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Louis Napoleon Bonaparte

When Louis Philippe fled France February 24, 1848, a handful of Bonapartists gathered at the Vendôme column with shouts of "Long live the Emperor!" There were few other early signs of support for this 40-year-old nephew of Napoleon I. Yet, by the end of the year he was president of France.

In February 1848 Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, heir to the throne of Napoleon I, lived in exile at No. 9 Berkeley Street in London. Despite his status as an escaped prisoner after trying to topple the Orleanist monarch in 1840, he boldly landed at Boulogne and arrived in Paris February 27, three days after Louis Philippe abdicated. He stayed with his brother's former tutor, M. Narcisse Vieillard, in the rue de Sentier and sent a letter to officials at the Hôtel de Ville via M. Persigny, his most steadfast supporter. "Gentlemen, ... hurry from exile to place myself under the banner of the newly proclaimed Republic."

Louis Napoleon spoke with the Provisional Governments most prominent member, Lamartine, but leaders of the new republic firmly insisted he return to England. He sent a second letter, protesting this treatment. "Gentlemen, after thirty-thre e years of exile and persecution, I believed I had acquired the right to find once more a refuge on the soil of the fatherland . . . I therefore withdraw for the time being."

He arrived back in London March 2. Beginning April 10 he served as "a man of order" and a special volunteer constable in Piccadilly to calm the restless British, stirred up by Chartist demonstrators. "The peace of London must be preserved," he said. Two women, Miss Elizabeth Harriet Howard and his cousin Mathilde (to whom he had been engaged to marry in 1836), helped Louis Napoleon financially. Miss Howard loaned him over a quarter million dollars and Mathilde pawned her jewels and gave him the money.

In March Louis Napoleon sent Persigny to France to ascertain if he should be a candidate for the April elections. Advised against this, he refused to stand for election. Nevertheless, three of his cousins, including Pierre Bonaparte (son of ex-King Jerome of Westphalia) and Lucien Murat (son of Caroline, ex-Queen of Naples) were elected to the national assembly on April 23.

On May 11 Louis Napoleon wrote M. Vieillard, "I feel that my position in France must be very difficult, tiresome, and even dangerous." He evaluated the situation correctly. A few days after this letter, an attack on the assembly was erroneously attributed to Bonapartists. The deputies retaliated, renewed the 1814 ban on Bonapartes living in France and, again, Louis Napoleon protested.

On June 2 there was a move in the Assembly to repeal the law exiling the Bonapartes. On June 4, with Persigny's and Laity's initiative, Louis Napoleon won by-elections from four departments--Paris, Yonne, Charente-Inferièure, and Corsica. He immediately wrote, "Citizens, your votes fill me with gratitude."

As a result of Bonapartist demonstrations, his two close friends and major agents, Persigny and Laity (both involved in his attempted coup d'état in 1836), were arrested on June 12. Louis Napoleon himself was fleetingly threatened with arrest if he returned to France. Despite the opposition of Lamartine and Ledru-Rollin, after a debate in the assembly Louis Napoleon was admitted as a member on June 13, with the support of Louis Blanc, Victor Hugo, and Jules Favre.

Demonstrators once again shouted, "Long live the emperor!," General Cavaignac protested, and Louis Napoleon graciously wrote a letter of resignation on June 15. Thus, twice in 1848 he withdrew from the political arena. Fortunately for him, he was not involved in the bloody June Days of 23-26.

Louis Napoleon had agents in Paris: Persigny, Laity, Vieillard, Ferrère, Montholon, Piat, Orsi, and his cousins. Bonapartist newspapers increased dramatically in July and August. Nevertheless, he became temporarily discouraged. On August 24, 1848 Louis Napoleon wrote, "Nothing can be done at the moment...I cannot and will not try again." Only four days later he resiliently wrote to General Piat, who had asked for instructions concerning the September elections, "You ask me if I would accept the post of representative of the people were I to be re-elected. I reply without hesitation, Yes!"

Election posters and supporters' speeches announced, "There is one name which is the symbol of order, of glory, of patriotism; and it is borne today by one who has won the confidence and affection of the people." On September 17 voters in five departments cast 300,000 votes to re-elect Louis Napoleon in supplementary elections for the Constituent Assembly. Significantly, he headed the list in Paris and defeated General Cavaignac, who had repressed the June insurrection. A torch-light procession celebrated his victory and the band of the national guard played, "Veillons au salut de l'Empire."

Louis Napoleon left London, returned to Paris September 24 and took his seat on the left benches September 26. He made the Hôtel du Rhin in the Place Vendôme his headquarters.

Uncertainty plagued him. Thouret sponsored an amendment on October 9 to bar pretenders as presidential candidates. In response Louis Napoleon, perhaps intentionally, made a poor speech in halting French with a German accent and Thouret then withdrew his objection.

The November 4, 1848 constitution (inaugurated November 12) was politically democratic and based on universal suffrage. There was a seven hundred fifty member unicameral legislature, elected for a three-year term, and a strong president independent of the assembly, elected for a four-year term.

Although Louis Napoleon's presidential campaign centered on the restoration of order, even Cavaignac's supporters cheered when reminded of his courageous attempted coup at Strasbourg in 1836. Results of the presidential election on December 10, 1848 became known on December 13 and were formally proclaimed on December 20, the date he was sworn in as president.

Louis Napoleon Bonaparte won by a landslide with 5,434,226 votes. His nearest rival, General Cavaignac, received 1,448,107 vot es and other candidates fell far behind: Ledru-Rollin, 370,119; Raspail, 36,920; Lamartine, 17,910; and General Changarnier, 4,790.

Louis Napoleon initially encountered some difficulty in forming his first cabinet. When Lamartine and Thiers declined the premiership, he turned to the Orleanist moderate, Odilon Barrot, lawyer for Louis Napoleon's colleagues in the 1836 Strasbourg coup.

Louis Napoleon at once moved into the Elysée palace where he hosted a private banquet for veterans of the Strasbourg and Boulogne coups. A new Bonapartism had come to power in France

Shirley Black

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© 1997, 2004 James Chastain.