Benito Hermión (1841 - 1911), also known as El Jefe, was Chief of State of the United States of Mexico from September 1881 to April 1901, and Emperor of the Mexican Empire from April to September 1901.
Early Life: 1841-1880
Born in Mexico City, Benito was only 10 when his father, Pedro Hermión, was assassinated by Emiliano Zangora, a former guard of the Hermión family. Growing up, Benito went to the best schools in Mexico City, before attending Jefferson University. However, he was more known for his off campus activities than his academics.
After graduation, Hermión studied law under Egbert Wilkes, head of Bigham & Wilkes, a prominent law firm that served as general counsel for the Jefferson & California Railroad. In 1879 Hermión became a director of the line, and was serving as its president in 1880 when President George Vining chose him to become Commandant of the newly-formed Constabulary.
Commandant of the Constabulary: 1880-1881
In the early 1880s, Mexico seemed to be boiling over with anger. The Mexicanos, angered by their treatment by the Hispanos and Anglos, were rising in their discomfort. Many Mexicanos began to rally around the Workers' Coalition, formed by Moralista leader, Carlos Concepción in 1875. The leader of the party, José Godoy, was considered to be a Moralista. As a result of these suspicions, the Workers' Coalition's Convention in Palenque in July 1881 was raided by the Constabulary, leaving 23 dead and 75 badly injured.
This "massacre of innocents" resulted in insurrection throughout Mexico, spreading from Chiapas to Durango and into California, Arizona and Mexico del Norte. Only Jefferson remained peaceful, thanks to the brutal enforcement of law by the Jefferson Brigade, a para-military organization backed by Petroleum of Mexico. By July, Mexico seemed close to open revolt and President Vining agreed to postpone the August elections until further notice and the nation was placed under martial law. Rumor of slave revolts resulted in Constabulary officers entering slave areas, killing wantonly. In the end, over 4,000 slaves were dead and the rumor proved false.
On 1 August all of Mexico's newspapers were closed down "in the interest of public safety." Nine days later, internal passports were required. On 21 August curfews were established in Mexico's ten leading cities. By the end of the month, Mexico was a police state under the de facto if not de jure rule of the Constabulary, which was controlled by Hermión.
Seizure of Power: September 1881
Early in September, the Moralistas made their supreme bid for power, launching simumtaneous attacks on every major city in Chiapas and Durango, with Concepción himself leading the attack on Mexico City. All of the attacks were driven off, and Concepción was severely injured.
By Monday, 12 September, a fragile peace had returned to Mexico, and a delegation of Libertarian Senators met with President Vining to protest the abuses of the Constitution. Vining replied, "Have no fear for the Constitution. I have it here in the Palace, and will release it once peace returns to our land." Whether Vining intended to restore the rule of law would never be known, because he suffered a fatal heart attack that afternoon.
Secretary of State Marcos Ruíz called the Senate into session the next day to select an interim president to serve until the upcoming election. The Libertarians supported their presidential nominee, Thomas Rogers of Arizona, while the Continentalist Party caucus supported Ruíz himself. The Senate apparently deadlocked over the question, and Senator Frank Hill of California, acting on orders from Bernard Kramer of Kramer Associates, suggested that the Cabinet itself rule as a corporate body until the election.
Sobel remarks that under ordinary circumstances, Hill's proposal would have been rejected, but that the tension and fear of the time led the senators to see it as sensible, and it was adopted. Sobel says that on that day, Mexican republicanism died.
At the next Cabinet meeting on 15 September, Hermión claimed to have information that several important members of the Liberty Party were under the control of French revolutionaries, who were also financing the Moralistas. "Should the people, ignorant of these facts, elect a Libertarian government, then Mexico will be doomed." When Ruíz asked Hermión to present his information to the Cabinet, he refused, claiming that two of the Cabinet secretaries were also in the pay of the French. "I cannot divulge my information until a full investigation is made, and then only to the people, and not to traitors."
