Louis Napoleon Bonaparte Becomes Emperor of France

Rather than accede to France’s constitutional requirement that he leave office, President Louis Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup d’état in late 1851, installing a new republican constitution and extending his presidency. One year later, he was proclaimed emperor of the French as Napoleon III, ending the Second Republic and beginning the Second Empire.

Summary of Event

The Paris Revolution Revolutions of 1848;Paris
Paris Revolution of 1848
France;Paris revolution of 1848 of 1848 ended the reign of the last French king, Louis-Philippe, and established the Second Republic France;Second Republic . Radical and moderate republicans at first cooperated in the new regime, but soon quarreled. Radicals were accused of provoking the urban worker rebellion of June days; moderates were accused of unnecessary severity and repression in restoring order in Paris. Political conservatives, the majority of them monarchists, supported the moderates and increased their own political power greatly. The growth of conservative influence was evident in the Constitution of the Second Republic, officially adopted in November. It eliminated all references to ideas identified with radicals and socialists; it divided political power between a Legislative Assembly and a president, both fairly strong and both selected by universal manhood suffrage. In the first presidential election, held in December of 1848, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte won by a large margin. Prince Louis Napoleon had lived in exile and therefore was not associated with any particular French faction or its failures. Frightened peasants and bourgeois expected a strong and stable government from Louis Napoleon, while many workers preferred him to the victors of June days. Napoleon III
[p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];coronation of
France;Second Empire
[kw]Louis Napoleon Bonaparte Becomes Emperor of France (Dec. 2, 1852)
[kw]Napoleon Bonaparte Becomes Emperor of France, Louis (Dec. 2, 1852)
[kw]Bonaparte Becomes Emperor of France, Louis Napoleon (Dec. 2, 1852)
[kw]Emperor of France, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte Becomes (Dec. 2, 1852)
[kw]France, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte Becomes Emperor of (Dec. 2, 1852)
Napoleon III
[p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];coronation of
France;Second Empire
[g]France;Dec. 2, 1852: Louis Napoleon Bonaparte Becomes Emperor of France[2890]
[c]Government and politics;Dec. 2, 1852: Louis Napoleon Bonaparte Becomes Emperor of France[2890]
Ledru-Rollin, Alexandre-Auguste
Morny, Charles-Auguste-Louis-Joseph de
Pius IX
[p]Pius IX[Pius 09];and Napoleon III[Napoleon 03]
Rouher, Eugène

Elections France;elections to the legislative assembly in the spring of 1849 revealed growing political polarization; conservatives won a majority of seats, the number of moderates shrank, and the radicals (now called “democratic-socialists” or “the Mountain”) also increased their numbers. The stage was set for a struggle between the right and left; the left suspected the right of wishing to reestablish monarchy and the right suspected the left of wishing to lead a socialist revolution. Many of the remaining moderates allied themselves with the conservatives. The role of the prince-president, Louis Napoleon, remained ambiguous for approximately one year; he refrained from independent initiatives and accepted ministers and policies pleasing to the assembly’s majority.

Foreign affairs provided the catalyst for the climactic struggle between the two extreme factions. The president and ministers had sent troops to Rome to intervene in the struggle between revolutionaries and Pope Pius IX Pius IX
[p]Pius IX[Pius 09];and Napoleon III[Napoleon 03] . Conservatives favored full restoration of the pope’s temporal powers, moderates hoped for some constitutional guarantees of civil and political rights, and the democratic-socialists demanded France assist the Roman revolutionaries and Italian nationalists. In June of 1849, the conservatives rejoiced as French troops seized control of Rome from the revolutionaries. The democratic-socialists were incensed, pointing out that the constitution prohibited the use of French troops in war without express permission of the assembly.

The ministry defended the government’s actions and accused the radicals of seeking to provoke insurrection. Alexandre-Auguste Ledru-Rollin Ledru-Rollin, Alexandre-Auguste and other radical leaders called for massive street demonstrations on June 13, 1849, to oppose the government’s policy in Rome. Very few Parisians answered the call to protest, and the ministry used overwhelming military force to quell the demonstration. The assembly declared a state of siege and passed legislation restricting press freedoms and political associations (“clubs”) and speech. The power of the left side of the political spectrum was destroyed, and the moderates were swallowed up in the triumph of the right.

Louis Napoleon after staging his coup.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

By October of 1849, Louis Napoleon began to exert more independent executive leadership and appointed ministers more loyal to himself than to the assembly. With the assistance of such skilled political operatives as his half brother, Charles-Auguste-Louis-Joseph de Morny Morny, Charles-Auguste-Louis-Joseph de , and Minister of Justice Eugène Rouher Rouher, Eugène , the president gradually gathered a group of supporters devoted to the possible re-creation of the empire. This inner group in turn recruited conservatives and monarchists who would not oppose the empire so long as radicals were repressed and “order” was maintained. Conservative leaders of the assembly squandered some of their popularity by passing two laws that angered moderates and some conservatives. The Falloux law granted the Roman Catholic clergy great influence in education and alarmed anticlericals; an electoral law violated the constitution’s guarantee of universal manhood suffrage by requiring voters to live three years at the same address, a condition few urban workers fulfilled.

