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Chapter 1

The Ambush


On December 1, 1851, Charras[1] shrugged his shoulder and unloaded his
pistols. In truth, the belief in the possibility of a _coup d'état_ had
become humiliating. The supposition of such illegal violence on the part
of M. Louis Bonaparte vanished upon serious consideration. The great
question of the day was manifestly the Devincq election; it was clear
that the Government was only thinking of that matter. As to a conspiracy
against the Republic and against the People, how could any one
premeditate such a plot? Where was the man capable of entertaining such a
dream? For a tragedy there must be an actor, and here assuredly the actor
was wanting. To outrage Right, to suppress the Assembly, to abolish the
Constitution, to strangle the Republic, to overthrow the Nation, to sully
the Flag, to dishonor the Army, to suborn the Clergy and the Magistracy,
to succeed, to triumph, to govern, to administer, to exile, to banish, to
transport, to ruin, to assassinate, to reign, with such complicities that
the law at last resembles a foul bed of corruption. What! All these
enormities were to be committed! And by whom? By a Colossus? No, by a
dwarf. People laughed at the notion. They no longer said "What a crime!"
but "What a farce!" For after all they reflected; heinous crimes require
stature. Certain crimes are too lofty for certain hands. A man who would
achieve an 18th Brumaire must have Arcola in his past and Austerlitz in
his future. The art of becoming a great scoundrel is not accorded to the
first comer. People said to themselves, Who is this son of Hortense? He
has Strasbourg behind him instead of Arcola, and Boulogne in place of
Austerlitz. He is a Frenchman, born a Dutchman, and naturalized a Swiss;
he is a Bonaparte crossed with a Verhuell; he is only celebrated for the
ludicrousness of his imperial attitude, and he who would pluck a feather
from his eagle would risk finding a goose's quill in his hand. This
Bonaparte does not pass currency in the array, he is a counterfeit image
less of gold than of lead, and assuredly French soldiers will not give us
the change for this false Napoleon in rebellion, in atrocities, in
massacres, in outrages, in treason. If he should attempt roguery it would
miscarry. Not a regiment would stir. Besides, why should he make such an
attempt? Doubtless he has his suspicious side, but why suppose him an
absolute villain? Such extreme outrages are beyond him; he is incapable
of them physically, why judge him capable of them morally? Has he not
pledged honor? Has he not said, "No one in Europe doubts my word?" Let us
fear nothing. To this could be answered, Crimes are committed either on a
grand or on a mean scale. In the first category there is Caesar; in the
second there is Mandrin. Caesar passes the Rubicon, Mandrin bestrides the
gutter. But wise men interposed, "Are we not prejudiced by offensive
conjectures? This man has been exiled and unfortunate. Exile enlightens,
misfortune corrects."

For his part Louis Bonaparte protested energetically. Facts abounded in
his favor. Why should he not act in good faith? He had made remarkable
promises. Towards the end of October, 1848, then a candidate for the
Presidency, he was calling at No. 37, Rue de la Tour d'Auvergne, on a
certain personage, to whom he remarked, "I wish to have an explanation
with you. They slander me. Do I give you the impression of a madman? They
think that I wish to revivify Napoleon. There are two men whom a great
ambition can take for its models, Napoleon and Washington. The one is a
man of Genius, the other is a man of Virtue. It is ridiculous to say, 'I
will be a man of Genius;' it is honest to say, 'I will be a man of
Virtue.' Which of these depends upon ourselves? Which can we accomplish
by our will? To be Genius? No. To be Probity? Yes. The attainment of
Genius is not possible; the attainment of Probity is a possibility. And
what could I revive of Napoleon? One sole thing--a crime. Truly a worthy
ambition! Why should I be considered man? The Republic being established,
I am not a great man, I shall not copy Napoleon; but I am an honest man.
I shall imitate Washington. My name, the name of Bonaparte, will be
inscribed on two pages of the history of France: on the first there will
be crime and glory, on the second probity and honor. And the second will
perhaps be worth the first. Why? Because if Napoleon is the greater,
Washington is the better man. Between the guilty hero and the good
citizen I choose the good citizen. Such is my ambition."

From 1848 to 1851 three years elapsed. People had long suspected Louis
Bonaparte; but long-continued suspicion blunts the intellect and wears
itself out by fruitless alarms. Louis Bonaparte had had dissimulating
ministers such as Magne and Rouher; but he had also had straightforward
ministers such as Léon Faucher and Odilon Barrot; and these last had
affirmed that he was upright and sincere. He had been seen to beat his
breast before the doors of Ham; his foster sister, Madame Hortense
Cornu, wrote to Mieroslawsky, "I am a good Republican, and I can answer
for him." His friend of Ham, Peauger, a loyal man, declared, "Louis
Bonaparte is incapable of treason." Had not Louis Bonaparte written the
work entitled "Pauperism"? In the intimate circles of the Elysée Count
Potocki was a Republican and Count d'Orsay was a Liberal; Louis
Bonaparte said to Potocki, "I am a man of the Democracy," and to
D'Orsay, "I am a man of Liberty." The Marquis du Hallays opposed the
_coup d'état_, while the Marquise du Hallays was in its favor. Louis
Bonaparte said to the Marquis, "Fear nothing" (it is true that he
whispered to the Marquise, "Make your mind easy"). The Assembly, after
having shown here and there some symptoms of uneasiness, had grown calm.
There was General Neumayer, "who was to be depended upon," and who from
his position at Lyons would at need march upon Paris. Changarnier
exclaimed, "Representatives of the people, deliberate in peace." Even
Louis Bonaparte himself had pronounced these famous words, "I should see
an enemy of my country in any one who would change by force that which
has been established by law," and, moreover, the Army was "force," and
the Army possessed leaders, leaders who were beloved and victorious.
Lamoricière, Changarnier, Cavaignac, Leflô, Bedeau, Charras; how could
any one imagine the Army of Africa arresting the Generals of Africa? On
Friday, November 28, 1851, Louis Bonaparte said to Michel de Bourges,
"If I wanted to do wrong, I could not. Yesterday, Thursday, I invited to
my table five Colonels of the garrison of Paris, and the whim seized me
to question each one by himself. All five declared to me that the Army
would never lend itself to a _coup de force_, nor attack the
inviolability of the Assembly. You can tell your friends this."--"He
smiled," said Michel de Bourges, reassured, "and I also smiled." After
this, Michel de Bourges declared in the Tribune, "this is the man for
me." In that same month of November a satirical journal, charged with
calumniating the President of the Republic, was sentenced to fine and
imprisonment for a caricature depicting a shooting-gallery and Louis
Bonaparte using the Constitution as a target. Morigny, Minister of the
Interior, declared in the Council before the President "that a Guardian
of Public Power ought never to violate the law as otherwise he would
be--" "a dishonest man," interposed the President. All these words and
all these facts were notorious. The material and moral impossibility of
the _coup d'état_ was manifest to all. To outrage the National Assembly!
To arrest the Representatives! What madness! As we have seen, Charras,
who had long remained on his guard, unloaded his pistols. The feeling of
security was complete and unanimous. Nevertheless there were some of us
in the Assembly who still retained a few doubts, and who occasionally
shook our heads, but we were looked upon as fools.

[1] Colonel Charras was Under-Secretary of State in 1848, and Acting
Secretary of War under the Provisional Government.

Victor Hugo