Hispanic Nations of the New World; a Chronicle of Our Southern Neighbors

Author: William Robert Shepherd

Chapter VI. Peril from Abroad

Apart from the spoliation of Mexico by the United States, the independence of the Hispanic nations had not been menaced for more than thirty years. Now comes a period in which the plight of their big northern neighbor, rent in twain by civil war and powerless to enforce the spirit of the Monroe Doctrine, caused two of the countries to become subject a while to European control. One of these was the Dominican Republic.

In 1844 the Spanish-speaking population of the eastern part of the island of Santo Domingo, writhing under the despotic yoke of Haiti, had seized a favorable occasion to regain their freedom. But the magic word "independence" could not give stability to the new state any more than it had done in the case of its western foes. The Haitians had lapsed long since into a condition resembling that of their African forefathers. They reveled in the barbarities of Voodoo, a sort of snake worship, and they groveled before "presidents" and "emperors" who rose and fell on the tide of decaying civilization. The Dominicans unhappily were not much more progressive. Revolutions alternated with invasions and counterinvasions and effectually prevented enduring progress.

On several occasions the Dominicans had sought reannexation to Spain or had craved the protection of France as a defense against continual menace from their negro enemies and as a relief from domestic turmoil. But every move in this direction failed because of a natural reluctance on the part of Spain and France, which was heightened by a refusal of the United States to permit what it regarded as a violation of the Monroe Doctrine. In 1861, however, the outbreak of civil war in the United States appeared to present a favorable opportunity to obtain protection from abroad. If the Dominican Republic could not remain independent anyway, reunion with the old mother country seemed altogether preferable to reconquest by Haiti. The President, therefore, entered into negotiations with the Spanish Governor and Captain General of Cuba, and then issued a proclamation signed by himself and four of his ministers announcing that by the "free and spontaneous will" of its citizens, who had conferred upon him the power to do so, the nation recognized Queen Isabella II as its lawful sovereign! Practically no protest was made by the Dominicans against this loss of their independence.

Difficulties which should have been foreseen by Spain were quick to reveal themselves. It fell to the exPresident, now a colonial governor and captain general, to appoint a host of officials and, not unnaturally, he named his own henchmen. By so doing he not only aroused the animosity of the disappointed but stimlated that of the otherwise disaffected as well, until both the aggrieved factions began to plot rebellion. Spain, too, sent over a crowd of officials who could not adjust themselves to local conditions. The failure of the mother country to allow the Dominicans representation in the Spanish Cortes and its readiness to levy taxes stirred up resentment that soon ended in revolution. Unable to check this new trouble, and awed by the threatening attitude of the United States, Spain decided to withdraw in 1865. The Dominicans thus were left with their independence and a chance—which they promptly seized—to renew their commotions. So serious did these disturbances become that in 1869 the President of the reconstituted republic sought annexation to the United States but without success. American efforts, on the other hand, were equally futile to restore peace and order in the troubled country until many years later.

The intervention of Spain in Santo Domingo and its subsequent withdrawal could not fail to have disastrous consequences in its colony of Cuba, the "Pearl of the Antilles" as it was proudly called. Here abundant crops of sugar and tobacco had brought wealth and luxury, but not many immigrants because of the havoc made by epidemics of yellow fever. Nearly a third of the insular population was still composed of negro slaves, who could hardly relish the thought that, while the mother country had tolerated the suppression of the hateful institution in Santo Domingo, she still maintained it in Cuba. A bureaucracy, also, prone to corruption owing to the temptations of loose accounting at the custom house, governed in routinary, if not in arbitrary, fashion. Under these circumstances dislike for the suspicious and repressive administration of Spain grew apace, and secret societies renewed their agitation for its overthrow. The symptoms of unrest were aggravated by the forced retirement of Spain from Santo Domingo. If the Dominicans had succeeded so well, it ought not to be difficult for a prolonged rebellion to wear Spain out and compel it to abandon Cuba also. At this critical moment news was brought of a Spanish revolution across the seas.

