Napoleon III

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Editor: Anne Commire
Date: 1994
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 2,394 words
Lexile Measure: 1280L

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About this Person
Born: April 20, 1808 in Paris, France
Died: January 09, 1873 in Chislehurst, United Kingdom
Nationality: French
Occupation: Emperor
Other Names: Bonaparte, Louis Napoleon; Louis Napoleon; Bonaparte, Charles Louis Napoleon; Napoleon III; Napoleon le Petit
Updated:Jan. 1, 1994
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”When I do wrong, I have only to think of this great man, and I seem to feel his shade in me telling me to be worthy of the name Napoleon.” Louis Napoleon

President of the Second French Republic, who, in a coup d'etat, crowned himself emperor of France.

  • 1810 Louis Bonaparte abdicated throne
  • 1815 Napoleon Bonaparte exiled to St. Helena
  • 1831 Louis Napoleon and brother, Napoleon Louis, involved in a minor rebellion in Italy; brother died
  • 1832 Napoleon Bonaparte's son died; Louis Napoleon closest male heir to the deceased emperor
  • 1836 Attempted coup at Strasbourg; Louis placed in New York--bound frigate by French authorities
  • 1840 Second bungled coup attempt at Boulogne; Louis imprisoned for life
  • 1846 Escaped prison and relocated to London
  • 1848 Lifetime exile lifted; elected president of Second Republic
  • 1851 Seized control of government
  • 1852 Crowned emperor
  • 1870 Outbreak of Franco-Prussian War; Napoleon III surrendered to Prussians at Sedan; imprisoned;
  • 1873 Died in England, following several gallbladder operations

When Louis Napoleon was born in 1808, his parents' marriage was already estranged. Arranged by Emperor Napoleon I, the match of Louis Bonaparte and Hortense de Bauharnais produced three sons, only two of whom reached adulthood. In 1809, Louis Bonaparte sought, but was not allowed, a divorce by his brother Napoleon and in the following year was driven by his domestic misery to abdicate the throne of Holland. Thus, Louis Napoleon did not grow up with both parents; his father spent the rest of his days in Germany and Italy. The fall from power of Napoleon I, following the defeat at Waterloo in 1815, further disrupted the young boy's life. Though Louis Napoleon was too young at the time to retain many distinct memories of his famous uncle and his exile to St. Helena, the nephew measured the rest of his life by Napoleon I's achievements.

With the Empire's end, Hortense and her two sons were issued passports to Switzerland. While journeying to a new life, an agent of Louis Bonaparte came to claim the elder son, Napoleon Louis, whose custody the father had won. And, in 1816, the Restoration government passed a law exiling all Bonapartes from France forever. Thus, Louis Napoleon's earliest years were marked by the departures of his father and brother, his uncle's fall from power, and his entire family's enforced banishment from France.

By 1817, Hortense and Louis had finally settled in Thurgau, Switzerland, where she had purchased the Chateau of Arenenberg. First tutored by the abbe Bertrand from 1817-19, Louis made little progress in academic or physical pursuits because the tutor proved insufficiently rigorous. This situation was corrected at the insistence of the boy's father. Phillipe Le Bas, the new teacher, enforced a discipline in the life of the exiled prince. Louis Napoleon's every waking hour adhered to a strict schedule. The formerly lazy pupil blossomed under the regime of Le Bas. In 1821, the boy was enrolled at the local Gymnasium in Augsburg in Bavaria, where his mother had taken a house and where, within a year, he ranked in the top tenth of the class. Louis Napoleon first went to Italy in 1823, a country which would be significant to him for the rest of his life. Not only were a great many members of his family settled there, but it was the region which first gave his uncle glory. For financial reasons, Le Bas was released in 1827 from his tutorship.

In 1830, Louis Napoleon completed an artillery course with the Swiss army at Thun and in the following year, he and his brother Napoleon Louis associated themselves with an antipapal rebellion in central Italy. When Napoleon Louis died from a fatal case of measles, Hortense traced Louis to a rebel base and transported him out of Italy in a move to protect her sole surviving son. After a brief, quasi-secret and completely illegal stop in France, the mother and son went to England for three months before they secured safe passage back to Switzerland.

