Napoleon III, Emperor of the French

France - Scott #18 (1853)
France – Scott #18 (1853)

On December 2, 1852, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte became Emperor of the French as Napoleon III. December 2 happens to also be the anniversary of Napoleon III’s uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte crowning himself Emperor of the the French at Notre Dame Cathedral in 1804, the Battle of Austerlitz in 1806 during which French troops under Napoleon Bonaparte decisively defeated a joint Russo-Austrian force, and the date in 1851 on which then-French President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the Second Republic. I chose the 1852 event to mark today as it gives me a chance to include the oldest French stamp in my collection, Scott #18, released in 1853.

Napoleon III was the nephew and heir of Napoleon I. He was the first Head of State of France to hold the title President, the first elected by a direct popular vote, and the youngest until the election of Emmanuel Macron in 2017. Barred by the Constitution and Parliament from running for a second term, he organized a coup d’état in 1851 and then took the throne as Napoleon III on December 2, 1852, the forty-eighth anniversary of his uncle’s coronation. He remains the longest-serving French head of state since the French Revolution. His downfall was brought about by the Franco-Prussian war in which France was decisively defeated by the North German Confederation, led by Prussia.

During the first years of the Empire, Napoleon’s government imposed censorship and harsh repressive measures against his opponents. Some six thousand were imprisoned or sent to penal colonies until 1859. Thousands more went into voluntary exile abroad, including Victor Hugo. From 1862 onwards, he relaxed government censorship, and his regime came to be known as the “Liberal Empire”. Many of his opponents returned to France and became members of the National Assembly.

Napoleon III is best known today for his grand reconstruction of Paris, carried out by his prefect of the Seine, Baron Haussmann. He launched similar public works projects in Marseille, Lyon, and other French cities. Napoleon III modernized the French banking system, greatly expanded and consolidated the French railway system, and made the French merchant marine the second largest in the world. He promoted the building of the Suez Canal and established modern agriculture, which ended famines in France and made France an agricultural exporter. Napoleon III negotiated the 1860 Cobden–Chevalier free trade agreement with Britain and similar agreements with France’s other European trading partners. Social reforms included giving French workers the right to strike and the right to organize. Women’s education greatly expanded, as did the list of required subjects in public schools.

In foreign policy, Napoleon III aimed to reassert French influence in Europe and around the world. He was a supporter of popular sovereignty and of nationalism. In Europe, he allied with Britain and defeated Russia in the Crimean War (1853–56). His regime assisted Italian unification and, in doing so, annexed Savoy and the County of Nice to France; at the same time, his forces defended the Papal States against annexation by Italy. Napoleon doubled the area of the French overseas empire in Asia, the Pacific, and Africa. On the other hand, his army’s intervention in Mexico which aimed to create a Second Mexican Empire under French protection ended in failure.

From 1866, Napoleon had to face the mounting power of Prussia, as Chancellor Otto von Bismarck sought German unification under Prussian leadership. In July 1870, Napoleon entered the Franco-Prussian Warwithout allies and with inferior military forces. The French army was rapidly defeated and Napoleon III was captured at the Battle of Sedan. The Third Republic was proclaimed in Paris, and Napoleon went into exile in England, where he died in 1873.

Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, later known as Louis Napoleon and then Napoleon III, was born in Paris on the night of April 20-21, 1808. His presumed father was Louis Bonaparte, the younger brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, who made Louis the King of Holland from 1806 until 1810. His mother was Hortense de Beauharnais, the daughter by the first marriage of Napoleon’s wife Joséphine de Beauharnais.

As empress, Joséphine proposed the marriage as a way to produce an heir for the Emperor, who agreed, as Joséphine was by then infertile. Louis married Hortense when he was twenty-four and she was nineteen. They had a difficult relationship, and only lived together for brief periods. Their first son died in 1807, and, though separated, they decided to have a third. They resumed their marriage for a brief time in Toulouse in July 1807, and Louis was born premature, two weeks short of nine months. Louis-Napoleon’s enemies, including Victor Hugo, spread the gossip that he was the child of a different man, but most historians agree today that he was the legitimate son of Louis Bonaparte.

Charles-Louis was baptized at the Palace of Fontainebleau on November 5, 1810, with Emperor Napoleon serving as his godfather and Empress Marie-Louise as his godmother. His father stayed away, once again separated from Hortense. At the age of seven, Louis-Napoleon visited his uncle at the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Napoleon held him up to the window to see the soldiers parading in the courtyard of the Carousel below. He last saw his uncle with the family at the Château de Malmaison, shortly before Napoleon departed for Waterloo.

All members of the Bonaparte dynasty were forced into exile after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and the Bourbon Restoration of monarchy in France. Hortense and Louis-Napoleon moved from Aix to Berne to Baden, and finally to a lakeside house at Arenenberg in the Swiss canton of Thurgau. He received some of his education in Germany at the gymnasium school at Augsburg, Bavaria. As a result, for the rest of his life his French had a slight but noticeable German accent. His tutor at home was Philippe Le Bas, an ardent republican and the son of a revolutionary and close friend of Robespierre. Le Bas taught him French history and radical politics.

When Louis-Napoleon was fifteen, Hortense moved to Rome, where the Bonapartes had a villa. He passed his time learning Italian, exploring the ancient ruins, and learning the arts of seduction and romantic affairs, which he used often in his later life. He became friends with the French Ambassador, François-René Chateaubriand, the father of romanticism in French literature, with whom he remained in contact for many years. He was reunited with his older brother Napoléon Louis, and together they became involved with the Carbonari, secret revolutionary societies fighting Austria’s domination of northern Italy. In the spring of 1831, when he was twenty-three, the Austrian and papal governments launched an offensive against the Carbonari, and the two brothers, wanted by the police, were forced to flee. During their flight Napoleon-Louis contracted measles and, on March 17, 1831, died in his brother’s arms. Hortense joined her son and together they evaded the police and Austrian army and finally reached the French border.