Just as the plight of Spain in 1808, and again in 1820, had afforded a favorable opportunity for its colonies on the continents of America to win their independence, so now in 1868 the tidings that Queen Isabella had been dethroned by a liberal uprising aroused the Cubans to action under their devoted leader, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes. The insurrection had not gained much headway, however, when the provisional government of the mother country instructed a new Governor and Captain General—whose name, Dulce (Sweet), had an auspicious sound—to open negotiations with the insurgents and to hold out the hope of reforms. But the royalists, now as formerly,would listen to no compromise. Organizing themselves into bodies of volunteers, they drove Dulce out. He was succeeded by one Caballero de Rodas (Knight of Rhodes) who lived up to his name by trying to ride roughshod over the rebellious Cubans. Thus began the Ten Years’ War—a war of skirmishes and brief encounters, rarely involving a decisive action, which drenched the soil of Cuba with blood and laid waste its fields in a fury of destruction.

Among the radicals and liberals who tried to retain a fleeting control over Mexico after the final departure of Santa Anna was the first genuine statesman it had ever known in its history as a republic—Benito Pablo Juarez, an Indian. At twelve years of age he could not read or write or even speak Spanish. His employer, however, noted his intelligence and had him educated. Becoming a lawyer, Juarez entered the political arena and rose to prominence by dint of natural talent for leadership, an indomitable perseverance, and a sturdy patriotism. A radical by conviction, he felt that the salvation of Mexico could never be attained until clericalism and militarism had been banished from its soil forever.

Under his influence a provisional government had already begun a policy of lessening the privileges of the Church, when the conservative elements, with a cry that religion was being attacked, rose up in arms again. This movement repressed, a Congress proceeded in 1857 to issue a liberal constitution which was destined to last for sixty years. It established the federal system in a definite fashion, abolished special privileges, both ecclesiastical and military, and organized the country on sound bases worthy of a modern nation. Mexico seemed about to enter upon a rational development. But the newly elected President, yielding to the importunities of the clergy, abolished the constitution, dissolved the legislature, and set up a dictatorship, in spite of the energetic protests of Juarez, who had been chosen Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and who, in accordance with the terms of the temporarily discarded instrument, was authorized to assume the presidency should that office fall vacant. The rule of the usurper was short-lived, however. Various improvised "generals" of conservative stripe put themselves at the head of a movement to "save country, religion, and the rights of the army," drove the would-be dictator out, and restored the old regime.

Juarez now proclaimed himself acting President, as he was legally entitled to do, and set up his government at Vera Cruz while one "provisional president" followed another. Throughout this trying time Juarez defended his position vigorously and rejected every offer of compromise. In 1859 he promulgated his famous Reform Laws which nationalized ecclesiastical property, secularized cemeteries, suppressed religious communities, granted freedom of worship, and made marriage a civil contract. For Mexico, however, as for other Spanish American countries, measures of the sort were far too much in advance of their time to insure a ready acceptance. Although Juarez obtained a great moral victory when his government was recognized by the United States, he had to struggle two years more before he could gain possession of the capital. Triumphant in 1861, he carried his anticlerical program to the point of actually expelling the Papal Nuncio and other ecclesiastics who refused to obey his decrees. By so doing he leveled the way for the clericals, conservatives, and the militarists to invite foreign intervention on behalf of their desperate cause. But, even if they had not been guilty of behavior so unpatriotic, the anger of the Pope over the treatment of his Church, the wrath of Spain over the conduct of Juarez, who had expelled the Spanish minister for siding with the ecclesiastics, the desire of Great Britain to collect debts due to her subjects, and above all the imperialistic ambitions of Napoleon III, who dreamt of converting the intellectual influence of France in Hispanic America into a political ascendancy, would probably have led to European occupation in any event, so long at least as the United States was slit asunder and incapable of action.

