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France: Second Republic (1848-1852)

Last modified: 2020-02-01 by ivan sache
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French national flag - Image by Željko Heimer, 22 September 2001

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History of the Second Republic

Following a week of riots in Paris, King of the French Louis-Philippe abdicated on 24 February 1848. The immediatly constituted provisional government proclaimed the (Second) Republic in the Town Ghall of Paris ("The provisional government states that the current government of France is the government of the Republic, and that the nation shall immediately be asked to ratify the resolution of the government of the people of Paris.")

The Constituent Assembly elected on 23-24 April 1848 (c. 300 Monarchists, 500 moderate Republicans and 100 Radicals and Socialists) was dominated by the conservatives. During the first session of the Assembly, held on 4 May 1848, the Republic was proclaimed again "in the name of the French people and to the whole world". An "Executive Commission" of five members (Arago, Garnier-Pagès, Marie, Lamartine and Ledru-Rollin) and a government, with General Cavaignac as the Minister of War, replaced the provisional government.
On 24 June 1848, following street riots in Paris, the Assembly proclaimed the state of siege and gave full powers to General Cavaignac, while the Executive Commission was dissolved. The riots, stopped on 26 June, were followed by a violent repression; Cavaignac was asked by the Assembly to constitute a new government with moderate republicans.

The Assembly eventually adopted a new Constitution on 4 November 1848. The executive power was to be exercised by a President of the Republic, elected for four years by direct universal suffrage, and non re-eligible. The President was to appoint and dismiss the Ministers and the high-rank civil servants. The legislative power was to be be exercised by a single Assembly of 750 members, elected for three years by direct universal suffrage according to list system. The judicial power was to be be exercised by independent, irremovable judges.

The election of the President of the Republic was held on 10 December 1848. Prince Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, Napoléon I's nephew, who had just came back from his English exile and had been considered as unsignificant by his rivals, triumphally won with 5,454,000 votes (c. 75% of the votes), defeating General Cavaignac (1,448,000 votes), Ledru-Rollin (371,000 votes), Raspail (36,000 votes) and Lamartine (17,000 votes). On 20 December 1848, the newly elected President took the oath to respect the Constitution in the Assembly.

On 20 July 1851, a proposal of revision of the Constitution allowing the President to compete for a second presidential election was rejected.
The President dissolved the Assembly on 2 December 1851, the anniversary of both the Battle of Austerlitz and Napoléon I's coronation.
The new Constitution proclaimed on 14 January 1852 claimed to preserve the Republican institutions but in fact prepared the establishment of the Second Empire. Elected for ten years, the President was to propose the laws and to appoint the Ministers, and could canvass the people's opinion by holding a plebiscite. A Legislative Corps, elected by universal suffrage, was to vote the laws. A Senate, constituted of admirals, marshals, cardinals and other members appointed by the President, was to check the compliance of the laws with the Constitution and could amend them by senatus-consultum. A State Council of 40-50 members appointed by the President was to elaborate the laws.
On 7 November 1852, a senatus-consultum reestablished the title of Emperor (Napoléon III) for Louis-Napoléon. The senatus-consultum was widely approved on 21-22 November 1852 by plebiscite (7,824,000 "yes" / 253,000 "no"). Napoleon III was crowned on 2 December 1852, one year after his constitutional coup.
[B. Melchior-Bonnet. Restauration et révolutions, 1815-1851. Histoire de France Illustrée, Larousse, 1988]

Ivan Sache, 9 July 2001

The Tricolore vs the red flag, 25 February 1848


Rejected red flag - Image by Tomislav Todorovią & Mladen Mijatov, 7 February 2010

Lamartine's rendition of the event

The French Tricolore flag was challenged by the red flag after the fall of King Louis-Philippe in 1848 and the proclamation of the Second Republic. Most history books report that the Tricolore flag was "saved" by Lamartine.
Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869) has to be considered as the inventor of the modern French poetry, which he completely revamped, and the archetype of the Romantic poet. He was the first to consider poetry as a specific meditation, independent of any rhetorical or esthetic background.
Lamartine's political career was quite contrasted. After the Revolution of July 1830, he ran unsuccessfully in the July 1831 general election, being accused of using his writer's fame to push his own ambitions instead of really defending liberal ideas. In the next election, he was elected in Bergues and significantly contributed to the political debate, promoting moderation and virtue. Foreseeing the fall of Louis-Philippe, he coined in July 1847 the expression révolution du mépris (contempt revolution). On 24 February 1848, King Louis-Philippe left; Lamartine, on behalf of the Provisory Government, proclaimed the Republic from the Town Hall of Paris and spoke at the Chamber. The next day, he convinced the mob to support the Tricolore flag. Appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs in March, he was elected in the April general elections in 10 departments (which was possible at the time). On 10 December, he got only a few thousands votes in the preisdential election, probably because of his rejection of political parties. This was the end of Lamartine's political career, even if he remained member of the Chamber until the coup of 1852.

