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This webpage reproduces an article in
Political Science Quarterly
Vol. 11 No. 1 (March 1896), pp30‑43

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 p30  The French in Mexico and the Monroe Doctrine

Ever since the Spanish yoke had been thrown off, in 1821, Mexico had been constantly subject to revolution and counter-revolution, generally led by some chief of either the Liberal or the Clerical party. In forty years there had been nearly forty revolutions, and over seventy different supreme executives. Government was hardly more than a name. Assaults and murders were frequent in the capital, guerilla warfare was common in the provinces, and banditti infested the highways. Even the British legation had been robbed of about $600,000 in coin. So insufferable had become the outrages upon foreigners that the French and English ministers had loudly protested, and President Buchanan, in his last annual message, had recommended intervention on the part of the United States to obtain indemnity. In 1861 the constitutional president was Benito Juarez. He was a full-blooded Indian, but a man of character, ability and extraordinary attainments. Although Miramon, the leader of the Church party, had been completely defeated and had fled from Mexico, leaving the party without organization, yet it did not cease to plot. Juarez and the Liberals about him had some honest and statesmanlike purposes, but they had not the power to conquer the disorders or to correct the grievances. England, France, Spain and the United States had claims against Mexico amounting to more than eighty million dollars. Mexican finances were in ruins. The annual governmental expenses alone exceeded the revenues by nearly a million dollars. In July, 1861, the Mexican Congress sought temporary relief by passing an act suspending for two years the payment of all foreign debts. This brought matters to a crisis.

 p31  I

The question of European intervention in order to compel Mexico to respect her obligations had often been discussed. Now England, France and Spain decided to take matters into their own hands. Aside from the actual grievances of these powers, each had its notion of the probable results of intervention. Spain had not yet become fully reconciled to the loss of her American colonies, and she thought of a throne for a Bourbon prince. England very reasonably believed that no intervention should go beyond the point of seeking redress for actual injuries.​1 France had several aims, soon to be noticed. On the 31st of October, 1861, these three powers signed a convention in London by which they agreed to demand jointly from Mexico "more efficacious protection for the persons and properties of their subjects, as well as a fulfillment of the obligations contracted toward their Majesties." Article second of the convention read:

The high contracting parties engage not to seek for themselves, in the employment of coercive measures contemplated by the present convention, any acquisition of territory nor any special advantage, and not to exercise in the internal affairs of Mexico any influences of a nature to prejudice the right of the Mexican nation to choose and to constitute freely the form of its government.​2

Toward the end of 1861 ships of Spain, France and England sailed for Vera Cruz with the avowed intention of taking possession of the custom-houses of two or three of the principal Mexican ports, and of satisfying their claims from the receipts.

Within a few weeks after the arrival of these troops, and before the allies had done much more than seize Vera Cruz, the English and the Spanish leaders became dissatisfied with the actions, and suspicious of the intentions, of the French. Having soon reached an agreement with Mexico as to the claims of  p32 their respective governments, the forces of England and Spain withdrew in April, 1862. The triple alliance was dissolved, and the French were left with a free hand.

Before sketching the subsequent actions of France, it is interesting to consider whether the intervention of the allies was thought to have violated what is commonly known as the Monroe Doctrine. The pith of that doctrine is expressed by the following sentences from Monroe's famous annual message of 1823:

We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers [the members of the Holy Alliance], to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered, and shall not interfere. But with the governments who have declared their independence and maintained it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power, in any other light than as a manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.

The three allies had not only agreed among themselves not to prejudice the right of the Mexican nation to choose and constitute freely the form of its government, but they had invited the United States to join with them in compelling Mexico to respect her obligations. The United States declined to become a party to the London convention chiefly for two reasons: they preferred to adhere to their traditional policy which forbade them to make alliances with foreign nations; and, secondly, they did not feel inclined to resort to forcible remedies for their claims at that time, when the government of Mexico was deeply disturbed by factions within, and by war with foreign nations.​3 In the same communication in which these reasons were set forth, Secretary Seward volunteered the statement that

 p33  the President does not feel himself at liberty to question, and he does not question, that the sovereigns represented have [the] undoubted right to decide for themselves the fact whether they have sustained grievances, and to resort to war with Mexico for the redress thereof, and have the right also to levy war severally or jointly.

Neither at this time, nor subsequently, did he suggest that the Monroe Doctrine had been violated by the three powers.


