The Archivist’s Nook: Two Emperors and a Baby: The Strange Journey of the Iturbide-Kearney Papers

Our tale begins with the Mexican War of Independence from Spain. Our key figure is that of Agustín de Iturbide, who reigned as the emperor of Mexico from 1822 to early 1823, following the ten-year period of warfare and instability that culminated in Mexican independence. Iturbide, who advocated breaking away from Spain, also embraced monarchy and strong ties to the Catholic Church. Initially popular and a successful unifier of diverse groups favoring independence, Iturbide I was forced to abdicate in March 1823 as a result of corruption and opposition to monarchism within the government and the general population. He left for Europe with his family, but was executed in 1824 after returning to Mexico in answer to requests from his supporters to free the country from Spanish forces remaining in Veracruz and a possible reinvasion. Iturbide’s overthrow and the abolition of the empire did not prevent his supporters from viewing his family as an imperial one.

Flag of the First Mexican Empire, 1822-23. Agustin Iturbide I designed the flag of the first Mexican Empire in 1821, the colors of which are still used today, while the coat of arms has changed over time. The three colors of red, white, and green originally represented the three guarantees of the Plan of Iguala, the act declaring Mexican independence from Spain: Freedom, Religion, and Union. In the place of the Spanish emblem for Mexico, the first Iturbide resurrected the Tenochtitlan symbol for Mexico City, an eagle perched on a cactus holding a snake in its beak. With it, he hoped to link the upcoming Mexican Empire with the old Aztec version.
Plan de Iguala, 1822, also known as the Plan of the Three Guarantees, was Mexico’s final stage in its war for independence from Spain. The Plan was crafted by Agustín de Iturbide and Vicente Guerrero. The Archives holds many documents related to the Iturbide family and the Mexican War for Independence, including an original copy of the Plan de Iguala. A digital copy of the Plan in its entirety can be found here.

Agustín de Iturbide y Green was the son of Emperor Agustin’s second son, Ángel María de Iturbide y Huarte (1816 –1872), who met his mother, Alice Green, while serving as an attaché of the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C. Green (1836–1892) was the daughter of Captain John Nathaniel Green, granddaughter of U.S. Congressman and Revolutionary War Colonel Uriah Forrest, and great-granddaughter of George Plater, the sixth Governor of Maryland.

Born in 1863, Agustín de Iturbide y Green was Ángel and Alice’s only child, which bestowed significance on the boy, at least in the eyes of Maximilian I, the European Habsburg-descended emperor of the Second Mexican Empire installed by France’s Napoleon III in 1864. But Maximilian’s power was unstable from the beginning, with his regime requiring continuous French military support amid repudiation among the local Mexican population. In an effort to curry favor with the Mexicans, he compelled Ángel and Alice Iturbide to cede their two-year-old son Agustín as a future heir, believing that having a child of imperial Mexican lineage as an heir would increase his legitimacy.

An undated photo of Agustín de Iturbide y Green, image taken by a student at Georgetown University.

Timing is everything, as they say—the U.S. was so preoccupied with its Civil War that it barely reacted to the French invasion of its southern neighbor, at least initially. France withdrew the forces propping up Maximilian in 1866 partly because the post-Civil War U.S. beqan asserting the terms of the Monroe Doctrine, and partly for its own reasons, with the forces of Mexico’s Benito Juarez eventually overthrowing the European emperor. Maximilian was arrested and executed in June of 1867.

But what of young Agustín de Iturbide y Green? Perhaps you are wondering about how Ángel and Alice managed to hand over their only son to an emperor installed by the French? Well, first, they were certainly convinced that their son, the grandson of the first emperor of independent Mexico, was part of a new imperial lineage based on European practices of succession. Failing one of Agustin I’s own children succeeding him as emperor (imperial Mexican forces lacked the military power to back up such a claim, while Napoleon III put French troops behind Maximilian), perhaps they saw it as the best option at the time—setting their son up as a future emperor. We do not know their exact thinking for sure. They did receive a pension for handing over the child. However, Alice quickly became distraught by the absence of her son, and went about trying to get him back. She and Ángel were exiled after her pleas for the return of her son fell on deaf ears in Maximilian’s court. They eventually came back to the U.S., where Alice appealed to Secretary of State William Seward, who told her that he could do nothing, as she had signed adoption papers, but nonetheless worked diplomatic channels to arrange a visit in Europe between Alice and Maximilian’s wife, Empress Carlota (Charlotte of Belgium) to return her child. Carlota, too, rejected Alice’s entreaties.

When it was clear to Maximilian that he was doomed, he sent the then four-year-old Agustín to Havana, Cuba, to be reunited with his parents. They returned to Washington, D.C., where Ángel and Alice worked at the Mexican embassy. After his Father died in 1872, Alice raised Agustín, who eventually became a professor of languages at Georgetown University. Two years after Alice died in 1892, Agustín married a British woman, Lucy Eleanor Jackson, though the marriage did not last.

Louise Kearney Iturbide, 1915, photograph taken by Agustín at the time of his marriage to Louise.

As an adult, Agustín lived near the family of Louise Kearney, a D.C.-born daughter of the Brigadier General James Kearney. When he began showing interest in Louise over her sister, Estelle, the latter did everything she could to keep the two apart. Louise writes in her account of their meeting, “there is no trouble like family trouble, and nothing more incurable than the mental disease of jealousy,” the sisters “were too closely united to be pulled apart without pain.”[1] Despite her family’s disapproval, Louise and Agustín married on July 5, 1915. They remained married until his death in 1925 from tuberculosis. Louise would live until 1967.

As for how the papers ended up at the Archives: Louise Kearney loved to travel. Msgr. James Magner, who performed many roles on campus and left the Archives a substantial museum collection and left the Archives a substantial museum collection, often took groups around the world to see a variety of holy sites. Louise accompanied one such group to Europe in 1950 and became friends with Magner. Louise donated the Kearney-Iturbide collection to the Archives via the Magner collection.

Please see the Finding Aid to the Iturbide-Kearney Papers.

For more on Louise Kearney’s family, see our post on her great grandfather, Alexander Louis Joncherez.

[1] “Autobiography,” Iturbide-Kearney Family Papers, American Catholic History Research center and University Archives, see digitized copy of Louise Kearney’s account.