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France: The Second Empire

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Very speedily after the fall of the monarchy it became evident that their old love of the Emperor Napoleon was still cherished by large numbers of the French people. Prince Louis Napoleon, the heir to the empire, hastened from London and lost no time in offering his help to the government - to whom, however, his overtures were not acceptable. But soon he was elected by four constituencies, and his name was heard with ominous frequency among the street-cries of Paris. He duly took his place in the assembly, and occasionally ascended the tribune. His purposes were impenetrable, but his manners were bland and his sentiments unexceptionable. The dearest object of his desire was peace. He was wholly without personal aims. "Those who accuse me of ambition, little know my heart." He sought only to gain the esteem of good men by labouring to serve France, and uphold the institutions which she had established. He became a candidate for the presidency; and in the provinces his name, recalling as it did the glories of the empire, was received with enthusiasm. The people enjoyed perfect liberty of choice, and they elected Prince Louis by an overwhelming majority. The prince received five and a half million of votes, while his five competitors did not together receive two million. The new president swore to maintain the constitution, and in his address to the assembly gave detailed and impressive assurances of his loyalty to that order of things which "entire France had established."

The president and the assembly were enemies from the beginning. The assembly seemed to devote its energies chiefly to the task of watching and thwarting the president. Many of its measures were unacceptable to the people. It limited the suffrage by disfranchising three million of voters; it handed over the primary instruction of the people to the priests; it fettered the press more heavily than Louis Philippe had done. Always it was before the public eye as a body given over to unprofitable wrangling, - its action constantly suggestive of danger to the national repose.

The president wielded with a firm hand the powers intrusted to him. When the customary insurrections arose, they were suppressed with the ease of overwhelming strength. The enemies of order were silent in presence of a power which they felt it vain to resist. In his controversies with the assembly, the president kept himself scrupulously within his constitutional rights. He was prudent, silent, always effective. His measures were framed with a conspicuous regard to the welfare of the masses. He cared for the sanitary condition of the poor man's dwelling, and for the purity of the food which was sold to him; he transferred taxation from the necessaries of life to its luxuries; he retained at the public expense priests whose duty it was to furnish gratuitously the rites of the church to those who were without the pecuniary means of obtaining this advantage; he increased the pay of the common soldier; he stimulated the construction of railways, canals, telegraphs; he largely increased the powers of local authorities, and freed them from an injurious dependence upon the central government. The beneficent results of his enactments were immediately apparent. The trade of the country revived; prices rose; employment was becoming abundant; deposits increased in the savings-banks; the number of poor supported by the city of Paris diminished rapidly. Trance craved for rest under a strong government: she had found it, and was satisfied.

The assembly was actuated by a conviction that the president was moving steadily towards a restoration of the empire. To frustrate that design, it attempted to gain some measure of control over the army. But it was foiled by the superior strategic skill of the president, who had gained not only the army, but the magistracy, the police, and indeed the whole executive force of the country.

The president was satisfied that the time had come to rid himself of his enemies. With the shameless selfishness of his race, he was now to grasp the sceptre which was visibly within his reach. No regard to the constitution which he had sworn to maintain was suffered to lay restraint upon his action, for he knew that the army was prepared to obey and the people to absolve. The forces at his disposal rendered success sure and easy.

With the help of the Count de Morny, General St. Arnaud, and M. de Maupas, the president framed the details of his plot. On the night of its execution he entertained a large assemblage at the Palace Elysee. No man in all that glittering company wore a more smiling and gracious aspect, or seemed more entirely unencumbered by care, than the man who was about to overthrow the liberties of his country. So soon as his guests had taken their leave, the president turned to the execution of his enterprise. In the middle of the night the prominent members of the assembly were wakened from sleep and carried off to prison. The leaders of secret societies and other organizations of the disaffected, whose names had been searched out by the police, were now carefully gathered up. Before daybreak every man who was likely to raise his voice too loudly against the contemplated outrage was in confinement. When the Parisians rose in the morning, they learned from official placards on their walls that their assembly was abolished; that their most influential representatives were in prison; that a state of siege had been proclaimed; and that Louis Napoleon, supported by an army of half a million of men, had France at his disposal.

