“No intellectual exercise,” said Lord Acton, “can be more invigorating than to watch the working of the mind of Napoleon, the most entirely known as well as the ablest of historic men.”6 But who today can feel that he has truly and wholly known a man—though some 200,000 books and booklets have been written about him—who is presented by a hundred learned historians as the hero who struggled to give unity and law to Europe, and by a hundred learned historians as the ogre who drained the blood of France, and ravaged Europe, to feed an insatiable will to power and war? “The French Revolution,” said Nietzsche, “made Napoleon possible; that is its justification.”7 Napoleon, musing before the tomb of Rousseau, murmured, “Perhaps it would have been better if neither of us had ever been born.”8

He was born at Ajaccio August 15, 1769. Fifteen months earlier Genoa had sold Corsica to France; only two months earlier a French army had validated the sale by suppressing Paoli’s revolt; on such trivia history has turned. Twenty years later Napoleon wrote to Paoli: “I was born when my country was dying. Thirty thousand Frenchmen disgorged upon our shores, drowning the throne of liberty in a sea of blood; such was the hateful spectacle that offended my infant eyes.”9

Corsica, said Livy, “is a rugged, mountainous, almost uninhabitable island. The people resemble their country, being as ungovernable as wild beasts.”10 Contact with Italy had softened some part of this wildness, but the rough terrain, the hard and almost primitive life, the mortal family feuds, the fierce defense against invaders, had left the Corsicans of Paoli’s time fit for guerrilla warfare or a condottiere’s enterprise rather than for the concessions that violent instincts must make to prosaic order if civilization is to form. Civility was growing in the capital, but during most of the time that Letizia Ramolino Buonaparte was carrying Napoleon she followed her husband from camp to camp with Paoli, lived in tents or mountain shacks, and breathed the air of battle. Her child seemed to remember all this with his blood, for he was never so happy as in war. He remained to the end a Corsican, and, in everything but date and education, an Italian, bequeathed to Corsica by the Renaissance. When he conquered Italy for France the Italians received him readily; he was the Italian who was conquering France.

His father, Carlo Buonaparte, could trace his lineage far back in the history of Italy, through a lusty breed living mostly in Tuscany, then in Genoa, then, in the sixteenth century, migrating to Corsica. The family treasured a noble pedigree, which was recognized by the French government; the de, however, was shed when, in the Revolution, a title to nobility was a step toward the guillotine. Carlo was a man of adaptable talent; he fought under Paoli for Corsican freedom; when that movement failed he made his peace with the French, served in the Franco-Corsican administration, secured the admission of two of his sons to academies in France, and was among the deputies sent to the States-General by the Corsican nobility. Napoleon took from his father his gray eyes, and perhaps his fatal gastric cancer.11

He took more from his mother. “It is to my mother and her excellent principles that I owe all my success, and any good that I have done. I do not hesitate to affirm that the future of the child depends upon its mother.”12 He resembled her in energy, courage, and mad resolution, even in fidelity to the proliferating Bonapartes. Born in 1750, Letizia Ramolino was fourteen when she married, thirty-five when widowed; she bore thirteen children between 1764 and 1784, saw five of them die in childhood, raised the rest with stern authority, glowed with their pride, and suffered with their fall.

Napoleon was her fourth, the second to survive infancy. Oldest was Joseph Bonaparte (1768–1844), amiable and cultured epicurean; made king of Naples and then of Spain, he hoped to be the second emperor of France. After Napoleon came Lucien (1775–1840), who helped him seize the French government in 1799, became his passionate enemy, and stood by his side in the heroic futility of the “Hundred Days.” Then Maria Anna Elisa (1777–1820), proud and able grand duchess of Tuscany, who opposed her brother in 1813, and preceded him to death. Then Louis (1778–1846), who married the kindly Hortense de Beauharnais, became king of Holland, and begat Napoleon III. Then Pauline (1780–1825), beautiful and scandalously gay, who married Prince Camillo Borghese, and still holds court, in Canova’s softly contoured marble in the Galleria Borghese, as one of the lasting delights of Rome. “Pauline and I,” Napoleon recalled, “were Mother’s favorites: Pauline because she was the prettiest and daintiest of my sisters, and I because a natural instinct told her that I would be the founder of the family’s greatness.”13 Then Maria Carolina (1782–1839), who married Joachim Murat and became queen of Naples. Lastly, Jérôme (1784–1860), who founded the Bonapartes of Baltimore, and rose to be king of Westphalia.

