Napoleon III (1808–1873), second emperor of the French, 1852–70. His full name was Charles Louis Napoléon Bonaparte. He was a nephew of Napoleon I, being the son of Louis Bonaparte, king of Holland, and Hortense de Beauharnais, stepdaughter of Napoleon I. Napoleon III was an intelligent and usually capable ruler, but he had little of his uncle's military and administrative genius. His rule brought France prosperity but ended in military defeat during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71). Victor Hugo scornfully nicknamed him "Napoleon the Little."
Louis Napoleon was born in Paris. After the downfall of his uncle in 1815, he lived in exile with his mother in Germany and Switzerland for more than 15 years. Upon the death in 1832 of Napoleon II, son of Napoleon I, Louis Napoleon was recognized as the head of the Bonaparte dynasty. He planned to restore the Bonapartes to power in France.
In 1836 Louis Napoleon staged an unsuccessful revolt at Strasbourg, causing Louis Philippe, the French king, to deport him to America. He returned to Europe in 1837, and settled in London. There he wrote a book maintaining that Napoleon I had represented the true spirit of the French Revolution and its democratic ideas. He himself expressed socialist views.
In 1840 Louis Napoleon, with only 56 followers, tried to stir up a revolt among the French soldiers at Boulogne. He was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment in the fortress at Ham. After more than five years, he escaped to England.
When the revolution of 1848 deposed Louis Philippe, Louis Napoleon hastened back to France. The provisional government distrusted him, but permitted him to stay in France after he managed to get elected to the National Assembly. Both the name of Bonaparte and his political skill helped elect him president of France in December, 1848, by a large vote.
The Assembly correctly guessed that Louis Napoleon wanted to be a dictator, and opposed many of his measures. Touring and speaking to crowds throughout the country, he persuaded the working people that he was their champion against the Assembly and other enemies. When the Assembly in 1851 refused to change the constitution so that he could be reelected, he dissolved that body.
Louis Napoleon curbed the rights of free speech and assembly and placed France under military rule. Those who disagreed with his policies he jailed. Newspapers were brought under government control or were suppressed. Under such conditions he was elected to the presidency by a huge majority for a term of 10 years, with almost unlimited powers.
In late 1852 Louis Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor as Napoleon III. There was little opposition. France was prosperous and most of the people forgot the loss of their liberties when the emperor carried out a vast program of public works, declared many holidays, and lavished gifts upon his subjects. Napoleon fostered the growth of industry and commerce, reduced unemployment, and greatly enhanced the beauty of Paris by sponsoring a thorough rebuilding plan. In 1853 he married Eugénie de Montijo, a beautiful Spanish countess.
In international affairs, Napoleon was at first successful. He joined Great Britain in the Crimean War (1853–56) against Russia. He led French troops in helping to bring much of Italy under the rule of Victor Emmanuel II, king of Sardinia, in 1859. In return for this help Sardinia ceded Savoy and Nice to France in 1860. But Napoleon's yearning for an overseas empire caused him to send troops into Mexico in 1862, and in 1864 he made Maximilian, archduke of Austria, emperor of Mexico. After the Civil War ended, the United States demanded that the French troops be withdrawn, and Napoleon complied.
Napoleon underestimated Prussia's growing strength and remained neutral while Prussia defeated Austria in the Seven Weeks' War in 1866. In 1870 Napoleon, unaware of the weakness of the French army, allowed himself to be goaded into declaring war on Prussia by Chancellor Bismarck of Prussia. While personally directing the French forces, Napoleon was captured at Sedan. There was a revolution in Paris. The emperor was dethroned and a republic proclaimed on September 4. After a short imprisonment, Napoleon was permitted to go to England, to join his empress and son. He died two years later. Napoleon's son, Eugène Louis Jean Joseph (1856–1879), joined the British army and was killed in southern Africa fighting Zulus.