Hortense and Louis-Napoléon travelled incognito to Paris, where the old regime had just fallen and had been replaced by the more liberal regime of King Louis-Philippe I. They arrived in Paris on April 23, 1831, and took up residence under the name “Hamilton” in the Hotel du Holland on Place Vendôme. Hortense wrote an appeal to the King, asking to stay in France, and Louis-Napoleon offered to volunteer as an ordinary soldier in the French Army. The new King agreed to meet secretly with Hortense; Louis Napoleon had a fever and did not join them. The King finally agreed that Hortense and Louis-Napoleon could stay in Paris as long as their stay was brief and incognito. Louis-Napoleon was told that he could join the French Army if he would simply change his name, something he indignantly refused to do. Hortense and Louis Napoleon remained in Paris until May 5, the tenth anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte. The presence of Hortense and Louis-Napoleon in the hotel had become known, and a public demonstration of mourning for the Emperor took place on Place Vendôme in front of their hotel. The same day, Hortense and Louis-Napoleon were ordered to leave Paris. They went to Britain briefly, and then back into exile in Switzerland.

A Bonapartist movement existed in France ever since the fall of Napoleon in 1815, hoping to return a Bonaparte to the throne. According to the law of succession established by Napoleon I, the claim passed first to his son who had been given the title “King of Rome” at birth by his father. He was known by Bonapartists as Napoleon II and was living under virtual imprisonment at the court of Vienna under the name Duke of Reichstadt. Next in line was Napoleon I’s eldest brother Joseph Bonaparte, followed by Louis Bonaparte, but neither Joseph nor Louis had any interest in re-entering public life. When the Duke of Reichstadt died in 1831, Louis-Napoléon became the heir of the dynasty and the leader of the Bonaparte cause.

In exile with his mother in Switzerland, he enrolled in the Swiss Army, trained to become an officer, and wrote a manual of artillery (his uncle Napoleon Bonaparte had become famous as an artillery officer). He also began writing about his political philosophy. He published his Rêveries politiques or “political dreams” in 1833 at the age of 25, followed in 1834 by Considérations politiques et militaires sur la Suisse (“Political and military considerations about Switzerland”), followed in 1839 by Les Idées napoléoniennes (“Napoleonic Ideas”), a compendium of his political ideas which was published in three editions and eventually translated in six languages. His doctrine was based upon two ideas: universal suffrage and the primacy of the national interest. He called for a “Monarchy which procures the advantages of the Republic without the inconveniences”, a regime “strong without despotism, free without anarchy, independent without conquest.”

“I believe,” Louis Napoleon wrote, “that from time to time, men are created whom I call volunteers of providence, in whose hands are placed the destiny of their countries. I believe I am one of those men. If I am wrong, I can perish uselessly. If I am right, then providence will put me into a position to fulfill my mission.” He had seen the popular enthusiasm for Napoleon Bonaparte when he was in Paris, and he was convinced that, if he marched to Paris, as Napoleon Bonaparte had done in 1815 during the One Hundred Days, France would rise up and join him. He began to plan a coup against King Louis-Philippe.

He planned for his uprising to begin in Strasbourg. The colonel of a regiment was brought over to the cause. On October 29, 1836, Louis Napoleon arrived in Strasbourg, in the uniform of an officer of artillery, and rallied the regiment to his side. The prefecture was seized, and the prefect arrested. Unfortunately for Louis-Napoleon, the general commanding the garrison escaped and called in a loyal regiment, which surrounded the mutineers. The mutineers surrendered and Louis-Napoleon fled back to Switzerland.

Louis-Philippe demanded that the Swiss government return Louis-Napoleon to France, but the Swiss pointed out that he was a Swiss citizen, and refused to hand him over. Louis-Philippe responded by sending an army to the Swiss border. Louis-Napoleon thanked his Swiss hosts, and voluntarily left the country. The other mutineers were put on trial in Alsace, and were all acquitted.

Louis Napoleon traveled first to London, then to Brazil, and then to New York. He moved into a hotel, where he met the elite of New York society, and the writer Washington Irving. While he was traveling to see more of the United States, he received word that his mother was very ill. He hurried as quickly as he could back to Switzerland. He reached Arenenberg in time to be with his mother on 5 October 1837, when she died. She was finally buried in Reuil, in France, next to her mother, on January 11, 1838, but Louis-Napoleon could not attend, because he was not allowed into France.

Louis-Napoleon returned to London for a new period of exile in October 1838. He had inherited a large fortune from his mother, and took a house with seventeen servants and several of his old friends and fellow conspirators. He was received by London society and met the political and scientific leaders of the day, including Benjamin Disraeliand Michael Faraday. He also did considerable research into the economy of Britain. He strolled in Hyde Park, which he later used as a model when he created the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.

Living in the comfort of London, he had not given up the dream of returning to France to seize power. In the summer of 1840 he bought weapons and uniforms and had proclamations printed, gathered a contingent of about sixty armed men, hired a ship called the Edinburgh-Castle, and on August 6, 1840, sailed across the Channel to the port of Boulogne. The attempted coup turned into an even greater fiasco than the Strasbourg mutiny. The mutineers were stopped by the customs agents, the soldiers of the garrison refused to join, the mutineers were surrounded on the beach, one was killed and the others arrested. Both the British and French press heaped ridicule on Louis-Napoleon and his plot. The newspaper Le Journal des Débats wrote, “this surpasses comedy. One doesn’t kill crazy people, one just locks them up.” He was put on trial, where, despite an eloquent defense of his cause, he was sentenced to life in prison in the fortress of Ham in the Somme department of northern France.

The register of the fortress Ham for 7 October 1840 contained a concise description of the new prisoner: “Age: thirty-two years. Height: one meter sixty-six. Hair and eyebrows: chestnut. Eyes: Gray and small. Nose: large. Mouth: ordinary. Beard: brown. Moustache: blond. Chin: pointed. Face: oval. Complexion: pale. Head: sunken in his shoulders, and large shoulders. Back: bent. Lips: thick.” He had a mistress, a young woman from the nearby town named Éléonore Vergeot, who gave birth to two of his children.

