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The French in Mexico

The Illustrated London News, vol. 40, no. 1145, p. 519.

May 24, 1862


The European intervention in the affairs of the Mexican Republic has entered upon a new phase. Great Britain and Spain have simultaneously retired from the enterprise of restoring order in that distracted country, leaving to the French Government the sole honour, responsibility, and expense of carrying out its own more comprehensive and thoroughgoing plans. In this we see little to regret. The share of the British Government in the joint expedition was from the first on such a modest scale as to suggest the idea that their participation in the alliance was nominal and formal, and designed with the object of giving them a vote in the common councils which might be needed to counterbalance the supposed projects of Spain, rather than with a view to efficient operations against the dominant faction in Mexico, which dignifies itself with the style and title of the Government. At the outset there was some reason to fear that the Spanish Government and people were indulging themselves in dreams of reconquest and a revival of the ideas of Hernando Cortes. If ever entertained, they have vanished before the hard realities of international policy. The aversion with which the descendants of the revolted colonists regarded the flag of the "mother country" planted anew upon their soil—an aversion which they were politely careful to distinguish from the much milder sentiment of chagrin with which they viewed the presence of the French and British troops—proved that Spain was not fitted to be the instrument for inflicting a measured and mitigated chastisement which has for its aim not the ruin and permanent subjugation but the reformation of the culprit. The withdrawal of Spain removes from the expedition its ugliest feature, while the retirement of Great Britain relieves our embarrassed finances from what might become a heavy strain and the Chancellor of the Exchequer of one at least of his large budget of cares.

Thus France stands forward in a character highly gratifying to her great self-love, as the representative and agent of European civilisation for the subjugation of a semi-barbarous community and the regeneration of a beautiful country. She aspires to re-enact in Mexico the rôle she recently abandoned with reluctance in Syria. In the Syrian affair she was the fully recognised and duly authorised agent of Europe; in Mexico the agency is not the less real because it is tacitly conferred and accepted, and results from an "understanding" instead of a formal convention. Fortunately, John Bull is not now in one of his periodical invasion panics. The 1500 pairs of long boots so kindly furnished by the French Government for the use of the Canadian garrison trampled out the last scintilla of "the third panic." Had it been otherwise the present phase of the Mexican difficulty might have furnished the occasion to party politicians and "sensation" journalists for getting up a Gallophobic cry. The wise and generous conduct of the French Government in our late difficulty with the United States now stands it in good stead, and enables its acts and intentions to be viewed with impartiality and freedom from the distorting mist of prejudice which is too apt to cloud the perceptions of a large portion of the English people. Now is the time to reiterate the assertion that British and French interests on the American continent are absolutely indentical, that for the past twenty years the two nations have pursued a common policy on every American question, and that their accord offers the best and probably the only adequate guarantee for the protection of European interests whenever they may happen to come in conflict with the purely selfish and often Anti-European policy of the leading Power of the New World. There are none who will view the planting of the

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French flag in the plaza of the city of Mexico with so much pleasure as the European merchants, of whatever nation, who lead a precarious and timorous existence there.

