The Prince

I am losing the battle to keep Louis Napoleon out of my book, which I thought had nothing to do with him. Part of the trouble is that he keeps reminding me of George W. Bush. You know: lesser, largely overlooked scion of a political dynasty; early adulthood on the bottle; represents himself before taking power as the nurturing variant of the law-and-order ideology; not exactly elected; afterwards, empire. But the metempsychotic possibilities are beginning to be uncanny.

Consider the impression that Louis Napoleon made on the National Assembly of France in the fall of 1848. The New York Herald of 27 October 1848 reprints a description from the London Chronicle. At the time, every democrat in France was afraid that Louis Napoleon would stage a coup. They had tried to exclude him from the assembly, but the strategy backfired; five different counties elected him as their representative, in protest. Now the assembly was considering an amendment that would exclude from the presidency “the members of all the families which had at any time reigned in France.” Louis Napoleon was the only serious contender the amendment would have inhibited. His parliamentary enemies were once again making a martyr of him—handing him another grand political opportunity.

He seems, however, to have flubbed it. But what’s interesting to me is how he flubbed it.

Prince Louis Napoleon, in directing his steps towards the tribune, showed that he was overwhelmed with his position. On his arrival there, he had some difficulty in commencing at all, and at length he came out, in a hesitating and unconnected manner, with the following words:—

Citizens—I do not come before you to speak against the amendment; certainly I have been sufficiently rewarded in recovering all my rights as a citizen to entertain any other ambition. Neither do I come here to make any complaint against the calumnies of which I have been the object. It is in the name of the 300,000 electors who have twice honored me with their suffrages that I disavow the appellation of pretender, which is constantly brought forward against me.

At this point the Prince stopped, hesitated, and appeared inclined to go on, but at length he descended from the tribune, apparently greatly disconcerted, and amidst marks of great astonishment on the part of a portion of the members, and of annoyance on the part of others. The German accent, the confusion, the vagueness and inanity of the words spoken, the absence of all the qualities of a popular orator, had done their work. . . . He has more damaged his cause by this short attempt to speak than by all the past follies of his life. . . . M. Anthony Thouret rose, and in a tone of contempt which was not even disguised, he said that after the few short words they had heard, he was quite satisfied that his fears from the pretender were exaggerated, and that his amendment was needless, and that he therefore withdrew it. The observation was received with loud plaudits from all sides of the Assembly. . . . The Dˆbats says that the words spoken by the oratorical novice produced a marvelous effefct, for that they set those who most feared him quite at their ease.

In other words, the democrats found his accent so hickish, his syntax so garbled, and his style so rhetorically impoverished that they congratulated themselves and misunderestimated him. Note that whatever the democrats may have thought of the speech, it procured for Louis Napoleon exactly what he wanted: the defeat of the amendment excluding him from the presidency. And his enemies let their guard down.