Adolphe Thiers

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search
Adolphe Thiers
Portrait of Adolphe Thiers, ca. 1871
2nd President of the French Republic
Co-Prince of Andorra
In office
31 August 1871 – 24 May 1873
Prime Minister Jules Armand Dufaure
Preceded by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte
Succeeded by Patrice de MacMahon
Prime Minister of France
In office
1 March 1840 – 29 October 1840
Monarch Louis Philippe I
Preceded by Nicolas Jean-de-Dieu Soult
Succeeded by Nicolas Jean-de-Dieu Soult
In office
22 February 1836 – 6 September 1836
Monarch Louis Philippe I
Preceded by Victor de Broglie
Succeeded by Louis-Mathieu Molé
Personal details
Born Marie Joseph Louis Adolphe Thiers
(1797-04-15)15 April 1797
Bouc-Bel-Air, France
Died 3 September 1877(1877-09-03) (aged 80)
Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
Political party Party of Movement
Party of Order
Third Party
Opportunist Republican

Marie Joseph Louis Adolphe Thiers (French: [lwi adɔlf tjɛʁ]; 15 April 1797 – 3 September 1877) was a French politician and historian of the French Revolution. He wrote a multi-volume history that argued that the republicanism of the Revolution was the central theme of modern French history.

Thiers served as a prime minister in 1836, 1840 and 1848. He was a vocal opponent of Emperor Napoleon III, who reigned from 1848–71. Following the overthrow of the Second Empire, Thiers again came to power and his suppression of the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871 killed thousands of Parisians. From 1871 to 1873 he served initially as Head of State (effectively a provisional President of France), then President. He lost power in 1873 to Patrice de Mac-Mahon, Duke of Magenta.


Early life

His father was a locksmith turned businessman; his mother belonged to the Chénier family. During his youth he was well-educated, first at the lycée of Marseille and then in the faculty of law at Aix-en-Provence. While studying at the faculty of law he began his lifelong friendship with François Mignet, and was called to the bar at the age of twenty-three. He demonstrated, however, little taste for law; rather he had a strong interest in literature. He obtained an academic prize at Aix for a discourse on the marquis de Vauvenargues. In 1821, the 24-year-old Thiers moved to Paris and was quickly introduced as a contributor to the Le 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 very well paid by Johann Friedrich Cotta, the part-proprietor of the Constitutionnel.[1]


With his active pen he became well known in Liberal circles. He began his celebrated Histoire de la Révolution française, which founded his literary reputation and boosted his political career. 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 Thomas 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.[1]

Politician in the July Monarchy

Young Thiers, 1830s.

For a moment it seemed as if Thiers had definitely chosen the lot of a literary man. 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, Auguste Sautelet and others started the National, a new opposition newspaper which quite openly called for the ouster of King Charles X should he attempt to curb civil liberties. Thiers himself was one of the animators of the 1830 revolution. 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, became only Undersecretary of State for the Treasury.[1]

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 (minister of trade and public works in 1833-34, minister of the interior again in 1834-36, and minister of foreign affairs in 1836) 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 François Guizot. During this time, Thiers helped suppress various revolts including the legitimists under the Duchess de Berry in 1832 and a republican uprising in 1834. After 1833, his career was bolstered by his marriage, as he secured financial backing from his nouveau riche patrons (in exchange for their place in the state officialdom and high society).[2]

He traveled 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, during which time he initiated the return of Napoleon's remains to France in 1840. 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. In addition, Thiers favored military intervention in Spain's civil wars, but all of these met with the disapproval of the king who supported a completely pacifistic foreign policy and he was soon dismissed from his post. 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.[1]

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 Center-Left. He then became a liberal opponent of the July Monarchy and again turned to writing, beginning his History of the Consulate and the Empire (20 vol., 1845–62; tr. 1845–62). In the midst of the February Revolution of 1848, Louis Philippe offered him the title of premier, but he refused, and both king and Thiers were soon swept aside by the revolutionary tide. Elected (1848) to the constituent assembly, Thiers was a leader of the right-wing liberals and bitterly opposed the socialists. 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.[1]

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, Jacques Alexandre Bixio. He had an important role in the shaping of the Falloux Laws of 1850, which strongly increased the Catholic clergy's influence on the education system.

Thiers and the president soon ran afoul of each other and he was arrested in December 1851 coup d'état and sent to Mazas Prison, before being 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.

