« 37.2 Bonaparte as a Republican General |Contents | 37.4 Napoleon I, Emperor, 1804-1814 »

37.3 Napoleon First Consul, 1799-1804

Now surely here was opportunity such as never came to man before. Here was a position in which a man might well bow himself in fear of himself, and search his heart and serve God and man to the utmost. The old order of things was dead or dying; strange new forces drove through the world seeking form and direction; the promise of a world republic and an enduring world peace whispered in a multitude of startled minds. Had this man any profundity of vision, any power of creative imagination, had he been accessible to any disinterested ambition, he might have done work for mankind that would have made him the very sun of history. All Europe and America, stirred by the first promise of a new age, was waiting for him. Not France alone. France was in his hand, his instrument, to do with as he pleased, willing for peace, but tempered for war like an exquisite sword. There lacked nothing to this great occasion but a noble imagination. And failing that, Napoleon could do no more than strut upon the crest of this great mountain of opportunity like a cockerel on a dunghill. The figure he makes in history is one of almost incredible self-conceit, of vanity, greed, and cunning, of callous contempt and disregard of all who trusted him, and of a grandiose aping of Cæsar, Alexander, and Charlemagne, which would be purely comic if it were not caked over with human blood. Until, as Victor Hugo said in his tremendous way, «God was bored by him», and he, was kicked aside into a corner to end his days, explaining and explaining how very clever his worst blunders had been, prowling about his dismal hot island shooting birds and squabbling meanly with an underbred gaoler who failed to show him proper «respect».

His career as First Consul was perhaps the least dishonorable phase in his career. He took the crumbling military affairs of the Directory in hand, and after a complicated campaign in North Italy brought matters to a head in the victory of Marengo, near Alessandria (1800). It was a victory that at some moments came very near disaster. In the December of the same year General Moreau, in the midst of snow, mud, and altogether abominable weather, inflicted an overwhelming defeat upon the Austrian army at Hohenlinden. If Napoleon had gained this battle, it would have counted among his most characteristic and brilliant exploits. These things made the hoped for peace possible. In 1801 the preliminaries of peace with England and Austria were signed. Peace with England, the Treaty of Amiens, was concluded in 1802, and Napoleon was free to give himself to the creative statecraft of which France, and Europe through France, stood in need. The war had given the country extended boundaries; the treaty with England restored the colonial empire of France and left her in a position of security beyond the utmost dreams of Louis XIV. It was open to Napoleon to work out and consolidate the new order of things to make a modern state that should become a beacon and inspiration to Europe and all the world.

He attempted nothing of the sort. He did not realize that there were such things as modern states in the scheme of possibility. His little imitative imagination was full of deep cunning dream of being Cæsar over again as if this universe would ever tolerate anything of that sort over again! He was scheming to make himself a real emperor, with a crown upon his head and all his rivals and school fellows and friends, at his feet. This could give him no fresh power that he did not already exercise, but it would be more splendid it would, astonish his mother. What response was there in a head of that sort for the splendid creative challenge of the time? But first France must, be prosperous. France hungry would certainly not endure an emperor. He set himself to carry out an old scheme of roads that Louis XV had approved; he developed canals in imitation of’ the English canals; he reorganized the police and made the country safe; and, preparing the scene for his personal drama, He set himself to make Paris look like Rome, with classical schemes for banking development were available, and, he made use of them. In all these things he moved with the times, they would have happened with less autocracy, with less centralization, if he had never been born. And he set himself to weaken the republicans whose fundamental convictions he was planning to outrage. He recalled the émigrés, provided they gave satisfactory assurances to réspect the new regime. Many were very willing to come back on such terms, and let Bourbons be bygones. And he worked out a great reconciliation, a Concordat, with Rome. Mine was to support him, and he was to restore the authority of Rome in the parishes. France would never be obedient and manageable, he thought; she would never stand a new monarchy, without religion. «How can you have order in a state», he said, «without religion? Society cannot exist without inequality, of fortunes, which cannot endure apart from religion. When one man is dying of hunger near another who is ill of surfeit, he cannot resign himself to this difference, unless there is an authority which declares ‘God wills it thus: there must be poor and rich in the world: but hereafter and during all eternity, the division of things will, take place differently.’» Religion especially of the later Roman brand was, he thought, excellent stuff for keeping the common people quiet. In his early Jacobin days he had denounced it for that very reason.

Another great achievement, which marks his imaginative scope and his estimate of human nature, was the institution of the Legion of Honor, a scheme for decorating Frenchmen with bits of ribbon, which was admirably calculated to divert ambitious men from subversive proceedings.

And also Napoleon interested himself in Christian propaganda. Here is the Napoleonic view of the political uses of Christ, a view that has tainted all French missions from that time forth. «It is my wish to re-establish the institution, for foreign missions; for the religious, missionaries may be very useful to me in Asia, Africa, and America, as I shall make them reconnoiter all; the lands they visit. The sanctity of their dress will not only protect, them but also serve to conceal their political and commercial investigations. The head of the missionary establishment shall reside no longer at Rome but in Paris».