From beginning to end the Mexican expedition was the most curious scheme of the Second Empire. Like many of the ideas of Napoleon III, it was too grand for formulation before execution, and too odious for explanation thereafter. His political aims really took precedence of what were known as French "grievances." The Italian war had left many thorns in his path. Austria bore him much ill-will. The Pope had not forgotten how Napoleon III had injured his temporal power. The republican opposition at home was very ominous to the so‑called "grande politique impériale." Leaving out of consideration the promptings of Napoleon's ill-balanced ambition, the Mexican revolution seemed to present just the opportunity, by accepting which, Austria might be appeased, the Holy Father induced to smile benignly, and the French republicans reduced to a patriotic hush or to an odious opposition. Nor was commercial France always forgotten. As the United States were occupied in a great civil war, Napoleon thought he saw a chance to prevent their commercial preponderance in the western hemisphere, by laying in Mexico the foundations of French supremacy, so as to turn the tide of race predominance in the Americas in favor of the Latins.

After the English and the Spanish retired from Vera Cruz the French soon showed that they had never intended to be bound by the London convention. In the most summary manner France presented her ultimatum to Mexico in the shape of a claim for $27,000,000: twelve millions  p34 were demanded as an indemnity for alleged injuries which French subjects had suffered, but which France would not deign to itemize; and the remaining fifteen millions were for government bonds which the revolutionary Clerical government of Miramon had given to a Swiss banker, Jecker, for $750,000 in cash, by the aid of which it had been hoped that the constitutional government of Juarez might be overthrown. Payment being an impossibility, as the French well knew long before, they began a forced march toward the City of Mexico. On approaching Puebla the vanguard lost two thousand men. At the town itself they met with a most humiliating repulse. Thereupon large reënforcements were called for, and in a few months the French army amounted to about thirty-five thousand men. In May, 1863, Puebla finally fell into the hands of the French, and early in June they triumphantly entered the Mexican capital.

If any one still doubted Napoleon's intention to overthrow the Mexican republic, all uncertainty must have been dispelled very soon. The commander of the expedition, General Forey, and the French minister, de Saligny, took matters into their own hands. They selected a junta, or provisional government, composed of thirty-five members, who chose three Regents as an executive head, and later named an Assembly of Notables of 215 persons. With hardly an exception the members of this improvised government were enemies of the constitutional president, Juarez. In accordance with the program the assembly met in July, 1863, and without debate, and with only two voices in the negative, voted that an empire be established; that the Archduke Maximilian of Austria, brother of Francis Joseph, should be invited to accept the throne; and that if he should decline it, the Emperor of the French should be asked to fill the vacancy. Maximilian expressed his willingness to accept the offer if a Mexican plébiscite should result in his favor, and if he could obtain from other sources such guarantees as would seem to protect the integrity of Mexico. During the next year the imperial army, composed mainly of French soldiers, caused many of the smaller cities and villages of  p35 Mexico to surrender to the new government. By the spring of 1864 all doubt had been settled in the mind of Maximilian, and his scruples in favor of a national plébiscite were satisfied without an actual vote. On the day on which Maximilian finally accepted the crown, April 10, 1864, a convention was entered into between France and the imperial government of Mexico, by which Mexico agreed to pay the French claims and the past and future cost of the intervention, under certain conditions; and France practically guaranteed to Maximilian her military protection.​4 In June, 1864, Maximilian I made a brilliant entry into the City of Mexico. His pious and sentimental mind was crowded with liberal ideas, for he really hoped to regenerate his new country. But his throne rested on the shoulders of the French troops.

During the time the French were executing these plans of intervention the Civil War was engrossing nearly the entire physical and intellectual strength of the United States. Even the most hopeful, like Lincoln and Seward, were now and then forced to doubt the complete success of the Union cause. In addition to this, as the dispatches of the United States and of the Confederacy show, Napoleon and his minister at Washington were constantly hopeful of Confederate success; and more than once France was at the very point of interference to stop our war. It is not strange that in these circumstances Seward's course was not altogether steadfast: he had to avoid the greatest dangers and leave theories to the future.

Before the triple alliance was dissolved, there had been a strong but mistaken suspicion that the powers were bent on doing jointly what France designed to do alone. In view of this Seward wrote to Dayton, our minister at Paris, that no monarchical government, founded in Mexico in the presence of foreign navies and armies, would have any prospect of security or permanency; and that the instability of such a monarchy there would be enhanced if the throne should be assigned to any person not of Mexican nativity.​5 Late in March, 1862, the Department of State received its first definite  p36 information of the aims of the French. Thereupon Dayton was instructed to inform the French minister of foreign affairs that we could not look with indifference upon any armed European intervention in Mexico for political ends.​6 But our military campaigns of the spring of 1862 were so engrossing that the Mexican question was postponed, on the ground, as Seward explained, that "nations no more than individuals can wisely divide their attention upon many subjects at one time."​7 While France was frequently interrogated, and was permitted to infer that Seward thought her avowals and actions not altogether consistent, he never indicated plainly that he questioned her sincerity. Not knowing what we could afford to risk for Mexico, he discreetly awaited events, not feeling, as he wrote, at liberty to reject the explanations of France or to anticipate a violation of her assurances.8

