Thiers, Louis-Adolphe

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THIERS, LOUIS-ADOLPHE (1797–1877), one of the founders of the Third Republic in France.

Adolphe Thiers was born in Marseilles on 15 April 1797. He overcame birth outside wedlock, desertion by his father, relative poverty, and a stature of just five feet and two inches with his ambition, intelligence, and industry. A pupil at the lycée in Marseilles, he went on to study law at the University of Aix-en-Provence. Although his family had suffered financially during the Revolution, Thiers embraced liberal political ideas after 1815, and following graduation chose journalism, not law.

Moving to Paris in 1821, he joined the leading liberal newspaper, Le Constitutionnel. Thiers also embarked on a major historical work, his History of the Revolution (ten volumes, 1823–1827), which provided a liberal interpretation of the Revolution and a rational explanation for the Jacobin Terror. In January 1830, a new Paris liberal newspaper was founded, Le National, and, with François-Auguste-Marie Mignet (1796–1884) and Jean-Baptiste Nicolas Armand Carrel (1800–1836), Thiers became one of its three editors. Le National argued that the king's ministers had to have a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, supported opposition candidates in parliamentary elections, attacked the Jules Armand Polignac (1780–1847) ministry, and opposed the four ordinances of 26 July 1830. Thiers was one of the principal authors of a protest against the ordinances drawn up on 26 July and signed by forty-four journalists. He also played a leading role in persuading Louis-Philippe (1773–1850), Duke of Orleans, to succeed King Charles X (1757–1836) after the latter's abdication.

On 21 October 1830, Thiers was elected deputy for Aix-en-Provence. He served as minister of the interior from October 1832 to January 1833, and then as minister of commerce and public works. Minister of the interior once more, Thiers was blamed for the massacre of the Rue Transnonain (13 April 1834), when several innocent civilians were killed in a shoot-out between republican militants and soldiers and guardsmen. Nevertheless, Louis-Philippe appointed him to head a ministry from February to August 1836, and again from 1 March 1840. In his second ministry, Thiers apparently threatened a war between France and the other European powers over Egypt and Syria. Alarmed, Louis-Philippe eventually dismissed Thiers (22 October 1840).

Out of government office for the rest of the July Monarchy, Thiers began his mammoth History of the Consulate and Empire (twenty volumes, 1845–1862). This long and detailed narrative history portrayed Napoleon I (r. 1804–1814/15) as a Romantic hero and successful military commander. After Louis-Philippe had dismissed François-Pierre-Guillaume Guizot (1787–1874) on 23 February 1848, he invited Thiers to form a ministry, but by then it was too late to save the July Monarchy.

Elected to the National Assembly on 4 June 1848, Thiers backed Napoleon III (1808–1873) in the presidential election of 10 December 1848. Yet Thiers did not accept ministerial office and became increasingly critical of the Prince-President. Briefly imprisoned after the coup d'état of 2 December 1851, Thiers then led a life of exile in Brussels, London, and Switzerland until allowed to return to France in August 1852. In May 1863, he gained election to the Legislative Body, where he joined the opposition while remaining separate from the republican Left. He campaigned for liberal freedoms (though not free trade), opposed the Mexican expedition, and warned against the expansion of Prussian power in Germany. In July 1870 he desperately tried to discourage war with Prussia. Once the war had begun, he urged the concentration of French troops in the Paris area. He refused to serve as a minister under Empress Eugénie or in the provisional government formed after 4 September 1870, but he did agree to accept a diplomatic mission to seek foreign assistance for France.

In the National Assembly elections of 8 February 1871, following the armistice with Germany of 28 January, twenty-six departments elected Thiers. This remarkable indication of his popularity ensured his election in Bordeaux as "Chief of the Executive Power" (13 February 1871). Thiers then had to accept the harsh terms of the Treaty of Frankfurt (10 May 1871)—the payment of a large indemnity and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine. Meanwhile, by ordering the removal of cannon from Paris on 17 March 1871, Thiers had provoked the outbreak of the Paris Commune. The defeat of the Paris Commune temporarily crushed the radical Left, while the opposition of Thiers to a monarchical restoration helped to check the royalist Right. Instead, Thiers presided over the emergence of a conservative Republic. By the time of his resignation (24 May 1873), he had achieved financial stability, the full payment of the indemnity owed to Germany, and the ending of German military occupation of French territory. Thiers continued to be a deputy, but took little part in parliamentary debates.

Thiers died on 3 September 1877. His exceptionally long career, from the 1820s to the 1870s, indicates the political continuities in this period, despite four changes of regime, and the close connections between journalism, historical writing, and politics common in nineteenth-century France. His political legacy, a combination of patriotism, liberalism, and conservatism, had a profound effect on the Third Republic.

See alsoFrance; Guizot, François; Liberalism; Paris Commune; Restoration; Revolutions of 1830; Revolutions of 1848.


Primary Sources

Thiers, Louis-Adolphe. Discours parlementaires de M. Thiers. Edited by M. Calmon. 16 vols. Paris, 1879–89.

——. Notes et souvenirs de M. Thiers: 1848: Révolution du 24 février. Paris, 1902.

Secondary Sources

Bury, J. P. T., and R. P. Tombs. Thiers, 1797–1877. London, 1986.

Guiral, Pierre. Adolphe Thiers, ou, De la nécessité en politique. Paris, 1986.

William Fortescue