While in prison, he wrote poems, political essays, and articles on diverse topics. He contributed articles to regional newspapers and magazines in towns all over France, becoming quite well known as a writer. His most famous book was L’extinction du pauperism (1844), a study of the causes of poverty in the French industrial working class, with proposals to eliminate it. His conclusion: “The working class has nothing, it is necessary to give them ownership. They have no other wealth than their own labor, it is necessary to give them work that will benefit all….they are without organization and without connections, without rights and without a future; it is necessary to give them rights and a future and to raise them in their own eyes by association, education, and discipline.” He proposed various practical ideas for creating a banking and savings system that would provide credit to the working class, and to establish agricultural colonies similar to the kibutzes later founded in Israel. This book was widely reprinted and circulated in France, and played an important part in his future electoral success.

He was busy in prison, but also unhappy and impatient. He was aware that the popularity of Napoleon Bonaparte was steadily increasing in France; the Emperor was the subject of heroic poems, books and plays. Huge crowds had gathered in Paris on December 15, 1840, when the ashes of Napoleon Bonaparte were returned with great ceremony to Paris and handed over to Louis-Napoleon’s old enemy, King Louis-Philippe, while Louis Napoleon could only read about it in prison. On May 25, 1846, with the assistance of his doctor and other friends on the outside, he disguised himself as a laborer carrying lumber, and walked out of the prison. His enemies later derisively called him “Badinguet”, the name of the laborer whose identity he had assumed. A carriage was waiting to take him to the coast and then by boat to England. A month after his escape, his father Louis died, making Louis-Napoleon the clear heir to the Bonaparte dynasty.

He returned to Britain, and quickly resumed his place in British society. He lived on King Street in St James’s, London, went to the theatre and hunted, renewed his acquaintance with Benjamin Disraeli, and met Charles Dickens. He went back to his studies at the British Museum. He had an affair with the actress Rachel, the most famous French actress of the period, during her tours to Britain. More important for his future career, he had an affair with the wealthy heiress Harriet Howard (1823–65). They had met in 1846, soon after his return to Britain. They began to live together, she took in his two illegitimate children and raised them with her own son, and she provided financing for his political plans so that, when the moment came, he could return to France..

In February 1848, Louis Napoleon learned that the French Revolution of 1848 had broken out, and that Louis-Philippe, faced with opposition within his government and army, had abdicated. Believing that his time had finally come, he set out for Paris on February 27, departing England on the same day that Louis-Philippe left France for his own exile in England. When he arrived in Paris, he found that the Second Republic had been declared, led by a Provisional Government headed by a Commission led by Alphonse de Lamartine, and that different factions of republicans, from conservatives to those on the far left, were competing for power. He wrote to Lamartine announcing his arrival, saying that he “was without any other ambition than that of serving my country.” Lamartine wrote back politely but firmly, asking Louis-Napoleon to leave Paris “until the city is more calm, and not before the elections for the National Assembly.” His close advisors urged him to stay and try to take power, but he wanted to show his prudence and loyalty to the Republic; while his advisors remained in Paris, he returned to London on March 2, 1848, and watched events from there.

He did not run in the first elections for the National Assembly, held in April 1848, but three members of the Bonaparte family, Jérôme Napoléon Bonaparte, Pierre Napoléon Bonaparte, and Lucien Murat were elected; the name Bonaparte still had political power. In the next elections, on June 4, where candidates could run in multiple departments, he was elected in four different departments; in Paris, he was among the top five candidates, just after the conservative leader Adolphe Thiers and Victor Hugo. His followers were mostly on the left; from the peasantry and working class. His pamphlet on “The Extinction of Pauperism” was widely circulated in Paris, and his name was cheered with those of the socialist candidates, Barbèsand Louis Blanc.

The conservative leaders of the provisional government, Lamartine and Cavaignac, considered arresting him as a dangerous revolutionary, but once again he outmaneuvered them. He wrote to the President of the Provisional Government: “I believe I should wait to return to the heart of my country, so that my presence in France will not serve as a pretext to the enemies of the Republic.”

In June 1848, the June Days Uprising broke out in Paris, led by the far left, against the conservative majority in the National Assembly. Hundreds of barricades appeared in the working-class neighborhoods. General Cavaignac, the leader of the army, first withdrew his soldiers from Paris to allow the insurgents to deploy their barricades, and then returned with overwhelming force to crush the uprising; from June 24-26 there were battles in the streets of the working class districts of Paris. An estimated five thousand insurgents were killed at the barricades; fifteen thousand were arrested, and four thousand deported.

His absence from Paris meant that Louis Napoleon was not connected either with the uprising, or with the brutal repression that had followed. He was still in London on September 17-18, when the elections for the National Assembly were held, but he was a candidate in thirteen departments. He was elected in five departments; in Paris, he received 110,000 votes of the 247,000 cast, the highest number of votes of any candidate. He returned to Paris on September 24, and this time he took his place in the National Assembly. In seven months, he had gone from a political exile in London to a highly-visible place in the National Assembly, as the government finished the new Constitution and prepared for the first election ever of a President of the French Republic.

The new constitution of the Second Republic, drafted by a commission including Alexis de Tocqueville, called for a strong executive and a president elected by popular vote, through universal male suffrage, rather than chosen by the National Assembly. The elections were scheduled for December 10-11, 1848. Louis-Napoleon promptly announced his candidacy. There were four other candidates for the post; General Louis-Eugène Cavaignac, the Minister of Defense who had led the suppression of the June uprisings in Paris; Lamartine, the poet-philosopher and leader of the provisional government; Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, the leader of the socialists; and Raspail, the leader of the far left wing of the socialists.

