Napoleon III (1808–1873)

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Napoleon III (1808–1873)

Napoleon III (b. 20 April 1808; d. 9 January 1873), founder of the Second Empire of France. Born the third son of Louis Bonaparte, king of Holland, and Queen Hortense, daughter of Empress Joséphine, he spent the early part of his life in Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. In the early 1830s, he declared his intention to claim the Napoleonic inheritance. He was twice imprisoned, in Strasbourg (1836) and in Ham (1840–1846), from which he escaped. His ideas of a liberal political system, social reform, and revived French power (Des idées napoléoniennes, 1839) took shape during his imprisonment and exile. In 1844 he wrote On the Extinction of Poverty. He solicited support for a canal scheme across the Nicaraguan lakes in 1847 without success. The scheme to establish a French protectorate over Mexico was conceived also in these years.

On 10 December 1848 Napoleon was elected president of the Second French Republic with over 5 million votes (74.2 percent). In a coup on 2 December 1851 he dispensed with the constitutional system. A new constitution (14 January 1852) prepared the way for the establishment of the Second Empire. On 2 December 1852 Louis Napoleon Bonaparte assumed the title Napoleon III, and on 30 January 1853 he married Eugenia de Montijo, the daughter of Cipriano de Montijo, count of Teba, who had fought for King Joseph Bonaparte in the Peninsular War (1808–1814).

Imperial expansion in Algeria and Indochina accompanied an interventionist foreign policy in the Crimea (1854–1856) and Italy (1859). Work on the Suez Canal (1859–1869) complemented designs for an interoceanic American canal. Only one aspect of the Mexican scheme, the proposed canal, however, came to assume great importance for Napoleon between 1861 and 1867. Weakened by the disastrous outcome of the French Intervention in Mexico, his regime finally was destroyed by internal opposition and the Prussian military victory in 1870–1871. Napoleon III died in exile in England.

Napoleon III was execrated by French and Mexican republicans alike; he was equally unpopular among French and Mexican Catholics. He is usually viewed as a supreme opportunist, with self-promotion as his principal political skill. Nevertheless, Bonapartism in mid-nineteenth-century France did have popular roots (particularly rural) and sought to exclude both the traditionalist Right and the revolutionary Left from power. In spite of the failure of the Mexican policy, French power was extended in Southeast Asia and North Africa during the Second Empire. However, the fundamental weakness of the French army could not sustain the empire at home during the Franco-Prussian War.

See alsoMaximilian .


F. A. Simpson, The Rise of Louis Napoleon, 3rd ed. (1951).

J. M. Thompson, Louis Napoleon and the Second Empire (1954).

Frédéric Bluche, Le Bonapartisme: Aux origines de la droite autoritaire (1800–1850) (1980).

James. F. Mc Millan, Napoleon III (1991).

Additional Bibliography

Black, Shirley Jean. Napoleon III and Mexican Silver. Silverton: Ferrell Publications, 2000.

Cunningham, Michele. Mexico and the Foreign Policy of Napoleon III. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Price, Roger. The French Second Empire: An Anatomy of Political Power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

                                       Brian Hamnett