This Week in History

Another French Revolution:

February 22-24, 1848

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Louis-Philippe, “King of the French

It all came as a great and bitter surprise to King Louis Philippe. The 75-year-old citizen king no doubt knew why his “fellow citizens” were unhappy. Both in 1846 and 1847, there had been crop failures in France. Many industrial workers had lost their jobs, and the poor were suffering from harsh poverty and hunger. Then there were the intellectuals – the Liberals, socialists, and anarchists – who were openly attacking the government and calling for reforms, including a broadening of the right to vote.

It all came as a surprise to Louis Philippe, but it shouldn’t have. Throughout 1847, “Reform Banquets” had been held throughout France, complete with food, wine, and speakers stirring up the people against the government. A Reform Banquet was planned to take place in Paris itself on February 22, 1848. Louis Philippe and his prime minister, François Guizot, of course saw the banquet as a threat; but how great a threat it was, the citizen king did not fully understand.

A caricature of Louis Philippe, depicting his transformation into a pear. Louis Philippe, who came into power as the “citizen king” following a revolution that overthrew the last Bourbon king of France, Charles X, became increasingly unpopular through the 18 years of his government. By Honoré Daumier, following an original by Charles Philipon, who was imprisoned for drawing it.

Guizot had been a chief target of those reforming folk who attended the Reform Banquets. Though himself a Liberal who had been responsible for expanding public education more widely throughout France, Guizot was intensely hated by more radical Liberals, for he opposed extending the right to vote to more French citizens. It is not surprising, then, that he opposed the Reform Banquets and that he banned the banquet scheduled to take place in Paris on Tuesday, February 22, 1848.

On the morning of that Tuesday, Parisians woke to find notices posted in the city, announcing that the government had prohibited the scheduled Reform Banquet. The news produced an immediate reaction among Paris’s intellectuals and workers. Mobs gathered in the streets, demanding that the king dismiss Guizot. Rioting flared up throughout the city, especially in the poorer sections. A violent mob gathered at Guizot’s residence, broke some of his windows, and would probably have done more damage if the municipal guard and the police had not dispersed them. Louis Philippe beheld the uprising of his people with fear and surprise. Hoping to placate them, he dismissed Guizot.


François Guizot

But even the dismissal of the hated Guizot could not appease the mob. Throughout the night of February 22, members of revolutionary societies had been meeting, and mobs tore up flagstones in the streets to form barricades. At daybreak on the morning of Wednesday, February 23, the streets of Paris filled with mobs of people, armed and angry. Crowds of mostly workingmen gathered around Guizot’s house, which was protected by soldiers. The mood was tense and the air was charged with wrath. A shot rang out (probably from the workers, but no one is certain) and, in response, the soldiers fired a volley into the crowd. When the guns had gone silent, 50 of the insurgents lay dead. Their bodies, piled on a cart, were drawn through the streets of Paris. That night, more barricades were raised in the city.

It was now clear to Louis Philippe that he faced a full-scale revolution. Only one course, it seemed, was left open to him; and the next day – Thursday, February 24 – Louis Philippe abdicated, naming his grandson, the 9-year-old Count Philippe of Paris, as his heir. Then, as Charles X had done 18 years before, Louis Philippe, the queen, and members of the royal family fled Paris. Only a short time after their departure, mobs poured into the now abandoned Tuileries Palace.

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Revolutionary leader, Alphonse de Lamartine, stands before the Paris town hall and signals his rejection of the red (communist) flag.

Louis Philippe’s daughter, the Duchess of Orléans, remained in Paris. With her son, Count Philippe, she passed through the streets of Paris, braving the mobs and making her way to the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of the French legislature).

The deputies, who were in session, welcomed the duchess and her son and heard her demand – that they recognize the Count of Paris as king and appoint her as his regent. The deputies might have agreed to this demand, but the Paris mob had taken control of the tribune and threatened the deputies. Fearing for their lives, the deputies voted to end the monarchy and, in its place, establish a republic.

A caricature depicting a French revolutionary kicking Louis Philippe out of France, across the English Channel

Thus, three days of uprising in the streets of Paris ended in the reestablishment of the French republic. Louis Philippe was on his way to exile in England, while in the streets of Paris crowds were gathering — but not to riot or loot. Instead, wearing colorful military costumes, they feasted and sang “La Marseillaise” and other songs of the first French Revolution.


Music to Remember a Tyrant By

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Macbetto, is an operatic (and Italian) version of Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. First performed in 1847, it depicts the rise and downfall of King Macbeth of Scotland — arguably a far worse tyrant (though more interesting dramatic subject) than Louis Philippe, the “King of the French,” as he styled himself. The following clip is the opera’s version of the Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene.