Adolphe Thiers

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Louis Adolphe Thiers (April 16, 1797 - September 3 1877) was a French statesman and historian. Thiers was a prime minister under King Louis Philippe. Following the overthrow of the Second Empire he again came to prominence as the French leader who suppressed the revolutionary Commune of 1871. From 1871 to 1873 he served initially as Chief of State (effectively a provisional President of France, then a full provisional President of France. When following a vote of no confidence in the National Assembly his offer of resignation was accepted (he had expected another rejection) he was forced to vacate office. He was replaced as Provisional President by Patrice MacMahon, duc de Magenta, who became full President of the Third Republic, a post Thiers had coveted, in 1875 when a series of Organic Laws officially creating the Third Republic were enacted.


Birth and early life

Thiers was born in Marseille, France. His family is somewhat grandiloquently spoken of as "cloth merchants ruined by the Revolution", but it seems that at the actual time of his birth his father was a locksmith. His mother belonged to the family of the Cheniers, and he was well educated, first at the lycee of Marseille, and then in the faculty of law at Aix-en-Provence. Here he began his lifelong friendship with Mignet, and was called to the bar at the age of twenty-three. He had, however, little taste for law and much for literature; and he obtained an academic prize at Aix for a discourse on the marquis de Vauvenargues. In the early autumn of 1821 Thiers went to Paris, and was quickly introduced as a contributor to the Constitutionnel. In each of the years immediately following his arrival in Paris he collected and published a volume of his articles, the first on the salon of 1822, the second on a tour in the Pyrenees. He was put out of all need of money by the singular benefaction of Cotta, the well-known Stuttgart publisher, who was part-proprietor of the Constitutionnel, and made over to Thiers his dividends, or part of them.

Meanwhile he became very well known in Liberal society, and he had begun the celebrated Histoire de la revolution française, which founded his literary and helped his political fame. The first two volumes appeared in 1823, the last two (of ten) in 1827. The book brought him little profit at first, but became immensely popular. The well-known sentence of Carlyle, that it is "as far as possible from meriting its high reputation", is in strictness justified, for all Thiers' historical work is marked by extreme inaccuracy, by prejudice which passes the limits of accidental unfairness, and by an almost complete indifference to the merits as compared with the successes of his heroes. But Carlyle himself admits that Thiers is "a brisk man in his way, and will tell you much if you know nothing." Coming as the book did just when the reaction against the revolution was about to turn into another reaction in its favour, it was assured of success.

The July Monarchy of King Louis-Philippe

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For a moment it seemed as if the author had definitely chosen the lot of a literary man, not to say of a literary hack. He even planned an Histoire generale. But the accession to power of the Polignac ministry in August 1829 changed his projects, and at the beginning of the next year Thiers, with Armand Carrel, Mignet, and others started the National, a new opposition newspaper. Thiers himself was one of the souls of the actual revolution, being credited with "overcoming the scruples of Louis Philippe," perhaps no Herculean task. At any rate, he had his reward. He ranked as one of the Radical supporters of the new dynasty, in opposition to the party of which his rival Guizot was the chief literary man, and Guizot's patron, the duc de Broglie, the main pillar. At first Thiers, though elected deputy for Aix, obtained only subordinate places in the ministry of finance.

After the overthrow of his patron Laffitte, he became much less radical, and, after the troubles of June 1832, was appointed to the ministry of the interior. He repeatedly changed his portfolio, but remained in office for four years, became president of the council and, in effect, Prime Minister, where he began his series of quarrels and jealousies with Guizot. At the time of his resignation in 1836 he was foreign minister and, as usual, wished for a spirited policy in Spain, which he could not carry out.

He travelled in Italy for some time, and it was not till 1838 that he began a regular campaign of parliamentary opposition, which in March 1840 made him president of the council and foreign minister for the second time. His policy of support for Muhammad Ali of Egypt in the Eastern crisis of that year led France to the brink of war with the other great powers. This resulted in his dismissal by the king, who did not wish for war. Thiers now had little to do with politics for some years, and spent his time on his Histoire du Consulat et de l'Empire, the first volume of which appeared in 1845.

Though he was still a member of the chamber, he spoke rarely, till after the beginning of 1846, when he was evidently bidding once more for power as the leader of the opposition group of the Left Centre. Immediately before the revolution of February he went to all but the greatest lengths, and when it broke out he and Odilon Barrot, the leader of the Dynastic Left, were summoned by the king; but it was too late. Thiers was unable to govern the forces he had helped to gather, and he resigned.

The Second Republic and the Second Empire

Under the republic he took up the position of conservative republican, which he ever afterwards maintained, and he never took office. But the consistency of his conduct, especially in voting for Louis Napoleon as president, was often and sharply criticized, one of the criticisms leading to a duel with a fellow-deputy, Bixio. He was arrested at the coup d'etat, was sent to Mazas, and then escorted out of France. But in the following summer he was allowed to return. For the next decade his history was almost a blank, his time being occupied for the most part on The Consulate and the Empire. It was not till 1863 that he re-entered political life, being elected by a Parisian constituency. For the seven years following he was the chief speaker among the small band of anti-Imperialists in the French chamber, and was regarded generally as the most formidable enemy of the empire. While protesting against its foreign enterprises, he also harped on French loss of prestige, and so helped contribute to stir up the fatal spirit which brought on the war of 1870.

