Paris Revolution of 1848 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Liberals and radicals banded together in the Paris Revolution of 1848 to overthrow the last French king. The February Revolution of the people against the Crown—one of several occurring throughout Europe in the same year—was interrupted in June by a revolution of the working classes against the bourgeoisie, but it managed to bring about the short-lived Second French Republic.

Summary of Event

Economic depression, an unpopular domestic policy, and an unambitious foreign policy prevented the so-called July Monarchy from enjoying widespread favor in France. King Louis-Philippe was out of touch with popular political sentiment and saw no need for change. Out of a general apathy there emerged two groups who actively opposed the regime. The first group of opponents consisted of liberal members of the Chamber of Deputies who sought a wider suffrage and other political reforms. The leading minister, François Guizot, opposed electoral changes and argued that all citizens had equal opportunity to work, prosper, and meet the existing property qualifications. Revolutions of 1848;Paris Paris Revolution of 1848 France;Paris revolution of 1848 Louis-Philippe [p]Louis-Philippe[Louis Philippe];and Paris Revolution[Paris Revolution] [kw]Paris Revolution of 1848 (Feb. 22-June, 1848) [kw]Revolution of 1848, Paris (Feb. 22-June, 1848) [kw]1848, Paris Revolution of (Feb. 22-June, 1848) Revolutions of 1848;Paris Paris Revolution of 1848 France;Paris revolution of 1848 Louis-Philippe [p]Louis-Philippe[Louis Philippe];and Paris Revolution[Paris Revolution] [g]France;Feb. 22-June, 1848: Paris Revolution of 1848[2600] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Feb. 22-June, 1848: Paris Revolution of 1848[2600] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 22-June, 1848: Paris Revolution of 1848[2600] Lamartine, Alphonse de Blanc, Louis Albert l’Ouvrier Ledru-Rollin, Alexandre-Auguste Cavaignac, Louis-Eugène Guizot, François

The second strand of opposition consisted of republicans and radicals, whose inability to gain election forced them to work outside regular political institutions. Numerous socialists had during the 1840’s won increasing support for their doctrines among working-class groups in Paris. These leftists pressed for an end to monarchy, a democratic political framework with universal manhood suffrage, and some social reforms including recognition of the “right to work” for those who owned no property. Dismal economic conditions beginning in 1846 strengthened the Left and politicized the Parisian masses. Crop failures had doubled the price of basic foods, businesses and factories had failed, and unemployment mounted monthly.

In 1847, the liberal opposition leaders began sponsoring a campaign to broaden the suffrage to include the lower middle classes. Because political expression was officially regulated and political rallies were not allowed, the opposition eluded censorship Censorship;French by organizing large “banquets” where guests made toasts and speeches criticizing the government. Wary because of their success, the government refused to sanction a proposed banquet in Paris on February 22, 1848. While most of the opposition leaders acquiesced in this refusal, rebellious Parisians began to demonstrate in favor of reform that evening. At first, the demonstrations were not considered serious, and Louis-Philippe did not become alarmed until he heard that certain national guard units had joined the demonstrators. This development was ominous because the throne rested upon the support of the bourgeoisie who composed the national guard.

Etching by Adolphe Hervier (1821-1879) of Paris street fighting.

(Library of Congress)

The king then hoped to forestall difficulty by dismissing his unpopular premier, François Guizot Guizot, François . This act might have succeeded had not a number of Parisians been killed by government forces in an incident known as the Massacre of the Boulevards. As radicals paraded the corpses of slain civilians through the streets, moderate opponents of the king joined them. Louis-Philippe abdicated on February 24; he did not want a civil war, and he hoped the chamber might install his young grandson as king. Hundreds of demonstrators, however, invaded the Chamber of Deputies, and after much confusion, various leaders proclaimed a republic and a provisional government that was to wield power until a constitutional assembly could be elected. The provisional government included representatives from all the groups who had united against Louis-Philippe; among them were the socialist Louis Blanc Blanc, Louis ; the blue-collar worker Albert-Alexandre Martin, known as Albert l’Ouvrier Albert l’Ouvrier , or “Albert the Worker”; the radical republican Alexandre-Auguste Ledru-Rollin Ledru-Rollin, Alexandre-Auguste ; and the charismatic poet Alphonse de Lamartine, Lamartine, Alphonse de who became its leading figure.

Several steps favored by the radicals and socialists were taken. Relief for the unemployed was provided by creation of a public works program, the national workshops, and the “right to work” was frequently invoked. Thousands of jobless men flooded into Paris to find assistance; only about 10 percent of the 100,000 enrollees in the national workshops actually worked for the small payment they received, much to the disgust of many taxpayers. Louis Blanc and Albert l’Ouvrier presided over the Workers’ Commission that met at the Luxembourg Palace to gather information on problems facing workers and suggest legislative solutions. Various radical groups promoted street demonstrations in Paris as the nation prepared for elections for the Constitutional Assembly on April 23, with all adult men eligible to vote.

