Thursday, February 2, 2012
Monarch Profile: Emperor Napoleon III of France
The man who would be emperor was born Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte on April 20, 1808 in Paris to King Louis I of Holland (younger brother of Emperor Napoleon I) and Hortense de Beauharnais. When French defeats forced his father to quit Holland young Louis was brought up in Switzerland. He was educated in Bavaria and as a young man went to live with his brother in Italy where both became involved in the revolutionary secret society known as the carbonari (charcoal burners). They spent their time throwing bombs and spreading revolutionary literature aimed against the Austrian presence in northern Italy, papal rule in central Italy and calling for a united and republican Italian peninsula. Eventually his brother died (of measles) and when the Austrians started cracking down on the revolutionaries Louis fled to France where his activities, and probably his surname, quickly got him arrested. Not knowing what to do with him, the French authorities shrugged off the problem prince on England. Yet, during his absence a movement emerged in France that was nostalgic for the days of the empire and advocated the restoration of a Bonaparte to the throne. The twists and turns of the Bonaparte succession, suffice it to say, eventually left Louis holding the baton of leadership for the Napoleonic legacy.
At that time the “July Monarchy” held power under the “Citizen-King” Louis Philippe. Despite waving the revolutionary tricolor, republicans opposed him because they opposed monarchy on principle but the conservatives opposed him as well for trying to reach an accommodation with the legacy of the French Revolution. The Bonapartists saw this situation as an opportunity to advance their cause and Louis Napoleon returned to France hoping to recreate the triumphant return of his uncle from Elba. However, the first soldiers he encountered, rather than hailing him as emperor, arrested Louis and he was again shipped into exile, that time in Switzerland. Louis Napoleon left when the King demanded his extradition and the threat arose of a major diplomatic spat between France and Switzerland. He went to England again but only long enough to hire a handful of ragged mercenaries before returning to France again. Again, he was arrested and thrown into prison. While there he churned out literature promising a progressive, left-wing vaguely socialist utopia if he were ever to gain power. Finally, in 1846 he managed to escape and again returned to England.
Although he styled himself the “Prince-President” Louis faced considerable opposition in Parliament from the monarchists. Fortunately for him, the two monarchist factions were just as, if not more, opposed to each other than they were opposed to him. His efforts to appease both sides of the political spectrum resulted in a fairly moderate policy overall. Catholics were most concerned about the instability in Rome where papal rule had been upset by the establishment of a republic led by Giuseppe Mazzini with Pope Pius IX fleeing south across the border. Louis sent French troops to smash the republic and restore the Pope to power but he still managed to irritate the Holy See by urging them to enact liberal reforms. He took other measures to win the support of Catholics but, by and large, these efforts were wasted. At the end of the day the most Catholic bloc in France were the monarchist legitimists and nothing any Bonaparte did or could do would ever win their support. Louis was reminded of this when the legitimists refused to support his bid to amend the constitution so that he could run for a second term. The monarchists believed (rightly) that Louis intended to become a “President-for-life”, however, when they amended the constitution to restrict the franchise, Louis seized on this reduction in democracy to portray himself as the champion of the people. Whipping up a populist frenzy the President launched a coup on December 2, 1851 seizing all power for himself. A subsequent referendum came back with a vote of public support for his actions, allegedly on their behalf.
Napoleon III encouraged economic planning, industrialization and free trade. Some grumbled but France, at least, obtained a lengthy period of stability under their new Emperor. However, despite his talk of peace, the shadow of his famous uncle pushed him toward an active foreign policy. Initially, these moves did earn France a great deal of new prestige around the world. Standing as the champion of the Christians in the Holy Land, Napoleon III took France to war against Russia alongside Great Britain and Piedmont-Sardinia in 1854 with combat focusing on the Crimean peninsula. Few would have ever thought that a Bonaparte emperor and Great Britain would become allies. Unprecedented or not, the Crimean War ended in victory for France and her allies and this helped raise the prestige of French arms. From the Americas to Japan countries all over the world adopted the fashions of the French army. In 1858, at the urging of his wife, Napoleon III sent troops into Vietnam to avenge the persecution of French missionaries there. Ultimately this would result in Cochinchina becoming a French colony and set the groundwork for eventual French rule over all of Indochina. In 1860 France also won a victory over China which had come to challenge their new influence in Vietnam, traditionally a vassal of Imperial China, even if in name only. In 1866 a punitive expedition was launched against Korea due to the persecution of missionaries there but the unauthorized strike ended badly and was soon forgotten.
That same year the American Civil War broke out, quickly becoming the bloodiest war in history up to that time. The U.S. had previously declared the Americas “hands off” to Europe via the “Monroe Doctrine” but were now unable to enforce their claim to an exclusive sphere of influence. Mexico had recently defaulted on debts owed to all foreign countries which made many bankers in France call for intervention. The Mexican republican had also recently turned anti-clerical and this made Empress Eugenie a strong advocate of intervention as well. Napoleon III began to develop a grand vision for French power in the Americas. He envisioned an alliance with the rebel Confederate States to thwart the U.S. and would then install a pro-French regime in Mexico, extend French influence into Central America (even considering the building of a canal through Panama) and perhaps even into South America through the creation of a “Kingdom of the Andes” based out of Ecuador. There were problems though as Great Britain refused to join him in openly supporting the Confederacy, fearful that a wrathful United States would conquer Canada. Still, the war in America would allow the Emperor to have a free hand in Mexico. Hopefully his friendly regime could be well established before the fighting ended north of the Rio Grande and, even without foreign recognition, there was still the possibility of a Confederate victory.
It all started with a German prince being suggested as a potential monarch for Spain which had recently deposed their Queen. The Prussians had no interest in Spain and when France protested at the suggestion (as they naturally would do) King Wilhelm I of Prussia was not offended. However, Bismarck doctored the soon-to-be infamous “Ems Telegram” to make it as insulting toward the French as possible. Unfortunately for him, Napoleon III played right into his hands and in 1870 was outraged enough to go to war against Prussia. It could be argued, of course, that France needed to fight Prussia in order to forestall the threat of a united Germany becoming a rival on the continent too big for them to handle. However, even if that were the case, France needed more time for preparations and much more careful planning. A few allies wouldn’t have hurt either. As it was, the inconsistent foreign policy of Napoleon III meant that few in Europe were well disposed toward him, at least any who could have been of help. He had not helped the Austrians when Prussia attacked them so they felt no need to help France. The King of Italy was sympathetic but had only recently allied with Prussia against Austria so as to reclaim Venice and Italian nationalists were still annoyed by the French garrison that kept them from making Rome their capital city. Great Britain was sympathetic to a degree but in those days refrained from getting involved on the continent and, in any event, the British Princess Royal was married to the heir to the Prussian throne.