This series has just two easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Arrest of the National Assembly.
History has underestimated Napoleon III. He lost the Franco-Prussian War and that destroyed his reputation. Consider, though, all that he accomplished before that.
By his astounding act of December 2, 1851, known as the coup d’état, Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, commonly called Louis Napoleon, practically assumed imperial power, and on the first anniversary of that coup d’état he was officially proclaimed Emperor of the French under the title of Napoleon III. He was the son of Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland — a brother of Napoleon I — and was born in Paris, April 20, 1808. From 1815 to 1830 he lived in exile. In 1836 he made an unsuccessful attempt to organize a revolution among the French soldiers at Strasburg. Four years later he tried to seize the throne of France; but failing in this attempt, he was imprisoned in the fortress of Ham until 1846, when he escaped to England. During his confinement he continued in his writings a Bonapartist propaganda. He had addressed himself particularly to the workingmen, and this class won a victory in the Revolution of February, 1848. After the fall of Louis Philippe in that year, Napoleon was elected to the National Assembly, largely by the votes of the working classes, and on June 13, 1848, took his seat. In December he was elected President of the Republic by an immense majority.
Although he was regarded as possessing a rather dull intellect, and as being, partly for that reason, a “safe” man for the presidential office, Napoleon soon proved his capacity for intrigue and for cajoling the people. By intervening in behalf of Pope Pius IX, whom revolutionists had driven from Rome, he gained the support of the clergy. Napoleon’s troops restored Pius IX (1850) to the papal throne. The President’s aims at supremacy were approved by the French monarchists, and he used all means to increase his popularity, placing only his adherents in office.
When the Assembly, composed of seven hundred sixty members, undertook to restrict the suffrage, which was “universal,” Napoleon opposed the change. He thus appeared to be the champion of the people against the legislative body. As his term was to expire on May 2, 1852, and as he was ineligible for a second term, although he knew that a majority of the people favored his continuance in office, he saw no way to accomplish that except by force. He therefore determined to use force, and the method he adopted was that of the coup d’état. The success of that stroke insured all that he aimed at. In December, 1851, by an almost unanimous vote he was elected President for ten years. All his “ideas” and purposes were embodied in a new constitution, and before the end of 1852 the question of restoring the empire was submitted to the people; and by the plebiscite of November, in that year, an enormous majority of the voters elected him Emperor.
No account of the coup d’état, — the most striking and effective in this series of dramatic events — surpasses in authenticity or interest that of De Tocqueville. The famous author of Democracy in America, and of equally celebrated works of French history, became Vice-President of the National Assembly in 1849. As a member of that body he was justified in saying of his story of the coup d’état, “I merely relate, as an actual witness, the things I saw with my eyes and heard with my ears.” The first step taken by Napoleon in this affair was the arrest of the opposition leaders of the Assembly in their beds, on the pretext of a conspiracy against him in that body. De Tocqueville describes what followed.
This selection is from Memoir, Letters, and Remains by Alexis De Tocqueville published in 1861. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
When the representatives of the people learned on the morning of December 2, 1851, that several of their colleagues were arrested, they ran to the Assembly. The doors were guarded by the Chasseurs de Vincennes, a corps of troops recently returned from Africa and long accustomed to the violence of Algerine dominion, and, moreover, stimulated by a donation of five francs distributed to every soldier who was in Paris that day. The Representatives, nevertheless, presented themselves to go in, having at their head one of their Vice-Presidents, M. Daru. This gentleman was violently struck by the soldiers, and the Representatives who accompanied him were driven back at the point of the bayonet. Three of them, M. de Talhouet, Étienne, and Duparc, were slightly wounded. Several others had their clothes pierced. Such was the beginning.
Driven from the doors of the Assembly, the Deputies retired to the mairie of the Tenth Arrondissement. They were already assembled to the number of about three hundred when the troops arrived, blocked up the approaches, and prevented a greater number of Representatives from entering the apartment, though no one at that time was prevented from leaving it.
