Coup d'Etat of December 2, 1851

Nation: France


Date: December 2, 1851
France Coup d'Etat of December 2, 1851 Coup Cover
I. Louis-Napoleon Makes Preparations
II. Army Executes the Coup
III. Army Bloodlessly Neutralizes Parliament's Revolt
IV. Paris Celebrates on December 3rd
V. Louis-Napoleon Quells December 4th Violence
I. Louis-Napoleon Makes Preparations
On Monday evening, December 1st, 1851, a merry and elegant assemblage occupied the gilded saloons of the palace of the Elysee. It was one of the weekly receptions which the President of the Republic gave to the fashionable world of Paris. He himself, on that occasion, mingled among the throng with the same air of self-possessed and quiet ease which usually characterized him. No observer who at that moment scrutinized his marble countenance, would for a moment have suspected that Louis-Napoleon then stood over a suppressed volcano, which in a few hours was to break forth with prodigious violence; whose energies would, unless skilfully and successfully directed, involve him in inevitable ruin. But such was the fact. That night was the eve of one of the most decisive and important events in history; and he who had long planned its details in secret, who had anticipated and guarded every possible contingency, who was about to strike a desperate blow which would secure him either an imperial diadem or an ignominious scaffold, was as calm, to all outward seeming, as a sleeping infant!

At midnight the company disappeared, and the arch-conspirator withdrew to his secret cabinet. He was accompanied only by M. Mocquard, his private secretary. In a short time three persons were admitted. These were M. de Persigny, General St. Arnaud, and M. de Morny, the step-brother of the President, an illegitimate son of Queen Hortense. These were the three chief confederates of the President in the planning and execution of the coup d'etat. This was their last conference before the blow was struck. Some important details yet remained to be completed during the hours of that night, which were entrusted to their hands. After some consultation, the prince, taking a small key which was suspended from his watch-guard, opened the drawer of a bureau, and gave to each of his chief accomplices a sealed packet. These packets contained their last written instructions. Then shaking each one by the hand, he dismissed them to their respective posts of duty.

Paris during that night reposed in her usual tranquility. The happy myriads who reveled in her stately dwellings, and the unhappy and dependent multitudes who crowded her humbler abodes, slept or waked apprehensive of no change. While they slumbered the conspirators were busy. M. de Beville, an orderly sergeant of the President, proceeded in a carriage at one o'clock to the government printing-office, superintended by M. Georges, for the purpose of having the proclamations printed. He had previously informed Georges that some important work was to be done that night, and had instructed him to have his workmen in their places. The manuscript proclamations were immediately put into their hands, and in an hour the printing was completed. Meanwhile, however, the printing office had been quietly surrounded by a guard, the doors locked, and no one permitted to leave until next morning. Beville then distributed the proclamations to trusty posters, employed by M. Maupas, the Chief of Police, for that purpose.

In an hour every prominent place in the capital was plastered over with proclamations. One of these was a decree which announced that the National Assembly was dissolved, that universal suffrage was reestablished, that the Council of State was dismissed, that the first military division was placed in a state of siege, and that the French people were convoked for their votes from the 14th to 21st of December. Another proclamation was addressed to the army, which was well adapted to win their adhesion to the cause of the usurper. The third proclamation was addressed to the nation, in which the President set forth the anarchy and imbecility of the government, resulting from the hostility of the Assembly; made an appeal to the voice of the entire nation; invited them to vote upon the question of a "responsible chief for ten years"; ministers to be dependent on the Executive, and a legislative assembly to be composed of two branches, the one to counterbalance the other. Every Frenchman who was entitled to vote was called upon to decide whether the authority of the President should be continued; and the polls were to remain open during eight days.

When the Parisians awoke in the mornings they found these proclamations boldly staring them in the face from every corner of the street. But while this part of the conspiracy was thus completed, other and more difficult portions of it were being admirably executed. The Chief of Police, M. de Maupas, distributed a proclamation of his own, directing that all good citizens should assist in preserving order, and declaring that every violation of the public peace should be severely punished.

Smucker, S. M. (1859). The public and private history of Napoleon the Third, emperor of the French (152-155). New York: Blakeman & Mason.
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II. Army Executes the Coup
During the early hours of the morning of the second of December 1851, before the darkness had given place to the dawn, large bodies of troops were quietly entering the capital from every direction, and were taking the positions respectively assigned them, on the Boulevards, the Quay d'Orsay, the Carousal, the Garden of the Tuilleries, the Place Concord, and the Champs Elysees. At three o'clock in the morning, General Magnan, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army of Paris, having received his secret orders from the President, had transmitted them to his subordinates; and these dispositions had been made in accordance with those instructions.

