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The Mortal Napoleon III

The Mortal Napoleon III

by Roger Lawrence Williams

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A reappraisal of Napoleon the man. Roger Williams' biographical study shows how medical evidence can be used as historical data to refine our view of the past. For an accurate picture, he examines the medical evidence of the case, the emperor's psychological make-up, and the external pressures on him: the Crimean and Franco-Prussian wars, government reforms,


A reappraisal of Napoleon the man. Roger Williams' biographical study shows how medical evidence can be used as historical data to refine our view of the past. For an accurate picture, he examines the medical evidence of the case, the emperor's psychological make-up, and the external pressures on him: the Crimean and Franco-Prussian wars, government reforms, the competence of his advisers, the political finagling of the empress, the assumptions and reactions of foreign governments.

Originally published in 1972.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

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The Mortal Napoleon III

By Roger L. Williams


Copyright © 1971 Roger L. Williams
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05192-5


He was vastly superior to what his preceding career and his mad enterprises might very properly have led one to believe of him.

Alexis de Tocqueville

The Imperial Patient

Prince Louis-Napoleon was the third son of King Louis and Queen Hortense of Holland, the last child of an unfortunate dynastic marriage that had been forced in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul, six years after his own marriage to Josephine Beauharnais. Louis, then twenty-four, was Napoleon's younger and favorite brother; Hortense, nineteen, was Josephine's daughter by a first marriage. Whatever political cynicism may have induced the First Consul to insist upon the marriage, and whatever pleasure Josephine may have taken in seeing her own position ratified by the new alliance, both of them knew that Louis and Hortense had no taste for each other. On the other hand, Louis had virtually been reared by Napoleon, who had high hopes for him, and the lovely Hortense showed promise in music and sketching. It could be hoped that they would learn to appreciate each others' qualities after marriage. But it was not to be, and the wonder is that they produced three children.

The marital failure was chiefly Louis's fault. As an adolescent he had been alert and affectionate, full of admiration for his brother Napoleon. But as he approached twenty, which is to say shortly after Napoleon's marriage to Josephine, he began to exhibit those qualities which would make him infamous as a husband and father: moodiness, moroseness, secretiveness, irresolution, with a pronounced solicitude for his health. Indeed, he became a serious hypochondriac. Today there is reason to think that the root of the problem was Louis's suppressed homosexual attraction to Napoleon, something that Josephine suspected at the time. Louis's attempts to be manly led to an attack of venereal disease in his twentieth year, leaving him permanently afflicted by what was probably gonorrheal arthritis and enhancing the hypochondria. Faced with marriage to Hortense, he sulked at length before going through the ceremony on March 3, 1802.

Napoleon then began to groom Louis for administrative duty and high rank. In 1804 he was named a general and to the Council of State. The following year he was made Governor of Paris and in 1806 he became king of Holland. Meanwhile, his delusions of persecution increased and he gave way to fits of jealousy, accusing his wife of sexual relations first with Napoleon and later with other men. Moreover, his governance in Holland seemed calculated to infuriate Napoleon, opening a period of bad relations between the two brothers. Hortense did seek comfort and affection elsewhere, though not with Napoleon, but her three sons credited to King Louis were without doubt legitimate whatever the rumors to the contrary. Napoleon-Charles, born late in 1802, died of croup in 1807. The second son, Napoleon-Louis, was born in 1804; Charles-Louis-Napoleon, later Napoleon III, was born April 20, 1808. As is well known, Hortense also bore an illegitimate child in 1811, who was given the name Morny.

Napoleon's announcement in 1809 that he would divorce Josephine encouraged Louis to ask permission to divorce Hortense, which was denied. The upshot was that Louis abandoned his Dutch throne in 1810 and fled to Bohemia, beginning a permanent separation from Hortense. After 1815 he moved to Italy, living chiefly in Florence and Rome until his death in 1846. He never recovered the health and charm of his youth, and his niece recorded the sordid details of the proposal of matrimony he made as an old man to a very young girl that is clearly a matter for psychopathology.

After having been abandoned in 1810, Queen Hortense requested and received permission to return to Paris with her two sons. Having already lost one child, she was the more concerned for her last-born, who had been so feeble at birth that he was bathed in wine and wrapped in cotton to bring him to life. Evidently she sensed that she, too, might be dying; and even though they both survived, she afterwards had extraordinary fears and premonitions about his safety and health. He could hardly avoid being a pampered child. A year after his birth, another child was born in the household, Albine-Hortense Lacroix. The parents were in Queen Hortense's service, and the infant Louis-Napoleon was named godfather for the newborn baby. In time she became his playmate, loving him like a brother.

Evidently Queen Hortense had hoped that her third child would be a girl, and for some time after his birth Louis-Napoleon was dressed and treated as a girl. His playmate would later remember him as an attractive child, more like a girl than a boy. He early learned to dissimulate, especially to hide his feelings. We do not know precisely when Queen Hortense permitted the child to become a boy, but there has never been any doubt that she was absorbed in him during those years of personal and political disquiet. Their closeness became even more pronounced after Waterloo when Hortense not only had to leave France, but was obliged to surrender Napoleon-Louis, her elder child, to King Louis after he initiated a scandalous suit against her. With Louis-Napoleon she wandered in exile for many months before settling permanently in 1817 in Switzerland, having bought Arenenberg Castle in the canton of Türgau, near the Lake of Constance.

To have lost a father like King Louis might seem to have been supportable; but for the rest of his life, Louis-Napoleon's extraordinary devotion to his mother affected his attitude to women, which perhaps the presence of a decent father could have altered. It is true, of course, that Hortense, a favorite of Napoleon I, endeavored to imbue her child with a sense of his Napoleonic destiny as a father might have done. But boys whose mothers are absorbed in them, if they do not develop a physical indifference or hostility to women, are apt to become promiscuous, as was to be the case of Louis-Napoleon. Even promiscuity implies a certain contempt for women, except for the mother or the wife who is thought to be different from the rest of them.

Hortense often crossed into Italy to spend the coldest months of the winter, and on such a visit in 1823 she permitted Louis-Napoleon to visit his father in Florence. King Louis's conception of his paternal obligations may be measured by the rules he set down for his fifteen-year-old son:

1) Holidays are strictly limited to Thursdays and Sundays. On Thursdays he must write to his mother, and he may not leave his room until the letter is written, well written.

2) He may drink only Bordeaux — no coffee or liquors.

3) He will wash his feet once a week, his nails with lemon, his hands with bran, but must never use soap.

4) He is forbidden the use of colognes and all other scents.

5) When at the theater, he will always put on his cape before leaving his box.

6) His shoes will always be made large.

7) He must keep his head clean with a dry sponge — no water.

8) His suspenders must always be very long so that he can hold himself upright.

9) He must care for his own wardrobe and his money.

10) He must obey even an unjust order.

11) Chocolate will be kept in a locked place. One quarter of a bar is the most he may have each day.

This for a young man who was already quite mature and who was rumored to have seduced a village girl in Switzerland the year before. We get a later picture of him in Rome at the age of twenty-one, a portrait of Hortense's influence: "a wild harum-scarum youth" galloping heedlessly about the streets, fencing and pistol-shooting, without any apparent serious thought except for the conviction that he would someday rule France. He was very athletic and muscular, with an oddly grave face but an unusually bright and captivating smile.

On the surface nothing suggested the fulfillment of a Napoleonic destiny. Yet, with him, appearances always deceived. At the age of twenty-four he published his first political pamphlet, Rêveries politiques (1832); he continued this self-advertisement with Considérations politiques et militaires sur la Suisse (1833). When the authorities in the canton of Türgau responded by making him a captain in the Swiss militia, Louis-Napoleon drew up a Manuel d'Artillerie (1835) as a guide for Swiss officers, which also served as a prelude to his attempt to seize power in France, an attempt that ended in fiasco at Strasbourg on October 30, 1836. His second attempt to gain the French throne took place on August 6, 1840, when he landed at Boulogne. Easily captured, he was not simply deported as before but was brought before the Chamber of Peers, which sentenced him to life imprisonment in the fortress of Ham. He was registered at the fortress as being thirty-two years old, five feet six inches in height, with a slight curvature of the spine (one of King Louis's notable features). Several of his companions were also sentenced to terms at Ham: General Charles Montholon, an intellectual lightweight who had shared Napoleon I's captivity on Saint Helena; and Dr. Henri Conneau, who had formerly been in the service of Queen Hortense, but who had joined Louis-Napoleon after her death in 1837. A valet, Charles Thélin, was authorized to reside there, and before long the government agreed that the Prince might enjoy the consolation of occasional female companions.

The period at Ham (he would escape in 1846) worked remarkable changes on his mind and body. He had published another important pamphlet before his captivity, Des Idées napoléoniennes in 1839; now at Ham he conscientiously tried to keep his intellect alive through constant study. Hortense Lacroix, now Madame Cornu, brought her husband on seven different trips between 1841 and 1845 to visit her childhood friend, and by 1843 she was convinced that he was becoming a new man. No longer simply a fine gentleman with a destiny, but a man with new intellectual vigor and breadth thanks to wide reading, scientific experimenting, and writing. From this period came his Fragments historiques, his Extinction du paupérisme, and his study on the construction of a canal across Nicaragua. Among his visitors was Louis Blanc in 1844, who came at the invitation of Louis-Napoleon to discuss social and political ideas. Instead of the harum-scarum youth, Blanc found a pensive prisoner, walking with slow steps in the limited area assigned for his exercise, head inclined, speaking in a low voice so as not to be overheard by the guard who followed close behind. Blanc also remembered trying to convince Louis-Napoleon that only a republic would be possible in the future, something he would stress again in an open letter to President Bonaparte dated August 10, 1849, republished shortly after the coup d'état of 1851.

