Photo by Leon Overweel on Unsplash.

Zum Symposium

The Imperial Project of France in Mexico and the “Official” Absence of the Monroe Doctrine


In 1896 American historian Frederic Bancroft wrote that the “(…) Monroe Doctrine was absolutely superfluous during the French Intervention as it was no part of International Law”.  Indeed, the case of the French Intervention in Mexico illustrates how during the 1860’s the Monroe Doctrine was no deterrent factor for European imperial projects. However, this episode paradoxically contributed to the success of the doctrine. As scholars Tom Long and Carsten Schulz have put forward in their ongoing project on Latin America and the peripheral origins of nineteenth-century international order, a strong republican solidarity was built between Mexico and the US. Contrary to what is generally assumed, the leverage given to the doctrine was not due to the official United States (US) engagement with the doctrine, but rather to the decision of Mexican republican liberals to align with a partner (US), with whom they believed, greater freedom and equality would be ensured. This alignment in fact contributed to the launching of the US as a hegemon in the region.

I propose to explore the Monroe Doctrine from three different angles: a) the project of Napoleon III; b) the republican appropriation of the Monroe Doctrine by the Mexican Republican liberals; and c) the Confederacy and the French Intervention.

The Napoleonic Project in Latin America

The nineteenth century was witness to the United States’ nation-building and its establishment as a hegemonic power in the region. However, the fate of the US was still insecure in the 1860’s: the Union was on the verge of dissolving due to the civil war between confederates and unionists and European powers were dominant in international affairs. Nonetheless, Michel Chevalier – a French economist and Saint Simonian – had the futuristic vision that the United States would rule global commerce and that Latin America would fall under the dominance of the United States.

Chevalier made a trip to the United States, Mexico, and Cuba between 1833 and 1835. Afterwards, he published Lettres sur l’Amérique du Nord, in 1836. In this work, he noted that the three main groups of Europe were: Latin, Anglo-Saxon, and Slavic. The new world partially crystallized this distribution, as there were in the north of the continent Protestant-Anglo Saxon people, whereas in the south catholic Latins. To the question posed by Chevalier: Quel est le premier people de monde? He warned that unless Europe awakened from its absorptions in « fruitless discussions », Americans would become the first (Chevalier, pp. 141-142). To constrain this advancement, Chevalier stated:

La France est dépositaire des destinées de toutes les nations du groupe latin dans des deux continents.

In Chevalier’s view “(…) Mexico was key to saving the “Latin” civilization in the new world”, of which also the catholic religion was part.

Napoleon III would later subscribe to Chevalier’s idea that France had the role to lead the Latins in the new world. He strived for the expansionism of “imperial France”, and so he embarked on various expansionist projects in e.g. Algeria, Vietnam, and Mexico. Mexico represented a strategic location to expand the Empire’s influence and power. Situated between the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, trade could also move freely across the globe, especially as he envisaged the building of a trans-oceanic channel in Tehuantepec, Oaxaca. In a letter written to the Count of Flahault in 1861 Napoleon III stated: “(…) the future of the French interests will be protected and safeguarded by an organization that will not expose Mexico to indigenous devastation or to an invasion of the United States”.

In contrast, for Benito Juárez (the first indigenous president in Mexico) and the republican government, the advancement of French troops on Mexican soil in 1862 and the later imposition of a monarchical government through the figure of Maximilian of Habsburg in 1864 was a clear violation of international law. In Benito Juarez’s own words, the breaking of hostilities was “an act of aggression”. For the Mexican republicans it was then the duty of the US to respond to France’s violation of the Monroe Doctrine.

Appropriation of the Monroe Doctrine by the Mexican Republican Liberals

Benito Juarez was probably not surprised that the French started advancing in Mexican territory and that they allied with the conservative party to defeat the republican government.

In 1858, Benito Juárez expressed his concern that European powers were profiting from Mexico’s unrest. He reasonably argued that continuous war from the moment of independence made very difficult the establishment of republican institutions and the desired political independence and freedom. The liberal views of Juárez can be better understood through the concept of “liberal internationalism”, in the sense that for Juárez, liberal values were compatible with international law as opposed to tyrannical governments. Juárez was convinced, as many of his letters reveal that, monarchy as a political organization, was an archaic form that only preserved hierarchies, social differences, and privileges. As a liberal lawyer, law meant for him the key to achieving equality and freedomNot only domestically, as in his view, international law would guarantee sovereign equality, and respect for this principle would equal peace. As he famously stated in his speech in Mexico City in 1867 after 5 years of war:

Entre los individuos, como entre las naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz

With this background, it is understandable that Mexican liberals were sympathetic to their counterparts in the US. After the Mexican-American war (1846–1848), a rapprochement followed. This was natural, as the US was the role model for a liberal Republic.

