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Adolphe Thiers

Louis-Adolphe Thiers (Marseille, 16 April 1797–3 September 1877) was a French politician and historian. Thiers was a prime minister under King Louis-Philippe of France. Following the overthrow of the Second Empire he again came to prominence as the French leader who suppressed the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871. From 1871 to 1875 he served initially as Head of State (effectively a provisional President of France), then provisional President. When, following a vote of no confidence in the National Assembly, his offer of resignation was accepted (he had expected a rejection) he was forced to vacate the office. He was replaced as Provisional President by Patrice MacMahon, duc de Magenta, who became full President of the Republic, a post Thiers had coveted, in 1875 when a series of constitutional laws officially creating the Third Republic were enacted.

Birth and early life

Thiers's maternal grandmother was the sister of Élisabeth Santi-Lomaca, mother of André Chénier, of Greek origins. His family was somewhat grandiloquently spoken of as "cloth merchants ruined by the Revolution", but it seems that at the actual time of his birth his father was a locksmith. His mother belonged to the family of the Chéniers, and he was well educated, first at the lycée of Marseille, and then in the faculty of law at Aix-en-Provence. Here he began his lifelong friendship with Mignet, and was called to the bar at the age of twenty-three. He had, however, little taste for law and much for literature; and he obtained an academic prize at Aix for a discourse on the marquis de Vauvenargues. In the early autumn of 1821 Thiers went to Paris, and was quickly introduced as a contributor to the Constitutionnel. In each of the years immediately following his arrival in Paris he collected and published a volume of his articles, the first on the salon of 1822, the second on a tour in the Pyrenees. He was put out of all need of money by the singular benefaction of Cotta, the well-known Stuttgart publisher, who was part-proprietor of the Constitutionnel, and made over to Thiers his dividends, or part of them.

Meanwhile, he became very well known in Liberal society, and he had begun the celebrated Histoire de la revolution française, which founded his literary and helped his political fame. The first two volumes appeared in 1823, the last two (of ten) in 1827. The book brought him little profit at first, but became immensely popular. The well-known sentence of Carlyle, that it is "as far as possible from meriting its high reputation", is in strictness justified, for all Thiers' historical work is marked by extreme inaccuracy, by prejudice which passes the limits of accidental unfairness, and by an almost complete indifference to the merits as compared with the successes of his heroes. But Carlyle himself admits that Thiers is "a brisk man in his way, and will tell you much if you know nothing." Coming as the book did just when the reaction against the Revolution was about to turn into another reaction in its favour, it was assured of success.

The July Monarchy of King Louis-Philippe

For a moment it seemed as if Thiers had definitely chosen the lot of a literary man, not to say of a literary hack. He even planned an Histoire générale. But the accession to power of the Polignac ministry in August 1829 made him change his plans, and at the beginning of the next year Thiers, with Armand Carrel, Mignet, Sautelet and others started the National, a new opposition newspaper. Thiers himself was one of the animators of the 1830 revolution, being credited with "overcoming the scruples of Louis Philippe," perhaps no Herculean task. At any rate, he received his reward. He ranked as one of the Radical supporters of the new dynasty, in opposition to the party of which his rival François Guizot was the chief literary man, and Guizot's patron, the duc de Broglie, the main pillar. At first Thiers, though elected deputy for Aix, received only subordinate posts in the ministry of finance.

After the overthrow of his patron Jacques Laffitte, he became much less radical, and after the troubles of June 1832 he was appointed to the ministry of the interior. He repeatedly changed portfolios, but remained in office for four years, became president of the council and, in effect, Prime Minister, in which capacity he began his series of quarrels and jealousies with Guizot. At the time of his resignation in 1836 he was foreign minister and, as usual, favoured an energetic policy toward Spain, which he could not carry out.

