1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Thiers, Louis Adolphe
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Thiers, Louis Adolphe
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THIERS, LOUIS ADOLPHE (1797-1877), French statesman and historian, was born at Marseilles on the 16th of April 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 lifelong friendship with Mignet, and was called to the bar at the age of twenty-three. He had, however, little taste for law and much for literature; and he obtained 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. In each of the years immediately following his arrival in Paris he collected and published a volume of his 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, and he had begun 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, for all Thiers's historical work is marked by extreme inaccuracy, by prejudice which passes the limits of accidental unfairness, 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.” Coming as the book 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, not to say of a literary hack. He even planned an Histoire générale. 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. Thiers himself was one of the souls of the actual revolution, being credited with “overcoming the scruples of Louis Philippe,” perhaps no Herculean task. At any rate he had his reward. He ranked as one of the Radical 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 duc de Broglie, the main pillar. 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 became much less radical, and, after the troubles of June 1832, was appointed 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 his series of quarrels and jealousies with Guizot. 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 the 29th of October. He now had little to do with politics for some years, and spent his time on his Histoire du Consulat et de l'Empire, the first volume of which appeared in 1845. Though he was still a member of the chamber he spoke rarely, till after the beginning of 1846, when he was evidently bidding once more for power. 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 conservative republican, which he ever afterwards maintained, 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. He was arrested at the coup d'état, 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. For the seven years following 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. While nominally protesting against its foreign enterprises, he perpetually harped on French loss of prestige, and so contributed more than any one else to stir up the fatal spirit which broughton the war of 1870. 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 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 of obtaining some intervention, 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. 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 exécutif. 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 is the strongest testimony to Thiers's merits. 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, which 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. Soon after this was accomplished he became (August 30th) in name as well as in fact president of the republic.
His strong personal will and inflexible opinions had much to do with the resurrection of France; but the very same facts made it inevitable that he should excite violent opposition. 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 compulsory but short service. Both his talents and his temper made him utterly indisposed to maintain the attitude supposed to be incumbent on a republican president; and his tongue was never a carefully governed one. In January 1872 he formally tendered his resignation; and though it was refused, almost all parties disliked him, while his chief supporters — men like Rémusat, Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire and Jules Simon — were men rather of the past than of the present.
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 13th 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 opposition 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 19th. Immediately afterwards the question was brought to a head by an interpellation moved by the duc de 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 704. Thiers at once resigned (May 24th).
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 16th 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 organizing 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 3rd. Thiers had long been married, and his wife and sister-in-law, Mlle 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 no superior among the statesmen of his time except Lord Beaconsfield.
Thiers was by far the most gifted and interesting of the group of literary statesmen which formed a unique feature in the French political history of the 19th century. 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. But he 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 inveterate 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 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 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 worst 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 historians of his 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 evident 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 inconvenient 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 after his death were 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. Several years after his death appeared Deux opuscules (1891) and Mélanges inédites (1892), while Notes et souvenirs, 1870-73, were published in 1901 by “F. D.,” his sister-in-law and constant companion, Mlle Félicie Dosne. Works on him, by M. Laya, M. de Mazade, his colleague and friend M. Jules Simon, and others, are numerous.
- (G. Sa.)