In 1779 Carlo Buonaparte secured from the French government the privilege of sending Napoleon to a military academy at Brienne, some ninety miles southeast of Paris. It was a cardinal event in the boy’s life, for it destined him to a martial career, and—almost to the end—to think of life and destiny in terms of war. Brienne became a formative ordeal for a lad of ten, so far from home in a strange and strict environment. The other students could not forgive his pride and temper, which seemed so disproportionate to his obscure nobility. “I suffered infinitely from the ridicule of my schoolmates, who jeered at me as a foreigner.” The young maverick withdrew into himself, into studies, books, and dreams. His inclination to taciturnity was deepened; he spoke little, trusted no one, and kept himself from a world that seemed organized to torment him. There was one exception: he made friends with Louis-Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, also a product of 1769; they defended each other, fought each other; after long separations Bourrienne became his secretary (1797), and remained close to him until 1805.

Isolation enabled the young Corsican to excel in studies that fed his hunger for eminence. He fled from Latin as from something dead; he had no uses for its Virgilian graces or its Taciturnian terseness. He received little instruction in literature or art, for the teachers were mostly innocent of these lures. But he took eagerly to mathematics; here was a discipline congenial to his demand for exactitude and clarity, something beyond prejudice and argument, and of constant use to a military engineer; in this field he led his class. Also he relished geography; those varied lands were terrain to be studied, people to be ruled; and they were food for dreams. History was for him, as for Carlyle, a worship and rosary of heroes, especially those who guided nations or molded empires. He loved Plutarch even more than Euclid; he breathed the passion of those ancient patriots, he drank the blood of those historic battles; “There is nothing modern in you,” Paoli told him; “you belong wholly to Plutarch.”14 He would have understood Heine, who said that when he read Plutarch he longed to mount a horse and ride forth to conquer Paris. Napoleon reached that goal through Italy and Egypt, but flank attacks were his forte.

After five years at Brienne, Bonaparte, now fifteen, was among the students selected from the twelve military schools of France to receive advanced instruction at the École Militaire in Paris. In October, 1785, he was assigned as second lieutenant of artillery to the La Fère Regiment stationed at Valence on the Rhone. His total pay there was 1,120 livres per year;15 out of this, apparently, he sent something to help his mother care for her growing brood. As his father had died in February, and Joseph was as yet without means, Napoleon had become acting head of the clan. On his furloughs he made several visits to Corsica, lonesome, he said, for “the smell of its earth,” for its “precipices, high mountains, and deep ravines.”16

At Valence, and in 1788 at Auxonne, he earned the respect of his fellow officers by his rapid progress in military sciences and arts, his quickness to learn, his fertility in practical suggestions, and his readiness to share in the hard physical work of managing artillery. He carefully studied the Essai de tactique générale (1772) and other martial texts by Julie de Lespinasse’s negligent lover, Jacques-Antoine-Hippolyte de Guibert. Napoleon was no longer an outcast; he made friends, attended theaters, heard concerts, took lessons in dancing, and discovered the charms of women. On a furlough in Paris (January 22, 1787) he laboriously talked himself into an unpremeditated adventure with a streetwalker; “that night,” he assures us, “I knew a woman for the first time.”17Nevertheless some somber moods remained. At times, alone in his simple room, he asked himself why, in pure logic, he should continue to live. “As I must die sometime, it would perhaps be better if I killed myself.”18 But he could not think of any pleasant way.

