• Visit our partners: Our Partners:
  • Visit our partners: Our Partners:

The Rise and Fall of Mexico’s Empires

Written by Collin Fifer


Mexico, the land of paradise beach getaways, delicious food, and… a vast empire? Few people picture an emperor in Mexico.

Though dozens of indigenous cultures and ancient empires have spanned the lands that are now Mexico and the pages of its history book, of particular interest to us are the two more modern empires. They were so large they dwarf even the Mayan and Aztec empires that came before them.

When Spain completed its conquest of modern-day Mexico and colonized the lands and peoples living there, the state of Mexico began to take form. But the road to the country it is today was a long and winding road. A road that wound from colony in the Spanish empire to regional powerhouse in its own right.

Today, we’re taking a look at the rise and fall of the two Mexican Empires.

The Spanish Empire

Mexico before colonization was the cradle of many indigenous civilizations. Many peoples, like the Mayans and Zapotecs—just to name a couple—enjoyed thriving civilizations and still live in Mexico today.

When Spain began its conquest of Mexico in 1519, the major civilization in Mexico was the Aztecs. Though Aztec culture was highly militaristic, Spain eventually defeated them in 1521 and claimed the land as their colony. The Spanish set up their new capital on top of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.

Mexico City still stands as Mexico’s capital today.

This began a centuries long Spanish rule of much of the Americas. Spanish colonies stretched from the southern tip of South America up into the west coast of the present-day U.S.

Starting in 1521, for nearly three hundred years, Spain maintained its colony in Mexico. Mexican society underwent a major restructuring as Spanish landowners, businessman, and colonists settled in the “new found” land and formed the upper classes.

Indigenous peoples and African slaves were shunted to the bottom rung of society. Exploited for their land and labor, they experienced centuries of hardship in the name of colonization.

Mexican society soon found itself defined by a duality. The rich upper classes supported colonial rule and pledged their loyalty to the Spanish crown.

The exploited lower levels of society, or those that often worked with them—like clergy—supported independence from colonial rule and the establishment of self-governance. They would soon get their chance.

In 1808, Napoleon invaded Spain, overthrew King Ferdinand VII, and placed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the throne instead.

Those that supported colonial rule now found themselves faced with the choice of support a puppet king or call for independence against the very crown they had long been loyal to. Those that had been calling for independence for a while now took advantage of the political turmoil.

What would follow came to be known as the Mexican War of Independence. It would determine who had the right to rule Mexico and would lay the groundwork for the eventual rise of the First Mexican Empire.


The Mexican War of Independence

The war started in 1810. Even though a Frenchman now wore the Spanish crown, there were some Spanish elites who held fast to Spanish rule in Mexico. A catholic priest rallied forces against them.

For a year, independence forces fought against the colonial government. In 1811, though, the Catholic priest was captured and executed.

In his place, another Catholic priest stepped up and led the resistance. His leadership would last until 1815, when he, too, was captured and executed. The fight for independence went underground after that.

Back in Spain, Napoleon had been pushed out and King Ferdinand VII was back on the throne. However, his political troubles were far from over. In 1821, army officers revolted and installed a new government that limited his powers.

In Mexico, a Spanish general named Agustin Iturbide—who had been fighting to keep Mexico a colony—didn’t like this one bit. He liked having his king back and didn’t want any limits on his powers. He flipped sides, and with his troops, joined the revolutionaries.

And just like that, the tide of the war changed. The resistance was no longer underground. In 1821, the combined forces of Iturbide’s men and the revolutionaries eventually marched into Mexico City victorious. What came to be known as “The Army of the Three Guarantees” had won Mexico’s independence.


A New Mexican Government

The “Army of the Three Guarantees” was so named for the three guarantees it was formed to defend: independence, unity, and religion. These principles united Iturbide’s forces with the forces they had fought against before.

