


Johnson’s policy prevailed despite the energetic opposition. By December 4th, the Milwaukee Sentinel assessed the situation in an editorial. The writer discussed the recent rumors that the statement and movements of Generals Grant and Logan,

…was duly heralded as a most significant indication, that the administration was about to develop some decisive policy in respect to Mexico, which would soon put an end to the empire, and restore the republican government to the capital… We cannot believe, however, that all the rumors we have of the purpose of our government to enforce the Monroe doctrine against France, are indicative of any intention of doing so at the risk of war; and we do not suppose the favor with which projects for the embarrassment of Maximillian are received by our people,  are to be understood as expressions favorable to any such extreme measures.

Allowing that had the United States been hugely distracted at the time that Napoleon installed Maximillian, the public would have demanded military action. Despite the public’s dislike of Maximillian’s presence, 

they do not, therefore, insist or expect that our government shall take such measures, and adopt such a policy in its Mexican relations, as to seriously complicate our pacific relations with France, or make a war in behalf of republican government in Mexico probable.

Asserting that the purpose of the Monroe Doctrine was for our benefit not other republics.

We are not bound to interfere in Mexico for the advantage of Mexicans, but, if at all, wholly for the protection of the United States. It will, therefore, be worth our while to look before we leap into any French-Mexican difficulty; and we have no doubt, notwithstanding the warlike rumors which are so common, that the authorities at Washington have not the slightest disposition to push Mexican matters to extremities.

Milwaukee Daily Sentinel. December 4, 1865. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922.

Maximillian would be dethroned and executed by the Mexicans on June 19, 1867, without any military action by the United States. We conclude by quoting from a reprint of an article from the London Times which appeared in the December 23rd issue of the Oregonian.

We are told that the Emperor of the French contemplates the gradual withdrawal of his troops from Mexico, and Seward has made a speech in which he appears to rely at present rather on the force of example than the power of the sword for preserving the republican character of American Governments… The French Government may refrain from continuing its army in Mexico, and thus avoid the only provocation which the American Government has directly deprecated… It is in Mexico that the pretentions of the Americans to the exclusive influence appear most extravagant and less sustainable. If the Monroe Doctrine were only interpreted to mean that no European Power should effect conquests on American soil, or conduct a crusade against contented but unwarlike republics, the theory might be intelligible. Mexico was not contented nor an inoffensive republic. Except in name, it is not a republic at all. It is a country in a condition of hopeless anarchy, absolutely disorganized, and with no claim to be recognized as a civilized State. It has given the most scandalous offense to other nations by confiscating their property and maltreating and murdering their citizens. For these prolonged and multiple grievances there was no redress to be obtained, for there was no government from which it could be sought. All the ordinary expedients of international action had been tried I vain, until at last three of the Powers of Europe concerted a joint expedition to set matters right. The upshot was the establishment of a monarchical government in Mexico under an Austrian prince… The Americans look with jealousy on European interventions and monarchical institutions, but, to do them justice, they have never pretended that wrong was done to any of the rival cut-throats who were contending for power in Mexico… When the Emperor of the French has enabled the Mexicans to emerge from their anarchy and taste the blessings of security and order, he has performed his part, and it will be for the Mexicans themselves to keep what they have got. The withdrawal of the French troops, therefore, will be a natural event, and after it has taken place the Americans will only see on their continent a thriving monarchy instead of a republic in ruins.

Morning Oregonian. December 23, 1865. 
From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922.

Subsequent events proved the London Times to be less prescient than the Milwaukee Sentinel.

Visit the Readex U.S. Congressional Serial Set and Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922 pages for information and to request a complimentary trial.

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