Empire's fall and repression of the Paris Commune

A caricature of Thiers charging on the Paris Commune, published in Le Père Duchêne illustré

While Thiers had initially backed war with Prussia, as the diplomatic crisis unfolded during the summer of 1870, he suddenly reversed his stance, called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, and was summarily denounced as unpatriotic. But when France's armies suffered defeat after defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (all within a period of a few weeks), he was now seen as the wise sage who had advised against embarking on a rash war that France was not prepared to fight. 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 doing so, he was able to avoid any responsibility for the surrender in January 1871. 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 he 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.[1]

M. Thiers, Chief of the Executive Power of the French Republic, published in the 4 March 1871 issue of Harper's Weekly

On 18 March 1871, a major insurrection began in Paris after Thiers ordered the army to remove several hundred cannons in the possession of the Paris National Guard. He evacuated his government and troops to Versailles. Parisians elected a radical republican and socialist city government on 26 March, entitled the Paris Commune.[1]

Fighting broke out between government troops and the those of the Commune early in April. Neither side was willing to negotiate, and violence 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. He 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 given amnesties in 1880.

Leader of the Third Republic

Thiers, by Nadar

On 30 August Thiers became the provisional president of the as-yet undeclared republic, attempting to win monarchists over to his vision of a conservative, bourgeois republic. He held office for more than two years after this event. 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.[citation needed] He was a convinced 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 has-beens and spent forces. Thiers's financial skills allowed France to quickly pay off its war debts, but his attempt to rebuild the armed forces met with less success and the institution of 5 years' mandatory military service badly depleted the nation's labor force.

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 he 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

Adolphe Thiers photographated by Disdéri, ca. 1876

He survived, after his fall, for four years, continuing to sit in the now mostly monarchist 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, the now 80-year-old Thiers 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, as he succumbed to a fatal stroke on 3 September at St. Germain-en-Laye while writing an election manifesto.

Thiers was buried in Cimetière du Père Lachaise, an ironic resting place since one of the bloodiest battles of the Commune took place within the cemetery walls. Annually, the French Left holds a ceremony at the Communards' Wall to mark the anniversary of the occasion. Thiers' tomb has occasionally been the object of vandalism.

Thiers was the only French President born in the 18th century. He had long been married, and his wife and sister-in-law, Mlle Félicie Dosne, were his constant companions; but his only child, a daughter, had died years earlier. He did however father several illegitimate children. 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 Disraeli.[1]

Work as writer

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.[1]


As a man of letters Thiers is much less well known. 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.[1]

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.[1]


Karl Marx described him 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 Transnonain, 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....[3]


  • Legion of Honour (under the monarchy):
    • Knight: 1831
    • Officer: 1833
    • Commander: 1835
    • Grand Officer: 1837
  • Legion of Honour (Third Republic):
    • Grand Cross: 1871, upon becoming President.
  • Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece of Spain (1871)[4]

See also


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 Chisholm 1911.
  2. Robert Tombs (1996). "Private Identities: State, Gender, Family". France 1814–1914. London: Longman. p. 229. ISBN 0-582-49314-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. The Civil War in France
  4. From the French Wikipedia

 Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). [ "Thiers, Louis Adolphe" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Bury, J.P.T. and R. P. Tombs. Thiers, 1797-1877: A Political Life (1986) 307p; the standard scholarly biography
  • Mitchell, Allan. "Thiers, MacMahon, and the Conseil supérieur de la Guerre," French Historical Studies, Fall 1969, 6#2 pp 232–52 in JSTOR
  • Tombs, Robert. "The Thiers Government and the Outbreak of Civil War in France, February–April 1871," Historical Journal, Dec 1980, 23#4, pp 813–831 in JSTOR

Older studies

  • John M. S. Allison. "Thiers and the July Days," Sewanee Review (1921) 29#3 pp. 300–313 in JSTOR
  • François J. Le Goff. The life of Louis Adolphe Thiers (1879) online
  • Paul de Rémusat. Thiers (1889) online in English translation
  • Schaffer, Aaron. "Louis Adolphe Thiers," The Sewanee Review (1916) 24#2 pp. 201–213 in JSTOR

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Marthe Camille Bachasson, comte de Montalivet
Minister of the Interior
Succeeded by
Antoine, comte d'Argout
Preceded by
Antoine, comte d'Argout
Minister of the Interior
Succeeded by
Hugues Bernard Maret, duc de Bassano
Preceded by
Hugues Bernard Maret, duc de Bassano
Minister of the Interior
Succeeded by
Marthe Camille Bachasson, comte de Montalivet
Preceded by
Victor, duc de Broglie
Prime Minister of France
Succeeded by
Louis-Mathieu Molé
Preceded by
Nicolas Jean de Dieu Soult, duc de Dalmatie
Minister of Foreign Affairs
1 March 1840 – 29 October 1840
Succeeded by
François Guizot
Preceded by
Nicolas Jean de Dieu Soult
Prime Minister of France
Succeeded by
Nicolas Jean de Dieu Soult
Preceded by
Louis-Mathieu Molé
Prime Minister of France
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Louis Jules Trochu
President of France
Succeeded by
Patrice de Mac-Mahon
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Napoleon III and Josep Caixal i Estradé
Co-Prince of Andorra
with Josep Caixal i Estradé
Succeeded by
Patrice de Mac-Mahon and Josep Caixal i Estradé