The nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, and son of Hortense, was only known as the perpetrator of two very absurd attempts to overthrow the monarchy under Louis Philippe. But since the remains of the great emperor had been returned to France by England, and the splendors of the past placed in striking contrast with a dull, lustreless present, there had been a revival of Napoleonic memories and enthusiasm. Here was an opportunity to unite two powerful sentiments in one man—a Napoleon at the head of republican France would express the glory of the past and the hope of the future.
The magic of the name was irresistible. Louis Napoleon was elected President of the second Republic, and history prepared to repeat itself.
A revolution scarcely deserving the name had made France a second time a republic. The Second French Republic was the creation of no particular party. In fact, it seemed to have sprung into being spontaneously out of the soil of discontent.
Its immediate cause was the forbidding of a banquet which was arranged to take place in Paris on Washington’s birthday, February 22d, 1848. M. Guizot, who had succeeded M. Thiers as head of the ministry, knowing the political purpose for which it was intended, and that it was a part of an impending demonstration in the hands of dangerous agitators, would not permit the banquet to take place.
This was the signal for an insurrection by a Paris mob, which immediately led to a change in the form of government—a crisis which the nation had taken no part in inaugurating. Revolution had been written in French history in very large Roman capitals! But when the smoke from this smallest of revolutions had curled away, there stood Louis Napoleon—son of the great Bonaparte’s brother Louis and Hortense de Beauharnais—who had been elected president by vote of the nation.
France did not know whether she was pleased or not. Inexperienced in the art of government, she only knew that she wanted prosperity, and conditions which would give opportunity to the genius of her people. Any form of government, or any ruler who could produce these, would be accepted. She had suffered much, and was bewildered by fears of anarchy on one side and of tyranny on the other. If she looked doubtfully at this dark, mysterious, unmagnetic man, she remembered it was only for four years, and was as safe as any other experiment; and the author of those two ridiculous attempts at a restoration of the empire, made at Strasbourg and at Boulogne, was not a man to be feared.
The overthrow of monarchy in France had, however, been taken more seriously in other countries than at home. It had kindled anew the fires of republicanism all over Europe: Kossuth leading a revolution in Hungary, and Garibaldi and Mazzini in Italy, where Victor Emmanuel, the young King of Sardinia, was at the moment in deadly struggle with Austria over the possession of Milan, and dreaming of the day when a united Italy would be freed from the Austrian yoke.