Civil War Bribery

For the first half of the Civil War President Jefferson Davis and many other Confederate leaders were hopeful that Britain and France would intervene on the side of the South. Great Britain had the world’s mightiest antebellum economy and about 20% was linked to cotton textile manufacturing, which obtain nearly 90% of its feedstock from the American South. The industry was similarly important to France, which was the second largest importer of Southern cotton. Moreover, both Britain and France resented the protective tariffs popular in the Northern states whereas the South favored free trade.

Nonetheless, Britain would require convincing reasons to diplomatically recognize the Confederacy because such action would likely provoke a war with the United States. Emperor Napoleon III of France felt the same way, although he was busily creating the required compelling reasons by preparing to install a puppet monarchy in Mexico. America’s Civil War provided him the opportunity to test Lincoln’s resolve to enforce the Monroe Doctrine while the president was pre-occupied with suppressing the Southern rebellion.


A French army landed in Mexico in January 1862 under the pretext of enforcing debt collections owed by the Liberal government under Benito Juarez. Napoleon’s real intention was to install a monarchy under the Austrian Archduke Maximilian whose throne would be protected by the French army. Mexico’s popular governments had repeatedly failed. Since gaining independence from Spain in 1821 she was governed by over fifty different administrations over the next forty years. Church clerics and conservatives concluded Mexico would do better under a monarchy. 

Napoleon had an extra reason to side with the South because an independent Confederacy could serve as a buffer state between a Mexican monarchy and the United States. Nonetheless, since his country was not as strong as Britain, he repeatedly told Confederate emissaries that France would only follow Britain’s lead in the matter of intervention.

But in July 1862 the Confederacy tempted him with a bribe that originated with Secretary of State Judah Benjamin. The South proposed to give him at least 100,000 cotton bales worth $25 million and a monopoly on the importation of manufactured items into the region for a limited period. The “catch” was that the French navy would need to deliver the merchandise and pick up the cotton. That would require them to break the Union blockade with their deep-water ironclads thereby initiating war with Lincoln, although they could claim that Lincoln’s blockade was illegal under the 1856 Treaty of Paris.

Although Napoleon turned down the proposal, it is curious that Davis did not offer an incentive similar to that offered by the Germans to Mexico in World War I. Specifically, in exchange for supporting the Confederacy, Davis could have offered to support Mexico in reclaiming the states of California, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico ceded to the United States less that fifteen years earlier at the end of the Mexican War. There is no record of why Davis failed to make such an offer. Perhaps he was more worried that Mexico would want Texas, but California and Nevada had gold and silver for which Napoleon was known to hunger.

When it came to the interests of the United States, she was not above bribery. Specifically, the Lincoln administration sought to ally with Benito Juarez in order to keep the French out of Mexico. On authority from Washington, ambassador Thomas Corwin proposed that the United States loan the Juarez government enough money to reach a financial settlement with her European debtors. He and Juarez hand long and detailed negotiations. On the presumption of such a deal, Juarez reached debt settlements with Britain and Spain and was trying to get one with France.

However, it is doubtful that the United States every really intended to make such loans which were never granted. The negotiations were merely a way of stringing Juarez along so that he would militarily resist French expansion in Mexico and indirectly contribute to the defeat of the Confederacy. But if the loans were completed and Mexico defaulted like she did on the earlier ones, much of northern Mexico and Baja California would presently be part of the United States, because Juarez was prepared to offer them as collateral.


If you enjoyed the above commentary, consider buying one of my books.

Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated

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