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In December 1851, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte seized power in a coup d'état, believing he was destined to rule France and restore her to her former glory. He was committed to the modernisation of France through significant infrastructure investment and urban renewal. Although he felt pressured to make concessions to liberal, clerical and republican opposition from 1860, he remained determined to retain substantial power over foreign and defence policy. This would prove to be his undoing. In 1870, the Empire created by a military coup ended with a catastrophic military defeat, dramatically changing the balance of power in Europe.

Documents on the Second French Empire presents students with a range of primary sources, covering the political, social and economic history of the era. The documents in each chapter are contextualised by an introduction from the author, and are grouped by theme, making them easy to navigate and analyse.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Introduction

Abstract
The pattern of events is familiar. A government is overthrown, unexpectedly, and the power vacuum filled by a coalition of interests, temporarily united by their opposition to the previous regime, divided by competition for power and conflicting objectives. The weakening of central authority furthermore provides an opportunity for widespread popular protest. Mounting social tension and widespread disorder result in a crisis of confidence, the collapse of economic activity and growing ‘social fear’. The search for stability promotes a willingness to accept a ‘strong’ government able to employ military power, together with an authoritarian ‘leader’. The crisis apparently over, pressure again gradually builds up for liberalization and a more inclusive polity.
Roger Price

An Anatomy of Political Power

Frontmatter

1. The Road to Power

Abstract
In France, the February 1848 Revolution and the establishment of manhood suffrage created the circumstances in which, according to Karl Marx, ‘a grotesque mediocrity’ was able to seize power. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of the first Napoleon, had previously defined his political ideas in a series of widely read pamphlets, including, most notably, Les Réflections Politiques (1832), Les Idées Napoléoniennes (1839) — based closely on Napoleon I’s writings and on Las Cases’ Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène — and L’Extinction du Paupérisme (1844). Vague and full of contradictions, these writings, reflecting the utopian optimism of the 1830s/40s, were to serve as his ‘guiding ideas’, inspiring a ‘mission’ defined as ‘a devotion first to the Napoleonic dynasty, and then to France… giv[ing] her influence abroad and prosperity at home’. Only the Bonaparte dynasty, he assumed, could effectively represent the twin principles of popular sovereignty and order, the principles of 1789 and of the First Empire. Taking advantage of the heroic myth created by his uncle, as well as of the desperate desire for order and prosperity amongst wide sections of the population, following years of economic and political unrest, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was elected President of the Republic in December 1848, with 5,534,520 votes (74.2% of those cast), compared with 1,448,302 for the Republican General Cavaignac. He was well placed to use the administrative and military resources of the state to mount a coup d’état in December 1851. 1 The coup was followed by a period of rule by decree, of dictatorship in the ancient Roman sense of the word, when the normal rule of law was suspended with the assent of the population, given by plebiscite on 21 December 1851 (Figures 1.1 and 1.2).
Roger Price

2. The Restoration of Empire

Abstract
During the four months that followed the coup, the institutional structures of an authoritarian regime were established. Its model was the Napoleonic constitution of the Year XII. A head of state was to be elected for 10 years with the right to present his successor. The first article in ‘confirming and guaranteeing les grands principes proclamés en 1789’ recognized the rights of man and equality before the law. The President, as the elect of the Nation, was also to be responsible directly to the People through the exercise of manhood suffrage by all adult (over 21) males in regular elections and plebiscites. He would be responsible for the initiation and promulgation of legislation, for declaring war, negotiating treaties and for appointing ministers and officials. The constitution of 14 January 1852 transformed the government of the Republic and required little further modification following the restoration of the Empire on 2 December 1852.
Roger Price