As for Louis-Napoleon's health, it is clear that the confinement at Ham did him no good. In 1858, Louis Blanc would recall that Louis-Napoleon had been comfortably housed at Ham, but no contemporary reports suggests that the fortress was anything other than damp and miserable. The rheumatism he presumably acquired there lasted the rest of his life. Probably the lack of exercise was even more serious for a man who had been athletic. On July ii, 1843, he described his physical misery in a letter to Madame Cornu: "For four or five months, I have had headaches nearly every day; it comes from the sedentary life I lead. I am going to subject myself to a strict diet, for this headache may have its cause in my stomach. It makes me sluggish." Lord Malmesbury found him dreadfully weary of prison during his half-day visit on April 20, 1845, and fearful that opportunities to escape were deliberately provided by the government in order to create an occasion to shoot him. Thirteen months later, however, with the aid of Dr. Conneau he contrived an escape, using as his justification the refusal of the July Monarchy to allow him to visit his dying father. King Louis did die two months later in Florence, before Louis-Napoleon reached him from London.

After this graduation from what Louis-Napoleon later called the University of Ham, he seemed older than his thirty-eight years. Descriptions by eye witnesses of his figure and his movements make us realize that portraits of him painted in the eighteen-fifties or sixties conveyed a flattering image, for his body was ungainly and ill-proportioned, and his swaying gait ungraceful. His legs were too short for his body, he had begun to walk slowly, feet toed out, his head usually slightly inclined to the left. When he wanted to move faster, his arm and shoulder movements were exaggerated. His hands were large and muscular, but the thumbs were noticeably stubby. When he stood still to talk to you, he usually inclined a bit to the right or to the left rather than directly facing you. The neck was too thick, especially unattractive in a small man but another sign that he was, or had been, a powerful man. It was in his back and neck that he most resembled the Bonapartes, especially when he was on horseback. He rode well and was impressive in the saddle, but he looked his worst during the Second Empire, when he would on occasion wear the white breeches and silk stockings of the First Empire.

Yet he was an attractive man, pleasing to those who knew him, and his face and manner usually awed bystanders. His eyes seemed small, and he often appeared to be preoccupied; but his expression was usually kindly and could change to a gentle and even a maliciously ironical expression in the presence of members of his household. But when meeting people on matters of state he would become instantly grave and serious. This self-control became as celebrated as it was baffling, even to those who saw him regularly year after year. One of his relatives who both liked and admired him as emperor said that he always excited her curiosity, "for who can say that he knows the emperor?" She thought of him as a wonderful enigma to be deciphered.

This deceptive exterior he developed as a child and perfected over the years so that, in reading some of his contemporaries, we come to think of him as silent and passionless. He may have had a calm crust but, as Madame Cornu remarked in 1858, "furious Italian passions boil beneath it. As a child, he was subject to fits of anger. ... While they lasted he did not know what he said or did." Perhaps it was the years at Ham that taught him to veil such passions, for we rarely read of an angry outburst after 1848. Laughter, yes, but only in private. Then he could easily give way and laugh until near tears, often at his own jokes, which sometimes had a tinge of vulgarity. But he never talked very much, appearing distracted or dreamy. His cousin Mathilde related an incident at Compiègne in 1863 when a servant with a seltzer bottle accidentally squirted him on the neck. He simply held out his glass on his other side and showed no anger. "If I had married him," Mathilde remarked, "it seems to me that I would have cracked open his head to see what there is inside!" Early in the Second Empire, when we might suppose that he was still susceptible to public adulation, he was seen to be apparently unmoved by the cheers of a throng. Questioned about this coldness by the Comte de Tascher who accompanied him, he responded: "It is because I know men, Tascher."

With self-control went tenacity of purpose. Lord Malmesbury, who became British foreign minister in 1852, had known Louis-Napoleon for over twenty years; he advised his ambassadors abroad that the new emperor would be a man of "obstinacy of intention, which, as it is maintained on all subjects with an unruffled temper, is held to the last against all opposition. All projects once formed and matured in his head remain there perfectly uncommunicated in detail, but their practical attempts or fulfilment will be a mere question of time." To Lord Cowley, who would have the task of dealing with the emperor directly in Paris, Malmesbury added: "You may depend upon his being a man of action and counsel, relying on no other agent but his own inspirations, but with great self-command and power of self-denial if his passions are at variance with his interests. He is very superstitious, and was formerly very accessible to romantic and chivalrous impressions, and in private transactions most jealous of his word and his honour." How shrewd these predictions were may be seen in the agonized reports home from ambassadors in Paris who groped for the threads of Napoleonic policy. Even during the Crimean War, when Britain and France were allies, Lord Cowley complained about the lack of French governmental policy, saying that there could be none because the foreign minister did not really know what the emperor was going to do next.


Excerpted from The Mortal Napoleon III by Roger L. Williams. Copyright © 1971 Roger L. Williams. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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