Not many years ago a historical dictionary of the French Second Empire could have been assembled only with the greatest difficulty, if at all. Information now available was still relatively inaccessible, and objectivity remained less the rule than the exception. The Second Empire and Napoleon III had not been well served by historians. There are, of course, experiences befalling a people that require fixing blame. That France, after its terrible year of military defeat and civil war ( 1870-1871), should have chosen Napoleon III as the symbol of all that had gone wrong did not surprise him and should not surprise us. But the biases of republican historians over more than two generations are less easy to justify. It is hoped that the articles composing this dictionary are indeed both accurate and objective. But it may also be that, taken in their entirety, they reveal more forcefully than is customary the importance of an era vital to French history and the qualities of the man central to its development.
Napoleon III made many enemies during his eighteen-year reign: the republicans, whose projects he frustrated until the last scene of the drama; the monarchists, who regarded him as a usurper; the radicals, who rejected his well- meaning projects because they did not go far enough or fast enough; the Catholics, who could not forgive him for his role in despoiling the pope; the notables, who resented his ideas and his ascendancy; even the avant-garde artists and many intellectuals, who blamed the regime for what they did not like in bourgeois taste and sensibility. After 1870 these opponents would make of their triumph an occasion for sustained vituperation of the former emperor, portraying him as inept, a self-indulgent sensualist, an adventurer without aim or scruple, a tool in the hands of unprincipled and meritless men. He was, we are now beginning to see, none of these things, and those who served him or supported him were often of greater worth than many who made it their chief objective to bring him down. What Napoleon III truly was we shall probably never know, but when-- as in a work of this nature--we consider the facts alone, it becomes clear that he was certainly a masterly politician, able to rule France for more than eighteen years, to command its support until the end, and to exert an influence so pervasive on his era that it may without exaggeration be considered the Age of Napoleon III.