Lamartien extensively relates the "flag event" in his Histoire de la Révolution de 1848, published in Paris in 1849. The relevant chapter is entitled Quel drapeau pour la République ? (Which flag for the Republic?). Several historians consider that Lamartine deliberately embellished his contribution to the event and wrote his own legend. It is hard to believe that Lamartine, even if an excellent poet and orator, could have improvized such a brilliant but tortuous speech facing an angry mob.
After explaining how he calmed down the infuriated mob, Lamartine relates the flag dispute as follows (my translation from the original French text):

[Lamartine speaking]
"And what would the sun see today?" "It would see another people [...] ordering its government to hoist, as an emblem of concord, the standard of the fight to death among the citizens of the same homeland! This red flag that has been sometimes raised when blood flowed, as a scarecrow against enemies, this flag that has to be put down immediatly after the fighting as a symbol of reconciliation and peace! I would prefer the black flag sometimes hoisted over a besieged city like a shroud, in order to present to the bombs neutral buildings dedicated to humanity and from which the cannonball and even the bomb of the enemies must move away; do you really want the flag of your republic to be more scaring and sinister than the flag of a bombed city?"
"No, no, exclaimed some of the onlookers. Lamartine is right, my friends, don't keep this flag scaring the citizens!"
- Oh, but we must keep it, exclaimed others "this is ours, this is the people's, this is the one we have won with, why should not we keep after the victory the emblem we have shed with our blood?"
"Citizens", resumed Lamartine, after having fought the change of the flag with the reasons the most striking for the people's imagination and as relying on his conscience for the ultimate reason, therefore intimidating the people who loved him by the threat of his withdrawal:
"Citizens, you can do violence to the government. You can order it to change the flag of the nation and the name of France, if you are so ill inspired and stubborn in your mistake to impose to it a party's republic and a terror's flag. I know that the government is as determined as myself to die rather than to dishonor itself by obeying you; as far as I am concerned, my hand will never sign this Decree! I will push away until death this blood flag, and you should repudiate it even more than I will! Because the red flag that you have brought back here has achieved nothing but being trailed around the Champ-de-Mars in the people's blood in [17]91 and [17]93, whereas the Tricolore flag went round the world along with the name, the glory and the liberty of the homeland!"
After having said these last words, Lamartine, stopped by nearly unanimuous enthusiastic cries, fell from the chair he had used as a stand into the arms stretched out to him from all sides! The cause of the new republic won over the bloody memories some had wanted to substitute for it. A general shaking, assisted by Lamartine and by the impulse of good citizens, caused the surge of the mob that had filled the room until the landing of the great stairs to cries of "Long live Lamartine! Long live the Tricolore flag!"

Ivan Sache, 1 May 2006

Philippoteaux' rendition of the event

The French painter Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux (1815-1884) designed two paintings showing Lamartine's defending of the Tricolore. Both of them show all the three flags reportedly used in 1848, but arranged differently.

The first painting, kept in Petit Palais Museum, Paris, is entitled "Lamartine Rejects the Red Flag in 1848". The blue-white-red flag hoisted on the Paris town hall is charged with an early variant of the emblem of the Republic: a fasces with the Phrygian cap at its top, between the letters "R F", all within a wreath. Two other blue-white-red flags are carried by the mob, the one at the right-hand end of the painting charged with the motto "LIBERTE EGALITE FRATERNITE" inscribed on the white field. There is also a blue-red-white flag near Lamartine, who is shown central part of the painting; this flag is also charged with an inscription, which is unreadable. Behind the blue-red-white flag, there is a red flag, also with an unreadable inscription. Finally, there is a large red flag in the left-hand part of the painting; it is charged with the word "REPUBLIQUE" in white and a small unrecognizable emblem above it, in the same colour.

The second painting is kept in Carnavalet Museum, Paris. Its title is much longer: "Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869) Rejecting the Red Flag at the Hotel de Ville, Paris, 25th February 1848". On this painting, a blue-red-white flag is hoisted on the town hamm; it is charged with an unrecognizable emblem, probably meant to be the same as the one shown on the first painting. Another blue-red-white flag, two blue-white-red flags and two red flags are shown at approximately the same positions as at the first painting, but the inscription on the blue-white-red flag at the right-hand end is unreadable here and the other flags are without the inscriptions. There is also an additional red flag, shown far behind the central scene.

I have no information on the reasons for Philippoteaux' reasons for making two paintings of the same scene. Neither is known if he did see all of these flags in real life, although it is quite possible, because he was born and lived in Paris.

Tomislav Todorović, 7 February 2010

Lamartine's Tricolore flag

In 1820, Lamartine inherited the castle of Saint-Point, located near Mâcon, where he spent most of his family life with his wife Mary-Ann Birch. He restored the castle in English Gothic style and welcomed there his numerous friends, including Victor Hugo, Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin, George Sand, Alexandre Dumas father and son, and Eugène Sue. In 1829, Lamartine built on the border of the castle's park, close to the village's church, a big family mausoleum where all the family would be buried, including his niece Valentine de Cessiat-Lamartine (1821-1894), who attempted to preserve the poet's heritage and paid most of his debts. The "historical" part of the castle is also open to a very emotional visit (website), showing personal objects, including the genuine 1848 Tricolore flag (photo).

