Adolphe Thiers

1797-1877
Portrait of Adolphe Thiers. Source: SHD terre

 

Adolphe Thiers, historian and statesman, was symbolic of the emerging Third Republic, the "executioner of the Commune" and founder of the Republic. Marie-Louis-Joseph-Adolphe Thiers was born in Marseille into a middle-class family. Helped by the extravagance of his father, the young Adolphe had a brilliant education by means of a scholarship. After studying law in Aix-en-Provence, he settled in Paris in 1821, where he moved in liberal society, embarking on a career as a journalist at Le Constitutionnel, before founding Le National on the 3rd January 1830 with Auguste Mignet and Armand Carrel, opposing through their articles the sovereignty of Charles X. In 1824, with his friend Auguste Mignet, he began a historical account of the Revolution of 1789. Thiers then devoted himself to Napoleon and was the first to provide a complete account, albeit partisan, of his career in his History of the Consulate and the Empire, published between 1845 and 1862 - in addition, in 1936 and 1940, he requested the return of Napoleon's ashes. His works earned his election to the French Academy in December 1834. Politically, Thiers was a "liberal", a man of progress, with a belief in the principle of national sovereignty, expressed through free elections and through representatives controlling the executive.

He played an active role in the July revolution in organising the resistance of those journalists threatened by the "Four Orders" (laws aimed at "muzzling" the press), going so far as to support Louis-Philippe when he came to power. The latter called him into his government as Under-Secretary of State for Finance, Minister of the Interior and then Minister of Agriculture and Trade. He was thus in permanent opposition with legitimists, republicans and the supporters of Bonaparte. During the Second Republic (1848-1851) Thiers worked with a regime that he was to consider "disappointing", as it was too conservative. As a member of parliament, Thiers laid down Proudhon's socialist theses, writing at the time a short treaty for the general public on Property, supporting the Falloux law and the Rome expedition. He was even to go so far as to support the candidate Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte during the presidential elections, but was to oppose the coup d'état of the 2nd December 1851, a stance that was to see him exiled to England, Italy and then Switzerland. Thiers therefore disappeared from the political scene in Napoleon the Third's 's first year in power. He returned to politics to oppose the left under the liberal Empire (1860-1870). "Thiers, who was even classed as an "Orléanist" because of his past from 1830-48, was, in fact, the leader of the handful of royalists who remained faithful to liberalism." (M. Aguhlon). He accepted the Crimean expedition but remained very critical of Napoleon the Third's foreign policy, which he considered too liberal and unsuitable for the Italian peninsula and Germany; he demanded the liquidation of the Mexican expedition.

On the fall of the Second Empire Thiers, who had been elected in the previous Empire elections in 1869, participated in the Government of National Defence, which he ended up managing, having actively contributed since the 10th September 1870 in peace preparations: the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jules Favre, asked him in the name of the government to moderate the offensive policies of the European powers, in particular the ambitions of Bismarck - so, from 1873 until 1875 Thiers carried out a lengthy tour of all the European capitals. Following the signing of the armistice on the 28th January 1871, Thiers was elected head of the new government in the elections of the 8th February 1871. As head of the executive power, he brought the communard movement to an end in a bloodbath in the spring of 1871; he was known as the "executioner of the Commune". The suppression of the Parisian uprising, the "Federates" movement, was led by Thiers with an army of "men of Versailles", the government having then established itself in Versailles. He was at the head of the 63,500 men, reinforced by the 130,000 liberated French prisoners of war and supported by Bismarck, who, between March and June 1871, besieged Paris and the neighbouring villages. The fighting would account for around thirty thousand dead from the ranks of the Federates. Up until 1874, four emergency courts passed judgement on the "Communards": 13,804 sentences were pronounced, including several for the labour camps of Guyana and New Caledonia - there would be no amnesty until July 1880. On the 24th May 1873, the parliamentary right, who had brought him to power, but were hostile to the republican orientation that Thiers gave to the Government, secured his resignation and replaced him with Mac Mahon. Adolphe Thiers died on the 3rd September 1877. Despite the refusal of his family to hold a state funeral, a funeral cortège with 384 wreaths, followed by Gambetta and Hugo, was to turn the final journey of this multi-faceted statesman into a national affair.

 

Sources: AGUHLON (Maurice), "Adolphe Thiers", in: Célébrations nationales 1997, Paris, Direction des Archives de France. MOURRE (Michel), Dictionnaire encyclopédique d'histoire, Paris, Bordas, 1996 (1978).