The Mexican campaign: Napoleon III’s letter to the Comte de Flahaut, French ambassador in London

Author(s) : NAPOLEON III
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This important letter by Napoleon III reveals his policy as regards the Mexican affair. It is addressed to general comte August-Charles Flahault de la Billarderie, an old fashioned soldier from the Napoleonic era who was the French ambassador to England. Flahault was very intimately related to the Bonapartes as a result of an amorous liaison with Napoleon III's mother, Queen Hortense, the fruit of which was the Duke of Morny, a friend of Comte Saligny, the ambassador to Mexico. Comte Flahault had to serve as the intermediary between Napoléon III and Lord Palmerston. The Emperor hoped to thus encourage negotiations over Mexico that had not advanced.

In this letter Napoleon III emphasized the three maritime powers' common interest in ensuring a stable government was installed in Mexico. The regeneration of Mexico would form an impassable barrier to North American encroachment and would offer an important market for the trade of these powers.

The letter

Palais de Compiègne, 19 October, 1861
“My dear Comte De Flahault […]

I do not need to explain to you the common interest which we have in Europe in seeing a Mexico at peace, with a stable government. Not only has this country, blessed as it is with all advantages of nature, attracted a great deal of French investment and an influx of our compatriots whose very existence is threatened on a day-to-day basis, by her regeneration she would form an impassable barrier to the encroachments of North America, she would offer an important outlet for British, Spanish and French commerce via the exploitation of her own resources and she would be of great service to our manufacturies in the spread of the cotton industry. This examination of Mexico's diverse natural advantages and the spectacle of one of the most beautiful countries in the world, left to anarchy and threatened with imminent ruin are the reasons why I have always been greatly interested in the fate of Mexico. For several years, important people from Mexico have come to me to depict the wretched state of Mexico and request my support, saying that only a monarchy would be able to re-establish order in this country riven by factions. […] Despite my sympathy, I told them that I had no pretext for intervening in Mexico, that especially as regards the Americas my movements were closely linked with those of Britain, that with the aims they proposed, I would find it difficult to get an agreement from the court of St James, that the risk was that we would fall out with the United States, and that we should wait for better days. Today, unforeseen events have changed the face of the situation. The American Civil War has made it impossible for the United States to become involved in the issue, and above all outrages from the Mexican government have given England, Spain and France legitimate reasons for intervening in Mexico. Now, the question is what type of intervention is necessary? I am well aware that the convention between the three powers sending forces to the Americas establishes as the ostensible aim of our intervention merely redress for legitimate complaints, however we must plan for whatever may happen and not benightedly allow our hands to be tied preventing us from taking advantage of a solution which would be of benefit to everyone. From what I have learned, as soon as the ships appear off Veracruz, a considerable party in Mexico is ready to seize power, to convoke a national assembly and to proclaim a monarchy. I have been asked confidentially who would be my candidate. I declared that I did not have one, but if such a situation did arise, we would have to choose a prince who was animated by the spirit of the times, one endowed with a certain intelligence and firmness so as to be to lay the foundations, in a country shaken by so many revolutions, for a sustainable order of things, and the choice must one that does not offend the great maritime powers; I have highlighted the name of the Archduke Maximilian. This idea was accepted by the small committee resident here in France. The qualities of the Prince, his alliance by his wife to the King of the Belgians, a natural link between France and England, the fact that he belongs to a great non-maritime power, all these thing seems to correspond to conditions which would be desirable. As for myself, I though it in good taste on my part, I must confess, to propose as a potential candidate a prince from a dynasty with which I was recently as war.

The Mexicans, who naturally feel these things more acutely that I do, and who are impatient to see matter precipitated, have sounded the Viennese government, and they, as far as I have been told, have apparently accepted this overture on two conditions:
first, that the prince should have the support of France and Britain;
second, that the wishes of the people should be frankly and loyally expressed.

This is how things stand, then. You see, my dear Monsieur de Flahaut, in this whole question I have only one aim: namely, that of seeing French interests protected and preserved for the future via a state of affairs which would rescue Mexico from Indian devastation or from an American invasion. […]

To sum up, then: I could not but desire to sign a convention with Britain and Spain whose aim was redress for French complaints, but I could not possibly, without doing wrong to my own conscience and aware of the state of things, make an engagement whereby I would not support, at least morally, a change which I desire with all my heart, because it is in the interests of the whole of civilisation.
Published in Egon Cesar Comte Corti (trans. J. Vernay), Maximilien et Charlotte du Mexique, Paris: Plon, pp. 373-375.

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