Third Time’s a Charm:
If you thought that the glorious revolution of 1830 with its 800 casualties was terrible, then you didn’t see its 1848 counterpart. To put it mildly, a governmental ban on people meeting for banquets has spiraled into violent protests that coerced King Louis-Phillipe to abdicate the throne. With the kingdom of France now being a chapter of the past, a new provisional government was installed and a second republic was declared on February 26th, 1848. Not two days later, a familiar oval face with a brown beard would resurface in Paris and offer his services to the government who once again kicked him out of France and back into England. After all, the enraged mob weren’t looking to restore the empire nor to hand a bumbling hoodwinker any form of authority, rather they were seeking liberal reforms and social justice. Unfortunately, all they got was squat as the provisional government kept filling their aching stomachs with lies and empty promises. As a response to this treachery, the workers engaged in June Days, a 3-day massacre that left 1500 Parisians killed in its wake. Witnessing events unfolding, Louis-Napoleon was convinced that now was the perfect time to fulfil his destiny. Deciding to change his strategy, he chose to play by the book. As a first step, he ran for the Constituent Assembly of which he won five departments and with that, the members were forced to lift his exile and allow him to return to France, exactly according to plan.
Then when the presidential elections were announced, Louis-Napoleon was the first one to heed the call and began campaigning heartily. Utilizing the support of the working class and the falling victims of the June Days as stepping stones, Louis-Napoleon won the elections by a landslide, leaving his competitors picking up their jaw in the dust. His efforts and perseverance have finally paid off and the tree of hope that Hortense sawed its seed and louis-Napoleon watered with his tears has finally fruited the success he yearned for. And on December 10th, 1848, Louis-Napoleon officially became the first president of the Second French Republic. Yet, that wasn’t enough for the avaricious president. He wanted more power and influence. He despised the fact that he was bound by a constitution hastily written by an ineffective government and that he was ruling over a republic that resembled in its burst a kettle on a stove. He loathed his opponents as they eased their pain with the knowledge that his presidency won’t last for more than 4 years and that by 1852 the mustached idiot would be gone back to obscurity. Still, all of these sensations couldn’t shake his patience and the self-styled Prince President kept his composure in front of everyone as he secretly put the second phase of his elaborate plan into motion.
By pretending to work with the National Assembly, President Louis made fools out of the people and to throw off any suspicions, he occasionally played on some sensitive strings especially that of religion. On one occasion, he convinced the French public to go to Rome to protect the Pope from Italian revolutionaries. While the people were busy fighting a foreign war on distant lands, Louis-Napoleon was stuffing key positions of government and army with his trusted followers, ensuring that the ministers, high commanding officers, and generals would answer only to him.
In 1851, one year before the end of his term, President Louis decided to reveal his fangs and stormed the National Assembly with his army, requesting an amendment to allow him a second term in office. When the members refused, he didn’t insist nor did he resort to threats. Instead, he stolidly threw them out of the building.
When the dawn’s sunlight vanquished the night’s darkness, the Parisians awoke to the sound of the heavy boots of 30,000 French soldiers patrolling the empty streets of Paris, and to the posters hung on the walls announcing the effective dissolution of the National Assembly. Despite the opposition shown by some republicans, the Second Republic would join its predecessors on December 4th, 1851, as yet another failed attempt of bringing democracy to the franks. Ten months later, Louis-Napoleon held a referendum on awakening the French Empire from its deep slumber. The public, completely out of their own volition and not because they were held at gunpoint, voted in favor of his proposal.
Therefore, Louis-Napoleon relinquished his presidential title for a more prestigious one whose acquisition would be slightly similar to that of his forefather and with the blessings of the people, he would be crowned Emperor Napoleon the Third on December 4th, 1852, the same day where his uncle, from whom he’s trying to distance himself, was enthroned and where he flawlessly executed his strategic masterpiece in the battle of Austerlitz. Whether this was a coincidence or a sick historical irony, the new emperor seemingly didn’t care and went through with the coronation anyways.
Napoleon the Third, having finally achieved his mother’s dying wish and his ultimate dream, put his stringed puppets whom he manipulated in his path to absolute power aside and fixed his gaze on his empire, determined to show those who misjudged his capabilities how wrong they truly were.
The Authoritarian Empire:
In the early years of his reign, Napoleon the Third sought to carve his own legacy and like a child on a sugar rush, he tried accomplishing everything at once. For starters, he set his reformist vision on the place where his great uncle turned a blind eye: the capital city of Paris. At the time, the aforementioned city was associated with filth and diseases with its best tourist attraction being the large rats that roamed the dreadful streets. Forsaken by the previous rulers of France, the city gradually turned into a cesspool that reeked of cholera and crowded slums. In response to such neglect, Louis-Napoleon hired the French architect Baron Haussmann and ordered him to “go forth and bring in air, light, and cleanliness”. With one possessing the physical tools and the other possessing the blueprints in his mind, the two partners began crafting the new identity of Paris. Together they tore down the slums, replacing them with improved homes for the workers, built parks and splendid boulevards, and ameliorated sewage systems. In addition to the many elegant buildings that were first introduced to France in 1853, Hausmann also installed many wrought-iron Victorian streetlights on the pavements and roads, christening Paris its famous nickname: the City of Light.
