views updated


Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), the most successful general in the French Revolutionary Wars (1792–1815), First Consul (1799–1804), then Emperor of France (1804–1814/15), left a potent but ambiguous legacy that his nephew, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon III, 1808–1873) used to construct and destroy a Second Empire (1851–1870). The death of his son, the Prince Imperial, in 1879, signaled the end of Bonapartism, although some of the sentiments that had fuelled it fed into Boulangism and later into support for Philippe Pétain (1856–1951) and Charles-Andre-Marie-Joseph de Gaulle (1890–1970).

What Bonapartism signified depended to some extent on time and the observer. In 1814 at the emperor's first defeat, it spoke of national glory, strong authoritarian rule, and bureaucratic centralism. Drawn from a Corsican minor noble family, Napoleon I, charismatic general and superb publicist, helped to create the most extensive French empire since the days of Charlemagne, lost it all, but was rarely blamed. Drawn into the fraught arena of revolutionary politics, he finished unpicking the vestiges of liberal aspects of the French Revolution of 1789, while efficiently completing the centralized governmental, administrative, judicial, and legal structures launched by the revolutionaries. Despite his defeat at Waterloo, his deposition, and second exile in 1815, Napoleon was revered by his former soldiers and those officers and officials who had not defaulted to the restored Bourbons. His centralized state framework was never contested, was inherited by his Bourbon successors, and much of it remains in the early twenty-first century.

The Hundred Days reconfigured Napoleon as the man who secured the gains of 1789. Benjamin Constant de Rebecque (1767–1830), the most respected liberal thinker and former opponent, drafted the Additional Acts to the Constitution of the Empire that softened the military dictatorship with an elected assembly, similar to that in the 1814 constitution of Louis XVIII (r. 1814–1824). Even some of those Jacobins and liberal republicans who had been suspicious of Napoleon joined the volunteer federations in the Hundred Days to defend the emperor because they detested the monarchism and clericalism of the First Restoration (1814–1815) even more than they disliked Napoleon. Ultra-royalists subsequently unconsciously helped cement this alliance of Bonapartism with aspects of the Revolution when they lumped together all their opponents as "Jacobins" irrespective of what they really were.

Former Napoleonic soldiers and officers retired on half-pay along with defeated imperial officials took a lead in the romantic celebration of Bonapartism in the 1820s, sitting in cafés recalling the war. Napoleon was remembered in songs, especially those of Pierre-Jean de Béranger (1780–1857), flags, medals, the popular woodcut images d'Epinal, and countless other illustrations. Frédéric Hartmann (1816–1874), liberal leader in the Bas-Rhin, had his new house built as a replica of Napoleon's on St. Helena.

Napoleon's memoir, Le Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, dictated to Emmanuel-Augustin-Dieudonne-Joseph de Las Cases (1766–1842) before his death in 1821, helped shape Bonapartism. Between 1823 and 1842 it went through six editions and was one of the bestsellers of the century. Napoleon presented himself as a national hero and powerful ruler, but he also stressed that he bridged the gap between the old regime and the Revolution. Above all he claimed to be a man of the people, essentially liberal in his intentions. Even more amazing, he claimed he had been forced into repeated war by the aggression of other states. From the 1820s, numerous histories of the Revolution elaborated aspects of this legend. Adolphe Thiers (1797–1877), then a young liberal journalist, first in his history of the Revolution and later in his twenty-five-volume History of the Consulate and Empire (1845–1862), which sold a million copies, although critical of his dictatorial ways of ruling, defended Napoleon's reputation as the hero who secured the gains of the Revolution.

By 1830, Bonapartism had absorbed some of the conflicting republican memories of the first revolution. When revolution came again in 1830, many of the leading liberals, in the provinces as well as in Paris, shared Bonapartist and republican sympathies. However, Napoleon's young son, often referred to as the "little eagle," was not considered as a replacement for Charles X (r. 1824–1830), being a sickly child (he died in 1832) and effectively a foreigner, living in Austrian Italian lands with his mother, Marie-Louise (1791–1847), Archduchess of Parma. Instead the majority liberal deputies gave the throne to the king's cousin, Louis-Philippe (r. 1830–1848), duc d'Orléans.

Aware of the extent of Bonapartist feeling and hoping to gain reflected glory for himself, and encouraged by Thiers—now a government minister—the new king refashioned the royal palace at Versailles, and Paris itself, to Napoleon's memory. The Arc de Triomphe, which honored Napoleon's victories, was completed between 1833 and 1836. In 1833 a new statue of Napoleon was placed on top of the Vendôme column, built to commemorate the 1830 revolution. Louis-Philippe transformed Versailles into a Napoleon museum (1837–1843), commissioning numerous massive portraits of the emperor's battles. Victor Hugo (1802–1885), Alfred de Musset (1810–1857), Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), and numerous playwrights celebrated his glories. In 1840 Napoleon's ashes were brought back to France and installed in Les Invalides by the king's eldest son, the duc d'Orléans, with immense ceremony.

