In the period between 1789 and 1799, The people of France successfully revolted against the Monarchist regime they deemed unjust and attempted to find solace under the shade of a new system of government, one from which emerged a champion of liberty and equality. However, it would take over half a century of bloody conflicts and abdications before they celebrate the fruits of their glorious revolution, the first of said fruits would be known as Louis-Napoleon. Despite being the actual nephew of the infamous Napoleon Bonaparte, his journey to the élysée Palace was not as comfortable as he had anticipated for no sane European at that time believed that a weird looking man with very short legs wondering the streets of London would rise above the rank of a court’s jester. Regardless, the son of Bonapartes managed to prove his doubters wrong and ruled over France as its first president and then later as its last emperor. Seeking to restore his nation’s prestige, he oversaw many reforms in various fields, conducted many construction projects in multiple french cities(especially in the capital city Paris), and involved France in several military campaigns. Louis-Napoleon’s desire to eclipse his relative had led him to work tirelessly to increase French influence on foreign affairs. But that same desire would ultimately reveal his matchless arrogance and his diplomatic incompetence, two deadly attributes that would drive the emperor and his army to crash straight into a concrete wall made of pure Prussian discipline. This is the life of Napoleon the Third, the Forgotten Emperor.
On April 20th, 1808, Count Jean-Baptiste de Belloy, accompanied by the imperial guards, was hastening through the streets of Paris. As shown by their fearful eyes and distressed movements, The thought of displeasing the Imperial family was enough of an incentive for them to ignore the whispers of curiosity filling the recently evacuated road.
Upon reaching the entrance of Tuileries Palace, the catholic count was greeted with the sound of cannons firing in the distance and with the distinguishable cry of a newborn muffling the royal household’s joyful cheers. As the French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte welcomed the revenant, the mother, Queen Hortense de Beauharnais, was staring deeply into her baby’s gray-blue pupils.
To say that Queen Hortense just influenced Napoleon the Third would be the understatement of the century. In fact, she devoted all of her efforts to groom the newly christened “Charles-Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte” to become a future emperor. She would privately tutor the prince and convince his impressionable mind with his own cleverness and greatness while at the same time keep an eye on the events happening around her and conceal any that can potentially jeopardize her investment. Her strategy surprisingly proved to be successful as she managed to hide the news of her separation from her husband Louis Bonaparte in 1810 and the news of Emperor Napoleon having a son of his own in 1811 away from her precious gem. However, in 1812, the Queen’s ears would be deafened to the sound of her days in Paris as they became numbered, to the laughter of her brother-in-law inside his tent as he and his generals raised their glasses filled with wine that was distilled from their underestimation of their enemy, and to the patriotic songs sung by the soldiers as they marched unwittingly into a snowy frozen trap. The Queen needn’t to eavesdrop anymore for Louis Napoleon had already heard his uncle from afar declaring the beginning of the catastrophe: the invasion of the Russian Empire had commenced.
The Decline of the Bonapartes:
After his horrendous invasion of Russia that had snatched the lives of nearly half a million French soldiers in 1812 followed by his humiliating defeat in the Battle of Nations against the Sixth Coalition two years later, Napoleon Bonaparte found himself in an unenviable position. Outside the Turliere Palace’s windows, he couldn’t help but watch as his enemies were unleashing their fury on the French capital, wreaking havoc throughout its alleyways and decimating its exhausted populace.
Desperate to save his dynasty and the remnants of his fallen empire, he coerced Queen Hortense to flee the country with her younger child and abdicated the throne in favor of his 3-year-old son who was immediately crowned Napoleon the Second.
Little did he know, both of his demands would be promptly rejected by the parties involved. Instead, Queen Hortense opted to remain in France along with Louis-Napoleon and resettle with her mother, Josephine de Beauharnais, whilst the victorious allies found it fair that father and son should share the same fate, exiling the former to the island of Elba, located near the Italian Peninsula, and the latter to the heart of the Austrian Empire.
