This is not merely a philosophy: it is a political movement, a system of governance, and a decided set of political principles. As a political movement it was the lynch-pin of the descendants of Napoleon Bonaparte. It can be dated from the election of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte who became Napoleon III. He was of course Bonaparte’s nephew.
Louis Napoleon was President of the Second Republic in France in 1848, thirty-three years after the Emperor’s downfall at Waterloo. The movement itself survived the fall of this Second Empire in 1870, and continued until the death of the Prince Imperial in 1879. After this event, as a movement, it collapsed.
As a system of government Bonapartism was, strangely enough, based on feeble legislature with a powerful executive. The Head of this executive had to be the Emperor, providing strong central control over the provinces, under the aegis of a Committee of Public Safety. This was a left-over from Jacobin control during the French Revolution, but it was a recognised feature of Bonapartist government, in which local officials were appointed, not elected; such democratic ‘pussy-footing’ was not to be tolerated.
If you come to study the ideas underpinning Bonapartism, it is difficult to find coherence, as no-one really set them out in the form of a clear list. Populism was combined with authoritarianism, based on the (rather suspect) doctrine of the sovereignty of ‘the people’. Louis Napoleon’s essay Napoleonic Ideas published in 1839 is the derivation. This work makes Bonaparte the saviour of France, a male St. Joan uniting the country, ending internecine strife and the Terror (q.v.), protecting religion and giving France stability, order and efficient government. Bonaparte appears as the latter-day saint who made France the dominant European power, a champion of freedom for the oppressed peoples of the rest of Europe: the gains of the Revolution would be gained at home and spread to other lands, such as the sale of lands belonging to the Church, careers being open to talent, the establishment of truly representative assemblies, an end to feudal practices (aristocracy for example) and privileges for the nobility which had been so docilely accepted before etc.
Intellectuals and leaders declared that Bonapartism was a symbol of national glory, one of the main principles of authority and above all a guarantor of the Revolution. As such it appealed to different groups within France, though it was treated with suspicion by other great European powers; its influence moulded French opinion until well into the twentieth century. Without it, for instance, the rise to supreme power in France of General de Gaulle (q.v.) based on virile leadership and cowed and passive underlings would not have happened.