Louis-Napoleon established his campaign headquarters and residence at the Hotel du Rhin on Place Vendôme. He was accompanied by his companion, Harriet Howard, who gave him a large loan to help finance his campaign. He rarely went to the sessions of the National Assembly, and rarely voted. He was not a gifted orator; he spoke slowly, in a monotone, with a slight German accent from his Swiss education. His opponents sometimes ridiculed him, one comparing him to “a turkey who believes he’s an eagle.”

His campaign appealed to both the left and right. His election manifesto proclaimed his support for “religion, the family, property, the eternal basis of all social order.” But it also announced his intent “to give work to those unoccupied; to look out for the old age of the workers; to introduce in industrial laws those improvements which don’t ruin the rich, but which bring about the well-being of each and the prosperity of all.”

His campaign agents, many of them veterans from Napoleon Bonaparte’s Army, raised support for him around the country. Louis-Napoleon won the grudging endorsement of the conservative leader, Adolphe Thiers, who believed he could be the most easily controlled; Thiers called him “of all the candidates, the least bad.” He won the backing of L’Evenement, the newspaper of Victor Hugo, which declared, “We have confidence in him; he carries a great name.” His chief opponent, General Cavaignac, expected that Louis-Napoleon would come in first, but that he would receive less than fifty percent of the vote, which would mean the election would go to the National Assembly, where Cavaignac was certain to win.

The elections were held on December 10-11, and results announced on December 20. Louis-Napoleon was widely expected to win, but the size of his victory surprised almost everyone. He won 5,572,834 votes, or 74.2 percent of votes cast, compared with 1,469,156 for Cavaignac. The socialist Ledru-Rollin received 376,834; the extreme left candidate Raspail received 37,106, and the poet Lamartine received only 17,000 votes. Louis-Napoleon won the support of all parts of the population: the peasants unhappy with rising prices; unemployed workers; small businessmen who wanted prosperity and order; and intellectuals such as Victor Hugo. He won the votes of 55.6 percent of all registered voters, and won in all but four of France’s departments.

Louis-Napoléon moved his residence to the Élysée Palace at the end of December 1848, and immediately hung a portrait of his mother in the boudoir and a portrait of Napoléon Bonaparte, in his coronation robes, in the grand salon. Adolphe Thiers recommended that he wear clothing of “democratic simplicity,” but, following the model of his uncle, he chose instead the uniform of the General-in-Chief of the National Guard, and chose the title of “Prince-President.”

He also made his first venture into foreign policy, in Italy, where as a youth he had joined in the patriotic uprising against the Austrians. The previous government had sent an expeditionary force to Rome to help restore the temporal authority of Pope Pius IX, who was being threatened by the troops of the Italian republicans Mazzini and Garibaldi. The French troops came under fire from Garibaldi’s soldiers. The Prince-President, without consulting his ministers, ordered his soldiers to fight if needed in support of the Pope. This was very popular with French Catholics, but infuriated the republicans, who supported Garibaldi. To please the radical republicans, he asked the Pope to introduce liberal reforms and the Code Napoleon to the Papal States. To gain support from the Catholics, he approved the Loi Falloux in 1851, which restored a greater role for the Catholic Church in the French educational system.

Elections were held for the National Assembly on May 13-14, 1849, only a few months after Louis-Napoleon had become President, and were largely won by a coalition of conservative republicans — which Catholics and monarchists called “The Party of Order” — led by Adolphe Thiers. The socialists and “red” republicans, led by Ledru-Rollin and Raspail, also did well, winning two hundred seats. The moderate republicans, in the middle, did very badly, taking just 70-80 seats. The Party of Order had a clear majority, enough to block any initiatives of Louis-Napoleon.

On June 11, 1849, the socialists and radical republicans made an attempt to seize power. Ledru-Rollin, from his headquarters in the Conservatory of Arts and Professions, declared that Louis-Napoleon was no longer President and called for a general uprising. A few barricades appeared in the working-class neighborhoods of Paris. Louis-Napoleon acted swiftly, and the uprising was short-lived. Paris was declared in a state of siege, the headquarters of the uprising was surrounded, and the leaders arrested. Ledru-Rollin fled to England, Raspail was arrested and sent to prison, the republican clubs were closed, and their newspapers closed down.

The National Assembly, now without the red Republicans and determined to keep them out forever, proposed a new election law that placed restrictions on universal male suffrage, imposing a three-year residency requirement. This new law excluded 3.5 of 9 million French voters, the voters that the leader of the Party of Order, Adolphe Thiers scornfully called “the vile multitude.” This new election law was passed in May 1850 by a majority of 433 to 241, putting the National Assembly on a direct collision course with the Prince-President. Louis-Napoléon broke with the Assembly and the conservative ministers opposing his projects in favour of the dispossessed. He secured the support of the army, toured the country making populist speeches that condemned the assembly, and presented himself as the protector of universal male suffrage. He demanded that the law be changed, but his proposal was defeated in the Assembly by a vote of 355 to 348.

According to the constitution of 1848, he had to step down at the end of his term, so Louis-Napoleon sought a constitutional amendment to allow him to succeed himself, arguing that four years were not enough to fully implement his political and economic program. He toured the country and gained support from many of the regional governments, and the support of many within the Assembly. The vote in July 1851 was 446 to 278 in favor of changing the law and allowing him to run again, but this was just short of the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution.

