A Most Unlikely Friendship: Abraham Lincoln and Matias Romero

by Dr. Jason H. Silverman

With the exception of a brief trip to Niagara Falls Abraham Lincoln never left the United States.[i] And yet no one would deny that today he is a global figure. In many ways, Lincoln is larger than life both within and without the United States, including the many countries of Latin America. During his lifetime, however, he met very few Mexicans, a nonwhite group with whom he had little acquaintance but about whom he had many opportunities to think. His relationship with Mexicans began quite inauspiciously, if not downright unpleasantly, before he altered his opinions and before his legacy became time honored.

Matias Romero

During his one term as a Congressman, Lincoln’s public opposition to the United States-Mexican War represented one of the few positions he publicly took on the government’s policies toward Hispanics and Latin America. As a Whig member of the Illinois delegation to the House of Representatives, he introduced in December 1847 a series of resolutions, known as the “Spot Resolutions,” denouncing President James K. Polk’s handling of the war. In his resolutions, freshman congressman Lincoln analyzed Polk’s messages seeking war with Mexico that claimed American blood had been shed on American soil. The House of Representatives, Lincoln declared, was “desirous to obtain a full knowledge of all the facts which go to establish whether the particular spot on which the blood of our citizens was so shed or was not at that time our own soil.” Toward that end, Lincoln offered eight resolutions seeking specific information. Each of the resolutions begins with the word, whether. Lincoln’s repetition of this word was not merely used as a rhetorical device or a tool of organization, but rather as the lead to a series of practical legal interrogatories. If the answer to any of them were in the affirmative, then the declaration of war was both justified and constitutional. If the answers were negative, then the declaration of war was fatally flawed. The first two required evidence as to the precise location, and under whose territorial boundaries American blood was shed. The next five extended the analysis to determine whether the territory on which casualties occurred was ever under the government or laws of Texas or of the United States. The final and eighth resolution was the most damning to Polk’s contention that war was necessary by reminding Congress that the President’s own commanding general, Zachary Taylor, “had, more than once, intimated to the War Department that, in his opinion, no such movement was necessary to the defense or protection of Texas.”[ii]

Soon into the new year of 1848, Lincoln delivered a meticulously argued speech in Congress exposing what he saw as the vagueness of jurisdiction along the Texas-Mexico border. Both countries, Lincoln felt, had a legitimate claim to ownership, thus rendering Polk’s declaration of war unconstitutional and contrary to international law. Lincoln apparently had high hopes for this speech, but was soon disappointed when the Democrats ignored his remarks and his fellow Whigs gave him only weak support. In principle, Lincoln did not oppose territorial expansion, as seen by his willingness as president to stimulate homesteading on western lands. Even the annexation of Texas had only partially offended his sensitivity about expanding slavery, because in that case Texas already existed as a slaveholding territory and annexation did not entail the spreading of slave labor to new areas. Rather, Lincoln’s opposition rested more on a fear that slavery might expand into Mexico itself, a free nation, and that Polk’s handling of the crisis that precipitated the war represented a usurpation of war-making powers that the Constitution left exclusively to Congress. Lincoln wrote to his law partner, William Herndon that Polk’s actions placed the president where kings had always stood— one of his many analogies to the divine rights theory that he would make in subsequent years. Arguing as the lawyer that he was, Lincoln’s concern rested more with the legalities of the process by which land was acquired from Mexico than with the consequences of acquisition for the Mexican people.[iii]

The Mexican-American War, 1846-1848

Like most westerners, Lincoln had a low opinion of Latin American civilization and his references to Latinos were never flattering. In his debate with Stephen Douglas at Galesburg, Illinois, Lincoln attacked the concept of popular sovereignty — Douglas’ notion that the people of a territory should decide the slavery issue for themselves — by asking a hypothetical question as to whether Douglas would apply the doctrine in an acquisition like Mexico where the inhabitants were “nonwhite.” “When we shall get Mexico,” Lincoln asserted, “I don’t know whether the Judge [Douglas] will be in favor of the Mexican people that we get with it settling that question for themselves and all others; because we know the Judge has a great horror for mongrels, and I understand that the people of Mexico are most decidedly a race of mongrels.” Lincoln continued by explaining, “I understand that there is not more than one person there out of eight who is pure white, and I suppose from the Judge’s previous declaration that when we get Mexico or any considerable portion of it, that he will be in favor of these mongrels settling the question, which would bring him somewhat into collision with his horror of an inferior race.”[iv]

