Adolphe Thiers

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Louis Adolphe Thiers

The French journalist, historian, and statesman Louis Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877) was the most gifted of the literary statesmen who were an important feature of 19th-century French political life.

Born at Marseilles on April 16, 1797, Adolphe Thiers attended the local lycée and studied law at Aix. Though admitted to the bar, he forsook the legal profession to become a journalist. Moving to Paris in 1821, Thiers became a contributor to the Constitutionnel, a Liberal paper, and began the History of the French Revolution (10 vols., 1823-1827; trans., 5 vols., 1895), a sympathetic account which established his reputation as a man of letters. The work suffered from diffuseness, casuistry, bias against those with whom he disagreed, and omission of inconvenient facts, all of which evoked the protest from many participants in the described events that he had treated them and their cause unjustly.

Brilliant but arrogant, energetic but antagonistic, Thiers embarked upon a successful but controversial political career under the July Monarchy. With the financial backing of Jacques Lafitte, in 1830 Thiers joined F. A. M. Mignet and N. A. Carrel in founding the National and launching an editorial campaign to replace the Bourbon with an Orleanist dynasty. A member of the haute bourgeoisie, he played a prominent role in the July Revolution and in the ascendancy of the Duc d'Orléans to the throne. Elected deputy for Aix, he soon became the leader of the Left Center, which wanted to broaden the suffrage to include the lower bourgeoisie and thought that the King should reign but not rule.

After the fall of the Lafitte ministry (March 1831), Thiers became less liberal, and, following the suppression of the Republican insurrection of June 1832, he became minister of the interior in the Soult government. During the next 4 years Thiers advanced from one portfolio to another until he became premier (February—September 1836). The brevity of his ministry is explained by the opposition of François Guizot, leader of the Right Center, and the hostility of Louis Philippe, who resented his ambition and arrogance. In March 1840 Thiers again became premier but held the post only 6 months before his rash support of Egypt during the second Mohammed Ali crisis brought France to the brink of war with Britain and caused the King to dismiss him (Oct. 29, 1840). He continued to sit in the Chamber but seldom spoke until 1846, when he began a campaign of opposition against the Guizot ministry. When it fell on Feb. 23, 1848, the King again turned to Thiers, but this action came too late. The next day, Thiers, loyal to the end, advised Louis Philippe to leave the capital and besiege it until it could be assaulted. The King, however, rejected the plan and repaired instead to England.

Under the Second Republic, Thiers posed as a conservative republican. The "red scare" created by the June Days so intimidated him that he supported L. E. Cavaignac's bloody suppression of the workers. He backed Louis Napoleon for president, however, in the belief that, if Louis Napoleon was elected, his presumed ineptitude would pave the way for the restoration of the Orleanist dynasty. Elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1849, Thiers, Voltairean skeptic though he was, even voted for the Falloux Law (1850) because he saw the Church as an ally against the socialists. Arrested at the time of the coup of 1851, the former premier went into English exile, but within a year the Prince President granted him amnesty.

Returning to Paris in 1852, Thiers spent the next decade completing the History of the Consulate and the Empire (trans., 20 vols., 1845-1862), a work begun in 1840. So pro-Napoleon as to be panegyrical, it suffered, too, from the same faults which marred his first history and provoked the same criticism.

In 1863 Thiers resumed his political career as a deputy for Paris. A severe critic of Napoleon III's foreign policy, he blamed it for France's loss of prestige. After 1866 he repeatedly warned the Emperor of the Prussian menace, but few of his countrymen took his Philippics seriously. The consequences of unpreparedness were, of course, the defeat of France and the fall of Napoleon III.

