Napoleon III
Napoleon III; drawing by David Levine

Prince Louis Napoleon once occupied a great place on the European stage. From 1852 to 1870 he was Napoleon III. Emperor of the French, reviving if only in name the glories of his uncle. The other European rulers feared and courted him. Queen Victoria visited him at Paris with her family and entertained him at Osborne. Alexander II, Emperor of Russia, and Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, both sought his favor, though neither was prepared to pay a high price for it. Conservatives hailed him as the Guardian of Order. At the other end of the spectrum Victor Hugo called him Napoleon le Petit and Marx exercised his wit on “Badinguet,” allegedly (though Ridley says incorrectly) the name of the building worker in whose clothes Louis Napoleon escaped from his prison at Ham. Other revolutionaries, including Kossuth, thought that he could be won for the cause of nationalism.

Napoleon III fell from power in 1870 and died three years later. What had he achieved during his years of imperial bombast? He had assisted, perhaps unwillingly, the unification of Italy. He had acquired Savoy and Nice for France and had lost Alsace and Lorraine. Frenchmen, apart from a few nostalgic adherents, blamed him for the loss by France of her position as the premier power in Europe, if they considered him at all. Historians passed him over in embarrassed silence. The early twentieth century saw a revival of interest in Napoleon III. His economic policy, hither-to obscure, was highly praised. One distinguished historian wrote that he had done more for the economic amelioration of the French people than any other government since the great Revolution. Alternatively he was hailed as a precursor of twentieth-century fascism, a comparison which was soon overdone. For instance Louis Napoleon had no mass body of followers. His name, he contended, would be enough of itself. And so in time it proved.

What with one thing and another Louis Napoleon has again sunk into obscurity except for a few administrative studies of the Second Empire. Bismarck is still fully alive historically; even Franz Joseph has some sparks of life left in him. Louis Napoleon has not kept up in the race. Now Jasper Ridley has made a bid to restore him. Ridley’s book is very long—over 600 enormous pages. It is also however very readable. It scores also by being a biography of Eugénie, Louis Napoleon’s wife, as well as of Napoleon. She was not as odd a character perhaps as her husband but she was certainly a strong one. The biography of both is intensely personal: two curious, even interesting, persons into whose lives historical events happened to intervene. Louis Napoleon remains to the end a mystery, a sphinx without a riddle, as Bismarck called him. Eugénie is much more straight-forward, a Spanish countess of more pretensions than wealth who happened to marry an emperor.

One thing about Louis Napoleon stands out more clearly than I had previously realized: he was first and last his uncle’s nephew. The name of Napoleon intoxicated him from his childhood. In his view Napoleon I had started a new dynasty based on universal suffrage, a dynasty of which Louis Napoleon was the legitimate heir. How a somewhat questionable plebiscite taken in 1804 could express the will of the French people forever was a problem on which Louis Napoleon shed no light. When on trial for attempted insurrection after his farcical expedition to Boulogne in 1840 he told the Chamber of Peers:

I stand before you representing a principle, a cause, a defeat: the principle is the sovereignty of the people; the cause is the Empire; the defeat, Waterloo. You have acknowledged the principle; you have served the cause; you wish to avenge the defeat.

If this meant anything, it implied that war against England should be his first task. Characteristically England was the only great European power against whom Napoleon III did not go to war.

There is an even more remarkable passage in a letter which he wrote from the fortress of Ham—where he was imprisoned in 1840—complaining about his harsh treatment:

I am the son of a King, the nephew of an Emperor, and allied to all the sovereigns of Europe…. The sovereignty of the people made my uncle an Emperor, my father a King and me a French Prince by birth.

Louis Napoleon’s was a strange sort of legitimacy. The Napoleonic dynasty was not regarded with much enthusiasm by the monarchs of Europe, despite the fact that three German kings owed their royal titles to the Emperor Napoleon. The Bonapartist kinsmen quarreled among themselves over their respective claims and over money. His mother, Queen Hortense, had inherited a large fortune from the Empress Josephine as well as acquiring more by her own exertions. Louis Napoleon, though dependent on his mother, was far from being a penniless exile. When in London after his escape from Ham he joined the Army and Navy Club, the Junior United Services Club, and the Athenaeum. This seems unlikely; it must certainly have been expensive.


