From Louis Bonaparte to Napoléon III
The revolution of February 1848 in France initially brought a Provisional Government, which included the political left, but by June the moderate republicans had taken control and defeated the insurrection of the Parisian working classes. By December a young newcomer, Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, practically unknown, had reached power by surprise, winning the first French Presidential election with 74% of the votes. He had defeated the head of the Government, General Cavaignac, a moderate republican and the former leaders of the provisional government, the Democratic socialist Ledru Rollin with 5% of the vote and the liberal Lamartine with 0.2% (all presented here on miniature portraits painted on glass).
Louis Napoléon Bonaparte was the nephew of Napoléon I, and the son of Louis Bonaparte, briefly king of the Netherlands, and of Hortense de Beauharnais, daughter from a previous marriage of Josephine, the first wife of Napoléon I. Louis Napoléon conquered the residency thanks to the enduring aura of the Napoleonic legend.
After a three years cohabitation with the conservative and monarchist majority in Parliament, in December 1851 the Prince-President, as he was called, staged a coup d’état, appointing himself President for a further ten years, arresting opposition leaders and MPs and calling a domestic plebiscite. Like Caesar, he placed his portrait on the coinage of what was by then a Republic only in name (as illustrated in a 5 francs coin minted in Paris in 1852). One year later he proclaimed the rebirth of the French Empire, crowning himself Napoléon III (as can be seen in another 5 francs coin).
The Second Empire was a period of economic development and industrial takeover in France, with the development of the railway system, the banking system (Credit Foncier, Credit Mobilier) and radically changed the aspect and development of French cities (notably the demolitions and the creation of the grands boulevards in Paris by Baron Haussmann). It also at times adopteda more liberal political stance, despite a mixture of authoritarian tendencies (plebiscitary Bonapartism) and social promises. In 1860 France concluded a wide ranging free trade agreement with the UK (the Cobden-Chevalier treaty), which opened the way to a large number of similar agreements throughout Europe in the following decade.
From the monetary point of view, under Napoleon III three main innovations took place.
• A new bronze coinage was finally minted after more than sixty years of failed attempts. In 1856 the recoinage of old types was completed and the multitude of ancient Republican, Bourbon, Orleanist and Napoleonic coins, dating up to two hundred years, were finally withdrawn and prohibited, providing France with a modern unified bronze coinage.
• As a consequence of gold discoveries in California, gold replaced silver as the dominant component of French monetary circulation, through the market mechanism of bimetallism. Silver did not entirely disappear and made a tentative comeback after 1866, but the route towards the Gold Standard was opened in France.
• Through the creation of the Latin Monetary System in 1865 between France, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland, the franc reinforced its role as an international currency, contributing to a wave of financial globalization.
At the beginning of his reign, Napoléon III attempted to reassure European governments by stating that, unlike his Bonapartist predecessor “the Empire means peace”. Although Napoléon III was not a warmonger, his government was less than peaceful: he intervened in Rome in 1849 to overthrow the Roman Republic and reinstate Pope Pius IX and again against Garibaldi in 1867. He fought in Crimea together with Britain and Piedmont against the Russians in 1853-56, with the Piedmontese against Austria in 1859 (after this victory he added a crown of laurels to his portrait on French coinage, as can be seen here on a 2 centimes bronze coin of 1862). He also engaged in additional colonial wars in Mexico in 1861-67 and in Indochina.
He was finally defeated by Prussia and the other German States in 1870. When he surrendered at the battle of Sedan, together with an army of 80,000 men, a republic was immediately proclaimed in Paris, ending Bonapartist and royalist restorations. Republicans and left wing liberals had always opposed Napoléon III, but after his fall he was thoroughly vilified.
We have here a token from 1868, depicting him sitting on a throne supported by bayonets, cannons and a pile of skulls, after he had prevented Garibaldi from freeing Rome, through the use of French troops armed with the newest rifles “Chassepots” at the battle of Mentana. The token defines Napoléon as a hideous fetish, a chauvinistic and caesarian despot who had sacrificed freedom.
We have here also a bronze relief depicting his final political demise in 1870, walking in tears towards exile in England, with thrones, medals, boots and scepters falling from his bundled bag, followed by a depressed eagle with ruffled feathers, unable to fly anymore.
Despite all his many failings and the persistent enigma of his true beliefs and intelligence, Napoléon III is now seen by historians as having supported some elements in Italian unity, French economic development and modernization and having provided some elements of progressive politics.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics
Centre for History and Economics,
Cambridge CB3 0AG, UK
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