He travelled in Italy for some time, and it was not till 1838 that he began a regular campaign of parliamentary opposition, which in March 1840 made him president of the council and foreign minister for the second time. His policy of support for Muhammad Ali of Egypt in the Eastern crisis of that year led France to the brink of war with the other great powers. This resulted in his dismissal by the king, who did not wish for war. Thiers now had little to do with politics for some years, and spent his time on his Histoire du Consulat et de l'Empire, the first volume of which appeared in 1845.

Though he was still a member of the chamber, he spoke rarely, till after the beginning of 1846, when he was evidently bidding once more for power as the leader of the opposition group of the Left Centre. Immediately before the February revolution he went to all but the greatest lengths, and when it broke out he and Odilon Barrot, the leader of the Dynastic Left, were summoned by the king; but it was too late. Thiers was unable to govern the forces he had helped to gather, and he resigned.

The Second Republic and the Second Empire

Under the Republic he took up the position of conservative republican, which he ever afterwards maintained, and he never took office. But the consistency of his conduct, especially in voting for Louis Napoleon as president, was often and sharply criticized, one of the criticisms leading to a duel with a fellow-deputy, Bixio. He was arrested at the coup d'etat, was sent to Mazas, and then escorted out of France. But in the following summer he was allowed to return. His history for the next decade is almost a blank, his time being occupied for the most part on The Consulate and the Empire. It was not until 1863 that he re-entered political life, being elected by a Parisian constituency. For the seven years following he was the chief speaker among the small group of anti-Imperialists in the French chamber, and was regarded generally as the most formidable enemy of the Empire. While protesting against its foreign enterprises, he also harped on French loss of prestige, and so helped contribute to stir up the fatal spirit which brought on the war of 1870.

Collapse of the Empire and the Paris Commune

In the diplomatic crisis of 1870, Thiers was one of the few who strongly opposed war with Prussia, and was accused of lack of patriotism. But when France's armies suffered defeat after defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (all within a period of a few weeks), Thiers's earlier stance was vindicated. He urged early peace negotiations, and refused to take part in the new republican Government of National Defense, which was determined to continue the war.

In the latter part of September and the first three weeks of October, 1870 he went on a tour of Britain, Italy, Austria and Russia in the hope of obtaining an intervention, or at least some mediation. The mission was unsuccessful, as was his attempt to persuade Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck and the Government of National Defence to negotiate.

When the French government was finally forced to surrender, Thiers triumphantly re-entered the political scene. In national elections, he was elected in twenty-six departments; on 17 February 1871 Thiers was elected head of a provisional government, nominally "chef du pouvoir exécutif de la République en attendant qu'il soit statué sur les institutions de la France" (head of the executive power of the Republic until the institutions of France are decided). He succeeded in convincing the deputies that the peace was necessary, and on 1 March 1871 it was voted for by a margin of more than five to one.

On 18 March, a major insurrection began in Paris after Thiers ordered the army to remove several hundred cannons in the possession of the Paris National Guard. Thiers evacuated his government and troops to Versailles. Parisians elected a radical republican and socialist city government on 26 March entitled the Paris Commune.

Fighting broke out between government troops and the those of the Commune early in April. Neither side was willing to negotiate, and fighting continued throughout April and May in the city's suburbs. On 21 May, government forces broke through the city's defences, and a week of street fighting, known as 'la Semaine Sanglante' (Bloody Week) began. Thousands of Parisians were killed in the fighting or summarily executed by courts martial. Thiers has often been accused of ordering this massacre - probably the worst in Europe between the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution of 1917 - but more likely he washed his hands of a massacre carried out by the army, thinking that it was a 'lesson' that the insurgents deserved. Thiers insisted on using legal means to prosecute the thousands of prisoners taken by the army, and over 12,000 were tried by special courts martial; of these 23 were executed, and over 4,000 transported to New Caledonia, from where the last prisoners were amnestied in 1880. This severe repression has always been blamed principally on Thiers, and has overshadowed his memory in France and more generally on the political Left.

