Eugenie - Empress of the French - George Upton

The Empress in Politics

Napoleon's position at this time seemed impregnable. France had played an honorable part in the Crimean War and covered herself with glory at the fall of Sebastopol. Yet the nephew of the great Napoleon had remained far from the field of battle himself, and felt the need of winning some personal laurels to add to his prestige. The shrewd policy of Count Cavour, the Italian statesman, had greatly increased the power of the kingdom of Sardinia; and thither the Emperor now turned his glances. At a secret meeting with Cavour he guaranteed the support of France to Sardinia in case of war with Austria; but before this pledge could be redeemed an event occurred which might have made the agreement of little avail. It deserves mention here as furnishing a proof of Eugenie's courage.

On the eleventh of January, 1858, a special performance of grand opera was to be given, and a crowd of loyal subjects had gathered about the theatre to witness the arrival of the sovereigns. As the state coach drew up before the entrance, two bombs were hurled at it, and a frightful explosion followed. Windows in all the neighboring streets were shattered, and a hundred and sixty persons, among them a number of soldiers and outriders, were killed or badly wounded. A fragment of shell pierced the Emperor's hat; and Eugenie, who tried to protect her husband's body with her own, received a slight graze on the temple, bespattering her white silk dress with blood. Yet, perfectly calm and undismayed, she stood up at once and called out words of reassurance to the panic-stricken people. As if nothing had happened, Their Majesties entered the theatre, and with her usual winning smile the Empress bowed her thanks to the burst of applause that greeted them. Felix Orsini, the Italian who had thrown the bombs, was immediately seized and thrown into prison with his accomplices.

In a proclamation issued on January first, 1859, the Emperor revealed his intention of severing friendly relations with Austria; and on the outbreak of war between that country and Sardinia, he hastened to the support of his new ally, May 10, 1859, publicly declaring that "Italy must be free from the Alps to the Adriatic." The victories of Magenta and Solferino, which followed, added fresh glories to the arms of France; and although the peace of Villafranca failed to redeem all his lofty promises, Napoleon was hailed as the deliverer of Italy.

Meanwhile there had been a change in the Government at home which greatly added to Eugenie's importance. Shortly after Orsini's unsuccessful attempt, the Assembly passed a law appointing her Regent of France in the Emperor's absence, or during her son's minority in case of his death; and on Napoleon's departure for Italy the reins of government were placed for the first time in her hands. It was a critical period at which to confide the direction of affairs to a woman; had the war been less fortunate in its issue, the situation might have proved as dangerous as it afterwards became, in 187o.

If any decisive influence on French politics was attributed to Eugenie on this or subsequent occasions, it was a mistaken idea. As a matter of fact her regency was little more than an empty farce in which Napoleon allowed his wife to play the chief part. It deluded the people and flattered the Empress to see her name at the head of all state documents; but absent or present, although he permitted Eugenie to share in the ministerial councils, he was careful not to trust the reins of government for any length of time to other hands than his own. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that the Empress, when she chose to exert herself, well knew how to achieve her ends. Once an idea became fixed in her mind she would assail the Emperor with arguments and entreaties until he finally yielded, if only for the sake of peace; nor did she scruple to intrigue against the ministers when they refused to carry out her wishes in the bestowal of honors and positions on favorites of her own, often quite unworthy of such favors.

Her real political influence was greatly overestimated. Her talents did not lie in that direction, nor had she any conception of the intricate machinery of government. Absorbed in a thousand trifles, court festivals, fashions, and intrigues, she had neither time nor inclination to pursue such aims with any system or resolution. Yet there was one case in which she did make trouble by her interference. This was shortly before the Franco-Prussian War, when she brought all her influence to bear in behalf of the Church.

The Papal party had spared no pains to secure Eugenie's friendship and strengthen her in the conviction that she had been chosen by Providence as one of the chief supports of God's vicegerent on earth. Full of gratitude to the Deity for this special mark of favor, and firmly believing in her destiny, she yielded blindly to all the wishes of the clergy, thus openly proclaiming herself the head of the clerical party. She devoted her energies to the support of the Papal power and to a revival of the spirit Catholicism throughout the country. No mercy was shown to those who dissented from the old faith. Even her attendants, with few exceptions, were chosen according to their religious views. Naturally this overzealousness could not fail to excite much opposition, and Eugenie soon had not only the envy and prejudice of society to contend against, but the enmity of the free-thinkers, including many of Napoleon's best friends.

