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Napoleon III

Napoleon III

Napoleon III (1808-1873) was emperor of France from 1852 to 1870. Elected president of the Second French Republic in 1848, he staged a coup d'etat in 1851 and reestablished the Empire.

Between 1848 and 1870 France underwent rapid economic growth as a result of the industrial revolution, and Napoleon III's government fostered this development. These years were also the period of the Crimean War and the unifications of Italy and Germany, and France played a pivotal role in these affairs.

Napoleon was born in Paris on April 20, 1808, the youngest son of Louis Bonaparte, the king of Holland and brother of Napoleon, I, and of Hortense de Beauharnais, daughter of Josephine. His full name was Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, but he was generally known as Louis Napoleon. After 1815 Louis Napoleon lived with his mother in exile in Augsburg, Bavaria, where he attended the Augsburg gymnasium, and at Arenburg Castle in Switzerland. In 1831 he and his brother joined rebels against papal rule in Romagna.

The Pretender

The death of his brother during this rebellion, followed by the death of Napoleon I's son, made Louis Napoleon the Bonaparte pretender. He took this position seriously, beginning his career as propagandist and pamphleteer in 1832 with Rêveries politiques. He also joined the Swiss militia, becoming an artillery captain in 1834 and publishing an artillery manual in 1836. Louis Napoleon attempted a military coup d'etat at Strasbourg on Oct. 30, 1836, but the ludicrous venture failed. Louis Philippe deported him to America, but Louis Napoleon returned to Arenburg to attend his mother, who died in October 1837.

France threatened invasion when the Swiss government refused to expel him, but Louis Napoleon withdrew voluntarily to England. There he produced his most famous pamphlet, Des Idées napoléoniennes (Napoleonic Ideas), effectively stating his political program, which combined the ideas of liberty and authority, social reform and order, and glory and peace. Louis Napoleon attempted a second coup d'etat on Aug. 6, 1840, at Boulogne-sur-Mer, but failed again. He was tried by the Chamber of Peers, condemned to perpetual imprisonment, and interned in the fortress of Ham (Somme). There he studied, and he wrote, among other things, L'Extinction du paupérisme, which increased his reputation as a social reformer. In 1846 he escaped to England.

Second Republic

Louis Napoleon hastened to Paris when he received news of the Revolution of 1848, but he withdrew on request of the provisional government. He declined to be a candidate in the April elections and resigned his seat when elected in four constituencies in June. In September 1848 he was again chosen by five districts and took his seat in the Assembly.

Louis Napoleon was of middle height with a long torso and short legs. He had gray eyes, pale immobile features, a prominent nose, and a thick auburn mustache. He was not a particularly impressive figure. Nonetheless, the appeal of the Bonaparte name, strengthened by the spread of the Napoleonic legend, and a general demand for order following the workers' uprising of June 1848 won him overwhelming election as president of the Second French Republic on Dec. 10, 1848.

Louis Napoleon used a French expeditionary force to restore, and then to protect, papal supremacy in Rome, thus winning Roman Catholic support at home. In 1850 the legislature established residence requirements that disenfranchised nearly 3 million workers. The next year it rejected a constitutional amendment permitting re-election to the presidency. Louis Napoleon used these actions to justify his overthrow of the republic by a coup d'etat on Dec. 2, 1851. His action was endorsed by nearly 7,500,000 votes, with fewer than 650,000 negative votes. A year later more than 7,800,000 Frenchmen approved reestablishment of the Empire, which was inaugurated on Dec. 2, 1852.

Domestic Policies of the Emperor

Napoleon III governed by the principle of direct, or Caesarean, democracy, through which power was transferred directly from the people to an absolute ruler who was responsible to them and whose acts were confirmed by plebiscite. Although he established a senate and a legislative assembly chosen by universal suffrage, they had little power. Elections were carefully manipulated, and political activities and the press were closely controlled. The Emperor's ideal was to serve as representative of the whole nation, and hence he never organized a true Bonapartist party. In 1853 he married the Spanish beauty Eugénie de Montijo, and in 1856 she bore him an heir, thus providing for the succession.