Toward the end of the year 1863 the French minister of foreign affairs, Drouyn de Lhuys, intimated that if the United States would early recognize the proposed empire, such action would be agreeable to France and would hasten the withdrawal of her troops. Seward's answer must have been as unsatisfactory as it was adroit. He said that the United States were determined to err, if at all, on the side of strict neutrality in the war between France and Mexico; that they were still of the opinion that the permanent establishment of a foreign or monarchical government in Mexico would be found neither easy nor desirable; and that the United States could not do otherwise than leave the destinies of Mexico in the keeping of her own people, and recognize their sovereignty and independence in whatever form they themselves should choose.​9 These statements were doubtless intended to convey the impression that the United States would not invoke the Monroe Doctrine.

Congress and the newspapers could not understand the wisdom of trying to conquer the Confederacy before seeking hostilities abroad. They had great contempt for what they styled Seward's cowardice. In January, 1864, McDougal of California  p37 introduced into the Senate a series of resolutions which declared it to be the duty of our government to require France to remove her armed forces from Mexico; and the resolutions further called for the negotiation of a treaty by which we should engage to prevent the possible interposition of any of the European powers in the affairs of Mexico.​10 Fortunately there were enough prudent men in the Senate to cause these resolutions to be laid on the table. But in April the House declared unanimously that it would not accord with the policy of the United States to acknowledge a monarchical government, erected on the ruins of any republican government in America under the auspices of any European power.​11 Dayton reported that the European press inferred from this that either France or the United States would soon have to make a change of policy.​12 When he called upon Drouyn the Lhuys shortly after the report of these resolutions reached Paris, the first words of the French minister were: "Do you bring us peace, or bring us war?"​13 Seward had already taken the precaution to inform Dayton that the extravagant opinions entertained at the Capitol were "not in harmony with the policy of neutrality, forbearance and consideration which the president has so faithfully pursued."​14 After the passage of the House resolution, he caused the French government to be reminded that the question of the policy toward Mexico was an executive one, unless two-thirds of both houses should agree; that the president did not at present contemplate a departure from the policy hitherto pursued; and that in any case France would be seasonably apprised of any change.​15 But for such declarations as these — in opposition to the prevalent opinion of the people of the United States — it is practically certain that Napoleon would have felt compelled to strike at us in our weakness, and while he was still master of affairs at home and in Mexico.

The chief aim of the secretary of state during the years 1863 and 1864, so critical on account of our military campaigns, was  p38 to avoid the active disfavor of France, but still to keep her informed that her invasion of Mexico was not approved. He gave no heed to the popular clamor against Napoleon. "But why should we gasconade about Mexico, when we are in a struggle for our national life?" he wrote to an intimate friend at Paris.​16 However, when Dayton informed him of Maximilian's final acceptance, he was not wanting in decision, and replied, that if our precautions should

fail to secure us against oppression, we shall then, I trust, be able to rise without great effort to the new duties which in that case will have devolved upon us. I remain now firm, as heretofore, in the opinion that the destinies of the American continent are not to be permanently controlled by the political arrangements that can be made in the capitals of Europe.​17


After the summer of 1864 the fortunes of Napoleon and of poor Maximilian did not brighten. The Liberal party in Mexico had confiscated most of the enormous possessions of the Catholic Church. It was the Clerical party that had planned and encouraged foreign intervention, with the firm conviction that thereby the lost riches of the church could be regained. Probably Napoleon had given assurances of this nature; but the French found that much of the former property of the church had fallen into the hands of their fellow-citizens. Maximilian was preëminently a Catholic prince; and it was confidently believed that he would champion the cause of his church. But he sincerely sought to conciliate all parties. As a result he received the full support of none. The Clericals could never accept one who disobeyed the injunctions of the Pope, and the Liberals would never yield to an emperor. Many of the Clericals were soon denouncing Napoleon and Maximilian as bitterly as any of the Liberals. Moreover, neither Maximilian nor any of his trusted friends had any executive ability. Able men would have organized a new financial system, but Maximilian had to depend upon the French budget as much as upon the French troops.

 p39  But despite all this and the growing strength of the French republicans, Napoleon was destined to keep Maximilian on his throne long enough for France either to secure out of Mexican taxes and mines partial compensation for her expenses, or else to get possession of some of the richest Mexican territory. He would probably have succeeded in one or both, if the Federal army had not overthrown the Confederacy.