With the Bonapartes seemingly out of the picture, the coalition members began the process of cleansing the French culture from any imperial stains, and through the support of Napoleon’s former foreign minister Maurice de Talleyrand, they managed to restore the crown of the kingdom of France on the head of the oldest surviving Bourbon, crowning him Louis the XVIII. This announcement not only broke the pen over the hopeful French eldery who shed blood for the sake of liberty and justice but also sparked mixed reactions in the souls of the youth of French society: those who were born with a golden spoon in their mouths welcomed the news with open arms. To the liberals, it was a forced return to the days of shackles, and as far as the Bonapartists were concerned, a death sentence was now looming over their heads. The only exceptions were Louis-Napoleon and his mother who remained completely indifferent and unbothered during their residence at the Malmaison Palace. The reason behind this reaction and what happened next can be best described as a game of cards. With the pair of the army and bloodline overt on his side of the table, Louis felt confident about winning the political gamble against Hortense but that confidence would turn into indignation as the Queen played her most powerful card on the table: the King of Hearts, also known as Tsar Alexander the First. Fearing for her own and her son’s life, the Queen and her mother developed a close relationship with the Russian Tsar and succeeded in cajoling him into defending them against any royal aggression. However, this pledge would prove its fragility as soon as Hotense made the mistake of placing the card of Napoleon Bonaparte alongside him and the other European kings, revealing where her loyalty truly was standing. In March 1815, the French emperor triumphantly escaped from Elba, and thanks to his faithful followers led by his sister-in-law, he returned to his throne, reasserting his control over the armed forces in the process. The coalition, who at this point grew tired of Napoleon’s shenanigans, reunited for the seventh time and won the decisive battle of Waterloo on June the 18th 1815, relieving with it the European continent of the Napoleonic curse.
As for King Louis the XVIII, that loss had provided the perfect opening for him to inflict the harshest of punishments on any suspected Bonapartist in what is known as “The White Terror”. Upon realizing the king’s dreadful intentions, Hortense and her son found themselves vulnerable and were left with no choice but to run away and seek refuge in the recently-formed confederation of Switzerland. Much to her dismay, the Queen had to bear the laughter of mockery coming from her royal rival as he held in the palm of his hand the burnt fragments that were once the card of the King of Hearts.
Youth in Exile:
The moment they arrived in Switzerland in 1817, Louis Napoleon and his mother were cordially greeted by the inhabitants as though they were the nobility they used to represent and not mere political refugees hiding in a cheap carriage. As a show of gratitude, Queen Hortense used the remaining of her wealth to serve the Swiss people, funding the construction of schools and donating to churches regardless of the branches they preach. Meanwhile, the little prince showed his appreciation by serving in the Swiss army and demonstrated extraordinary social skills and fantastic linguistic talent as he quickly learned the local dialect without straying away from his French roots, so much so that it was said that he spoke French with a distinct Swiss-German accent. Concerning their private life, however, nothing has changed from the days they were living in France for the tutoring would continue and the river of motherly tenderness would resume in its familiar flow.
As years went by, the boy would grow out of his tiny shoes to become a gentleman and awaken a nightmare that would haunt his mother. For quite a while, she was afraid of the day her birdy would soar out of the safe haven, rendering himself easy prey for foreign predators. Luckily for her, fate would be merciful, granting a safe passage for her child, but as a price for crossing the drawn frontiers, a soul must pass through the borders of life and cross into the land of Death.
On May 5th, 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte proved that he was mortal all along and died on Saint Helena due to stomach cancer, ending his long years of exile. Now, one might think that the European powers heaved a sigh of relief after receiving such news, yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. What had actually happened was that the death of the former Emperor sent shivers up and down their spines and made them worried about a new threat in the form of young Napoleon II. Indeed, the great powers of Europe were nervous about him carrying his father’s mantle and reclaiming the French throne, undoing the peace they established on the continent in the process. So to combat such scenario, they shifted their full attention to the 10-year-old heir, keeping him under constant supervision, and while they succeeded in literally stalking a child, they failed to notice his cousin Louis freely roaming Europe: the Austrians were too busy watching the kid innocently playing from behind shrubs to notice Louis-Napoleon as he and his older brother relocated to Italy’s Papel States in 1826, the Prussians were too occupied with subjecting their neighbours to be aware of the brothers joining a Carbonari lodge and receiving training in revolutionary and guerrilla warfare, and the Russians were in the midst of a fierce staring contest against the Ottomans to even take him seriously. Truth be told, the European leaders at that time regarded Louis-Napoleon as a joke, and not even the death of his brother Napoleon-Louis in 1831 and Napoleon II the next year managed to convince them otherwise. Little did anyone realize, behind the extravagant makeup and the ridiculous outfit lies a resourceful revolutionary and as they were blinded by the tears of hilarity, that same revolutionary, already devising his first coup d’état, was fixing his gaze on his first target.