He found time, in his free hours, to extend his self-education in literature and history. Mme. de Rémusat, later lady-in-waiting to Josephine, thought that he was “ignorant, reading but little, and that hurriedly”;19 and yet we find that at Valence and Auxonne he read dramas by Corneille, Molière, Racine, and Voltaire,20 memorized some passages, reread Amyot’s translation of Plutarch, and studied Machiavelli’s Prince, Montesquieu’s Esprit des lois, Raynal’s Histoire philosophique des deux Indes, Marigny’s Histoire des arabes, Houssaye’s Histoire du gouvernement de V énise, Barrow’s Histoire d’Angleterre, and many more. He took notes as he read, and made summaries of the major works; 368 pages of these notes survive from his youth.21 He was of the Italian Renaissance in character, and of the French Enlightenment in mind. But also the romantic streak in him responded to the passionate prose of Rousseau and the poems ascribed to “Ossian,” which he relished “for the same reason that made me delight in the murmur of the winds and waves.”22

When the Revolution came he welcomed it, and spent another furlough, in 1790, working for full acceptance of the new regime. In 1791 he submitted to the Academy of Lyons—in competition for a prize offered by Raynal—an essay on “What truths or sentiments should be imputed to men to further their happiness?” Perhaps under the spell of Rousseau’s Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse, which had “turned his head,”23 the young army officer replied: Teach them that the best life is a simple one, parents and children tilling the soil, enjoying its fruits, far from the exciting and corrupting influence of the city. All a man needs for happiness is food and clothing, a hut and a wife; let him work, eat, beget, and sleep, and he will be happier than a prince. The life and philosophy of the Spartans was the best. “Virtue consists in courage and strength; … energy is the life of the soul.… The strong man is good; only the weak man is bad.”24 Here the young Napoleon echoed Thrasymachus25 and foreshadowed Nietzsche, who returned the compliment by making Napoleon a hero of the will to power.26 Amid the argument he went out of his way to condemn absolute monarchy, class privileges, and ecclesiastical trumpery. The Lyons Academy rejected the essay as immature.

In September, 1791, Napoleon again visited his native land. He rejoiced in the decree by which the Constituent Assembly had made Corsica a département of France, and had dowered its people with all the privileges of French citizens. Withdrawing his vows of vengeance upon the nation that had so violently made him a Frenchman, he felt that the Revolution was creating a brilliant new France. In an imaginary conversation—Le Souper de Beaucaire—published at his own expense in the fall of 1793, he defended the Revolution as “a combat to the death between the patriots and the despots of Europe,”27 and urged all the oppressed to join in the struggle for the rights of man. His old hero Paoli, however, felt that membership of Corsica in the French nation would be acceptable to him only if he were given full authority in the island, with finances to be supplied by France, but with the rigorous exclusion of French soldiers from Corsican soil. Napoleon thought this proposal extreme; he broke with his idol, and opposed Paoli’s candidates in the Ajaccio municipal election of April 1, 1792. Paoli won, and Napoleon returned to France.

In Paris, on June 20, he saw the populace invade the Tuileries; he marveled that the King did not disperse the “cannibals” with a fusillade from his Swiss Guards. On August 10 he saw the sansculottes and the Fédérés drive the royal family from the palace; he described the crowd as “the lowest scum; … they do not belong to the working classes at all.”28 With rising reservations he continued to support the Revolution, being now an officer in its Army. In December, 1793, as already related, he distinguished himself in the capture of Toulon. The commendation sent to Robespierre resulted in the appointment of Napoleon as brigadier general at the age of twenty-four; but it shared in his being arrested as a Robespierriste (August 6, 1794) after Robespierre’s fall. He was imprisoned at Antibes, and was scheduled for trial and possible execution; he was released after a fortnight, but was placed on inactive service at reduced pay. In the spring of 1795 (he tells us) he was wandering along the Seine, meditating suicide, when a friend, encountering him, revived him with a gift of thirty thousand francs;29 Napoleon later returned the sum manifold. In June Boissy d’Anglas described him as “a little Italian, pale, slender, and puny, but singularly audacious in his views.”30 He thought for a time of going to Turkey, reorganizing the Sultan’s army, and carving out for himself some Oriental realm. In a more practical mood he drew up for the War Ministry a plan of campaign for driving the Austrians out of Italy.

Then, in one of those whims of history that open a door to the inevitable, the Convention, besieged (October 5, 1795) by royalists and others, assigned Barras to organize its defense. He decided that a blast of artillery would do it, but no artillery was at hand. He had noted Napoleon’s enterprise at Toulon; he sent for him, commissioned him to secure and use artillery; it was done, and Napoleon became at once famous and infamous. When the War Ministry needed a bold and enterprising commander to lead the Army of Italy, Carnot (or Barras31) secured the appointment for Bonaparte (March 2, 1796). Seven days later the happy general married the still beautiful Josephine.

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