Saturday, May 5, 2012

Happy Cinco de Mayo

As you tip back your Corona or Dos Equis or maybe even Tecate to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, save a moment of sympathy for Secretary of State William Seward.

On May 5, 1862, Seward had reached a low point in his term as Secretary of State. In 1860, despite being the front-runner, he had failed to secure the Republican nomination, then he had made a failed last ditch effort in the lame-duck Senate to appease Southerners and keep the Union together that had been viewed as a betrayal by his anti-slavery supporters. Nonetheless, Seward had insisted he would be prime minister to the yokel Lincoln, ensuring that wise judgment prevailed. But Lincoln had publicly contradicted Seward, and in recent days appeared to be relying more on Stanton than his Secretary of State.

Seward had been a flop diplomatically as well. France and Great Britain had declared neutrality, opening their ports to Southern shipping. And during the Trent Affair his abrasive approach to diplomacy had led to the mobilization of British soldiers in Canada to prepare for an invasion of the United States. And most significantly, the British and French had taken advantage of the U.S. Civil War to send troops to Mexico in order to demand the Juarez government repay its foreign debts.

By April, the British had realized that the French Emperor had much greater intentions than securing repayment. The French had assembled an army designed for occupation. William Seward had fruitlessly invoked the Monroe Doctrine, but with no ships or troops to enforce it, the French were free to conquer Mexico.

But 150 years ago today, the Mexican Army shocked the world and beat the French at the Battle of Puebla. Seward wouldn't find out for a few more days, but it temporarily solved a problem for him. The French would be back, and Seward would eventually begin covertly supplying them in order to boost U.S. coffers and prevent French recognition of the Confederacy, leading to three years of French occupation before the end of the American Civil War allowed Phil Sheridan to "lose" several tens of thousands of surplus rifles on the border and the Mexicans were finally able to drive out the French.

But surely when he first found out, Seward must have enjoyed a drink.

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