Thursday, February 2, 2012

Monarch Profile: Emperor Napoleon III of France

Napoleon III, ruler of the Second French Empire, has most gone down in history for what he was not; namely his uncle the first Emperor Napoleon. His empire went down in somewhat ignominious defeat, lacking the sort of climactic clash his uncle had at Waterloo, he never personally led French forces to great victories on the battlefield, his foreign policy was somewhat erratic, his interventions not always successful and he was certainly no great military genius. However, in some ways, this portrayal is unfair. There are ways in which Napoleon III actually surpassed his more famous uncle and he accomplished some things that even first Napoleon had never been able to. True, he did not conquer Europe (and could not have were he to have tried) but he did expand French influence all around the world. In some areas it did not last but in others it did. He may not have struck fear into the hearts of the those in London, Berlin and Vienna but he did do something his uncle never accomplished; he made self-proclaimed Bonaparte emperor acceptable in the courts of Europe. This was no small feat. Napoleon I had so enraged the international community that his mere presence in France was deemed sufficient cause to go to war. Napoleon III, on the other hand, managed to become, more or less, one of the club, acceptable even in London. He may not have had a Jena or an Austerlitz but his armies did win victories that the world noticed. From the United States to Japan armies around the world adopted French military fashions and France became a player on the world stage under Napoleon III rather than a perceived menace.

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.

When the Revolutions of 1848 saw the downfall of King Louis Philippe and the establishment of another republic in France the ever-determined Bonaparte came back to France to throw his hat into the political ring. The republican authorities wanted nothing to do with him either and encouraged him to leave for England. Louis did for a while but was eventually able to cash-in on his family name to win election to the Constituent Assembly. He was a poor public speaker and insufficiently French for some people having spent most of his life abroad but he proved to be a clever politician. To those on the right he posed as the champion of order and stability, glory and greatness. To those on the left he posed as the champion of workers, a crusader against poverty and someone who would push the values of the revolution. He did a good enough job that a combination of his own political talents and the deep divisions among his opponents won him a massive electoral victory and Louis Napoleon Bonaparte became President of the Second French Republic. Republicans were drawn to his promises of a progressive future while those monarchists who deigned to participate in the elections considered him the lesser of the available evils. In any event, it was an historic moment with the highest political position in France once again in the hands of a Bonaparte.

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.

The Prince-President cracked down on the legitimists and angered the Orleanist monarchists by seizing all the property of the former Royal Family. He cast his lot firmly with the left, enacting universal male suffrage, but it had little practical effect as all power was in his own hands. One year later he took the final step of scrapping the Second Republic and restoring the French Empire taking the name of Emperor Napoleon III. The obvious intention was to rally the public behind an effort to restore the former glory and greatness of the First Empire. Again, his actions were confirmed by a referendum but he already possessed the authority to do as he pleased and his avowed enemies were forced to go into exile or face being sent to Devil’s Island. Nonetheless, his policies remained relatively moderate. His revolutionary youth continued to influence him but after becoming Emperor he naturally became more conservative as well and famously gave Paris her wide, picturesque boulevards, supposedly to beautify the city but actually to make it more difficult for rioting rebels to erect barricades in the streets. He also, in 1853, married the very conservative Spanish lady Eugenie de Montijo whose influence was responsible for most of his subsequent pro-Catholic policies.

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.

Closer to home, his early political activities in Italy combined with a desire to humble the Austrian Empire that occupied most of northern Italy prompted Napoleon III to back the efforts toward Italian unification. He was also influenced by the latest in a string of mistresses, an Italian lady regarded by many as the most beautiful woman in Europe, who had been aimed at him for just that purpose by the Prime Minister of Piedmont-Sardinia. In 1859 he went to war alongside Piedmont-Sardinia against Austria in northern Italy, it having proved rather easy to provoke Austria into making the first move. Again, French forces were mostly victorious but the bloody battles had a sobering effect on Napoleon III who led the armies in person. Forgetting some of his grander promises to the Italians he made peace with Austria. Piedmont-Sardinia gained Lombardy from Austria but no more and was obliged to give up Nice and Savoy to France in return. Left with a free hand, Piedmont-Sardinia had little trouble annexing the central Italian states into the new Kingdom of Italy which was proclaimed in 1861. Previously supportive, Napoleon III then became alarmed that what he had envisioned as a buffer state against Austria might turn into a rival for France as the dominant Mediterranean power. This, combined with growing outrage by French Catholics, prompted Napoleon III to do an about-face and send French troops to Rome to maintain papal rule at least over the Eternal City itself. The rest of the Italian peninsula was united under the Savoy monarchy but Rome remained the domain of the Pope so long as the French troops were present.

