The Second Empire

IN the revolution-racked Paris of 1848, a lad of fourteen named Ludovic Halévy, walking with his grandfather, turned loose a great spate of juvenile enthusiasm for the republic which Lamartine had just proclaimed over the ruins of the July Monarchy. The old man sat down on a curbstone, saying simply, ‘You don’t know what a republic means, my boy. I have seen a republic.’ He had; he had seen the republic of 1793.

The lad growing up under the régime of 1848 soon had plenty of chance to see with his own eyes ‘what a republic means.’ It had been launched out of a provisional government made up, as a modern French historian says, ‘ from the veriest scum of the gutters,’ and Lamartine had proclaimed it frankly for money; he was deep in the red, as always, and his espousal of a republic was a gamble on his chances of reaching the presidency, which he failed to do. From this beginning the republic at once became a hunting ground for disciples of the various pinks and crackpots who had been gnawing at the social fabric ever since the revolution of 1830 — Proudhon, St.-Simon, the laborite collectivist Louis Blanc, Fourier, Cabet, Leroux. Then, surrounding this fragrant medley of needy adventurers, careerists, rogues, cranks, uplifters, social planners, and hurrying it on from one ruinous absurdity to another, were the proletarian and subproletarian masses. It was Ledru-Rollin, one of the bellwethers of the republican fold, who coined an immortal saying to fit this situation, ‘I must follow the mob, because I lead them.’

À la bonne heure,’ gayly cried the painter Horace Vernet, surveying this fine array of republican talent, ‘give me a republic as we understand it in France, all rulers, all natural-born sovereigns, gods in mortals’ disguise who dance to the piping of the devil. There have been two such since I was born; there may be another half-dozen like them in the next two centuries, because before you can have an ideal republic you must have some ideal republicans, and nature can’t afford to fool away her most precious gifts on a lot of jackleg lawyers and hobnail-booted riffraff. . . . You might as well ask her to make a nation of Raphaels, Michelangelos, Shakespeares or Molières.’

Such was the Second Republic, the thought of which had so stirred young Halévy, but which, as Guizot said, ‘had not even a Monk, let alone a Washington or a Cromwell, and Louis-Napoléon had to help himself to the throne.’ France floundered and wallowed under it until in 1852 its duly elected president took over by a coup d’état, and established the Second Empire, putting the nation under eight years of unqualified despotism; and that was that.

France rose almost at once to the height of a roaring prosperity, good for eighteen years. It became the political arbiter of Europe, and Paris became the cultural and social capital of the world. All this looked good, and it was good; but it could not last. After 1865 the weakness of the emperor, tortured by disease; the pernicious meddlings of the empress; the bickerings of legislators —these swept the régime into blunder after blunder, finally into extinction. Meanwhile again the forces of republicanism were gathering and biding their time; in spirit and quality they were the same old forces of 1848, Vernet’s natural-born sovereigns, eager to dance to the devil’s piping furnished by jackleg lawyers, needy adventurers, half-cracked publicists. One could see what was coming.

In 1867 Ludovic Halévy, one of the most high-minded and noble-spirited men of his time, resigned his seat in the Corps Législatif; and shortly afterwards he wrote, ‘All I carry away with me from the seven years I spent in the midst of the representatives of my country is the most profound political indifference. . . . As for genuine convictions, there were none, none whatever, either on the Right or on the Left. There were only people who were nothing and wanted to be something; that was all.’

Query: Is it probable that in that period many Frenchmen of like character came to share Halévy’s feeling of the most profound political indifference? I think so.

After Sedan, one band of republicans — the beauties of Delescluze, Blanqui, Félix Pyat & Co. — swarmed down on the carcass of the empire, only to find that the rival gang of Gambetta, Favre & Co. had stolen a march on them and were already picking its bones. Later the rivals agreed on a ‘divvy,’ but meanwhile the country had survived the Commune and one or two makeshift administrations, and the Third Republic was finally set going. Its inception could not be better described than by a witty contemporary, as ‘ the crownless coronation of a half-hundred King Pétauds.’

Halévy saw all this; he lived until 1908. Query, again: Are there today some Frenchmen of Halévy’s type who, looking back over the long roster of nobodies who have misgoverned republican France since Sedan, share his feeling of the most profound political indifference? I think it is highly probable.