Collapse of the Empire and the Paris Commune

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Leading up to 1870, Thiers strongly agitated for a war with Prussia, but when France's armies suffered defeat after defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (this all within a period of a few weeks), Thiers quickly changed his policy, and "spoke out against the war" when France had already but lost. Through his manoeuvring, he placed himself in a victorious political position after France's crushing defeat in the war, despite his entire career of agitation for war. Thiers accomplished this separating himself as far as possible from the Government of National Defence, the government that would be forced to surrender and sign the treaty with Germany.

He undertook in the latter part of September and the first three weeks of October, a circular tour to the different courts of Europe in the hope of obtaining some intervention, or at least some good offices. The mission was unsuccessful; but the negotiator was on its conclusion immediately charged with another that of obtaining, if possible, an armistice directly from Bismarck.

With the armistice treaty signed, Thiers triumphantly entered the scene and called for national elections: Thiers was elected to 26 different departments; on Feb. 17, 1871 Thiers was elected Chief of State, nominally "chef du pouvoir executif de la République en attendant qu'il soit statué sur les institutions de la France" (head of the executive power of the Republic until the institutions of France are prescribed), He succeeded in convincing the deputies that the peace was necessary, and it was voted (March 1, 1871) by more than five to one.

In May 1871, Thiers sent French soldiers, with the support of the Germans, into Paris to crush the Paris Commune. 30,000 to 100,000 workers were killed by the thousands in the streets of Paris. Thousands more were arrested and 7,000 were exiled forever from France. (See note 2) [1] (

The Third Republic

On August 30 he became the provisional president of the as of yet undeclared republic (President of the Republic until l'établissement des institutions définitives du pays). Thiers held office for more than two years after this event,.(See note 1)

His strong personal will and inflexible opinions had much to do with the resurrection of France; but the very same facts made it inevitable that he should excite violent opposition. He was a confirmed protectionist, and free trade ideas had made great way in France under the empire; he was an advocate of long military service, and the devotees of la revanche (the revenge) were all for the introduction of general and compulsory but short service. Both his talents and his temper made him utterly indisposed to maintain the attitude supposed to be incumbent on a republican president; and his tongue was never a carefully governed one. In January 1872 he formally tendered his resignation; and though it was refused, almost all parties disliked him, while his chief supporters, men like Remusat, Barthelemy Saint-Hilaire and Jules Simon were men rather of the past than of the present.

The year 1873 was, as a parliamentary year in France, occupied to a great extent with attacks on Thiers. In the early spring, regulations were proposed and, on April 13, carried which were intended to restrict the executive and, especially, the parliamentary powers of the president. On the April 27 a contested election in Paris, resulting in the return of the opposition candidate, M. Barodet, was regarded as a grave disaster for the Thiers government, and that government was not much strengthened by a dissolution and reconstitution of the cabinet on May 20th. Immediately afterwards, the question was brought to a head by an interpellation moved by the duc de Broglie. The president declared that he should take this as a vote of want of confidence; and in the debates which followed a vote of this character (though on a different formal issue, and proposed by M. Ernoul) was carried by 16 votes in a house of 704. Thiers at once resigned (May 24), expecting that he would have his resignation recinded or that he would be immediately re-elected. To his shock the resignation was accepted and Patrice MacMahon elected to the provisional presidency instead.

His last years

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He survived, after his fall, for four years, continuing to sit in the Assembly and, after the dissolution of 1876, in the Chamber of Deputies, and sometimes, though rarely, speaking. He was also, on the occasion of this dissolution, elected senator for Belfort, which his exertions had saved for France; but he preferred the lower house, where he sat as of old for Paris. On May 16, 1877, he was one of the "363" who voted want of confidence in the Broglie ministry (thus paying his debts), and he took considerable part in organizing the subsequent electoral campaign. But he was not destined to see its success, being fatally struck with apoplexy at St Germain-en-Laye on September 3rd. Thiers had long been married, and his wife and sister-in-law, Mlle Dosne, were his constant companions; but he left no children and had had only one, a daughter who long predeceased him. He had been a member of the Academy since 1834. His personal appearance was remarkable, and not imposing, for he was very short, with plain features, ungainly gestures and manners, very near-sighted, and of disagreeable voice; yet he became (after wisely giving up an attempt at the ornate style of oratory) a very effective speaker in a kind of conversational manner, and in the epigram of debate he had no superior among the statesmen of his time except Lord Beaconsfield.