Louis-Napoleon believed that he was supported by the people, and he decided to retain power by other means. His half-brother Morny and a few close advisors began to quietly organize a coup d’état. They brought Major General Jacques Leroy de Saint Arnaud, a former captain from the French Foreign Legion and a commander of French forces in Algeria, and other officers from the French army in North Africa, to provide military backing for the coup. The date set for the coup was December 2, the anniversary of the Battle of Austerlitz, and the anniversary of the coronation of Louis-Napoleon’s uncle Napoleon I. On the night of December 1-2, Saint Arnaud’s soldiers quietly occupied the national printing office, the Palais Bourbon, newspaper offices, and the strategic points in the city. In the morning, Parisians found posters around the city announcing the dissolution of the National Assembly, the restoration of universal suffrage, new elections, and a state of siege in Paris and the surrounding departments. Sixteen members of the National Assembly were arrested in their homes. When about 220 deputies of the moderate right gathered at the city hall of the 10th arrondissement, they were also arrested. On December 3, writer Victor Hugo and a few other republicans tried to organize an opposition to the coup. A few barricades appeared, and about 1,000 insurgents came out in the streets, but the army moved in force with 30,000 troops and the uprisings were swiftly crushed, with the killing of an estimated 300 to 400 opponents of the coup. There were also small uprisings in the more militant red republican towns in the south and center of France, but these were all put down by December 10.

Louis-Napoleon followed the self-coup by a period of repression of his opponents, aimed mostly at the red republicans. About 26,000 people were arrested, including 4,000 in Paris alone. The 239 inmates who were judged most severely were sent to the penal colony in Cayenne. 9,530 followers were sent to Algeria, 1,500 were expelled from France, and another 3,000 were given forced residence away from their homes. Soon afterwards, a commission of revision freed 3,500 of those sentenced. In 1859 the remaining 1800 prisoners and exiles were amnestied, with the exception of the republican leader Ledru-Rollin, who was released from prison but required to leave the country.

Strict press censorship was enacted by a decree from February 17, 1852. No newspaper dealing with political or social questions could be published without the permission of the government, fines were increased, and the list of press offenses was greatly expanded. After three warnings, a newspaper or journal could be suspended or even permanently closed.

Louis-Napoleon wished to demonstrate that his new government had a broad popular mandate, so on December 20-21 a national plebiscite was held asking if voters agreed to the coup. Mayors in many regions threatened to publish the names of any electors who refused to vote. When asked if they agreed to the coup, 7,439,216 voters said yes, 641,737 voted no, and 1.7 million voters abstained. The fairness and legality of the referendum was immediately questioned by Louis-Napoleon’s critics, but Louis Napoleon was convinced that he had been given a public mandate to rule.

Hugo, who had originally supported Louis Napoléon but had been infuriated by the coup d’état, departed Paris for Brussels by train on December 11, 1851. He became the most bitter critic of Louis-Napoleon, rejected the amnesty offered him, and did not return to France for twenty years.

The 1851 referendum also gave Louis Napoleon a mandate to amend the constitution. Work began on the new document in 1852. The new constitution was officially prepared by a committee of eighty experts, but was actually drafted by a small group of the Prince-President’s inner circle. Under the new document, Louis-Napoleon was automatically reelected as president. Under Article Two, the president could now serve an unlimited number of 10-year terms. He alone was given the authority to declare war, sign treaties, form alliances and initiate laws. The Constitution re-established universal male suffrage, and also retained a National Assembly, but with greatly reduced authority.

Louis-Napoleon’s government imposed new authoritarian measures to control dissent and reduce the power of the opposition. One of his first acts was to settle scores with his old enemy, King Louis-Philippe, who had sent him to prison for life, and who had died in 1850. A decree on January 23, 1852, forbade the late King’s family to own property in France, and annulled the inheritance he had given to his children before he became King.

The National Guard, whose members had sometimes joined anti-government demonstrations, was re-organized, and largely used only in parades. Government officials were required to wear uniforms at official formal occasions. The Minister of Education was given the power to dismiss professors at the universities, and to review the content of their courses. Students at the universities were forbidden to wear beards, seen as a symbol of republicanism.

An election was held for a new National Assembly on February 29, 1852, and all the resources of the government were used on behalf of the candidates backing the Prince-President. Of eight million eligible voters, 5,200,000 votes went to the official candidates, and 800,000 to opposition candidates. About one third of the eligible voters abstained. The new assembly included a small number of opponents of Louis-Napoleon, including 17 monarchists, 18 conservatives, two liberal democrats, three republicans and 72 independents.

For all intents and purposes, Louis-Napoléon now held all governing power in the nation. Yet he was not content with being an authoritarian president. The ink had barely dried on the new constitution when he set about making himself emperor. Following the election, the Prince-President went on a triumphal national tour. In Marseille, he laid the cornerstone of a new cathedral, a new stock exchange, and a chamber of commerce. In Bordeaux, on October 9, 1852, he gave his principal speech:

“Some people say the Empire is war. I say the Empire is peace. Like the Emperor I have many conquests to make… Like him I wish … to draw into the stream of the great popular river those hostile side-currents which lose themselves without profit to anyone. We have immense unplowed territories to cultivate; roads to open; ports to dig; rivers to be made navigable; canals to finish, a railway network to complete. We have, in front of Marseille, a vast kingdom to assimilate into France. We have all the great ports of the west to connect with the American continent by modern communications, which we still lack. We have ruins to repair, false gods to tear down, truths which we need to make triumph. This is how I see the Empire, if the Empire is re-established. These are the conquests I am considering, and you around me, who, like me, want the good of our country, you are my soldiers.”

When he returned to Paris at the end of his tour, the city was decorated with large arches, with banners proclaiming “To Napoleon III, emperor”. In response to officially inspired requests for the return of the empire, the Senate scheduled another referendum for November 21-22, 1852, on whether to make Napoleon emperor. After an implausible 97 percent voted in favour (7,824,129 votes for and 253,159 against, with two million abstentions), on December 2, 1852 —exactly one year after the coup — the Second Republic was officially ended, replaced by the Second French Empire. President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte became Napoleon III, Emperor of the French. His regnal name treats Napoleon II, who never actually ruled, as a true Emperor (he had been briefly recognized as emperor from June 22 to July 7, 1815). The 1851 constitution was retained, with the word “president” replaced by the word “emperor.”

