A Brief History
On January 9, 1873, Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, died after ruling France for a longer reign than any other leader since the French Revolution. Napoleon III, nephew of the more famous Napoleon I, had been President of France from 1848-1852, and following in his family’s footsteps, became Emperor of the French in 1852, reigning for the next 18 years as the last monarch to rule France.
Born in 1808 as the son of Louis Bonaparte, the brother of Emperor Napoleon I, his given name was Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (later to drop the “Charles” part). Little Louis was also the son of Hortense de Beauharnais, the daughter of Napoleon I’s first wife, Josephine, making the young man also the step-grandson of the Emperor. When Napoleon I was forced into exile after Waterloo, so were his heirs, including Louis Napoleon, who ended up being raised in Switzerland with German tutelage, giving him a lifelong German accent.
At the age of 15, Louis Napoleon moved to Rome, where he reunited with his brother, Napoleon Louis (not a misprint). In 1831, the 2 brothers were involved in a secret society against the Austrian Empire’s domination of Northern Italy. Pursued as wanted criminals, the brothers fled, with Napoleon Louis dying of measles while on the lam. Louis Napoleon and his mother, Hortense, fled to Paris (incognito) where they received permission from the King to remain as long as they stayed incognito. When the public found out the heir of Napoleon I was in Paris, the King demanded Hortense and Louis Napoleon leave France. A stop in Britain and back to Switzerland followed, with Louis joining the Swiss army and writing artillery manuals. Louis also began writing political articles, and in France nostalgia for Napoleon I’s Empire gained popular support. The son and heir of Napoleon I, Napoleon II died in 1832, and Napoleon’s brothers expressed no interest in re-starting the Bonaparte dynasty. This development left Louis Napoleon as next in line for a Bonaparte throne.
An 1836 coup attempt failed, and Louis Napoleon found himself in exile in England until 1840, when another coup attempt failed, this time landing Louis Napoleon in jail. Escape from prison and a return to England was followed by notable affairs of the heart (it ran in the family) while he continued his political agitating. When France experienced a new revolution in 1848 and the current King abdicated, Louis Napoleon saw his opportunity and returned to France, becoming the first elected President of the country in 1848. A champion of working people, Louis Napoleon was considered a sort of left wing revolutionary by the more conservative political operatives, but this populist stance gained the support of the people, putting Louis Napoleon in the presidency.
During his presidency, Louis Napoleon dealt with political turmoil and attempts to unseat his government. When Louis Napoleon faced a term limit of 4 years, he decided to “correct” the situation by conducting his own coup d’état, and establishing himself as Emperor after an overwhelming victory in a national referendum declaring a new Empire. Louis Napoleon, now known as Napoleon III, had gained and maintained power through ruthless repression of dissent.
Napoleon III set about reorganizing the French economy and infrastructure, and had Paris rebuilt to modern standards. Public works and utilities were modernized, swamps were drained and reclaimed as forest and farmland, and Napoleon III strove to reassert France as a major European power. Foreign escapades included the successful Crimean War and meddling in Italy. Napoleon III championed the idea of countries based on the nationality of their inhabitants instead of polyglot amalgamations of nationalities in artificially created countries such as the Empire of Austria (later Austria-Hungary). Napoleon’s foreign adventures included establishing a French ally in Mexico under Maximillian I (though this regime was opposed by the United States and deposed by Mexican rebels in 1866).
Social reforms and the rights of working class people were a priority of Napoleon III, as was education and the establishment of schools and libraries. Lowering tariffs and improving foreign trade was also instituted.
Napoleon III suffered generally ill health, perhaps aggravated by his time in prison and by his heavy cigarette smoking habit. While the health of Napoleon III declined, the power and militancy of neighboring Prussia grew under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck. Prussia and its German coalition invaded Denmark in 1864, and in 1866 Bismarck invaded Austria. With probable designs on Belgium and Luxemburg, Prussia posed a severe threat to France. In the face of increasing Prussian bellicosity Napoleon III proposed a universal military draft to increase the French army, which was only half the size of that of Prussia. In typical hopelessly optimistic fashion, Napoleon’s opponents argued that cutting the size of the French army would encourage Prussia to also reduce its military! (Note: This sentiment has failed virtually every time that naïve people proposed it.) While France failed to secure allies, Prussia consolidated various German states as allies of their own.
Prussian provocation inflamed French patriotic passion and finally resulted in an ill considered declaration of war on Prussia by France. From July 1870 to May of 1871 the Franco-Prussian War was a disaster for France. The French lost 138,871 dead and 143,000 wounded, with nearly half a million men taken prisoner. The Prussian losses were only 28,208 dead and 88,4888 wounded. Prussian weapons helped win the victory, including Krupp built breech loading field guns (compared to French muzzle loading cannon), although the French fielded the superior rifle, the Chassepot.
The humiliating surrender after devastating defeat inflamed Napoleon III’s enemies in France, and a new republic was declared. Held in captivity by the Prussians for months before a final truce could be negotiated with a new French government (that had officially ousted Napoleon III and blamed him for the failed war), Napoleon III was released and went to England in exile. The Emperor had been deposed. Suffering from gallstones and pointedly left out of power despite his various schemes to somehow regain the throne, Napoleon III underwent two operations for gallstones and died in 1873, never really recovering from the operations.
Napoleon III failed to establish the grand legacy of Napoleon I, even though Napoleon III had ruled France longer than any post-Revolution leader. Certainly, the accomplishments of Napoleon III in the areas of economic, social, and physical infrastructure should gain him a certain amount of admiration. The 12 pounder cannon, known as the Napoleon Gun is named for Napoleon III, not his famous uncle. Napoleon III also left a considerable amount of writings and a long reputation as a womanizer, with at least 9 well known female consorts as well as his wife, Eugenie. The only son of Napoleon III, known as Napoleon, Prince Imperial, lived only to age 23 when he was killed in a skirmish with Zulu warriors in Africa while serving with the British Army. Thus ended the Bonapartist Dynasty and the hopes of those that would declare the Prince Imperial Napoleon IV.
Napoleon III may not have as many admirers today as his uncle still has, but certainly Napoleon III was an influential and significant factor in the Europe and France of his time. As a question for my students, what do you think about this second Emperor Napoleon? Please share your thoughts.
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For more information, please see…
Bierman, John. Napoleon III and His Carnival Empire. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.
Gooch, Brison D. The Reign of Napoleon III. Chicago: Rand McNally & Company, 1969.
The featured image in this article, Napoleon III, after his death, illustration by R & E Taylor, after a photograph by Mssrs. Downey, of the Jan 25,1873 Illustrated London News, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.
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