Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The Revolution of 1848

The main cause of the Revolution of 1848 was the displeasure of the people in general at not obtaining a better system of franchise, for which they had long been clamoring. The French people justly said that the two hundred thousand voters included only the rich class, and did not fairly represent the whole nation. In their eagerness to obtain what they felt was their due, the Republicans began giving public banquets, where speeches were openly made against the government. These banquets were permitted at first; but when they had greatly heated the people's imagination, an attempt was suddenly made to stop them,—an unwise measure which roused such indignation that even the National Guard now began to shout, "Long live Reform" instead of "Long live the King!"

The minister (Guizot) therefore resigned, and Louis Philippe was just preparing to make some of the long-denied concessions, when a fight suddenly broke out between a band of armed rioters and the regular troops. A score or more of the rioters having been killed, the mob paraded their bodies around the city, uttering rabid cries of "Vengeance!" Then Paris rose up in wrath; in the course of the next night, many of the streets were blocked with barricades, hastily constructed from uptorn paving-stones, or any other material upon which the rioters could lay hands. Each of these barricades was patrolled by rebels, who challenged all who attempted to go by, uttering bloodthirsty threats against those who happened not to share their political views.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


The next day a raging, howling mob surrounded the Tuileries, and Louis Philippe, thinking his chances gone, hastily abdicated in favor of his grandson, and fled with his wife, mournfully repeating, "Just like Charles X.! Just like Charles X.!" The widowed Duchess of Orleans, afraid to remain in the palace, where she and her two small sons were in danger, hurried off with them to the Chamber, to have the Count of Paris recognized king, in Louis Philippe's stead. But the mob had already invaded and dissolved this Chamber, and had established a provisional government under seven prominent men, who were consulting at the city hall. Finding it impossible to return to the palace,—into which the mob had meanwhile broken, and where a ghastly scene of riot and pillage was taking place,—the Duchess of Orleans also fled to England with her two children. Her eldest son, the Count of Paris, now became the Orleanist Pretender, just as the Count of Chambord was the Legitimist Pretender, and Louis Napoleon the Bonapartist Pretender; all three, of course, claiming the throne of France.

To pacify the mob clamoring around the city hall, Lamartine—a member of the provisional government, and a great orator as well as a poet and writer—suddenly appeared on a balcony, and asked, "What do you want?"

"Your head!" howled a rioter, who evidently did not approve of this eminent author.

"I only wish you all had it on your shoulders, then you would show more sense!" retorted Lamartine, fearlessly,—a truth which struck home, and so amused the crowd that they became good-natured and more tractable. When they next demanded the "red flag of the Revolution," instead of the tricolor, Lamartine ended their hopes then and there by declaring, For my part, I shall never adopt it, for the tricolored flag has gone round the world during the Republic and Empire with your liberties and glory, while the red flag has merely gone round the Field of Mars, dragged in streams of blood from the people!"

The mob, having failed to institute anarchy and communism as they proposed, were glad to accept, with the rest of the people, a temporary government which gave all citizens over twenty-one the right of voting, and which assured freedom to everybody, even in the colonies. Elections were held almost immediately, for members of a National Assembly which was to frame the constitution of the new Republic. This Assembly, being continually interrupted by the arrival of deputations with petitions for this, that, and the other thing, had to be protected during sittings by the National Guard.

Meanwhile, to pacify the laboring class, which was in great distress because most of the factories were closed, "national workshops" had been organized, promising employment and fair wages to every one. But as the government did not have the necessary capital to keep this up any length of time, these workshops, after still further injuring business, had to be closed. In their rage, the unemployed workmen—some of whom had come from other parts of the country—began civil war in the streets of the capital, and kept up the fight until several thousand lives were lost. Even the venerable archbishop fell under the rioters' bullets, as he was trying to prevent further bloodshed by inducing the mob leaders to submit.

During these troubles, General Cavaignac was military dictator of the city, and he was then continued as chief executive until a new constitution was framed. This constitution of 1848 gave the chief power to a Legislative Assembly, with limited authority to a president, to be elected for one term only of four years. Cavaignac received 1,400,000 votes for president; but Louis Napoleon, who had returned to France soon after the Republic was proclaimed, received 5,400,000 and thus became first president of the Second Republic. His two attempts at Strassburg and Boulogne, and his romantic escape from Ham, had made him known everywhere, and the people believed him when he confidently asserted, "My name is a symbol of order, nationality, and glory!"

The new President and Assembly scored a first success and won the approval of loyal Catholics by sending French troops to Rome, where Italians in favor of a republic had deprived Pope Pius VII. of all temporal power (1849). Reinstated by the French troops, the Pope asked them to remain in Rome, and so it happened that the temporal power of the Popes was defended by French soldiers until 1870.

Another popular measure was the improvement of the law for primary education, while a highly unpopular change was a new restriction imposed upon voters, which withdrew the suffrage from nearly half the people. Besides, many people had accepted the new government merely as a step to tide the country over to the point they wished to reach, so there was little hope that it would long continue.

Meanwhile, the "Prince-President" had his own private ambitions, too, and to carry them out caused the secret arrest of his main opponents, illegally dissolved the Assembly, and insured quick compliance with his wishes by calling out the troops to put down all who resisted! After this coup d'etat  (1851) he secured the adoption, by vote of all the people, of a new constitution giving him the presidency of the Republic for a term of ten years, with powers so extended that he possessed all the authority of a dictator. But this, too, proved only a step to higher position still, as Louis Napoleon soon persuaded the people that "the Empire is peace," and induced them to make him "Napoleon III., Emperor of the French" (1852).

The Second Empire was proclaimed in the castle of St. Cloud, where the first had begun forty-eight years before. As in the Empire of Napoleon I., also, there was to be a Legislative Corps and a Senate, but they were completely under the domination of the emperor.