On Sept. 4, 1870, the Third Republic replaced the Second Empire and opened the way for Thiers's third and greatest ascendancy. Elected provisional executive by the Assembly on Feb. 16, 1871, he at once negotiated with Bismarck the Treaty of Frankfurt (May 10) and soon thereafter (May 21-28) crushed the Paris Commune. On August 30 a grateful France elected him president, and for the next 2 years he gave the infant republic the stability and direction that it so desperately needed. A strong executive and a skillful parliamentary leader, Thiers earned the sobriquet "Adolphe I." But on May 24, 1873, a monarchist majority, which regarded him a turncoat, forced him to resign. The "grand old man" continued to sit in the Assembly until his death on Sept. 3, 1877.

Further Reading

Thiers's Memoirs, 1870-1873 (1903; trans. 1915) was published posthumously. The best biography of Thiers in English is John M. S. Allison, Monsieur Thiers (1932). Allison also wrote Thiers and the French Monarchy (1926), a study of the statesman and the Orleanist dynasty.

Additional Sources

Albrecht-Carrie, Rene, Adolphe Thiers: or, The triumph of the bourgeoisie, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.

Bury, J. P. T. (John Patrick Tuer), Thiers, 1797-1877: a political life, London; Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1986. □

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Adolphe Thiers (ädôlf´ tyĕr), 1797–1877, French statesman, journalist, and historian.

After studying law at Aix-en-Provence, Thiers went (1821) to Paris and joined the group of writers that attacked the reactionary government of King Charles X. Thiers reflected the views of the upper bourgeoisie. Although immensely popular in their time, Thiers's historical works are today generally regarded as superficial and inaccurate eulogies of the French Revolution and of Napoleon, written from the bourgeois point of view. His History of the French Revolution (10 vol., 1823–27; tr., 5 vol., 1895) illustrated his moderate liberal views. With F. A. M. Mignet and others he started (1830) the journal National, which had an important part in bringing about the July Revolution of 1830.

Thiers held ministerial posts under Louis Philippe, whose candidacy as king of the French he had promoted. As minister of the interior, he brutally suppressed the workers' insurrection of Apr., 1834, in Paris and Lyons. Thiers was premier in 1836, but his projected intervention against the Carlists in Spain caused his dismissal. In 1840 he again headed a cabinet, but his aggressive foreign policy—this time he sought to intervene in favor of Muhammad Ali in Egypt, thus bringing France to the brink of war with Great Britain—once again lacked royal support and brought about his fall.

He then became a liberal opponent of the July Monarchy and again turned to writing, beginning his History of the Consulate and the Empire (20 vol., 1845–62; tr. 1845–62). In the midst of the February Revolution of 1848, Louis Philippe offered him the title of premier, but he refused, and both king and Thiers were soon swept aside by the revolutionary tide. Elected (1848) to the constituent assembly, Thiers was a leader of the right-wing liberals and bitterly opposed the socialists.

Thiers supported Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (later Emperor Napoleon III) for president of the French republic, but his opposition to Bonaparte's coup in Dec., 1851, led to his arrest and exile. He was allowed to return not long afterward, but for ten years he remained out of government affairs. In 1863 he was elected to the legislature, where he opposed the emperor and helped to bring about reforms. Although he had previously favored an aggressive foreign policy, Thiers spoke out (1870) against involvement in the Franco-Prussian War. Vindicated by the disastrous defeat of France, he was chosen chief executive of the provisional government at Bordeaux in 1871. He negotiated the preliminary Peace of Versailles with Otto von Bismarck and ordered his troops to suppress the Commune of Paris of 1871—an order carried out with ferocious severity.

In Aug., 1871, his title became president of the republic. Credit for France's quick payment of its war indemnity to Germany and for the consequent evacuation (1873) of France by German troops belongs largely to Thiers's efficient economic policy. However, his insistence upon a conservative republic alienated both the monarchist majority and the left-wing minority in the national assembly, and in 1873 he was forced to resign. In the elections of 1877 he helped to restore republican unity and bring about the election of a republican legislature.

See his memoirs (1903, tr. 1915); J. M. S. Allison, Thiers and the French Monarchy (1926, repr. 1968) and Monsieur Thiers (1932).