3. The Authoritarian Empire: Institutions

Abstract
According to the constitution, legislation was to be prepared by a Conseil d’Etat whose 40–50 members would present legislative proposals to an elected Corps législatif. During the 1850s, it was members of the Conseil who defended government policy both in the Corps législatif and in the Senate. The Conseil served, additionally, as the supreme administrative tribunal, the final court of appeal in administrative matters. Appointed by the Emperor, its members could be removed from their lucrative positions at will, although in practice dismissals were rare following an initial purge of 31 of its 40 members in 1852. The Conseil would nevertheless prove adept at using legal technicalities to thwart the Emperor’s will. The consent of the Corps législatif, made up of 275 deputies, was required for all laws and taxes. Its role, however, at least initially was viewed as essentially consultative. It would discuss proposals prepared by the Conseil d’Etat and presented by its president (Baroche until 1860). Deputies were not permitted to initiate legislation. Although they had the right to approve or reject legislation, this could only occur en bloc and without amendment, and they would be very reluctant to contemplate rejection, particularly of budgetary proposals. In procedural terms, legislative proposals, approved by the Conseil d’Etat, were submitted for discussion to the seven bureaux into which deputies were divided. Following discussion, each of these elected a rapporteur, who presented suggested amendments to the Conseil d’Etat.
Roger Price

4. Elections

Abstract
The decision to retain universal manhood suffrage clearly distinguished the Second Empire from previous monarchical regimes. It owed its legitimacy not to divine right but to the popular will. The constitution required plebiscites to sanction major constitutional change, together with regular elections to the Corps législatif, each of them, in effect, a quasi-plebiscite on the regime itself. The Prince-President had promised to respect the will of the people, a dangerous promise for someone intending to found a dynasty. Widespread concern was also aroused by the threat posed to social order by allowing the ‘ignorant masses’ to vote. The essential problem was that of recognizing popular sovereignty whilst retaining control. The electoral system, voting procedures and candidate selection were all designed to create a system of ‘managed democracy’ and to reinforce the government’s authority. The system of official candidature, together with pressure on voters, and bribery and corruption combined to ‘falsify’ the results of voting. The scrutin de liste system of the Second Republic which had provided for multi-member constituencies in the hope of diluting the influence of traditional notables was abandoned in favour of the scrutin d’arrondissement with its single-member constituencies giving more weight to personalities than programmes, and justified on the grounds that deputies would be better known to their constituency.
Roger Price

5. The Restoration of ‘Moral Order’

Abstract
Although only a small proportion of the population purchased newspapers, multiple readership was widespread in reading rooms, cafés and at work, and it was recognized that influential opinion-formers were likely to be drawn from the ranks of readers. The attack on the press, designed to limit political debate, which had commenced after the June insurrection in 1848, was intensified following the coup. The catch-all Article 8 of the law of 17 May 1819 could be employed against every ‘outrage against public and religious morality’. The 17 February 1852 decree required prior authorization before a newspaper could appear. Subsequently, warnings delivered to an editor by the bureau de presse at the Interior Ministry led to suspension and ultimately to closure. The object was to make censorship unnecessary by encouraging self-censorship. Officials celebrated the disappearance of most of the newspapers which had previously served as the base of republican organization in the provinces. Special commissaires were also appointed to supervise the domestic book trade as well as the urban street traders and pedlars who distributed cheap and accessible pamphlets and engravings throughout small towns and rural France. A list of approved works was published and transgressors prosecuted. ‘Subversive’ materials were, however, distributed by the postal service established in 1849. The sheer scale of its activity made systematic surveillance difficult, although, according to a confidential report to the Emperor, by 1857 letters were being opened on une vaste échelle.
Roger Price

6. Forms of Opposition

Abstract
Within government circles, there was particular concern about the failure to secure sufficient committed support within the social elites. More than two-thirds of the successful official candidates in the 1852 elections were former Legitimist and Orleanist notables whose loyalties might well be considered to be conditional. In the regime’s early years, with republicanism subject to intense repression, these were the forms of opposition most freely expressed.
Roger Price

