Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte

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Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte

Louis Napoleon (1808-1873), also known as Napoleon III or Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte and more commonly as Louie Napoleon, was the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte who also ruled France; President of the French Second Republic 1848-1851 and Emperor Napoleon III of the Second French Empire 1851–1870. He became emperor through a plebiscite and never ceased to seek a popular consensus to maintain his power. He modernized the country, promoting the expansion of railroads and telegraph lines - important means for the centralization of power in Paris, where he defeated every move toward democracy and political freedom. His reign began in triumph with his victory in 1856, together with his ally Britain, over Russia in the Crimean War. It ended in total disaster in 1871 with his defeat at Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War.


Louis Napoleon or Napoleon III was elected by a landslide in a fair election in 1848, thanks to support from traditionalists in rural areas. He thus became president of the new Second Republic of France. His coup d'état December 1851 made his a dictator and ended the republic. It was an inevitable event in the political evolution of French society. The Second Republic had disappointed everyone except the politicians who directly benefited from it. While the Napoleonic cult of his uncle was helpful in Louis Napoléon's rise to power, Napoleon III was himself a shrewd politician. His boldness and wisdom were the main factors contributing to the success of the coup.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Empress Eugenie in court dress, 1853.

By 1852 he replaced the Republic with the Second Empire of France, and installed himself as its emperor. He promoted liberalized policies within France, which enjoyed prosperity during much of his reign. He sought to accomplish an industrial modernization of France. Before 1860, Louis Napoleon can be seen as having achieved a deal of success; popular support appeared to be on his side. Through various direct and indirect means, Napoleon controlled most of the French press, which extolled his political, diplomatic, military, religious, economic, architectural and cultural achievements and covered up his failures.

He married the Spanish Eugenia de Montijo, Condesa de Teba. After his marriage he had many affairs with young women.

Domestic policy

Napoleon III, influenced by his mother and lessons of his detention following his failed coup of 1840, sincerely wanted to ameliorate the condition of the poor by promoting work and liberal labor laws. His socialist goals were, however, held in check by his need to maintain relations with the conservative elite that had supported him in his 1851 coup d'état and by his reluctance to form a Bonapartist party out of a desire for national unity.


Grand Opera House, 1867.

An important legacy of Louis Napoleon was the rebuilding of Paris. Georges-Eugène Haussmann, his city planner and administrative head of the project, carried out a massive restructuring of the city. Paris was organized, modernized, and aggrandized and became a world-class city. Napoleon's strong personal interest in architecture led to a revolution in the art's concepts and techniques. He modified the curriculum at French schools of architecture, promoted the application of engineering skills to design and construction, and vigorously supported the Paris Universal Expositions of 1855 and 1867. He presented to the world a totally new, progressive architectural style. His chief contribution was his insistence on the use of iron. Though the new opera house that he commissioned was old-fashioned in its gaudy pseudo-Baroque style, one can easily detect the outline of the iron skeleton that holds the building together. The use of iron was even more evident in the glass-and-iron main structure of Les Halles, the new central marketplace that he provided for Paris. He sponsored functional structures that symbolized modern industrialism, such as the Paris Opera and the New Louvre. Napoleon's fascination with glass and iron illustrates his desire to make France an innovative, industrial nation. Classical buildings of heavy masonry gave way to innovative iron structures, including the precursor of the modern skyscraper and, long after he was gone, the Eiffel Tower in 1889.

Foreign policy

Napoleon undertook an aggressive foreign policy all over the globe; it proved far too much for France to pay for or to fight for, and ended in his defeat on the battlefield. His military ambitions were as grandiose as his uncle's; his skills were minimal. The pursuit of glory led him into difficult situations, especially in his dealings with German Chancellor Bismarck. The contradictions inherent within his disjointed approach to foreign policy meant that while Napoleon achieved a degree of success in Italy and the Crimea in the 1850s, French involvement with Mexico and Prussia after 1860 turned out to be disastrous.