Although the other members of the Cabinet were shocked, they approved Hermión's suggestion that the elected be indefinitely delayed by a vote of seven to four. The Cabinet also approved Hermión's proposal that the position of Chief of State be created in the interim to serve as the government's executive, and Hermión himself was chosen to fill it.
On 16 September Hermión appeared before the Senate to ask for confirmation of the Cabinet's decisions. The Libertarian caucus immediately objected, with Senator Homer Sheridan of Arizona calling the proposals "cynical and contrary to law", and Rogers denouncing Hermión as "a man of great ambition but little character." The Continentalist caucus was able to delay a vote until the next day, and the Senate was adjourned.
During the night of 16-17 September, the Constabulary seized and imprisoned five Libertarian senators, including Rogers' chief lieutenant, Fritz Carmody of Mexico del Norte. Rogers himself was warned of the action and fled the capital with his family, as well as those of imprisoned Senators Schuyler Stanley of Durango and Winthrop Sharp of Arizona. By the morning of the 17th, every major Libertarian politician in Mexico City was either in jail, in hiding, had suffered a mysterious "death by accident", or had gone over to the Continentalists. That afternoon, the fourteen remaining members of the Senate met to ratify the Cabinet's decisions from two days earlier, and Hermión was appointed Chief of State of the U.S.M.
Consolidation of Power and the Free Society: 1881-1886
Those who opposed Hermión's seizure of power were either intimidated into silence, or were jailed, often to disappear forever. Those who supported Hermión claimed that the country was in danger of anarchy, and needed a strong man in charge to restore order; or else pointed to Kramer and Monte Benedict as the country's true rulers, insisting that they were men of intelligence and force that Mexico needed at a time of trouble.
Kramer, however, suffered a stroke in February 1882 and died two months later. He was succeeded as President of K.A. by Diego Cortez y Catalán, who had no interest in politics, and was content to allow Hermión to govern Mexico as he saw fit as long as he left K.A. alone. Later in 1882 Benedict retired as head of P.M., and was succeeded by his nephew Andrew Benedict, who was of the same mind as Cortez. By the summer of 1883 Hermión was in complete control in Mexico City and the southern states, while Benedict ruled Jefferson, and Cortez controlled California and Arizona.
Hermión continued the brutal tactics against the Moralistas that he had employed as Commandant of the Constabulary, and the insurgents were driven out of Chiapas and Durango except for refuges in the Sierra Madres. By the time Carlos Concepción died of natural causes in 1887, his death was barely noticed. The only areas of the U.S.M. beyond Hermión's control were the Sierra Madres, parts of Baja California and Yucatan, and the Indian-controlled areas of northern Arizona and Mexico del Norte.
Hermión remained violently opposed to the revolutionary French republic, and in 1882 he announced that Mexico would repudiate its French debts. "This money had been borrowed from the Kingdom of France, which unhappily no longer exists," Hermión said. "It would be immoral to repay the funds to the men who so brutally butchered the royal family. France will have a legitimate government some day, and when it does, Mexico will be glad to repay the moneys. Until then, I say we shall not pay the assassin and reward him for his deeds." Hermión also confiscated investments owned by any Frenchman who swore loyalty to the Republic, and soon found their way into the portfolios of his most trusted supporters (including, presumably, Cortez and Benedict).
Hermión made every effort to assure Governor-General John McDowell of his desire for good relations with the Confederation of North America. He encouraged exchanges of professors, students, artists, and the like, and he named novelist Simon Cardenes, who was a particular favorite among North American readers, his ambassador to Burgoyne. Cardenes was able to negotiate several important agreements with Minister for Foreign Affairs Malcolm Kitteridge, especially the 1884 Kitteridge-Cardenes Treaty, which clearly established the boundary between Mexico del Norte and Northern Vandalia, provided for an "open Caribbean", and established the principle that each nation would encourage trade with the other by lowering tariffs.
