Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

Blessings of Peace


It now became eminently desirable that Napoleon should pay some attention to the domestic affairs of France and of the countries dominated by her. He determined to infuse a little of his own inexhaustible energy into the departments of State, and to restore public confidence generally. That some kind of mutual understanding should be arrived at with the Powers who were not under his thumb was a prime necessity. Affairs on the Continent were by no means without possibilities of danger to the Republic. Russia and Great Britain had become allies, the hitherto neutral scales of Prussia might at any moment lean towards the latter, and Austria had not become reconciled to the loss of her territories.

When England set on foot proposals for a cessation of hostilities which had continued since 1793, Napoleon was busily preparing a flotilla for the invasion of that island, to which project he had devoted considerable thought. Although he did not betray his eagerness, he certainly felt that there could be no greater or more profitable blessing than a period of peace, which would enable him to carry out various reforms and also to consolidate his own interests. The negotiations finally took definite shape in the short-lived Treaty of Amiens. The British Government under the leadership of Addington lacked the genius and foresight of Pitt, consequently the balance of profit from the Treaty was on the side of France. The Egyptian question was to be settled by that country being restored to the Sultan; Malta was to be handed back to the Knights of St John, its former possessors; Great Britain was to retain Ceylon and Trinidad alone of her colonial conquests during the war. These were the principal items of the Treaty, the preliminaries of which were signed in London on the 1st October 1801. France was at peace with all the world.

Napoleon, whose term of office as First Consul had been extended for ten years (at a later period he was made Consul for life), now directed the whole of his powers on the internal government of France. Neither afraid of God nor man personally, he early discerned that religion had a deep political significance. France had tried to blot out Christianity, but as a result of her efforts the old forms of worship had merely given place to vague speculations and makeshifts. The Christian faith was re-established by the Concordat, a "treaty of peace with the Roman Catholic Church," as an eminent modern scholar terms it, the First Consul setting a good example by attending Mass at Notre Dame. This was followed by the inauguration of the Civil Code, a readjustment of laws involving the most arduous research on the part of those learned in the intricacies of jurisprudence.

Commerce received a fresh impetus, public works were undertaken, and social life revived. So great was the confidence of Englishmen that they again began to make the "grand tour" of the Continent, then deemed a necessary part of the education of members of the upper classes. The Diary of Robert Sym, clerk to his Majesty's Signet, affords us an interesting glimpse of Napoleon at this time. He writes in his quaint way as follows:

"On the 'Quinze Thermidor' (Tuesday, August 3rd, 1802) we saw Bonaparte review in the 'Cour des Tuileries' what was certainly the flower of his army, for they were very different men from those we had seen on the road and at Calais. We never saw a finer body of men than these, nor finer horses and accoutrements, and all clothed and equipped in the most complete manner. The corps of Chasseurs and of the Gens d'Armerie, in particular, were very fine men. The corps of Guides, too, seemed to be all picked. These latter were commanded by young Beauharnais, the son of the wife of Bonaparte. . . .

"About twelve o'clock Bonaparte came down the great stair of the Tuileries and one of our party, who happened to be right opposite the porch, told us that he mounted his horse from wooden steps. He then rode forward, accompanied by about fifteen or twenty generals and a Mameluke from Egypt. All his suite were dressed and powdered in the most showy manner, but Bonaparte himself wore a plain green coat with a narrow white cloth edging at the seams, such as servants in this country sometimes wear, and a cocked hat without any lace. His hair is very black and is cropped very close to his head and neck, so that his ears are all bare. It falls down over his brow. His complexion is swarthy, his face long, a fine nose, his eyes are very dark and his eyebrows fall, or are drawn down, much over his eyes. His cheek bones are high, and his cheeks sink between the bones of the face and those of the chin, which gives him a wasted, consumptive look. His upper lip projects in the middle of his mouth, considerably over the under one, and his chin is sharp and prominent. He does not seem to be above five feet six, and is very thin. He is thirty-three years of age. To me he appeared to have the look of anxiety, or rather of terror. He was mounted on a beautiful Arabian grey horse, one of the most perfect animals I ever saw. His saddle, or rather housing, on which he sat, was purple velvet, richly embroidered with gold and a great many nets and trappings. . . . Bonaparte was nearly an hour and a half on horseback on this occasion. During all that period he never once opened his lips, nor did he turn his head to the right or to the left. He looked straight over his horse's ears. No person spoke to him, nor was he cheered or huzzaed, either when he came into the Cour or when he departed."

