Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The Mexican War

In 1860, new treaties of commerce were made, many political prisoners were released, and some reforms were made in the army; for Prussia was growing ever stronger, and the politicians who look far ahead were already predicting trouble for France in that region.. Still, it seemed as if the world were rapidly growing better, as so many measures were being taken about this time to help the sick and poor. There were, for instance, a number of savings banks, orphan asylums, old people's homes, day nurseries, dispensaries, free hospitals, convalescent homes, trade schools, and the like; and sanitary improvements of all kinds were being made, many of these being suggested, supported, and superintended, or frequently visited by the emperor, the empress, and even by the young Prince Imperial, who at an early age was initiated in all good works.

In 1861, France became involved in war with Mexico, against which England and Spain also sent ships to protect their commercial interests, constantly endangered by the political disturbances of that turbulent country. The ships of the three nations seized two coast cities, but when the Mexican government offered to treat, England and Spain accepted conditions which France refused. The result was that France continued the war alone, and, after taking the capital, proposed that Maximilian of Austria, brother of Emperor Francis Joseph, should become Emperor of Mexico (1863). Napoleon hoped thus to secure control of an American dependency, principally because the United States was then weakened by the long Civil War.

But the majority of the Mexicans were far too proud and independent to submit to the ruler thus forced upon them, so they kept up a stubborn resistance. Besides, the United States government, as soon as the Civil War was ended, reminded Napoleon forcibly that, in accordance with the Monroe Doctrine, it would not permit such interference by any European power in American affairs. Realizing that he must either leave Maximilian to manage as best he could in Mexico, or else face war with the United States, Napoleon promptly recalled the French troops; and Maximilian, after a brave struggle, betrayed by one of his generals, fell into the hands of the Mexican Republicans, who shot him (1867). Meantime, Maximilian's young wife Carlotta—daughter of Leopold and of Louis Philippe's daughter—had gone back to France, to implore aid for the husband she loved. Her anxiety, and cruel disappointment when these prayers remained fruitless, drove her insane, so that she never realized the sad fate of her adored husband.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


French troops had been stationed at Rome since 1849 to protect the Pope, whom Italian patriots were constantly threatening to deprive of everything save his spiritual power, their aim being to make Rome the capital of United Italy. Napoleon was opposed to any further expansion of Sardinia; but Cavour, encouraged by the gains already made, continued in his great task of trying to bring about complete Italian unity by diplomacy, while such patriots as Garibaldi and Mazzini were fighting hard to secure it. With a regiment of about one thousand redshirted volunteers, Garibaldi landed in Sicily (1860), and within a few months actually seized Sicily and Naples, whence he drove the Bourbons, so that King Victor Emmanuel of Sardinia could claim the Two Sicilies as well as northern Italy.

A few years later this popular monarch was able to rejoice in a further step toward the unification of Italy. When war broke out between Prussia and Austria (1866), Victor Emmanuel, still cherishing the old-time grudge against Austria, promptly seized this occasion to invade Venice as the ally of Prussia; but this time he did not prove fortunate in war, and might have paid dearly for his attempt, had not his ally won the great victory of Sadowa. England, France, and Russia—none of whom cared to see Prussia increase too rapidly—now proposed to mediate, so a treaty was signed whereby Venice was finally joined to Italy. By another agreement, also, the French troops now left Rome, but as the followers of Garibaldi soon tried to wrest the city out of the Pope's keeping, the French returned to the rescue. In 1867, therefore, the kingdom of Italy included all Italy except Rome and its vicinity, where French troops upheld the authority of the Pope.

About this time, France and Prussia came to the verge of war in regard to the possession of Luxemburg, which was finally made an independent state; still, the strain caused by this quarrel left lasting marks in both countries. As apparently friendly relations continued, the various sovereigns of Germany—as well as of the remainder of Europe—came in state to Paris to visit the great International Exposition of 1867, to witness the formal opening of the Louvre,—now finished,—and to assist at a grand review at the Bois de Boulogne, where a sensation was caused when a Pole tried to assassinate the Czar.

Next year the French were called upon to show hospitality to royalty in a different way, for Queen Isabella, driven out of Spain by a revolution, sought refuge in France. She was received at the frontier by Eugenie, who graciously bade her old sovereign welcome, and saw that she was comfortably installed in Paris, where she continued to hold her court, although in exile.

As Napoleon III. was now seriously out of health; he was not able to be present at the formal opening of the Suez Canal (1869), which had been planned by De Lesseps, a cousin of the empress, and was paid for chiefly by French financiers. This canal, a triumph of engineering skill, cost some sixty millions, and took ten years to dig. It greatly shortened the journey to India and the East, and effected important changes in Egypt, through which much of the commerce of the world now passed. Because it was so great an aid to trade, all the European nations were duly represented at the celebration in honor of its completion; but the beautiful Empress of the French was the guest of honor, not only during the trip along the canal, but also at the festivities at Cairo, where the opera of Aida  was given for the first time, having been composed on purpose for this occasion.

It was partly because his health was affected, also, that the emperor decided the time had come to give the French people more share in the government (1870). Therefore, with the help of a new prime minister (Ollivier), he submitted plans for liberal reforms to the voters, who pronounced in their favor by a vote of more than 7,000,000 to 1,500,000. These changes made the imperial government less despotic, and laid more of the responsibility on the people themselves. But before there was a chance to see how this would work, a new crisis arose in the affairs of poor France.