In economic affairs Napoleon III considered himself a socialist, and he believed that government should control and increase national wealth. His ideals resembled those of the Saint-Simonians, emphasizing communications, public works, and credit. The imperial government built canals, promoted railroad development, and fostered the extension of banking and credit institutions. The Emperor inaugurated great public works programs in Paris and in leading provincial cities, sponsored trade expositions, and in 1860 introduced free trade, which was unpopular with industrial leaders but ultimately strengthened French industry.

Foreign Policy

In policy statements Napoleon III consistently asserted that the Empire stood for peace, but in practice Bonapartism demanded glory. Napoleon III believed in national self-determination, and he wished to assume leadership in redrawing European frontiers in accordance with his "principle of nationalities." Thus he hoped to restore France to the position of arbiter of Europe that it had enjoyed under Napoleon I. In practice, Napoleon III vacillated between his principles and promotion of France's self-interest, and he involved France in three European wars and several colonial expeditions.

The first European conflict, the Crimean War (1854-1856), brought little material gain, but Napoleon III defended France's protectorate of the holy places and joined the British to avenge Russia's defeat of Napoleon I. In the Congress of Paris, Napoleon III came close to his ideal of serving as arbiter of Europe. Among other things, he championed Romanian nationalism, gaining autonomy for Moldavia and Walachia and later aiding those provinces to achieve unification.

Napoleon III's second war was fought in 1859 for the Italian nationalist cause. Shortly after Felice Orsini's attempt to assassinate him in 1858, Napoleon III planned the liberation of Italy with Camillo di Cavour at Plombières. He envisaged the creation of a federation of four states under the presidency of the pope. Although French battles against Austria were successful, Napoleon III was unable to control the Italian nationalist movement, was threatened on the Rhine by Prussia, and lost support from proclerical elements in France, who saw Italian unification as a threat to the papacy. Napoleon III therefore made peace at Villafranca di Verona without freeing Venetia, thus disappointing the Italians and alienating French liberals. Although he had not fully honored his commitment, Napoleon III later received Nice and Savoy, and this brought an end to the British alliance that had been a cornerstone of his early diplomacy.

In 1862 Napoleon III became involved in an attempt to establish a friendly, pro-Catholic regime in Mexico under the Austrian prince Maximilian. Mexican resistance proved stronger than expected; the United States concluded its Civil War and exerted pressure; and Napoleon III withdrew his forces in 1866-1867. This fiasco provoked powerful criticism in France, which was intensified by the subsequent execution of Maximilian in Mexico. Meanwhile, the Emperor had also failed in his attempt to gain compensation for France in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866.

Liberal Empire

Growing opposition after 1859 encouraged Napoleon III to make concessions to liberalism. In 1860-1861 he gave the legislature additional freedom and authority, and in 1868 he granted freedom of press and assembly. The elections of 1869, fought with virulence, brought more than 3 million votes for opposition deputies. The results induced Napoleon III to appoint the former Republican Émile Ollivier to form a responsible ministry. After further turbulence following a Bonaparte scandal, the Emperor resorted to plebiscite, and on May 8, 1870, more than 7,300,000 Frenchmen voted to accept all liberal reforms introduced by Napoleon III since 1860.

Franco-Prussian War

In 1870, when the Spanish invited Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen to become their king, French protests induced Prussia's William I to have the candidacy withdrawn. The ambassador to Prussia was then instructed to demand a Prussian promise that no Hohenzollern would ever become king of Spain. William's refusal to consider this enabled Otto von Bismarck to provoke war by publishing William's dispatch from Ems in slightly altered form, making it appear that insults had been exchanged. France declared war on July 19, 1870, and Napoleon III took command of his troops although he was so ill from bladder stones, which had long troubled him, that he could scarcely ride his horse. The Emperor's troops were surrounded at Sedan, and Napoleon III surrendered with 80,000 men on Sept. 2, 1870. Two days later the Third Republic was proclaimed in Paris.

When the Germans released him in 1871, Napoleon III joined his wife and son at Chislehurst in England. He still hoped to regain the throne for his son, but he died on Jan. 9, 1873, following a series of bladder operations. His son was killed in South Africa in 1879 while serving in the British army.

