This Week in History

Triumph of a New Napoleon:

January 14, 1852

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Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte in 1852

The revolutions of 1848–1849 ended in disappointment for Liberals and nationalists. Everywhere—in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, and Italy—the forces of the old political order had triumphed. Republicans and radicals had been dispersed. The cause of Liberalism, it appeared, had again gone down in defeat.

But the defeat of Liberalism was only an appearance. The ancient regime had triumphed in most places, but its victory could not last. In the coming years, rulers would find it necessary to at least pretend they supported such Liberal reforms as equality, parliaments, constitutions, and even democracy. Some rulers would grant reforms out of fear, but others would eagerly support them; for, rulers came to realize, the surest way to gain and keep power was winning the support of the masses of the people.

“The Extinction of Pauperism,” an essay by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, published during his 1848 campaign for president of France

One man who learned this lesson was Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte. Though he had come to power by republican means, Louis-Napoleon was no republican. He claimed to be a democrat; but, if he were, he would seem a very strange one to us. His vision of government included the people; but, as he explained in his book, Napoleonic Ideas, someone had to organize the people before there could be justice. That someone was the supreme power in government. That supreme power, Louis- Napoleon thought, had to be basically a dictator—though Louis-Napoleon preferred the term emperor. France needed an emperor, like his uncle, Napoleon I; and Louis-Napoleon thought he was his uncle’s successor.

If Louis-Napoleon had ever intended to respect the constitution of France’s Second Republic, he quickly gave up on the idea. Nor did the National Assembly of France make the job of overthrowing the republic at all hard. Indeed, the National Assembly itself appeared to be the enemy of the republic, for it was opposing the very things for which the French revolution of 1848 had been fought. On May 31, 1850, for instance, the National Assembly passed a law that abolished the universal right to vote. Then, in July, it limited the freedom of the press.

Louis-Napoleon had been very careful to win allies from the various French parties. He had won over Catholics by sending troops to help Pope Pius IX and by supporting a bill in the assembly giving the clergy greater influence over education. He had drawn royalists and the military to his side by various favors. Now, Louis-Napoleon became the champion of the people by demanding changes in the constitution. One of these changes would restore universal suffrage, and another would allow Louis-Napoleon to run for more than one term as president. Throughout the latter part of 1850 and into 1851, Louis-Napoleon vigorously campaigned for his goals, and cries of Vive Napoléon! greeted him in the many places where he spoke. Despite the president’s efforts and his growing popularity, however, the National Assembly refused to grant him another term or restore universal suffrage.

Cavalry in the streets of Paris during Louis-Napoleon’s December 2, 1851 coup

Unable to get what he wanted by legal means, Louis-Napoleon turned to revolution. He laid his plans carefully with his ministers and generals of the French army in Paris. In the early morning hours of December 2, 1851, troops loyal to Louis-Napoleon surrounded printing offices and the hall of the National Assembly. By seven o’clock, members of the assembly and prominent politicians were under arrest. Proclamations pasted on walls throughout Paris announced that the prince-president, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, had dissolved the National Assembly. Universal suffrage had been restored, said the proclamations, and an election would be held in 12 days.

For two days following this coup d’etat, republicans in Paris resisted the overthrow of the government; but Louis-Napoleon and his allies bloodily put down the uprising. On December 14, 1851, the people of France gave their verdict on what the prince-president had done. By a vast majority (7,800,000 to 650,000), they approved of the overthrow of the National Assembly.

On January 14, 1852, Louis-Napoleon announced a new constitution for France. Like the Constitution of the Year VIII that made Napoleon Bonaparte First Consul of France, Louis-Napoleon’s constitution established a legislative assembly but gave nearly all power into the hands of the president. Like his uncle had done over 53 years before, Louis-Napoleon had made himself the dictator of France.


Music of Innocence in

an Age of Revolution

From Hector Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ (“The Infancy of Christ”), composed in 1850.