Amid his projects and triumphs he had always to guard against challenges to his power and his life. The royalists in France were relatively quiet, for they hoped to persuade Napoleon that his safest course was to restore the Bourbons and accept some sinecure in return. They encouraged writers like Mme. de Genlis, whose historical romance Mademoiselle de La Vallière painted a pleasant picture of France under Louis XIV. They played on the secret royalism of Napoleon’s secretary Bourrienne, and through him they sought to win Josephine. The pleasure-loving Creole had had a surfeit of political excitement; she feared that Napoleon, unless he changed his course, would seek monarchical power, and would divorce her to marry a woman more likely to give him an heir. Napoleon tried to quiet her fears with some amorous moments, and forbade her to meddle in politics.
He thought that the chief threat to his power lay not from royalists or Jacobins, but from the jealousy of the generals who led the Army on which his power ultimately had to rest. Moreau, Pichegru, Bernadotte, Murat, Masséna, had given open expression to their discontent. At a dinner hosted by Moreau some officers denounced Napoleon as a usurper; General Delmas called him “a criminal and a monster.” Moreau, Masséna, and Bernadotte drew up a demand upon Napoleon to content himself with the government of Paris and its vicinity, and to divide the rest of France into regions to be allotted to them with almost absolute powers;67 none of them, however, would undertake to deliver this proposal to the First Consul. Bernadotte, who controlled the Army of the West at Rennes, was repeatedly on the verge of rebellion, but lost his nerve.68 “If I should suffer a serious defeat,” said Bonaparte, “the generals would be the first to abandon me.”69
It is against the background of this military plotting that we must interpret the antimilitaristic speech of Napoleon before the Council of State on May 4, 1802:
In all countries force yields to civil qualities: the bayonet is lowered before the priest, … and before the man who becomes master by his knowledge…. Never will military government take hold in France unless the nation has been brutalized by fifty years of ignorance…. If we abstract from other relationships, we perceive that the military man knows no other law than force, reduces everything to force, sees nothing else…. The civil man, on the contrary, sees only the general good. The character of the military man is to will everything despotically; that of the civil man is to submit everything to discussion, reason, and truth; these are often deceptive, but meanwhile they bring light…. I do not hesitate to conclude that eminence belongs incontestably to the civil…. The soldiers are the children of the citizens, and the [true] army is the nation.70
Irked by a sense of insecurity, and always reaching for power, Napoleon suggested to his intimates that his plans for the further improvement and embellishment of France would require a longer tenure than the decade already granted him. On August 4, 1802, the Senate announced a new “Constitution of the Year X” (1801); this enlarged the Senate from forty to eighty members—all the new members to be named by the First Consul; and it made him consul for life. When his admirers proposed that he be given also the authority to choose his successor, he demurred with exceptional modesty; “hereditary succession,” he said, “is irreconcilable with the principle of the sovereignty of the people, and impossible in France.”71 But when the Senate, after debating the proposal, approved it by a vote of twenty-seven to seven, the misguided seven covered their error by making the decision unanimous; and Napoleon graciously accepted the honor on condition that the public approve. On August 17 all adult males who were registered as French citizens were asked to vote on two questions: Should Napoleon Bonaparte be made consul for life? Should he be allowed to choose his successor? The reply was 3,508,885 yes, 8,374 no.72 Presumably, as in other plebiscites, the government had means of encouraging an affirmative reply. The sentiment of the propertied classes was revealed when the Bourse reacted to the vote: the value index of traded shares, which had been seven on the day before Napoleon’s coming to power, now rapidly rose to fifty-two.73
So fortified, he made some changes in his entourage. He chose a small group of men to be his Privy Council, through which, as his authority be came indisputable, he could issue decrees in addition to the senatus consulta which were open to his use. He reduced the Tribunate from one hundred members to fifty, and required that its debates henceforth be secret. He dismissed the clever but incalculable Fouché as minister of police, and merged that ministry into a Department of Justice under Claude Régnier. Having discovered that Bourrienne was using his position to make a fortune, he dismissed him (October 20, 1802), and relied henceforth on the devoted service of Claude Méneval. Thereafter Bourrienne’s Memoirs became unreliably hostile to Napoleon, and Méneval’sMemoirs were unreliably favorable; however, taken in their algebraic sum, they still constitute the most intimate account of the miniature colossus who was to bestride Europe for the next ten years.
Perhaps it was the Plebiscite of 1802, added to the diverse triumphs at Marengo and Amiens, that ruined, in Napoleon, the moderation and perspective without which genius skirts the edge of madness. For each of the steps that raised him to vertiginous powers he found persuasive or forceful arguments. When the leaders of the Cisalpine Republic, centered in Milan, asked his help in drawing up a constitution, he offered one in which three electoral colleges—manned respectively by landowners, businessmen, and the professions—would choose a commission empowered to appoint the members of a legislature, a senate, and a council of state; these would choose a president. Meeting at Lyons in January, 1802, the delegates ratified this constitution, and invited Napoleon—whom they considered to be an Italian stranded in France—to be the first president of the new state. He came from Paris to address them—in Italian—and on January 26, by acclamation, the First Consul of France became the head of the Republica Italiana. All Europe wondered what would come next out of this new stupor mundi, this hypnotic marvel of the world.74
The alarm grew when he annexed Piedmont to France. That “Foot of the Mountain” had been occupied by the French in 1798; it lay beyond the “natural boundaries” that Napoleon had promised to protect; however, if restored to the King of Sardinia, it might become a hostile barrier between France and her Italian protectorates in Liguria and Lombardy. On September 4, 1802, Napoleon declared Piedmont a part of France.
