Michael Hogan is the author of Abraham Lincoln and Mexico, A History of Courage, Intrigue, and Unlikely Friendships. He is a former professor of International Relations at the Autonomous University of Guadalajara, and Emeritus Humanities Chair at the American School Foundation of Guadalajara, Mexico.
As we begin a new presidency with a hopeful look toward the future, it might pay to look at the past, as we mend our relationship with Mexico. During the US Civil War Abraham Lincoln and Mexican President Benito Juárez maintained a solid friendship. It was one which changed the face of North America. It is refreshing and even useful to reflect on that earlier period of US-Mexico relations and a president who had a very positive view of Mexico and its people.
When Abraham Lincoln was a Congressman from Illinois, he stood up in the House of Representatives in 1847 and accused President Polk of invading Mexican territory without provocation, and then declaring war on that country since, as Polk contended “American blood was shed on American soil.” At that time Lincoln presented several “spot resolutions” which suggested that not only had Polk lied about the reason for the US-Mexico War, but that any blood shed was done so on Mexican soil, and that the US were the aggressors. It did not go down well with Polk and his supporters. Lincoln was accused of giving aid and support to the enemy. Newspapers referred to him as “spotty Lincoln.” Lincoln risked his political career by his stance; his party would not be returned to the House, and he would be defeated for the Senate race a few years later.
Fourteen years later, in 1861, shortly after his surprise election to the presidency as a compromise candidate, Lincoln welcomed Matías Romero, the Mexican ambassador to his home in Springfield, Illinois. The 24-year-old Romero was the first foreign ambassador that Lincoln met and entertained. They became friends.
When France invaded Mexico in 1863 and imposed the Archduke Maximilian on the throne, Lincoln covertly provided assistance to the exiled republican government of Benito Juárez. It was done secretly because Lincoln was afraid that if the French found out, they might join forces with the Confederacy and defeat the Union. He and Mrs. Lincoln introduced the young Romero (now an asylum seeker with no official status) to prominent bankers and investors so that he was able to raise over $18 million to arm and supply the Republican army and defeat the French.
President Lincoln and Juarez could not have been more different. Lincoln was six-foot-four; Juarez four-foot-six. One of Anglo-Scot stock, the other a Zapotec Indian. Yet they were both successful lawyers, both confirmed republicans, both committed to human rights, and both struggling to unite opposing forces within their countries. It is thanks to Lincoln that the US is not a loose confederation, and thanks to Juarez that Mexico is not a repressive monarchy. There are statues of Lincoln in El Paso and Mexico City today, and he is the second most beloved US president in Mexico. It is on his legacy that so many years of the “Good Neighbor Policy” pledged by Harry Truman during his 1948 visit to Mexico. During that visit to commemorate the 100th anniversary the war of with Mexico, Truman laid a wreath on the tomb of the Niños Heroes, the young cadets who gave their lives to protect that Mexican flag against the Yankee invaders. It was a shameful episode which Lincoln acknowledged, and sought to remedy, and one which Truman confirmed in his reconciliatory gesture.
As John F. Kennedy remarked many years ago, “United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do—for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.” This is the legacy of Lincoln and Juárez, a timely historical reminder, not only for President Biden and his administration, but for all of us on both sides of the border.