Happy Cinco de Mayo! Before you break out the “¡Felicidades!” you’ll want to get your holidays straight: Today isn’t Mexican Independence Day. Mexican Independence Day, which is a national public holiday in Mexico, is celebrated on September 16, marking the country’s declaration of independence from Spanish rule in 1810. In contrast, Cinco de Mayo is the anniversary of the Mexican army’s victory over France at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War in 1862.
So how did a battle against one country (France) more than fifty years after the country declared its independence against another country (Spain) become so popular? The David-versus-Goliath-like battle offered hope to the Mexican people that they could remain a sovereign nation.
As in the United States, Mexico struggled to find its footing as a new country. After finally gaining independence from Spain in 1822, Mexico juggled a few different kinds of governance. Eventually, the country separated into two parties: Liberals and Conservatives. Conservatives tended to side with more traditional European policies, including privileges granted to the Catholic Church. Among those privileges were exemptions from tax. In contrast, the Liberals weren’t keen on the granting the Catholic Church any special privileges and sought to limit them.
In the mid-19th century, the Liberals rose to power. Part of their agenda included passing the “Liberal Reform Laws.” The first of those laws, the Juárez Law (named after former Mexican President Benito Juárez), was intended to restrict the authority and scope of the Church courts. A second law, the Lerdo Law (named after former Treasury Secretary Miguel Lerdo de Tejada) allowed the government to confiscate Church land and – you guessed it – tax it. A third law, the Iglesias Law (named after controversial interim President José María Iglesias, and not Julio – sorry, Mom), put further restrictions on the clergy.
As you can imagine, as the Liberals passed more and more laws to restrict the rights of the Church, the Conservatives became agitated. Eventually, the two factions went to war.
Wars, of course, are expensive. And while most of Europe was happy to stay out of conflicts in the Americas, they weren’t thrilled about the loss of resources, including money. So in 1861, when then-President Mexican Benito Juárez defaulted on a series of debts owed to European countries, the Europeans sent the equivalent of armed thugs to collect what they were owed. Eventually, Britain and Spain negotiated deals and returned home, but France spurred on by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon III), stayed, determined to make a statement and perhaps pick up some additional land. That was the beginning of what became known as the Franco-Mexican War (1861-1867).
Despite the fact that France had significantly more resources than Mexico, it was initially unable to move too far into the country. Eventually, France became more successful and captured the port city of Veracruz, Mexico. That caused the Mexican government to flee, and it appeared that the French were close to a victory.
However, things were about to change. A seemingly insignificant battle in Puebla de Los Angeles on May 5, 1862, became a symbolic win for Mexico: It emboldened a poor, beleaguered resistance movement into believing that they had a chance. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Mexicans fought back against the French, who retreated after losing 500 soldiers. Mexican historian and philosopher, Justo Sierra, wrote, about the day:
its moral and political results were immeasurable. The entire nation was thrilled with enthusiasm. Surely no Mexican, whatever his party, was downcast by the victory. The remotest Indian village felt the electric current of patriotism that sped like lightning through the land, awakening many a sleeping conscience. The people were inspired to make a supreme effort.
The battle didn’t end the war. It raged on for several more years, and France appeared to have the advantage a few times, even capturing Mexico City. But fierce Mexican resistance, together with support from the United States, helped Mexico secure a victory in 1867. The timing wasn’t coincidental.
In the mid-1860s, the Union and the Confederacy officially stopped fighting, putting an end to the United States Civil War. The United States had largely ignored foreign affairs during wartime. After the war ended, that changed. We declared that France had violated the Monroe Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine was a declaration that the United States would stay out of European affairs if Europe stayed out of North and South America (existing colonies excluded). Failure to do so would be considered an act of aggression. When France wouldn’t leave Mexico, we took the opportunity to flex our muscles, sending troops – and a message – to the border. The Mexicans continued to fight, and an increasingly weak French army eventually surrendered to the Mexican Republic.
Today, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated throughout the United States perhaps more than in Mexico. It’s typically a normal day in Mexico, except in the State of Puebla where the battle was won, and most government offices remain open (unlike on Mexican Independence Day when government offices are closed).
So why the celebration here? The United States likely benefited more from the battle in Puebla de Los Angeles than Mexico. The French were so occupied with Mexico that they were not able to significantly fund or assist the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War, despite the best of intentions. In contrast, the Union was funded through a series of government taxes, including the Internal Revenue Act of 1862, the precursor to our modern income tax system (and first established Office of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue). Since the French were sympathetic to the Confederacy, had the French easily taken Puebla in 1862, freeing up French military and other resources, the entire course of history might have been changed.
So, it all comes down to power and money and taxes – like most conflicts these days. Ponder that over a nice tequila and a plate of tacos tonight. Salud!