Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Bonaparte Crusader

Few people, even, or perhaps especially, monarchists would think of a Bonaparte as a religious crusader. Napoleon Bonaparte supported the violently anti-clerical French Revolution and though he ultimately made his peace with the Church, none could forget that he had looted Rome, annexed the Papal States and even took the Pope prisoner at one point. Devout Catholic monarchists were always among his most bitter of enemies. Yet, his nephew and eventual successor, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, eventually Emperor Napoleon III, had a reign which, on the face of it, would suggest to the casual viewer of history the character of a champion of Catholicism. Is this a case of appearances being deceiving? On the other hand, the Catholic Church has a history of strange relationships with those regarded as her most ardent defenders. Two men widely regarded as Catholic champions were Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his son King Philip II of Spain. Both actually waged war against the Pope, the Emperor inadvertently unleashing the most savage and vicious brutalization of the city of Rome that ancient city has ever experienced. Emperor Napoleon III never did such a thing, in fact causing himself considerable trouble by his commitment to defending the Pope. Yet, Napoleon III remains less than highly regarded in virtually any of the wide variety of Catholic circles.

The reasons for this odd relationship owe something to the man himself, the Bonaparte president who made himself “Emperor of the French” as well as to the times in which he lived, his family name, which was both a blessing and a curse, and the changes in the nature of Catholic sentiment from what it had been in centuries past. What is undeniable is that Napoleon III did many things in the name of defending Catholicism and it is just as evident that it did him little good personally. Certainly, his past plays a part in his public image. Early on, no one would have taken Louis Napoleon Bonaparte to be a future protector of the Catholic Church. He joined a revolutionary secret society in Italy that made him a wanted criminal by both the Papal government and that of the Austrian Empire. His life-long goal, of course, was a return to political power in France for the Bonaparte name and in that he did manage to put himself alongside many Catholics. They may not have been in favor of the same thing but they were opposed to the same thing; the popular monarchy of King Louis-Philippe. Eventually, after numerous failures and exiles, Louis was successful in rising to power in the wake of the downfall of the last King to reign over France and he became President of the Second French Republic.

Almost immediately, the “Prince-President” as he was known, came charging to the rescue of the temporal power of the Catholic Church. In the Revolutions of 1848 radicals led by Giuseppe Mazzini had driven Pope Pius IX from the Eternal City and declared the birth of the Roman Republic. The French government sent troops to wipe out this new regime and, of course, increase French influence in Italy as well. However, as they marched on Rome they were defeated by the veteran Italian guerilla fighter Giuseppe Garibaldi. Louis Napoleon sent reinforcements and the Roman Republic was crushed in a second attack. From that time until the end of his rule, French troops would remain in Rome to suppress dissent and uphold the political power of Pope Pius IX. This earned Louis-Napoleon some popularity with French Catholics. However, while approving of his actions, not all approved of him and particularly worrying was the large presence of Catholic French monarchists in the international volunteer army Pope Pius IX assembled to defend the political power of the papacy. For those men, who were obviously ardent Catholics and just as ardent legitimist French monarchists, Napoleon III was a usurper who they would never respect or support regardless of what his policies happened to be.

Napoleon III & Eugenie
However, after managing to become President-for-life and finally Emperor as Napoleon III, Louis took a step that added greatly to the Catholic character of his empire. He married the very devout, conservative and lovely Spanish countess Eugenie de Montijo. For the rest of his reign, Empress Eugenie could be counted on to always argue in favor of Catholic causes and rushing to the rescue whenever the Church was imperiled. Napoleon III was usually persuaded to oblige but, it seems safe to suppose, perhaps not always with the purest of motives. As early as 1853 the Emperor took France into a major and costly war ostensibly on the grounds of defending the rights of Catholics in the Holy Land, which was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, in response to demands from Czar Nicholas I of Russia for greater rights for Orthodox Christians. In truth, of course, the war was more about Britain and France trying to prevent Russian expansion into the Balkans as well as holding off the possible collapse of the Ottoman Empire for fear of the destabilizing effects that would have (surely an unrealistic concern…) but, officially, it was portrayed in the French press as Napoleon III defending the Catholics of the Holy Land against Eastern Orthodox efforts to dominate them. The war was hard and the war was bloody but, fortunately for Napoleon III, it ended in an Allied victory and the Russian Empire being forced to sue for peace.