Even if allowance is made for the fact that these comments by Lincoln occurred in an intense debate where serious race baiting was occurring, Lincoln still used derogatory comments about Hispanics in speeches where there was no apparent motive. In describing the Cubans, Lincoln pulled no punches. “Their butchery was, as it seemed to me,” Lincoln said in 1852, “most unnecessary and inhuman. They were fighting against one of the worst governments in the world [the Spanish]; but their fault was, that the real people of Cuba had not asked for their assistance; were neither desirous of, nor fit for, civil liberty.” Later in a patriotic speech extoling the innovation and brilliance of “Young America” with the “Old Fogy” countries, crediting Americans’ technological success to their intellectual powers of observation and experiment, Lincoln concluded, “But for the difference in habit of observation, why did Yankees, almost instantly, discover gold in California, which had been trodden upon, and overlooked by Indians and Mexican greasers, for centuries?”[v]

Lincoln, generally speaking, was pessimistic about the possibility of white people accepting nonwhites as equals. Often he spoke in flattering praise of white Americans’ technological and moral superiority while denigrating peoples of color, peoples with whom he had little actual contact. But Lincoln was a private person by nature and a political person by appearance. Thus, how much of this represents the inner heart and mind of Lincoln may be a different matter.

Assuming, however, that his public record reflects his private sentiments, Lincoln believed the nations of Latin America to be backward. In this regard, Lincoln surely may be considered an ethnocentric individual who measured other cultures and subcultures through the prism of his own and found them wanting; for him, what was right for white America was right for the world.

Lincoln’s opposition to the Mexican-American War through his “Spot Resolutions” had contributed significantly to his failure to return to Congress for a second term. Convinced that he had committed political suicide, Lincoln returned to Springfield downtrodden yet determined to become a successful lawyer. From there he would evolve into a prosperous and influential attorney and from there he would launch his unlikeliest of political comebacks.

Lincoln’s neighborhood, while diverse with many German, Irish, Portuguese, Scottish, and French immigrants, included virtually no Mexicans. His lack of first-hand knowledge of Mexicans would remain that way until a fateful day in January 1861 as President-elect Lincoln prepared to embark on his journey to become the nation’s sixteenth president.[vi]

“It is the wish of the President that you proceed to the place of residence of President-elect Lincoln and in the name of this government, and to make clear to him in an open manner, if the opportunity offers, the desire which animates President Juarez, of entering in to the most cordial relations with that government.” With those words, 24-year old Matias Romero, in charge of the Mexican Legation in Washington, set out for Springfield, Illinois, on January 7, 1861, to meet, congratulate, and cajole the newly elected Abraham Lincoln. Romero’s visit would begin an unlikely friendship with Lincoln that would enhance both their lives. Romero began his visit by providing Lincoln with a thorough briefing on the situation that existed in Mexico. The new Mexican president, Benito Juarez, had assumed leadership of a country that was not only devastated by civil strife, but one whose treasury was seriously depleted by the depredations of Santa Anna and the Reform War. It was believed by both Romero and Mexican leaders that Lincoln was predisposed toward friendship, as his congressional record was well known and his political embarrassment caused by opposing the Polk administration’s desire for war with Mexico was well documented.[vii]

Benito Pablo Juárez García was a Mexican lawyer and politician of Zapotec origin from Oaxaca who served as the president of Mexico for five terms: 1858–1872

Romero arrived in Springfield late on a wintry January day and assumed “it would be easy to secure a room in [the] sleepy Midwestern town.” However, all the hotels in town were “full with friends, patronage seekers, and the merely curious who had come to meet the newly elected president. Many of the travelers were packed into guesthouses three to a room with strangers sharing beds,” while others shivered in “sleeper cars parked in the rail yard.”[viii]

William Moss Wilson describes how the manager of the American Hotel in Springfield, Romero’s first choice of lodging, quickly recognized that the young man was no ordinary traveler. “Romero’s refined manner and dapper three-piece suit distinguished him from the homespun westerners in their hickory shirts and pantaloons tucked into boots”, writes Wilson. Romero was provided “the last ‘very dirty bed’ and the promise of his own room for the next evening.”[ix] Romero was no doubt grateful just to get some rest because the following day, January 19, he came to Lincoln’s home to deliver the official diplomatic congratulations and good tidings from the Republic of Mexico.

This was an especially significant and unique visit. By many accounts, this was the first time Lincoln conversed directly with a person of Mexican descent. Furthermore, though he was about to assume responsibility for American foreign policy, Lincoln received not a single caller from the capitals of Europe between his election and inauguration. Lincoln’s personal secretary, John Hay, was understandably gratified to observe Romero’s display of “deep respect and consideration” for the president-elect. Indeed, Lincoln was taken with the young diplomat from the outset.[x]

In contrast to the turbulent relationship between the United States and Mexico in the first half of the nineteenth century, Mexico genuinely looked forward to a Lincoln presidency. In fact, Romero, in his voluminous notes, diary, and correspondence[xi] was the first to note the similarities in personality, demeanor, intelligence and background between Lincoln and Mexican leader Benito Juarez. Indeed, shortly after Lincoln’s election, Mexico had emerged from its own civil war. Mexico’s new leadership wanted nothing more than economic cooperation with the United States and to be treated as a respected southern neighbor — something that would not have even been considered with Lincoln’s Democratic predecessors who were bent on the annexation of significant portions of the Mexican nation. Now, with the election of the Lincoln’s Republicans on a platform of free-soil and free-labor, Mexico’s new leadership counted on the Lincoln administration to respect Mexican territorial borders.[xii]

