Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The Youth of Napoleon

The new government, called "the Directory," which was to last four years (1795-1799), was organized under the "Constitution of the Year III." Under this plan, the lawmaking power was given, as we have seen, to two assemblies—that of the Five Hundred, which proposed measures, and that of the Ancients, which ratified or rejected them; and the executive power was intrusted to five Directors. The men first chosen as Directors were Carnot, Barras, and three other Republicans, who immediately proceeded to establish themselves in the Luxembourg, the beautiful palace built by the widow of Henry IV. But, while they found there magnificently decorated ceilings and walls, and superb hardwood floors, not an article of furniture was left, so they had to borrow a rickety pine table and a few straw-bottom chairs from the janitor to use in their first meeting.

The new government promised so many good things that the people, anxious to forget the grim past, looked gayly forward toward the future. A great reaction had set in after all the terror and gloom of the past few years, and need was felt for brightness and gayety of all kinds. As a rule, it is those in the highest places who set the fashion, and as the most influential of the Directors was Barras,—a man of bad principles, who loved show and diversion,—it became the rage to dress extravagantly, as he did, and to indulge in all manner of pleasures. Some of these were innocent enough, but people who prided themselves upon having no religion did not know exactly where to stop.

Barras, who was a great admirer of beauty and wit, liked to collect in his drawing-room all the most clever men and most charming women. Among the ladies frequently seen at his receptions were Madame Tallien, a noted beauty; Josephine de Beauharnais, whose husband had been guillotined and who had barely escaped the same fate; and Madame Recamier, whose grace and beauty were proverbial. These ladies affected a Greek style of dress, with very short waist, which, from the time when it appeared in France, has always been known as the "Directoire" or "Empire" fashion. Among the many interesting men was Bonaparte, "the little Corsican officer," who now had a chance to see Josephine, with whom he fell desperately in love. He was, however, quite as poor as she, and as there were two Beauharnais children to support, marriage seemed almost impossible. Still, Josephine was so fascinating, and such a favorite with Barras, that she confidently believed a way would open for this young officer before long.

Josephine was right, for Carnot, who had ably looked after the Republican armies for many years, was making an elaborate plan for attacking Austria and Germany, with which the Republic was still at war. By this plan, three armies were to start from different points, two in the north and one in the south, to meet later at Vienna, and bring the Emperor to terms. As two of the Directors, Carnot and Barras, had already seen what Bonaparte could do, they gave this young man, then twenty-seven, the command of the southern army, at Josephine's request.

A few days, therefore, before Bonaparte's departure to join the army and show what he could do, he and Josephine were married, "Republican fashion"; that is to say, without any religious ceremony whatever. As these two persons are to be often mentioned hereafter, you will be interested in hearing about the early life of each of them.

Napoleon Bonaparte was the second of ten children, and, although both his parents were Italian, he always claimed to be French, because he was born in Corsica a short time after that island was united to France. Father Bonaparte, though a poor officer, educated these children as best he could, sending Napoleon to Brienne, a preparatory military school, at the age of ten.

Napoleon was, from childhood, extremely obstinate and intensely vain. It hurt his feelings so sorely to be less well dressed than the other boys, that he proved gloomy and reserved at first, refusing to mix with the other pupils or to make friends. After a while, however, he began to shine in mathematics and in games, especially in those where he could direct the motions of others and act as leader, his side being always sure to win in snowball fights, for instance. While at Brienne, Napoleon lost his father, who, in the midst of his wildest delirium, is said to have uttered these prophetic words: "Where is my son, Napoleon? He whose sword will make kings tremble, he who will change the face of the world!" After remaining five years at Brienne, the boy about whom such great deeds were foretold, was transferred to the military academy in Paris, bearing a note from his former teachers, saying, "He will do great things if fortune favors him."

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


Graduating from this school as second lieutenant of artillery, Bonaparte was stationed in various garrisons in southern France, where, having nothing save his pay—generally in arrears—and hence not being able to lead or shine in military circles, he became retiring and gloomy, read a great deal, and even tried to write an immortal novel. At the siege of Toulon, he got his first chance to distinguish himself, and attracted the attention of Barras, but afterwards, the government having meantime changed, Bonaparte was imprisoned for a while. When he returned to Paris, he was out of both work and money, and, in answer to his applications for an appointment, received everywhere the discouraging reply, "You are too young," although he vehemently urged, "One ages fast on the battlefield!" while proudly mentioning his previous services.

Just as Bonaparte, in despair, was about to offer his services to Turkey, Barras called upon him, as we have seen, to subdue the Parisians; and shortly after the Directory had been instituted, he was appointed general in chief of the army destined to invade Italy.

Josephine, being born of French parents in the West Indies, was often called a Creole (a name applied to European children born in the tropics). She came to France, very young, to marry Viscount de Beauharnais, and they had two children, Eugene and Hortense, of whom you will hear more. The Beauharnais couple having quarreled, Josephine returned to her parents with her little daughter, but the dispute was patched up by letters, so that she returned once more to France. She was then so poor that her little girl, having worn out her only pair of shoes in dancing to amuse the sailors, gladly accepted from one of them a pair of slippers rudely cobbled from the tops of an old pair of boots!

When the Revolution broke out, the Beauharnais couple, being aristocrats, became "suspects" and were put in prison, their children being barely kept alive by the devotion of an old servant, who had to bind them out as apprentices. As you have seen, Beauharnais was guillotined, and Josephine escaped a similar fate by Robespierre's fall. Just after Bonaparte had turned his cannon on the Parisians, he ordered all the houses searches for weapons, which were to be deposited once more in the city arsenals. In this search, the sword of Beauharnais, which hung in Eugene's room, and which he considered his most precious treasure, was ruthlessly carried off. Hoping to recover it, the lad hastened to headquarters, where he pleaded so eloquently that Bonaparte gave it back. The next day, Josephine came with her son to thank the general, and the acquaintance thus begun soon ripened into love and marriage. Although the Bonaparte honeymoon proved very short, the bridegroom was desperately in love, for he wrote letters to his beloved bride at every relay, while posting southward to join his forces.