Adolphe Thiers Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

0111206114-Thiers.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Thiers was a central figure among the moderate politicians who in the early nineteenth century created the July Monarchy and, forty years later, the Third Republic. He also wrote important multivolume histories of the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras.

Early Life

Marie-Joseph-Louis-Adolphe Thiers was born a month before his parents married. Four months later his ne’er-do-well father, Louis, disappeared and was not heard from again until his son was successful enough to provide financial support. Adolphe was reared in poverty by his mother, Marie-Madeleine (née Amic), and her mother. The experience left him with a lifelong inclination to seek some support and approval of his actions from older women.

With the help of relatives, Thiers received a proper education, and in November, 1815, he began a three-year tenure in law school at Aix-en-Provence. Thiers became a member of the bar in November, 1818, but times were hard for young lawyers. Thiers, short, almost gnomish, with a reedy voice, lacked the presence to get even his share of cases. He filled his time and pockets by competing for literary prizes offered by regional academies, but his real livelihood was provided by his mother. Prospects were few, and, urged by his friend François Mignet, Thiers decided to try his hand as a writer in Paris. He left his family and a woman who seems to have expected marriage.

In November, 1821, after a brief stint in a secretarial position, Thiers joined the staff of the liberal newspaper the Constitutionnel; three months later, he signed a contract to write a history of the French Revolution. Bourbon Royalism was in the political ascendancy, and the liberals were happy to have new recruits, so Thiers rose quickly.

By the mid-1820’s, Thiers’s reputation as a journalist was established, and the ten-volume Histoire de la révolution française (1823-1827; The History of the French Revolution, 1838) proved him to be a historian of note. He was moving in prominent circles, such as that of the banker Jacques Laffitte, where, along with his future rival François Guizot, he met the legendary Talleyrand. Political discussion was intense, and Thiers’s hostility to the Bourbons and the aristocracy was growing. Although, like most liberals of the era, Thiers embraced the Enlightenment’s faith in reason, commitment to civil rights, and religious skepticism, he still favored constitutional monarchy rather than a republic.

Life’s Work

In January, 1830, Thiers, Mignet, and Armand Carrel inaugurated the National, which became Thiers’s chief organ of persuasion for a number of years. The paper was a leading voice in the criticisms of the government of Charles X, and when the king’s efforts to strengthen royal authority provoked open resistance in July, its offices were a center of revolutionary activity. Although he had spoken for moderation, faced with revolt, Thiers helped to write a proclamation claiming credit for the National in calling France to arms. He worked diligently to get a constitutional monarchy created under Louis-Philippe, the Duke of Orléans. That was formally accomplished on August 9.

In the first month of the new regime, Thiers was given several senior-level government appointments and resigned from his journalistic connections. He would serve in six governments over the next decade. Thiers, however, had too little property to qualify. The Dosne family sold him a house in Paris on good terms, and Thiers was elected deputy for Aix-en-Provence and appointed Parliamentary Undersecretary for the Ministry of Finance.

Practical experience influenced Thiers’s views of government, and by the spring of 1832 he had shifted from the Party of Movement to the Party of Resistance. The death of the premier, Casimir Périer, led to a new government with Thiers as minister of the interior. His delicate task was to control the Duchess of Berry, who was leading efforts for a legitimist uprising in the name of her dead husband. She was interned without trial and, conveniently for Thiers, proved to be illegitimately pregnant. The duchess was allowed to leave the country quietly. In January, 1833, Thiers shifted to the Ministry of Commerce and Public Works, and in June he was elected to the French Academy.

The next November, the thirty-six-year-old Thiers married Élise Dosne, who had turned fifteen the day before the wedding. The dowry was 300,000 francs plus, unofficially, the money remaining due on his house, which was simply never paid. The relationship between Thiers and Élise was never very close, but Thiers became part of his wife’s family, who gained political and economic influence from the connection. Madame Dosne, Thiers’s mother-in-law, served for many years as the older woman Thiers needed for emotional support.

Thiers’s political influence continued to grow, and by early 1834 he and Guizot were the dominant figures in the government. In the spring, unrest among workers, encouraged by the left-wing press, led to efforts at censorship and arrests for union activities. On April 13, barricades were erected in Paris, and Thiers, as minister of the interior, sent troops that crushed the uprising. Thiers’s reputation was marred for the rest of his career, however, because of deaths that became known as the Massacre in the Rue Transnonain. The Left never forgot Thiers’s involvement.

Elections in June resulted in extended political infighting among the leading politicians, but Thiers remained at the Ministry of the Interior. In February, 1836, the government, then under the Duke of Broglie, was defeated, and on February 22 Thiers became the premier. Knowing that his majority was undependable, he kept the chamber busy with noncontroversial internal improvements, while he pursued an active foreign policy in hopes of boosting his standing. After clashing with the king about support for a pro-French liberal government in Spain, Thiers was out of office in September.

Thiers was active in opposition until January, 1840, when, having organized the defeat of the current government, he left Louis-Philippe little choice but to ask him to form a government. Drawing in the Left with patronage and winning the support of the moderate conservatives who...

(The entire section is 2607 words.)