The Third Republic

On 30 August Thiers became the provisional president of the as-yet undeclared republic. He held office for more than two years after this event. (See note 1)

His strong personal will and inflexible opinions had much to do with the resurrection of France; but the very same facts made it inevitable that he should excite violent opposition. He was a confirmed protectionist, and free trade ideas had made great headway in France under the Empire; he was an advocate of long military service, and the devotees of la revanche (the revenge) were all for the introduction of general and compulsory but short service. Both his talents and his temper made him utterly indisposed to maintain the attitude supposed to be incumbent on a republican president; and his tongue was never carefully governed. In January 1872 he formally tendered his resignation; and though it was refused, almost all parties disliked him, while his chief supporters, men like Charles de Rémusat, Jules Barthélemy-Saint-Hilaire and Jules Simon were men rather of the past than of the present.

The year 1873, a parliamentary year in France, was occupied to a great extent with attacks on Thiers, essentially by the royalist majority in the National Assembly, who suspected, correctly, that Thiers was putting the weight of his enormous popularity among the electorate at the service of a future republic, which he famously described as 'the government that divides us least'. In the early spring, regulations were proposed and, on 13 April, carried, intended to restrict the executive, and especially the parliamentary, powers of the president, who was no longer to be allowed to speak in the Assembly. On 27 April a contested election in Paris, resulting in the return of a radical republican candidate, Barodet, was regarded as a grave disaster for the Thiers government, because it convinced the royalists that France was moving too far to the Left. The principal royalist leader, the Duc de Broglie, proposed a motion of no confidence in the government, which was carried by sixteen votes in a house of 704. Thiers at once resigned (24 May), expecting that he would have his resignation rescinded or that he would be immediately re-elected. To his shock the resignation was accepted and a professional soldier, Marshal Patrice de MacMahon, was elected to the provisional presidency instead.

Last years

He survived, after his fall, for four years, continuing to sit in the Assembly and, after the dissolution of 1876, in the Chamber of Deputies, and sometimes, though rarely, speaking. He was also, on the occasion of this dissolution, elected senator for Belfort, which his exertions had saved for France; but he preferred the lower house, where he sat as of old for Paris. On 16 May 1877, he was one of the "363" who voted for no confidence in the Broglie ministry (thus paying his debts), and he took a considerable part in organizing the subsequent electoral campaign as an ally of the Republicans. But he was not to see its success, suffering a fatal stroke at St. Germain-en-Laye on 3 September. Thiers had long been married, and his wife and sister-in-law, Mlle Félicie Dosne, were his constant companions; but he left no children and had had only one, a daughter who long predeceased him. He had been a member of the Academy since 1834. His personal appearance was remarkable, and not imposing, for he was very short, with plain features, ungainly gestures and manners, very near-sighted, and of disagreeable voice; yet he became (after wisely giving up an attempt at the ornate style of oratory) a very effective speaker in a kind of conversational manner, and in the epigram of debate he had no superior among the statesmen of his time except Lord Beaconsfield.

Thiers was by far the most gifted and interesting of the group of literary statesmen which formed a unique feature in the French political history of the 19th century. There are only two who are at all comparable to him, Guizot and Lamartine; and as a statesman he stands far above both. Nor is this eminence merely due to his great opportunity in 1870; for Guizot might under Louis Philippe have almost made himself a French Robert Walpole, at least a French Palmerston, and Lamartine's opportunities after 1848 were, for a man of political genius, unlimited. But both failed; Lamartine almost ludicrously, whereas Thiers, under difficult conditions, achieved a striking if not a brilliant success. But even when the minister of a constitutional monarch his intolerance of interference or joint authority, his temper at once imperious and devious, his inveterate inclination towards underhand rivalry and cabals for power and place, showed themselves unfavourably. His constant tendency to inflame the aggressive and chauvinistic spirit of his country was not based on any sound estimate of the relative power and interests of France, and led his country more than once to the verge of a great calamity. In opposition, both under Louis Philippe and under the empire, and even to some extent in the last four years of his life, his worst qualities were always evident. But with all these drawbacks he conquered and will retain a place in what is perhaps the highest, as it is certainly the smallest, class of statesmen: the class of those to whom their country has had recourse in a great disaster, who have shown in bringing her through that disaster with constancy, courage, devotion and skill and have been rewarded by as much success as the occasion permitted.