When the united army took control of Mexico City, the guarantees became the plan for Mexico’s future. This plan elaborated on the principles and laid out stipulations for Mexico’s governance:

  1. Independence: Mexico would be a constitutional monarchy, legislatively independent from Spain but still under the throne of King Ferdinand
  2. Unity: Mexican-born and Spanish-born citizens would enjoy equal rights and privileges   
  3. Religion: Roman Catholicism would be the sole official religion of the land

The provisional government sent it off to Spain for the king’s stamp of support. A rather optimistic move for a former colony to do to their ex-ruler.

King Ferdinand and the Spanish Congress rejected it as “illegal, null, and void.” The king forbade any Spanish prince from accepting the throne of Mexico. 

Seeing his opportunity, General Iturbide formed a military council. That council promptly named him as their leader.

The general’s power grab alarmed the Mexican Congress. Wanting to form a republic, they decreed that no member of the military could hold political office.

That didn’t stop the general, though. In a Shakespearean maneuver, he whipped up his supporters to march through the streets of Mexico City, calling for his rule. When the crowd reached Iturbide’s residence, he feigned reluctance but eventually accepted.

The Mexican Congress, powerless against the mass movement Iturbide, the hero of the War of Independence, had started, accepted the terms of his rule.

In 1822, they crowned him emperor, making him the ruler of a vast empire stretching well beyond Mexico’s current borders. It covered all of Central America and extended up into the modern-day U.S. southwest and west coast.


The New Mexican Emperor

The general had emerged victorious. He was now Emperor of Mexico. But climbing to power and holding on to it are two very different things.

Though he was emperor, Iturbide still had to play politics. He constantly clashed with congress on key issues.

They took issue with the imperial court he was forming. It was shaping up to be more lavish than the former viceroy of New Spain’s (the person who was in charge of Spain’s colonies before the war for independence). Since Mexico was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy from said war, it could hardly handle royal luxuries.

And, even though Congress had crowned Iturbide emperor, they had not clearly stated where his power began and theirs ended. The emperor and congress found themselves stepping on each other’s toes.

Meanwhile, this power struggle was distracting from actual governance.

In the first year of his reign, Iturbide claimed to discover a plot to overthrow him. This plot originated from none other than the Mexican Congress. Iturbide had over a dozen high-ranking congressional deputies arrested.

Congress was shocked. They accused the emperor of fabricating the charges and acting outside his power.

In the end, nothing came of the arrests and ensuing trials. Iturbide even named one of the arrested deputies to a position in his court after.

A ruler appointing an alleged criminal to a government position while no actual governance is being carried out… ah, politics.

The New Emperor’s New Close

As Iturbide’s political struggles continued, the state of his rule deteriorated. Important issues were being overlooked. On top of the unstable political situation, the country’s finances were still in shambles, government control in the countryside was weakening, and the army was dealing with repeated Spanish attempts to reconquer their former colony.

Emperor Iturbide’s response to this crisis was to dissolve Congress. He claimed they had forsaken their constitutional, judicial, and financial work.

After all, behind every failing emperor is a good scapegoat.

In Congress’ place, Iturbide formed another military council. They immediately found themselves confronted with the same set of problems.

They tackled the crushing debt from the War of Independence first. By now, to solve the… problem seems too light of a word here… they would have to take drastic measures. And that’s exactly what they did.

They forced loans from the Catholic Church, confiscated funds from citizens, and seized one million pesos that had been sitting in the Port of Veracruz, waiting to be exported to trade partners. They also allowed the printing of millions of more pesos.

If history has taught us anything, it’s that angering allies and printing money is definitely the solution to a country’s economic woes.

Meanwhile, the empire’s unemployment rate climbed to 20%, just five percent short of the rate in the U.S. during the Great Depression.

His empire’s economy was in shambles, and nearly a quarter of his population was out of work. But Iturbide wasn’t going to let what little economic revenue there was go to waste. Instead of injecting it into efforts to kick-start the economy, he kept most of it for him and his cronies.

Perhaps he was practicing trickle-down economics before its time.