Napoleon I's son, the duc de Reichstadt, died in July 1832, nine years after his father, leaving Louis Napoleon the logical heir to the emperor's legacy. This "pretender" to the Bonaparte legacy maintained a low profile from 1831 to 1836, writing a pamphlet and a book on artillery tactics after having joined the Swiss militia in 1834. At Strasbourg in October 1836, with a band of fellow conspirators, the young Louis Bonaparte unsuccessfully attempted a coup d'etat. He received a lenient punishment; the French authorities placed him on a New York-bound ship, and he returned to Europe the following year to care for his ailing mother. After her death, when France felt Louis's presence in Switzerland too threatening, he moved voluntarily to England. In London, in 1839, he published a propagandistic pamphlet, Des Idees Napoleoniennes, where he set forth the political program that he believed the Bonapartist legacy to represent. Perhaps it was the success of this treatise which prompted him to attempt another coup in 1840, this time in Boulogne. Captured and sentenced to life imprisonment, Louis Napoleon took advantage of his captivity to continue his education and was able to escape six years later when his prison underwent repair, whereupon he returned to England.

Louis-Philippe, the king of France, was deposed in the February 1848 revolution which paved the way for the return of Louis Napoleon to France; the latter arrived the day after the king's February 24 abdication. Louis Napoleon withdrew to England within a week, however, at the provisional government's request, taking care not spoil the great opportunity he saw unfolding for himself. He knew that the universal suffrage proclaimed by the Second Republic would work in his favor. In May, he was elected a delegate from four districts to the Constituent Assembly, but felt the time unpropitious to take his fairly won seat. In supplementary elections in September, five constituencies elected him to the assembly, and this time he left London for Paris where he took his seat on September 26.

On November 4, the new constitution was passed and the date for the presidential election set for December 10. Because the assembly had decided that members of former ruling houses were eligible for election to public office, Louis Napoleon was able to stand for the presidency and was elected decisively in December, winning nearly four times the votes of his closest rival. Because he had spent most of his life outside France, Louis Napoleon's appearance and personality were unfamiliar to the assembly and the nation its members represented. He lacked his uncle's bearing but not his ego. Though standing only five feet five, with legs short in proportion to his body, a relatively large nose, a moustache, and pale gray eyes, he was possessed of a zeal to restore the nation's lost glory. Aiming to act as a force of order both within and outside France, he sent troops to Rome in 1850 when republican forces threatened papal supremacy.

Louis Napoleon Seizes Power in Coup

Constitutionally limited to one four-year term as president, he began to plan for a coup d'etat with an eye to reestablishing the French Empire. He chose as the coup date the anniversary of Napoleon's Austerlitz victory: on December 2, 1851, he seized power, with relatively little loss of blood, but with 26,884 arrests nationwide. On the 21st of that month, a plebiscite (vote) was held to confirm the president's action and 7.5 out of the 8 million voters responded in the affirmative.

He ruled as president for most of 1852 until a November 20th vote affirmed the reestablishment of the Empire. Louis Napoleon became Emperor Napoleon III in a December 1 ceremony and made his official imperial entrance into the capital the next day. In January of 1853 he married Eugenie de Montijo of Spain, who three years later bore him a son. Napoleon III's reign is curious in that it started out authoritarian but grew more liberal over time. He subordinated the legislative and judicial branches of the government to the executive; by careful manipulation, he was voted to dictator status. The press was heavily censored. But this was all done in an effort primarily to restore the country's once dominant position in Europe; he genuinely believed that the nation needed a benevolent despot, protesting with some disingenuousness:

If I do not represent the French Revolution I represent nothing.... Mine is a representative government with a freely elected Chamber voting laws and taxes. I am a sovereign possessing a civil list and I do not dip into the public purse whenever I like. We possess the Code Napoleon assuring everybody's equality before the law; an independent judiciary; the opening of all posts, an army composed of the elite of the nation and not of mercenaries; there is liberty to write, think, and believe within the limits of the law.

With his nearly unlimited power, he reduced the senate and assembly to bodies which rubber-stamped his initiatives.

The emperor's political economy closely followed the ideas of the early 19th-century thinker, Comte Henri de Saint-Simon. He believed that massive government commitment to public works which improved transportation and communications were fundamental to France's economic health. Thus, he supported, to the bourgeoisie's approval, vast increases in the nation's railroad network, improvements to port facilities, and the development in Paris of large financial concerns which soon came to rival the large banks of the rest of Europe. More than any other person, Napoleon III was responsible for shaping the Paris known to the 20th century with its wide boulevards, public gardens, public transport facilities, and buildings like the Opera. Though he kept a tight rein on the nation's political affairs, in economic dealings he offered a great deal of latitude. A firm proponent of economic liberalization, he wanted to break down France's protectionist barriers, a move which undermined middle-class support of his regime, for reforms promised bad times before improvement.

