A Surprising Response to Lincoln's Assassination

When John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, most observers feared for the country’s future under the untested new president, Andrew Johnson. Even former Confederates like Dudley Avery, from a Louisiana plantation family, worried about what Johnson’s ascent to power might mean.

One of the few who thought the transfer of power would be beneficial to his interests, despite his government deploring the means, was Mexico’s Minister (essentially, ambassador) to the United States, Matias Romero.

In a letter to his government on April 20, 1865, five days after Lincoln’s death, Romero wrote:

Suddenly a change of administration has occurred from which Mexico will supposedly be among those able to draw the most advantage. Power has been transferred from the Republican party, to which Lincoln belonged, to the Democratic party, to which the current president Andrew Johnson belongs.

Translated and reprinted in Thomas Schoonover, A Mexican View of America in the 1860s.

Why would Romero find the one-time Democrat Johnson preferable to his government’s interests in comparison with the Republican Lincoln? This is especially surprising considering Romero’s warm meeting with Lincoln before he became president, and the mutual affection between Lincoln and the president Romero represented, Benito Juárez.

Mexican President Benito Juárez, like Lincoln, faced extreme opposition from his country's landed elite, resulting in civil war. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The answer to why Romero would find optimism in the power transfer lies in the domestic politics of the Monroe Doctrine, in which the United States pledged to oppose European intervention in the Americas. In a previous letter (written April 15, 1865, and available in Spanish from Google Books), Romero noted Lincoln was a Whig before the creation of the Republican party, and Whigs generally opposed the Monroe Doctrine, while Democrats – like Johnson – typically supported it. Thus, Romero believed that Johnson would be more likely to enforce the Monroe Doctrine.

The Monroe Doctrine has been controversial ever since President James Monroe issued it in 1823, as many Latin Americans have seen it as an excuse by the United States to intervene in their affairs. Mexico had lost the northern half of its territory to the United States in a war that Lincoln opposed less than two decades before Romero wrote.

So why would Romero want the new administration to enforce the Monroe Doctrine? The answer lies in the situation in Mexico at that time.

The Liberal President Juárez, who first took office in 1857, was a reformer. Juárez drew the ire of Mexico’s traditional elite (known as Conservatives) who, like Southern planters in the United States with regard to Lincoln, chose to fight rather than accept him as president. A civil war followed, in which forces loyal to Juárez prevailed in early 1861.

French Emperor Napoleon III found common cause with Mexican monarchists, sending troops to establish an emperor in Mexico while the United States was distracted by its Civil War. Original in the Museo Napoleonico, Rome; image via Wikimedia Commons.

The next year, the vanquished Conservatives, many of whom became monarchists, allied with the French Emperor, Napoleon III. He sent troops to overthrow President Juárez and place an emperor on the throne. Lincoln’s sympathies rested strongly with Juárez, who, like him, had risen from humble roots to the pinnacle of political power.

Juárez’s forces defeated the French invaders at Puebla on May 5, 1862—the holiday now celebrated as Cinco de Mayo. A year after their defeat at the hands of Juárez, French forces returned and eventually established an Austrian prince as Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. Juárez and his forces fled Mexico City, and continued to fight in northern Mexico.

Minister Romero, Juárez’s representative in Washington throughout the 1860s, lobbied the U.S. government to assist against the French. But Lincoln struggled for four years to suppress a rebellion in his own country and thus could not take on another fight, especially against France. This was not for lack of trying; aid to Juárez against Maximilian and the French even figured into peace negotiations to end the U.S. Civil War.

Indeed, this happened. President Johnson dispatched General Philip Sheridan (previously commanding General Ulysses S. Grant’s cavalry against the Confederacy) to Texas with 25,000 soldiers to put pressure on French forces and send weapons to Juárez. This helped force Napoleon III to withdraw his troops, and set in motion a chain of events culminating in Maximilian’s capture and execution two years later.

Was Romero right? Would Lincoln not have intervened? Would events have followed their course in the same way? No one can know. But nonetheless, Romero’s letter provides a different take on an unexpected consequence of the Lincoln assassination, and it shows the uncertainty of the time.

Be on the lookout for Romero’s letters, and many others that speculate on the consequences of Lincoln’s assassination, in our upcoming Remembering Lincoln digital collection.

David McKenzie is Digital Projects Manager at Ford’s Theatre, coordinating the Remembering Lincoln digital collection. He is also a part-time History Ph.D. student at George Mason University, studying 19th-century U.S. and Latin American history, as well as digital history.