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.

So it was that, after a punitive expedition allegedly to recoup the debts owed to France, French Imperial troops crushed the Mexican forces, occupied Mexico City and established a friendly provisional government. This ruling junta invited Archduke Maximilian of Austria to assume the Mexican throne and in 1864 the Archduke and his beautiful Belgian bride arrived to become Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlota of Mexico. However, grand as it all was, France was loosing a lot of money on the enterprise rather than profiting by it. The expedition also cost many lives as the defeated republican armies dispersed and began resorting to banditry and guerilla warfare. Still, wherever French forces met the Mexican rebels in combat French arms prevailed and the affair seemed to be on the verge of final success when diplomatic disaster struck. In 1865 the United States emerged victorious from her civil war and immediately began funneling maximum support to the republican rebels and threatening war with any European power that helped Emperor Maximilian. With the rebel forces rapidly strengthening and 50,000 victorious American troops on the border, combined with a weary public and depleted funds, Napoleon III decided to cut his losses and abandon Mexico. It was a fairly humiliating affair all around and the personal prestige of Napoleon III was greatly lowered by it. Realistically he probably had few other options but to the man on the street the public image was of the brave, noble Maximilian going to his death while that of Napoleon III was of the duplicitous puppet-master who had arranged the whole thing and then abandoned his ally to a horrific fate.

Emperor Napoleon III was never quite the same again, though his worsening health probably had more to do with his increasingly lackluster performance. The Kingdom of Prussia was a growing threat to France as the Chancellor Bismarck sought to unite all the German states into a new, powerful empire under Prussian leadership. The Prussians first targeted the Austrians who had once been the enemy of Napoleon III but whose troops had fought alongside his own in Mexico. Nonetheless, the Emperor could not abide coming to the aid of the Austrians he had always disliked, as much for perceived Hapsburg snobbery as for their conservative policies. Austria was swiftly crushed by the Prussians and their allies in 1866 but Bismarck concluded that one more great victory would be needed before his new German Empire could be realized. The only possible target was France, still red in the face from the Mexican adventure and with an increasingly ailing Emperor. It is interesting to note that Italy had provoked a hot-headed Austria into striking the first blow in a war they could not win early in the career of the French Emperor and in 1870 it was Prussia that provoked a hot-headed Napoleon III into launching a similarly ill-conceived conflict. The primary difference was that Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria came through his mistake with his Crown still in place while Emperor Napoleon III would not.

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.

Napoleon had previously hoped to annex Belgium and Luxembourg, offering French neutrality toward Prussia if the Prussians would not object. However, by the time he proposed the move Prussia had no need of French neutrality and nothing came of it. So, in 1870, full of anger and over-confidence, Napoleon III sent his armies against Prussia. They were swiftly defeated and the southern German states rallied to the side of Prussia and France went down to crushing defeat. On September 2, the Emperor and his army were soundly beaten at Sedan, revolution began to break out across France, leading ultimately to the disastrous Paris Commune, and on September 4, 1870 Napoleon III gave up his throne and, once again, went into exile in England. The Prussians ultimately crushed the Paris Commune and in an historic gathering of princes at Versailles the German Empire was declared with the King of Prussia declared Kaiser Wilhelm I. Napoleon III, still as tenacious as ever, never gave up hope of eventually returning to power in France, either personally or through his only son the Prince Imperial. However, his failing health would not permit it and during an operation to remove a massive bladder stone the former Emperor of the French died on January 9, 1873. To date, his monarchy was the last to ever hold power in France.

