1902 Encyclopedia > Adolphe Thiers

Marie Joseph Louis Adolphe Thiers
(commonly known as: Adolphe Thiers)
French politician and historian
(1797-1877)




LOUIS ADOLPHE THIERS, (1797-1877), "liberator of the territory," as even the short-lived gratitude of France continues to call him, was born at Marseilles on April 16, 1797. His family are somewhat grandiloquently spoken of as "cloth merchants ruined by the Revolution," but it seems that at the actual time of his birth his father was a locksmith. His mother belonged to the family of the Chéniers, and he was well educated, first at the Lycée of Marseilles, and then in the faculty of law at Aix. Here he began his life-long friendship with Mignet, and was called to the bar at the age of 23. He had, however, little taste for law and much for literature; and he obtained (it is said by an ingenious trick, and in spite of unfair and prejudiced attempts to deprive him of it) an academic prize at Aix—for a discourse on Vauvenargues. In the early autumn of 1821 Thiers went to Paris, and was quickly introduced as a contributor to the Constitutionnel, at first on literary and then on general and especially political subjects, as well as art and the drama. In each of the years immediately following his arrival in Paris he collected and published, a volume of his Constitutionnel articles, the first on the salon of 1822, the second on a tour in the Pyrenees. He was put out of all need of money by the singular benefaction of Cotta, the well-known Stuttgart publisher, who was part-proprietor of the Constitutionnel, and made over to Thiers his dividends, or part of them. Meanwhile he became very well known in Liberal society, especially in the house of Laffitte, and he had begun and was rapidly compiling (at first with the assistance of M. Felix Bodin and afterwards alone) the celebrated Histoire de la Révolution Française, which founded his literary and helped his political fame. 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 Carlyle, that it is " as far as possible from meriting its high reputation," is in strictness justified, not merely in regard to this, but in regard to all Thiers's historical work, which is only too frequently marked by extreme inaccu-racy, by prejudice which passes the limits of accidental unfairness and sometimes seems to approach those of positive dishonesty, 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." In other words, the Histoire de la Revolution (again like its author's other work) possesses in a very high degree the gifts of clearness, liveliness, and intelligible handling which so often distinguish French writing. Coming as it did just when the reaction against the Revolution was about to turn into another reaction in its favour, it was assured of success.

For a moment it seemed as if the author had definitely chosen the lot of a literary man, even of a literary hack. He planned an Histoire Générale, and was about to survey mankind from China to Peru on the deck of a French man-of-war as a preliminary process. But the accession to power of the Polignac ministry in August 1829 changed his projects, and at the beginning of the next year Thiers, with Armand Carrel, Mignet, and others, started the National, a new opposition newspaper, which openly attacked the older Bourbon line and was foremost in pro-voking the famous and fatal Ordonnances of July. Thiers himself was the soul (or at least one of the souls) of the actual revolution. What share he had in the process sometimes attributed to him of " overcoming the scruples oof Louis Philippe" is no doubt a debateable question, with the problem in limine of the debate whether Louis Philippe had any scruples to overcome. At any rate Thiers had his reward. He ranked, if not at once, yet very soon, as one of the radical though not republican supporters of the new dynasty, in opposition to the party of which his rival Guizot was the chief literary man, and Guizot's patron the duke of Broglie the main pillar among the nobility, and which might be called by comparison Conservative. At first Thiers, though elected deputy for Aix, obtained only subordinate places in the ministry of finance. After the overthrow of his patron Laffitte, he -seemed to change his politics and became much less radical, and, after the troubles of June 1832, this tendency was strengthened or rewarded by his appointment to the ministry of the interior. He repeatedly changed his portfolio, but remained in office for four years, became president of the council and in effect prime minister, and began the series of quarrels and jealousies with Guizot which make one of the chief and not the most creditable features of the politics of the reign. At the time of his resignation in 1836 he was foreign minister, and, as usual, wished for a spirited policy in Spain, which he could not carry out. He travelled 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. But he held the position barely six months, and, being unable to force on the king an anti-English and anti-Turkish policy, resigned on October 29, after having, as was generally thought, with the direct purpose of stir-ring up Anglophobia, begged the body of Napoleon from England. This was made the occasion of the ceremony immortally ridiculed by Thackeray, and, it is said, con-demned by Thiers himself as unworthy of the occasion. He now had little to do with politics for some years, and spent his time on the preparation, on a much larger scale than his first work, of his Histoire du Consulat et de VEmpire, the first volume of which appeared in 1845, and which continued to occupy him for more than twenty years of composition and nearly twenty of publication. During the interval, though he was still a member of the chamber, he spoke rarely, but after the beginning of 1846 his appearances were more frequent, and he was evidently bidding once more for power on the liberal and reforming side. Immediately before the revolution of February he went to all but the greatest lengths, and when it broke out he and Odillon Barrot 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.