French attack on DaNang
Not long after, Napoleon III initiated the first of what would be several interventions in East Asia when, in 1858, he joined the British in an expedition into China. Here, the initial pretext was the murder of a French priest and a general unpleasantness for Christians in China. However, again, there was also the ulterior motive of opening up Chinese markets to French trade. French influence in China would also, ultimately, be tied to French involvement in Indochina, starting with Vietnam. Here again, the first involvement came about in response to the persecution of Catholic missionaries. Of course, there was much more to it than that. France had originally made an alliance with the Nguyen Dynasty in the reign of King Louis XVI. However, due to domestic unrest at home, France never supplied the assistance the King had promised but still tried to collect payment (in privileges and territory) from the “Great South”. However, subsequent Vietnamese monarchs tried to keep their distance from the French and draw closer to China. Emperors Minh Mang, Thieu Tri and Tu Duc tried to discourage missionary activity by expelling French priests and threatening to execute Catholics. Some were but the most dramatic threats were never followed through on and were issued mostly in an effort to frighten foreigners into staying away. That tactic did not work, nor did the effort to carry out anti-foreign policies at times when France seemed to be distracted by events elsewhere.

French attack on Saigon
Empress Eugenie was always quick to urge her husband to take action whenever Catholics were in danger around the world. It is also true that the French navy had a high proportion of very conservative, Catholic officers and they were able to take action on their own authority being so far removed from the government in Paris. They, like Napoleon III, were also concerned about France falling behind Britain in the race to gain control of Asian territories. Ultimately, again, the persecution of Catholics prompted French naval forces to take action and in 1858 they bombarded and captured the coastal city of Danang. Napoleon III sent in reinforcements and an undeclared war was underway. French forces suffered heavily from heat and tropical diseases as well as fierce Vietnamese resistance. Despite their technological superiority, the Vietnamese forces may have been able to prevail with the aid of their inhospitable climate were it not for the outbreak of a revolt in the north that forced Emperor Tu Duc to come to terms with France in order to prevent the possible overthrow of the dynasty. In 1859 French forces occupied Saigon and Cochinchina, the extreme south of Vietnam, became a French colony. In time, all of Indochina would come under French control.

French land in Beyrouth, Lebanon
New opportunities for Napoleon to act as the champion of the Catholic Church came quickly. In what is now Lebanon, then part of the vaguely defined region of Syria within the Ottoman Empire, Maronite Christians came under vicious attack by radical Islamic elements. The Middle East had a special place in the historical memory of France and for the Bonapartes in particular due to the victories there by the first Napoleon. The song “Departing for Syria” had been written by the Emperor’s mother and had become a sort of unofficial national anthem for the Second French Empire. To the applause of French Catholics, Napoleon III sent about 7,000 soldiers to Lebanon in 1860 and 1861, putting a stop to the violence against the Maronites and obtaining from the Ottoman Sultan the right to appoint a Christian governor for the region (who was subject to the approval of the Sultan of course). In less than a year the French troops were withdrawn and Napoleon III could congratulate himself on a rather neat and successful intervention which had increased French influence in the near east and won him praise (if not lasting, heartfelt support) from Catholics in France. His next foreign adventure would not end so well.

French officers in Mexico
For some time there had been growing concern over events in Mexico. A bitter civil war ended with the radical, anti-clerical Benito Juarez becoming President and defaulting on all foreign debts. The Catholic Church lost all special privileges, Church property was seized and the Mexican government attempted to take total control of the Catholic Church in Mexico. Empress Eugenie took a special interest in this case and urged her husband to do something. Many powerful bankers also wanted some action that would see them paid the money owed them. Ordinarily, the United States would have prevented anyone from intervening in Mexico (other than themselves of course) but as a civil war was raging north of the Rio Grande there was nothing that the Lincoln administration could do but issue threats and condemnations. In 1862 Napoleon III joined with the British and Spanish in a joint expedition to enforce the payment of debts from Mexico. After some rushed promises, Britain and Spain withdrew but France did not and after an early setback at the Battle of Puebla, Napoleon III sent in more troops and the French were everywhere victorious. Mexico City was taken, a Catholic conservative junta was established and in 1864 the Archduke Maximilian of Austria was crowned Emperor of Mexico. More victories followed and soon the government-on-the-run of Juarez was on the verge of total defeat and collapse.