Hermión was fortunate that McDowell's chief advisor on Mexican affairs was Mark Forsyth, who had spent a year helping Hermión establish the Constabulary, and knew him better than any other North American. "Benito has always preferred warmer climates than those we enjoy in the C.N.A.," he told McDowell in the summer of 1884, "and he lacks both the desire and the stamina for a struggle with a nation as powerful as ours. He is a bully and a coward, and will fight only those nations and peoples he can defeat with ease. If we remain strong, he will grovel before us, while stabbing his southern neighbors in the back." Forsyth predicted that Hermión would expand to the south "as soon as his house is in order in Mexico City," and he advised McDowell "to assure our Caribbean friends of our best wishes, and desire for their continued independence, and to let Benito know our feelings in the matter." Throughout his time in power, Hermión remained a convinced believer that nothing should be undertaken to disturb relations with the C.N.A.
Hermión was mindful that he had seized power in a coup d'etat, and in an effort to gain popular support, he launched a massive social welfare program in 1883 which he called the Free Society. The major elements of the Free Society were free education for all, with government subsidies for those who entered professions deemed vital to the nation's security and welfare; free health insurance; free government-paid vacations; government-subsidized housing, in which rents would be no more than ten percent of a household's income; a Youth Patrol in which every boy and girl would serve; and special benefits for each child born into a family. However, apart from the Youth Patrol and the childbirth allowance, none of Hermión's Free Society programs were carried through to completion.
To pay for the Free Society, Hermión announced new taxes on corporations, a sharply graduated income tax, a tax on foreign holdings, and an increase in import duties, all of which K.A. and P.M. were exempt from. Other funds came from increased petroleum exports as well as from confiscations. In addition, Hermión was able to secure a large loan from the Germanic Confederation as part of the 1886 Amisdad Treaty, and he forced Cortez and Benedict to sell the government half-ownership of the Kinkaid Canal at a very low price.
The Free Society programs were very popular, to the extent that they were carried out, and Mexico's economy continued to expand as the rest of the world recovered from the Great Depression over the course of the decade. In 1888 the U.S.M. produced over 60% of the world's petroleum, a quarter of its cotton, and significant amounts of metals, hemp, produce, and other products.
Early Wars: 1886-1890
Commandant Forsyth's prediction of Hermión's desire for military action against Mexico's weaker southern neighbors proved accurate. On 4 October 1886, Hermión instructed George Pierson, the Mexican Minister to Guatemala, to open negotiations with Guatemalan President Vicente Martinez on increasing the size of the Kincaid Canal Zone. Martinez, who had been installed as President of Guatemala by Kramer 16 years earlier, was not opposed to the transaction, but felt that the sum offered by the Mexicans was insufficent. On 17 October, Hermión appeared before the Senate and accused Martinez of being in the pay of the French. The following morning, in another address before the Senate, Hermión claimed that French troops in Guatemala were preparing to attack Mexico, and issued an ultimatum demanding that Martinez agree to the new Kinkaid Canal Treaty. Hermión also placed the Mexican military on alert. Although Martinez agreed to sign the treaty hours later, Hermión declared war anyway.
The Mexican Fourth Army under General Miguel Aguilar had already been placed in a state of combat readiness, and following the declaration of war invaded across the Guatemalan border. Sobel does not give any details concerning military action during the Isthmian War, except to state that Aguilar's army captured Guatemala City on the morning of November 15, 28 days after Hermión's declaration of war. Given that Guatemala City is only 100 miles from the Mexican border, this indicates either a poor performance by Aguilar's army, stubborn resistance by the Guatemalan military, or both. Hermión traveled to Guatemala City in late December, and appointed an opponent of Martinez' named García Ramírez the new Governor of Guatemala.
The Mexican occupation of Guatemala prompted a protest from Premier Adolfo Camacho of New Granada. Hermión responded by claiming that documents had been found in Guatemala City linking Camacho and Martinez to a French plot to attack the U.S.M. On 17 March 1887 Hermión produced documents that he claimed proved that Camacho and Martinez were planning an alliance or union directed against the U.S.M. Two months later, he produced more documents showing that New Granada, Guatemala and France were plotting to attack Mexico. French Premier Pierre Fornay claimed the documents were forgeries, and they were later proven to be so.