Sensing Lincoln was not well-informed about the situation in Mexico, Romero explained fully the objects of the party of reform, showing that from the beginning of the republic, the clergy and the military had retained their privileged positions, regardless of the national well-being. These elements were now being brought under control and equal opportunity offered to all citizens. The Mexicans had adopted the same principles as the United States, Romero told Lincoln, and were delighted at Lincoln’s and the Republican Party’s victory. “I told President Lincoln,” Romero wrote in his report to the Minister of the Exterior, “that the constitutional government desires to maintain the most intimate and friendly relations with the United States, to whose citizens it proposes to dispense complete protection and to concede every form of facilities toward developing commercial and other interests of both republics. Mexico wants to adopt the same principles of liberty and progress followed here,” Romero continued, “traveling the same path to arrive at grandeur and unequaled prosperity currently enjoyed in the United States. . . .[Lincoln’s] administration with regard to Mexico is expected to be truly fraternal and not guided by the egotistic and antihumanitarian principles which the Democratic administrations had pursued in respect to Mexico, principles that resulted in pillaging the Mexican Republic of its territory in order to extend slavery.”[xiii]

Lincoln paid very close attention to Romero and declared in a “vehement and explicit manner, that he hoped for peace and prosperity for Mexico” and that during his term of office he hoped to remove all obstacles to that end. “While he is in power,” [Lincoln] added, “Mexico should be assured he will do her justice on all questions that are pending or that will subsequently occur between the two republics. In all matters, Lincoln concluded, he will treat Mexico with the sentiments of the highest consideration and of true sympathy.”[xiv]

Carte de visite of Matias Romero presented to the United States government in 1863

Ever the lawyer, Lincoln questioned his visitor very closely on the conditions in his country and was especially interested in the status of the peons, a group which Lincoln feared, lived in a state worse than that of the slaves on southern plantations. He pressed Romero on whether the abuses of the Indians working in the hacienda systems were “general and widespread in the Republic and [were] authorized by law.” Lincoln was also concerned whether the conditions of the hacienda system were exaggerated by the press in the United States as he had read some very troubling descriptions of mistreatment there. “I explained in detail how such abuses were committed,” Romero wrote, “[and] he expressed great satisfaction in learning that such practices were contrary to the laws of the Republic and that, when Mexico has a solidly established government, it will attempt to correct these abuses.”[xv]

As he had done with his two young secretaries, John Hay and John G. Nicolay, Lincoln took almost a fatherly posture with Romero. Lincoln found Romero to be intense, yet quite polished in manners and charming in demeanor. While it is likely that Romero did not understand all of Lincoln’s downhome stories and yarns, the young diplomat was apparently amused by Lincoln’s frequent laughing at his own stories. When their initial visit ended, with old-worldly courtesy, Romero vowed to return to see Lincoln again to take leave of him.

Romero was true to his word. Two days later he returned to Lincoln’s home to bid him farewell. This time it was a less intimate setting because there were a number of other visitors there and Lincoln was preoccupied so no new matters were discussed. Nevertheless, Lincoln made it a point when he was able to introduce Romero to the others there as his new friend from Mexico, a gesture most appreciated by Romero. In Romero’s opinion, the two visits with Lincoln had been rewarding and would prove crucial in advancing the interests of Mexico. Even though Romero had concluded that Lincoln was not particularly well informed about the situation in Mexico, he was impressed that Lincoln was a receptive listener who asked probing and significant questions. Romero was confident that Lincoln’s administration would be friendly, as the sentiments which Lincoln had expressed came from a man whom he judged to be a “sensible, honorable man, and his words carried the stamp of sincerity and not of pompous phrases, empty of meaning, which, when used by the people educated in the school of false politics, have the habit of offering much and giving little nothing.”[xvi]

While in Springfield, the Mexican envoy met the governor, members of the legislature, and other important state officials. To all of them Romero conveyed the respect of Mexico for Republican principles and his personal hope for success in carrying them into operation. He made himself known in the hope that these men who were friends of Lincoln might use their influence with him in favor of the Mexican Government.