The conclusion of our Civil War removed all reasonable objection to a bolder and more candid discussion of the real significance to the United States of the status in Mexico. Seward no longer feared the results of a conflict with France; but diplomacy had been so potent in other directions, that he believed it could be used to undermine Maximilian's empire and to persuade Napoleon that he was attempting an impossibility. The United States kept up friendly relations with Juarez's government and declined to recognize Maximilian. As late as June 3, 1865, Seward informed Mr. John Bigelow, then our minister at Paris, that the policy toward Mexico had undergone no change. Soon after this he stated that there was a growing disposition to find a casus belli in the political situation in Mexico.

Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Sheridan and many of the officers of the regular army were eager to go to war with France. In the spring of 1865 Sheridan had been ordered to western Texas, where some of the Confederates still held out. After they disbanded, he gathered a large army along the Rio Grande, ready to invade Mexico as soon as the war sentiment of the army and of many of the politicians could overcome President Johnson's confidence in Seward's diplomacy. Sheridan's Memoirs show how bitterly he resented Seward's influence for peace.

As a sort of compromise between continuing the policy of neutrality and adopting the bellicose ideas of the soldiers and the politicians, Seward caused General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Schofield to be sent to Paris to advise with Mr. Bigelow and to impress France with the danger of war. In the autumn of 1865 Seward's instructions to Mr. Bigelow became much bolder and more direct. In a long dispatch of September 6, 1865, he said in substance:  p40 For many years there has been a traditional friendship between France and the United States which has been cherished quite regardless of political conditions in either country. The United States favor republican institutions on the American continent. French intervention in Mexico has been antagonistic to this position and has tended to prevent the republican sovereignty of Mexico from asserting itself. The national policy of the United States springs from the national will, and not from the will of any president or administration. Heretofore the national will has been directed mainly toward the suppression of a rebellion; having accomplished this it will soon turn to the Mexican question. France and the United States have armies confronting each other on the Mexican border; and although each has heretofore practiced prudence toward the other, "a time seems to have come when both nations may well consider whether the permanent interests of international peace and friendship do not require the exercise of a thoughtful and serious attention to the political question to which I have thus adverted."

On November 6 another step in advance was taken. Seward declared that Maximilian's government was in direct antagonism to the fundamental policy and principle of our own. Therefore it could not be recognized; nor were the United States prepared to pledge themselves thereafter to recognize any political institutions in Mexico which were in opposition to the republican government there.​18 This was a diplomatic way of saying that thenceforth the republican interests in Mexico and those of the United States would be united. This serious meaning was so plain to the French minister of foreign affairs, that he felt constrained to remark, after Mr. Bigelow had finished reading the dispatch, that its contents gave him neither pleasure nor satisfaction.19

Still Napoleon deferred accepting the logic of the situation; he waited blindly, as if expecting a miracle to save him and Maximilian. But before the end of 1865 practically everybody in the United States agreed that French intervention must  p41 speedily be brought to an end. On December 16, 1865, Seward sent France what may be called an ultimatum, the most important part of which read as follows:

It has been the President's purpose that France should be respectfully informed upon two points, namely:

First. That the United States earnestly desire to continue to cultivate sincere friendship with France.

Second. That this policy would be brought into imminent jeopardy, unless France could deem it consistent with her interest and honor to desist from the prosecution of armed intervention in Mexico, to overthrow the domestic republican government existing there, and to establish upon its ruins the foreign monarchy which has been attempted to be inaugurated in the capital of that country.​20

This was as plain as if Seward had written: Withdraw or fight. After considering the matter for several weeks Napoleon concluded that he could not afford to risk a war with the United States. On April 5, 1866, Le Moniteur, his official organ, announced that the French troops would evacuate Mexico in three detachments; namely, in November, 1866, and in March and November, 1867.​21 Thus the question of French intervention in Mexico seemed to be settled.

When the time came for the departure of the first third of the French army, Seward was informed by the American minister in Paris that Napoleon had decided to postpone the withdrawal of all of his troops until the spring of 1867.​22 Seward replied by cable under date of November 23, 1866:

We cannot acquiesce —

First. Because the term "next spring," as appointed for the entire evacuation, is indefinite and vague.

Second. Because we have no authority for stating to Congress and to the American people that we have now a better guarantee for the withdrawal of the whole expeditionary force in the spring than we have heretofore had for a withdrawal of a part in November.

