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December 2nd: A Good Day to be a Bonaparte

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

Napoleon I crowning Napoleon III, via Bibliothèque nationale de France

Every year when December 2nd rolls around I smile, because in the 19th century it was a very significant date for my favorite imperial family: the Bonapartes. This date saw several Very Big Moments of Triumph for both Napoleon I and Napoleon III, and if there is one thing the Napoleons loved, it was Very Big Moments of Triumph. I suppose I enjoy them, too, because I got excited when I realized the air date for my final Bonaparte-related Footnoting History episode of the year (Napoleon Bonaparte's Near-Fatal Christmas) fell in with this bevy of historical anniversaries.

While that episode is about a December event in the life of Napoleon I, it is not about December 2nd itself, so I decided to use my blog to talk about the events that occurred on that date. Thus, I present to you four reasons you would celebrate December 2nd if you were a Bonaparte (or a Bonaparte supporter), in chronological order:

On December 2, 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte and his first wife, Josephine, were crowned France's Emperor and Empress at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. In 1799, Napoleon had staged a coup that overthrew the Directorate (that's France's government following the end of the guillotine-filled Reign of Terror) and put himself into a position of power. Napoleon's government, the Consulate, was initially built around the idea that his role as First Consul would have an end point. This did not happen. Over the next several years Napoleon transitioned from First Consul for a specific term to First Consul for Life(!) and then ultimately turned the whole thing up a notch by becoming Emperor(!!). This event was no small thing, as Napoleon even had the Pope come in for the ceremony during which both he and his wife, Josephine, were to be crowned. However, the Pope himself did not crown Napoleon. Napoleon decided to crown himself, and then to also crown his wife. Now France officially had an Emperor Napoleon I and an Empress Josephine. A pretty good day if you're Napoleon I.

The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of the Empress Josephine on December 2, 1804, via Louvre

[Fun fact: The famous painting of Napoleon crowning Josephine (by Jacques-Louis David, on display at the Louvre, and shown above) contains Napoleon's mother (known as "Madame Mère") sitting in a place of pride, at the center of the lower box. In reality, she and her son had a disagreement and she did not attend the ceremony.]

On December 2, 1805, Emperor Napoleon I defeated an Austro-Russian army at the Battle of Austerlitz. It was a massive blow to the Third Coalition (which included among its participants Britain, Russia, and Austria), and resulted in an armistice being signed between France and Austria.

The day following the victory, Napoleon reminded his soldiers of the coronation of the prior year and commended them for their work in defending it:

"Soldiers, when the French people placed the imperial crown upon my head, I entrusted myself to you so as to keep that crown ever in that high state of glory which alone could give it value for me. However, at the same time, our enemies sought to destroy and dishonor it! And they wanted to force me to place that iron crown – won by the blood of so many Frenchmen – on the head of one of our cruelest enemies! These were indeed overweening and senseless schemes which, on the very anniversary day of the coronation of your emperor, you have nullified and confounded! You have taught them the lesson that it is easier to challenge and threaten us than to beat us." (Proclamation After Austerlitz, 3 December 1805)

The Battle of Austerlitz was one of the most significant of Napoleon I's reign. His tomb at Les Invalides in Paris is surrounded by the image of a crown of laurels which names his biggest victories, and Austerlitz is among them.

On December 2, 1851, the Bonapartes were ready for an imperial come back. The First Empire had ended in 1815, and for a period of time Bonapartes were completely banned from France. But things changed, Bonapartes were allowed in again, and eventually the future Emperor Napoleon III was at the forefront of French politics. But since he wasn't Emperor Napoleon III yet, in 1851 he was still known as Louis-Napoleon. He was not a direct descendant of Napoleon I but he was related to him in two separate ways. He was Napoleon I's nephew, because his father (Louis Bonaparte, one-time King of Holland) was Napoleon I's brother. He was also Napoleon I's step-grandson, because his mother (Hortense de Beauharnais Bonaparte, one-time Queen of Holland) was the daughter of Napoleon I's first wife, Josephine, and her first husband, Alexandre de Beauharnais.

Louis-Napoleon was elected President of the Second French Republic in 1848. However, much like his late uncle, Louis-Napoleon didn't think that was good enough. So, purposely choosing a date that was special for the First Empire, Louis-Napoleon staged his own coup on December 2, 1851 and set France yet again on the road to Empire.

Proclamation of the Second Empire, via Bibliothèque nationale de France

On December 2, 1852, exactly a year later and still utilizing the auspicious family date, the Second Empire was officially proclaimed. Louis-Napoleon was Louis-Napoleon no more. He was Emperor Napoleon III. No, I did not skip over the rule of a Napoleon II. Although Napoleon I did have son with his second wife, Marie Louise, that son had never truly ruled and had passed away twenty years earlier. So when Louis-Napoleon took the name Napoleon III, he did so in recognition of his cousin, who would have ruled as Napoleon II.

Napoleon III actually ruled for longer than Napoleon I, and they had some personal similarities. Just like his uncle, Napoleon III only had one legitimate son (who also never ruled), was eventually overthrown, and died in exile (though in England, while Napoleon I died on St. Helena). Of course they also shared one more thing, an appreciation of their family's history of success on December 2nd.

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