For nine months after his return from Egypt Napoleon devoted himself to reconciling the French nation to his definition of political liberty as periodical plebiscites foreseeably approving enlightened despotism. France was tiring of democratic liberty just when Italian liberals, fretting under restored Austrian rule, were longing for it. When would that brilliant Italian-become-Frenchman come again to Italy, boot out those Austrians, and give Italy an Italian government?
The crafty Consul took his time, for careful preparation was the first principle of his strategy. When at last he came it was by a dash more brilliant even than the onrush of 1796: a climb up and slide down the Alps, dividing the Austrians in two, taking their main army in the rear, hemming it in, holding it and its old commander prisoners until the Austrian wolf surrendered to the Gallic fox all of its Italian possessions west of Venezia (1801). Napoleon juggled his winnings into something much like the configuration that he had made in 1797. The Cisalpine Republic, centering around Milan, and the Ligurian Republic at Genoa were given relative independence, with Italian governors under a French protectorate. The Papal States were as yet left undisturbed. Concordats were being prepared with the Church, and Napoleon had ceased to be a Mohammedan. By a treaty of March 18, 1801, Ferdinand IV of Naples agreed to close Neapolitan ports to British shipping; Nelson could not help, for he was busy attacking Copenhagen (April 2, 1801). Italians sensed a fine Italian hand behind the consummations, and rejoiced.
Then the hand closed in the grasp of power. In January, 1802, a delegation of 454 delegates from the Cisalpine Republic met in Lyons, adopted a new constitution drawn up by Napoleon, and accepted Talleyrand’s inspired proposal to elect Napoleon president of the new Republica Italiana. After he made himself emperor of the French (1804), the title President of Italy seemed incongruously modest; so, on May 26, 1805, Napoleon received in Milan the old and revered Iron Crown of the Lombard kings, and became sovereign of (north) Italy. He introduced the Code Napoléon, equalized educational opportunity by milking the richer provinces to help the poorer, and promised to keep “my people of Italy… the least heavily taxed of all the nations of Europe.” Departing, he left with them, as his viceroy and a pledge of solicitude, his beloved stepson Eugène de Beauharnais.
For the next eight years the new kingdom (mainly Lombardy) enjoyed a general prosperity, and a vigorous political life, which would long be blessed in Italian memory. The government made no pretense to democracy; Napoleon had no faith in the ability of the populace, there or elsewhere, to wisely choose its leaders and its policy. Instead he advised Eugène to gather about him the most experienced and competent administrators. They served him with enthusiasm and skill. They organized a competent bureaucracy; they set on foot extensive public works—roads, canals, parks, housing, schools; they reformed sanitation, prisons, and the penal code; they spread literacy and fostered music and art. Taxes rose from 82 million francs in 1805 to 144 million in 1812, but part of this reflected inflation of the currency to finance war, and part of it was a redistribution of concentrated wealth for the public good.
Meanwhile the Emperor continued to Napoleonize Italy. In September, 1802, he annexed Piedmont to France. In June, 1805, he charmed the government of Genoa into asking for the incorporation of its Ligurian Republic into the French Empire. In September, 1805, he absorbed the duchies of Parma, Piacenza, and Guastalla. In December, 1805, after almost annihilating the Austrian Army at Austerlitz, he persuaded the Emperor Francis II to surrender Venezia to Eugène’s new kingdom. Venice was so grateful for this partial atonement of Napoleon’s disgraceful bartering of her in 1797 that when he visited the city in 1807 it exhausted itself in festivities.7 In May, 1808, he took over the grand duchy of Tuscany, where Austrian administration had been at its best. His sister Elisa had ruled Lucca so well that Napoleon transferred her to Tuscany, where, under her wise and conciliatory government, Florence became a haven of letters and arts reminiscent of its Medicean days.
On March 30, 1806, Napoleon proclaimed his brother Joseph king of Naples, and sent him, with French troops, to evict the unmanageable Ferdinand IV and his demanding Queen. The Emperor seems to have reserved the most difficult assignments for the genial Joseph, and to have judged his performance with small consideration of the difficulties involved. Joseph was a man of culture, who liked the company of educated men, and of women whose education had not ruined their charm.8 With such a modus vivendi, Bonaparte felt, a man could never successfully govern a kingdom. Why appoint him, then? Because the conqueror had more kingdoms than brothers, and felt that he could trust no one but his close relatives.
Joseph was readily accepted as king of Naples by leaders of the middle class, restless under feudalism; but the populace rejected him as a usurper and an infidel, and Joseph had to steel himself to severe measures to subdue their resistance. The Queen had taken to Sicily all funds in the state bank; a British fleet blockaded the port and stifled maritime trade; and the French troops, victorious but ill-paid, were dangerously insubordinate. Joseph appealed to his brother for some negotiable currency; Napoleon bade him make Naples pay for its liberation. Joseph negotiated a loan from Dutch bankers, and laid a tax upon all incomes, noble or plebeian, clerical or lay. He brought in from Paris Comte Pierre-Louis Roederer, one of Napoleon’s favorite economists, to take charge of the fisc; and soon the state’s finances were in good order. Other experienced administrators established a free school in every commune of the kingdom, and a college in every province. Feudalism was abolished; the lands of the Church were nationalized and sold to the peasantry and to a growing middle class. Laws were harmonized under a variant of the Napoleonic Code. The judiciary was cleansed, procedure was expedited, prisons and penal code were reformed.9
Joseph was nearing success and public approval when he was suddenly summoned to a throne and task still more difficult and dangerous—to be king of Spain (June 10, 1808). In his place Napoleon, running out of brothers, set up, as king of Naples, Joachim Murat, who was his brother-in-law by marriage with Caroline Bonaparte.
Murat is remembered chiefly for his showy costumes and his fearless initiative in battle; let us honor him for his reconstruction of the Neapolitan government. He was a man with all the peasant virtues except patience, fitter for herculean tasks than for cunning diplomacy or farsighted statesmanship; a loving husband between squalls, and faithful to his imperious brother-in-law till he thought him mad. We can understand his complaint that the Continental Blockade demanded by Napoleon was ruining Naples’ economic life. Nevertheless, perhaps because of his impatience, he and his aides accomplished much in his four-year reign. They completed the reform of taxation, established a national bank, paid off the national debt (mostly through the sale of ecclesiastical property), abolished internal traffic tolls, and financed substantial public works. Altogether, the administrations of Joseph and Murat, lasting less than eight years, transformed the political, economic, and social life of Naples so fundamentally that when Ferdinand IV was restored to his throne in 1815 he accepted nearly all the reforms that the French had made.
Dearer than these accomplishments to Joachim’s heart was the army of sixty thousand men which he had organized and trained, and with which he hoped to unite Italy and be its first king. From that dream, and from the sun of Italy, he was peremptorily summoned, in 1812, to join his brother-in-law in the conquest of Russia.