Who then were those Representatives assembled at the mairie of the Tenth Arrondissement, and what did they do there? Every shade of opinion was represented in this extemporaneous Assembly. But four-fifths of its members belonged to the different conservative parties which had constituted the majority. This Assembly was presided over by two of its Vice-Presidents, M. Vitet and M. Benoist d’Azy. M. Daru was arrested in his own house; the Fourth Vice-President, the illustrious General Bedeau, had been seized that morning in his bed, and handcuffed like a robber. As for the President, M. Dupin, he was absent, which surprised no one. Besides its Vice-Presidents, the Assembly was accompanied by its secretaries, its ushers, and even its phonographer who preserved for posterity the records of this last and memorable sitting. The Assembly, thus constituted, began by voting a decree in the following terms:
In pursuance of article sixty-eight of the constitution, viz., the President of the Republic, the ministers, the agents, and depositaries of public authority are responsible, each in what concerns himself respectively, for all the acts of the Government and the Administration: any measure by which the President of the Republic dissolves the National Assembly, prorogues it, or places obstacles in the exercise of its powers is a crime of high treason.
By this act alone, the President is deprived of all authority; the citizens are bound to withhold their obedience, the executive power passes in full right to the National Assembly. The judges of the High Court of Justice will meet immediately, under pain of forfeiture; they will convoke the juries in the place which they will select to proceed to the judgment of the President and his accomplices; they will nominate the magistrates charged to fulfil the duties of public ministers.
And seeing that the National Assembly is prevented by violence from exercising its powers, it decrees as follows, viz.: Louis Napoleon Bonaparte is deprived of all authority as President of the Republic. The citizens are enjoined to withhold their obedience. The executive power has passed in full right to the National Assembly. The judges of the High Court of Justice are enjoined to meet immediately, under pain of forfeiture, to proceed to the judgment of the President and his accomplices; consequently, all the officers and functionaries of power and of public authority are bound to obey all requisitions made in the name of the National Assembly, under pain of forfeiture and of high treason.
Done and decreed unanimously in public sitting, this second day of December, 1851.”
After this first decree was voted, another was unanimously passed, naming General Oudinot commander of the public forces, and M. Tamisier was joined with him as chief of the staff. The choice of these two officers, each having distinct shades of political opinion, showed that the Assembly was animated by one common spirit.
These decrees had hardly been signed by all the members present, and deposited in a place of safety, when a band of soldiers, headed by their officers, sword in hand, appeared at the door, without, however, daring to enter the apartment. The Assembly awaited them in perfect silence. The President alone raised his voice, read the decrees which had just been passed to the soldiers, and ordered them to retire. The poor fellows, ashamed of the part they were compelled to play, hesitated. The officers, pale and undecided, declared that they should go for further orders. They retired, contenting themselves with blockading the passages leading to the apartment. The Assembly, not being able to go out, ordered the windows to be opened, and caused the decrees to be read to the people and the troops in the street below, especially that decree which, in pursuance of the sixty-eighth article of the constitution, declared the deposition and impeachment of Louis Napoleon.
Soon, however, the soldiers reappeared at the door, preceded this time by two commissaires de police. These men entered the room and, amid the unbroken silence and total immobility of the Assembly, summoned the Representatives to disperse. The President ordered them to retire themselves. One of the commissaires was agitated and faltered; the other broke out in invectives. The President said to him: “Sir, we are here the lawful authority and sole representatives of law and of right. We know that we cannot oppose to you material force, but we will leave this chamber only under constraint. We will not disperse. Seize us and convey us to prison.”
“All, all!” exclaimed the members of the Assembly. After much hesitation the commissaires de police decided to act. They caused each of the two Presidents to be seized by the collar. The whole body then rose, and, arm in arm, two and two, they followed the Presidents, who were led off. In this order they reached the street, and were marched across the city, without knowing whither they were going.
Care had been taken to circulate a report among the crowd and the troops that a meeting of Socialist and Red Republican Deputies had been arrested. But when the people beheld among those who were thus dragged through the mud of Paris on foot, like a gang of malefactors, men the most illustrious by their talents and their virtues — ex-ministers, ex-ambassadors, generals, admirals, great orators, great writers, surrounded by the bayonets of the line — a shout was raised, “Vive l’Assemblée nationale!” The Representatives were attended by these shouts until they reached the barracks of the Quai d’Orsay, where they were shut up.
Night was coming on, and it was wet and cold. Yet the Assembly was left two hours in the open air, as if the Government did not deign to remember its existence. The Representatives here made their last roll-call in presence of their phonographer, who had followed them. The number present was two hundred eighteen, to whom were added about twenty more in the course of the evening, consisting of members who had voluntarily caused themselves to be arrested. Almost all the men known to France and to Europe, who formed the majority of the Legislative Assembly, were gathered in this place. Few were wanting, except those who, like M. Molé, had not been suffered to reach their colleagues.
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