A Socialist Napoleon's Scheme Succeeds: December 20, 1848

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.


In commenting on France’s June rebellion, the Duke of Wellington mused, “France needs a Napoleon! I cannot yet see him. . . . Where is he?”


Wellington no doubt knew of the Napoleon who had for two years been a sojourner in London. Wellington probably even knew of this man’s ambition. This Napoleon was Prince Charles Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the great Emperor Napoleon I. And he was ambitious to take what he thought was his rightful place on the throne of France.


Charles Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte in 1848

Prince Louis-Napoleon, born in 1808, was the son of Louis Bonaparte, who had been king of Holland under his brother, the Emperor Napoleon I. After the fall of Napoleon, Louis-Napoleon went with his mother to Switzerland. There, and in Germany, he spent much of his childhood and youth. By 1828, he was a convinced Liberal; and in 1830, he grew hopeful upon hearing of the overthrow of the Bourbons in France. But his attempt to return to France was stopped by a law forbidding any member of the Bonaparte family to live there.


Instead of France, then, Louis-Napoleon went to Italy. There, with his older brother, Napoleon Louis Bonaparte, he took part in the 1831 insurrection in Romagna against the pope’s government. Though the brothers were able to seize control of a small city, they were ultimately driven out by the Austrians and for a time imprisoned. Napoleon Louis died in prison, while Louis-Napoleon was able to join his mother and, with her, flee to France. Despite the law against the Bonapartes, King Louis Philippe allowed mother and son to stay in Paris. But, when Louis-Napoleon began plotting with republicans against the king, he was forced to leave for London.


Louis-Napoleon eventually found his way back to Germany where, in 1832, he heard that his cousin, the Duke of Reichstat, had died. The duke was none other than the King of Rome himself— the Emperor Napoleon’s son, who had, for a brief time, been Emperor Napoleon II of France. The death of the duke gave Louis-Napoleon the idea that now he alone was the rightful heir of the Bonaparte family—that he, by right, was the true emperor of France!


Filled with romantic dreams of taking his rightful place on the French throne, Louis-Napoleon began plotting how he might seize it. In 1836, and again in 1840, he tried to stir up insurrections in France, but failed. After the second attempt, the French government sentenced him to life imprisonment. While in a French prison, he corresponded with both Louis Blanc and Pierre Joseph Proudhon and prepared himself by study for what he believed was his destiny—to sit on the imperial throne of France.


On May 25, 1846, Louis-Napoleon escaped from prison and made his way to London. There, he became a quite well-known and even popular figure among the aristocrats. In London, he wrote a book, Napoleonic Ideas, in which he defended both imperial government and socialism. In 1848, hearing of the February revolution in Paris, he went to Paris to offer his services to the provisional government. But Lamartine did not trust him, and Louis-Napoleon was forced to return to England.


Napoleonic propaganda published during the election of 1848 -- an essay, "The Extinction of Pauperism," by Louis-Napoleon

Being in London, however, did not stop Louis-Napoleon from running for a seat in the National Constituent Assembly. He had friends in France who actively spread propaganda about him, including songs and pictures. Four departments elected Louis-Napoleon a delegate, but he decided it was not yet time to return to France, and he resigned. But then came the June insurrection in Paris. The French peasants and bourgeoisie, fearful of more disorder and civil war, were searching for someone who could restore order in France. They recalled how things had been under Napoleon I. Many began to think another Napoleon could do what the first Napoleon had done. It was thus that they welcomed Louis-Napoleon back to France.


Shortly after the June insurrection, the National Assembly of France had drawn up a new constitution that provided for a two-house legislature and a president that would have many of the same powers that the U.S. president has. Elections for the new government were held in late September 1848, and Louis-Napoleon was again elected to serve in the legislature. But Louis-Napoleon did not plan to be simply a legislative delegate. After taking his seat in the legislature in October, he announced that he would run for the office of president of the republic.


The presidential election was held on December 10, 1848. Of the three principal candidates, the first was Alphonse de Lamartine. Though he had been the beloved of the French people less than a year before, Lamartine received only 19,000 votes. The second candidate, General Cavaignac, who had crushed the June revolution in Paris and saved the French government from the socialists, received 1.5 million votes. The vast majority of the electorate cast their ballots for a man they knew little about, except that he had “Napoleon” and “Bonaparte” in his name. This alone, it seems, won for Prince Louis-Napoleon the trust of the French people. His vote total was an astounding 5.5 million.


On December 20, 1848, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte took the oath of office as the first president of France. He swore “to remain faithful to the democratic Republic” and “to regard as enemies of the nation all those who may attempt by illegal means to change the form of the established government.” Yet, though he mouthed these solemn words, Louis-Napoleon had no intention of keeping them. From the very beginning of his presidency, he was plotting how he might overthrow the republic and restore the empire of his famous uncle, the great Napoleon Bonaparte.


A Glance toward the East


In 1848, the German composer, Robert Schumann, composed this series of piano pieces for four hands, Bilder aus Osten ("Portraits from the East"), Op. 66. This 1966 performance features the pianists Sviatoslav Richter and Benjamin Britten.



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