France in 1848—and the US Today

More thoughts inspired by my reading of Hugh Brogan’s biography of Tocqueville.

Like the Russians in 1917, the French had two revolutions in 1848.  The first, in February, toppled the government of King Louise-Phillipe (the Orleans monarchy that had been in place since the Bourbons had been ousted in the 1830 revolt).  Basically, Paris rose up in arms—and Louise-Phillipe refused (mostly) to allow his troops to fire on the armed crowds.  The death toll was very likely less than 200—so it was mostly a non-violent overthrow of the government, akin to the revolutions in Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia in 1989—1991.  But, unlike 1989—1991, the rebels took to arms.  It is just that the government did not fight back.

Louise-Phillipe’s abdication left the National Assembly in charge—and the Second Republic was born. It quickly passed a very large extension of the franchise, some fairly hefty economic aid packages (an economic downturn had spurred the revolt), and, after four months, a new constitution.  Gathering together for the first time under that newly written and ratified constitution, the assembly (motivated by fear of socialism) ended all economic relief programs and took the right to vote away from the working class.  The Parisians rose up in arms again—and this time the Assembly set the army and the National Guard loose.  The bloodbath lasted less than a week, with the rebels routed.  The country outside of Paris was almost entirely quiet.  The reactionary Assembly had survived, but had lost all credibility.  In the ensuing election for the post of President (which had been created by the new constitution), Louis Napoleon (who had been living in exile for over 15 years) won six million votes; all the other candidates combined did not win two million.  Louis Napoleon ran as the strong man who could bring stability and order to a society that had experienced two rebellions in less than six months.

The next crisis occurred when Louis’s two year term was up.  The new constitution had created a strong executive, but had limited presidents to one two-year term.  Louis—and the country—demanded that the constitution be amended to let him run again.  But the process for amending the constitution was so difficult that, even with a majority in favor of making the change, the motion to amend failed.  In response, Napoleon staged his coup d’etat, installing himself as president.  Two years later, he would declare himself Emperor Napoleon III.

To give himself legitimacy, Napoleon III was fond of plebiscites.  He would go directly to the people, bypassing the constitution and the assembly.  He won every vote that was taken—and certainly in the first ten years of his reign (at least) had more popular support than any other leader or faction.  He is a perfect example of what Stuart Hall called “authoritarian populism.”

So much for the history.  I want to consider how the events of 1848 might speak to current conditions in these United States.  But I will leave that for my next post.

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