One of the first priorities of Napoleon III was the modernization of the French economy, which had fallen far behind that of the United Kingdom and some of the German states. Political economics had long been a passion of the Emperor: While in Britain he had visited factories and railway yards, and in prison he had studied and written about the sugar industry and policies to reduce poverty. He wanted the government to play an active, not a passive, role in the economy. In 1839, he had written: “Government is not a necessary evil, as some people claim; it is instead the benevolent motor for the whole social organism.” He did not advocate the government getting directly involved in industry. Instead, the government took a very active role in building the infrastructure for economic growth; stimulating the stock market and investment banks to provide credit; building railways, ports, canals and roads; and providing training and education. He also opened up French markets to foreign goods, such as railway tracks from England, forcing French industry to become more efficient and more competitive.

The period was favorable for industrial expansion. The gold rushes in California and Australia increased the European money supply. In the early years of the Empire, the economy also benefited from the coming of age of those born during the baby boom of the Restoration period. The steady rise of prices caused by the increase of the money supply encouraged company promotion and investment of capital.

Beginning in 1852, he encouraged the creation of new banks, such as Crédit Mobilier, which sold shares to the public and provided loans to both private industry and to the government. Crédit Lyonnais was founded in 1863, and Société Générale in 1864. These banks provided the funding for Napoléon III’s major projects, from railway and canals to the rebuilding of Paris.

In 1851 France had only 3,500 kilometers of railway, compared with 10,000 kilometers in England and 800 kilometers in Belgium, a country one-twentieth the size of France. Within days of the coup d’état Napoléon III’s Minister of Public Works launched a project to build a railway line around Paris, connecting the different independent lines coming into Paris from around the country. The government provided guarantees for loans to build new lines, and urged railway companies to consolidate. There were 18 railway companies in 1848, and six at the end of the Empire. By 1870, France had 20,000 kilometers of railway, linked to the French ports and to the railway systems of the neighbouring countries, which carried over 100 million passengers a year and transported the products of France’s new steel mills, mines and factories.

New shipping lines were created and ports rebuilt in Marseille and Le Havre, which connected France by sea to the USA, Latin America, North Africa and the Far East. During the Empire the number of steamships tripled, and by 1870 France possessed, after England, the second-largest maritime fleet in the world.[66] Napoleon III backed the greatest maritime project of the age, the construction of the Suez Canal between 1859 and 1869. The canal was funded by shares on the Paris stock market, and led by a former French diplomat, Ferdinand de Lesseps. It was opened by the Empress Eugénie, with a performance of Verdi’s opera Aida.

The rebuilding of central Paris also encouraged commercial expansion and innovation. The first department store, Bon Marché, opened in Paris in 1852 in a modest building, and expanded rapidly, its income going from 450,000 francs a year to 20 million. Its founder, Aristide Boucicaut, commissioned a new glass and iron building, designed by Louis-Charles Boileau and Gustave Eiffel and opened in 1869, that became the model for the modern department store. Other department stores quickly appeared: Au Printemps in 1865 and La Samaritaine in 1870. They were soon imitated around the world.

Napoleon III’s program also included reclaiming farmland and reforestation. One such project in the Gironde department drained and reforested 3,900 square miles (10,000 square kilometers) of moorland, creating the Landes forest, the largest maritime pine forest in Europe.

Napoleon III began his regime by launching a series of enormous public works projects in Paris, hiring tens of thousands of workers to improve the sanitation, water supply and traffic circulation of the city. To direct this task, he named a new Prefect of the Seine department, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, and gave him extraordinary powers to rebuild the center of the city. He installed a large map of Paris in a central position in his office, and he and Haussmann planned the new Paris.

The population of Paris had doubled since 1815, with neither an increase in its area nor a development of its structure of very narrow medieval streets and alleys.

To accommodate the growing population and those who would be forced from the center by the new boulevards and squares Napoleon III planned to build, he issued in 1860 a decree annexing eleven surrounding communes (municipalities), and increasing the number of arrondissements (city boroughs) from twelve to twenty, enlarging Paris to its modern boundaries with the exception of the two major city parks (Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes) which only became part of the French capital in 1920.

For the nearly two decades of Napoleon III’s reign, and for a decade afterwards, most of Paris was an enormous construction site. His hydraulic chief engineer, Eugène Belgrand, built a new aqueduct to bring clean water from the Vanne River in the Champagne region, and a new huge reservoir near the future Parc Montsouris. These two works increased the water supply of Paris from 87,000 to 400,000 cubic meters of water a day. Hundreds of kilometers of pipes distributed the water throughout the city, and a second network, using the less-clean water from the Ourq and the Seine, washed the streets and watered the new park and gardens. He completely rebuilt the Paris sewers, and installed miles of pipes to distribute gas for thousands of new streetlights along the Paris streets.

Beginning in 1854, In the center of the city, Haussmann’s workers tore down hundreds of old buildings and cut new avenues, connecting the central points of the city. Buildings along these avenues were required to be the same height and in a similar style, and to be faced with cream-coloured stone, creating the signature look of Paris boulevards.

Napoleon III built two new railway stations: the Gare de Lyon (1855) and the Gare du Nord(1865). He completed Les Halles, the great cast iron and glass pavilioned produce market in the center of the city, and built a new municipal hospital, the Hôtel-Dieu, in the place of crumbling medieval buildings on the Ile de la Cité. The signature architectural landmark was the Paris Opera, the largest theater in the world, designed by Charles Garnier, crowning the center of Napoleon III’s new Paris.

Napoleon III also wanted to build new parks and gardens for the recreation and relaxation of the Parisians, particularly those in the new neighbourhoods of the expanding city.

Napoleon III’s new parks were inspired by his memories of the parks in London, especially Hyde Park, where he had strolled and promenaded in a carriage while in exile; but he wanted to build on a much larger scale. Working with Haussmann and Jean-Charles Alphand, the engineer who headed the new Service of Promenades and Plantations, he laid out a plan for four major parks at the cardinal points of the compass around the city. Thousands of workers and gardeners began to dig lakes, build cascades, plant lawns, flowerbeds and trees. construct chalets and grottoes. Napoleon III transformed the Bois de Boulogne into a park (1852–58) to the west of Paris: the Bois de Vincennes (1860–65) to the east; he created the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont (1865–67) to the north, and the Parc Montsouris (1865–78) to the south.

