The essence of government is power, and power, lodged as it is in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. — James Madison

Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler




Napoleon and the Corsican Volunteers


(1791-1792)


Napoleon again had a companion on his return voyage to France in the person of his brother Louis, a bright little fellow twelve and a half years old. If the latter could not be expected to take any intelligent interest in the many schemes for advancement which were now coursing through Napoleon's super-active brain, he was at least a living link with the family in Ajaccio. The young lieutenant's political ambitions which had received so marked an incentive in Corsica were not allowed to sink to zero, as is so frequently the case when one is away from the whirl and excitement of their practical influence. Rather were they nourished and fed by the sights and scenes Napoleon beheld as the two made their way to Auxonne after they had landed. The fact that he had exceeded his leave of absence worried him not at all, the penalty of six months' imprisonment, should his excuse be deemed invalid, being dismissed from his mind as an unlikely sequel. In his pocket were certificates from the Directory of the district of Ajaccio setting forth in glowing terms the services Napoleon had rendered to Corsica, and stating that his had been an enforced absence from duty owing to the unfavourable weather precluding the vessel from leaving. These credentials proved sufficient; he did not so much as lose a sou of his pay.

Napoleon quickly returned to his old habits of hard work, and his democratic opinions were voiced with greater vehemence to his fellow-officers, many of whom failed to agree with him and were not afraid to say so. Polite discussions frequently led to less gentlemanly arguments.

The room which the two Bonapartes occupied was almost as poorly furnished as was Chatterton's garret. Facing the window was a table loaded with books, papers, and writing utensils. There was a chair apiece: should a visitor come, either Napoleon or Louis had to sit on the edge of the bed, the younger brother being accommodated at night on a mattress in an adjoining apartment, which was in reality a part of the room and scarcely larger than a cupboard. If at a later period of his career Napoleon showed a desire for lavish display, he certainly was not able to indulge in luxury at Auxonne. He paid for everything required by Louis, clothed him, educated him, and thrashed him when he was disobedient or particularly dense in the matter of lessons. The younger Bonaparte soon became a general favourite, both in and outside the regiment. Napoleon writes with a certain amount of satisfaction that "all the women are in love with him." His faults seem to be summed up in the comprehensive but cynical phrase, "All he needs is knowledge."

In the middle of June 1791, Napoleon bade farewell to Auxonne and set out for Valence, where the Fourth Regiment was in garrison, he having been made first lieutenant of the first company of the second battalion. His brother accompanied him, lodging elsewhere, as it was not found convenient for Louis to remain in the same house. By way of recreation, frequent visits were paid to Madame de Colombier, but politics more and more absorbed Napoleon. He entered with great zest into the doings of the Society of the Friends of the Constitution, an avowedly revolutionary and republican gathering, and soon became so popular with its members that he was elected secretary and librarian.

The Academy of Lyons having offered a handsome prize, amounting to about 50, for the best essay on "What Truths and what Sentiments is it most Important to impress upon Men for their Happiness?" Napoleon found further scope for his literary gifts. "By sentiment," he assures us in his competitive composition,

we enjoy ourselves, nature, our country, and the men who surround us," and in support of the statement he draws on his own experience. "You return to your country," he writes; "after four years of absence, you visit the spots where you played in your earliest age, where you first experienced the knowledge of men and the awakening of the passions. In a moment you live the life of your childhood, you enjoy its pleasures, you are fired with the love of your country, you have a father and a tender mother, sisters still innocent, brothers who are like friends; too happy man, run, fly, do not lose a moment. If death stop you on your way you will never have known the delights of life, of sweet gratitude, of tender respect, of sincere friendship. These are the real pleasures of life, and they are greater if you have a wife and children." He says hard things of immoderate ambition, the very disease which was to prove his own ruin, and calls it "a violent unreflecting madness, which only ceases with life—a conflagration, fanned by a pitiless wind, which does not end till it has consumed everything." We wonder whether the Emperor, in his hours of introspection on the island of St Helena, when he was proving the truth of the above statement, ever thought of his essay. It did not gain the prize—Napoleon's name was last but one on the list of competitors.

Yet another leave of absence was requested and granted. It seems little short of extraordinary that, when France was at white heat, holidays should have been granted to soldiers, but such was the case. Napoleon and Louis saw the blue mountains of Corsica and their family in September 1791, a few weeks before the death of Archdeacon Lucien. It almost seemed, from Napoleon's point of view, as though Fate invariably had an unpleasant surprise for him when he visited Ajaccio, but Letizia always regarded her second son's homecoming as an act of Providence. Fortunately, his venerable relative left a handsome sum of money to the Bonapartes, a certain amount of which was invested by Napoleon in the purchase of a house in Ajaccio and two properties some little distance away.

It looked for a time as though the tide of fortune was beginning to turn in their favour. Joseph was elected a member of the Directory, the executive committee of the island, and on the 22nd February 1792, Napoleon was appointed Adjutant-Major of the Corsican Volunteers at Ajaccio. Some six weeks later, he was elected second lieutenant-colonel, a position which allowed him to absent himself from his French regiment but made for him an enemy in Pozzo di Borgo, a man who afterwards rose to distinction at the Russian Court, and had much to do with his successful rival's fall in after years.

Napoleon's opportunity for action soon came. Revolutionary principles regarded religion as of little consequence, and it was decided that the convents in the four most important towns of Corsica should be suppressed. This was not to be achieved without difficulty, and as strife and possibly bloodshed were thought highly probable, it was decided that a number of volunteers should be on hand at Ajaccio. On Easter Day 1792, a disturbance occurred in one of the streets. A dozen volunteers marched out to end it, only to make the disorder more general. Napoleon felt it his duty to interfere, but was obliged to take refuge after one of the men had been killed. The action of the volunteers was, of course, illegal, as they had acted on their own responsibility. Napoleon defended them, and in company with Quenza, his senior in command, endeavoured to persuade Colonel Maillard, the commander of the fortress, to deliver it into their hands. The Colonel, however, would have nothing to do with them beyond giving food for their men.

Early the following morning another band of volunteers entered the Seminary, fired indiscriminately, and angered the inhabitants. Disorder increased to such an extent as the day began to wane that it became necessary to proclaim martial law—in other words, the regular military were given absolute control until order should be restored. Various outrages on the part of the volunteers, of which Napoleon was by no means innocent, followed during the night. He endeavoured to corrupt the regular soldiers without success, and thus began that scheme of lying and plotting which he was to pursue even after he had been elected Emperor of the French. He was absolutely unscrupulous when, as always, he had his own ends to serve. In the case under consideration, he undertook that his men should be kept under restraint, the authorities promising that they would see that the people did not interfere with the volunteers. Napoleon's intention may have been good, but his men certainly continued to behave in a most disgraceful manner. Eventually order was restored, and a rebuke administered to Napoleon by his battalion being ordered to retire to Corte.

The part he had played did not increase his popularity, and he thought it well to return to the French capital a month after war had been declared against Austria. As he himself said, "The beginning of a revolution was a fine time for an enterprising young man!"