Nonetheless, as the perspective of active opposition from the US toward the French intervention looked remote as the US was undergoing a civil war, Mexican republicans started invoking and appropriating the Monroe Doctrine. As early as 1861, former minister of foreign affairs, José A. de la Fuente, called for a practical implementation of the Monroe Doctrine. The rest of the Latin American republics would follow (except Brazil and Guatemala). Chile’s representative in Washington, J.S. Asta Buruaga, proposed an alliance headed by the US to save the fate of Latin American republics. Colombia and Venezuela also proposed an alliance of the “two Americas” against the intervention. Peruvian representative in Washington drafted a treaty signed by Mexico and Peru (to which Chile and Ecuador would follow), which had as aim building a political and economic alliance between all “Spanish American” republics to strengthen and provide new guarantees to the independence and nationalities of the republics. Finally, in June 1862, Perú, signed the “Tratado sobre la union Americana”, demanding the retirement of the French troops.

In addition, Matías Romero, who was a special envoy of the Mexican Republic in the US, strategically deployed the Monroe Doctrine in favor of the Mexican Republican government. Firstly, he sought an alliance with those he sensed were more sympathetic to the Juárez government, which were mostly radical republicans. Secondly, he committed to a constant rapport between him and Secretary of State Seward to exchange information, but mostly to influence the route of US Foreign policy towards the intervention. Thirdly, he deployed a full campaign in the US print media to gain public sympathy for the Mexican Republican cause and to pressure the Lincoln government.

As mentioned, Matías Romero gained advocates in the radical republican circle. Two of his major allies were Senator Henry Winter Davis and Senator Mc Dougall. Both were against the Lincoln’s passive position toward the intervention. In January 1864, Senator McDougal introduced resolutions in the Senate that declared the duty of the US government to require France to remove armed forces from Mexico. The resolution further aimed at signing a treaty that would prevent all intervention of European powers in Mexico. In April of the same year,  Senator Davis also presented a joint resolution in the House of Representatives to condemn the intervention, and it was unanimously accepted in Congress.

The end of the Civil War in 1865 would change the US position toward the French Intervention, added to the death of President Lincoln. His successor President Johnson as a member of the democratic party, was in favor of the Doctrine in its anti-imperialistic form.   Johnson was receptive to Romero’s approach and declared that “(…) no monarchy was to be established in the American continent”. Still, no direct aid came from the US and Juárez was even more convinced that the Mexican Republic had to face its fate on its own.

The Confederates and the French Intervention

In 1864, with the defeat of the Confederacy appearing imminent, the Mexican republican cause was favored. Simultaneously, Maximilian of Habsburg began forging alliances with the Confederates. This proved to be convenient to Maximilian, given his immigration strategy. To restore the “Latin race”, the quality of the Mexican population had to be improved through immigration. Additionally, the land and resources were vast, and there wasn’t enough qualified population, to exploit e.g. mines (Hanna & Hanna 1947, 230-231). Confederate migration was suitable as they were just located northern of the border, furthermore, they had sufficient knowledge to raise crops and they could build a cultural defense against the liberal north (Hanna & Hanna, 236). Confederate migration started with the full support of the empire in 1865. In September 1865 Maximilian issued a decree in which he regulated the migration strategy, also setting an “office of colonization”. Settlers were given land (from 160 to 640 acres) but most importantly, according to art. 6 of the said decree, they could keep their “laborers” of color. The regulatory law was drafted to demise the fact that it was allowing for the continuation of slavery, as in its art. 1 stated that “all men of color were free as soon as they set foot in Mexican territory”. However, art. 2 also stated that “all men of color” were bound by a contract to its patron for 5-10 years. The children of the laborer suffered the same fate as the parent until the age of 18. They couldn’t change patrons without authorization, and the patron was responsible for their clothing, food, and care.