A History in Coups:
Here’s a quick lesson in common sense: declaring yourself a French Emperor out of nowhere doesn’t really make you the French Emperor and for that, you may end up in a prison cell if not worse. Louis-Napoleon apparently didn’t get the memo as he kept believing that, unlike us, his claim was not entirely empty and that he was entitled to the French throne. Although he was partly correct, Louis-Napoleon suffered a hard time communicating these ideas and beliefs to his entourage and had to endure their harsh remarks about him being just another delusional drunk. To be fair to them, he kind of was a delusional clown, one who allocated all of his military cleverness to reinforce that attitude rather than debunk it. For instance, on October 30th, 1836, he thought that simply entering a military garrison in Strasburg and preaching his cause was enough to convince the soldiers to present there to join his uprising. Unsurprisingly, the mildly-confused commander had all the mutineers prosecuted and shipped the uniformed stranger to the Americas. There, he traveled briefly to Brazil and visited New York, meeting some of America’s elites, most notably a writer named Washington Irving. But his journey would be cut short as he was informed that his mother’s health was severely deteriorating sohe wasted no time in sailing back to Europe. Thankfully, he reached his home just in time to see his beloved one last time and remained by her bedside until she passed away on October 5th, 1837. Sadly, his pain would prolong with King Louis-Philippe seizing every opportunity to remind the sorrowful Louis-Napoleon that he still was a wanted fugitive. Indeed, Louis-Phillipe prohibited him from attending the funeral of Hortense and went even further by demanding the Swiss government to extradite him back to France. The Swiss, who argued that Louis-Napoleon is by law a Swiss citizen, refused to comply and nearly broke their neutrality for his sake. Touched by their act of bold defiance, he decided to spare his hosts the wrath of the tyrant and voluntarily left for the realm of the British Isles.
Upon his arrival in London, he got to witness one of Queen Victoria’s parades. While the crowds were cheering their sovereign, Louis-Napoleon couldn’t help but break into tears as he remembered his late mother, who showed him nothing short of wholehearted affection, and how he turned traitor by standing on the pavement among a bunch of obedient subjects. Vowing to reclaim what’s rightfully his, he gathered his wits and began planning his second coup.
By 1840, the French King and his cabinet were getting increasingly unpopular. In order to avoid upsetting the people, even more, Louis-Philipe did what none of his ancestors would ever do and arranged to have the corpse of Napoleon Bonaparte brought back to France in a glorious celebration. Given the knowledge that he still was regarded as the pinnacle of patriotism and chivalry by the french people, Louis-Phillipe managed to keep his royal title for another day. Meanwhile, on the other side of the English channel, Louis-Napoleon mistook the “Bonaparte” chants for a sign that the public was begging him to return. So, he gathered up a group of 56 mercenaries and eagerly landed at Boulogne-sur-mer. He was expecting that the mere sight of his shadow on the ground would lift the populace’s spirit and inspire them to hoist their awaited emperor upon their shoulders. His wish came true, though the only problem was that the shoulders carrying him were those of uniformed police officers who had immediately arrested and thrown the self-proclaimed savior in a cell in Ham fortress near Reims. Although the name sounded intimidating, the fortress actually couldn’t live up to its reputation. During his days of imprisonment, Louis-Napoleon was permitted to read any book he wanted and write at leisure and he took full advantage of that privilege as he not only wrote poems, political texts, and articles but also published a book called “L’Extinction du paupérisme”, which treated the issue of poverty from a near Marxist point of view, from behind bars. This turned out to be a good approach since his book became a bestseller in France, which in turn helped him gain more popularity from the workers and lower class than the King could ever dream of. Growing bored of his current predicament, Louis-Napoleon decided to end his sentence earlier than intended and escaped on May 25th, 1846, in an anticlimactic fashion: he disgusted himself as a laborer and just walked through the front gates into the open plains. A few days later, he reappeared in the streets of London and resumed his daily habit of plotting revolutions and uprisings. In an unusual twist, he seemed to learn from his previous misfortunes while carefully concocting what was to be his magnum opus.
In the final years of the 1840s, the stars would align and give Louis-Napoleon the break he longed for. With his legs crossed, the now 40-year-old man was calmly sipping tea on his English balcony, biding his time. He didn’t have to wait too long though for loyalty to the July Monarchy was dissolving faster than the sugar in his tea and tensions in France were rising quicker than the leaves in his cup. All it took right now is some monarch to drop the burning matchstick and drag continental Europe into the blazing flames of upheaval and chaos.
To be continued…