From 1887 to 1889, tens of thousands of Frenchmen suffering persecution in the U.S.M. fled to New Granada, while Hermión continued to denounce Camacho and his cabinet as "the devils of Bogotá." On 10 February 1890 Hermión addressed the Mexican Senate, claiming to have learned of a plot "hatched in Bogotá to assassinate leading members of this body, the Cabinet, and the Chief of State." Four days later, shots were fired at the homes of five senators, and bombs were found in the Presidential Palace. Hermión ordered the Fourth Army, stationed in Guatemala, to a state of readiness, and alerted elements of the U.S.M.'s Gulf and Pacific fleets to prepare for action.
Premier Camacho called the ambassadors of Great Britain, the C.N.A., and Spain to his offices on 15 February and told them of events in Mexico, saying, "We will fight the Mexicans if it comes to that, but in our struggle we may need help. What will your countries do in this time of trouble?" He warned North American Ambassador Wesley Eagen that "today Hermión threatens La Guaira, tomorrow he may attack Norfolk. You must realize that we will fight, and may be able to defeat this madman without your help. But if we fail, you will be next. Guatemala was the doorway to Bogotá, and Bogotá may prove the gateway to Burgoyne." However, Governor-General Ezra Gallivan was unwilling to intervene militarily on New Granada's behalf, and the British and Spanish refused to act without him.
Camacho chose to strike first, and the War for Salvation began on 1 March 1890 when the New Granadan army under General Roberto Bermúdez invaded Guatemala, advancing to the Kincaid Canal. The next day, the Mexican First Fleet under Admiral Frank Butland took La Guaira, followed by Caracas on 3 March. Further west on the Gulf coast, the Mexican Third Fleet under Admiral Howard Loyo captured Santa Marta on 4 March, and the 34th Marine Brigade under Colonel David Brewster began advancing south through Cundinamarca. Colonel Brewster captured Bogotá on 8 June, while the Mexican First Army under General Francisco Goodspeed secured the Venezuelan provinces to the east.
Camacho was captured on 18 September, and Bermúdez surrendered to General Aguilar on 21 September. Hermión sent his elder brother Victoriano Hermión to rule New Granada on his behalf. Governor-General Gallivan responded to the conquest of New Granada by stating that he "deplored the seizure of this land which had done no harm" while taking no steps to disturb trade with the U.S.M. He permitted New Granadan refugees to settle in the C.N.A., but refused to allow them to establish a government-in-exile in Tampa, Georgia in 1891.
Hawaiian Annexation and the Great Northern War: 1891-1899
After the War for Salvation, Hermión was content for a time to oversee the occupation of his new conquests and pursue his social programs in the U.S.M. He had always claimed that he had no desire for additional territory, and had gone to war with Guatemala and New Granada in self-defense. Neither the British colony of Guiana nor the nations of Quito and Rio Negro posed any threat to Mexico. In 1892 Hermión said, "Mexico will never go to war again." However, he added, "We stand guard against any who would threaten us. The nation that transgresses U.S.M. rights must be prepared to accept the consequences."
The leaders of Quito and Rio Negro conceded Mexico to be the most powerful nation in Latin America, and became Mexican dependencies in fact if not in law. Pedro V, the Emperor of Brazil was more independent, but could be counted on not to take any important step without first consulting with Mexico City. Although he made no aggressive moves on his own, Hermión was always ready to act when Cortez asked him to. When the government of Hawaii threatened K.A.'s interests there, Cortez financed a revolution there in 1892, placing his own pupput on the throne. Four months later, the Hawaiians petitioned Hermión to be made a dependency of the U.S.M., and he annexed the islands.