Further Reading

The best studies of Napoleon III's youth and early career are the two works of Frederick A. Simpson: The Rise of Louis Napoleon (1909; new ed. 1925) and Louis Napoleon and the Recovery of France (1923; 3d ed. 1951), but Simpson does not continue beyond 1856. An up-to-date one-volume biography that presents a balanced interpretation is James M. Thompson, Louis Napoleon and the Second Empire (1958). Albert Léon Guérard, Napoleon III (1943), is a more generous attempt to rehabilitate the Emperor and portrays him as an idealist and a Saint-Simon on horseback. T. A. B. Corley, Democratic Despot: A Life of Napoleon III (1961), also gives a generally favorable interpretation of Napoleon III, and it contains an excellent bibliography.

Important studies of specific aspects of Napoleon III's policies include Lynn M. Case, French Opinion on War and Diplomacy during the Second Empire (1954); David H. Pinkney, Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris (1958); Theodore Zeldin, The Political System of Napoleon III (1958); Howard C. Payne, The Police State of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, 1851-1860 (1966); and E. Ann Pottinger, Napoleon III and the German Crisis, 1865-1866 (1966). □

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Napoleon III

Napoleon III (Louis Napoleon Bonaparte), 1808–73, emperor of the French (1852–70), son of Louis Bonaparte (see under Bonaparte, family), king of Holland.

Early Life

The nephew of Napoleon I, Louis Napoleon spent his youth with his mother, Hortense de Beauharnais, in Switzerland and Germany and became a captain in the Swiss army. Animated by a mixture of liberalism and Bonapartism, he indulged (1830–31) in revolutionary activities in Italy. In 1836 he attempted a ludicrous military coup at Strasbourg and was exiled to the United States by the government of Louis Philippe. He managed to return to Switzerland, but French protests at his proximity finally caused him to depart (1838) for England.

In 1840 he again attempted an insurrection, this time at Boulogne-sur-Mer. He was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. Detained in the fortress of Ham, Somme department, he wrote letters, pamphlets, and books, among them a mildly socialistic work on the extinction of pauperism. He made an easy escape in 1846, walking out disguised as a laborer, and went to England.

A Myth Fulfilled

After the February Revolution of 1848 Louis Napoleon returned to France. He gathered a following, was elected to the national assembly, and in Dec., 1848, defeated Louis Eugène Cavaignac in the presidential elections by an overwhelming majority. Although assisted by Cavaignac's unpopularity with the working classes, Louis Napoleon's success was largely due to his name. He vaguely promised support to all interests, and he evoked French nostalgia for past Napoleonic glory. As president of the Second Republic, he was limited by law to one term. He soon began to strengthen his position and took special care to conciliate the powerful conservative forces. The strong Roman Catholic opposition was allayed by allowing (1849) a French army to restore Pope Pius IX to Rome and by assenting (1850) to an education bill, presented by Frédéric de Falloux, which greatly favored the church.

After the defeat in the assembly in July, 1851, of a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the president to serve for more than one term, Louis Napoleon began plans for a coup. The masterly coup of Dec. 2, 1851, was largely engineered by Louis Napoleon's half-brother, the duc de Morny. The legislative assembly was dissolved and its meeting place occupied by the army, universal suffrage was established, and a plebiscite authorizing the revision of the constitution was announced. An attempted uprising was brutally repressed. To assure a majority in the plebiscite Morny used tactics of intimidation and strict electoral management.

Victory would, in any case, have been the probable outcome. The Bonaparte name promised glory, order, and a possible solution of France's political division. The plebiscite registered overwhelming approval. The new constitution (Jan., 1852) gave the president dictatorial powers and created a council of state, a senate, and a legislative assembly subservient to the president. Subsequent decrees barred republicans from the ballot and throttled the press.