The Prince-Regent of Korea
Everything seemed to be going well but then, in the spring of 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was forced to surrender and the American Civil War soon came to an end. The United States sent a curt ultimatum to France: pull out or we will force you out. War weariness had been growing at home and a dejected Emperor ordered French forces to withdraw from Mexico. At about the same time, there was another episode, again on behalf of the Catholic Church, that caused Napoleon III some serious embarrassment. In 1866 the Prince-Regent and father of the King of Korea launched a surprise campaign to eliminate western elements in his country and had about 10,000 Catholics massacred, Korean converts and French missionaries. This was combined in the minds of the French naval officers in the region with further persecutions in China. As the Chinese had dominated Korea off and on for about a thousand years, the French thought that retribution against one would also send a message to the other. Admiral Pierre Gustave Roze led a naval force and about 600 French marines to punish Korea for this and threatened to conquer the whole kingdom for the French Empire. This was mostly an empty threat as, without considerable reinforcements from France, Roze could obviously not conquer anything with his one squadron and a few hundred marines. As it happened, they were overwhelmed by about 10,000 Korean troops and were forced to retreat after doing relatively little damage.

Empress Eugenie as 'Queen of Asia'
Some demanded a more serious expedition to bring serious retaliation against Korea but with the deteriorating situation in Mexico, Napoleon III considered further action to be out of the question. By the following year the Mexican Empire had collapsed and Napoleon III faced more criticism, being blamed for abandoning the ill-fated Emperor Maximilian to a republican firing squad. In the years that followed, France also came under increasing threat from the rising power of the Kingdom of Prussia which was rallying all the German states north of Austria behind its leadership. Napoleon III hoped that the Catholic German states of the south would take the side of France or at least remain neutral rather than ally with the Protestant Kingdom of Prussia but that hope was a vain one. The French Emperor still had one heavy price to pay for his policy of acting as the defender of the Pope and the Catholic Church. With France under threat and Austria having just been humbled in a short war with Prussia, there was a plan to form an alliance to contain Prussian expansion. However, the Austrian Empire was worried about the newly formed Kingdom of Italy taking advantage of any conflict to reclaim Italian territory still under Austrian control. The Austrians would not agree to any alliance with France unless the Italians joined in as well to ensure that they would not act independently or take the other side.

French light infantry in Rome
At first, this seemed to be no problem. King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy had been an ally of Napoleon before and was fully prepared to take part in such an alliance. There was just one problem and that was the continued presence of French troops on Italian soil, the garrison that remained in Rome to maintain papal rule of the city. The nationalist Italians wanted all foreign troops out of Italy and wanted no part of an alliance with France until those forces were gone. Napoleon III knew that he would face an immediate outcry from French Catholics if he withdrew his army, especially after having maintained them there for so long. He simply could not do it and so the hoped for alliance never came to be. Without Italy, Austria would not move and so France stood along against Prussia and her German allies. The result was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 which saw the Second French Empire crushed and Napoleon III forced to abdicate and go into exile. So, we return to our original question; was Emperor Napoleon III a champion of Catholicism and should he be remembered as such?

