Napoleon seemed ruined beyond recovery. Not counting French soldiers immobilized in Germany, his army now consisted of 60,000 defeated and exhausted men huddled near the Rhine, “a mass of stragglers without arms, without clothes, bearing about them the germs of typhus fever, with which they infected every place through which they passed.”17 From every direction came discouraging news. In Italy Eugène had by great effort raised a force of 36,000 men, but was now confronted by 60,000 Austrian troops across the Adige. In Naples Murat was plotting to save his throne by defecting to the Allies. In the Netherlands a domestic revolt, aided by a Prussian division under Bülow, overthrew French rule (November, 1813); English troops took control of the Scheldt; the house of Orange was restored. Jérôme had fled from Westphalia. From Spain the triumphant Wellington crossed the Bidassoa into France (October 7); in December he laid siege to Bayonne.
France itself seemed to be falling to pieces. The loss of Spain, the interruption of trade with Germany and Italy, had brought an economic crisis with factories closing and banks failing. In October the closing of the banking house of Jabach set off a series of bankruptcies. The stock market fell from 80 in January, 1813, to 47 in December. Thousands of unemployed roamed the streets, or concealed their poverty in their homes, or joined the Army to eat. The common people rebelled against further conscription; the middle class protested against higher taxes; the royalists called for Louis XVIII; all classes demanded peace.
Napoleon reached Paris on November 9, and was welcomed by his unhappy Queen and his rejoicing son. He set about raising a new army of 300,000 men as the first necessity for either war or peace. He sent engineers to repair roads to new fronts, to restore town walls, to build fortresses, to prepare to cut dikes or demolish bridges if necessary to slow an invader’s advance. He conscripted horses for the cavalry, ordered cannon from the foundries, arms and munitions for the infantry; and as public revenues fell because of poverty and resistance to taxation, he delved more and more deeply into his cellar hoard. The nation looked on in wonder and fear, admiring his resilience and resourcefulness, dreading another year of war.
The Allies, hesitant before the Rhine and winter, sent to him from Frankfurt, on November 9, an informal unsigned offer of peace: France was to retain her natural frontiers—the Rhine, the Alps, the Pyrenees—but was to surrender all claim to anything beyond them.18 On December 2 Napoleon replied through Caulaincourt, minister for foreign affairs, giving his official consent. However, the revolution in Holland ended French control of the mouths of the Rhine; the Allies aided this revolution, and withdrew their acceptance of natural frontiers for France.19 Instead they issued (December 5) the “Declaration of Frankfurt”: “The Allied Powers are not making war on France. The Sovereigns desire France to be great, strong, and happy…. The Powers confirm the French Empire in the possession of an extent of territory that it never possessed under its kings.”20
Not much was needed to separate the people from the Emperor. The Senate and the Legislature were in open revolt against him, demanding a constitution with guarantees of freedom. On December 21 the Allies crossed the Rhine into France. On December 29 the Senate sent Napoleon its assurances of loyalty and support. But on the same day Lainé, member from royalist Bordeaux, read to the Legislature a report criticizing the “mistakes” and “excesses” of the imperial administration, praising “the happy sway of the Bourbons,” and congratulating the Allies on “wishing to keep us within the limits of our own territory, and to repress an ambitious activity which for the last twenty years has been so fatal to all the peoples of Europe.”21 The Legislature voted, 223 to 31, to have Lainé’s report printed. That evening Napoleon ordered the session closed.
On January 1, 1814, the Legislature sent him a delegation to wish him the compliments of the season. He replied with an outburst of accumulated anger and fatigue:
“Surely, when we have to drive the enemy from our frontiers, it is not time to ask me for a constitution. You are not the representatives of the nation, you are merely the deputies sent by the departments…. I alone am the representative of the people. After all, what is the throne? Four pieces of gilt wood covered with velvet? No! The throne is a man, and that man is myself. It is I who can save France, and not you! If I were to listen to you I would surrender to the enemy more than he is demanding. You shall have peace in three months, or I shall perish.”22
After the shocked delegates had left him Napoleon sent for some selected senators, explained his policy and his negotiations for peace, and concluded with a humble confession as if before the judgment seat of history:
“I do not fear to acknowledge that I have made war too long. I had conceived vast projects; I wished to secure to France the empire of the world. I was mistaken; those projects were not proportioned to the numerical force of our population. I should have been obliged to put them all under arms; and I now perceive that the advancement of society, and the moral and social well-being of a state, are not compatible with converting an entire people into a nation of soldiers.
“I ought to expiate the fault I have committed in reckoning too much on my good fortune; and I will expiate it. I will make peace. I will make it in such terms as circumstances demand, and this peace shall be mortifying to me alone. It is I who have deceived myself; it is I who ought to suffer, it is not France. She has not committed any error; she has poured forth her blood for me; she has not refused me any sacrifice….
“Go, then, gentlemen, announce to your departments that I am about to conclude a peace, that I shall no longer require the blood of Frenchmen for my enterprises, for myself,… but for France, and to maintain the integrity of her frontiers. Tell them that I ask only the means of repelling a foreign foe from our native land. Tell them that Alsace, Franche-Comté, Navarre, Béarn are being invaded. Tell them that I call upon Frenchmen to come to the aid of Freedom.”23
On January 21 he ordered his agents to release Pope Pius VII from Fontainebleau, and arrange for his return to Italy. On January 23 he assembled in the Tuileries the officers of the National Guard, presented to them the Empress and the “King of Rome” (a handsome boy not yet three years old), and recommended them to the care of the Guard. Once again, he appointed Marie Louise regent during his absence, this time with his brother Joseph as lieutenant general of the empire and administrator for the Empress. On the 24th he was notified that Murat had gone over to the Allies, and was marching up from Naples with eighty thousand men to aid in expelling Eugène from Italy. On that day he bade goodbye to wife and son, whom he was never to see again, and left Paris to join his reconstituted army and challenge the invaders of France.