Under the republic he took up the position of conserva-tive republican, which he ever afterwards maintained (his acceptance of the republic being not much more heartfelt than his subsequent acceptance, after an interval, of the empire), and he never took office. But the consistency of his conduct, especially in voting for Prince Louis Napoleon as president, was often and sharply criticized, one of the criticisms leading to a duel with a fellow deputy, Bixio. On the whole, his conduct during these years, and still more during the last years of Louis Philippe, may be said to have been not wholly creditable. He was arrested at the coup d'etat (when some malicious and apparently false stories were spread as to his cowardice), was sent to Mazas, and then escorted out of France. But in the following summer he was allowed to return. For the next decade his history was almost a blank, his time being occupied for the most part on The Consulate and the Empire. It was not till 1863 that he re-entered political life, being elected by a Parisian constituency in opposition to the Government candidate. For the seven years follow-ing he was the chief speaker among the small band of anti Imperialists in the French chamber, and was regarded generally as the most formidable enemy of the empire,— all the more formidable because he never gave occasion for taking any violent steps against him. It has been pointed out that, while nominally protesting against the foreign enterprises of the empire, he perpetually harped on French loss of prestige, and so contributed more than any one else to stir up the fatal spirit which brought on the war of 1870, and that, while constantly criticizing and weakening the Government of his country, he gave it no help nor even offered any. Even when the Liberal-Imperialist Ollivier ministry was formed, he maintained at first an anything but benevolent neutrality, and then an open opposition, and it would be pleasant to feel more certain than we can feel that his vigorous denuncia-tion of the war with Prussia was the result of honest conviction, and not merely of the fact that it was not his war. At any rate, it brought him great unpopularity for the moment, with a corresponding reaction of gratitude when the crash came. Again it is impossible to ,be sure whether mere " canniness," or something better, kept him from joining the Government of the National Defence, of which he was in a manner the author.

Nevertheless the collapse of the empire was a great opportunity for Thiers, and it was worthily accepted. He undertook in the latter part of September and the first three weeks of October a circular tour to the different courts of Europe, in the hope (which he probably knew to be a vain one, though the knowledge neither daunted his spirit nor relaxed his efforts) of obtaining some inter-vention, or at least some good offices. The mission was unsuccessful; but the negotiator was on its conclusion immediately charged with another—that of obtaining, if possible, an armistice directly from Prince Bismarck. For a time this also failed, as the Provisional Government would not accept the German conditions; but at last France was forced to yield. The armistice having been arranged, and the opportunity having been thus obtained of electing a National Assembly, Thiers was chosen deputy by more than twenty constituencies (of which he preferred Paris), and was at once elected by the Assembly itself practically president, nominally " chef du pouvoir exe-cutif." He lost no time in choosing a coalition cabinet, and then personally took up the negotiation of peace. Probably no statesman has ever had a more disgusting task; and the fact that he discharged it to the satisfaction of a vast majority, even in a nation popularly reputed the vainest, the least ballasted with common sense, and the most ungrateful to public servants who are unsuccessful, is the strongest testimony to Thiers's merits. After contest-ing the matter, on the one side with the determination of Germany to have the pound of flesh, on the other with the reluctance of the Assembly to submit to the knife, he succeeded in convincing the deputies that the peace was necessary, and it was (March 1, 1871) voted by more than five to one.

Thiers held office for more than two years after this event,—a length of tenure which, in the circumstances and considering the French temper, is very surprising, and shows the strength of the general conviction that he alone could be trusted. He had at first to meet and crush at once the mad enterprise of the Paris commune ; and the severity which was undoubtedly shown in doing this is more than justified by two considerations,—first, that failure to suppress it would have meant anarchy through-out France; and, secondly, that the Germans would almost to a certainty have made it a pretext for further demands. Soon after this was accomplished, Thiers be-came (August 30) in name as well as in fact president of the republic, and he set himself with vigour and success to the tasks of rearranging the army, the finances (includ-ing the paying off of the war indemnity), and the civil service, and of procuring the withdrawal of the German army of occupation.

The strong personal will and inflexible opinions of the president had much to do with the resurrection of France; but the very same facts made it inevitable that he should excite violent opposition. It seems to be gene-rally acknowledged that to him personally were due the establishment and retention of the republican rather than the monarchical form of government, to which latter the Assembly as first elected was notoriously disposed. He was a confirmed protectionist, and free-trade ideas had made great way in France under the empire ; he was an advocate of long military service, and the devotees of la revanche were all for the introduction of general and com-pulsory but short service. Both his talents and his temper made him utterly indisposed to maintain the distant, Olympian, apparently inactive, attitude which is supposed to be incumbent on a republican president ; and (for his tongue was never a carefully governed one) he sometimes let drop expressions scarcely consistent with constitutional theories of the relation of the chief of the state, whether president or king, to parliament. In January 1872 he formally tendered his resignation ; but the country was then in too manifestly disorganized a condition to allow even his enemies to accept it. His position, however, was clearly one not tenable for long in such a country as France. The Right (and not merely the Extreme Right) hated him for his opposition to the restoration of the monarchy, and with some justice reminded him of former declarations and opinions on the subject ; the Extreme Left could not forgive the suppression of the commune, while some radical leaders, who may have had little sympathy with the commune itself, saw in his great reputation and imperious personality a bar to their own accession to power. His chief supporters—men like Rémusat, Barthélémy Saint-Hilaire, and Jules Simon—were men rather of the past than of the present ; and he had few younger adherents.





