Caesarism after thirteen years

Author(s) : BAGEHOT Walter
Share it

The Englishman Walter Bagehot, a journalist, political commentator and economist, was at the height of his career considered “the Greatest Victorian”. Whilst on holiday in Paris in December 1851, he was witness to Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’état: this was to be the start of his admiration and respect for the man who would become Napoleon III and his regime. His lack of sympathy for what he saw as the Emperor’s Caesarism however led to a slight cooling of this ardour in later years.

Caesarism after thirteen years
Barricades erected by Republican insurgents and parliamentarians opposed to Prince Louis Napoleon (future Napoleon III)
Porte de Saint-Denis, Paris, December 1851 ©Rue des Archives/Tallandier

[Maturer years, and the development of the germinal tendencies of Louis Napoleon’s regime, greatly modified Mr. Bagehot’s youthful estimate of its character and utility. He never formally abandoned his position on the justifiableness of accepting a constitutional office for the purpose of seizing the government as soon as one’s fellow-administrators should become unpopular, for the executive weakness of the administration and the vacillating selfishness of its members were of course only an eagerly desired pretext, and not in any sense a reason pro bono publico, of the usurpation ; but he probably wished that these letters should not be regarded as his final and matured conclusion on the political merits of the Imperial system, and shortly after a visit to France in 1865, and the publication of the “Life of Julius Caesar” nominally written by one of the most unliterary of sovereigns, he published the following article in the Economist. ED.]

That the French Emperor should have spare leisure and unoccupied reflection to write a biography is astonishing; but if he wished to write a biography, his choice of a subject is very natural. Julius Caesar was the first who tried on an imperial scale the characteristic principles of the French Empire as the first Napoleon revived them, as the third Napoleon has consolidated them. The notion of a demagogue ruler, both of a fighting demagogue and a talking demagogue, was indeed familiar to the Greek republics, but their size was small and their history unemphatic: on the big page of universal history, Julius Caesar is the first instance of a democratic despot. He overthrew an aristocracy – a corrupt and perhaps effete aristocracy, it is true, but still an aristocracy – by the help of the people, of the unorganized people; he said to the numerical majority of Roman citizens, “I am your advocate and your leader: make me supreme, and I will govern for your good and in your name.” This is exactly the principle of the French Empire. No one will ever make an approach to understanding it who does not separate it altogether and on principle from the despotisms of feudal origin and legitimate pretensions. The old monarchies claim the obedience of the people upon grounds of duty; they say they have consecrated claims to the loyalty of mankind; they appeal to conscience, even to religion: but Louis Napoleon is a Benthamite despot; he is for the “greatest happiness of the greatest number”; he says, “I am where I am because I know better than any one else what is good for the French people, and they know that I know better.” He is not the Lord’s anointed, he is the people’s agent.

We cannot here discuss what the effect of this system was in ancient times, – these columns are not the best place for a historical dissertation; but we may set down very briefly the results of some close and recent observation of the system as it now exists, as it is at work, in France. Part of its effects are well understood in England; but a part of them are, we think, but mistily seen and imperfectly apprehended.

In the first place, the French Empire is really the best finished democracy which the world has ever seen. What the many at the moment desire, is embodied with a readiness and efficiency and a completeness which have no parallel either in past history or present experience: an absolute government with a popular instinct has the unimpeded command of a people renowned for orderly dexterity. A Frenchman will have arranged an administrative organization really and effectually while an Englishman is still bungling and a German still reflecting. An American is certainly as rapid, and in some measure as efficient; but his speed is a little headlong and his execution is very rough, – he tumbles through much, but he only tumbles. A Frenchman will not hurry: he has a deliberate perfection in detail which may always be relied on, for it is never delayed. The French Emperor knows well how to use these powers: his bureaucracy is not only endurable but pleasant; an idle man who wants his politics done for him has them done for him. The welfare of the masses – the present good of the present multitude – is felt to be the object of the government and the law of the polity. The Empire gives to the French the full gratification of their main wishes and the almost artistic culture of an admirable workmanship, of an administration finished as only Frenchmen can finish it and as it never was finished before.