Emperor of the French

In Nov., 1852, a new plebiscite overwhelmingly approved the establishment of the Second Empire, and Louis Napoleon became Emperor Napoleon III. For eight years he continued to exercise dictatorial rule, tempered by rapid material progress. Railway building was encouraged; the rebuilding of Paris and other cities brought a construction boom; and the first French investment banks were authorized. Napoleon's foreign ventures were successful at first. The Crimean War (1854–56) and the Congress of Paris (see Paris, Congress of) restored French leadership on the Continent.

Napoleon then turned toward Italy. A long-time supporter of Italian nationalism, he met the Sardinian premier Camillo Cavour at Plombières and secretly agreed on a joint campaign by France and Sardinia to expel Austria from Italy and to establish an Italian federation of four states under the presidency of the pope; France was to be compensated with Nice and Savoy. War broke out in 1859 (see Risorgimento). However, after the costly victory of the French and Sardinians at Solferino, Napoleon suddenly deserted his Italian ally and made a separate peace with Austria at Villafranca di Verona. His act was partly motivated by the opposition of the French clerical party to a policy threatening the independence of the papacy at Rome.

The Liberal Empire

Having lost much popularity, the emperor inaugurated a more liberal domestic policy, widening the powers of the legislative assembly and lifting many restrictions on civil liberties. During the "Liberal Empire" (1860–70) such opposition leaders as Jules Favre, Émile Ollivier, and Adolphe Thiers were outstanding figures. A commercial treaty (1860) with Great Britain opened France to free trade and improved Franco-British relations. Imperialistic expansion was pushed by the French-British expedition (1857–60) against China, the acquisition of Cochin China, and the construction of the Suez Canal. Less fortunate was Napoleon's intervention (1861–67) in the affairs of Mexico; the French troops finally withdrew upon the demand of the United States, leaving Emperor Maximilian to his fate.

Napoleon remained neutral in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, underestimating Prussian strength. The rise of Prussia under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck revealed a new rival for European power. To regain prestige Napoleon, at the behest of advisers, took an aggressive stand regarding the candidature of a Hohenzollern prince to the Spanish throne. This gave Bismarck the opportunity to goad Napoleon into war (see Ems dispatch).

The Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) brought ruin to the Second Empire. Napoleon himself took the field, leaving his empress, Eugénie, as regent, but he early devolved his command to Achille Bazaine. He was caught in the disaster of Sedan (Sept. 1, 1870), captured by the Prussians, and declared deposed (Sept. 4) by a bloodless revolution in Paris. Released after the armistice (1871), he went into exile in England, bearing defeat with remarkable dignity. His only son, the prince imperial (see under Bonaparte, family), was killed while serving in the British army.


Napoleon III was a complex figure. He combined traits of genuine idealism and liberalism with authoritarianism and ruthless self-aggrandizement. Although much less impressive than his mighty uncle, he was shrewd enough to capitalize on the Napoleonic image and to govern capably, albeit dictatorially. His downfall came when he encountered the far more canny Bismarck.


See studies of the Second Empire by P. de La Gorce (7 vol., 1894–1905, in French), E. Ollivier (18 vol., 1895–1918, in French), P. Guedalla (2d ed. 1928), and J. M. Thompson (1954, repr. 1967); F. A. Simpson, The Rise of Louis Napoleon (new ed. 1925, repr. 1968) and Louis Napoleon and the Recovery of France (3d ed. 1951); A. Guérard, Napoleon III (1943); D. H. Pinkney, Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris (1958); J. P. T. Bury, Napoleon III and the Second Empire (1964); B. D. Gooch, The Reign of Napoleon III (1969); W. H. C. Smith, Napoleon III (1972).

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Napoleon III

Napoleon III (1808–73) ( Louis Napoleon) Emperor of the French (1852–70), nephew of Napoleon I. He twice attempted a coup in France (1836, 1840). Returning from exile after the February Revolution (1848), Napoleon was elected president of the Second Republic. In 1851 he assumed autocratic powers and established the Second Empire (1852), taking the title Napoleon III. His attempt to establish a Mexican Empire under the Archduke Maximilian ended in disaster, and in 1870 he was provoked by Bismarck into the Franco-Prussian War. Napoleon's defeat at Sedan led to a republican rising that ended his reign.

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