This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.
The leader arising from the confusion of the February revolution in Paris was an aristocrat who had become famous not only for his Romantic, meditative poetry but also for his eloquent opposition to Louis Philippe. A member of the Chamber of Deputies since 1833, Alphonse de Lamartine had been an important voice for government reform. He had opposed the death penalty, called for the emancipation of slaves in the French colonies, and backed other reforms. Though he had been a supporter of constitutional monarchy, he now led the Chamber in rejecting the Count of Paris as king.
The Chamber of Deputies had dissolved the monarchy and now appointed a provisional government. Lamartine, three other deputies, and the radical republican Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin were to govern France until elections could be held for a new legislature. No sooner had these men been sworn in, however, than they learned that socialists and anarchists had seized Paris’s Hôtel de Ville and proclaimed their own provisional government. Undaunted, Lamartine set out for the Hôtel de Ville to speak with the socialist leaders. The result was an agreement by which the socialists and anarchists recognized Lamartine’s government, and Lamartine agreed to allow the socialist leader Louis Blanc to join the provisional government.
The differences between the revolution of February 1848 and the first French Revolution could be seen in Lamartine himself. A serious Christian, Lamartine showed how the second revolution was not anti-Christian or, even, anticlerical. Indeed, many priests were in the forefront of those calling for obedience to the new government. During the three days of revolution, rioting workmen showed respect for religion. It is told that those who entered the queen’s chamber in the Tuileries Palace bowed low before a crucifix hanging there. Priests who had worked among the working class of Paris were honored.
The revolution of 1848 also differed from the July Revolution of 1830. The insurrection that had brought Louis Philippe into power had been about political change; those leading it wanted greater representative government and an end to royal absolutism. In 1848, however, the revolution was less about politics and more about social justice. The workers who rose up that February were fighting economic oppression and uncertainty, not political tyranny.
For this reason, the socialists of Paris were very influential in the provisional government. To please the workingmen, Lamartine’s government adopted one of Louis Blanc’s ideas and established workhouses, to give employment to the hundreds of thousands of unemployed laborers in the cities. The cost of these workhouses was immense. Since they provided no real wealth-producing jobs, they had to be supported by taxes paid by the bourgeoisie and the peasant farmers in the provinces, thus angering both groups. Too, since the workhouses paid higher wages than private employers did, they attracted not just unemployed men but those who had work but wanted higher-paying jobs. As a result, real wealth-producing industries lost workers, and their production slowed.
In early March, the provisional government called for elections for a Constituent Assembly to write up a new constitution for France. The elections, held on March 26, 1848, were by universal manhood suffrage—and since most of the French were conservative, it was not surprising that Liberals and royalists captured most of the seats in the new Assembly. The socialists were but a small minority, for most of France did not agree with socialist policies.
So it was that, when the National Constituent Assembly gathered on May 4, 1848, the socialists began plotting against it. On May 15 an armed mob attacked the assembly, hoping to overthrow it, but was beaten back by the National Guard. The government then took stern action against the socialists, even exiling Louis Blanc himself to England. On June 21 the government made a disastrous move: it ordered not only the closing of the National Workshops, thus throwing hundreds of thousands out of work, but it said that all able-bodied, unemployed workers had to enlist in the army.
The workingmen’s response to the new law was swift and bloody. When morning dawned on June 23, 1848, barricades again blocked the streets of Paris. The next day, the terrified Assembly appointed General Louis-Eugène Cavaignac as dictator, and he began suppressing the rebellion. For three days, Paris was torn by fierce street fighting; but, in the end, Cavaignac and the government were victorious. When the sun rose on the morning of June 27, 1848, thousands lay dead in the streets of Paris while thousands more were imprisoned, awaiting exile to the colonies or forced labor on the galleys. The power of the socialists had been broken.
A Song of the Revolution
The French revolution of 1848 revived a number of songs from the first French Revolution. Here is a recording of one such song, La Carmagnole.