It belongs to such a government to care much for material prosperity, and it does care: it makes the people as comfortable as they will permit. If they are not more comfortable, it is their own fault: the government would give them Free Trade and consequent diffused comfort if it could, – no former French government has done as much for Free Trade as this government ; no government has striven to promote railways and roads and industry like this government. France is much changed in twelve years, – not exactly by the mere merit of the Empire, for it entered into a great inheritance; it succeeded to the silent work of the free monarchy, which revolution had destroyed and impeded. There were fruitful and vigorous germs of improvement ready to be elicited, ready to start forth, but under an unintelligent government they would not have started forth, they would have lain idle and dead; but under the adroit culture of the present government they have grown so as to amaze Europe and France itself.

If indeed, as is often laid down, the present happiness of the greatest number was the characteristic object of1 government, it would be difficult to make out that any probable French government would be better [than], or indeed nearly so good as, the present. The intelligence of the Emperor on economical subjects – on the bread and meat of the people – is really better than that of the classes opposed to him: he gives the present race of Frenchmen more that is good than any one else would give them, and he gives it them in their own name; they have as much as they like of all that is good for them. But if not the present happiness of the greatest number, but their future elevation, be – as it is – the true aim and end of government, our estimate of the Empire will be strangely altered; it is an admirable government for present and coarse purposes, but a detestable government for future and refined purposes.

In the first place, it stops the teaching apparatus; it stops the effectual inculcation of important thought upon the mass of mankind. All other mental effort but this, the Empire not only permits but encourages; the high intellect of Paris is as active, as well represented, as that of London, and it is even more keen. Intellect still gives there, and has always given, a distinctive position, to be a Membre de l’Institut is a recognized place in France; but in London it is an ambiguous distinction to be a “clever fellow.” The higher kinds of thought are better discussed in Parisian society than in London society, and better argued in the Revue des Deux Mondes than in any English periodical. The speculative thought of France has not been killed by the Empire, it is as quick, as rigorous, as keen as ever; but though still alive, it is no longer powerful – it cannot teach the mass. The Revue is permitted, but newspapers – effectual newspapers – are forbidden. A real course of free lectures on popular subjects would be impossible in Paris. Agitation is forbidden, and it is agitation and agitation alone which teaches. The crude mass of men bear easily philosophical treatises, refined articles, elegant literature: there are but two instruments penetrative enough to reach their opaque minds, the newspaper article and the popular speech; and both of these are forbidden.

In London the reverse is true: we may say that only the loudest sort of expression is permitted to attain its due effect. The popular organs of literature so fill men’s minds with incomplete thoughts that deliberate treatment, that careful inquiry, that quiet thought have no hearing. People are so deafened with the loud reiteration of many half-truths that they have neither curiosity nor energy for elaborate investigations. The very word “elaborate” is become a reproach: it produces2 something which the mass of men do not like because it is above them, which is tiresome because it needs industry, difficult because it wants attention, complicated because it is true. On the whole, perhaps, English thought has rarely been so unfinished, so piecemeal, so ragged as it is now. We have so many little discussions that we get no full discussion; we eat so many sandwiches that we spoil our dinner. And on the Continent, accordingly, the speculative thought of England is despised: it is believed to be meagre, uncultivated, and immature. We have only a single compensation: our thought may be poor and rough and fragmentary, but it is effectual. With our newspapers and our speeches, with our clamorous multitudes of indifferent tongues, we beat the ideas of the few into the minds of the many. The head of France is a better head than ours, but it does not move her limbs: the head of England is in comparison a coarse and crude thing, but rules her various frame and regulates her whole life.

France as it is may be happier because of the Empire, but France in the future will be more ignorant because of the Empire: the daily play of the higher mind upon the lower mind is arrested. The present government has given an instalment of Free Trade, but it could not endure an agitation for Free Trade. A democratic despotism is like a theocracy: it assumes its own correctness. It says, “I am the representative of the people; I am here because I know what they wish, because I know what they should have.” As Cavaignac once said, “A government which permits its principles to be questioned is a lost government.” All popular discussion whatever which aspires to teach the government is radically at issue with the hypothesis of the Empire: it says that the Caesar, the omniscient representative, is a mistaken representative, that he is not fit to be Caesar.