The Second Empire, by M. Octave Aubry, has lately been published in an English translation, apparently a good one; I have not seen the original. It easily transcends and effaces everything hitherto published in our language on this subject. Its estimate of the dramatis personœ, their activities, and their political and social conditions, is singularly accurate. Its discussions are eminently rational, objective, free of sentimentalism. In a word, it is the book I have been wishing for these twenty years, and never thought I should live to see.

But what is the Second Empire to us? In itself nothing, if you like. For the student of civilized man the period has a peculiar fascination, even a peculiar charm; but I do not recommend the book on any such account, though I might well do so. On the contrary, I present it as something which thoughtful Americans should read with their own country uppermost in their minds at every page. Its value for them is in the clear and steady light it throws on matters which most of them are now probably for the first time perceiving to be of capital importance. Pseudo-ideas to be overhauled; cant terms to be reëxamined; the basis of hitherto unquestioned beliefs to be tested for soundness; superstitions to be seen for what they are — the sense of all this as something to be done must be pressing upon intelligent Americans with unusual urgency; and it is as a powerful aid in meeting this demand that I recommend M. Aubry’s superb book.

For example, we are all republicans, born and bred in the republican tradition; yet many of us have an uneasy suspicion that we are now only beginning to ‘know what a republic means.’ For us, then, M. Aubry’s discussion of the Second Republic at the outset of his book is invaluable. In particular, every American should memorize the middle paragraph on the twenty-sixth page, and devoutly rehearse it aloud every morning as a religious exercise to prepare him for reading his newspaper.

Again, we are all democrats, we believe in democracy; and we now find that we are but beginning to know what democracy means. As someone said to me the other day in bitter jest, ‘Democracy has only just caught up with the United States.’ It caught up with France some time ago, and M. Aubry opens its record for our inspection. It has caught up with other countries, and is pretty well catching up with the world at large; so M. Aubry’s work is of great practical consequence to us in our attempts to measure and understand its import.

It is good sound democracy, too, though special political interests do their best to disguise it. A friend lately told me with great amusement of a conversation with a man who had held a succession of our highest offices, and is supposed to be especially well informed on foreign affairs. This man said, ‘There is one thing about Europe that I simply can’t get through my head. I don’t understand it. Not one of those dictators has seized power, not a single one. The people want them.’

Apparently so; this eminent man was coming in by freight, as we say. Their reasons for wanting the dictators may seem unsatisfactory to us, but that is not to the point. The fact remains that they do; and this being so, is it not of the essence of democracy that these dictators should be where they are and be doing as they do? What, then, becomes of our discriminations in favor of ‘the great democratic countries’? Does the democratic principle need overhauling, or is our devotion to it either ignorant or specious?

Let the reader look at the popular majorities which Louis-Napoléon commanded, first, as president; then as dictator; then as liberal emperor down to the last election a few months before the empire collapsed. M. Aubry says, and Morny acknowledged, that the seizure of power, the coup d’état of December, was a gross political error. Louis-Napoléon would have been reëlected to the presidency without it, the constitutional prohibition notwithstanding — a much more substantial obstacle than our tradition against a third term. The people wanted him.

But after 1852 the elections were not free elections, and neither are those in the dictator-bossed countries of Europe. Only the ‘great democracies’ have free elections. It may be so, but the thing is worth examining because a good deal depends on what our idea of a free election is. Portugal is a dictator-bossed European country which for some reason our publicists never mention. When I was there it was peaceful, doing very well, getting the best and cheapest government in Europe, and you could not pry the dictator out of office with a crowbar. An election held just before my visit seemed to show that the people wanted him — very reasonably, I should say — and if the election was forced I heard nothing about it.

On M. Aubry’s showing I should say that the elections held under the Empire were quite as free as ours, for on counting up the devices to affect voting I found none that is not regularly in operation here. No politician south of Mason and Dixon’s line could learn anything from Morny, Maupas or Persigny. The fact seems to be that the line between free and forced elections is pretty hard to draw, and that most of our assumptions about it are illusory.

It is on such matters as these that M. Aubry focuses our attention; such are the questions he continually raises. Now that we begin to ‘know what a republic means,’ we are brought face to face with Vernet’s dictum — well, what about it? The practical issue of ’democracy ‘ being what it is, what about Halévy’s attitude of the most profound political indifference?

M. Aubry tells us nothing, insists upon nothing, teaches us nothing; but he puts us in the way of teaching ourselves a great deal, and no service can be more salutary than this.