And third, in substance, because such delay would seriously conflict with the plans of the United States.23

 p42  Napoleon intended to withdraw his troops, but he wished to postpone their departure as long as possible, in the interest of French securities and to ward off the disgrace of his own unscrupulous scheme to use Maximilian and the Mexicans. In the hope of gaining time, at least, he soon proposed that a Mexican provisional government be formed to the exclusion of both Maximilian and Juarez. But Seward had long since declined to change our friendly relations with Juarez's government, although it had been a fugitive one for several years. During the early part of 1866, Sheridan had supplied the Mexican Liberals with as many as 30,000 muskets, and Juarez had won back most of the northeastern part of Mexico.​24 Seward now knew that he could positively decline all further negotiations for delay without causing a war; and the avoidance of war he wisely thought more important than a needless display of American enthusiasm and power. So, on January 18, 1867, he positively declined Napoleon's proposition.​25 Napoleon then gave up his false hopes. On March 5, 1867, the French evacuated the City of Mexico, and by the 19th European intervention had come to an end. Troops of the Mexican Liberals swept into the evacuated places like a huge wave. In a few weeks Maximilian's forces were routed, and the emperor and two of the most prominent of his Mexican supporters were made prisoners. They were soon tried by court-martial, and on April 19, 1867, they were shot.


One of the striking facts connected with the negotiations about French intervention in Mexico is that the Monroe Doctrine, though constantly appealed to at the time by the sensational newspapers and the politicians, seems not once to have been mentioned in any official dispatch of our government.26  p43 Why was it not appealed to by the United States when the allies seized Vera Cruz? Clearly because everybody knew that unless the allies disregarded their own pledges their act would in no way violate that doctrine. If they should attempt to revolutionize Mexico, then it would be time to protest. England and Spain kept their agreements. To have protested against what they did would have been to applaud anarchy and to discourage order and honor in international relations.

With France the case was entirely different. She violated the doctrine continuously for five years. Doubtless one of the reasons why Seward made no reference to the Monroe Doctrine by name was that he knew it to be no part of international law. It had no authority of its own, and no claim even to consideration except where it was used as a general term to express a protest against European interference which endangered substantial and vital interests of our own government. Foreign nations would yield to it only in proportion as it was reasonable and as they feared the military strength ready to support it. Seward was not as wise as we think, if he did not see that all the reason of the Monroe Doctrine would be equally strong and even more impressive if stated ad hoc in his own words, and without reference to the very different circumstances of the previous half century. The attempt of France to establish an empire upon our southwestern border really threatened our welfare. Whenever European intervention affects any interest of the United States which is worth fighting about, the term Monroe Doctrine, as such, is absolutely superfluous, because the actual or threatened danger is ample ground for action. Whenever the interest affected is inconsiderable, the term will be more useful to mere politicians than to those concerned for the real welfare of the country.

Frederic Bancroft

Columbia University

The Author's Notes:

1 Earl Russell's Speeches and Dispatches, vol. II, p484.

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2 H. R. Exec. Doc. no. 100, 37th Cong., 2d sess., pp136, 137.

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3 Seward to the Ministers of Spain, France and England. Doc. 100, p189.

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4 3 Dip. Cor. 1864, 74, 75.

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5 Doc. 100, 217.

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6 Doc. 100, 218.

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7 Dip. Cor. 1862, 471.

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8 Ibid., 1862, 749.

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9 Ibid., 1863, 726.

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10 McPherson, History of the Rebellion, 348, 349.

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11 Ibid., 349.

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12 Dispatch of Apr. 22, 1864.

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13 3 Dip. Cor. 1864, 76.

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14 Dispatch Jan. 12, 1864.

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15 3 Dip. Cor. 1865, 356, 357.

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16 May 21, 1864, MS.

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17 3 Dip. Cor. 1865, 759.

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18 3 Dip. Cor. 1865, 422.

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19 Ibid., 427.

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20 3 Dip. Cor. 1865, 490, 491.

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21 3 Dip. Cor. 1865, 827.

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22 1 Dip. Cor. 1866, 364.

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23 Ibid., 366, 367.

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24 Sheridan's Memoirs, II, 224.

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25 1 Dip. Cor. 1867, 218.

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26 [From a letter to The Nation, January 30, 1896, p96, it appears that Mr. Seward in a dispatch to our minister at Madrid in April, 1863, expressly disapproved a declaration of opinion by the minister to the effect that the French intervention in Mexico violated the Monroe Doctrine. This dispatch of disapproval was, by Mr. Seward's direction, read to the French minister of foreign affairs. —Eds.]

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