Before his departure from Springfield to return to Washington, Romero received from Lincoln a letter of appreciation. “Allow me to thank you for your polite call as Charge d’Affaires of Mexico,” Lincoln wrote. “While, as yet I can do no official act on behalf of the United States, as one of its citizens, I tender the expression of my sincere wishes for the happiness, prosperity, and liberty of yourself, your government, and its people.”[xvii]

Soon both Lincoln and Romero were in the nation’s capital and their friendship was renewed among the darkening clouds of war in the United States. Lincoln once again found Romero to be particularly gracious and personable. Lincoln regarded the 24-year old Romero as an indefatigable young man. As he had quickly done in Springfield, Lincoln treated Romero as “one of his boys,” a truly remarkable development given that Lincoln, as a westerner, had once spoken so disparagingly about the Mexican people. Perhaps even more significant, however, the Lincoln family befriended Romero. Mary Todd Lincoln, the difficult and mercurial soon-to-be First Lady felt the same way about Romero as her husband. What particularly endeared Romero to the President was gratitude; Romero, with good-natured grace, frequently escorted Mrs. Lincoln on her many shopping trips to the Washington fashion stores. Doubtless it was a duty which Lincoln was extremely happy to relinquish. But Mrs. Lincoln also had many meetings with Romero during which she shared his anxiety over France having an army in Mexico and the danger of it allying with the Confederacy. Based on their mutual concerns, she frequently urged President Lincoln to support Mexico. Then, too, when Romero had the funds he hosted dinner parties and other social events at the Mexican embassy and frequently invited the Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln. After accepting one such invitation Robert jokingly wrote to Romero, “I hope I may be able to come off unscathed by your double attractions — ladies and the table.” Romero had indeed become almost a part of the extended Lincoln family.[xviii]

By early February, the president-elect was more convinced than ever that giving in on the expansion of slavery in the territories would place Mexico at the mercy of the southern filibusterers, the private military adventurers who sought to conquer territory in Latin America for colonization, the extension of slavery, and eventual annexation by the United States.

It was not the southern filibusterers, however, who made the first move on Mexican sovereignty. Lincoln informed Romero that he was deeply troubled when reports of a French-led operation in Mexico reached the White House. Lincoln responded by telling Romero that he would treat Mexico “with sentiments of the highest consideration and of true sympathy,” and he kept his word. Lincoln made the immediate appointment of former United States senator Thomas Corwin, the renowned orator and vocal opponent of the Mexican-American War, as ambassador to Mexico. Lincoln also approved the terms of a loan to Mexico that Corwin recommended, the first ever proposed loan to a foreign nation.[xix]

But Napoleon III’s threat to Mexico was only one of many issues consuming the new president. Since the first days of his administration, Lincoln had been struggling to manage a civil war at home and the delicate relationships with European powers like France, Britain, and Spain. First Lincoln had been confronted by the Spanish reoccupation of Santo Domingo. Then he had been faced with Britain’s declaration of neutrality and the tensions with them that his blockade of the Confederacy had spawned. Now the French Emperor, too, seemed to be threatening to overthrow the balance of power in the New World.

Union loyalists feared that the French operation might be a prelude to full-scale intervention in the Civil War. The Lincoln administration indirectly invoked the Monroe Doctrine whenever they could to prevent French maneuvering in Mexico from becoming “a pretext for getting into the American waters a large force, ready to act in liberating cotton when the time comes.”[xx]

Romero reinforced Lincoln’s views on hemispheric independence. Visiting Lincoln in the White House, Romero declared that the principles of the Monroe Doctrine “seem to be written for the present occasion.” As consumed as Lincoln was with the Civil War, because of his affection for Romero, and much to the chagrin of the long line waiting to see him, he took the time to sit down and listen to young man. The diplomat reiterated that the “reactionary” wing in Mexico was “composed of clergy, the demoralized part of the old army, some moneychangers, and a few other illusionaries and fanatics who collectively are in evident minority. Their tendencies are to establish an aristocratic and monarchical form of government, for which purpose they have solicited and ardently desire the aid and intervention of the European powers.”

France showed marked preference for the reactionaries, over whom they exercised significant influence, and Napoleon, Romero told Lincoln, would seek to ally himself with the reactionaries and must be stopped. Mexico and the United States now had identical interests, Romero asserted, as a result of the presence of both French and British agents in Northern Mexico. “To make this mutual interest even more palatable,” Romero warned Lincoln that should “England take Matamoros . . . she could extract all the Southern cotton through that port.”[xxi]

Lincoln listened “with marked attention and without interrupting” Romero. When he did speak, Lincoln told his friend that he and his Cabinet were “deeply aware of the importance and significance of the matter. … They had dedicated their fullest attention to this . . . occupying themselves with it in preference to all other important problems.” Lincoln made clear that his purpose “was to try to prevent the armed intervention of France and England in Mexico, or failing in that, to defer it as long as possible.” But with the war going poorly for the North, Lincoln was able to offer no practical proposal for accomplishing that. An American invasion of Mexico was out of the question, particularly at such an early stage in America’s Civil War. Lincoln’s army had been humiliated at Bull Run, Ball’s Bluff, and other early skirmishes and they had demonstrated that they could not defeat the Confederate rebels, much less the military of one of the world’s great powers. Romero perceptively noticed that the President “appeared to lack confidence in the success of his efforts because of the present situation in the United States.”[xxii]

