Louis Napoleon Bonaparte was born in 1808, the son of Napoleon’s brother, Louis King of Holland, and Hortense de Beauharnais, the daughter of Josephine. After 1815 he was brought up in Switzerland but as a young man he settled in Italy and became involved with Carbonari politics. With the death of Napoleon’s son, the duke of Reichstadt in 1832, he became the heir to the to the Bonaparte dynasty.
In October 1836 he returned to France and tried to launch a Bonapartist coup at Strasbourg. He was arrested by local troops and returned to exile in Switzerland. He was in England between 1836 and 1840. In 1839 he published his political manifesto, Des idées napoléoniennes, in which he argued for a progressive government under the leadership of a great man. Such a regime would combine the liberty of the French Revolution with the order of the ancien regime. In August 1840 he launched a second putsch when he landed at Boulogne from a paddle-steamer, The Edinburgh Castle with a tame vulture chained to the ship’s mast as a substitute for the Napoleonic eagle. This time he was imprisoned in the fortress of Ham in eastern France, where he fathered two children by a local seamstress. While in prison, he published The Extinction of Poverty (1844) in which he criticised the liberal economic system and proposed that the state should make funds available that would allow workers to take over uncultivated land. It was not a socialist book but it showed the influence of the socialist thinkers of the time, and it established his reputation as a friend of the working man.
In 1846 he escaped disguised as a workmen and was in England until 1848. There he acquired a succession of mistresses, including the actress, Rachel, and the courtesan, Harriet Howard.
With the February Revolution of 1848 he returned to France, but left it on the request of the provisional government. Back in England, he volunteered to be a special constable in the event of Chartist rioting. However this did not prevent him from being elected to the Constituent Assembly and his absence from France meant that he bore no responsibility for the bloodshed of the June Days. On December he was elected President, by a landslide with 5,587,759 votes (around 75% of the total); his main rival, the conservative republican general, Louis-Eugène Cavaignac,received only 1,474,687 votes.
President of the Republic
Louis-Napoleon governed cautiously during his first years in office. He courted Catholic support by assisting in the restoration of the Pope's temporal rule in Rome in 1849.
The Legislative Assembly, elected in May 1849, was dominated by royalists, who were terrified of a re-run of the French Revolution. In May 1850 it amended the law of 1848 that provided for universal male suffrage by imposing a three-year residency requirement. The Loi Falloux (named after the Minister of Public Instruction) of 1851 restored a greater role for the Church in the French educational system.
Under the constitution of the Second Republic, new presidential elections were due in 1852, and, because the presidency was for a single term of four years, Louis-Napoleon was debarred from standing again. Louis-Napoleon’s strategy was to build up popular support. He toured the country making populist speeches condemning the Assembly and presenting himself as the protector of universal male suffrage. He secured the support of the army and made one of his own men, the duc de Morny, Prefect of Police.
On the night of 1-2 December 1851, the 46th anniversary of Austerlitz, Louis-Napoleon staged a successful coup d’état that he called ‘Operation Rubicon’. Seventy-eight ‘left republicans’ were arrested. Troops occupied the Chamber of Deputies, the main newspaper offices and printing works and the main strategic points of Paris. Louis-Napoleon was at first taken aback with the widespread resistance to his coup. On 4 December the barricades went up but by the end of the day they had been destroyed. With 50,000 troops at Louis-Napoleon’s command, the resistance could not succeed. Victor Hugo described this as the ‘crime’ for which Louis-Napoleon would never know forgiveness.
Outside Paris, the coup was bloodier. Almost 27,000 people were arrested. 239 were transported to Devil’s Island in French Guiana, 9,500 to Algeria. Some 3,000 were imprisoned and another 5,000 placed under police surveillance. Even though Bonaparte commuted many of the sentences, it was a disturbing beginning to his reign.
Karl Marx said (Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte):
‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’A plebiscite held on 20 December 1851 overwhelmingly endorsed the coup by 7.5 million votes to 640,000 with 1.5 million abstentions. This represented a 20% increase in the Bonapartist vote from 1848.
From the start it was clear that the coup was a prelude to the restoration of the Empire. Louis-Napoleon was addressed as ‘His Imperial Highness’ and surrounded by a court. On 14 January 1852 the new constitution was issued. This confirmed ‘Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’ in office for ten years and assigned him massive executive powers to command the armed forces, declare war, conclude peace treaties and alliances, and to make laws. He also appointed and dismissed ministers, who were obliged to take an oath of loyalty to him.
By a presidential decree of 7 February 1852 the press was brought under more severe control than it had been since the days of the first Napoleon.
The election of February 1852, held under manhood suffrage, returned an overwhelming number of government supporters, many of them industrialists who were indebted to the government for the restoration of order.
In a plebiscite held on 21-22 November, 7.8 million voted ‘yes’ and 250,000 ‘no’ to the new consitition. Even allowing for the 2 million abstentions, this was a decisive endorsement. ( On 2 December, the anniversary of the coup, the Second Empire was proclaimed and Napoleon III was installed at the Tuileries.
The Second Empire
‘The regime of Napoleon III was anti-parliamentary and authoritarian but above all Bonapartist’ (Robert Gildea, Barricades and Borders, 2003, p. 177).The regime was also a populist one, based on universal suffrage. The electors were still largely rural and conservative, and instinctively hostile to republican extremists.
The regime was supported by prefects appointed by the government, who had powers to suspend newspapers and close the cafés and bars where the opposition held their meetings.
