Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The Consulate

Bonaparte's coup d'etat  had, as we have seen, established a new form of government; but the new constitution was formally adopted only after having been submitted to the nation, each voter being asked to state whether he wished to see it adopted or not. By this plebiscite, or vote of the people, it was ascertained that more than 3,000,000 voters were in favor of its adoption, and only 1500 opposed, which proves how gladly it was welcomed by the nation in general. Indeed, as one man said, "The people are so weary, so disgusted with Revolutionary horrors and follies, that they are sure any change will be for the better."

The new Consulate was a republic with one man in reality supreme, that man being, of course, Bonaparte himself, the First Consul. Still, mainly to blind the people to this fact, a Senate and a Legislative Corps were chosen, though given little real power, and two other consuls (Cambaceres and Lebrun) were appointed, who, however, were so subordinate to the chief executive, or First Consul, that they were merely his advisers. Even at that time the most clear-sighted perceived that everything would henceforth center in Bonaparte, and one man remarked prophetically, "That young man has begun like Caesar, and I fear he will have the same end."

Bonaparte declared at the very outset, "In future, we will have no parties, no Jacobins, no Royalists, but only Frenchmen," and he showed his impartiality by appointing Talleyrand, a Royalist, and Fouche, a Jacobin, as ministers of Foreign Affairs and of the Police. His mottoes being, "Every career open to talent," and "The tools belong to him who can handle them," he picked out men regardless of their origin or station, considering only their fitness for the work he wished them to do. Before long (1802) he also instituted what is still a most popular and democratic order; that of the "Legion of Honor," whose members were to be recruited from those who had distinguished themselves in some way, thereby "deserving well from the country." With the perception of genius, the skill of a born administrator, and the untiring energy for which he was noted all through life, Bonaparte brought order out of chaos with marvelous rapidity, arranging things so that prosperity should return as fast as possible to a sorely stricken country.

In a very short time anarchy was ended, religion restored, exiles recalled, and trade recovering; for the country was so weary of the disorder and excesses of the last ten years that it was "ready to perform the impossible" to help him. The new and very capable hand at the helm soon steered the ship of state into much smoother waters, and, as confidence returned, even social life became gayer and more brilliant. The center of festivities now, as of old, was the Tuileries, for on the very day he was installed First Consul, Bonaparte decided to leave the Luxembourg,—where the Directors had sat,—and to take possession of the former abode of royalty. On perceiving the glaring "liberty caps and pikes" with which Revolutionary taste had decorated the palace, he said contemptuously, "Remove all those things; I don't like to see such rubbish!"—a remark which, a few years before, would doubtless have sent him to the guillotine.

While Bonaparte himself continued to be styled "Citizen First Consul," Josephine, who now did the honors of the palace most gracefully, was invariably called "Madame," and greeted by ambassadors and visitors of all kinds in the old courtly manner. She was a general favorite, and Bonaparte acknowledged how helpful her tact was when he once said, "I win battles, but Josephine wins hearts!"

You might think that Bonaparte could now feel satisfied with what he had accomplished. Evidently he was not, for when some one complimented him upon his achievements, he said: "Yes, I have done enough, it is true! In less than two years I have won Cairo, Paris, and Milan; but for all that, my dear fellow, were I to die to-morrow, I should not, at the end of ten centuries, occupy one half a page of general history!"

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


In beginning his new functions, Bonaparte declared that he was in favor of peace, and wrote fine letters to England and Austria to propose that the war be ended. But as he would conclude peace only in case they were willing to restore to France all that had recently been taken from her, his offers were not accepted,—a state of affairs which did not grieve him, for he remarked, "Conquest has made me what I am, and conquest alone can maintain me."

Therefore, about three months after assuming the title of First Consul, Bonaparte, having again pacified the Vendee, gave Moreau orders to continue his campaign against Austria from the north, and himself prepared to lead an army into Italy for the second time. But as the bulk of the Austrian forces were then busy besieging Genoa, the last stronghold of the French in Italy, and were thus close at hand to check any attempt to enter this country by the shore road, Bonaparte determined to lead his army over the Alps by the higher pass of St. Bernard, farther north. The enemy did not think it possible that Bonaparte would come that way; but Bonaparte often said that "impossible" is not a French word. The engineer sent by him to reconnoiter, objected to the great difficulties of this route, only to be interrupted by Bonaparte, who said, "Difficult, of course; the only question is, Can it be done?"

"Yes, provided we make extraordinary efforts!" replied the engineer.

Such an admission was all Bonaparte required, for he immediately said: "Enough. Let us depart at once."

While the army and supplies were being collected at Geneva, Bonaparte was completing his plans, and, just before leaving the Tuileries, showed his secretary a map of northern Italy, saying: "At this point, I shall cross the Po. Here I shall meet the enemy on the plains, and there," putting his finger near Marengo, "I shall fight and beat him!" This statement, as we shall see, time was to verify. Still, on leaving Paris, Bonaparte significantly remarked to his ministers, "Should anything happen, I shall be back like a thunderbolt!" for he did not intend to let any one attempt to overthrow his  government or take his place at its head.

Having arrived at Geneva, Bonaparte visited Rousseau's grave, and was heard to wonder whether it would not have been better for France if that writer had never been, adding, "Well, the future must decide whether it would not have been better for the repose of the whole world if neither I nor Rousseau had ever lived!"

The foe were still wondering where Bonaparte was going to direct the army he was reviewing at Geneva, when the crossing of the St. Bernard—where there were no tunnels or even decent roads in those days—had already begun. In fact, roads were made as the army advanced, and cannon were taken to pieces, and either carried or dragged by the soldiers themselves. The barrels of heavy guns, set in hollow logs, were hauled by hundreds of soldiers up dizzy heights, so that in less than six days thirty-five thousand men, with all their artillery and baggage, had scaled the mountain, and were "rushing down from the Alps like a torrent!"

Bonaparte climbed the mountain also, mounted on one of the sure-footed donkeys of the region, led by an Alpine guide who little suspected the name or rank of his charge. To beguile this long climb over the St. Bernard, Bonaparte—who always tried to find out all he could about people—closely questioned this rustic guide, and finished by inquiring what was the man's greatest ambition. Thus learning that the man's highest hope was to purchase a small farm, properly stocked, Bonaparte greatly surprised him, soon after, by bestowing upon him the very place he had so well described!