We have been discussing a series of abstractions for the last few weeks. Today, we want to return to practical politics, and we will begin with the Europe’s fundamental problem in the nineteenth century: what to do with the French? Unlike England, France was unable to avoid political revolution during the nineteenth century. Between 1789 and 1989, France had five republics, three monarchies and two empires. Now contrast France to Britain, whose Parliament and Monarchy have survived the French Revolution, Napoleon, two World Wars, and the loss of a colonial empire. We should also include the United States here, whose Constitution has been in place since 1789, surviving not only a Civil War but also a Depression, in addition to two World Wars.
France’s instability during the nineteenth century is even more perplexing, since the Industrial Revolution offers little in the way of explanation. Industrialization occurred at a much slower pace in France than elsewhere in Europe and was, therefore, less disruptive. During the nineteenth century, Britain’s average increase in Gross Domestic Product was almost double that of France’s. This was not necessarily a bad thing. The French did not need great growth rates, since their population was not expanding as rapidly as that of other countries. Nineteenth-century France’s birth rate was only 60% of Western Europe’s average. This meant that there was not as much pressure on agricultural and industrial resources, a fact that is evidenced by France’s notoriously low rates of emigration. Unlike the English, Irish, Germans, and later the eastern Europeans, the French tended to stay in their own country. If we are going to find an explanation for France’s tumultuous nineteenth century, we must look elsewhere, that is into politics, and specifically into the continuing Revolutionary and Napoleonic legacies. The history of nineteenth century France is, in many ways, the story of France’s inability to a draw line under the revolutionary period.
The return of the Bourbons after Napoleon’s initial defeat was doomed from the start, as France and its nobility had parted ways. In 1789, princes of the blood and their royalist supporters fled France, often settling in the German city of Koblenz. When they returned after 1814, their country was deeply changed, and many of them never accepted the New France. As the French diplomat Talleyrand said of the Bourbons, “They have learned nothing. They have forgotten nothing.” This was something of an exaggeration. When Louis XVIII returned to the throne in 1814, he had serious problems that would have been difficult for anyone to overcome. It does, however, point to a lack of political consensus in France. And this would be the central theme of nineteenth-century French politics.
Louis’ first problem was that although Napoleon was gone, the Napoleonic state remained, as the entire army of bureaucrats Napoleon created was still in office. Louis needed these bureaucrats, and so he practiced a conciliatory policy, refusing to purge the bureaucracy. This incensed the King’s most fervent supporters. Led by the Comte D’Artois, the King’s younger brother, the faction known as the ultra-royalists, or ultras, demanded that all post-Revolutionary changes be swept away. So Louis was caught between groups that wanted to turn back the Revolution and groups who owed their status to it. This was a difficult position, but he managed initially to steer a middle course between these opposing factions, trying to heal the political rift that the revolution created. Unfortunately for Louis, Napoleon returned and reconciliation became impossible.
Napoleon escaped from his prison on Elba in 1815, and marched across France during the “Hundred Days.” The Emperor’s return intensified France’s already deep political divisions. First, many of Napoleon’s former supporters rose up against the new government, including a few armies that the King had sent to stop him. Second, the final peace with the victorious powers, who had initially offered France lenient terms, was harsh and painful. Thus, after Louis XVIII’s second restoration reprisals followed, with the government purging many Napoleonic officials whose loyalty to the King was in doubt, and executing those that had actively joined the other side. Finally, the “Hundred Days” also whipped up public anger against the Napoleonic holdovers. In southern and eastern France roving bands meted out vigilante justice against people who had been on the wrong side. This produced an important short-term radicalization in French politics that resulted in August 1815, in the election of a reactionary Chamber of Deputies.
The post-“Hundred Days” reaction created new problems for Louis XVIII. Although he was happy to see a conservative Chamber of Deputies—he initially called them the “Matchless Parliament”—this group proved too reactionary even for him, as they demanded the return of all property to its pre-Revolutionary owners, the complete abolition of the Napoleonic bureaucracy, and church control over schooling. The ultras, the most reactionary segment of society, even became so strident in their calls for reaction that the occupying foreign armies became nervous. The King tried to deal with this situation by continuing on his middle course, and he appointed a moderate government led by Elie Decazes. Unfortunately, this solved nothing.
By September 1816, the situation had become intolerable and Louis called for new elections. This election produced a more moderate Chamber of Deputies, in part because the results were heavily manipulated. Three broad groups appeared. On the left were the liberals, a group that contained Republicans and Bonapartists. In the center were the royalists, people who were for the most part committed to some form of constitutional monarchy. On the right were the ultras, the people who wanted to return to the Old Regime. (Just to give you an idea for how volatile this situation was, the ultras later split again into the ultras and the so-called ultra-ultras.) Unfortunately, the next four years only brought further polarization as the liberals gained strength in subsequent elections and the ultras became more hysterical in their opposition. There seemed to be no political middle ground.