The assembly elections revealed the power of the provinces and the rural distrust of the capital. Ballots were cast by 84 percent of eligible voters; they elected a majority of five hundred liberal deputies, three hundred conservative monarchists, and about one hundred radicals. Thus, moderates clearly controlled the Constitutional Assembly when it convened in early May to assume political power. The assembly began the task of structuring republican political institutions and named an executive commission to replace the provisional government. Only at the insistence of Lamartine Lamartine, Alphonse de did the deputies appoint one leftist, Ledru-Rollin, Ledru-Rollin, Alexandre-Auguste to accompany four moderates on the Executive Commission.

Parisian activists feared the Constitutional Assembly would “steal” from them the revolution for which Parisians had fought and died. The left began to orchestrate massive demonstrations demanding an active foreign policy supporting revolutionaries abroad and continuation of social programs. On May 15, such a demonstration invaded the assembly itself, horrifying the deputies and uniting both liberals and conservatives against these tactics of intimidation. Most political actors in 1848 seemed haunted by memories of the original French Revolution French Revolution (1789);aftermath (1789). Radicals wished to repeat the famous revolutionary “days” of 1789-1792, when Paris crowds had dictated decisions to various governments; liberals and conservatives were equally determined to limit the revolutionary process to a moderate outcome.

These political and social tensions soon destroyed the coalition of groups that had defeated the July Monarchy. The Constitutional Assembly began to debate measures that would close the national workshops and disperse workers into the armed forces or work projects across France. The general economic outlook had not improved since February; all classes of citizens, as well as the government, suffered financial distress. A decree dissolving the national workshops was greeted by an explosion on the Left. Barricades quickly arose in the old neighborhoods of Paris, and thus began the civil strife known as the June Days (June 23-26, 1848): The unemployed workers were joined by sympathizing workers, students, and other opponents of the bourgeoisie in a brief but bloody revolution within the revolution.

The assembly entrusted extraordinary powers to General Louis-Eugène Cavaignac Cavaignac, Louis-Eugène and charged him with restoring order. This appointment was significant in several ways. Cavaignac’s family were noted republicans, and he stood for progressive political ideas; he also was a professional soldier with experience fighting rebels in Algeria. Cavaignac’s tactics appeared to let the uprising spread to a large area and then use overwhelming force to destroy it. Some accused him of wishing to inflict maximum casualties upon the insurgents; between fifteen hundred and three thousand were killed, and later many thousands were deported to Algeria. Various repressive measures remained in effect throughout the summer, and Cavaignac retained the executive power at the behest of the assembly, but with the conclusion of the June Days, the Paris Revolution of 1848 was at an end, as military strife gave way to politics.


The assembly produced a constitution in the autumn, instituting the Second Republic France;Second Republic . Elections for the first president of the republic were scheduled for December 20-21, and Cavaignac received the support of many liberal and conservative leaders. Soon, however, he was challenged by a formidable opponent, Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew and heir of Napoleon I. Since Louis Napoleon had spent most of his life in exile or prison, his political views were not well known and his personality was often described as “inscrutable.” Nevertheless, he carried the aura of the Bonaparte name and campaigned vigorously on a platform of social order, stability, and prosperity. Large numbers of peasants, bourgeois, and even workers voted for Louis Napoleon, who easily defeated Cavaignac Cavaignac, Louis-Eugène and other minor candidates.

Just as his uncle had stabilized the original French Revolution, the younger Bonaparte appeared to stabilize the changes introduced by the February Revolution of 1848. The stability of the republic was not to last, however. The constitution forbade Bonaparte from seeking another term in office, but the prince-president refused to vacate the executive power in 1852. He terminated the Second Republic France;Second Republic through a coup d’état and created the Second Empire, with himself as Emperor Napoleon Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];coronation of III.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blum, Jerome. In the Beginning: The Advent of the Modern Age: Europe in the 1840’s. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993. Two chapters deal with France, the others with the European context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Calman, Alvin. Ledru-Rollin and the Second French Republic. New York: Longmans, Green, 1922. This work follows the path of a leading radical republican through the revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The French Second Republic: A Social History. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972. Emphasizes underlying social and economic forces.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sperber, Jonathan. The European Revolutions, 1848-1851. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. An excellent treatment of the long-range causes of the revolutions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wright, Gordon. France in Modern Times: From the Enlightenment to the Present. 5th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995. A clear, concise, factual account.

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Categories: History