The conquests of the Republic in Italy, Holland, Belgium, the left bank of the Rhine, and Switzerland imposed considerable responsibility upon the French, and it was necessary to reorganize the several governments. They were encumbered by tradition, with which Napoleon had little or no sympathy. As regards the independence which the inhabitants had every reason to expect by the terms of the Peace of Luneville, the First Consul was rich in promise and poor in performance. Moderation was a quality distinctly lacking in Napoleonic statesmanship. The very thought of a national spirit was a nightmare to the man who was now bent on building a vast Empire of the West. Northern Italy was completely dominated by him; Piedmont, for long the football of Austria and France, was incorporated with the Republic, Parma and Placentia were occupied. The Cisalpine Republic speedily became the Italian Republic, a high-sounding name calculated to please, with Napoleon as President and a French army of occupation. Within certain limits the First Consul's jurisdiction was, beneficial, even though he ruled on despotic principles.

To Holland, now the Batavian Republic, he granted a constitution, but many of his measures were too arbitrary for the stolid Dutch; there was no end to their grievances, both fancied and real. Probably the provinces on the left bank of the Rhine, which were incorporated with France, gained more lasting advantages if only because they were less meddled with. Affairs on the opposite side of the river attracted more attention; in Germany there was something worth playing for. With the Czar's consent, Napoleon set about rearranging the various German States. This he did to his present satisfaction, Francis II. of the unwieldy Holy Roman Empire, of which these territories formed a part, meekly acquiescing, as befits a monarch who has no alternative but to grin and bear unpreventable misfortunes. Over two hundred independent States formerly belonging to bishops, abbots, and petty sovereigns were eventually annexed to their larger neighbours, the idea being to gain the goodwill and friendship of the more important rulers.

Switzerland, a neutral State according to the Treaty of Luneville but not held to be so by the First Consul, was more difficult of settlement. After several systems of government had been tried and failed, Napoleon himself drew up the Constitution of Malmaison. This he forced the country to accept in May, 1801, but it was amended in the following year. On the withdrawal of the French army of occupation, civil war broke out among the patriotic Swiss, Ney speedily quelling it, however, with a formidable body of troops. The Helvetian Republic was too important from a military point of view to be allowed to snap the fetters which linked it to France.

European affairs, it might be thought, would have been sufficiently exhausting to preclude colonial projects. But, to use an apparent paradox, Napoleon never had more time to spare than when he was most busy. He derived his recreation from change of work, shutting up one drawer in his mind to open another, to use his own simile. Of leisure and ease he had little; a visit to the theatre, a hunt occasionally, an hour's chat with Josephine and the ladies of the Consular Court, during which he would tell them the most creepy ghost stories, and a game of cards at which he cheated, sufficed him for pastime. He took exercise while working, restlessly pacing the study while he dictated a torrent of words on civil, military, and naval matters, or walking in the garden discussing affairs with a Minister of State.

At this period Napoleon's intellect and powers of exhaustive concentration were at their best, and it is characteristic of his marvellous energy that he could find time to devote to the possessions of the Republic overseas. He resolved upon an attempt to recover San Domingo, in the West Indies, then ruled by the famous negro President Toussaint L'Ouverture, the subject of one of Wordsworth's greatest sonnets: "Toussaint, thou most unhappy man of men." France had practically lost her supremacy of this important West India island owing to a revolt of the negroes, and there seemed a likelihood of Toussaint declaring its independence.

The First Consul sent off 21,000 troops under General Leclerc, who had married Pauline, the prettiest of the Bonaparte sisters, and the blacks were eventually routed. Some months later, when the yellow fever had laid low many of the French soldiers and England and the Republic were again at war, the cause of the negroes was taken up by the British, with the result that the independence of San Domingo was definitely established. Only one-fifth of the expeditionary army returned to France.

In a diary kept by Rear-Admiral Sir George Cockburn's secretary during Napoleon's voyage in the Northumberland to St Helena, a conversation is recorded in which the ex-Emperor referred particularly to the West Indies. He said that "had he continued at the head of the French Government, he never would have attempted the re-occupation of St Domingo; that the most he would have established with regard to that island would have been to keep frigates and sloops stationed around it to force the blacks to receive everything they wanted from, and to export all their produce exclusively to, France; for, he added, he considered the independence of the blacks there to be more likely to prove detrimental to England than to France. This latter remark is a reiteration of his feelings with respect to England, as in all the calculations he makes, the proportion of evil which may accrue to our nation seems to bear in his mind the first consideration."

In the early days of 1803 the First Consul's attention was distracted by events nearer home, and he had no alternative but to abandon his dreams of a Colonial Empire. If, as he afterwards stated, "the Saint Domingo business" was "the greatest error in all my government I ever committed," he had been able to obtain Louisiana from Spain in exchange for an extension of territory in Italy, and also to secure Guiana.