The American Secretary of State has not left the world in darkness as to the light in which he views this intervention of Europe on the shores of the Gulf. Though never, it must be confessed, one of the blatant champions of that doctrine of American exclusiveness which is unfairly fathered upon Mr. Monroe, he has in the present instance shown himself actuated by the sentiment which underlies it. We cannot, indeed, blame him for opposing with all his usual force the rumoured project of forcing an Austrian Prince upon the unwilling Mexicans—a, course which, he truly says, "would be the beginning rather than the ending of the revolution in Mexico," and which makes even the Spanish General cry out, "What madness !" Neither, on the other hand, is there any sufficient ground for doubting the sincerity of the disavowal of such design given by the French Government. However unfriendly the Emperor of the French may be to republics in the abstract, and however willing to identify the cause of order with that of monarchy, provided the Mexicans are an assenting party (which they will assuredly not be), there is nothing in his character and past career to lead us to suppose he would be likely to engage in the quixotic enterprise of restoring, à tout prix, the fallen fortunes of monarchy in the New World, whose political soil seems eminently unfriendly to the growth of that institution. At any rate, it will devolve upon the American Government, not on ours, to protect the Republican cause in the New World and thwart the designs of the partisans of General Almonte and the Archduke Maximilian. Had Mr. Seward confined himself to a protest against a scheme of this kind he would not have encountered the defeat which his diplomacy in this affair has already suffered both at home and abroad. While keenly susceptible to the slight wound inflicted on American vanity by the presence on Mexican soil of a European armed force, he was as indifferent as any old-school professor of the ethics of statecraft to the serious wrongs to which Europe had long tamely submitted. Taking no thought of the oft-repeated cry of "Death to foreigners!" and its tragic results to the lives of unoffendiug families, nor of the national flags repeatedly dishonoured, Mr. Seward obstinately refused to see that any questions were involved beyond those of pecuniary compensation and punctual payment of the national debt. In accordance with this idea, he hit upon the expedient of offering to the three Powers a United States' guarantee of the solvency of Mexico for ten years, in return for which they were to remove their fleets and pay involuntary homage to the "Monroe doctrine." In November Lord Lyons wrote from Washington that Mr. Seward was very unwilling to believe that the European Powers would reject his offer.

In further prosecution of this happy conception he instructed Mr. Cerwin, the American Minister to Mexico, to negotiate a treaty of this nature with the Government of Juarez, but the United States' Senate, putting a truer construction on the motives which actuated the European Powers, or considering that the present was not the time to undertake new and complicated financial engagements, rejected the treaty with a promptness and unanimity which was the reverse of flattering to Mr. Seward's statesmanship.

Another result of this new complication is to bring the policy of the United States and France into more definite opposition to each other. So long as Great Britain was connected with the undertaking the lion's share of the odium attaching thereto in the eyes of the Americans would have been allotted to us, but now all British responsibility ceases. It will be edifying to observe with what oily professions of goodwill and resignation the American Secretary of State, Congress, journalists, and people will watch the progress of French arms in Mexico. Whatever the outward expressions may be, we may rely upon it that there will be distrust and apprehension within, which will not be the less painful because more than usually well concealed. The apprehension thus aroused will not be without its good use. It will act on the American mind as a counter-irritant to the feeling of resentment towards England now unhappily so rife there. The American Government has, moreover, a rod in pickle for Spain respecting the recent reannexation to the Spanish crown of the quondam Republic of San Domingo. Time was when the untrammelled and abstinent foreign policy of the Government of Washington made the office of Secretary of State almost a sinecure whose thief attraction was the opportunity it afforded for writing a long, showy, and spirited despatch to some European Government or other once or twice in the course of four years; but times are changed for the worse in this respect, and even the active and versatile genius of Mr. Seward groans under the pressure put upon his department.

Finally, will the French Government succeed in the main and legitimate object of its policy—the restoration of a strong and settled Government to Mexico? There are always plenty of cynics and pessimists in the world ready to prophesy evil of any enterprise, especially when it is conducted by a nation to which our historical traditions are opposed. We are inclined to take a more hopeful view. The Emperor of the French can better afford to spend several hundred million francs than be the originator of an abortive and ridiculous expedition. Mexican anarchy is to a great extent an artificial product raised in the hotbed of the protection thrown around it by the Government of the United States in pre-revolutionary times. That protection being now at an end, there is a fair prospect that affairs will mend after Europe has reasserted her claims to respect and "redressed the balance" of the New World. At all events, the experiment is worth trying; and whether it be conducted by one European Power, or by a combination of three, is a matter of secondary concern. If the experiment succeeds, the result will accrue to the benefit of every commercial nation, and the French will be able to realise that sense of serene pleasure which the expenditure of one's private resources on behalf of the general good imparts to every chivalrous mind. In respect to France herself, the occupation of Mexico will serve the same purpose as the occupation of Syria. It will afford an outlet to those feverish energies of the French people which find themselves "cribbed, cabined, and confined" within the narrow limits of their native land, and, by so doing, will help to prolong that era of general peace in Europe in which it is our privilege to live, and the continuance of which is so indispensable to the happiness and prosperity, not only of the people of these isles, but of all mankind.

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