With his right hand firmly grasping the brush and his left dripping with paint, Napoleon the Third decided to turn his efforts to the aesthetic part of the matter. After contemplating the shiny canvas, he started gracing it with a mixture of historical styles as he redesigned the catholic churches to match the gothic style and the palaces to be the last remnants of the beheaded kingdom. Still, his reforms weren’t just limited to architecture. Louis-Napoleon made education free and accessible to every French citizen, demolished the glass ceiling for women to gain higher education, reformed agricultural practices to prevent any future famines, and invested in railways and steamships building, opening the door for small businesses in the process. Thanks to his reforms, France owes Napoleon the Third the 75% increase in industrial output and the 5% economic growth that the nation had experienced in 1870. It’s also worth noting that the emperor even involved himself in interior design and redecorated the Elysée and Tuileries Palaces according to his image, linking them together with an underground tunnel so that he can meet his mistresses under the nose of his wife Eugénie de Montijo.
However, that prosperity didn’t come cheap as the people of France were forced to exchange their freedoms and rights for that decent standard of living. Censorship was the commodity in imperial France. Mouths were knitted and criticism was silenced by the creaking of the empire’s noose as it kept its victims afloat. From behind every crack watched the eyes of the law and beyond the thin walls eavesdropped the ears of the spies, impatiently awaiting to strike down the conspirators and those who spoke ill of the emperor.
With his position cemented at last, Napoleon the Third tapped into the spirit of his notorious uncle and in order to restore his country’s rank among the great powers, he began plotting his glorious conquest, one that knew neither borders nor waves.
Beyond the Continents and the Seven Seas:
In the wake of the First French Empire’s fall, the European powers haven’t known any major conflict and lived in relative peace. So it was natural for a man whose only heirloom is a vaulting ambition like Napoleon the Third to be itching for a fight. Much to everyone’s dismay, his wish would soon become a reality.
To no one’s surprise, the protracted staring contest between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire had erupted into a full scale war, better known as the Crimean War. Interestingly, what set Louis-Napoleon apart was his understanding of the wants and fears of others and using them to his own advantage. Unlike Napoleon the First who would rush into the battlefield with his trusted artillery, Napoleon the Third incited the fear of Russian dominance in the Balkan Region in the hearts of the Brits and held the dream of Italian unification as a bargaining chip in his negotiations with the Sardinians. As a result, Russia found itself fighting a powerful alliance alone and after three years of fierce combat the Crimean theater ended in an allied victory. Napoleon the Third was satisfied with the outcome of the war as it sent a clear message that he was a leader not to be reckoned with. This confidence boost had led in turn to the emperor getting involved in Italy’s second war of unification in 1859. Indeed, Napoleon the Third sent his professional army to aid the Sardinians in their war against the Austrians. The result was yet another French victory and Nice and Savoy becoming official provinces of France. With two victories and countless overseas colonies to his name, Napoleon the Third’s eyes began to wander outside of the Old Continent and towards the New World, specifically towards Mexico. When the news of the American Civil War reached Paris, the French government found it the perfect opportunity to defy the Monroe Doctrine and get back the money Mexico owes to its creditors. In 1861, they, alongside the other European powers, invaded Mexico, placing Maximilian Habsburg on the Mexican throne to serve as their puppet. Not only did this prompt a bloody 6-year war but also caused severe tensions between France and the United States. In November 1867, Louis-Napoleon, in response to the Americans glaring at him from above, withdrew his forces from Mexico, having achieved nothing but a reason to dig 6650 new graves.
Still, Napoleon the Third didn’t allow such inconvenience to demoralize his spirit as he was certain that the French people were greatly proud of his successful campaigns. Little did he knew, these achievements would also spark the interest of another particular individual, someone who saw through the character of Louis-Napoleon, someone who was hellbent on unifying the long-divided Germans into one unstoppable nation, even if he had to scorch France to the ground and smear his horses’ hooves with the blood of its unsuspected citizens.