By 1895, K.A. was the third largest business organization in the world, with interests on all continents. Cortez, looking to expand the company's copper production, contacted the Foreign Minister of the Russian Empire, Prince Pyotr Sviatopolk-Mirsky, to arrange for K.A. to receive the mineral concession in the Yukon area of Alaska. Under the terms of the agreement, K.A. would search for copper "and whatever other minerals might be found," and would pay all operational costs while sharing any profits evenly with the Russian government. When Winston Carew discovered major gold deposits in July 1896, the reaction in St. Petersburg was initially favorable. However, in a memorandum of 21 October 1897, Prince Sviatopolk-Mirsky claimed that K.A.'s concession only covered copper, and that the Yukon gold mines would be controlled by the Russian government.
Cortez traveled to Mexico City to meet Hermión on 25 October, but was unable to persuade him to take strong measures against the Russian government. Instead, Cortez ordered California Governor Alberto Puente to provoke a war with the Russians, which Hermión would be forced to respond to. On 27 February 1898, Puente notified Hermión of "repeated violations of the border by Russian Imperial forces." A mild note of protest by Hermión led to a series of communications with Prince Sviatopolk-Mirksy, which were later found to be deliberately mistranslated by a State Department official who was secretly in the employ of K.A. By May a Russian regiment had invaded California, and the Great Northern War between Russia and the U.S.M. had begun.
The Russian regiment was defeated in battle twenty miles north of San Francisco, and the U.S.M. Pacific Fleet under Admiral Ephraim Small landed at Nikolaevsk, Alaska on 5 July, trapping the Russian army. By early October 1898 all of mainland Alaska was under Mexican control. Peace negotiations with the Russians in January 1899 proved fruitless. The Mexican Navy began occupying the Aleutian Islands on 28 May 1899, and began landings on the Siberian coast in June and July. 80,000 political prisoners being held in Kamchatka prison camps were freed by the Mexicans, and 7000 prisoners were formed into the Free Russian Brigade, which fought alongside the Mexican marines against government forces. Admiral Small was named Administrator of Siberia in October 1899, and the following month he received permission from Hermión to establish a "Provisional Free Russian Government" made up of the freed political prisoners.
Emperor of Mexico and Downfall: 1899-1911
Although Cortez had been content to allow Hermión to do as he wished in the areas of politics and statecraft, he had opposed the invasion of Siberia. In November 1899 he met with Hermión in San Francisco, and warned him, "Siberia has nothing we need. Alaska was another matter entirely. Unless we can extract ourselves with honor and dignity, we will either be expelled by the European powers or sink into the icy morass of a useless land."
Three months later, the Russian Revolution broke out in St. Petersburg and soon spread throughout European Russia. Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic States broke away, and by July 1900 the new national armies and the revolutionaries were uniting to defeat the Tsarist armies throughout the empire. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on 17 July in favor of his brother Michael II, who fled to Sweden in September. The successful conquest of Siberia also led to the signing of the Yamagata-Macmillan Treaty of 1901, a trade and mutual defense pact between Great Britain and Japan.
As his armies continued to advance into Siberia, Hermión began to think of himself as a second Alexander the Great. On 2 April 1901, he announced that the U.S.M. had been replaced by the Mexican Empire, and that he himself would be Emperor of Mexico. This proved to be the last straw for Cortez, who began preparing to overthrow Hermión. On 1 August 1901, Cortez met with the leaders of the anti-Hermión opposition in his hacienda outside Sacramento. In the meeting that followed, Cortez set out his plan to bluff Hermión into fleeing the country.
On 15 October 1901, 2000 Kramer Guards disguised as laborers and led by Commandant Martin Cole surrounded the Imperial Palace. That night, forty-nine of them entered the palace, overcame Hermión's police guards, opened the gates for the others, and cut communications with the outside. When Hermión woke the next morning, Cole announced that the compound was in his hands, strongly hinting that he was with the Moralistas. "All we want is El Jefe. Servants and others may leave in peace, and must do so within fifteen minutes."
