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The Myth of Napoleon III

“It is time that the abuse of his enemies should be appreciated in its true light, and not accepted as impartial history merely because they happened to be distinguished men.” By Theodore Zeldin.

Louis-Napoléon in 1852
Louis-Napoléon in 1852

“Read no history, nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.” So Disraeli once said, but it is not a maxim that can be applied to Napoleon III. His life contained so many adventures, conspiracies and love affairs, his court was so well provided with gossip and intrigue, his career reached such depths and such heights of fortune, that it is no wonder that his biographers have not had time to stop to ask what he achieved as a statesman. They would have been surprised to know that he was, in the opinion of Lamartine, the greatest politician France had had since Talleyrand, and possibly even greater than he.

It is not from any personal animosity that they refuse to treat him seriously. On the contrary, for it can be said of few, as it can be said of him, that no one who ever knew him detested him or even found him disagreeable. His gift for making friends was quite extraordinary, and even his bitterest enemies concede that he was an amiable man. That, in fact, is how they damn him. He was a pleasant man, they say, with good intentions, no doubt, but with no political gifts and with none of the ability necessary to carry out his grandiose schemes. He was a rake, an adventurer, a dreamer, a charlatan, but nothing like his uncle, of course.

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