The mountain of problems finally caught up to the emperor. His government’s control in the countryside was as weak as ever, a situation which another general in his army took full advantage of. General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna took his troops and sparked a revolt in the province of Veracruz, declaring it a separate republic.

To confront this rebellious section of the army, Iturbide sent the other part of the army. And, surprise, surprise, the troops he sent ended up joining General Santa Anna.

Iturbide was now an emperor with no army.

In his eleventh hour, the emperor reestablished congress. But, much like his previous plan, this backfired as well. Congress, not a fan of the ruler that had dissolved them, proved only slightly more friendly to the emperor than the troops revolting in Veracruz.

Backed against a wall and seeing only imminent overthrow in his future, Emperor Iturbide presented his abdication to Congress. They recommended he remove himself from the empire. In 1823, just a year after bring crowned Mexican Emperor, he promptly fled to Europe.

A provisional government assumed rule. But they were not finished with their imperial problems yet. In 1824, Iturbide caught wind of King Ferdinand VII’s plan to launch another reconquest of Mexico.

Ever the patriot, the former emperor offered his help to the new Mexican Republic. Not waiting for a response, he boarded a ship back to his former empire.

Meanwhile, the Mexican government thought his offer over carefully. They regarded Iturbide’s return through the example of Napoleon’s homecoming to France: a former emperor returning and quickly retaking power. The Mexican Congress passed a law stating that if Iturbide came back, he would be charged with treason and executed. 

In July 1824, he landed back on Mexican soil. He was promptly arrested, and four days later, executed by firing squad. There was to be no Napoleonic comeback for the first Mexican emperor.

The First Mexican Empire had ruled over a vast expanse of land. In the south, its rule covered the modern countries of Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Following the Empire’s fall, these states would form the Federal Republic of Central America. 

In the North, the Mexican Empire included the modern U.S. states of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California. This area would remain under Mexican rule until the Mexican-American War in the late 1840s. 

The Imperial Intermission

Though Mexico was now a republic and not under the rule of a king, heavy-fisted rulers still dominated the political scene. The decades spanning from the 1820s to the 1850s are often dubbed the “Age of Caudillismo” or the “Age of the Strongmen.”

In this age of blustering despots, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna stood out from the crowd. The same general who sparked the emperor’s overthrow would serve as president of Mexico 11 times, each time changing with the political winds.

Though he started as the liberating general who overthrew the crooked monarchy, his politics drifted ever more autocratic as his terms added up.

His undoing came after the Mexican-American War. The conflict ended in an embarrassing defeat for Mexico and a loss of over one-third of its territory. Many historians lay blame squarely on Santa Anna for dragging out the bloody conflict and worsening the result for Mexico.

Even though he remained president after the war, Santa Anna’s next act as ruler would spell his demise. He sold a section of land along the present-day Mexican border with Arizona and New Mexico to the U.S. in what is known today as the Gadsden Purchase.

Though he claimed the money from the deal was to rebuild the army, the president took a page out of the former emperor’s book and kept it for him and his cronies.

Mexicans, still reeling from their defeat in the war and once again facing economic hardships from resulting debts, couldn’t handle the sale of more of their land for the financial benefit of a crooked ruler. A revolt quickly followed, and in 1855, Santa Anna was overthrown.


The Persistence of a Mexican Monarchy

Though the U.S. emerged from the Mexican American War victorious, they would soon find themselves wrapped up in a Civil War in 1861.

Until the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War, the Monroe Doctrine had kept European powers from meddling too much in the Americas. However, now that the U.S. was distracted, European rulers like Napoleon III could finally act on their imperial desires.

He landed French troops in Mexico the same year and, by 1863, in league with Mexican generals who supported the return of a Mexican monarchy, marched into Mexico City.

The conquering French forces established a new government. This new government then invited Ferdinand Maximilian, an Austrian archduke and young brother of the Austrian Emperor, to become the second Mexican Emperor.

In 1864, he accepted the crown and arrived in the capital to begin his reign.