However Napoleon did not have it all his own way. The Lower House of the Assembly, the Legislative Body, contained many members of the industrial and financial elite, a considerable number of them of them Orléanist rather than Bonapartist in sympathy, who were not in awe of the Emperor. The Council of State also showed itself to be independent-minded and the prefects found that, far from carrying out Napoleon’s orders, they often had to negotiate with local notables. Many modern historians argue that the Second Empire was not a police state and Napoleon III was not a military dictator. From the outset, he governed with many constraints on his power (McMillan, 1991, 58).
Culturally the regime is remembered for the operas of Offenbach, and in particular the satirization of Napoleon in Orpheus in the Underworld (1858), and for the unsuccessful prosecution of Madame Bovary in 1857.
Eugénie de Montijo, a Spanish noblewoman of partial Scottish ancestry who had been brought up in Paris. In 1856, Eugénie gave birth to a legitimate son and heir, Louis-Napoleon, the Prince Imperial.
Napoleon III was fortunate in that his reign coincided with a period of economic expansion. Boosted by a gold boom based in California and Australia, the world economy picked up in the 1850s and France benefited from the improved circumstances. Between 1851 and 1859 the French railway system expanded three-fold and was almost as extensive as those of Britain and Germany. The consumption of coal was also trebled. One of the expanding industries was the Le Creusot iron works in Burgundy. In spite of many pockets of rural isolation, France continued to urbanize.
Economic prosperity owed much to the development of banks such as the Crédit Lyonnais (1863) and the Société Générale (1864) and the increased availability of credit.
Between 1859 and 1869, under the direction of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez, a French company, built the Suez Canal, opening a new chapter in global transportation and trade.
The transformation of Paris
Napoleon III wished to imitate his uncle’s programme of public works. In 1853 the Alsation, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann was appointed Prefect of the Seine
The most splendid building of all was to be the new Paris Opera, built by Charles Garnier, but by 1871 this was still unfinished.
As President, Louis Napoleon had proclaimed ‘l’Empire, c’est la Paix’. In fact he presided over a series of foreign wars.
The Crimean War
For more detail see here.
Napoleon III was the first French head of state since 1815 who felt able to break out of the confinement of the treaties of 1814 and 1815 and redraw the map of Europe. In order to assert French power he resolved to challenge Russia and he did this by taking on himself the role of protector of the ten million Christians in the Turkish-controlled Holy Land. He demanded of the Ottoman government that the keys to the Holy Places of Jerusalem be taken from the Orthodox clergy and given to (Roman Catholic) Latin clergy.
In July 1853 Russian troops invaded the Turkish Danubian principalities. On 4 October Turkey declared war on Russia. On 30 November Russia sank the Turkish fleet off Sinope. In January 1854 a combined French and British fleet was sent to the Black Sea to clear it of Russian ships. In March war was declared.
In September Britain and France launched an expedition to the Crimea and began to besiege Sevastopol. A year later Sevastopol fell to the allies. The treaty of Paris that ended the war was a blow to Russia, now a shadow of the great power she had been in 1814.
It was a sign of Napoleon III’s prestige that the peace conference was held in Paris, but apart from this, France had gained little from the war. His wish for the Danubian provinces to become a united and independent Rumania (and consequently grateful to France) had been thwarted by Austria.
War in Italy
See later post.
Between January 1862 and March 1867 the French intervened disastrously in Mexico. Using as a pretext the Mexican Republic's refusal to pay its foreign debts, Napoleon planned to establish a French sphere of influence in North America by creating a French-backed monarchy in Mexico. The United States was unable to prevent this contravention of the Monroe Doctrine because of the American Civil War; Napoleon hoped that the Confederates would be victorious in that conflict, believing they would accept the new regime in Mexico.
However on 5 May 1862 the Mexicans defeated a better-equipped French army at Puebla. In 1863, with the support of Mexican conservatives and French troops, in 1863 Napoleon installed the Emperor Franz-Josef’s brother, Maximilian, as Emperor of Mexico.
For a while the French and the Mexican monarchists were successful against the forces of Ruling President Benito Juárez but with the ending of the American Civil War, the US government established a naval blockade and armed the Mexican guerrillas. In 1866 Napoleon withdrew French troops from Mexico leaving Maximilian and the Mexican monarchists to their fate. Maximilian was captured by the Republicans and then shot on 19 June 1867. Napoleon was widely, though perhaps unfairly, blamed across Europe for Maximilian's death.
The Liberal Empire
It has often been noted that the Second Empire was a novel blend of democracy and state autocracy. Napoleon is alleged to have said
'I am prepared to be baptized with the waters of universal suffrage, but I do not intend to live with my feet in a puddle.'However, the advent of universal male suffrage allowed the peasants to begin to think of themselves as having a permanent say in the political process. The key link between the emperor and the localities was the mayor, a government-appointed official whose business was to deliver the vote in the village for the official candidate. By 1860 the regime seemed popular and Napoleon was at the height of his power. However, the opposition had not gone away. Orleanist liberals wished for the return of parliamentary government. Republicanism survived underground in Paris and Lyon.
The elections of 1869, in which republicans made substantial gains in the towns, were alarming for Napoleon. In December he invited the former Republican, Emile Ollivier, to form a government and in the following month the ‘liberal Empire’ came into existence. The new government passed a number of liberal laws, notably the repeal of the repressive general security law and the ending of the restrictions on the foreign press. On 20 April the Senate voted for a new constitution in which the Emperor lost his right to be sole initiator of legislation. In the ensuing plebiscite in May two-thirds of the electorate voted in favour of the constitution. The regime’s safety seemed assured and perhaps it would have lasted if France had not become involved in a disastrous war.