1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/MacMahon, Marie Edmé Patrice Maurice de
MACMAHON, MARIE EDMÉ PATRICE MAURICE DE, duke of Magenta (1808–1893), French marshal and president of the French republic, was born on the 13th of July 1808 at the château of Sully, near Autun. He was descended from an Irish family which went into exile with James II. Educated at the military school of St Cyr, in 1827 he entered the army, and soon saw active service in the first French campaign in Algeria, where his ability and bravery became conspicuous. Being recalled to France, he gained renewed distinction in the expedition to Antwerp in 1832. He became captain in 1833, and in that year returned to Algeria. He led daring cavalry raids across plains infested with Bedouin, and especially distinguished himself at the siege of Constantine in 1837. From then until 1855 he was almost constantly in Algeria, and rose to the rank of general of division. During the Crimean War MacMahon was given the command of a division, and in September 1855 he successfully conducted the assault upon the Malakoff works, which led to the fall of Sebastopol. After his return to France honours were showered upon him, and he was made a senator. Desiring a more active life, however, and declining the highest command in France, he was once more sent out, at his own request, to Algeria, where he completely defeated the Kabyles. After his return to France he voted as a senator against the unconstitutional law for general safety, which was brought forward in consequence of Orsini's abortive attempt on the emperor's life. MacMahon greatly distinguished himself in the Italian campaign of 1859. Partly by good luck and partly by his boldness and sagacity in pushing forward without orders at a critical moment at the battle of Magenta, he enabled the French to secure the victory. For his brilliant services MacMahon received his marshal's baton and was created duke of Magenta. In 1861 he represented France at the coronation of William I. of Prussia, and in 1864 he was nominated governor general of Algeria. MacMahon's action in this capacity formed the least successful episode of his career. Although he did institute some reforms in the colonies, complaints were so numerous that twice in the early part of 1870 he sent in his resignation to the emperor. When the ill-fated Ollivier cabinet was formed the emperor abandoned his Algerian schemes and MacMahon was recalled.
War being declared between France and Prussia in July 1870, MacMahon was appointed to the command of the Alsace army detachment (see Franco-German War). On the 6th of August MacMahon fought the battle of Wörth (q.v.). His courage was always conspicuous on the field, but the two-to-one numerical superiority of the Germans triumphed. MacMahon was compelled to fall back upon Saverne, and thence to Toul. Though he suffered further losses in the course of his retreat, his movements were so ably conducted that the emperor confided to him the supreme command of the new levies which he was mustering at Chalons, and he was directed to effect a junction with Bazaine. This operation he undertook against his will. He had an army of 120,000 men, with 324 guns; but large numbers of the troops were disorganized and demoralized. Early on the 1st of September the decisive battle of Sedan began. MacMahon was dangerously wounded in the thigh, whereupon General Ducrot, and soon afterwards General de Wimpffen, took command. MacMahon shared the captivity of his comrades, and resided at Wiesbaden until the conclusion of peace.
In March 1871 MacMahon was appointed by Thiers commander-in-chief of the army of Versailles; and in that capacity he suppressed the Communist insurrection, and successfully conducted the second siege of Paris. In the following December he was invited to become a candidate for Paris in the elections to the National Assembly, but declined nomination. On the resignation of Thiers as president of the Republic, on the 24th of May 1873, MacMahon was elected to the vacant office by an almost unanimous vote, being supported by 390 members out of 392. The duc de Broglie was empowered to form a Conservative administration, but the president also took an early opportunity of showing that he intended to uphold the sovereignty of the National Assembly. On the 5th of November 1873 General Changarnier presented a motion in the Assembly to confirm MacMahon's powers for a period of ten years, and to provide for a commission of thirty to draw up a form of constitutional law. The president consented, but in a message to the Assembly he declared in favour of a confirmation of his own powers for seven years, and expressed his determination to use all his influence in the maintenance of Conservative principles. After prolonged debates the Septennate was adopted on the 19th of November by 378 votes to 310. There was no coup d'état in favour of “Henri V.,” as had been expected, and the president resolved to abide by “existing institutions.” One of his earliest acts was to receive the finding of the court-martial upon his old comrade in arms, Marshal Bazaine, whose death sentence he commuted to one of twenty years' imprisonment in a fortress. Though MacMahon's life as president of the Republic was of the simplest possible character, his term of office was marked by many brilliant displays, while his wife was a leader in all works of charity and benevolence.
The president was very popular in the rural districts of France, through which he made a successful tour shortly after the declaration of the Septennate. But in Paris and other large cities his policy soon caused great dissatisfaction, the Republican party especially being alienated by press prosecutions and the attempted suppression of Republican ideas. Matters were at a comparative deadlock in the National Assembly, until the accession of some Orleanists to the Moderate Republican party in 1875 made it possible to pass various constitutional laws. In May 1877, however, the constitutional crisis became once more acute. A peremptory letter of censure from MacMahon to Jules Simon caused the latter to resign with his colleagues. The duc de Broglie formed a ministry, but Gambetta carried a resolution in the Chamber of Deputies in favour of parliamentary government. The president declined to yield, and being supported by the Senate, he dissolved the Chamber, by decree, on the 25th of June. The prosecution of Gambetta followed for a speech at Lille, in which he had said “the marshal must, if the elections be against him, "se soumettre ou se démettre.” In a manifesto respecting the elections, the president referred to his successful government and observed, “I cannot obey the injunctions of the demagogy; I can neither become the instrument of Radicalism nor abandon the post in which the constitution has placed me.” His confidence in the result of the elections was misplaced. Notwithstanding the great pressure put upon the constituencies by the government, the elections in October resulted in the return of 335 Republicans and only 198 anti-Republicans, the latter including 30 MacMahonists, 89 Bonapartists, 41 Legitimists, and 38 Orleanists. The president endeavoured to ignore the significance of the elections, and continued his reactionary policy. As a last resort he called to power an extra-parliamentary cabinet under General Rochebouet, but the Republican majority refused to vote supplies, and after a brief interval the president was compelled to yield, and to accept a new Republican ministry under Dufaure. The prolonged crisis terminated on the 14th of December 1877, and no further constitutional difficulties arose in 1878. But as the senatorial elections, held early in 1879, gave the Republicans an effective working majority in the Upper Chamber, they now called for the removal of the most conspicuous anti-Republicans among the generals and officials. The president refused to supersede them, and declined to sanction the law brought in with this object. Perceiving further resistance to be useless, however, MacMahon resigned the presidency on the 30th of January 1879, and Iules Grévy was elected as his successor.
MacMahon now retired into private life. Relieved from the cares of state, his simple and unostentatious mode of existence enabled him to pass many years of dignified repose. He died at Paris on the 17th of October 1893, in his eighty-sixth year. A fine, tall, soldierly man, of a thoroughly Irish type, in private life MacMahon was universally esteemed as generous and honourable; as a soldier he was brave and able, without decided military genius; as a politician he was patriotic and well-intentioned, but devoid of any real capacity for statecraft.(G. B. S.)