"Design for a Modern Historical Picture: Napoleon III crossing the American Continent on his Mexican Mule"

March 7, 1863

artist unknown

"Design for a <I>Modern Historical </I> Picture:  Napoleon III crossing the American Continent on his Mexican Mule"

Analogies, Paintings; Colonialism/Imperialism;

Napoleon III;

France; Latin America; Mexico;

Napoleon III crossing the American Continent on his Mexican Mule.

This unsigned Harper’s Weekly cartoon parodies the imperial design of Napoleon III in Mexico, as he mimics the previous expansionist quest of Napoleon I.

In 1854, a coalition of Mexican liberals overthrew their country’s dictator, General Antonio de Santa Ana, to establish a republic. In 1857, disputes over a new constitution led to a civil war and the establishment of rival governments. In 1859, the United States formally recognized the liberal administration of Benito Juárez as the legitimate government of Mexico. American president James Buchanan sanctioned shipments of war materiel to the Juárez military, as well as the participation of American mercenaries in the republican cause. France, Spain, and Great Britain, however, favored the conservative regime in Mexico. In late December 1860, the liberal forces defeated the conservatives, and a triumphant Juárez reclaimed Mexico City on January 1, 1861.

Mexican conservatives then allied with French emperor Napoleon III, who desired to incorporate Mediterranean states and former Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Americas into a French-led federation (giving rise to the concept of a Latin America). The United States Civil War provided an opportunity for Napoleon III to intervene in Mexico, and the new republic’s large foreign debt supplied the excuse. When the Juárez government suspended its debt payments in 1861, Spain, France, and Britain sent an expeditionary force to demand redress. Quarrels between the three European powers prompted Spain and Britain to withdraw, but Napoleon III reinforced French troops and dispatched them to the Mexican capital.

When this cartoon appeared, French and Mexican armies were in the midst of a war. The image of Napoleon III crossing Mexico (he was never actually there) is based on a famous painting of the French emperor’s uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte: Napoleon Crossing the Saint Bernard (1800-1801) by Jacques-Louis David. In the winter of 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte and 40,000 French troops crossed the Great Saint Bernard Pass, one of the highest Alpine passages between Switzerland and Italy, to surprise and defeat Austrian troops in northern Italy. The ploy’s daring and danger were captured in David’s romanticized portrait of a windswept Napoleon Bonaparte heroically astride his rearing white steed. By contrast, this "Modern Historical Picture" presents a languid Napoleon III atop a frightened mule, with the emperor oblivious to either the human skulls he tramples or the deadly chasm before him.

The cartoonist, though, underestimated the chances of (at least initial) success for the French intervention. In June 10, 1863, French troops occupied Mexico City, and from there secured most of the central region of the country. In early 1864, Napoleon III established a puppet regime in Mexico under Maximilian, the archduke of Austria. By 1865, the French had forced Juárez and his men to the Mexican-U.S. border.

The monetary and human cost of the intervention, however, aroused opposition within France. Also, with the end of the American Civil War in April 1865, the United States government turned its attention to the situation. In May, General Philip Sheridan led 50,000 American soldiers to face down French troops across the Mexican border. On the diplomatic front, Secretary of State William Seward intensified pressure for a French withdrawal. Realizing the futility of the Mexican morass, Napoleon III agreed in February 1866 to remove his troops, a task completed in March 1867. President Juárez reestablished Republican government in Mexico, and had Maximilian executed.

Robert C. Kennedy

"Design for a <I>Modern Historical </I> Picture:  Napoleon III crossing the American Continent on his Mexican Mule"
December 6, 2023

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