"Apotheosis of Napoleon"
To some adherents of the Bonaparte legacy he may well be and, as we have seen, they have a considerable number of facts to support such a claim. If one is to look at who took action, who took risks and who plain and simply ‘did something’ to protect the Catholic Church and Catholics around the world, Napoleon III certainly deserves some credit for that because he did. However, it can also be said with justification that he might have done the right thing for the wrong reasons. In every case there was invariably some ulterior motive to the imperial foreign policy besides an altruistic effort to protect Catholicism. Yet, has that not almost always been the case anyway? Very rarely does any government do something for one reason and one reason only. What makes it perhaps even more interesting that, whatever his other reasons for doing so, Napoleon III so frequently took action to defend the Catholic Church is the conclusion that it ultimately did him little to no good at least as far as his own career and his objective of firmly establishing the Bonaparte dynasty in France was concerned. A cynical look at the basic facts and political realities would cause not a few to conclude that Napoleon was wrong to have risked anything or gone to any pains to help the Church at all. The fact that he did may, perhaps, have been the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of French Catholics.

Napoleon III at Sedan
Most really devout French Catholics who were serious about religion and about defending the Church and particularly the power of the Pope were, as mentioned earlier, staunch monarchists and the most zealous were the legitimist monarchists in particular. They might still fight for France in spite of Napoleon (and some did) but they were never going to accept him. Napoleon III was never going to win these people over no matter what his policies did. Even if he had stepped in front of an assassins bullet and gave his life for the Pope it would not change the fact that he was a Bonaparte and would never have any legitimacy to rule over France in the eyes of the legitimists. Certainly there were some Catholics who did support Napoleon III and many more that were prepared to accept him and at least not oppose him but his policies in regard to the Church probably won him more enemies on the left than they did friends on the Catholic right. Most monarchists never regarded him as anything more than a usurper and were it not for the bitter feud between French royalists it is possible he would have never come to power in the first place.

The legacy that was not
Was Napoleon III a Catholic champion? He certainly did a great deal on behalf of the Church and Catholics around the world that the leader of no other major power did. He did it with ulterior motives in most every case but that was nothing really new. It was also always hard to regard his actions as totally sincere given his radical, revolutionary youth, particularly when seen in combination with his ulterior motives. There was also the tendency to view any effort undertaken on behalf of the Church to be credited to Empress Eugenie rather than Napoleon III. Whether his actions won him favor in the eyes of God is something known only in eternity. For the world in which he lived, Napoleon III was faced with the fact that, at the end of the day, his greatest strength was his greatest weakness. He had risen to power on his name and his connection to his famous uncle. If he had not been a Bonaparte he would have likely died in obscurity. However, that very name alone probably meant that he would never be seen as a great hero to most devout Catholics. He may have done a great deal for the Church around the world, but for French royalists, as much as they might have approved of what he did, he was still not the man that should have been doing it and nothing could change that. In purely political terms, for his empire and the future of his dynasty, what Napoleon III did for the Church ended up gaining him nothing and in some ways costing him a great deal.


  1. I believe what makes someone like His Imperial Majesty and His Catholic Majesty different is that they did not make war on the Papal States out of spite for the religion, nor were their policies or own religious tendencies impious or un/anti-Catholic. Far from it, actually. To me it shows an interesting world before our Political-Absolutist ideas. The conflicts with the Pope were with him as the leader of the Papal States, not the Vicar of Christ and leader of the Catholic Church. It is also to be noted that I believe Charles V's "Sack of Rome" upon further historical study was revealed to be the result of a mutiny. Private correspondence seems to reveal that Charles V was mortified by the whole event, but unable to do anything about it and the Pope was far too terrified of him to exactly sit down and chat about it. Nevertheless it did work out for him politically, but it doesn't seem His Imperial Majesty was happy with how that came about. A better world I think it was, when a world was ruled by men who would lament a success because of how it had to come about through unsavory means. Then again I might be biased as both Hapsburgs are two of my favorites.

    Also, I'm curious: would you agree with the French Legitimist position or would you have thought Napoleon was III our man (I never took you for a Bonapartist personally), or perhaps you would've sat somewhere in the middle?

    1. Well, Napoleon III never made war on the Pope at all, in fact he fought on his behalf. Even the first Napoleon was not driven by hatred of religion but for the political expansion of his empire (not too different from Charles V in that regard though obviously Charles V was a serious Catholic and Napoleon I was not).

