Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

Second Italian Campaign

By crossing the St. Bernard, Bonaparte's army arrived in Italy almost before the Austrian general, still at Genoa, could believe it was coming. All his plans were thus disconcerted, for he had intended to enter southern France as soon as Genoa was taken, to carry on the war there. Instead, he was now in danger of being captured. Hastening northward to escape, just as Bonaparte had foreseen, one Austrian force was defeated at Montebello; but the greatest battle of the war took place, a few days later, at Marengo (1800). Here the French, repulsed a first and a second time, were almost ready to yield, when Bonaparte cried: "One battle is lost, but there is still time to win another. My friends, we have had enough of this. You know it is my custom to sleep on the battlefield."

The soldiers, thrilled by his wonderful personal magnetism, and supported by the timely arrival of the troops under General Desaix, then won a glorious victory, the only thing which marred Bonaparte's exultation being the death of this officer, for he exclaimed, "Ah, what a fine day this would have been, could I have greeted Desaix on the battlefield to-night!"

By this victory, which forced this Austrian army to surrender, Bonaparte in a forty days' campaign recovered possession of the Cisalpine Republic he had founded; and four days later he had a solemn Te Deum sung in the Cathedral at Milan, thereby openly showing his intention thereafter to respect and uphold the Roman Catholic Church. The result of Bonaparte's successes in Italy and of Moreau's great victory at Hohenlinden, in Germany, was the treaty of Luneville with Austria (1801), whereby France was again extended to the Rhine, and the Batavian, Helvetian, Ligurian, and Cisalpine republics were again confirmed.

Meantime, the army left in Egypt under Kleber had been sorely harassed by Turks and English, and the English had taken Malta. Then, Kleber having been murdered, his successor, despairing of maintaining his exposed position abroad, made an arrangement whereby he gave up Egypt, while the English, in exchange, undertook to convey his army back to France.

During their three years' occupation of Egypt, the French had effected many improvements, and their scientists had, besides, collected important data of all kinds. Among other things, the lost art of reading inscriptions on Egyptian monuments is due to this expedition. It seems that while the soldiers were digging a canal at Rosetta, they discovered a slab of stone on which was inscribed a certain decree written in three ways: in Greek, which could be easily read; in popular Egyptian, or demotic writing; and in the writing of Egyptian priests—hieroglyphics. As all three versions were almost uninjured,—being carved in very hard stone,—this inscription afforded the long-sought key for recovering the art of deciphering hieroglyphics. Still, this art was perfected only after long and patient study on the part of the French archaeologist Champollion and other noted scientists.

A year after the peace of Luneville with Austria, Bonaparte signed the famous treaty of Amiens with England, whereby the English pledged themselves to restore Malta to the Knights of St. John. But their failure to keep this promise, as we shall see, soon led to a renewal of the war, so this peace can be regarded as only an armistice.

Bonaparte, having ended warfare for the time being, triumphantly declared, "Now, I shall give myself to the administration of France!" That resolution was to bear very good fruits, for, as one writer says, "The genius of the First Consul was as marvelous in peace as in war, and he applied himself with unwearied labor to the promotion of internal prosperity in France. Day by day decrees were issued which repressed some abuse, conferred some benefit, commanded some useful public work; and soon the face of the land was renewed and society was quickened and refashioned by his touch. The émigrés were welcomed back if they chose to come;—public instruction was improved, though still separated from religion; the government of the provinces was organized anew; industry, commerce, agriculture, arts, and science began to flourish once more; and roads, fortresses, and harbors were repaired and strengthened."

Meanwhile a committee of learned men appointed by Bonaparte had long been working to provide a complete system of good and uniform laws for the whole country. He had directed them to select all that was good in former codes, making a new and practical one, in which each clause was to be short, simple, and clear. When the committee made its report, Bonaparte presided at the meetings of a council which revised the new code, and himself suggested many very wise changes. As a result, his great code of laws preserves most that was excellent in previous codes, although much modified by his love of brevity, and his practical views, for he used to say, "Every good must have common sense for its foundation." He was so justly proud of this piece of legal work, that he once declared, "I shall go down to posterity with the code in my hand!"

This code, which was issued in 1804, was called the Code Civil, or the Code Napoleon, and was adopted by many countries besides France. Although slightly changed, much of the Code, to all intents and purposes, is still in force in France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Italy, Louisiana, and many Spanish-American countries.

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


It was in 1801 that arrangements were made to place the Church of France once more under the spiritual rule of the Pope. The treaty signed with him went by the name of the Concordat, and provided that the government should pay the salaries of the clergy. To celebrate its final signature a Te Deum  was sung on Easter Day at Notre Dame, Bonaparte being present with all his staff. Thus, six years after the ancient cathedral had been desecrated by the worship of the Revolutionary goddess of Reason, Bonaparte restored Catholicism, saying, "In reviving a religion which has always prevailed in the country, in giving liberty of exercising their worship to the majority, I shall satisfy every one."