Slippery Prince

Graham Robb

  • Napoleon III and His Regime: An Extravaganza by David Baguley
    Louisiana State, 392 pp, £38.50, December 2000, ISBN 0 8071 2624 1
  • The French Second Empire: An Anatomy of Political Power by Roger Price
    Cambridge, 507 pp, £55.00, January 2002, ISBN 0 521 80830 8

On the morning of 5 August 1840, a large pleasure boat chartered by a Frenchman was under steam at London Bridge. The owners of the Edinburgh Castle seem to have been remarkably incurious about the expedition. The day before, guns and ammunition, bundles of printed proclamations, a large amount of cash, sixty uniforms and several horses had been taken on board. The passengers wore civilian clothes but were obviously not embarking on a picnic.

The Edinburgh Castle sailed to Gravesend, where a tame vulture was purchased on the quayside, then crossed the Channel to Wimereux, three miles north of Boulogne. After changing into their uniforms, sixty men, led by a tricolour and a vulture masquerading as an imperial eagle, advanced on the barracks of the 42nd Regiment. It was five o’clock in the morning. One of the party was a lieutenant in the Regiment. He had the soldiers roused and assembled and then proclaimed his leader, Prince Louis-Napoléon, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, to be the new Head of State. There were a few sympathetic cries of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ Since the ashes of the first Napoleon were about to be returned from Saint Helena, Bonapartism was thriving, especially in the Army. It should have been the ideal moment to conduct a Bonapartist coup. Unfortunately, the captain in charge at the barracks refused to recognise the imperial nephew and stole the scene by shouting: ‘You may kill me, but I will do my duty!’

The would-be new Head of State, who was pointing his gun, accidentally shot one of the soldiers in the face. The invasion force panicked and decided to retreat. Louis-Napoléon was determined to march on the upper town and had to be dragged away. ‘This is where I must die,’ he is supposed to have said. When they reached the coast, the Edinburgh Castle had disappeared and the lifeboat in which they tried to escape capsized. One man was shot dead. The others waded back to shore and were easily rounded up. By the time the ashes of Napoleon I had been paraded in front of the largest crowd ever seen in Paris and enshrined in Les Invalides, his nephew was two months into a life sentence in the fortress of Ham, in the swampy part of the Somme. Boulogne had been his second attempted coup. The first, at Strasbourg in 1836, was just as feeble and ended with his deportation to America.

The future Napoleon III, Louis-Napoléon (1808-73), the third son of Louis Bonaparte and Hortense de Beauharnais, considered himself a man of destiny. He had grown up in Bavaria, Italy and Switzerland, where he served as a captain of artillery. His mother, the daughter of Joséphine’s first husband, instructed him in the practical, Napoleonic notion of history: ‘Nobody studies it and everybody believes in it. One has every opportunity to arrange it however one wishes.’ It was hardly a heroic view. Louis-Napoléon sometimes seemed to contemplate his ‘destiny’ like the heir to an irksome family business. When he dreamed that he stood on top of the Vendôme Column in place of his uncle’s statue, he was struck, as David Baguley points out in Napoleon III and His Regime, not by the glory but by the loneliness.

In Ham, he wrote a pamphlet on ‘L’Extinction du paupérisme’, explaining, in effect, how much better everything would be if he could just be allowed to get on with his coup d’état in peace. It was a dictatorial socialist plan for ‘introducing the masses to all the benefits of civilisation’: stop taxing the poor, save on defence and prison-building, prepare the people for democracy by creating a new class of representative prud’ hommes, one to be elected for every ten workers. The prud’hommes would own and organise ‘model farms’ or ‘colonies’. Following the example of the sugar industry, workers would divide their time equally between factory and field. When all the cheap land had been colonised, ‘branches’ would be set up in Algeria or America and ‘perhaps one day invade the world!’

This blueprint for world domination without tears must have seemed the perfect solution to the ‘destiny’ problem. The new Napoleon would be a peace-loving despot, and the extinction of poverty would justify his coup. He hardly bothered to disguise the expediency of his humanitarianism. Today, he wrote, ‘one can govern only by the masses.’ It was important therefore to make the masses happy: ‘When opulence is no longer oppressive, oppositions will disappear.’ ‘Poverty will no longer be seditious.’

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