It was inevitable that the empire of Napoleon III would be unfavorably compared to that of the first Napoleon and, in a way, Napoleon III was responsible for this since he tried so often to bank on nostalgia for the accomplishments of his uncle. Yet, Napoleon III accomplished some things his famous predecessor never did. Certainly he lacked the charisma and military genius of the first Napoleon but he was also the only Bonaparte to make himself acceptable to the international community. His foreign policies were inconsistent and ultimately contributed to his downfall and, though he almost certainly did not realize it at the time, he was playing with fire in the area of his domestic and economic policies. He did, however, surpass his uncle in making France a major power on the world stage. The republic that came after him could boast of having the second largest colonial empire in the world but it was built on a foundation that had been poured by Napoleon III. It can also be said that, if his foreign adventures were self-serving they also had more noble intentions that went along with them. In this way, he was a man who often did the right thing for the wrong reasons. Be that as it may, in many parts of the world he was a defender of Catholic Christianity even if it ultimately did him no good with the Catholics at home. Overall, his reign was not an unduly oppressive one, more moderate than extreme in any direction and did revive a bit of the old Napoleonic glory. As with many such figures, Napoleon proved unable to be all things to all people as he tried to portray himself, ultimately satisfying neither side. His Second Empire was no zenith of greatness for France but neither was it as totally disastrous as his critics claim.


  1. We owe a lot to Napoleon III, but as you say, his legacy goes under-appreciated. Historical circles are turning around however.

    Concerning his revolutionary youth - I am planning a post on that some time in the future (blogging is more difficult than i thought). It is interesting to note that there is far more evidence to support his membership in the Carbonari than Napoleon in the Freemasons, but everyone focuses on the latter. The fortunes of fame, I suppose.

    Bonapartists also owe him a special respect, because it is his reign that allowed Bonapartism to mature as a school of monarchism and political thought, beyond whatever so happened to please Napoleon I. A great deal of people were committed to the Empire, and I will cover them as well.

    I was surprised to some degree that you seem to think slightly more negatively of Napoleon III than his uncle, but perhaps I am misreading you, it wouldn't be the first time!

    1. I wouldn't say that exactly, for one thing, no monarchs lost their thrones because of Napoleon III, so that's a big plus over his uncle in my book. The first Napoleon was, for those so inclined, a more inspirational figure but Napoleon III had the more lasting legacy. I can't think of any foreign policy Napoleon I did that I really approve of while Napoleon III, on the other hand, did quite a few things I consider good regardless of why he really did them. His was a far cry from the first empire but, as I said, in some ways he did more and I think it's a bit unfair for people to always think the 2nd was in every way inferior to the 1st. N3 really had a more lasting legacy than N1.

      My biggest problems with him (aside from his version of France not being my first choice) were his flirtation with socialism, to a degree his forsaking of Mexico though I realize that was to a large extent beyond his control, and his inconsistent foreign policy, mostly regarding Austria, Italy and the Church. Even there though there is not a whole lot I can really criticize, but only observe that it did not serve him well in the end.

  2. From revolutionary to president to emperor... this man certainly had a very interesting life. Always placed behind the shadows of his great uncle, people easily forget about him.

    Despite all his flaws and mismanagement, I really like this man, and I don't know why. In fact, call me crazy, but I like him a bit more than his uncle. Maybe I'm sympathetic towards "last monarchs" of different nations, particularly people like Louis XVI or Nicholas II or Charles I and the likes, and even though Napoleon III didn't feel like the rest, he certainly had a lot of accomplishments to claim for his own.

    I don't feel that he was a bad guy, and that he genuinely wanted to help, not conquer. He was very gentle and the fact he withdrew early from the Franco-Austrian War out of humane reasons does show that too (he couldn't bear seeing dead men in the battlefield when he personally led his men). But as usual, trying to please everybody all at once will never work out.


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