The nickname l’homme de décembre was given to Napoléon III, largely, it seems, for living in the shadow of his uncle Napoléon I, Emperor of the French. On December 2, 1804, Napoléon I was crowned emperor, changing the political landscape of not only Europe, but the emerging interconnected globe. That same year he established the Code Napoléon, the set of civil laws that were so influential that they still serve as the foundation for many modern legal systems worldwide. All eyes had been on France during its Revolution, and the spread of its impact reached the far corners of the world. A year later to the day, Napoléon defeated the Russians and Austrians at the Battle of Austerlitz, breaking apart the Third Coalition. These events gave Napoléon III, previously known as Louis-Napoléon the legacy he needed to stage his coup d’état on December 2, 1851, establishing the Second Empire and the end of the Second Republic in France.
The Bonaparte family is an interesting problem of modern history because they hardly fit any mold; instead, they cast many plot-based stereotypes that we quickly gloss over and reference today. They were barely Italian nobles from the island of Corsica, which had passed under control of the French only a year after Napoléon I was born. (He was known on Corsica as Napoleone di Buonaparte.) Thus, one of France’s greatest leaders was, by many contemporary accounts, an Italian; at least, he spoke French with such an accent that he was ridiculed by his peers, but that seems to be par for the course when all-powerful dictators are involved. Subsequently, Louis-Napoléon could not quite seem to get it right either. He was the son of Napoleón I’s brother Louis, King of Holland, and after the depositions of the Bonaparte-installed monarchies, Louis-Napoléon fled to Switzerland where his French began to take on something of a German accent.
Through and through, they were the political family that heavily influenced French politics for nearly a century, and certainly during the most crucial times for how France is thought of as a world power. Not to poke fun at hysteria, but France and Napoléon were anathema to the British, and after twenty years of “intermittent” warfare, they thought he was finally defeated…and then he came back! (For more information, please see the Hundred Days while imagining Louis XVIII fleeing from Paris in his best 1791 robes…) Fine, fine, we’ll ship him off to another island—much farther away this time!—from where he’ll not come back ever, ever, ever. Only a generation later in the 1830s and 40s, Louis-Napoléon had begun his rise to power under the Bonaparte name, and the French Empire was to return all too quickly for British sensibilities. If this hasn’t been the basis for most super-villain plots (and their offspring), I’m not sure where else they came up with the idea.
And as if I weren’t throwing on enough insult to British injury, I’m promoting one of our titles on Napoléon I’s early life: Philip Dwyer’s Napoleon: The Path to Power, which is only for sale from YUP here in the United States. (For other parts of the world, be sure to check out the Bloomsbury edition.) The book chronicles the first thirty years of Napoleon’s life—his family history and involvement with Paoli’s Corsican Republic; the relationships with his siblings; and his rise through the French military—ending with the military coup that left him as one of three consuls of France, on his way to ultimate authority. Rome, anyone?
Ivan Lett is Online Marketing Coordinator for Yale University Press.