As a man of letters Thiers is very much smaller. He has not only the fault of diffuseness, which is common to so many of the best-known historians of his century, but others as serious or more so. The charge of dishonesty is one never to be lightly made against men of such distinction as his, especially when their evident confidence in their own infallibility, their faculty of ingenious casuistry, and the strength of will which makes them (unconsciously, no doubt) close their minds to all inconvenient facts and inferences. But it is certain that from Thiers' treatment of the men of the first revolution to his treatment of the Battle of Waterloo, constant, angry and well-supported protests against his unfairness were not lacking. Although his research was undoubtedly wide-ranging, its results are by no means always accurate, and even his admirers find inconsistencies in his style. These characteristics reappear (accompanied, however, by frequent touches of the epigrammatic power above mentioned, which seems to have come to Thiers the orator or journalist easier than to the historian) in his speeches, which after his death were collected in many volumes by his widow. Sainte-Beuve, whose notices of Thiers are generally kind, says of him, "M. Thiers sait tout, tranche tout, parle de tout," and this omniscience and "cocksureness" (to use the word of a British Prime Minister contemporary with this prime minister of France) are perhaps the chief pervading features both of the statesman and the man of letters.

His histories, in many different editions, and his speeches, as above, are easily accessible; his minor works and newspaper articles have not, we believe, been collected in any form. Several years after his death appeared Deux opuscules (1891) and Melanges inedits (1892), while Notes et souvenirs, 1870-73, were published in 1901 by "F. D.", his sister-in-law and constant companion, Mlle Dosne. Works on him, by Laya, de Mazade, his colleague and friend Jules Simon, and others, are numerous.

Trivia

Thiers was the only French President born in 18th century. His two predecessors - Emperor Napoleon III (who served previously as President of the 2nd Republic from 1848 to 1854), and Interim President Louis Jules Trochu were born in 19th century (Bonaparte in 1808 and Trochu in 1825).

Notes

[1] A republic was declared on 4 September 1870 following the defeat of Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War. However, it only acquired a republican constitution five years later. Hence, Thiers initially was not president but "Head of the Executive Power" (Chef du Pouvoir Exécutif). Though formally made "President of the Republic", historians disagree as to whether to regard Thiers as President of the Third Republic or President of a provisional republic, given that the constitutional structures of the Third Republic, and the creation of a constitutionally-based President of the Third Republic, and even legislative mention of the word 'republic' only occurred in a series of laws passed in 1875 and known as the 'Constitution of 1875'.

[2] Karl Marx described him in The Civil War in France as follows:

"Thiers, that monstrous gnome, has charmed the French bourgeoisie for almost half a century, because he is the most consummate intellectual expression of their own class corruption. Before he became a statesman, he had already proved his lying powers as an historian. The chronicle of his public life is the record of the misfortunes of France. Banded, before 1830, with the republicans, he slipped into office under Louis Philippe by betraying his protector Lafitte, ingratiating himself with the king by exciting mob riots against the clergy, during which the church of Saint Germain l'Auxerrois and the Archbishop's palace were plundered, and by acting the minster-spy upon, and the jail-accoucheur of the Duchess de Berry. The massacre of the republicans in the Rue Transnonian, and the subsequent infamous laws of September against the press and the right of association, were his work. Reappearing as the chief of the cabinet in March 1840, he astonished France with his plan for fortifying France ..... Thiers was consistent only in his greed for wealth and his hatred of the men that produce it. Having entered his first ministry, under Louis Philippe, poor as Job, he left it a millionaire..... "

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