These are the ideas of a roguish merchant rather than a statesman. His treatment of education shows the same narrow vision, the same blindness to the realities of the dawn about him. Elementary education he neglected almost completely; he left it to the conscience of the local authorities, and he provided that, the teachers should be paid out of the fees of the scholars; it is clear he did not want the common people to be educated; he had no glimmering of any understanding why they should be; but, he interested himself in the provision of technical and higher schools because his state needed the services of clever, self-seeking well informed men. This was an astounding retrogression from the great scheme, drafted by Condorcet for the Republic: in 1792, for a, complete system of free education for the entire nation. Slowly but steadfastly the project of Condorcet comes true; the great nations of the world are being compelled to bring it nearer and nearer to realization, and the cheap devices of Napoleon pass out of our interest. As for, the education of the mothers and wives of our race, this was the quality of Napoleon’s wisdom: «I do not think that we need trouble ourselves with any plan of instruction for young females, they cannot be better brought up than by their mothers. Public education is not suitable for them, because they are never called upon to act in public. Manners are all in all, to them, and marriage is all they look to».

The First Consul was no kinder to women in the Code Napoleon. A wife, for example, had no control over her own property; she was in her husband’s hands. This code was the work very largely of the Council of State. Napoleon seems rather to have hindered than helped its deliberations. He would invade the session without notice, and favour its members with lengthy and egotistical monologues, frequently quite irrelevant to, the matter in hand. The Council listened with profound respect; it was all the Council could do. He would keep his councilors up to unearthly hours, and betray a simple pride in his superior wakefulness. He recalled these discussions With peculiar satisfaction in his later years, and remarked on one occasion that his glory consisted not in having won forty battles, but in having created the Code Napoleon … So far as it substituted plain statements for inaccessible legal mysteries his Code was a good thing; it gathered together, revised, and made clear a vast disorderly accumulation of laws, old and new. Like all his constructive work, it made for immediate efficiency; it defined things and relations so that men could get to work upon them without further discussion. It was of less immediate practical importance that it frequently defined them wrongly. There was no intellectual power, as distinguished from intellectual energy, behind this codification. It took everything that existed for granted. («Sa Majesté ne croit que ce qui est»).[1] The fundamental ideas of the civilized community and of the terms of human co-operation were in process of reconstruction all about Napoleon and are never perceived it. He accepted a phase of change, and tried to fix it forever. To this day France is cramped by this early nineteenth-century strait-waistcoat into which he clapped her. He fixed the status of women, the status of laborers, the status of the peasant; they all struggle to this day in the net of big hard definitions.

So briskly and forcibly Napoleon set his mind, hard, clear, and narrow, to brace up France. That bracing up was only a part of the large egotistical schemes that dominated him. His imagination was set upon a new Cæsarism. In 1802 he got himself made First Consul for life with the power of appointing a successor, and his clear intention of annexing Holland and Italy, in spite of his treaty obligations to keep them separate, made the Peace of Amiens totter crazily from the very beginning. Since his schemes were bound to provoke a war with England, He should, at any cost, have kept quiet until he had brought his navy to superiority over the British navy. He had the control of great resources for shipbuilding, the British government was a weak one, and three or four years would have sufficed to shift that balance. But in spite of his rough experiences in Egypt, he had never mastered the importance of sea power, and he had not the mental steadfastness for a waiting game and long preparation. In 1803 his occupation of Switzerland precipitated a crisis, and war broke out again with England. The weak Addington in England gave place to the greater Pitt. The rest of Napoleon’s story turns upon that war.

During the period of the Consulate, the First Consul was very active in advancing the fortunes of his brothers and sisters. This was quite human, very clannish and Corsican, and it helps us to understand just how he valued his position and the opportunities before him. Few of us can live without an audience and the first audience of our childhood is our family; most of us to the end of our days are swayed by the desire to impress our parents and brothers and sisters. Few «1etters home», of successful men or women display the graces of modesty and self-forgetfulness. Only souls uplifted, as the soul of Jesus of Nazareth was uplifted, can say of all the world, «Behold my mother and my brethren!» A large factor in the making of Napoleon was the desire to amaze, astonish, and subdue the minds of the Bonaparte family, and their neighbors. He promoted his brothers ridiculously for they were the most ordinary of men. The hungry Bonapartes were in luck. Surely all Corsica wag open-mouthed! But one person who knew him well was neither amazed nor subdued. This was his mother. He sent her money to spend and astonish the neighbors; he exhorted her to make a display, to live as became the mother of so marvelous, so world-shaking, a son. But the good lady, who had birched the Man of Destiny at the age of sixteen for grimacing at his grandmother, was neither dazzled nor deceived by him at the age of thirty-two. All France might worship him, but she had no illusions. She put by the money he sent her; she continued her customary economies. «When it is all over», she said, «you will be glad of my savings».

[1]Gourgand quoted by Holland Rose.

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