7. The Orsini Affair and the Italian War

Abstract
The repression associated with the authoritarian regime had gradually eased. It was renewed following Orsini’s attempt, on 14 January 1858, to assassinate the Emperor. Orsini had believed that the Emperor’s death would be followed by universal revolution and the liberation of Italy. The three bombs thrown at the imperial party as it arrived at the Opera had clearly threatened the lives of the Emperor and his wife, as well as injuring 156 people, 8 of them mortally. Everything achieved since 1851 appeared to be at risk. On 16 January, in a speech approved by Napoleon, the Comte de Morny, president of the Corps législatif, demanded firm action, both internally and from those foreign governments (particularly Britain) which had tolerated the presence of dangerous exiles. On 15 February, the notorious hardliner General Espinasse was appointed to a renamed Ministère de l’Intérieure et de Sûreté générale with the explicit mission of inspiring ‘fear’ amongst enemies of the regime. He ordered prefects to update the lists of political suspects originally compiled following the coup d’état. On 23 February, they were further instructed to use these lists to make a specified number of arrests in each department in order to ‘strike terror amongst the fomenters of disorder’. In all perhaps 430 suspected republican leaders, mainly business and professional men, were arrested. Some were soon released, but 380 appear to have been deported to Algeria. 1
Roger Price

Towards the Liberal Empire

Frontmatter

8. The Growth of Clerical and Liberal Opposition

Abstract
The regime’s situation was seriously weakened by the pronounced loss of confidence resulting from the ‘Roman Question’, and subsequently due to the 1860 commercial treaty with Britain. Moreover, these confidence-shaking developments were followed by the incomprehensible military expedition to Mexico, and by continued ‘wasteful’ expenditure on the embellishment of Paris, financed by Haussmann’s questionable financial practices. During the debate on the speech from the throne in 1861, 91 (of 158) deputies delivered an unprecedented warning by voting against the government. Three Catholic deputies, Cuverville, Keller and Lemercier, elected as official candidates, wrote a joint letter warning the Emperor that his Italian policy would ‘separate you from all sincere Catholics’. The government’s response was to suppress two newspapers — L’Univers and La Bretagne — which had previously been amongst the most enthusiastic advocates of an authoritarian Bonapartism. Legitimists and the clergy, united in support of an embattled Papacy, demanded greater political ‘liberty’ in order to control the Emperor’s initiatives and protect the vital interests of the Church. They enjoyed the support of liberals like Adolphe Thiers, convinced since 1848 that anything which weakened Catholicism threatened social order, and of the network of charitable associations patronized by the Catholic laity. Membership of groups like the Société de Saint Vincent de Paul was an important feature of elite male sociability and included many senior government officials.
Roger Price

9. The Republican Revival

Abstract
Following the temporary setback resulting from the intensification of repression in 1858, Republican militants once again worked to establish networks of sympathizers. They were to be found in all social groups. The wealthy tended to express their opposition to the regime through liberalism, although family loyalties and traditions might pull some towards the left. In many communities, the middle and professional bourgeoisie, from resentment of established and exclusive elites, together with small businessmen — shopkeepers and workshop owners — anxious about competitive pressures and determined to preserve their hard-won prosperity and social status, provided leadership. In general, artisans and urban workers were far more likely to support the republican cause than were peasants, influenced by the growing prosperity which appeared to confirm the promise of the Bonapartist legend. Workers and peasants might, however, in certain circumstances, share a hostility towards those they believed were exploiting them — government, bankers, wholesale merchants, employers and landowners, and such old enemies as ‘aristos’ and priests.
Roger Price

10. Liberalization: A Process

Abstract
The initial liberalizing measures introduced by Napoleon in 1860–61 caused considerable surprise. The form of authoritarian government introduced in response to the mid-century crisis had certainly come to appear less justifiable as the threat of revolution diminished. The new measures were, however, primarily a response to accumulating pressure from conservative liberals, both those in opposition and, more significantly, from supporters of the government, voiced particularly in sessions of the Corps législatifs budget commission. Even the banker Achille Fould, previously responsible for the imperial household and a man personally devoted to the monarch, accepted the need to restrain his master. Conservative financial precepts and the ideal of the balanced budget were his guiding principles. In a Mémoire, written presumably at the Emperor’s behest, Fould was extremely critical of the development of extraordinary and supplementary expenditures. His solution was the reinforcement of the budgetary control exercised by the Corps législatif. At a joint meeting of ministers with the Conseil privé on 12 November 1860, Rouher and Baroche — also liberal in financial matters and authoritarian in politics — supported Fould. The Emperor, aware of disquiet in the financial circles upon whose support his public works programme depended, decided that Fould’s highly critical memo should be published and its author appointed Finance Minister.
Roger Price