The deterioration of the future is one inseparable defect of the imperial organization, but it is not the only one; for the moment, it is not the greatest: the greatest is the corruption of the present. A greater burden is imposed by it upon human nature than human nature will bear. Everything requires the support, aid, countenance of the central government, and yet that government is expected to keep itself pure. Concessions of railways, concessions of the privilege of limited liability, on a hundred subjects, legal permission, administrative help are necessary to money-making ; you concentrate upon a small body of leading official men the power of making men’s fortunes, and it is simple to believe they will not make their own fortunes. The very principle of the system is to concentrate power, and power is money. Sir Robert Walpole used to say no honest man could be a minister, and in France the temptations would conquer all men’s honesty ; the system requires angels to work it, and perhaps it has not been so fortunate as to find angels, the nod of a minister on the Bourse is a fortune, and somehow or other ministers make fortunes. The Bourse of Paris is still so small that a leading capitalist may produce a great impression on it, and a leading capitalist working with a great minister a vast impression. Accordingly, all that goes with sudden wealth, all that follows from the misuse of the two temptations of civilization, money and women, is concentrated round the imperial court. The Emperor would cure much of it if he could, but what can he do? They say he has said that he will not change his men; he will not substitute fleas that are hungry for fleas which at least are partially satisfied. He is right: the defect belongs to the system, [not] to these men, an enormous concentration -of power in an industrial system insures an accumulation of pecuniary temptation.

These are the two main disadvantages which France suffers from her present government, the greater part of the price which she has to pay for her present happiness: she endures the daily presence of an efficient immorality, she sacrifices the educating apparatus which would elevate Frenchmen yet to be born. But these two disadvantages are not the only ones.

France gains the material present, but she does not gain the material future. All that secures present industry her government confers; in whatever needs confidence in the future she is powerless. Credit in France, to an Englishman’s eye, has almost to be created. The country deposits in the Bank of France are only 1,000,000 sterling: that bank has fifty-nine branches, is immeasurably the greatest country bank in France. All discussions on the currency come back to the cours forcé, to the inevitable necessity of making inconvertible notes an irrefusable tender during a revolution. If you propose the simplest operations of credit to a French banker, he says, “You do not remember 1848: I do.” And what is the answer? The present government avowedly depends on, is ostentatiously concentrated in, the existing Caesar; its existence depends on the permanent occupation of the Tuileries by an extraordinary man. The democratic despot, the representative despot, must have the sagacity to divine the people’s wind the sagacity to execute it: what is the likelihood that these will be hereditary? can they be expected in the next heirs, a child for Emperor and a woman for Regent? The present happiness of France is happiness on a short life-lease; it may end with the life of a man who is not young, who has not spared himself, who has always thought, who has always lived.

Such are the characteristics of the Empire as it is; such is the nature of Caesar’s government as we know it at the present. We scarcely expect that even the singular ability of Napoleon III will be able to modify by a historical retrospect the painful impressions left by actual contact with a living reality.3

The Englishman Walter Bagehot (1826-77) was once called “the Greatest Victorian” and from 1860 was editor of the world-famous economic journal, The Economist. As well as writing an influential book on banking entitled Lombard Street (1873) and the exceedingly detailed The English Constitution (1867), he wrote seven Letters on the French Coup d’état of 1851, addressed to the Editor of The Inquirer (the first of which was dated Paris Jan 8 1852). Thirteen years later he wrote the following essay, his initial ardour for the Second Empire slightly doused.


1. I have cancelled the word "the" here. See line 12, next page.
2. An evident misprint for something like "implies."

3. As a curious illustration of Mr. Bagehot's estimate of the character of the third Empire, I may mention that all the earlier part of this paper, all that which dwelt on the good side of the imperial regime in relation to matters of material prosperity, was reproduced in the French official journals, while all the equally true and even more useful criticism on its moral deficiencies was carefully omitted. Note by Mr. Hutton.

Forrest Morgan (ed.), The works of Walter Bagehot ... with memoirs of R. H. Hutton, Travelers insurance company: Hartford Connecticut, 1891, vol. II, pp. 440-447.
First published in The Economist (London), 1865.

Share it