Though Napoleon III, upon accession to the throne, claimed peaceful intentions, he concentrated all foreign policy and military powers in his own hands and involved France in a number of foreign lands, none of which returned the country to the glory it had enjoyed under his uncle, Napoleon I. A believer in national self-determination, he believed even more, however, in the promotion of French national interest. French troops took part in the Crimean War of 1854 to 1856, the Franco-Austrian War over Italian Unification in 1859, the attempt from 1862 to 1867 to install a Catholic-Austrian prince as ruler of Mexico, and, of course, the Franco-Prussian War; the nation asserted its colonial interests in Algeria, French Guyana, Indochina, and Senegal, among other places. In the European conflicts, the emperor generally ended up compromising his principles and gaining slight compensation in return. The colonial adventures provided little immediate payback, while requiring the dispersal of French troops around the world, unavailable for use on the European continent.

Domestically, Napoleon III had to make concessions to liberalism because he faced increasing discontentment with his rule. Beginning in 1860, the legislative branch started to regain some of the influence on national policy it had held prior to the Second Empire. Press controls were loosened later in the decade. Pressures in 1869 impelled him to consent to the formation of a cabinet, which came into being on January 2 of the following year, headed by Emile Ollivier. No longer any sort of absolute ruler, the emperor did nonetheless appoint himself the minister both of War and Marine. This marked the beginning of what has been called the "liberal empire," an empire of short duration.

In the summer of 1870, Count Otto von Bismarck maneuvered France into attacking Prussia to avenge a perceived affront that emerged in the contest over the succession to the Spanish throne. Bismarck had the objective of drawing all of the German states together to accelerate their unification and, not incidentally, of reducing France's military power while Prussia's was strong Unfortunately for Napoleon III, the French army was poorly prepared for the efficient Prussian war machine. The emperor had been dilatory in recognizing the growing Prussian menace and in remedying the situation; he did not press for major military reform until after the Prussians' decisive victory over the Austrians at Sadowa in 1866. In this case, it was too little, too late.

France Declares War on Prussia

France officially declared war on Prussia on June 19, to avenge the latter's insult to national pride. Plagued as always by the memory of his uncle, this emperor insisted upon taking field command of his troops, despite his advanced age and his tremendous suffering from gallstones. The Germans overwhelmed the French. Quicker to mobilize and endowed with valuable experience gained in its wars of 1864 and 1866, the Prussians and allies managed to surround a French army of 80,000, including Napoleon III, at Sedan, where, on September 2, he surrendered to King Wilhelm of Prussia. The emperor was imprisoned in Germany for six months at which point he was allowed to rejoin his family in London, where Eugenie and the Prince Imperial had fled from the newly established Third Republic. There Napoleon III spent the last two year of his life until his death in January 1873, after a series of gallbladder operations.

Napoleon III's legacy to his country was mixed. He betrayed no hint of having inherited his uncle's martial skills, proving a bungler in military and foreign policy issues. He did make a lasting impression on France economically and physically, guiding it through the dislocating forces of the industrial revolution and preparing its infrastructure for a modern economy. And his 22-year rule was not thoroughly despotic. He was an important stabilizing force as France groped its way toward a true republican government; his quasi-liberal reign may have served a crucial role in curbing the excesses which might well have appeared after the 1848 collapse of the monarchical system in France.


Name variations: Known as Louis Napoleon until he became emperor. Born Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte in Paris on April 20, 1808; died in London on January 9, 1873; son of Louis Bonaparte, king of Holland (and brother of Napoleon Bonaparte) and Hortense de Beauharnais (daughter of the Empress Josephine); married: Eugenie de Montijo, 1853; children: one son, Napoleon Louis, known during the Empire as the Prince Imperial. Predecessor: King Louis-Philippe. Successor: President Adolphe Thiers.



  • Bierman, John. Napoleon III and His Carnival Empire. St. Martin's Press, 1988.
  • Bury, J.P.T. Napoleon III and the Second Empire. English Universities Press, 1964.
  • Thompson. J. M. Louis Napoleon and the Second Empire. Columbia University Press, 1983.

Further Reading:

  • Brodsky, Alyn. Imperial Charade. Bobbs-Merrill, 1978.
  • Gooch. G. P. The Second Empire. Longman, 1960.


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|K1616000030