In Switzerland, where he had found so many avenues to Italy, he could not proceed so confidently; those sturdy cantons, where men through centuries had counted liberty more precious than life, would have made any enemy pay heavily for conquest. However, they had for the most part welcomed the ideals of 1789, and in 1798 they had formed the Helvetic Republic under the protection of France. This met strong opposition from the owners of large estates, who, using peasants as soldiers, established a separate government at Bern, and challenged the pro-French Republic centered at Lausanne. Both parties sent agents to Napoleon to seek his support; he refused to receive the Bernese agent, who then appealed to England; England sent money and arms to the oligarchs. Napoleon sent troops to the Republicans (November, 1802); so aided, these suppressed the Bernese revolt. Napoleon pacified both parties with an Act of Mediation (February 19, 1803) which established the Swiss Confederation as nineteen independent cantons, each with its own constitution, all under the protectorate of France, all obligated to send a quota of troops to the French Army. Despite this clause, the Act of Mediation, by English testimony, “received approval from many quarters, and was undoubtedly popular among the cantons.”75
Nevertheless the English government looked upon these successive moves—in Lombardy, Piedmont, and Switzerland—as dangerous expansions of French influence, seriously disturbing that balance of Continental Powers which had become the keystone of British policy in Europe. Further resentment was aroused by the publication, in the Moniteur for January 30, 1803, of the official report submitted to the French government by Comte Horace Sébastiani, whom Napoleon had sent to examine the defenses of Cairo, Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Acre; the Count estimated that “6,000 men would suffice … to conquer Egypt.”76 The document aroused suspicion, in England, that Napoleon was contemplating another expedition to Egypt. The British government felt that it could no longer think of evacuating Malta and Alexandria; these now seemed indispensable to the defense of British power in the Mediterranean.
Still another expansion of Napoleon’s influence agitated the British. The Treaty of Lunéville stipulated that the German rulers of principalities west of the Rhine, who had lost 4,375 square miles of taxable territory by the recognition of French sovereignty over that area, should be compensated with principalities east of the stream. Twenty German nobles sent representatives to Paris to urge their claims; Prussia and Russia joined in the hunt; Talleyrand collected another fortune in pourboires. Finally the distribution was made, mostly by “secularizing” city-states that had been governed by Catholic bishops for centuries. Napoleon’s aim in this process had been to promote a Confederation of the Rhine as a buffer state between France and Austria-Prussia. Austria protested that the reshuffling of statelets would prove to be another step in the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. It did.
Angered by the widening grasp of Napoleon’s arms, the ruling classes in England asked themselves might not war be less costly than such peace. The manufacturers protested that French control of the Rhine made France the arbiter of British trade with the most lucrative of European markets. Merchants complained that while the Peace of Amiens ended the British blockade of France, the French were laying prohibitive import dues on British products competitive with French industry.77 The aristocracy denounced the peace as a disgraceful surrender to the French Revolution. Nearly all parties agreed that Malta must be held. Meanwhile the British press reviled Napoleon in stories, editorials, and cartoons; he protested to the British government, which told him that the British press was free; he bade the French press to retaliate in kind.78
Communications between the governments became increasingly bellicose. Lord Whitworth, British ambassador, brusquely informed Napoleon that Britain would not leave Malta until the French government had given a satisfactory explanation of the expansionist moves it had made since the Peace of Amiens. On March 13, 1803, amid a large gathering of French and foreign dignitaries, Napoleon, confronting Whitworth as if for battle, charged the British with violating the peace treaty and arming for war; Whitworth, furious at such a transgression of diplomatic rules, thereafter preferred to deal with Talleyrand, who knew how to dress facts with courtesy. On April 25 Whitworth was instructed by his government to present an ultimatum: France must agree to English retention of Malta for at least ten years; she must withdraw from Holland, Switzerland, and Italy, and must recompense the King of Sardinia for the loss of Piedmont in the recent war. Napoleon ridiculed the proposals; Whitworth asked for, and received, his passport, and both sides prepared for war.
Realizing that England, controlling the seas, could at will take any French colony, Napoleon sold the territory of Louisiana to the United States for eighty million francs (May 3, 1803). England, still technically at peace, instructed its naval force to capture any French vessel they might encounter. War was officially declared on May 16, 1803, and continued for twelve years.
From that bitter moment Napoleon the administrator receded in history, and Napoleon the general, aged thirty-four, turned his soul to war. He ordered the arrest of all Britons still found on French soil. He bade General Mortier take Hanover at once, before it could be turned into a military base by the Hanoverian George III. What infuriated him was the thought that throughout a decade of conflict England had financed Continental armies against France, had blockaded French ports and seized French shipping and French colonies, and that through all these military activities she herself had remained immune from attack. So now he resigned himself to what in calmer moments he had rejected as an impracticable dream: he would try to cross that damnable ditch and make those merchants and bankers feel the touch of war upon their soil and flesh.
He ordered his generals to assemble 150,000 men and 10,000 horses along the coast at Boulogne, Dunkirk, and Ostend; he ordered his admirals to gather and equip, at Brest, Rochefort, and Toulon, powerful fleets which, when ready to sail and fight, were to find their way through a mesh of British vessels to harbors that a million workers would have prepared for them around Boulogne; and in those harbors men were to build hundreds of transport ships of all kinds. He himself repeatedly left Paris to tour the camps and docks, to mark the progress of the enterprise, and to inspire the soldiers, sailors, and laborers with an active presence that would seem to them a pledge of purpose and victory.
In the Channel, British men-of-war kept watch; and along the English coast—at Dover, Deal, and elsewhere—a hundred thousand patriots kept watch, night and day, resolved to resist to the death any attempt to invade their inviolable shores.