It’s Cinco de Mayo. And the #1 question is how the French gave Americans (and some Pacific islanders) a great excuse to get plastered. Right behind “Were piñatas really made out of pottery?” and “which beer is best for Cinco de Mayo?”)
Hold onto your bottle openers folks, I shall reveal the secret history of Cinco de Mayo. It began 159 years ago, in the ye olde Nineteenth Century.It started out so well. All over the world, people were tweeting, “Screw #kings. Let’s rule ourselves. #99%!”
Hello, American Revolution! Bonjour, French Revolution! Hola, Latin American Revolutions! True, the French started lopping off heads almost at once, and the new Latin American nations were as much a republic as the Kardashians are talented. Mexico alone went through fifty forms of government in fewer years. The United States bought some time by putting off the question of whether democracy was compatible with slavery. Spoiler alert... it wasn’t.
So by mid-century, the world was foobar. Democracy everywhere looked like a bad investment. Mexico went to war with the United States in the 1840s. Here’s the weird thing. That war led to civil wars in both countries twenty years later. In Mexico, the Liberals (pro-democracy) blamed the Conservatives (pro-autocracy) for losing the war, not to mention Texas, New Mexico and California. So they fought about that between 1857 and 1861. Meanwhile, you’d think the US, as the winner, would be better off, but noooooooo. They couldn’t decide if those new states should be Free or Slave and there were hard feelings all around, and finally the South…. Well, you know.
The main way the US Civil War relates to Cinco de Mayo is that the Union and Confederacy were too busy with their issues to notice when France tried to own Mexico's ass.
The French at this time were already on their Second Empire (1852-1870). A debauched nephew of Napoleon, Napoleon III, was voted into power under the Second Republic; but then, Hitler-style, he committed an autogolpe and squeezed the Republic into an Empire. His regime reached a degree of extravagance and corruption amazing even by French standards. Imagine all the noble ideals that they sing about in Les Mis, and then imagine Napoleon III, a couple years later, spitting on them. He also involved France in a lot of wars, some successful, others, ahem, less so.
One of his less brilliant ideas was to invade Mexico to set up an Austrian duke as Emperor. (I know. WTF?) The would-be Emperor of Mexico's name was Max. Two chincillas once attacked his face, and he hired them to stay as sideburns.
That brings us to May 5, 1862. A mere 4,000 Mexicans faced a battle-tested army of 8,000 French soldiers--and whooped their ass. The Mexicans were pretty stoked, got really drunk afterwards, and its been a holiday ever since.
There is the small matter of how the Mexicans finally kicked out the French. Sadly, it wasn’t on May 5. The French threw another 30,000 soldiers into the war and conquered the country, briefly bolstering Emperor Max. This was not Max’s first attempt to rule someone else’s country at someone else’s behest, by the way. Previously, he had been installed as Big Cheese over some Italians before getting the boot. That should have taught him a lesson, but some people are slow.
Another fun fact: France and England almost came in on the side of the Confederacy during the US Civil War. France told England under the table, “If you do, we will.” The perfect opportunity for England to declare war came when the Union stopped a British ship and bullied two envoys. The British were outraged and considered escalating. But Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria’s German husband, heard of the affair and told her that it would be terrible for Britain to support the cause of slavery. The Queen passed on this sentiment to Parliament, who moderated their response to the incident. Long story short, England decided not to give military assistance to the Confederacy.
The French felt that if things changed, and they did intervene, Mexico would be a great staging place for their armies. Just imagine if French armies, based in Mexico, had fought in the US Civil War.
Imagine the disappointment of Emperor Napoleon of France and Emperor Max of Mexico when the Union won the Civil War. Max, always generous and never smart, invited defeated Confederate forces to set up a Colony inside Mexico’s boarders and continue the good fight for race-based servitude.
The US now turned to Mexico and said, “Hey, we may have our differences, but the one thing we can both agree on is that France had better get the hell out of Mexico.”
France fled, Max lost his head, and Mexican independence was restored, though for decades afterward, until her death in 1927, Max’s mad wife, Carlotta, insisted that everyone address her as “Empress.” As for Emperor Napoleon, he finally picked a war with the wrong nation, and spectacularly lost the Franco-Prussian War, and his throne, in 1870. The French were so famously humiliated by the Germans in that war that they nursed the grievance straight into WWI, and that was why they were determined to humiliate the Germans at the Treaty of Versailles, which in turn humiliated the Germans and led to WWII.
Meanwhile, Cinco de Mayo was only a regional holiday in Puebla, Mexico for a long time, until it was taken up as a way for international corporations to help folks celebrate Mexican-American heritage. And that’s only right. Because if those 4,000 brave Mexican soldiers hadn’t made France waste another year conquering the country, France might have had time to amass troops in Mexico to use to help the South and the history of freedom in North America would be very different.