For a legitimate claimant, Louis Napoleon’s parentage was somewhat shaky. Queen Hortense and her husband, King Louis, were estranged before he was born. Mr. Ridley makes a gallant attempt to show that they were temporarily reconciled in time to beget Louis Napoleon. More telling evidence for Louis’s legitimacy is that he resembled his father in character: irresolute, lazy with occasional outbursts of activity. The matter is of no great importance. Certainly Louis Napoleon did not inherit any of his uncle’s restless energy or creativity. He was well suited to be a Pretender; his mind stuffed with romantic fantasies and confused recollections. Like all Pretenders Louis Napoleon was an outsider: brought up in Italy and Germany, never speaking French like a Frenchman and with no adult experience of France until he was forty.

Louis Napoleon’s life in exile has little historic interest. Many young men of his generation took on the character of that second Romantic age when the Emperor Napoleon I was dead and glory could be found only in recapitulating past triumphs. Berlioz translated the Napoleonic past into music. Stendhal expressed the Napoleonic urge when he made his hero Julien ask after a seduction, “Did I play my part well?”

By a curious accident Eugénie, Louis Napoleon’s future wife, was for a time closely acquainted with Stendhal, who left coded messages to her and her sister in the footnotes of La Charteuse de Parme. Eugénie’s birth was also disputed. The Earl of Clarendon, one-time British ambassador to Spain and later British Foreign Secretary, was reputed to be her father. Eugénie’s mother, when asked about this, replied only, “The dates don’t fit.” So it was with everything in the Second Empire: conjectures probably unfounded, guesses and improvisations instead of policy, a false grandeur very like the pseudo-Gothic buildings with which Viollet le Duc adorned the epoch.

Many political figures can be explained by their background. With Louis Napoleon it was the exact opposite. He owed his initial success to lack of background. When he appeared in Paris after the Revolution of 1848 no one recognized him and he knew nobody except members of his family and an English mistress who provided him with money. His first speech in the National Assembly was so feeble that the members decided it would be quite unnecessary to exclude members of former ruling families as candidates at the presidential election. Three months later this despised figure was elected president with five million votes, a majority of five to one over the next candidate. The explanation lay in universal suffrage which was here employed for the first time. Mass electorates are much easier to manipulate than those limited by some qualification, whatever it may be—class, property, or creed. No one realized this in 1848 except Proudhon, who laid down the profound law, “Universal suffrage is counter revolution.”

The French mass electorate of December 1848 voted overwhelmingly for Louis Napoleon because all the voters recognized his name and even more because they knew nothing else about him. He had not been a Red republican; he had not suppressed the Red republicans of the June rising. He was not identified with the Radicals; he was not identified with the clericals. He was merely a name, but the greatest name in France. Albert Sorel wrote of Louis Napoleon, “His name was his fortune and his undoing…. His origins condemned him to success.” Louis Napoleon was a man who appeared to have come into a great heritage and now had to invent what he had inherited. Napoleon I at St. Helena had left no heritage, merely the boastings of a defeated general. Louis Napoleon closely resembled Benjamin Disraeli, whom he had known in London. Disraeli, too, was an outsider, little affected by the traditional English culture. He, too, had to invent a historical inheritance when he captured the Conservative party from Peel. But there was one profound difference between the two adventurers. Disraeli worked hard for his success. Louis Napoleon waited passively for success to come to him.

As president he offered no policy except the restoration of order, a process easy with the revolution of 1848 in full ebb. In 1851 he was pushed into a coup d’état for the simple reason that, with the constitution forbidding the reelection of a president, there was no other way for him to retain power—and he had to retain power in order to ward off the debt collectors. Inventing a social peril as justification for this action, Louis Napoleon then gave the pretense some reality by suppressing the nonexistent revolt with unparalleled brutality. A year later he proclaimed himself emperor as Napoleon III. Again there was no particular reason for this: simply a change of name as a cover for inaction. Napoleon III announced: “The Empire means peace,” a curious repudiation of his uncle’s legacy which meant European war if it meant anything.


Yet Napoleon III was sincere in his pronouncement. He really wanted peace: international peace, social peace, domestic peace. Though he had ambitious plans for the re-ordering of Europe, he wished to achieve them by peaceful means and even fancied, as other idealist dreamers have done, that this would be possible. A European Congress met in Paris after the Crimean War. Apart from endorsing a settlement of the war already agreed to, it produced nothing except pious interest in the condition of Italy. Italy meant much to Napoleon III. It witnessed the military victories that founded his uncle’s career. Louis Napoleon himself had been an Italian revolutionary of a sort in 1831. Unfortunately Louis Napoleon had been numbered among Italian counter-revolutionaries ever since he had sent French troops to crush the Roman Republic and restore the Pope in 1849—“the only mistake I repent of in my political career.” For twenty years he dreamed of yet another Congress to solve the Roman question, a dream never fulfilled.