The year 1873 was, as a parliamentary year in France, occupied to a great extent with attacks on Thiers. In the early spring regulations were proposed, and on April 13 were carried, which were intended to restrict the executive and especially the parliamentary powers of the president. On the 27th of the same month a contested election in Paris, resulting in the return of the opposi-tion candidate, M. Barodet, was regarded as a grave disaster for the Thiers Government, and that Government was not much strengthened by a dissolution and reconstitution of the cabinet on May 19. Immediately after-wards the question was brought to a head by an interpel-lation moved by the duke of Broglie. The president declared that he should take this as a vote of want of confidence ; and in the debates which followed a vote of this character (though on a different formal issue, and proposed by M. Ernoul) was carried by 16 votes in a house of 701. Thiers at once resigned (May 24).

He survived his fall four years, continuing to sit in the 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 May 16, 1877, he was one of the " 363 " who voted want of confidence in the Broglie ministry (thus paying his debts), and he took considerable part in organ-izing the subsequent electoral campaign. But he was not destined to see its success, being fatally struck with apoplexy at St Germain-en-Laye on September 3. Thiers had long been married, and his wife and sister-in-law, Mile. Dosne, were his constant companions ; but he left no children, and had had only one—a daughter,—who long predeceased him. 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 uo superior among the statesmen of his time except Lord Beaconsfield.

Thiers is by far the most gifted and interesting of the group of literary statesmen—not statesmen who have had a penchant for literature, but men of letters whose literary distinction has made them politicians—which forms a unique feature in the French political history of this century. Numerous as these are, 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 Walpole, at least a French Palmerston, and Lamartine's opportunities after 1848 were, for a man of political genius, illimitable. But both failed, —Lamartine almost ludicrously,—while Thiers in hard conditions made a striking if not a brilliant success. A devil's advocate may indeed urge that his egotist and almost gasconading temperament stood him in stead in the trying circumstances of his negotiations with the powers and with Prince Bismarck,—but this is not really to his discredit. No less masterful methods than his would have sufficed to bring France into order from the chaos succeeding the fall of the empire and the invasion of the Germans. But Thiers only showed well when he was practically supreme. Even as the minister of a constitutional monarch his intolerance of interference or joint authority, his temper at once imperious and intriguing, his invete-rate inclination towards brigue, that is to say, underhand rivalry and caballing for power and place, showed themselves unfavourably; and his constant tendency to inflame the aggressive and chauvinist spirit of his country, though it may fairly claim to have been a kind of patriotism, neglected fact, was not based on any just estimate of the relative power and interests of France, and led his country more than once to the verge—once, though he affected to warn her off, over 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 worse qualities were always manifested. 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 the utmost constancy, courage, devotion, and skill, and who have been rewarded by as much success as the occasion permitted.

As a man of letters Thiers is very much smaller. He has not only the fault of diffuseness, which is common to so many of the best-known histories of this 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 evi-dent confidence in their own infallibility, their faculty of ingenious casuistry, and the strength of will which makes them (unconsciously, no doubt) close and keep closed the eyes of their mind to all incon-venient facts and inferences supply a more charitable explanation. But it is certain that from Thiers's dealings with the men of the first Revolution to his dealings with the battle of Waterloo, constant, angry, and well-supported protests against his unfairness were not lacking. Although his search among documents was undoubtedly wide, its results are by no means always accurate, and his admirers themselves admit great inequalities of style in him. These characteristics reappear (accompanied, however, by frequent touches of the epigrammatic power above mentioned, which seems to have come to Thiers more readily as an orator or a journalist than as an historian) in his speeches, which have, since his death, been collected in many volumes by his widow. Sainte-Beuve, whose notices of Thiers are generally kindly, says of him, " M. Thiers sait tout, tranche tout, parle de tout," and this omniscience and "cocksureness" (to use the word of a prime minister of England contemporary with this prime minister of France) are perhaps the chief pervading features both of the statesman and the man of letters.

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. Works on him, by M. Laya, M. de Mazade, ids colleague and friend M. Jules Simon, and others, are numerous. But a thorough biographical study of him has not yet been made ; and, though monuments enough have been raised in his own country, it is even there often complained that the incessant and futile political struggles of the last ten years have too much obscured the reputation and weakened the memory of the last great statesman of France. (G. SA.)



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