In addition to building the four large parks, Napoleon had the city’s older parks, including Parc Monceau, formerly owned by the Orléans family, and the superb Jardin du Luxembourg, refurbished and replanted. He also created some twenty small parks and gardens in the neighborhoods, as miniature versions of his large parks. Alphand termed these small parks “Green and flowering salons.” The intention of Napoleon’s plan was to have one park in each of the eighty “quartiers” (neighborhoods) of Paris, so that no one was more than a ten-minute’s walk from such a park. The parks were an immediate success with all classes of Parisians.

Soon after becoming Emperor, Napoleon III began searching for a wife to give him an heir. He was still attached to his companion Harriet Howard, who attended receptions at the Élysée Palace and traveled around France with him. He quietly sent a diplomatic delegation to approach the family of princess Carola of Vasa, the granddaughter of deposed king Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden. They declined because of his Catholic religion and the political uncertainty about his future, as did the family of Princess Adelheid of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, a niece of Queen Victoria.

Finally Louis-Napoleon announced that he found the right woman: Eugénie du Derje de Montijo, age 23, 16th Countess of Teba and 15th Marquise of Ardales. Her maternal grandfather, William Kirkpatrick of Closeburn, was a Scottish wine merchant. She received much of her education in Paris. Her beauty attracted Louis-Napoleon, who, as was his custom, tried to seduce her, but Eugénie told him to wait for marriage. The civil ceremony took place at Tuileries Palace on January 22, 1853, and a much grander ceremony was held a few days later at Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. In 1856, Eugénie gave birth to a son and heir-apparent, Napoléon, Prince Imperial.

Safe with an heir, Napoleon III resumed his “petites distractions” with other women. Eugénie faithfully performed the duties of an Empress, entertaining guests and accompanying the Emperor to balls, opera, and theater. She traveled to Egypt to open the Suez Canal and officially represented him whenever he traveled outside France.

Though a fervent Catholic and conservative on many other issues, she strongly advocated equality for women. She pressured the Ministry of National Education to give the first baccalaureate diploma to a woman and tried unsuccessfully to induce the Académie française to elect the writer George Sand as its first female member.

In foreign policy, Napoleon III aimed to reassert French influence in Europe and around the world. He was a supporter of popular sovereignty, and of nationalism.[6] In Europe, he allied with Britain and defeated Russia in the Crimean War (1854–56). French troops assisted Italian unification by fighting on the side of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. In return, in 1860 France received Savoy and the county of Nice. Later, however, to appease fervent French Catholics, he sent soldiers to defend the residual Papal Statesagainst annexation by Italy.

In 1862, Napoleon III sent troops to Mexico in an effort to establish an allied monarchy in the Americas, with Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria enthroned as EmperorMaximilian I. However, the Second Mexican Empire faced resistance from the republican government of President Benito Juárez. After victory in the American Civil War in 1865, the United States made clear that France would have to leave. It sent 50,000 troops under General Philip H. Sheridan to the U.S.-Mexico border, and helped resupply Juárez. Napoleon was stretched very thin; he had committed 40,000 troops to Mexico, 20,000 to Rome to guard the Pope against the Italians, and another 80,000 in restive Algeria. Furthermore, Prussia, having just defeated Austria, was an imminent threat. Napoleon realized his predicament and withdrew his troops from Mexico in 1866. Maximilian was overthrown and executed.

In southeast Asia Napoleon III was more successful in establishing control one slice at a time. He took over Cochinchina (the southernmost part of modern Vietnam, including Saigon) in 1862, as well as a protectorate over Cambodia in 1863. Additionally, France had a sphere of influenceduring the 19th century and early 20th century in southern China, including a naval base at Kuangchow Bay (Guangzhouwan).

Through the 1860s, the health of the Emperor steadily worsened. It had been damaged by his six years in prison at Ham; he had chronic pains in his legs and feet, particularly when it was cold, and as a result, he always lived and worked in overheated rooms and offices. He smoked heavily. He distrusted doctors and disregarded medical advice, and attributed any problems simply to “rheumatism”, for which he regularly visited the hot springs at Vichy and other spas. It became difficult for him to ride a horse, and he was obliged to walk slowly, often with a cane. From 1869 onwards, the crises of his urinary tract were treated with opium, which made him seem lethargic, sleepy and apathetic. His writing became hard to read, and his voice weak. In the spring of 1870 he was visited by an old friend from England, Lord Malmesbury. Malmesbury found him to be “terribly changed and very ill.”

The health problems of the Emperor were kept secret by the government, which feared that, if his condition became public, the opposition would demand his resignation. One newspaper, the Courrier de la Vienne, was warned by the censors to stop publishing articles which had “a clear and malicious intent to spread, contrary to the truth, alarms about the health of the Emperor.”

At the end of June 1870, a specialist in the problems of urinary tracts, Germain Sée was finally summoned to examine him. Sée reported that the Emperor was suffering from a gallstone. On July 2, four eminent French doctors, Nélaton, Ricord, Fauvel and Corvisart, examined him and confirmed the diagnosis. They were reluctant to operate, however, because of the high risk (gallstone operations did not become relatively safe until the 1880s) and because of the Emperor’s weakness.

Following the Franco-Prussian War, Napoleon III and his entourage of thirteen aides were held in comfortable captivity in a castle at Wilhelmshöhe, near Kassel from September 5, 1870, until March 19, 1871.