Matias Romero to Abraham Lincoln, Monday, January 21, 1861 (Sends clippings)

At the center of that “present situation” was, of course, the Confederacy’s successes and the issue of slavery. Romero, then, was somewhat taken aback in June 1861, when Postmaster-General Montgomery Blair approached the Mexican Charge d’Affaires with a proposition of colonizing freed slaves in the warmer parts of Mexico. The former slaves, Blair contended, were particularly fitted for agricultural work in the Tierra Caliente regions of Yucatan and Tehauntepec, areas in southern Mexico starved for laborers. Romero assumed that Blair was speaking for the President and so he responded favorably. Since Mexico had “no prejudice against colored people . . . [and] desired immigration,” Romero said, it would not be “difficult to admit . . . as immigrants those who appeal to our hospitality, particularly if they come cast out and persecuted from a country which considers them as an inferior race . . . [and] reduced to slavery.” Romero realized that that resettlement of blacks was on the president’s mind and was willing to cooperate on his friend’s behalf. Romero, however, soon became alarmed about American territorial ambitions and when Blair suggested that the United States might wish to purchase portions of Mexico for a black colony, the Mexican diplomat reacted negatively. Mexico, he explained to Blair, would not “alienate another inch of national territory” thereby effectively ending that dialogue with Blair.[xxiii]

In the coming months, Romero visited Lincoln more often, both personally and in his position as Mexican Charge d’Affaires. No visit was more poignant than after Lincoln lost his 11-year old son Willie to typhoid fever in February 1862. Both parents were devastated and Lincoln did not return to work for three weeks. The President generated no official correspondence for four days, but did allow Romero to offer condolences. However, Mary Todd, who would never recover from her son’s death, would not consent to see Romero, or anyone else for that matter, and was so distraught that Lincoln feared for her sanity.

When he did return to work, Lincoln again met with Romero, but had little good news to share with him. The war remained perilous for the North and each defeat made Lincoln, who was already emotionally weakened from mourning his son, more disconsolate. “He had always believed,” Romero sadly observed of Lincoln, “That the settlement of Mexico’s present difficulties depended upon the course of events [at home.]”[xxiv]

In Mexico, meanwhile, Napoleon’s forces were finally making their own progress. In June 1863, French troops broke through the remaining Mexican defenses and poured into Mexico City. For Lincoln, the French occupation of Mexico City could not have come at a worse time. Lee’s Confederate forces were inching closer to the Federal capital and Lincoln was growing more despondent daily according to most around him, looking “exhausted, care-worn, spiritless, and extinct.” Romero visited the White House during this time and agreed with that description. Lincoln had “drooping eyelids, looking almost swollen; dark bags beneath his eyes; deep marks about the large and expressive mouth; and flaccid muscles of his jaws.” Indeed, even with his own homeland in civil turmoil, Romero feared for Lincoln’s health and well-being. To ease the President’s burdens, Romero decided to temporarily suspend his lobbying of Lincoln. Instead he reached out to State Department employee and America-Mexico expert Edward Lee Plumb, from whom he had been receiving confidential State Department papers. Plumb then contacted “various gentlemen of great wealth and of very high position . . . gentlemen . . . who are known to you by reputation.” Plumb urged the men “whose capital would enable them to act swiftly and secretly,” to sponsor between 25,000 and 50,000 mercenaries that could slip into Mexico to assist the Liberals. This plan, however, never reached fruition.[xxv]

Nevertheless, Lincoln’s reluctance to intervene in Mexico while he was fighting the Civil War at home began to frustrate Romero, who by 1864 grew increasingly impatient with his friend of four years. Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William Seward, did their best to hold a firm line against war hawks in Congress, the State Department, and elsewhere. They were supported by prominent Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner who wrote hawkish California senator James A. McDougall, “Sir, have we not war enough already on our hands, without needlessly and wantonly provoking another?” Sumner managed to kill McDougall’s resolution calling for Napoleon’s expulsion from Mexico, “and that failing this, ‘on or before the 15th day of March next it will become the duty of the Congress of the United States of America to declare war against the government of France,’” complaining that there was “madness in the proposition.” With it becoming painfully apparent to Romero that Lincoln was not going to take on Napoleon, the Mexican envoy complained to his superiors that “[Lincoln’s and Sumner’s] fear of France makes [them] as condescending with that nation as Seward.”[xxvi]

The tug of war over Mexico wore Lincoln down. Romero watched as Lincoln complained to one journalist that the senators trying to gin up a war with France sapped his strength. Lincoln imagined himself a target of a pack of hungry predators. The president said that he dreaded these encounters, in which pushy advocates of war “darted at me with thumb and finger, picked out their especial piece of my vitality, and carried it off.” But Lincoln was also frustrated by the pressure he received from members of his own cabinet like Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. Lincoln’s young secretary, John Hay, told Romero that Lincoln informed Chase that war with France over Mexico would be a serious error because it would drive France and Britain into an anti-Union alliance at a time when it was to his great advantage to keep them divided. Frustrated though he was, the message was not lost on Romero.[xxvii]