From 1820 until 1830, the ultras controlled the Chamber of Deputies and essentially ran France, exacerbating all the political divisions that I have discussed. In addition, Louis VXIII became ill and removed himself from the government, leaving the Comte D’Artois, his brother and leader of the ultras in his place. The Comte then embarked on a policy of repression. Things got even worse in 1824, when Louis died and the Comte ascended to the throne as King Charles X. Under the new King the Chamber of Deputies passed a series of reactionary laws that, among other things, compensated Revolutionary émigrés, made sacrilege a capital crime, and restricted the freedom of press. In addition, in 1829, he appointed the extreme royalist Prince Jules de Polignac to form a government.
You can imagine that with all the things that had changed in France, this regime’s long-term prospects were not good and it finally fell in July 1830. The fall of the reactionary regime is important because it highlights from another angle how the revolutionary legacy continued to poison French politics. Two issues dominated the political scene in the 1820s: the problem of political compromise with the liberals, and the role of religion in French daily life. As I mentioned earlier, the Ultras eventually split into the Ultras and the Ultra-Ultras. The French Prime Minister, Comte de Villèle, was an ultra, but he was willing to compromise with other groups such as the Liberals and Moderates. This infuriated the Ultra-Ultras, who came to loathe Villèle in spite of everything that they had in common, and they constantly collaborated with the Left to create problems for the government.
Religion then further destabilized the situation. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods had secularized France, with many people turning away from the church and open expressions of piety. The problem was, however, that the nobles who had fled France after 1789, the so-called émigrés, had become more pious the longer they were out of the country. Thus, when they returned, they demanded the reestablishment of the church control over all aspects of life. And, once again, this was simply not compatible with the post-Revolutionary situation.
The reactionary nature of the new regime led to the appearance of a Liberal opposition. Louis Adolphe Thiers is one of the most prominent examples of the liberal opposition to Charles X’s regime. He had risen from a common background to become co-editor of Le National, a liberal daily paper. Thiers and his paper relentlessly campaigned to get both Polignac fired and Charles X removed from the throne. Thiers and Le National’s public opposition led a general trend in French politics against the reactionary government. On July 19, 1830, new elections were held, and the political power base shifted strongly to the left. Charles X responded harshly, issuing a series of ordinances that prohibited the distribution of political pamphlets, that dissolved the new Chamber of Deputies, that called for the elections to be held again, and that restricted the right to vote to only France’s wealthiest people. Having completed his work, the King left Paris to go hunting. He was never came back.
On July 27 demonstrations against the government broke out in Paris, followed by two days of bloody rioting. These three days became known as the July Revolution. The end result of the demonstrations and riots was that France got a new King, another Bourbon Louis-Philippe. Charles X’s opponents succeeded in deposing him and called on Louis-Philippe to become a true constitutional monarch. For his part, Louis-Philippe was hardly excited at the prospect of becoming King. He initially only accepted the title of Lt. General of the Kingdom, since his cousin had not really abdicated. After being celebrated in the streets of Paris, however, Louis changed his mind, even attending a rally at the famous Hotel de Ville where he held the Tricolor aloft and then embraced the Marquis de Lafayette.
Not much changed under Louis-Philippe. Louis accepted the Constitution of 1814 and expanded the franchise. (Under Charles X only about 90,000 people could vote. Under Louis-Philippe it was expanded to 170,000.) Louis-Philippe became known as the bourgeois King. He was very good at wielding political symbols, pointedly refusing to be crowned amidst the pomp that had characterized earlier coronations. As King he made sure to be seen walking through the streets of Paris in a suit and a hat. He worked hard and lived frugally, two virtues the French were not accustomed to seeing in their kings. The problem was that Louis could never decide between being a bourgeois King or a Bourbon. He wanted to play an active role in government, something that liberals such as Thiers would have denied him, but he also wanted to dispense with the old traditions of kingship.
Unfortunately for Louis, he tried to find a golden mean between incompatible traditions. This weakness in his rule was particularly apparent in the 1830s and 40s, as he constantly faced challenges to his legitimacy. The extreme left and extreme right continued their battle, with neither side willing to compromise. The ultras, for example, became more legitimist after 1830. Having a Bourbon King was not enough, and only a true Bourbon succession would do. The ultras’ hopes lay with the Duchess de Berry, wife of the Charles X’s dead son. In 1832, the Duchess left her exile in Italy and landed in southern France, hoping to start an uprising in favor of her legitimate Bourbon child. None was forthcoming, and she was captured. Unfortunately, for legitimism, the Duchess also turned out to be pregnant. And since her husband had been killed in 1824, it was unlikely that it was his child. In the end, the Duchess de Berry had to admit that she had remarried, and the entire restoration project collapsed.