General Bazaine, besieged with a large part of the remaining French army in the fortification of Metz, had on September 23 secret talks with Bismarck’s envoys. The idea was that Bazaine established a conservative regime in France, for himself or for Napoleon’s son. Bazaine’s envoy, who spoke to Bismarck at Versailles on October 14, declared that the army in Metz was still loyal to Napoleon. Bazaine was willing to take over power in France after the Germans had defeated the republic in Paris. Because of the weakening of the French overall position Bismarck lost interest in this option.

Napoleon himself proposed on November 27 in a memorandum to Bismarck: After a peace and the surrender of Paris the Prussian king might call the French people to accept Napoleon again as Emperor. But this moment Metz had already fallen, leaving Napoleon without a power basis. Bismarck did not see much chance for a restored empire as Napoleon had looked like a marionette of the enemy. A last initiative of Eugénie failed in January also because of a late arrival of her envoy from London. Bismarck refused to acknowledge the former empress also as this had caused irritations with Britain and Russia. Shortly later, the Germans signed a truce with the French government.

Napoleon continued to write political tracts and letters, and dreamed of a return to power. Bonapartiste candidates participated in the first elections for the National Assembly on February 8, but won only five seats. On March 1, the newly elected assembly officially declared the removal of the Emperor from power, and placed all the blame for the French defeat squarely on him. When peace was arranged between France and Germany, Bismarck released Napoleon. He decided to go into exile in England. Napoleon had limited funds; he sold properties and jewels, and arrived in England on March 20, 1871.

Napoleon, Eugénie, their son and their entourage settled at Camden Place, a large three-story country house in the village of Chislehurst, a half-hour by train from London. He was received by Queen Victoria, who also visited him at Chislehurst. Louis-Napoleon had a longtime connection with Chislehurst and Camden Place: years earlier, while exiled in England, he had often visited Emily Rowles, whose father had owned Camden Place in the 1830s. She had assisted his escape from French prison in 1846.

He had also paid attention to another English girl, Elizabeth Howard, who later gave birth to a son, whose father (not Louis-Napoleon) settled property on her to support the son, via a trust whose trustee was Nathaniel Strode. Strode bought Camden Place in 1860 and spent large sums of money transforming it into a French chateau. Strode had also received money from the Emperor, possibly to buy Camden Place and maintain it as a bolt-hole.

Napoleon passed his time writing and designing a stove which would be more energy efficient. In the summer of 1872, his health began to worsen. Doctors recommended surgery to remove his gallstones. After two operations he became very seriously ill. His last words were, “Isn’t it true that we weren’t cowards at Sedan?” He was given last rites, and died on January 9, 1873.

Napoleon was originally buried at St Mary’s, the Catholic Church in Chislehurst. However, after his son, an officer in the British Army, died in 1879 fighting against the Zulus in South Africa, Eugénie decided to build a monastery and a chapel for the remains of Napoleon III and their son. In 1888, the bodies were moved to the Imperial Crypt at St Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough, Hampshire, England.

The two first postage stamps issued by France in January 1849 were of the Ceres series, with the effigy of the goddess of growing plants in Roman mythology.  She wore a crown of olive branches and a bunch of grapes in her hair.  The design was drawn by Jacques-Jean Barre, general engraver at the Paris Mint. The first two denominations were a 20 centimes black stamp and a 1 franc red. As the postal reform was extended to other rates (local, rural and newspapers), new denominations were issued.

The release of a 40 centimes blue in January was aborted and switched to orange.  While the 20 centimes blue was first printed in the Spring of 1849, it never replaced its back counterpart because of a change of rates in July 1850. In December 1849, part of the 1 franc red stamps were recalled by the postal administration because their color (termed by catalogues as “vermillion”) was too close to the 40 centimes orange to be issued in February 1850.

After the coup in December 1851, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, then entitled Prince-President, decided to have his effigy on French stamps. The first denominations were issued progressively from September 1852 and throughout the ensuing Second Empire. An imperforate ten-stamp series was printed with his likeness from 1853-1860, then a perforated six stamp series between 1862 and 1871. In 1863, a laurel wreath, indicating victory in a war with Austria, was added to the Emperor’s head.

Scott #18 is a 40 centimes orange stamp on yellowish paper. Occasionally, this stamp is found on cover bisected and used for 20 centimes postage. It is described as being from Die I on which the curl above Napoleon III’s forehead directly below the R of EMPIRE is made up of two lines very close together, often appearing to form a single thick line. Also, there is no shading across the neck. Die II, on which the two lines of the curl are more widely separated and distinct, along with lines of shading across the upper neck, was only used for the 20 centimes blue on greenish paper. The stamp is typographed on unwatermarked paper and issued imperforate. This issue is known privately rouletted, pin-perforated, perforated 7, and percé en scie.

During the Franco-Prussian War, after Republicans abolished the Empire of Napoléon III on September 4, 1870, they faced the siege of Paris by the German armies and the lack of postage stamps from the former rule. New Ceres stamps had to be printed until the insurrection of the Paris Commune, in Spring 1871.  However, the printer claimed afterwards that he hid the Ceres series material and was forced by the insurgents to print Napoleon III stamps.

At the same time, in Bordeaux, where the provisional government fled, the printing of Ceres stamps was authorized from November 5, 1870, to March 4, 1871, to supply the post offices of non-occupied France.  The stamps were printed in lithography (instead of typography) and stamps differ repetitively from one another.

After the war, the Ceres head designs were kept until 1875.  Printed only in Paris, new stamps were printed by using old material (like the low values created in Bordeaux) because Désiré-Albert Barre, Jacques-Jean’s son, broke his association with Hulot (custodian of the rights to print the stamps at the Paris Mint) in 1866.  In July 1875, the postal administration gave the printing of its postage stamps to the Banque de France to reduce the high cost and delays it accused Hulot.  The stamp design was changed too after the “Commerce and Peace” series was introduced, following a competition launched in August 1875 was won by Jules-Auguste Sage.  The new stamps were issued in 1876.

Coat of Arms, Second French Empire (1852-1870)
Coat of Arms, Second French Empire (1852-1870)

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