      There is no doubt that Charles V did not intend the sack of Rome and was shocked by it. The troops had run wild but of course they would not have been in that position if he had not invaded Italy nor was Charles V above taking advantage of the horror for his own political ends. It is also true that Pope Clement VII did not take the view that his spiritual role could be set apart from his political role anymore than Pius IX did when he excommunicated King Victor Emmanuel II.

      This only becomes problematic when people try to have it both ways or employ a double standard. For example, many tend to emphasize the political machinations of Clement VII (which were real enough) in an effort to justify what Charles V did but then take no consideration of the politics of Pius IX and his extremely "mixed signals" when condemning the King of Piedmont-Sardinia.

      What I was trying to do here is cause people to think about priorities, making the ideal the enemy of the good as they say. Is it right that Napoleon III be so condemned when he did more than any other world leader at the time to defend the Church and Catholics around the world? Were immediate emotions getting in the way of long term goals? That is what I would like people to ponder.

      As for the French succession, I have stated before that I believe the rightful heir to the throne is the Duke of Anjou, mostly because I think succession should be left to God and not the negotiating table. However, as much as my ideal would be a total restoration of the ancien regime, that is simply not going to happen and the Orleans branch is seen by most French as their Royal Family. If the Count of Paris becomes King, I will rejoice and hope for all monarchists to unite in support of him. As for the Bonapartes, I am certainly not a "Bonapartist". I admire the undeniable military genius of the first Napoleon and will give him credit for at least ending the horror of the Revolution and restoring order to France (as well as normalizing relations with the Church again) and given his many victories I can *understand* why so many people in France have nostalgia for him but I would have been solidly on the Allied camp in those days and with those French royalists who resisted Napoleon. For his nephew, he was not legitimate obviously nor do I approve of the way he came to power but he did do many good things and I don't think that should be shrugged off as inconsequential. Living next door to Mexico, I am all too aware that the only time that country had good government was under Maximilian and that restoration of monarchy would not have happened without the initiative of Napoleon III. He also didn't try to conquer Europe and do all the destabilizing things that his uncle did. I would have preferred the King but Napoleon III was better than the republic.

  2. I am curious, did he ever talk about his personal beliefs? Was he one of those fabled French Catholic Atheists or was he kind of vague about it like Napoleon the first was?

    1. Not that I am aware. I don't know anyone that ever took him for a seriously religious person (which, in a way, makes his actions somewhat more remarkable), given his youth. However, like his uncle, he was astute enough to know that he had to at least have some sort of peace with the Church if he was going to prosper. The difference is, he went above and beyond that in a way his uncle did not but didn't get a good return on his investment we could say.

  3. Even though he was an adventurer and revolutionary in his youth and conspired to overthrow Louis Philippe, for some reason I always had a certain degree of sympathy for Napoleon III, certainly because of his support for the Church. I feel sorry for him as a human being, because he didn’t deserve his tragic end. He didn’t want the war with the German states, which he knew France couldn’t win, but was driven into it by public opinion. During the battle of Sedan he was severely ill but nonetheless tried to be present on the battlefield to inspire his soldiers.

    A small aspect I missed in your account is the fact that God and the Blessed Virgin Mary chose the second French empire for Her apparition to St Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes in 1858 to confirm the dogma of Immaculate Conception. Perhaps one might take this as a sign of divine appreciation for the politics of Napoleon. As far as I know, at least Empress Eugenie was very interested in the subject.

    1. That is true. I am of course aware of the Lourdes connection but until someone els mentioned it, including it here never occurred to me. I was trying to focus on foreign policy rather than Bonaparte's interaction with the Church domestically. You are correct, Empress Eugenie was very adamant on that subject, due to the seemingly miraculous recovery of the Prince Imperiale.

    2. I understand that you were focusing on politics here, I just wanted to point out that occurrences like Lourdes have a far greater influence on the course of history than most people might believe, although their consequences might not always be visible immediately. Unfortunately that is a fact hardly ever mentioned in mainstream historiography. That’s why I really like the books of the American historian Warren Hasty Carroll, like “Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Conquest of Darkness” on the Christianization of Mexico or “1917: Red Banners, White Mantle” on the significance of Fatima in that crucial year of WW I.


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