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Louis Adolphe Thiers

      Louis Adolphe Thiers, French historian, politician, and patriot, was born at Marseilles on April 16, 1797. His father, who seems to have belonged to a family in decayed circumstances, was a locksmith. Through the influence of his mother, who was a Chenier, he received a good education, first at the Lycee in his native city, and subsequently (1815) at Aix, whither he was sent to study law. At Aix he made the acquaintance of Mignet, cultivated literature rather than the law, and won a prize for a dissertation on Vauvenargues. Called to the bar at the age of twenty-three, he set off for Paris in the company of Mignet. His prospects did not seem brilliant, and his almost ludicrously squat figure and plain face were not recommendations to Parisian society. His industry and belief in himself were, however, unbounded, and an introduction to Lafitte, of the Constitutionnel, then the leading organ of the French liberals, gave him the chance of showing his capacity as a public writer. His articles in the Constitutionnel, chiefly on political and literary subjects, gained him the entry into the most influential salons of the opposition. At this time he made the acquaintance of Talleyrand, Casimir Perier, the Comte de Flahault, and Baron Louis, the financier. Meanwhile he was rapidly--indeed too rapidly--preparing his "Histoire de la Revolution Francaise." The first two volumes--there were ten in all--appeared in 1823. This work, although it has been demonstrated to be very untrustworthy and inaccurate, more especially in its estimates of persons, gave its author a prominent place among French politicians and men of letters. About this time, too, the gift by his admirer, Cotta, the German publisher, of a share in the Constitutionnel raised him to comparative affluence. In January, 1830, he, along with Armand Carrel, Mignet, and other friends, started the National, and in its columns waged relentless war on the Polignac administration. The ministry met the opposition it had provoked by the Ordonnances of July. Among the other repressive measures that were taken was the sending of a commissary of police to the office of the National, interdicting its publication. Its conductors, with Thiers at their head, defied the ministry, and the result was the revolution which drove Charles X. into exile.

      Thiers now entered on an active career as a politician. He was elected deputy for the town of Aix, and was appointed secretary-general to the minister of finance. His first appearance in the Chamber of Deputies gave no promise of his subsequent distinction. His diminutive person, his small face, encumbered with a pair of huge spectacles, and his whole exterior presenting something of the ludicrous, the new deputy, full of the impassioned eloquence of the revolutionary orators, attempted to impart the thrilling emotions affected by Mirabeau. The attempt provoked derision; but soon subsiding into the oratory natural to him--simple, easy, rapid, anecdotic--he became one of the most formidable of parliamentary speakers. Almost from the moment of his entrance into public life he and Guizot stood forth in opposition to each other as the champions of radicalism and conservatism, respectively. But he was a stanch monarchist, and for a time a favorite with Louis Philippe. In 1832 he accepted the post of minister of the interior under Soult, exchanging it subsequently for the ministry of commerce and public affairs, and that in turn for the foreign office. He was universally regarded as a stronger man than any of his chiefs during this period; but his public and private actions alike were always marked by a certain fussy quarrelsomeness which prevented him from being ever accounted a statesman of the first rank. The spirited foreign policy, calculated above all things to precipitate a quarrel between France and Great Britain, of which for many years he was the chief advocate, is now allowed to have been a great, and might have been a fatal, mistake. In 1836 he became president of the council, but in August of the same year he resigned office, and became the leader of the opposition. In 1840 he was again summoned to office as president of the council and foreign minister. In a few months he was a terror to the peace of Europe. He refused Lord Palmerston's invitation to enter into an alliance with Britain, Austria, and Prussia for the preservation of the integrity of the Ottoman empire, from a sympathy with the principles which dictated the first Napoleon's invasion of Egypt and Syria, and a desire to accomplish by diplomacy with Mehemet Ali what Bonaparte had endeavored to effect by force of arms--the supremacy of France in these regions. He talked menacingly of setting aside the treaties of 1815, and of extending the French frontier to the Rhine, and is said to have actually spent #8,000,000 on military and naval demonstrations. Then followed the seizure of the Society Islands, and a well-founded protest by the British government against the ill-treatment by the French of Mr. Pritchard, their consul at Tahiti. In consequence of this Thiers was forced to resign office, and retire into private life. He now returned to the study of French history. The first volume of his "Histoire du Consulat et de l'Empire" appeared in 1845; it was not completed till 1860. This, the most ambitious of all Thiers's literary enterprises, must be considered a large rather than a great work. It is a monument to its author's industry in reading, and rises here and there to rhetorical brilliance. But that it is inaccurate and unfair has been admitted even by French critics. Thiers greatly overrated Napoleon, and probably to his own hurt.