At this time France was fairly prosperous, and Bonapartism an increasingly sentimental memory from which most republicans, now committed to democracy, were divorced. The emperor's nephew, Louis-Napoleon, tried to imitate his uncle's "Flight of the Eagle" in abortive risings in the military garrisons of Strasbourg (1836) and Boulogne (1840). The first time he was deported, the second he was imprisoned in the fortress of Ham. No one, especially the Bonaparte clan, thought of him as the obvious Bonapartist heir. He had toyed with being part of the Carbonari, the Italian nationalist conspiratorial sect, and wrote Des Idées Napoléoniennes (1839), in which he developed the Bonapartist myths that his uncle had first floated in his memoirs. In 1844, while in prison, he also wrote L'Extinction du paupérisme, which attracted socialists by proposing worker associations as the solution to poverty. In 1846 he escaped from Ham and made his way to London. Rather contradictorily, he also briefly joined a volunteer battalion fighting against the Chartists in London.

A totally unknown quantity, universal male suffrage, helped turn a virtual comic opera character into the major political player. After the February revolution in 1848, Louis-Napoleon was elected to the Constituent Assembly by four constituencies in the June by-election, but the government would not allow him into France to take his seat. In by-elections in September he was elected by five constituencies. He was elected on his uncle's name, reinforced by a Bonapartist propaganda campaign in the press and by mass circulation of small Bonapartist memorabilia such as matchboxes and ribbons. Louis-Napoleon was presented as a republican, a democrat, and, like his uncle, a man of the people. When he made his maiden speech in the Assembly, members were reassured that he posed no threat to the republic. He spoke French diffidently with a thick German accent. The deputies were sufficiently confident that Louis-Napoleon would never command mass support that they decided that the new president of France should be elected by universal male suffrage.

Louis-Napoleon was elected president with 5.5 million votes out of 9 million. Nightmares of the violent conflicts of the June Days (1848) and Louis-Napoleon's assurance that he was the only candidate who could unite all factions, but above all Bonapartist sentiments, secured him the votes, including those of a large proportion of the peasants and workers. Thiers, confident that Louis-Napoleon was an insignificant donkey who would be led by elite politicians, organized his Party of Order behind Louis-Napoleon, which gained him useful press backing.

Within three years, Louis-Napoleon had fought against republicans and dismantled the parliamentary republic in a military coup (2 December 1851). However, he was careful to surround his revived empire a year later with democratic illusions, manhood suffrage, and plebiscites. Aware that he had totally alienated republicans and that Bonapartism was a dream ticket rather than a concrete political reality, he constructed his regime on a combination of social reforms intended to appeal to workers, the cultivation of traditional elites, and populist military adventures in Italy, the Crimea, Mexico, and finally and disastrously against Prussia in 1870. Bonapartist sentiment, plus fear of socialism, gained him the presidency, but he never ruled in association with a Bonapartist party, merely an uneasy coalition of members of traditional elites driven by negatives.

Napoleon I's own success had been firmly grounded in military victory and excellent publicity. His nephew was a civilian, whose attractions were his name and his promise to provide a secure alternative to social conflicts. While he was content to pursue economic modernization and the gradual transformation of his autocratic empire into a parliamentary model, he was secure. The "democratic" Bonapartist myth was achievable, and this was confirmed in successive plebiscites. Louis-Napoleon's mistake was to pursue the military glory legend. The French army was no longer either Bonapartist or in a position to dominate Europe. Louis-Napoleon was destroyed in 1870 by a disastrous war that he could have avoided. His defeat eliminated both his empire and Bonapartism. The dynasty was finished when his son died in 1879 fighting for the British army in South Africa. Authoritarian populism was not dead and resurfaced with Georges-Ernest-Jean-Marie Boulanger (1837–1891), Philippe Pétain (1856–1951) and Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970).

See alsoFrance; Hundred Days; Napoleon; Napoleon III; Revolutions of 1830; Revolutions of 1848.


Alexander, R. S. Bonapartism and Revolutionary Tradition in France: The Fédérés of 1815. Cambridge, U.K., 1991.

Furet, François. Revolutionary France, 1770–1870. Oxford, U.K., 1992. A good introduction.

Hazareesingh, Sudhir. The Legend of Napoleon. London, 2004.

——. The Saint-Napoleon: Celebrations of Sovereignty in Nineteenth-Century France. Cambridge, Mass., 2004.

Pilbeam, Pamela M. Republicanism in Nineteenth-Century France. Basingstoke, U.K., 1995.

Pamela Pilbeam

About this article


Updated About content Print Article