Some years before, the Mexican Government under the clerical and militarist regime had made a contract with a Swiss banker who for a payment of $500,000 had received bonds worth more than fifteen times the value of the loan. When, therefore, the Mexican Congress undertook to defer payments on a foreign debt that included the proceeds of this outrageous contract, the Governments of France, Great Britain, and Spain decided to intervene. According to their agreement the three powers were simply to hold the seaports of Mexico and collect the customs duties until their pecuniary demands had been satisfied. Learning, however, that Napoleon III had ulterior designs, Great Britain and Spain withdrew their forces and left him to proceed with his scheme of conquest. After capturing Puebla in May, 1863, a French army numbering some thirty thousand men entered the capital and installed an assemblage of notables belonging to the clerical and conservative groups. This body thereupon proclaimed the establishment of a constitutional monarchy under an emperor. The title was to be offered to Maximilian, Archduke of Austria. In case he should not accept, the matter was to be referred to the "benevolence of his majesty, the Emperor of the French," who might then select some other Catholic prince.

On his arrival, a year later, the amiable and well-meaning Maximilian soon discovered that, instead of being an "Emperor," he was actually little more than a precarious chief of a faction sustained by the bayonets of a foreign army. In the northern part of Mexico, Juarez, Porfirio Diaz,—later to become the most renowned of presidential autocrats,—and other patriot leaders, though hunted from place to place, held firmly to their resolve never to bow to the yoke of the pretender. Nor could Maximilian be sure of the loyalty of even his supposed adherents. Little by little the unpleasant conviction intruded itself upon him that he must either abdicate or crush all resistance in the hope that eventually time and good will might win over the Mexicans. But do what they would, his foreign legions could not catch the wary and stubborn Juarez and his guerrilla lieutenants, who persistently wore down the forces of their enemies. Then the financial situation became grave. Still more menacing was the attitude of the United States now that its civil war was at an end. On May 31, 1866, Maximilian received word that Napoleon III had decided to withdraw the French troops. He then determined to abdicate, but he was restrained by the unhappy Empress Carlotta, who hastened to Europe to plead his cause with Napoleon. Meantime, as the French troops were withdrawn, Juarez occupied the territory.

Feebly the "Emperor" strove to enlist the favor of his adversaries by a number of liberal decrees; but their sole result was his abandonment by many a lukewarm conservative. Inexorably the patriot armies closed around him until in May, 1867, he was captured at Queretaro, where he had sought refuge. Denied the privilege of leaving the country on a promise never to return, he asked Escobedo, his captor, to treat him as a prisoner of war. "That’s my business," was the grim reply. On the pretext that Maximilian had refused to recognize the competence of the military court chosen to try him, Juarez gave the order to shoot him. On the 19th of June the Austrian archduke paid for a fleeting glory with his life. Thus failed the second attempt at erecting an empire in Mexico. For thirty-four years diplomatic relations between that country and Austria-Hungary were severed. The clericalmilitary combination had been overthrown, and the Mexican people had rearmed their independence. As Juarez declared: "Peace means respect for the rights of others."

Even if foreign dreams of empire in Mexico had vanished so abruptly, it could hardly be expected that a land torn for many years by convulsions could become suddenly tranquil. With Diaz and other aspirants to presidential power, or with chieftains who aimed at setting up little republics of their own in the several states, Juarez had to contend for some time before he could establish a fair amount of order. Under his successor, who also was a civilian, an era of effective reform began. In 1873 amendments to the constitution declared Church and State absolutely separate and provided for the abolition of peonage—a provision which was more honored in, the breach than in the observance.


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Chicago: William Robert Shepherd, "Chapter VI. Peril from Abroad," Hispanic Nations of the New World; a Chronicle of Our Southern Neighbors, ed. Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907 in Hispanic Nations of the New World; a Chronicle of Our Southern Neighbors Original Sources, accessed September 25, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4W3G8HBDPJ3XKF8.

MLA: Shepherd, William Robert. "Chapter VI. Peril from Abroad." Hispanic Nations of the New World; a Chronicle of Our Southern Neighbors, edited by Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907, in Hispanic Nations of the New World; a Chronicle of Our Southern Neighbors, Original Sources. 25 Sep. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4W3G8HBDPJ3XKF8.

Harvard: Shepherd, WR, 'Chapter VI. Peril from Abroad' in Hispanic Nations of the New World; a Chronicle of Our Southern Neighbors, ed. . cited in , Hispanic Nations of the New World; a Chronicle of Our Southern Neighbors. Original Sources, retrieved 25 September 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4W3G8HBDPJ3XKF8.