Ivan Sache, 30 November 2011

The blue-red-white flag error


Erroneous national flag - Image by Tomislav Todorović & Mladen Mijatov, 7 February 2010

A short-lived blue-red-white tricolore flag is documented by Whitney Smith in Flags Through The Ages And Across The World [smi75c] (pages 137-138 and image on page 135). According to his evidence the blue-red-white arrangement was decreed by the government on 26 February 1848, and rescinded by another Decree on 5 March, which restored the more familiar blue-white-red arrangement. The 26 February Decree also provided that a red rosette was to be added to the tops of poles bearing the national flag. The blue-red-white tricolor is also shown in Banderas y Escudos del Mundo [a8m86] on page 216.

It is not clearly stated why the order was changed. The February Decree said it was because "the form of the flag should be fixed in an invariable manner", but that obviously doesn't answer why that particular manner was chosen.
It was known that the more radical revolutionaries in 1848 were demanding that the flag be changed to solid red. The red rosette was added to placate them. My own personal conjecture is that the blue-red-white ordering was a further compromise, so that the flag of the Republic would not be identical with the flag of the recently overthrown Orleanist monarchy. But then the new authorities quickly switched back to the blue-white-red as soon as they realized that popular sentiment was still attached to that flag, and regarded it as the flag of the Nation, not just the flag of the former regime.
I didn't see any evidence offered on whether the variant flag ever actually flew or not, but given how rapidly new flags can appear in revolutionary situations I wouldn't be surprised if it did.

Ned Smith, 29 February 2004

Pierre Charrié (Drapeaux et Étendards du XIXe siècle [chr92]) states that the weird arrangement of the colors was simply a mistake in the Decree, which was corrected two days later. It can be assumed that no erroneous flag was ever manufactured.
There are therefore some discrepancies between Smith and Charrié's accounts of the flag error. Smith mentions a government Decree from February whereas Charrié refers to an Order by the Minister of the Navy from May.
The onset of the Second Republic was a kind of enthusiastic improvisation. Therefore, it is possible that the Minister of the Navy released an Order without really knowing that there was already a government Decree on the same topic. Concerning the arrangement of the colours, we must remember that the French Tricolore was less than a century old, had been legally prescribed in 1814 only, and had suffered a severe ban during the Bourbon restoration. There are examples of paintings showing Tricolore flags with the colours erroneously arranged. The definitive adoption of the Tricolore flag took place only with the Third Republic and Count of Chambord's renunciation. The flag became then the patriotic symbol and was one of the most important elements of the Sacred Union that united all political forces against Germany during the First World War.

The Decree prescribing the erroneous flag was implemented through a Regulation issued on 27 February 1848 by the Delegate of the Provisory Government at the Police Department, delivered as a street leaflet (image) printed by Boucquin, Printer of the Police Department. The text says:

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.
According to the Decree of the Provisory Government of the French Republic, 25 February 1848, which adopts the three colours, arranged as they were during the Republic, the Delegate of the Provisory Government at the Police Department, ORDERS all the Chiefs of public monuments, and, if absent, the janitors of said monuments, to hoist immediatly on said monuments a flag, of the biggest possible size, with the colors arranged as:
[Centered, in bigger letters]
Blue, Red and White;
So that the blue is at hoist, the red in the middle and the white at fly.
Paris, 27 February 1848
The Delegate of the Republic at the Police Department

Marc Caussidiè:re (1808-1861), a wine merchant, was appointed Police Prefect (Delegate of the Provisory Government at the Police Department) after having contributed to the seizure of the Police Prefecture. Caussidiè:re created the People's Guard, made of the just released revolutionaries. In conflict with the Executive Commission that had succeeded the Provisory Government, Caussidiè:re took part on 15 May 1848 to the failed Republican demonstration. Sentenced to deportation, he exiled after the June 1848 insurrection and came back to France after the amnesty proclaimed in 1859.

Ivan Sache, 25 August 2010

French Army Colors, model 1852

[Flag]    [Flag]

Army color, model 1852, reverse and obverse - Images by Tom Gregg, 9 February 2002

This flag is an exemple of the army colors called "Drapeaux et Étendards Modèle 1852".
By a Decree issued on 31 December 1851, President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte reestablished the French eagle (aigle) and all flags which had been prescribed in 1848 were suppressed. The new flags were manufactured by Ets. Marion, 13, rue de Grammont, Paris. The flags were solemnly delivered to the units by the President on Champ-de-Mars in Paris on 10 May 1852.
After the proclamation of the Second Empire, a Decision issued on 10 November 1853 prescribed new flags for the Army units. A Decree issued on 24 April 1854 prescribed the incineration of the former flags.
Those flags and the distribution ceremony are described in detail by P. Charrié (Drapeaux et Étendards du XIXe siècle [chr92]).

Ivan Sache, 9 February 2002