At four o'clock in the morning the office of the Minister of Police was filled by secret and trusty agents, and by forty commissaries who had been notified to be in attendance at that time. They were placed in possession, separately, of warrants for the arrest of certain distinguished persons in the capital. The ringing of a small bell summoned them successively into the inner cabinet of the chief, who gave them their instructions, and then dismissed them. Each one was accompanied by fifteen or twenty soldiers; he was ordered to make the arrest entrusted to him precisely at five minutes after six o'clock; and detachments of troops were stationed in the vicinity of the house of each captive, to protect the agents of the government from the interference of the populace. Every arrest was made successfully, and without any public disturbance. Seventy-eight captures were thus executed at the same moment. Eighteen were influential members of the Assembly. The rest were distinguished generals, orators, leaders of secret societies, commanders of barricades, and hostile editors. They were all conveyed by different routes to the prison called Mazas, situated in the southeastern part of Paris.

At six o'clock in the morning, M. Persigny attended by the forty-second regiment of the line, marched to the Hall of the National Assembly, and took possession of the courts around it. The soldiers then entered the Hall, occupied it, and arrested the questors who were in attendance. At the same time, M. de Morny, at the head of two hundred and fifty chasseurs, invaded the Ministry of the Interior; assumed the functions of the chief of that office, who had been dismissed the night before; and dictated a circular to be despatched by telegraph to all the prefects of the departments of France.

Smucker, S. M. (1859). The public and private history of Napoleon the Third, emperor of the French (155-156). New York: Blakeman & Mason.
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III. Army Bloodlessly Neutralizes Parliament's Revolt
Although the Hall of the Assembly was occupied by the troops, sixty representatives succeeded, early in the morning, in entering the building, one by one. They met together in one of the committee-rooms, and sent for M. Dupin, the President. He arrived, and a moment after the room was occupied by the military. M. Dupin then spoke, and protested in the name of the Assembly against the violent measures which were in progress. However, turning to the representatives present, he told them that it was useless to attempt anything against force, and advised them to disperse. The representatives followed his suggestion, but they met again at the residence of M. Daru, one of the vice-presidents. Other fragments of the Assembly convened at different places, some at the house of M. Cremieux, and others in an obscure and filthy retreat in the faubourg St. Antoine. These passed decrees charging Louis-Napoleon with the crime of high treason, copies of which decrees were afterward distributed through Paris, and became the cause of some of the fatal collisions which took place on the succeeding Thursday.

Another portion of the Assembly met at the Mayoralty of the Tenth Arrondissement. They scarcely amounted to one-third of the whole body. They voted the deposition of the President, the appointment of General Oudinot Commander-in-Chief of the parliamentary forces, and General Lauriston Commander of the National Guard. Their dangerous proceedings were interrupted by the arrival of troops. They refused to disperse. They were consequently all arrested, and confined in - the barracks of the Quay d'Orsay. They amounted in number to two hundred and twenty.

Thus passed off the memorable second of December 1851, the first day of the world-renowned coup d'etat. Not a drop of blood had yet been spilled; and Louis-Napoleon contemplated with exultation, in the privacy of his cabinet in the palace, the commencement, and perhaps the successful termination, of this most remarkable and daring movement, which opened to him the secure and inevitable pathway to the imperial throne.

Smucker, S. M. (1859). The public and private history of Napoleon the Third, emperor of the French (156-157). New York: Blakeman & Mason.
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IV. Paris Celebrates on December 3rd
Wednesday, December 3, 1851, dawned. During the previous night, the hostile factions had not been idle. Appalled and astounded as they had been, by the suddenness, the mystery, and the simultaneous vigor of the blow which had prostrated at the same instant so many of the enemies of the President, they were not yet disheartened. They had held secret meetings at the Cafe Tortoni, at the Cafe de Paris, and in the Italian Boulevards. Here the decrees of the fragments of the National Assembly were read and approved. The three great measures of the President on the first day of the movement, had been so successfully and suddenly executed, that resistance in order to be efficient must be deliberate. Those three measures were the arrest of dangerous persons; the occupation of the Hall of the Assembly; and the distribution of troops to the number of fifty thousand, to all the necessary portions of the capital. Apprehensive of an impending conflict, the stores and shops remained closed during Wednesday; although the Boulevards were crowded with people.

