By David Michael Newstead.
Although he’s less well known than his uncle, Napoleon III occupies an interesting place in history that reverberates in the modern world more than you might think. He was the first democratically elected President of France, fought against Russia in the Crimean War, and he’s essentially the reason that Mexico celebrates Cinco de Mayo.
Commenting on Napoleon III, Karl Marx once wrote, “History repeats itself… first as tragedy, then as farce.”
Not surprisingly, Napoleon III will forever be stuck in the shadow of the original Napoleon Bonaparte. But who was this moustached man that led a nation?
A child during his uncle’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon III spent the majority of his life trying to recapture the political power his family once held. He lived in exile for years in Italy, Switzerland, and Great Britain. He staged two coup attempts, which both failed and ultimately landed him in a French prison. But populist uprisings in Europe soon brought about dramatic changes and universal male suffrage favored a candidate with name recognition!
After the Revolutions of 1848, Napoleon III was elected President of France with 74 percent of the vote, the first direct presidential election in the country. However, that democratic zeal wavered pretty quickly as Napoleon III took to calling himself the Prince-President. Then in 1851, he staged a coup, declaring himself to be Emperor. The National Assembly was weakened, the constitution rewritten, censorship was enforced, and the regime’s critics faced harsh authoritarian repression. In short order, the French Second Republic officially became the Second French Empire. With tyrannical ease, Napoleon III championed a host of domestic social reforms like girls’ education, workers’ rights, and the renovation of the city of Paris. But overseas imperialism really defined his reign. During this time, France seized territory, colonized, and took on an active international role, intervening in the Asia/Pacific region, in Africa, and elsewhere.
In its most ridiculous form, this resulted in France trying to install an Austrian as the Emperor of Mexico. Then in a more subtle example, Napoleon III critically debated whether to recognize the Confederate States of America as a separate country during the American Civil War, which would have dealt a major setback to the Union cause.
In the end though, he decided not to officially recognize the Confederacy. And the Austrian Emperor of Mexico? That man would later be executed by Mexicans opposed to French meddling. Like his famous uncle, Napoleon III squandered progressive ideals, massaged his own ego, and would fall from power at the expense of the country he ruled. In 1870, he was dethroned in the Franco-Prussian War. And in the aftermath of that conflict, Germany was unified, France was severely defeated, and the seeds of future wars were planted across Europe. The Second Empire became the Third Republic and Napoleon III would die in England in 1873.
He’s not often remembered today, but Napoleon III clearly had a flare for the dramatic in fashion, facial hair, and politics. Unfortunately for him, pride cometh before the fall.