Nevertheless, his friendship with Lincoln would be put to the test during the late summer of 1864. With many observers, including Lincoln himself, believing that he had little chance of reelection, his erstwhile friends and admirers began to turn against him. Romero, out of frustration with Lincoln’s inactivity on the Mexican crisis, met with James McDougall who had been aggressively advocating all summer in the Senate for a harder line on Mexico. McDougall told Romero that the president’s reelection would be a “calamity” for Mexico and it was “necessary to avoid this very deplorable prospect at any price.” Once friends with the president, McDougall now complained to Romero about Lincoln’s “very objectionable conduct of United States foreign affairs, most especially in regard to Mexico.” Romero, torn between his warm friendship with Lincoln and his determination to rid his homeland of its invaders, was himself now eager for a new American administration that might forcefully challenge Maximilian’s regime. In a moment of haste he would regret, Romero agreed to help McDougall compile opposition research in a dossier that would enable McDougall and the Congressional Mexico hawks to “vigorously to attack the government on the subject. … McDougall and his friends are quite confident that they can prevent Lincoln’s reelection. They are now directing all their effort to this task.”[xxviii]

Matias Romero to Abraham Lincoln, Wednesday, May 29, 1861 (Accepts invitation)

Stories of Lincoln’s electoral demise were premature, however, and the president, aided by significant and timely military victories by General William T. Sherman, easily secured a second term. Sadly, Romero did not have the time or opportunity to make amends with his old friend. Within five months of his reelection, and less than a week after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Lincoln was dead.

Only after Lincoln’s death, did Romero see that despite being consumed by Civil War, Lincoln had not completely neglected his friend’s requests. Speaking with Ulysses Grant during one of the memorial services, Romero learned from the general that, as one of his last acts, Lincoln signed “an exequatur recognizing Jose A. Gody Mexican Consul in San Francisco.” Indeed, with the war finally winding down Lincoln appeared to be moving in the direction that Romero had desired all along. Grant told him that although he and Lincoln were “tired of war, his major desire is to fight in Mexico against the French, that the Monroe Doctrine has to be defended at any price, and that the French ought to leave Mexico before the Untied States demands it imperatively.” Grant believed that Lincoln was moving toward that opinion and planned on acting in this regard before his life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet at Ford’s Theatre.[xxix]

Sadly, however, the vision of United States-Mexico relations that Romero brought to Springfield a scant five years earlier was only half-realized during Lincoln’s life. Lincoln’s inability to intervene openly in favor of the Mexican Liberals did not prevent him, however, from ignoring the abundance of arms smuggled across the Mexican border. After Lincoln’s death, some 3,000 Americans, mostly Union veterans, did join the army of Mexicans who were trying to overthrow the French-imposed empire, though it should be added that about 2,000 others, mostly Confederate soldiers, fought with Maximilian’s troops. One group of volunteers for President Juarez, called the American Legion of Honor, was organized as an elite military company.[xxx] Its more than 100 officers were commissioned by Juarez, and legionnaires fought in the final battles leading to the downfall of Maximilian and his empire.[xxxi]

Lincoln’s discreet aid to Mexico came to be seen in a far more flattering light by Romero after Lincoln’s successors flatly refused to help Chile and Peru defend themselves against Spain in 1866 or to help Cuba win its independence. The refusal of the Grant administration to lend support caused profound disillusionment, and prompted Romero to wonder what his old friend might have done had he still been president. Lincoln ultimately acquired, in Romero’s mind, the lasting image as a friend of Latin America who would help out when asked, but otherwise would not interfere.

Writing after Lincoln’s death, Romero lamented the loss of opportunity to draw Mexico and the United States together. “The United States are better situated than any other to avail themselves of the immense wealth of Mexico.” wrote Romero, “Being a nation next to our own . . . and being inferior to no other people in riches, activity, intelligence and enterprising spirit, are called by nature to develop the great resources of Mexico. … When we shall have arrived at that situation, our common political and civil interests will give us a common policy, entirely continental and American, which no European nation will misunderstand with impunity.”[xxxii]

Romero would live forty-three years after his friend’s death and would continue to lobby for Mexico with several of Lincoln’s successors. However, he would never again form the almost father-son relationship that he had developed with Lincoln. In some letters to superiors in Mexico, Romero described Lincoln as “immortal,” and, even though at times he found himself disappointed with Lincoln for not intervening directly in Mexico’s crisis, Romero fundamentally knew that Lincoln did the best he could under the conditions that confronted him.

And, as he aged and the world became an even more complicated place, he fondly reminisced about one of the greatest experiences of his life: the days when he sat with one of the “greatest men I ever knew,” President Abraham Lincoln.[xxxiii]


[i] Lincoln’s relationship with people from foreign nations, immigrants, and ethnic groups has largely been an unexplored one. For the only book-length study on Lincoln’s relationship with immigrants see, Jason H. Silverman, Lincoln and the Immigrant (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015), a volume in the Concise Lincoln Library series.