Hermión shaved his beard and mustache and dressed in a butler's uniform, leaving the Palace with the servants. He then made for Tampico while being tracked by over 300 K.A. agents. In the port, on 28 November he bribed the captain of an Argentinian oil tanker to take him as a passenger to Spain. The tanker reached Spain on 20 December, and Hermión took up residence in Madrid, where he had over $5 million deposited in two banks.
Hermión moved to an armed villa on the outskirts of Barcelona, where he was eventually joined by his family. Hermión died in Barcelona on 16 August 1911.
Sobel's sources for the life of Benito Hermión are Hermión's own The Mexico of My Heart (Mexico City, 1886); as well as Swithen Hudd's We Took the Islands: My Role in the Annexation of Hawaii (Mexico City, 1899); Edward Van Gelder's The Victory of Republicanism (Mexico City, 1912); John Earley's A History of the New Granada Expedition (New York, 1914) and The Drums of War: Ezra Gallivan and Benito Hermión (New York, 1916); Bernardo Silvera's The Private Thoughts of Benito Hermión (New York, 1920); Andrew Stirling's The Secret History of the Great Northern War (London, 1923); Felix Noland's A Military History of the Great Northern War (London, 1925); William Reilly's "Henry Wilson's Role in Initiating the Great Northern War" from The Journal of Russian Studies XXVII (June, 1934); editor Jack Nathanson's From the Cortez Files (Mexico City, 1938) and More From the Cortez Files (Mexico City, 1947); Earl Watson's The Right Man: The Vining Administration (Mexico City, 1943); Edgar Witherspoon's A Critical Look at the Hermión Regime (London, 1943); Lydia Sulloway's El Jefe and the Lust for Empire (New York, 1943); Linda Carlista's The Heir: The Life of Benito Hermión (Mexico City, 1946); Felix Lombardi's Francophobia in Mexico: The Summer of 1881 (Mexico City, 1952); James Mudd's The Hermión Regime: A Study in Corrupt Power (London, 1954); Arnold Jackobson's "Benito Hermión as a Money Manager" from The London Journal of Economics XXXVI (December, 1954); Edward McGraw's The Isthmian War in Mexican History (Melbourne, 1954) and The Mexican Empire and Its Cost (Melbourne, 1957); William Berry's The Dead Are Unburied in the Plaza: The Mexican Repression of 1881 (Mexico City, 1956); Miguel Olin's El Jefe's War for Salvation (New York, 1956); James Boatwright's The Birth of Mexican Imperialism (Mexico City, 1957); editor Frank Dana's Recent Discoveries in the Cortez Collection (New York, 1958); John Pritchard's The Formation of the Mexican Empire (Mexico City, 1960); Carl Needham's The Great Northern War (New York, 1963); Bernard Mix's The Night of the Caballeros: The Hermión Seizure (London, 1964); Knute Neuberger's The Background of the Great Northern War (London, 1965); Henry MacMurray's Benito Hermión: The Peace Years (New York, 1966); Stuart Blue's Nine-Tenths of the Iceberg: The Hermión Years (New York, 1967); Willkie Devlin's Formation of the Mexican Empire (Mexico City, 1967); Miguel Señada's Cortez and Hermión: Bitter Friendship (Mexico City, 1968); Walter Sepúlveda's An Economic History of the Hermión Regime (Mexico City, 1968); Robert Kinsolving's Feet of Wood: The Life of Benito Hermión (New York, 1969); and Stanley Tulin's The Kramer Associates: The Cortez Years (London, 1970).
This was the Featured Article for the week of 7 July 2013.
|Heads of State of the U.S.M.|
|Andrew Jackson • Miguel Huddleston • Pedro Hermión • Raphael Blaine • Hector Niles • Arthur Conroy • Omar Kinkaid • George Vining • Benito Hermión • Martin Cole • Anthony Flores • Victoriano Consalus • Emiliano Calles • Pedro Fuentes • Alvin Silva • Felix Garcia • Vincent Mercator • Raphael Dominguez|