Of these, Prince Napoleon was the most bitter. Quite as firmly as Napoleon the Third believed it his mission to be sovereign of France, did this Prince feel himself destined to the throne; but while the former supported his ideas with Napoleonic tactics, the latter based his claims chiefly on a remarkable likeness to the first Emperor. Louis Napoleon had worked hard to attain his goal. His cousin contented himself with spending hours before his mirror, arranging the Napoleonic lock of hair upon his forehead—a sign that he should one day wear the crown of France. As long as the Emperor was without issue he regarded himself as certainly the heir. The birth of the Prince Imperial therefore was a bitter blow to him; and when the law was passed giving Eugenie the power of Regent, his rage and chagrin knew no bounds. He had never been able to endure the Spaniard, but had hidden his dislike at first under a mask of cold politeness. Now that he no longer had any reason for concealing his true feelings, he gave full vent to his malice, annoying the Empress constantly by petty personal attacks, and circulating the most shameful reports concerning her private life.

Eugenie returned the Prince's hatred with all her heart. His dissolute life, evil tongue, and above all, the cowardice he had shown on more than one glaring occasion, made him detestable to her. She retaliated by exposing this side of his character on every possible occasion, thus provoking him constantly to fresh attacks. The relation between them was not improved by the Prince's marriage in January, 1859, to Clothilde of Savoy, the lovely young Princess to whom the people of Paris gave the name of St. Clothilde. He knew that his marriage to a royal princess would enrage the Empress. While Clothilde had yielded to her father's wishes in the matter, personally she felt nothing but aversion for the cynical, dissolute free-thinker, for many years the avowed lover of the actress Rachel; nor was he a person likely to capture the fancy of Victor Emanuel's innocent young daughter.

At court, as in her own household, Clothilde stood wellnigh alone, therefore. She excited the jealousy rather than the sympathy of Eugenie—while in her own heart the Princess of royal birth felt little but contempt for the adventurous Empress. She absented herself from court as much as possible and gathered about her a little circle of her own, those aristocrats who had scorned to pay homage to the Countess Montijo. Yet whenever obliged to appear at the Imperial Court, she fulfilled all the requirements of her position with charming dignity. Once when Eugenie, who found court etiquette most tiresome and fatiguing, asked if it did not weary her, she replied innocently, unconscious of the sting that lay within the words, "Certainly not! I have been accustomed to it all my life."

Although Prince Napoleon was the most hated of all Eugenie's enemies, he was by no means the only member of the Emperor's family who disliked her. Even the kindly, gentle Princess Mathilde looked askance at her cousin's wife, though she was tactful enough not to betray her feeling. Napoleon's friendly attachment for her had continued even after his marriage, and he used often to ask her advice in important matters; but the Empress never visited her, and the Princess, who had once presided at the Tuileries, no longer appeared there except on state occasions when it was unavoidable.

The general feeling against Eugenie that prevailed did not find open expression till 1861, when the Emperor returned as victor to his capital from Italy. The Italian people had chosen Victor Emanuel as their sovereign, and the unity of that country met with such approval in France, that when Napoleon failed formally to recognize the new order of things, many attributed his delay to Eugenie's influence. As a devout Catholic she would gladly have seen the hated Victor Emanuel's kingdom overthrown and the Pope's supremacy restored; and while Napoleon can scarcely have shared these feelings, he realized that it was to his interest to keep on good terms with the clerical party, and that to renounce the friendship of the Pope would deprive him of a powerful support. He therefore permitted the Pope to retain Rome and the "Patrimonium St. Petri," and, on the Empress's insistence, he agreed to leave a body of French troops in Italy to defend the Papal interests, at the same time publicly recognizing Victor Emanuel as King of Italy, and the provinces revolting from the Church as parts of the new kingdom. This vacillating course pleased neither party, and blame was laid chiefly on the Empress, whose zeal for the Papacy was but too well known. Her exclamation, "If the Pope leaves the Quirinal, I shall leave the Tuileries! I would rather have the Emperor murdered than see him delivered over to everlasting damnation!" passed from mouth to mouth and added still further to the prejudice against her among the intelligent population of France.