The Second Mexican Emperor

Besides the French money and troops it received from Napoleon III, Maximilian’s Mexican Empire also enjoyed financial help from Spain. European powers were taking full advantage of the absence of U.S. power.

Maximilian’s reign would start off only slightly better than Iturbide’s. He instituted liberal policies that lost him support among Mexico’s upper class.

These policies guaranteed the right of laborers, improved the lives of the lower class, reformed land ownership, and promoted religious tolerance.

Though he supported Catholicism as the official religion of his empire, these policies also put him at odds with the Catholic Church. The emperor found himself in the uncomfortable position of being caught between the existing ruling class that put him in power and the lower class his policies were supposed to help.

Adding to the uncertainty of his rule, the U.S. Civil War ended less than a year after his coronation. This allowed the U.S. government to dedicate more resources to opposing his empire. The emperor’s tiny saving grace was that the U.S. military was too weary from its recent civil war to take any military action against his empire.

However, that did not stop individual U.S. Army volunteers from joining the ranks of republican forces. The guerilla resistance against imperial rule grew. 

Though imperial forces had firm control of the cities, continuous guerilla attacks plagued the army in the countryside. These campaigns proved so troublesome that Maximilian put out a royal decree stating anyone found to be helping the guerilla forces would be court martialled and executed. 

There was immediate public backlash. This widely reviled policy came to be known as the “Black Decree.” Support for the empire dropped significantly. 


Fall of an Empire, Take Two

By 1866, Napoleon III saw the signs of impending defeat. The troubles plaguing the Mexican Empire and the increasing diplomatic pressure from the U.S. pushed him to order the withdrawal of French troops from Mexico.

Emperor Maximilian was desperate to keep French support. He appealed to Napoleon to reverse his decision and even sent his wife, Carlota, to Europe to plead his case. However, looming war with Prussia made Napoleon firm in his decision. Carlota’s failure drove her mad. She sought care in Belgium, never to return to Mexico.

Maximilian, now with no wife and no French support, faced the daunting resistance movement backed only by his dwindling imperial forces. He traveled to the city of Querétaro to rally what remained of his troops. Resistance forces laid siege to the city soon after. For over 70 days, the city withstood.

It wasn’t until an imperial officer betrayed his command and opened the gates to the city that the resistance fighters sacked the city and captured Maximilian.

In 1867, the emperor and his generals were put on trial and executed. The last Mexican empire had fallen just four years after its rise.

Imperial Legacy

Though the empires have fallen, they leave their mark on Mexico today. 

The second empire’s promotion of culture left behind a proud legacy for the Mexican people. During his rule, Maximilian commissioned many Mexican artists to portray Mexico’s history, religion, and politics. He even wrote to European rulers requesting the return of Indigenous artifacts stolen during the Spanish conquest. 

You can see traces of the Second Mexican Empire in the cityscape of Mexico City. Maximilian adopted Chapultepec Castle as his official residence. This castle was the site of an iconic battle during the Mexican American War and is still regarded as an important Mexican landmark today. After the Second Mexican Empire, the castle became the Presidential Palace until it was converted to a museum in 1940. 

To connect his residences with government offices, Maximilian built El Paseo de la Emperatriz (The Empress’ Promenade). After the empire’s fall, the government renamed it El Paseo de la Reforma (The Promenade of the Reform). It still serves as one of Mexico City’s main avenues today and is lined with numerous civic monuments. 

Traces of the empire can still be seen in politics as well. The Nationalist Front of Mexico, a far-right political group in Mexico, sees the Second Mexican Empire as the country’s best option to free itself from the hegemony of the U.S. The group still advocates for the empire’s return. Every year, they meet in the city of Querétaro, the site of Maximilian’s execution. 

Related Articles


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Stay Connected


Random Article

The Great Man-Made River – The Eighth Wonder of the World?

Written by Jehron Baggaley Intro               As the world has become more and more developed, humanity has started to take a lot of things for granted....

Latest Articles