But it was not necessary for the president to place his dependence for the future on force. Popular sanction of what he had done was confidently reckoned upon, and he at once made his appeal to a people whose feelings had been carefully ascertained, and whose support he knew was safe. He summoned them to judge between him and the assembly. He told them he had not power sufficient to fulfil the mission with which he had been charged; that the assembly had become the centre of factious designs; that if they desired to perpetuate the existing condition of affairs, they must choose another in his place, as he would no longer consent to remain " chained to the wheel when he could not prevent the ship from drifting to destruction." (This figure may have been suggested by a saying of Sir Robert Peel when he was preparing to abolish the corn laws: "I will not stand at the helm during the tempestuous night, if that helm is not allowed freely to traverse.") He proposed a new basis of government, which included a responsible chief elected for ten years, a cabinet appointed by him alone, and a legislature composed of two chambers. A fortnight later, the French people, by an almost unanimous vote, gave to the president the powers he asked. Of eight and a half million of voters, seven and a half million voted affirmatively, while only six hundred and forty thousand gave a response unfavourable to the new proposal.

But in the meantime the faubourgs had claimed to express themselves in regard to the coup d'etat. On the next day after the dissolution of the assembly armed crowds began to appear, and barricades were thrown up. The insurrection was of no considerable extent, and the blood shed in its suppression was unjustifiably great. Anticipating disturbances, the president had massed a strong military force in Paris, and held securely every point where the insurgents sought to gain a footing. It was said to have been the intention of the president to give a bloody warning to all persons who were ill-affected to his government, and the troops were copiously supplied with liquors to render them more fitting agents in the execution of his cruel purpose. When the drunken soldiery began to massacre, the streets were thronged by citizens intending no evil and expecting none. Suddenly, and without warning, the troops lowered their muskets and fired among the people who were moving about beside them. A large number of unsuspecting persons fell wounded or killed. Women, little children, helpless gray-haired men were found among the slain. At one point a mother and child lay dead together. A housewife, returning from market with her simple provision for the family dinner, was gathered out from a heap of dead. A printer's boy, lying dead in a pool of blood, still grasped the proof-sheets which he had been sent to deliver. After this execrable massacre was accomplished, multitudes of the suspected were taken into custody. The prisons were crowded. The president gave no account of the thousands of unhappy persons who had fallen under his displeasure. Many were sent to die in the pestilential climate of Cayenne. It was asserted that citizens who lived near the Champ de Mars had their rest broken by musketry firing in the stillness of night, and shrieks as of men in pain, and it was believed that the president was thus secretly, and without form of trial, ridding himself of men who were or might become enemies (The prefect of police denounced this report as "nothing but a hateful lie." According to this authority, there were only 175 insurgents killed in the street-fighting, and 115 wounded; but the prefect's statements have not been accepted as reliable evidence).

In a few days the president was able to announce: "The disturbances are appeased; society is saved." A year later, the senate issued a decree restoring the empire, and declaring the imperial dignity hereditary in the male descendants of Prince Louis Napoleon. The nation confirmed this restoration by an affirmative vote of eight million against only a quarter million of dissentients.

No beneficial results following from the coup d'etat can vindicate its author from reprobation. He destroyed the constitution which he was bound to uphold, and he ruthlessly slaughtered, in so far as he could, those who condemned his action. It is difficult to conceive any combination of circumstances which could have justified his conduct, and assuredly no such combination existed. But he is entitled to whatever benefit can be drawn from the virtually unanimous approval of the French people. He had rightly interpreted the wishes of the nation. France, yearning for quietness, bestowed her approval upon a monstrous violation of law and of honour, and condoned a crime of almost unparalleled baseness, because it promised to result in the creation of a strong and permanent government. The fact may be humiliating, but it is undeniable (The addresses of congratulation received by the emperor form a collection of six quarto volumes, each containing eight or nine hundred pages).