At three o'clock on the afternoon of December 3rd, Louis-Napoleon boldly rode with several attendants along the principal streets, and reviewed a division of cavalry in the Champs Elysees. In the evening the Presidential palace was thrown open, and a general reception took place. The success of the coup d'etat was now regarded as certain by the majority of the inhabitants of the capital; as was evinced by the large number of prominent personages who, on that occasion, tendered their services and allegiance to the President. During the entire day, Paris remained tranquil. The theatres were all crowded in the evening. Never had a more brilliant and splendid audience graced the Italian Opera. The capital seemed as much as ever the joyful center of the world's luxury, magnificence, and vice. But Thursday, the great day of carnage and blood, was rapidly approaching.

Smucker, S. M. (1859). The public and private history of Napoleon the Third, emperor of the French (157-158). New York: Blakeman & Mason.
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V. Louis-Napoleon Quells December 4th Violence
Louis-Napoleon has anticipated the coming danger of December 4, 1851 and had prepared for it. The morning light revealed to the astonished Parisians, long and almost endless lines of soldiers drawn up on both sides of the Boulevards, and on all the great thoroughfares. The soldiers had been abundantly supplied with brandy before leaving their barracks; and they were disposed to be furious and bloody. The opposing factions had been at work, and this was the day upon which they resolved to try their strength. They had determined that France should not be surrendered to the usurper without a desperate struggle. The following appeal, among others, was posted on the Boulevards, signed by Victor Hugo: "Art. 68. The Constitution is entrusted to the protection and patriotism of the French citizens. Louis-Napoleon is outlawed. The state of siege is abolished. Universal suffrage is reestablished. Vive la Republique. To arms! For the United Mountain."

Early in the morning, barricades were erected in many of the streets. They were attacked and taken by the troops with little difficulty. At one of these, the representative Baudin was killed, and he was the first who fell. The minister of war published a proclamation, advising all the inhabitants of the capital to remain in their houses; and declaring that all who were found defending the barricades, or taken with arms in their hands, should be shot. The chief barricades had been erected in the neighborhood of the Porte St. Denis, the Porte St. Martin, and in the streets adjacent to them. The troops were quietly demolishing these until twelve o'clock in the forenoon. St. Arnaud, the Minister of War, had entrusted the conduct of affairs on this critical occasion, to General Magnan.

As the middle of the day approached, the excitement throughout the capital became more and more intense. Still the troops made no hostile demonstration, and their apparent reluctance filled the Red Republicans with hope. The streets were now full of tumultuous crowds; and at two o'clock the general order was given to all the troops to advance simultaneously and clear the streets. They obeyed. The division which marched along the Boulevards was fired upon from the roofs and windows; and then the general massacre began. An irregular battle ensued, which continued for several hours. Many were slain on both sides. The streets were thus gradually cleared; but the ground was covered with the bodies of the dying and the dead. Some were killed who took no share whatever in the conflict, but had been drawn by curiosity to their windows. As the soldiers could not distinguish between friends and foes, many innocent persons fell victims to their imprudence and carelessness.

During several hours the capital was scene of battle, but by five o'clock in the afternoon all was over. Tranquility was again restored. The victorious troops retained possession of the streets. The vanquished citizens and insurgents remained concealed in their houses. The dead were quickly buried, and numerous patrols which scoured the city in all directions, arrested every person whose appearance and movements were in the least degree suspicious. During Thursday night, silence, not unmingled with terror, pervaded the capital. When Friday dawned, no sign of resistance was exhibited. The opposing factions had been completely crushed. The troops marched through every part of the city, but no foe appeared. The bold coup d'etat of Louis-Napoleon had been completely successful. He who had blundered and failed so ignominiously at Strasburg and Boulogne had triumphed gloriously at Paris.

The number of killed and wounded during this memorable struggle has been variously estimated, and in some instances absurdly magnified. The most reliable supposition is that which places the number of slain at 225, and the wounded at 400. Of these, there were 30 killed and a 180 wounded on the part of the soldiers.

Throughout the country the excitement became intense. There were insurrections in twenty-five departments at once. The Socialists were at the bottom of these movements, and their fury was expended against all those who represented order, wealth, rank and respectability. In some places the churches were burned, the priests were assaulted, and women were raped. Murder, pillage, and conflagration prevailed. But all these disorders were gradually put down by the army and by the decisive and rapid measures adopted by the Louis-Napoleon.

At the conclusion of this memorable week all the disturbances were quelled. Order again reigned throughout France, the capital was tranquil, the dead were buried, the wounded were conveyed to the hospitals, the most active and dangerous anarchists were imprisoned, the Assembly was obliterated, and Louis-Napoleon had realized at last the life-long aspiration of his heart. The dying prayer of Hortense was at length fulfilled, and her son, the heir of the great Napoleon, had become the absolute ruler of France!

Smucker, S. M. (1859). The public and private history of Napoleon the Third, emperor of the French (158-161). New York: Blakeman & Mason.
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