11. The Liberal Empire

Abstract
The proposals for constitutional reform and the establishment of a liberal Empire were put to the test by a plebiscite on 8 May 1870. Voters were asked to respond to a statement carefully worded to maximize support by appealing to liberals and even moderate republicans: ‘The People approves the liberal reforms introduced into the Constitution since 1860 by the Emperor with the collaboration of the grands Corps de l’Etat, and ratified by the senatus-consulte of 20 April 1870.’ The period immediately preceding the plebiscite saw widespread agitation, with strikes and repeated disorders in the capital. Growing conservative hostility towards Paris and its politics in the provinces partly explain the vogue for de-centralization and subsequently the ferocious repression of the Paris Commune in 1871. Policing was becoming difficult as the number of meetings, associations, newspapers and strikes grew. Taking advantage of the unease caused by this disorder, the Emperor’s proclamation on 23 April promised that a positive vote would not only sanction the reforms introduced since 1860 but ‘banish the threat of revolution’, establish ‘order and liberty on a solid base’ and furthermore ease ‘the transmission of the crown to my son’. The outcome was of such importance that Ollivier reversed his long-standing opposition to the use of administrative pressure. Prefects were instructed to deploy une activité dévorante in favour of a ‘yes’ vote.
Roger Price

12. War and Revolution

Abstract
Who can tell what might have happened if war had not brought this experiment in liberalization to a dramatic and premature end? In a famous speech at Bordeaux on 9 October 1852, Napoleon had sought to re-assure both his compatriots and the European powers by insisting that L’Empire, c’est la paix. Subsequently, in a memoir addressed to Comte Walewski (22 January 1859), he, however, maintained that he had not intended to commit himself to avoiding conflict where ‘national honour’ or the ‘true interests of the country’ were at stake. In the case of the war with Austria, he had weighed up the potential for internal and international opposition and concluded that the risks were small, particularly if public opinion was carefully prepared. Moreover, referring to the first Napoleon’s commentaries on Julius Caesar, he pointed out that in the aftermath of revolution an external war was often a ‘necessary’ means of promoting national unity. For Napoleon III, military greatness was a central feature of Bonapartism. He intended to ‘restore’ France ‘to its true place’ as the preeminent European power by destroying the 1815 peace treaties, securing the natural frontiers on the Alps and Rhine, and reconstructing Europe on the basis of its major nationalities, assembled, as in the case of Italy and Germany, in loose (con)-federal structures, too weak to challenge France, rather than as unitary states.
Roger Price

Conclusion

Abstract
Napoleon III had firmly believed in his historical destiny. His role initially was that of a ‘charismatic’ leader, a ‘dictator’ at the centre of an authoritarian political system drawing its legitimacy initially from the reestablishment of social order, together with the manipulation of a mass electorate. This led to him being described by historians in the 1930s and 1940s as a precursor of fascism. However, in comparison with twentieth-century dictatorships, his was much less brutal. The Second Empire lacked both the bureaucratic machinery of the ‘totalitarian’ state and its determination to invade the private space of its citizens and to ignore the ‘rule of law’. Over time, the regime became less rather than more authoritarian, accepting, in particular, the need to concede a growing share of power to the social elites it had briefly managed to exclude in December 1851. In establishing the Liberal Empire Napoleon III was pushed further than the couronnement de l’édifice he had originally envisaged. The regime nevertheless appeared, following the May 1870 plebiscite, to have successfully achieved a difficult process of transition. The institutions created as part of a violent counter-revolution had been adapted to meet the needs of a changing society with different political aspirations. The new regime, bearing many similarities to the presidential system of the Fifth Republic established by General de Gaulle, was probably viable.
Roger Price
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