[ii] “Spot Resolutions”, December 22, 1847, Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), vol. 1, pp. 420-422. (Hereafter cited as CW I: 420-422). See also Amy S. Greenberg, A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), passim; Louis Fisher, “The Mexican War and Lincoln’s “Spot Resolutions,” (Washington, DC: The Law Library of Congress, 2009), pp. 5.

[iii] “Speech in the United States House of Representatives: The War with Mexico”, January 12, 1848, CW I: 431-442; Mark E. Neely, Jr., “Lincoln and the Mexican War: An Argument by Analogy,” Civil War History, 26 (March 1978): 5-24, and idem., “War and Partisanship: What Lincoln Learned from James K. Polk,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 74 (Fall 1981): 199-216; David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), pp. 122-126; Greenberg, A Wicked War, pp. 248-249, 262-263; and Chris DeRose, Congressman Lincoln: The Making of America’s Greatest President (NY: Threshold Editions, 2013), 129-142.

[iv] “Fifth Debate with Stephen A. Douglas, at Galesburg, Illinois, October 7, 1858”, CW III: 235. See also Robert E. May, Slavery, Race, and Conquest in the Tropics: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Future of Latin America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

 v] “Speech to the Springfield Scott Club, August 14, 26, 1852”; “Second Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions, February 11, 1859”, CW II: 135-157, III: 356-363; May, Slavery, Race and Conquest in the Tropics, pp. 205-277.

[vi] Bonnie E. Paull and Richard E. Hart, Lincoln’s Springfield Neighborhood (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2015), pp. 73-91.

[vii] Francisco Ocampo to Matias Romero, Vera Cruz, December 22, 1860, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress. Romero most likely handed this letter to Lincoln, hence its preservation in the Lincoln papers. Reservada, Numero 17, Archivo de Relationes Esteriores, Mexico D.F., The Library of Congress, Microfilm, Legajo 7, Roll 8; Romero to Minister of Foreign Relations, Washington, D.C., January 6, 1861, Reservada, Numero 1, Ibid., translated by Thomas D. Schoonover in Mexican Lobby: Matias Romero in Washington, 1861-1867 (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1986), pp. ix-13; New York Herald, January 26, 1861.

[viii] William Moss Wilson, “Lincoln’s Mexican Visitor,” The New York Times, January 17, 2011, read online in The Opinionator blog series.

[ix] Ibid., See also Emma CosioVillegas, ed., Diario personal de Matias Romero, 1855-1865 (Mexico: El Colegio de Mexico, 1960), pp. 373-388; and Harry Bernstein, Matias Romero, 1837-1898 (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1973); Daniel Cosio Villegas, Historia moderna de Mexico: El porfiriato, la vida politicaexterior, vols 5 and 6 (Mexico: Editorial Hermes, 1960, 1963), passim. I wish to express deep appreciation to David Kresge for his invaluable translation assistance.

[x] John Hay quoted in Michael Burlingame, ed., Lincoln’s Journalist: John Hay’s Anonymous Writings for the Press, 1860 – 1864 (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006), p. 20.

[xi] The Romero papers are now part of the Banco Nacional de Mexico.

[xii] Michael Hogan, Abraham Lincoln and Mexico: A History of Courage, Intrigue, and Unlikely Friendships (San Diego: Egret Books, 2016), 126-133.

[xiii] Schoonover, Mexican Lobby, p. 2.

[xiv] Ibid., pp. 2-3.

[xv] Ibid., pp. 4-5.

[xvi] Charles M. Segal, ed., Conversations with Lincoln (1961; New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2002), pp. 65-67; Matias Romero, ed., Correspondencia de la legacion Mexicana en Washington durante la intrevencion extranjera, 10 vols (Mexico: Imprenta del Gobierno, 1870-1892), 1: 686-687, translated in Thomas D. Schoonover, ed., A Mexican View of America in the 1860s: A Foreign Diplomat Describes the Civil War and Reconstruction (Rutherford, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991), pp. 38-93.

[xvii] “To Matias Romero, January 21, 1861”, CW IV: 177-178.

[xviii] Richard Grabman, Gods, Gachupines and Gringos: A People’s History of Mexico (Mazatlan: Editorial Mazatlan, 2008), pp. 175-176; Robert Lincoln to Romero, February 18, 1864, folio 290, Romero Papers, Banco Nacional de Mexico, microfilmed copy Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley; Villegas, Diario, pp. 373-409. See also Robert Ryal Miller, Arms Across the Border: U.S. Aid to Juarez During the French Intervention in Mexico (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1973) [Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, vol. 63. Part 6, December 1973], pp 8-16.