      Thiers was not one of the promoters of the revolution which in 1848 drove Louis Philippe from the throne. On the contrary, he would, as prime minister summoned at the eleventh hour, have prevented it if he could. He accepted its consequences in the form of the Republic. He voted for the election of Prince Louis Napoleon as its president. This action brought him much vituperation and ridicule from former political friends. But whatever may have been the motive that inspired it, it certainly did not help him at the time of the coup-d'etat of 1851; he was arrested, imprisoned in Mazas, and banished. Next year, however, he was allowed to return from Switzerland to France. For eight years he was occupied with his "History of the Consulate and Empire." He re-entered the Chamber in 1863, having been elected liberal deputy for the Department of the Seine in opposition to the imperialist candidate. Till the fall of the Second Empire he was regarded as the ablest and most formidable of its more moderate and parliamentary opponents. His speeches in the years between 1863 and 1870 were filled with taunts of the Empire on account of the loss of prestige which had marked its history, and these must not be left out of account when blame has to be apportioned among the authors of the war of 1870, although he opposed it when declared by the Ollivier ministry, and predicted defeat.

      The collapse of the Second Empire, however, enabled Thiers to play the greatest of all his parts, that of "liberator of the territory." He declined, after Sedan, to become a member of the Government of National Defence; but he voluntarily undertook diplomatic journeys to Great Britain, Russia, Austria, and Italy, on behalf of France--a self-imposed mission in which he was unsuccessful, but by which he obtained the gratitude of his countrymen. He was largely instrumental in securing for his country that armistice which permitted the holding of a national assembly with a view to the negotiation of a peace. Twenty constituencies chose him as their deputy. Electing to sit for Paris, he was made head of the provisional government. He had great difficulty in persuading the colleagues of the Assembly, and his countrymen generally, to agree to peace on terms that were practically dictated by Germany. But he succeeded; peace was voted March 1, 1871. No sooner had he accomplished this task than he was face to face with the sanguinary madness of the Commune. But this difficulty also he set himself to surmount with characteristic energy, and succeeded. When the seat of government was once more removed from Versailles to Paris, Thiers was formally elected (August 30) President of the French Republic. He held office only till 1873, but during this brief period he was probably of greater service to his country than at any previous time in his life. He was mainly instrumental in securing the withdrawal of the Germans from France and the payment of the war indemnity, and in placing both the army and the civil service on a more satisfactory footing.

      But in course of time the gratitude of the country exhausted itself, and Thiers, who was old-fashioned in many of his opinions, and as opinionative as he was old-fashioned, did not make any new friends. He was specially detested by the Extreme Left, whose chief, Gambetta, he styled a fou furieux. As a result, a coalition of Reactionaries and Radicals was formed expressly, as it seemed, to harass him, and even in the beginning of 1872 he tendered his resignation. It was not accepted; and his opponents for a time suspended their intrigues. They were revived, however, in 1873, and resolved themselves into a resolute effort to limit the powers of the president. This Thiers stoutly resisted. He made an appeal to the country, but this course did not increase the strength of his following. Finally, what he interpreted as a vote of no confidence was carried (May 24) by a majority of sixteen. He resigned, and his place was taken by Marshal MacMahon. He lived four years longer, and never ceased to take an interest in politics. In 1877 he took an active part in bringing about the fall of the ministry presided over by the Duc de Broglie. He now leaned to the side of the Left, and was reconciled to Gambetta, and he might once again have played a prominent part in politics had he not died of apoplexy on September 3, 1877, at St. Germain en Laye. He has not left behind him the memory either of a very great statesman, or of a very great historian. But he was a man of indomitable courage, and his patriotism, if narrow and marred with Chauvinism, was deep and genuine. He was, perhaps, the most successful of the large class of journalist-politicians that France has produced, and that he was at least a personal power in literature was evidenced by the great influence which he wielded in the Academy, of which he became a member in 1834.

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