France wished to prevent Austria, Spain, and Naples from extending their authority to Rome, and so Napoleon decided on independent military action to guarantee the physical safety and restore the secular authority of the pope in Rome. The French troops met resistance by Roman forces, and Ferdinand de Lesseps (later of Suez and Panama Canal fame) was sent by the French government to resolve the situation diplomatically. Many in Napoleon's government were strongly opposed to the military action in Rome. The negotiations were long and complicated, but the pope was eventually restored to Rome and the resistance of the Roman citizens was broken.

Conflict with Russia

Russian Tsar Nicholas I and Napoleon championed, respectively, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in Palestine. The issue was control and protection of Christian holy sites in Palestine, which was then under the authority of the fading Ottoman Empire. The ecclesiastical political factor, based in part on personal animosity between Nicholas and Louis, was a significant 'casus belli' of the Crimean War in the 1850s.

Napoleon III proved to be a champion of oppressed nations, particularly Latin ones such as Romania, which he considered a natural ally for France. He considered the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia as a potential defense against Russian encroachment. The union of the Romanian principalities became a reality with the election of Prince Alexandru Ioan Cuza with French support in 1859.

North Africa

Napoleon sponsored a program of colonization in Algeria, ostensibly to promote the interests of the indigenous population, going so far as to grant Algerians French citizenship in 1865. But it was also the tool by which France sought to gain prestige in the eyes of other nations and, at least initially, ensure for itself solid military positions in the Mediterranean. His plans for a future Arab realm of Algeria assumed it was possible to have harmonious equilibrium among a small French colonial population, an Arab protectorate provided with a large amount of technical assistance and administered by native leaders, and a French military presence that controlled a few important strategic points. The scheme proved unsuccessful because it came too long after the French occupation of Algeria and because it was too advanced politically to be accepted by French or the Algerians.

American Civil War

Napoleon wanted to intervene in the American Civil War so that the United States would be weakened and the Confederacy would be independent and an ally of France. Intervention meant war with the U.S., so Napoleon drew back, and failed to convince the British to join in his folly.


Intervention in Mexico, in particular, proved to be misguided, losing Napoleon the support of many nationalists as France suffered a comprehensive and embarrassing defeat. Napoleon sought to take advantage of the American Civil War by invading and establishing a monarchial rule in Mexico to strengthen French assets in the region. The Confederacy was tolerant but the United States saw a violation of the Monroe Doctrine. Napoleon sought to colonize Mexico with European settlers, so they could modernize Mexico's backward economy, thus giving Mexico economic prosperity and political stability. France would benefit from Mexico's silver mining and cotton production. Napoleon sent incompetents who could not handle the insurrection inside Mexico nor the growing pressure from the U.S., so the grandiose program failed. As soon as the American civil war ended, Secretary of State William H. Seward demanded the French withdraw, and sent a combat army to the border. France had no choice but to pull out, leaving behind its puppet ruler Maximilian. The Mexicans executed Maximilian.


His weakness was mainly in diplomacy and he was fooled by the Prussian Chancellor Bismarck into going to war with Prussia over their border in 1870. The Germans quickly captured him and his army at Sedan, and the Parisians soon deposed him. When he was finally released by the Germans he went to England in exile, where he died a few years later.

"The army is the true nobility of our country."

Further reading

  • Baguley, David. Napoleon III and His Regime: An Extravaganza (2000) 425p.
  • Barker, Nancy N. "Monarchy in Mexico: Harebrained Scheme or Well-considered Prospect?" Journal of Modern History 1976 48(1): 51–68, in JSTOR
  • Bresler, Fenton. Napoleon III: A Life (1999), 300pp
  • Echard, William E. Historical Dictionary of the French Second Empire, 1852-1870 (1985) excerpt and text search
  • McMillan, James F. Napoleon III (1991) 188 pp.
  • Plessis, Alain. The Rise and Fall of the Second Empire, 1852 - 1871 (1988) excerpt and text search, 212pp; excellent survey
  • Price, Roger. The French Second Empire: An Anatomy of Political Power (2007) 520pp excerpt and text search
  • Wetzel, David. A Duel of Giants: Bismarck, Napoleon III, and the Origins of the Franco-Prussian War' ' (2001) 244p.


See also

External links