The Imperial Eagle meets The Iron Chancellor:
When the 1860’s rolled around, Napoleon the Third was facing two new opponents. The first of which was time. By now, the emperor was approaching his sixties and had developed painful bladder stones that snatched his energy away from him. This led in turn to him relying on his entourage more than ever before and giving more power to the French senate to deal with the many loans that he used to fund his construction projects. The other opponent and perhaps the biggest threat to his rule was the State of Prussia, more specifically its chancellor Otto Von Bismarck. Under the guidance of the aforementioned minister, Prussia managed to strengthen its position without getting involved in conflicts with the great powers of Europe as the nation became a military and an industrial powerhouse over the years. As a result, the Prussians scored two major victories at the Second Schleswig War against the Danish in 1864 and the Seven Weeks War against the Austrian Empire two years later. Yet, Napoleon the Third wasn’t impressed and despite witnessing Prussia evolving into the North German Confederation, he still held on to the belief that this was a mere sideshow compared to his military successes. It also didn’t help that the emperor arrogantly thought he had the final say whenever he dealt with Bismarck. In actuality, the Prussian chancellor saw how weak the French Empire was and he wanted to emphasize that. When Bismarck stood in the way of the French invasion of Luxembourg by threatening war, Louis-Napoleon lacked courage to face him and backed away, returning to Paris with his tail between his legs. This cowardly retreat not only made him the laughing stock of all of Europe but also tarnished his image in the minds of the French people. In the 1869 elections, the government lost control of the senate and Napoleon the Third at the end of the same year was coerced to fully liberalize the empire. He lifted the censorship and eased the restrictions on freedom of speech so that he could keep what was left of his shattered ego. Unfortunately for him, his situation would get much worse from there.
Sick of the political turmoil that Princess Isabella caused with her abdication, the Spanish people looked eastward and they called for Leopard from the house of Hohenzollem to become their next monarch. When the news reached the French court, the emperor expressed his disapproval and immediately sent his ambassador to meet the Prussian King Wilhelm the First and knock some sense into him. What was supposed to be a diplomatic meeting turned into a screaming match that ended with the ambassador storming out. Bismarck, capitalizing on the opportunity, masterfully edited a telegram which sounded like the king told the French to shove it and then leaked it to the press who published it under the name of the Ems Dispatch. Unable to bear the insult and under immense pressure from the people, the parliament declared war on Prussia and on July 18th, 1870, the French army, with Napoleon the Third as commander in chief, charged into enemy territory.
Long story short, the war was a disaster for the French as they suffered one defeat after another, each with its own hefty cost of lives. At the battle of Mitz, Napoleon the Third, surrounded by the Prussians from all sides, decided to take a page from his dead uncle’s book and gathered what was left of his soldiers in a ditch attempt to break the siege. Ironically, Napoleon the First would take the same gamble and actually pull it off, unlike his nephew who bravely escaped from the city. On September 1st, 1870, the most notable battle of the war, the Battle of Sedan, took place. Actually, calling it the Defeat of Sedan would be more accurate. The French were decimated with 16,000 casualties and the Prussians wasting no time in encircling and capturing any survivor. Among those arrested was Napoleon the Third himself. In the wake of this loss, the French parliament decided to pull the plug on the Second French Empire and create the Third French Republic as an alternative.
It must have been heartbreaking for the now-deposed emperor to be abandoned by his own people in the time of his greatest need. Although the war dragged on for months, it was lost for Louis-Napoleon as he was rotting in a prison cell in the middle of Germany. After 7 months in captivity, the Germans offered him a generous deal and exiled him back to Britain. As Louis-Napoleon crossed the English Channel, whose waves became familiar to him, one final time, he couldn’t help but turn back: turn back to look at his beloved France as it was reduced to ash, turn back to torture his ears with the agonizing screams of the besieged Parisians, turn back to relive the destruction of the empire through the same gray blue eyes that had witnessed the destruction of the first empire. He finally learned that his path and his uncle’s were intertwined all along, even if he persisted in denying it. And while the latter’s arrogance stripped the French flag of the red of liberty and the blue of equality, it was the former’s acts of ignorance and impulsiveness that led to its humiliating displacement by German invaders.
Over in England, Louis-Napoleon resettled with his family in the small village of Chislehurst. Sadly, his retirement would be cut short when his health worsened and eventually he died under the knife on January 9th, 1873.
Napoleon the Third was no more.
To this day, Napoleon the Third’s place in the hearts of the people is still a convoluted matter as the man himself remained a mystery. After all, this was a man who in his childhood was banned from returning to his homeland and spent most of his life in exile. Yet, through determination and perseverance, he pressed forward in his claim to the throne and managed to conquer the very system that had opposed him. His accomplishments and reforms not only affected the society he ruled over but also greatly shaped world history. On the other hand, he was responsible for dragging France down a road filled with dangerous warfare and devastating defeats that crippled the country up until World War 1. Some regard him as a clown whose luck and jealousy of his famous uncle forged his path to fame and fortune whereas others regarded him as a vengeful tyrant who ruled France with an iron fist. Yet here, Louis-Napoleon displayed himself as an inspiration to those perusing his tale, an inspiration that rose through the darkest of times and stood unshaken in the face of opposition. Nonetheless, history, overlooking our interpretations, would preserve his name in its timeless records as he will always be remembered as Napoleon the Third, The Last Emperor of the French.
Napoleon the Third, by Heinrich Gustav Euler, Professor of Modern History: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Napoleon-III-emperor-of-France
Napoleon the Third Biography: https://www.biography.com/political-figure/napoleon-iii
The Napoleon of Lake Constance: https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/the-napoleon-of-lake-constance/6597688