Childhood & Early Life
Napoleon III was born as Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte on the night of 20–21 April 1808 in Paris, France. He was the third son of Louis Bonaparte, the King of Holland, and Hortense de Beauharnais, the stepdaughter of Napoleon I through his wife Joséphine de Beauharnais.
His parents, whose marriage was primarily a political alliance, had a difficult relationship and often lived separately. He was baptized at the Palace of Fontainebleau on 5 November 1810 where Emperor Napoleon served as his godfather.
Following the defeat of Emperor Napoleon at Waterloo, all members of the Bonaparte family were sent into exile. Thus Charles-Louis spent most of his early years in exile, travelling between Switzerland, Germany, and Italy.
He received some of his education at the gymnasium school at Augsburg, Bavaria, in Germany. He was also tutored by eminent scholars at home. Philippe Le Bas, the son of a revolutionary, taught the young boy French history and radical politics.
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In 1831, Louis-Napoleon’s cousin Duke of Reichstadt—Napoleon I’s only son—died. Since neither Louis-Napoleon’s father, Louis, nor his uncle, Joseph, were interested in taking the title, Louis-Napoleon became the heir to the Imperial Crown.
Over the ensuing years, he twice tried to seize power by force but was unsuccessful both the times. In his first attempt in 1836, he faced considerable resistance from King Louis-Philippe I of France who first had him imprisoned and then sent into exile to the United States. He later went to Switzerland, before eventually moving to England. He spent his years in exile plotting how to seize power in France.
Following his second unsuccessful attempt to seize power in 1840, he was arrested and imprisoned in the fortress of Ham in the Somme. However, he managed to escape in 1846 and travelled to England once again. In July the same year, his father died, making Louis-Napoleon the clear heir to the Bonaparte dynasty.
The French Revolution broke out in 1848, and King Louis-Philippe abdicated as a result of growing opposition within his own government and army. On hearing of the revolution, Louis-Napoleon returned to France but was sent back by the provisional government.
By this time, he had built quite a sizeable following in France and was nominated for candidacy by his followers in the French presidential election in 1848. In his election campaigns, he proclaimed his support for "religion, the family, property, the eternal basis of all social order."
He emerged successful in the elections which were held on 10–11 December, winning 74.2 percent of votes cast. Thus he was sworn in as the First President of the French Second Republic on 20 December 1848. According to the constitution of 1848, he was supposed to step down at the end of his term.
Accession & Reign
Not willing to step down, Louis-Napoleon tried to change the constitution in order to run again in 1851 but the Legislative Assembly refused. Thus on 2 December 1851, Louis Napoleon organized a coup d’état, proclaimed the dissolution of the National Legislative Assembly, and announced new elections.
Later that month, he held a referendum, asking the voters if they approved of the coup or not. A majority—76%--of the voters accepted the coup. A year later, he asked the French citizens to accept the return of the Imperial regime. The response was once again favourable, and thus Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte became Emperor Napoleon III on 2 December 1852, as the ruler of the Second French Empire.
As the emperor, Napoleon III was very much interested in the modernization and development of France. He initiated the process of industrial and trade reforms to boost the economy. As the first step, he launched a series of massive public works projects in Paris in order to improve the transportation, sanitation, water supply, and medical facilities in the city.
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He built new railway stations, ports, shipping lines, parks, gardens, theatres, hospitals and educational institutes. He felt strongly about social causes and implemented a series of social reforms aimed at improving the life of the working class. He also gave impetus to girls’ education.
He aimed to make France a very powerful empire in Europe and wanted to expand the territories under his rule. For this he sought to strengthen France’s ties with her allies. The Crimean War started in 1854 and Napoleon III allied France with Britain and the Ottoman Empire against Russia. Their alliance won the war, and as a result, France was able to increase her influence in Europe.
Buoyed by this success, he attempted to capture territories in other regions as well. He made numerous attempts between 1861 and 1867 to conquer Mexico albeit unsuccessfully. However, he was still able to expand the French colonial empire under him. He annexed several countries in Africa, including Senegal and Algeria.
France prospered under his rule. By the 1860s, his infrastructural and fiscal policies had brought about dramatic changes to the country’s economy and society. He opened France’s first public school libraries and made education more accessible to girl students.
During his rule, the industrial production increased by 73%--growing at double the rate as that of the United Kingdom. As trade and industry thrived, the exports grew by sixty percent between 1855 and 1869. Agricultural production also greatly increased as a result of the adoption of new farming techniques.
In spite of all the economic progress the country was making, disillusionment was brewing within his own government. While his policies supported certain industries, many businessmen, particularly in the metallurgical and textile industries, were not very happy with his policies as they brought British products in direct competition with their own. His expensive public works projects also led to rapidly mounting government debts.
During the later years of his regime, the French army became weaker and the nation no longer had any ties with powerful allies. These factors, combined with Napoleon III’s failing health put France at a vulnerable position.
In 1870, the Franco-Prussian War or Franco-German War started. France entered the war with a weakened army and without allies. The Second French Empire of Napoleon III was pitted against the German states of the North German Confederation led by the Kingdom of Prussia.
From the very beginning, the German coalition was much stronger than the French forces. They mobilised their troops more quickly than the French and wasted no time in invading north-eastern France. The German forces were superior to the French in many aspects and soon the French defeat became inevitable.
Following the Siege of Metz and the Battle of Sedan, Napoleon III was captured by the German forces. Following the decisive victory of the Germans, the Third French Republic was proclaimed in Paris.
Emperor Napoleon III is best known for his grand reconstruction of Paris which was directed by his prefect of the Seine, Georges-Eugène Haussmann. The program included building of wide avenues, demolition of neighbourhoods deemed unhealthy by officials, construction of better roads, parks, and public utilities. The massive project continued from 1853-70.
He played a major role in modernizing the French economy which lagged far behind that of the United Kingdom and Germany. Under his regime, promotion of industry and trade was given utmost priority and he brought about several economic reforms to boost the industrial growth of the French economy.
He prioritized the development of better transportation facilities. During his reign, new shipping lines and ports were created in Marseille and Le Havre, which connected France by sea to Latin America, the USA, the Far East, and North Africa. In the 1870s France possessed the second-largest maritime fleet in the world, only behind England.
Personal Life & Legacy
Napoleon III was known to be a womaniser. He had been involved with many women by the time he became the emperor. Once coming to power, he started looking for a suitable woman to marry and produce an heir.
After his proposals were rejected by a few royal families, he finally found his bride in Eugénie du Derje de Montijo, 16th Countess of Teba and 15th Marquise of Ardales, who he wed in 1853.
In 1856, his wife gave birth to a son and heir-apparent, Napoleon, Prince Imperial. Napoleon III, however, continued his womanising ways despite being married while his wife performed all her imperial duties faithfully.
In 1871, Napoleon III, who was at that time in German captivity, was released. He then moved to England where he spent his last years. During this period his health declined rapidly and he had surgery to remove bladder stones. His health continued to fail and he died on January 9, 1873, in Chislehurst, London, England.