It is possible to depict some coherence, though also confusion, in Napoleon’s foreign policy. His home policy had no pattern at all beyond the maintenance of order. Great advances were made in France during Napoleon III’s reign, notably the establishment of the French railway system. This owed something to the speculations of Morny, Napoleon’s half brother; it owed nothing to Napoleon III himself. Similarly the making of the Suez Canal was one of the glories of the Second Empire, as the Empress Eugénie symbolized when she attended its opening. But the inspiration came from a modest French projector, de Lesseps, not from Napoleon III. Much is made of Napoleon’s part in the rebuilding of Paris by Haussmann, and certainly this was the sort of fantasy project that Napoleon III liked. The vision may have come from Napoleon; its translation into reality was the work of Haussmann. Mr. Ridley says that the one project Napoleon III achieved by his own efforts was his biography of Julius Caesar. This may well be true, though no one, I suppose, reads the biography nowadays. Characteristically only two out of the three projected volumes were completed, another piece of the Napoleonic legend left fragmentary.

Whatever peaceful professions Napoleon III might make, there was no escaping the fact that, as he himself said, “When a man of my name is in power he must do great things.” France became a militarist state in display, if not in practical accomplishment, a byword of militarism such as Germany became later. It was ironically a German paper that wrote: “Every gendarme, every sentry, every bus conductor seeks opportunities for making his authority seen or felt. Command, obey; obey, command.” In 1870, when the Second Empire was defeated in battle by Germany, two such different observers as Thomas Carlyle and John Bright rejoiced. Carlyle hailed the German victory as “the hopefulest public fact of our time,” John Bright as “a great gain I think for liberty and peace.”

Napoleon was lazy rather than incompetent. He possessed enough military training to appreciate that the French army had not kept up with the times: its organization was chaotic, its equipment out of date. But Napoleon, despite his flashes of insight, could not escape his uncle’s legacy. He still had faith that in the hour of battle he himself would develop military gifts, thanks to his name. His faith in a name was so great that be even expected the Habsburg name would transform the Archduke Maximilian into a successful emperor of Mexico. Napoleon’s faith was misplaced. Maximilian died before a Mexican firing squad.

Mr. Ridley gives a competent account of Napoleon’s foreign policy which culminated in a disastrous war. But Ridley’s real interest is in the Napoleonic court with its outward glitter and its dissolute frivolity, so appropriately reflected in the music of Offenbach. Napoleon III was constant in one thing, his pursuit of women. Mr. Ridley claims that there is little evidence that many of these affairs got very far. But it was not the custom even for Napoleon’s mistresses to send an announcement to Le Temps. Certainly Count Walewski, then foreign minister, opened the door of the wrong compartment on a railway journey and found Napoleon III seducing his wife. Walewski tactfully withdrew. The Empress Eugénie was the one pillar of virtue at the Napoleonic court and perhaps Napoleon III responded to her dangerous impulses in foreign policy as a gesture of repentance. Certainly he suffered from a confusion of advisers. He once remarked, “The Empress is a legitimist, Morny is an Orleanist, Persigny is a Bonapartist and I am a Socialist.” The only surprise about the Second Empire is that it lasted so long.

In an effort to restore the dwindling glory of the empire Napoleon lurched into the unnecessary Franco-German war of 1870. There followed disastrous defeat at Sedan. The empire was overthrown. Napoleon himself became a prisoner in Germany, Eugénie took refuge with her American dentist before escaping to England. After the war ended, Napoleon too became an exile in England. The glories of the imperial court were not restored but Napoleon did not manage too badly. The imperial household at Chislehurst had a household of thirty-nine ladies and gentlemen and twenty-three servants. Napoleon himself died in 1873 after an unsuccessful operation for a stone. His only son, the Prince Imperial, was killed in 1879 during an Anglo-Zulu war. As usual with Napoleon III and his family his death was caused by a careless blunder. Eugénie survived until 1920, as recounted in full detail by Mr. Ridley. When her rank was once challenged, she replied: “I may be no longer Empress of France but I am still The Empress.” Evidently the name was important for her also.

This Issue

September 25, 1980