Matías Romero took the issue seriously and informed it with all detail and implications to Secretary of State, Seward. The matter also worked in favor of the Juaristas, as it proved that the Confederates and the Mexican Empire were aligned, and that the US government and Mexican republicans had a common enemy. Reviving slavery in Mexican soil, concerned the US House of Representatives in December 1865. In the same month Seward wrote a letter to the French Ambassador in the United States (Marquis de Montholon) stating the national discontent that a foreign state was interfering and invading a domestic republican government established by popular will. Seward does not make any direct reference to the Monroe Doctrine but supported the right of American states to organize politically as a republic if they choose to do so.


It is commonly assumed that the United States and its assertion of the Monroe Doctrine was what made the French withdraw from Mexico. Even international jurist Alejandro Álvarez when referring to the French Intervention in his essay: “The Monroe Doctrine from the Latin American point of view”, assumed that “(…) the United States have prevented European States from bringing American countries in their dominion”. However, as we have learned, for practical matters it was just moral support.

The case of the French Intervention in Mexico was a success for the Monroe Doctrine, without the US being involved in any way officially. I would argue that this success could be duly attributed to the high sympathy that liberal republicans had for the US. The Juaristas had all hopes that collaboration with the US would result in equal development for Mexico. This hope was however not uncritical. The lesson they had was that the US was as hegemonical as European powers, but the US’ form of government was more akin to their ideals. Furthermore, the Mexican republicans were thankful to the US as many of them found exile there during the intervention.

In October 1867, a banquet was given in New York by important personalities (like Theodore Roosevelt senior) in honor of Matías Romero. In his speech, Romero highlighted how the US was for Mexico a role model to follow. He also presented the main project of the Mexican republican government, squaring it with a common goal that all republics had “(…) the advancement of mankind and the improvement of the social condition of the masses throughout the world.” A year later, Matías Romero expressed further gratitude toward the US. In a discourse delivered in Washington in 1868, he recalled how, unlike other powerful nations that regarded Mexico as semi-civilized (semi salvaje), the US consistently treated the Mexican republic as an equal partner would.

The episode of the French Intervention illustrates how the Monroe Doctrine evolved from a non-relevant articulation in the eyes of European powers to being an essential element of US hegemony. Adding to Long & Schulz’ liberal internationalism, it also shows how -often unacknowledged- Benito Juárez and his liberals contributed to the success of the Monroe Doctrine. Paradoxically as it is, indeed, Mexican liberals chose “America for the Americans”, instead of “America for European Powers”.

As for the French and the vision they had of the US as a hegemonical power, Michel Chevalier remained pessimistic as he noted in 1873 in a commentary to Carlos Calvo, “Droit International”:

(…) The United States seems to have no interest in the other peoples of the New World and no sympathy for them. Like the Germans in the old world, they consider themselves a privileged race, made to dominate and make others serve them. As we can see, equally as us, the people in the Western Hemisphere do not seem to have any better opportunities when it comes to the adoption of international law in conformity with equality and fraternity.


Tania Atilano
Tania Atilano is a post-doctoral researcher at Zurich University.
Profil anzeigen
Artikel drucken

Schreibe einen Kommentar

Wir freuen uns, wenn Du mit den Beiträgen auf dem Völkerrechtsblog über die Kommentarfunktion interagierst. Dies tust Du jedoch als Gast auf unserer Plattform. Bitte habe Verständnis dafür, dass Kommentare nicht sofort veröffentlicht werden, sondern von unserem Redaktionsteam überprüft werden. Dies dient dazu, dass der Völkerrechtsblog ein sicherer Ort der konstruktiven Diskussion für alle bleibt. Wir erwarten, dass Kommentare sich sachlich mit dem entsprechenden Post auseinandersetzen. Wir behalten uns jederzeit vor, hetzerische, diskriminierende oder diffamierende Kommentare sowie Spam und Kommentare ohne Bezug zu dem konkreten Artikel nicht zu veröffentlichen.

Deinen Beitrag einreichen
Wir begrüßen Beiträge zu allen Themen des Völkerrechts und des Völkerrechtsdenkens. Bitte beachte unsere Hinweise für Autor*innen und/oder Leitlinien für Rezensionen. Du kannst uns Deinen Text zusenden oder Dich mit einer Voranfrage an uns wenden:
Abonniere den Blog
Abonniere den Blog um regelmäßig über neue Beiträge informiert zu werden, indem Du Deine E-Mail-Adresse in das unten stehende Feld einträgst.