Mexico President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador honors President Abraham Lincoln during a wreath-laying ceremony July 8 in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of Reuters.
During a joint White House appearance the same day, the presidents of the USA and Mexico paid tribute to the historical bonds between the two countries forged by the friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Benito Juarez in the 19th century. Historian/ educator Michael Hogan posted his perspective of the relationship on the website of the North American Project, and we’re reposting it here with the permission of Dr. Hogan.
When President Lopez Obrador visited the White House this week to sign a major trade agreement with the United States, he reminded President Trump and the audience in the Rose Garden of the friendship between Abraham Lincoln and Mexican President Benito Juarez. It was a relationship that changed the face of North America. It is refreshing and even useful to reflect on an earlier period of U.S.-Mexico relations, during a time when a Republican president had a positive view of Mexico and its people.
As an Illinois congressman, Lincoln stood before the House of Representatives and accused President James K. Polk of invading Mexican territory without provocation and then declaring war because “American blood was shed on American soil.” At the time, Lincoln presented several “spot resolutions,” asserting that Polk had lied about the pretext for the war and that the blood had actually been shed on Mexican soil — with the United States as the aggressor. This did not go down well with Polk and his supporters. They accused Lincoln of providing aid and support to the enemy. Newspapers called him “spotty Lincoln.” Lincoln risked his political career with his stance: A few years later, he would lose the Senate race.
Fourteen years on, in 1861, shortly after his surprise election to the presidency as a compromise candidate, Lincoln welcomed Mexican Ambassador Matias Romero to his home in Springfield, Illinois. The 24-year-old Romero was the first foreign ambassador whom Lincoln met and entertained. They became friends.
When France invaded Mexico in 1863 and installed Archduke Maximilian on the throne, Lincoln covertly provided assistance to the exiled Republican government of Benito Juarez. 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 to help him raise over $14 million to arm and supply the Republican army and defeat the French.
Lincoln and Juarez could not have been more different. Lincoln was 6 feet 4 inches; Juarez was 4 feet 6 inches. One of Anglo-Scot stock, the other a Zapotec Indian. Yet they were both successful lawyers, confirmed Republicans and committed to human rights. And both were struggling to unite opposing forces within their countries. Thanks to Lincoln, the United States is not a divided federation. And Thanks to Juarez, 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 U.S. president in Mexico. It is due to his legacy that so many years of the “Good Neighbor Policy” pledged by Harry Truman during his 1948 visit to Mexico continued between the two countries. During that visit to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Mexican-American War, Truman placed a wreath on the tomb of the Ninos Heroes, the young cadets who died protecting Mexico against Yankee invaders. Lincoln acknowledged it was a shameful episode and sought to remedy it — a sentiment confirmed by Truman’s 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 Juarez, a timely historical reminder, not only for President Trump and his administration, but for all of us on both sides of the border.
For a more in-depth discussion of the Lincoln/Juarez connection see:
Abraham Lincoln and Mexico: A History of Courage, Intrigue and Unlikely Friendships.