Louis-Philippe confronted other challenges, as well. The Republicans never accepted his rule, staging a series of uprisings between 1831 and 1834. These riots were usually touched off by some labor strife, the worst of which occurred in Lyon in 1831, where 15,000 workers battled the National Guard in the streets. The government arrested the riot’s leaders and banned republican associations, and this merely embittered an entire population.
And the Bonapartists were still around, too, pining for their emperor. In the years since his death, Napoleon’s memory had taken on a new shape. He was no longer the ruthless dictator that had been run out of an exhausted France, but had become the little corporal who rose to top and defended the common man. However silly it may have been, this view of Napoleon as defender of the people proved to be a powerful myth. Napoleon’s son and heir, the Duc de Reichstadt, died in 1832 of tuberculosis. (After his father’s downfall, he lived in the Habsburg castle of Schönbrunn. His pet canary was stuffed and is still on display there.) One would think that the myth would have died with him, but then another Bonaparte showed up to claim Napoleon’s mantle, Louis Napoleon, the supposed son of Napoleon’s brother. The irony is that Louis Napoleon was not French. He had been raised in Germany and spoke only German, never really mastering French. In 1836, Louis Napoleon invaded France with a small army and headed toward Strasbourg, where he persuaded the local military commander to join him. Louis Napoleon was arrested and convicted for his crime, and was deported to the United States. Eventually, he wound up in England, where he plotted to try again.
Despite everything, Louis-Philippe survived and things seemed to settle down after 1840. He was fortunate in that much of his opposition had succeeded in making itself look ridiculous. The Duchess de Berry’s pregnancy had killed Legitimism. The Republicans had discredited themselves with their violence, and Bonapartism appeared to be joke. And for most of the 1840s there was stability, prosperity, and peace.
The situation changed dramatically in 1846. Bad weather led to crop failures, and the price of food went up. Add to this an economic crisis that caused factories to close, and general dissatisfaction with Louis-Philippe rose throughout 1847. Since the political opposition had been outlawed, the most common way of protesting the government was the scheduling of banquets. At these events people would eat and complain about the government. Louis-Philippe’s downfall began on Jan. 28, 1848, when the government cracked down on one such banquet, claiming that it was a prohibited political event. There were protests in response, which then turned into riots, and riots into a revolution. The result was that the Bourbons fell for the last time and a second French Republic was proclaimed in their place.
The provisional government tried to win over the population by declaring universal manhood suffrage, which amounted to about 9 million men, most of whom would vote for the first time. Unfortunately, the elected government failed to resolve France’s economic problems, which led to another revolution in June 1848, the so-called June Days, which then spread across Europe, toppling governments as it went. Klemens von Metternich, the reactionary Austrian minister was forced to flee Austria for England. The Revolution was put down brutally and a new government was set up, with new elections planned. Thus, was the stage set for Louis Napoleon. Napoleon entered French politics, legitimately this time, and was elected president in 1848 with a huge majority. He enjoyed immediate popular support thanks mostly to his name, and he wanted to turn it into permanent power. The new French constitution prohibited, however, his reelection as president. So Louis Napoleon held a coup in 1852, bringing back the legacy of Napoleon I by calling himself Napoleon III. At the time, Karl Marx noted that history seemed to be repeating itself, or as he put it “first time as tragedy, second time as farce.” But Marx missed something important; Louis Napoleon’s government made possible fundamental changes in the European political landscape.
I will discuss most of the political changes in separate lectures on the rise of Italy and Prussia. What you need to know for this meeting is that Napoleon III’s reign was characterized by two important themes. The first was stability. Napoleon III brought political certainty back to France, which allowed the economy to grow. Napoleon’s economic policies were actually enlightened. He made sure that bread was accessible to the poor and built hygienic public housing. The second was an irresponsible foreign policy adventurism. Although Napoleon III was not as militarily aggressive as his uncle, he did see himself as Europe’s power broker, wishing to make sure that if any country gained, France must gain something as well. This policy worked well in the immediate aftermath of the Crimean War (1853-1856), but it proved disastrous when Napoleon intervened in Italy and Mexico. I will discuss Italy in another lecture, but for now I should point out that Napoleon’s desire to weaken the Austrian Habsburgs by attacking them in Italy backfired badly, since it only weakened Austria for its conflict against Prussia. The Mexican adventure was almost as bad. In 1861, Napoleon III proposed the Austrian Archduke Maximilian as ruler of Mexico. Napoleon wanted to counter the growing power of the United States by setting up friendly governments in Latin America. Initially, the French supported Maximilian’s return to power, but when the United States emerged from its Civil War in 1865, Napoleon was forced to retreat. Napoleon also had other plans in northern Germany. He saw the rising state of Prussia as a perfect foil against the Habsburgs. Unfortunately, that rising state wound up defeating him and took away his empire in 1870. No matter where Napoleon III tried to interfere, he always got less than he wanted and more than he bargained for. We will talk more about the implications of this in the lectures on Italy and Prussia.