[xix] When the resolution endorsing the project of a loan was brought to the floor of the Senate it was decisively rejected, and instead an opposing resolution was adopted declaring that it was not advisable to negotiate a treaty that would require the United States to assume any portion of the principal or interest of the debt of Mexico, or that would require the concurrence of foreign powers. Thomas Schoonover, Dollars over Dominion: The Triumph of Liberalism in Mexican-American Relations, 1861-1867 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978).

[xx] New York Times, November 18, 1861.

[xxi] Schoonover, Mexican Lobby, pp. 7-9; Dexter Perkins, A History of the Monroe Doctrine (1941, Boston: Little, Brown, 1955), pp. 127-128.

[xxii] Schoonover, Mexican Lobby, pp. 8-9.

[xxiii] Thomas Schoonover, “Misconstrued Mission: Expansion and Black Colonization in Mexico and Central America during the Civil War,” Pacific Historical Review 49 (November 1980): 611-612; Romero, Corresponcia, 1: 411-413; Schoonover, A Mexican View of America, pp. 93-120.

[xxiv] Schoonover, Mexican Lobby, pp. 25-26; Villegas, Diario, pp. 441-446.

[xxv]Villegas, Diario, pp. 518- 528; Schoonover, Mexican Lobby, pp. xiv, 13, 16.

[xxvi] David Donald, Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 102; John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, 10 vols. (NY: The Century Co., 1890), 7:407; Schoonover, Mexican Lobby, pp. 38-39.

[xxvii] Noah Brooks, “Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 31 (July 1865): 226-227; “Reply to Matias Romero,” October 29, 1863, CW 6: 548-549; John Hay Diary, August 9, 1863, June 24, 1864, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Diary of John Hay, ed. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997), pp. 77, 211.

[xxviii] Schoonover, Mexican Lobby, pp. 46-47; Robert Ryal Miller, “Matias Romero: Mexican Minister to the United States during the Juarez-Maximilian Era,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 45 (May 1965): 228-245; Kevin Peraino, Lincoln in the World: The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power (NY: Crown Publishers, 2013), pp. 272-276.

[xxix] Schoonover, Mexican Lobby, pp. 58-59; U.S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, 2 vols., (NY: Charles L. Webster, 1885), 2:488-505; Hogan, Abraham Lincoln and Mexico, p. 147.

[xxx] When virtually all of the fighting had ended in the Civil War, Union general Phillip Sheridan was sent to the Rio Grande with thousands of troops including the famed African-American XXV Corps, which had played a critical role in cornering General Lee at Appomattox. Sheridan deposited large quantities of arms and ammunition at the border for Juarez and his Mexican national army to retrieve. Sheridan also told his soldiers that they would be allowed to leave the army before their enlistments were up if they joined the Mexicans who were offering generous bonuses for new recruits with military experience. Ulysses S. Grant to Philip Sheridan, July 25, 1865, quoted in Adam Badeau, Grant in Peace: From Appomattox to Mount McGregor, a Personal Memoir (Hartford, CT: S.S. Scranton, 1887), pp. 181-182.

[xxxi] Robert Ryal Miller, “The American Legion of Honor in Mexico,” Pacific Historical Review XXX (August 1961): 229-241; idem, Arms Across the Border, pp. 37-46; Richard O’Connor, Sheridan the Inevitable (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953), pp. 280-283.

[xxxii] Matias Romero, Mexico and the United States: A Study of Subjects Affecting Their Political, Commercial, and Social Relations Made with a View to Their Promotion (NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1898), pp. 383-387; Donathon C. Olliff, Reforma Mexico and the United States: A Search for Alternatives to Annexation, 1854-1861 (University, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1981), pp. 151-152; Nathan L. Ferris, The Relations of the United States with South America during the American Civil War,” Hispanic American Historical Review 1 (1941): 51-78; Bernstein, Matias Romero, pp. 110-118; Robert B. Brown, “Guns Over the Border: American Aid to the Juarez Government during the French Intervention” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1951).

[xxxiii] Villegas, Diario, pp. 651-656; Robert W. Frazier, “Matias Romero and the French Intervention in Mexico” (PhD. dissertation, UCLA, 1941); John Patton Ogden, “The Labors of Matias Romero, 1861-1868” (M.A. thesis, Duke University, 1941); Robert Ryal Miller, “Mexican Secret Agent in the United States, 1861-1867” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, 1960); Romero, Correspondencia , 1: 650-687; Schoonover, A Mexican Views America, pp. 145-153.

The following essay is partially excerpted and expanded from Jason Silverman’s Lincoln and the Immigrant (Concise Lincoln Library, 2015). Some of the scholarship has been edited, changed and moved.  


Dr. Jason H. Silverman is a member of the Scholarly Advisory Group for President Lincoln’s Cottage, and the Ellison Capers Palmer, Jr. Professor of History at Winthrop University. His latest book is Lincoln and the Immigrant, a volume in the Concise Lincoln Library published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2015.

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