Biographical and Historical Data
During Hugo’s young years France was ruled by Napoleon, and later it was Hugo who rebelled against Louis Napoleon: “We had had Napoleon the great, must we now have Napoleon le petit?” When Louis Napoleon came into power, Hugo was forced to flee from France and take refuge on the island of Jersey. However, when England and France became allied against Russia in the Crimean War, Hugo’s attacks against Napoleon III became embarrassing to the British government and he was again forced to leave his home and settle on the nearby island of Guernsey.
In order to understand Hugo’s works, it is essential to understand his rebellion against and dissatisfaction with the government of his time. Hugo wrote: “True to the engagement I have made with my own conscience, I shall share to the end the exile of Liberty. When Liberty returns, I shall return.”
And in order to understand Hugo’s sentiments one must have a true understanding of French history during the period of the French Revolution. It was the French Revolution that changed the whole political system in France. On July 14, 1789, the people of Paris stormed and captured the Bastille. The Bastille represented tyranny and royal authority. Its capture, of course, marked the end of the feudal and hierarchical rule and led France and the rest of Europe into the modern age. It was the murder by guillotine in 1793 of Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, that set fear into every European monarch and divided France between those who favored the old rule and those who wished to promulgate the ideals of the French Revolution. It was at the Convention of 1793 that the gospel of liberty, equality and fraternity was accepted as a doctrine for internal improvement.
General Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the new government in 1799 and in 1800 he was named First Consul. However, in 1804 Napoleon crowned himself Emperor Napoleon I. The French people were willing to accept him because of his many military victories: at the height of the first Empire one million people were under French control. However, Napoleon lost battles against Russia and was forced into exile on the Island of St. Helene in the Atlantic Ocean.
France returned to monarchy through the rule of Louis XVIII, but when his brother, Charles X, succeeded him in 1824, he tried to establish an absolute monarchy again. The French did not want this return to monarchy, and a rebellion that broke out in 1830 proved that France would never again be ruled by an absolute monarch.
It was Louis Phillippe who guided France through the industrialization. Louis Phillippe was accused of supporting too heavily the bourgeoisie and the poor started to revolt, forcing him to abdicate.
It was during this period that universal suffrage was announced and many reforms in working conditions were planned. However, a severe economic depression set in, upset the nation and gave way to the rule of the second empire. On December 2, 1851, Louis Napoleon, elected for a term of four years, decided to crown himself emperor and become Napoleon III, who was to be president for life.