Thiers was by far the most gifted and interesting of the group of literary statesmen which formed a unique feature in the French political history of the 19th century. There are only two who are at all comparable to him, Guizot and Lamartine; and as a statesman he stands far above both. Nor is this eminence merely due to his great opportunity in 1870; for Guizot might under Louis Philippe have almost made himself a French Walpole, at least a French Palmerston, and Lamartine's opportunities after 1848 were, for a man of political genius, illimitable. But both failed Lamartine almost ludicrously while Thiers in hard conditions made a striking if not a brilliant success. But he only showed well when he was practically supreme. Even as the minister of a constitutional monarch his intolerance of interference or joint authority, his temper at once imperious and intriguing, his inveterate inclination towards brigue, that is to say, underhand rivalry and caballing for power and place, showed themselves unfavourably; and his constant tendency to inflame the aggressive and chauvinist spirit of his country neglected fact, was not based on any just estimate of the relative power and interests of France, and led his country more than once to the verge of a great calamity. In opposition, both under Louis Philippe and under the empire, and even to Borne extent in the last four years of his life, his worst qualities were always manifested. But with all these drawbacks he conquered and will retain a place in what is perhaps the highest, as it is certainly the smallest, class of statesmen the class of those to whom their country has had recourse in a great disaster, who have shown in bringing her through that disaster the utmost constancy, courage, devotion and skill, and who have been rewarded by as much success as the occasion permitted.

As a man of letters Thiers is very much smaller. He has not only the fault of diffuseness, which is common to so many of the best-known historians of his century, but others as serious or more so. The charge of dishonesty is one never to be lightly made against men of such distinction as his, especially when their evident confidence in their own infallibility, their faculty of ingenious casuistry, and the strength of will which makes them (unconsciously, no doubt) close and keep closed the eyes of their mind to all inconvenient facts and inferences, supply a more charitable explanation. But it is certain that from Thiers' dealings with the men of the first revolution to his dealings with the battle of Waterloo, constant, angry and well-supported protests against his unfairness were not lacking. Although his search among documents was undoubtedly wide, its results are by no means always accurate, and his admirers themselves admit great inequalities of style in him. These characteristics reappear (accompanied, however, by frequent touches of the epigrammatic power above mentioned, which seems to have come to Thiers more readily as an orator or a journalist than as an historian) in his speeches, which after his death were collected in many volumes by his widow. Sainte-Beuve, whose notices of Thiers are generally kindly, says of him, " M. Thiers saiy tout, tranche tout, parle de tout," and this omniscience and "cocksure-ness " (to use the word of a British Prime Minister contemporary with this prime minister of France) are perhaps the chief pervading features both of the statesman and the man of letters.

His histories, in many different editions, and his speeches, as above, are easily accessible; his minor works and newspaper articles have not, we believe, been collected in any form. Several years after his death appeared Deux opuscules (1891) and Melanges inedits (1892), while Notes et souvenirs, 1870-73, were published in 1901 by " F. D.," his sister-in-law and constant companion, Mile Felicie Dosne. Works on him, by M. Laya, M. de Mazade, his colleague and friend M. Jules Simon, and others, are numerous.


[1] A republic was declared following the defeat of Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War. However it was intended to be a provisional republic, pending the restoration of the monarchy under the Comte de Chambord. Hence Thiers initially was not president but 'Chief of State' (chef d'etat). Though formally made 'President of the Republic', historians disagree as to whether to regard Thiers as President of the Third Republic or President of a provisional republic, given that the constitutional structures of the Third Republic, and the creation of a constitutionally-based President of the Third Republic, and even legislative mention of the word 'republic' only occurred in a series of laws passed in 1875 and known as the 'Constitution of 1875'.

[2] Karl Marx described him in The Civil War in France ( as follow:

"Theirs, that monstrous gnome, has charmed the French bourgeoisie for almost half a century, because he is the most consummate intellectual expression of their own class corruption. Before he became a statesman, he had already proved his lying powers as an historian. The chronicle of his public life is the record of the misfortunes of France. Banded, before 1830, with the republicans, he slipped into office under Louis Philippe by betraying his protector Lafitte, ingratiating himself with the king by exciting mob riots against the clergy, during which the church of Saint Germain l'Auxerrois and the Archbishop's palace were plundered, and by acting the minster-spy upon, and the jail-accoucheur of the Duchess de Berry. The massacre of the republicans in the Rue Transnonian, and the subsequent infamous laws of September against the press and the right of association, were his work. Reappearing as the chief of the cabinet in March 1840, he astonished France with his plan for fortifying France.....Theirs was consistent only in his greed for wealth and his hatred of the men that produce it. Having entered his first ministry, under Louis Philippe, poor as Job, he left it a millionaire..... "

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Preceded by:
Louis-Jules TROCHU
(chairman of the Government of National Defense)
Head of State of France Succeeded by:
Patrice de MAC-MAHON
(President of the Republic)
Chief Executive of the French Republic
(February 17 - August 31, 1871)
President of the Republic
(August 31, 1871 - May 24, 1873)
Preceded by:
Victor, duc de Broglie
Prime Minister of France
Followed by:
Louis, Comte Molé
Preceded by:
Nicolas Jean de Dieu Soult, Duc de Dalmatie
Prime Minister of France
Followed by:
Nicolas Jean de Dieu Soult, Duc de Dalmatie
Preceded by:
Louis, Comte Molé
Prime Minister of France
Followed by:
Preceded by:
François Andrieux
Seat 38
Académie française
Succeeded by:
Henri Martin
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