Crisis loomed in spring, 1852, when elections for a new assembly and the presidency were scheduled almost simultaneously. The constitution forbade a president to succeed himself, but Louis Napoleon made it clear he wished to remain in power. Many conservatives and moderates attempted to find a legal way for him to seek reelection, but an effort to revise the constitution fell short of the three-fourths majority required. Many hoped that Louis Napoleon would simply run again and justify his action by his expected large mandate.

Rather than let tension—and potential opposition— build until spring, Louis Napoleon and his supporters decided upon a coup d’état on December 2, 1851, ordering the assembly dissolved because it had denied the vote to many Frenchmen. There was some initial resistance to the coup; in Paris, about 200 (of 750) deputies mounted a legal challenge, and small-scale fighting erupted in worker neighborhoods. There were attempted uprisings in several cities and the few provincial strongholds of the democratic-socialists. Louis Napoleon had already assured the support of the army by making crucial appointments, and the army crushed all resistance. Subsequently, the nation (possibly with the army’s persuasion) began to call for a restoration of the empire, and the Senate declared Napoleon III emperor of the French on December 2, 1852, exactly one year after the coup. A national referendum empowered the emperor to draw up a new imperial constitution; it restored universal suffrage and greatly reduced the powers of the new legislature, allowing the emperor to initiate legislation and select and dismiss ministers. Various measures limited press freedoms and political expression.


Napoleon III began his rule as a representative of “order” and an unquestionable authoritarian at a time when the majority of Frenchmen were conservative. He has been labeled the first “modern” European ruler, because he realized that democratic political rights such as universal suffrage could be reconciled not only with monarchy but also with relatively conservative economic and social policies. The period of 1852 to 1860 is styled the “Authoritarian Empire,” when the conservative provinces, not radical Paris, set the political agenda for France. Nevertheless, Napoleon harbored numerous liberal ideas and impulses. He encouraged the capitalistic and industrial transformation of France, but he also legalized labor unions and built affordable housing in cities. While seeking the support of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, he established a comprehensive system of public schools rivaling church schools.

France itself was a nation in economic, political, and social transition, with liberal and conservative, progressive and traditional elements intermingled; to a great extent, Napoleon III reflected those varying elements in his personality and policies. After 1860, the democratic-socialist forces began to revive, and as they did so the empire evolved to accommodate these changes, placing more responsibility in the hands of the legislature and culminating in the establishment of true ministerial responsibility in 1869-1870. By 1870, the Second Empire was a constitutional monarchy whose citizens enjoyed political freedom and economic prosperity. The emperor had solid popular support; he was unusual among monarchs in that he adapted to change rather than opposing it as he grew older. It was foreign policy and the shifting balance of power among European countries that brought the end of the empire in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), but the empire had built a strong foundation for the Third Republic that followed.

Further Reading

  • Bresler, Fenton. Napoleon III: A Life. London: HarperCollins, 1999. Popular, accessible biography providing a wealth of detail and a thorough analysis of Napoleon’s personal life and public career.
  • Guerard, Albert. Napoleon III: A Great Life in Brief. 1966. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979. A knowledgeable, well-balanced treatment by a French historian.
  • Payne, Howard C. The Police State of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, 1851-1860. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966. Focuses on the repressive aspects of the authoritarian phase of the Second Empire.
  • Pflaum, Rosalynd. The Emperor’s Talisman: The Life of the Duc de Morny. New York: Meredith Press, 1968. A somewhat subjective look from the viewpoint of Louis Napoleon’s half brother and most trusted adviser.
  • Price, Roger. The French Second Empire: An Anatomy of Political Power. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Chronicles Napoleon’s political career, examining how he was elected president, devised a coup to establish the Second Empire, and used the empire’s power to initiate liberal reforms and wage a disastrous war against Prussia.
  • Smith, William H. C. Napoleon III. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1972. Excellent single-volume work covering economic and social themes as well as politics.
  • Williams, Roger L. Gaslight and Shadow: The World of Napoleon III. 1961. London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1974. Williams’s biography of Napoleon III emphasizes cultural and social aspects of the period.
  • Zeldin, Theodore. Émile Ollivier and the Liberal Empire of Napoleon III. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1963. Shows the development of the emperor’s political system and the transition from authoritarianism to a democratic constitutional monarchy.
  • _______. France, 1848-1945: Politics and Anger. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1979. Opening chapters of this clearly written survey detail troubled years of the Second Republic, the coup d’état of 1851, and the Second Empire.

Bonaparte Is Crowned Napoleon I

France’s Bourbon Dynasty Is Restored

July Revolution Deposes Charles X

Paris Revolution of 1848

Crimean War

Napoleon III and Francis Joseph I Meet at Villafranca

Franco-Prussian War

Third French Republic Is Established

Paris Commune

French Right Wing Revives During Boulanger Crisis

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Napoleon III; Pius IX. Napoleon III
[p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];coronation of
France;Second Empire