The emperor proceeded, as his first great work, to select for himself a partner in the splendours of his new position. It was said, although on insufficient evidence, that he sought in vain the hand of more than one European princess. But his throne - set up only a few weeks ago - was as yet insecure, and he was not deemed an eligible connection for the daughter of a well-established monarch. Whereupon he discarded "dynastic prejudices" and the "calculations of ambition," and announced that, inspired by Providence, he had made a choice in which he regarded only "the qualities of the heart," and sought only domestic happiness. The lady who thus became the Empress Eugenie and the leader of fashion throughout Christendom, although not without high qualities, failed to become an elevating power in French society. She was the slave of the priests; the patroness of bull-fights and other debasing amusements. The French people never learned to sympathize with her amusements or her religion, and she never gained their love (Fifteen years later the emperor wrote a little memoir of his wife for one of the Paris journals. It seems that Mademoiselle Montijo was powerfully attracted by the early career of Prince Louis. After the coup d'ttat she commended herself to the favourable regard of the president by offering to place her whole fortune at his disposal. When his married life was nearing its close, the emperor wrote of her virtues with enthusiasm She was pious without being bigoted; well-informed without being pedantic; she discussed, in a charming manner, with men of authority the most difficult economical in financial questions; she engaged with efficacious activity in manifold works of beneficence; she had on two occasions exercised the regency with moderation, political tact, and justice. It is a very pleasing picture, such as a youthful lover might have been expected to produce).

it was a maxim of the emperor that liberty never helped to make a durable political edifice; it could only crown a political edifice which time had consolidated. The constitution which he now bestowed upon submissive France was based upon this valuation of liberty. His government was a despotism founded on universal suffrage. The lower chamber was appointed by the people, but it could originate nothing; it could only discuss the measures submitted to it by the emperor, and the amendments which it suggested could be adopted or rejected by the council of state, a body nominated by the emperor. The senators were mainly chosen by the emperor, and although their services were gratuitous, his majesty was empowered to grant liberal salaries to those whose conduct merited such recognition. This structure was an exquisite embodiment of the Napoleonic idea. It claimed to harmonize democracy and despotism. It surrounded personal government with the sanction of popular choice. It amused France with a conviction of liberty, while she was given over to the operation of an unrestrained despotism.

It was fortunate for the empire that from the beginning there were exciting foreign questions to occupy the public mind. The difficulty with Russia in regard to the holy places was ripening into a quarrel, and under the fostering care of the new government it was guided into war. The alliance with England pleased the French people. The emperor and empress came to visit Queen Victoria, and all London was moved with delight at the presence of the august strangers. The war was costly and prolonged, but it yielded glory; and Sebastopol was accepted as in some measure an expiation for Moscow. When peace was restored, the empire presented the aspect of a stable government, resting solidly upon the approval of a contented and thriving people. The horrors of its origin were fully atoned for by its splendid success.

During the next three years France was at peace. But this was the period when the activities of the imperial mind were in their fullest development. Some new and dazzling enterprise was not merely politically beneficial, it was a necessary outlet for the energies of a mind rejoicing to wield the vast powers of which it had at length been permitted to assume the direction. The deliverance of Italy was the work which now lay most convenient to the emperor's hand. It had been begun by his uncle, in whose steps he desired to tread. It was pledged to Count Cavour as the reward of help given against Russia. On New Year's day, the emperor spoke to the Austrian ambassador words which were justly held to convey intimation of a hostile purpose. War quickly followed. After a campaign of a few weeks the emperor returned to Paris in triumph, victor in two hard-fought battles and saviour of Italy.

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