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An American In Paris
Faced with war, famine, and bloody revolution, a political wheel horse turned into a first-class ambassador.
February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
The reward for the kingmaker came quickly: Grant named him Secretary of State, but Washburne’s role in the impeachment of Andrew Johnson—as senior Republican in the House of Representatives, he had headed the committee of the whole and bitterly denounced Lincoln’s successor—made him anathema to the moderates in the Senate. Five days after being named to State, he resigned. The President let it be known that Washburne had been put in the post as a kind of compliment and promptly appointed him instead as the United States Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to France.
The Paris where Washburne and his family arrived in 1869 was a city living in the sunset of the Second Empire, an empire which had been created in 1851 by Louis Napoleon, nephew of the great Bonaparte. The sunset, though brief, was splendid. At the Tuileries, St. Cloud, and Compiègne the beautiful Empress Eugénie presided over a court that set the standard for glamour throughout the world. Worth made the dresses, Delacroix and Winterhalter painted the pictures, and Offenbach and Gounod provided the music. Under orders from Louis Napoleon, Haussmann, as prefect of the Seine, had created the Paris the world still wonders at. He had laid out the broad avenues radiating from the Arc de Triomphe, opened the great square in front of Notre Dame, planted the Bois de Boulogne, built the Opera. The 32,000 gas lamps with which Haussmann lined the streets made Paris truly the city of light.
Washburne was quickly caught up in the elegance of the scene, but was not deceived by surface appearances. “The cry of ‘Vive l’Empereur,’ uttered by the courtiers and parasites, was often heard in the streets,” he remembered later, “and was responded to by a goodly throng in Paris, which, flattered by the counterfeit consideration of the government, dazzled by the glitter of the court, or, fattening on the wealth of royalty, abandoned itself to the falsehood of pleasant dreams, and bowed down before the false glory and the material strength of the Empire.”
And indeed, under the mica-like glitter the Empire was in trouble. There was rising opposition to Louis Napoleon both from the right-wing legitimists who wanted a Bourbon on the throne and the left-wing revolutionaries who were being influenced by Karl Marx scribbling away in London.
Louis’s first attempt to distract the opposition by winning la gloire for France came to an ignoble end when in 1867 his puppet emperor of Mexico, Maximilian, was shot by Juárez’s nationalists (see “The Operator and the Emperors,” in the April, 1964, AMERICAN HERITAGE). But in 1870, Louis thought he saw a second chance to add luster to his regime. The Queen of Spain had been chased from her throne and had found refuge at the French court. In June the Spanish crown was offered to a Hohenzollern, Prince Leopold of Sigmaringen, and suddenly France felt herself in danger of being eclipsed by Germany. Louis Napoleon’s government protested so violently that the candidate was withdrawn, but this taste of success led the French to demand that Prussia also apologize for its affront to French pride in advancing a Hohenzollern in the first place and promise never to try it again.
King William of Prussia was taking the cure at Bad Ems; the French ambassador tracked him down there and began demanding an apology. The old, unwarlike William became irritated, said that he would make no guarantees about future candidates for the Spanish crown, and refused to give the ambassador further audience. He then sent a telegram explaining the incident to Bismarck in Berlin. To the Prussian premier, who had been searching for a cause that would unite the several German states, this seemed a Godsend. He immediately published those parts of the telegram that showed the King’s resentment of the French attempt to humiliate him. Louis Napoleon took offense at this revelation of his rebuff and on July 15 declared war.
Seldom had a major war been unleashed over such a ridiculous issue. And though there was enthusiasm among the French populace for avenging the stain on France’s honor, Washburne writes of a feeling of impending doom among those who knew the power of the Prussians: “It was on July 28th, 1870, that the Emperor left the palace of St. Cloud, to take command of the army in person. A gentleman belonging to the Court, who was present at the moment of departure, recounted to me that the occasion was a most solemn one, and that even then there was a prescience that the Emperor was leaving Paris never to return.”
The Emperor and Empress had always shown kindness to Washburne. Indeed, what would turn out to be the last formal dinner ever held at the Tuileries—on June 7, 1870—was given in his honor. Now the end was near for Napoleon III and Eugénie. As Washburne put it, they were “plunged into the most terrible events of the century”—the Franco-Prussian War, during which Paris would be under siege for 130 days and under bombardment for 22; and the fierce civil war between the Paris Commune and the new French government after the Franco-Prussian armistice.
For all practical purposes the war was over in six disastrous weeks. The Germans under Moltke had more than 400,000 superb fighting men and 1,440 guns, while the French could muster only 250,000 ill-equipped soldiers. After a series of defeats 104,000 French troops, with Louis Napoleon himself at their head, were surrounded at Sedan on August 30. There was nothing left for Louis to do but surrender.