Brooding over the conspiracy, Napoleon wondered why he had to do his work under constant threat of assassination, while the rulers who were repeatedly leagued against France—George III of England, Francis II of Austria and the Holy Roman Empire, Frederick William III of Prussia, and Alexander I of Russia—could expect to maintain their supremacy till their normal death, and could rely on the orderly transference of their sovereignty to their natural or designated heirs. It could not be because they had submitted their policies and appointments to democratic controls; they had not. Apparently the secret of their security lay in their “legitimacy”—the sanction of heritable rule by a public opinion formed to habit through generations and centuries.
Privately—ever less privately—Napoleon dreamed of absolute, consecrated, transmissible authority, even of a dynasty that might acquire the seal and aura of time. He felt that the tasks he longed to accomplish required the stability and continuity of absolute rule. Consider Caesar—how he had brought Roman laws and civilization to Gaul, had driven the Germans beyond the Rhine, and had won the title of imperator, the commander in chief; well, had not he, Napoleon, done these? What might Caesar have accomplished had he been spared assassination? Think of how much Augustus achieved in his forty-one years of imperial power, freed from the plebeian chaos that Caesar had ended, and supported by a Senate wise enough to subordinate palaver to genius. Napoleon, the son of Italy, the admirer of the ancient Romans, longed for such untrammeled continuity, and for the privilege, enjoyed by the second-century emperors, of choosing and training a successor.
But he also thought, and often spoke, of Charlemagne, who, in a reign of forty-six years (768–814), had brought order and prosperity to Gaul, had spread the laws of the Franks, as a civilizing force, into Germany and Italy, and had won—or commanded—consecration by a Pope; had not he, Napoleon, done all these things? Had he not restored in France the religion that was checking the pagan riot let loose by the Revolution? Did he not, like Charlemagne, deserve the crown for life?
Augustus and Charlemagne, those great restorers, had no faith in democracy; they could not subject their trained and considered judgments, their far-reaching plans and policies, to carping criticism and inconclusive debate by the corruptible delegates of popular simplicity. Caesar and Augustus had known Roman democracy in the vote-buying days of Milo and Clodius; they could not have governed at the behest of mindless mobs. Napoleon had seen Parisian democracy in 1792; he felt that he could not decide and act at the behest of impassioned crowds. It was time to call the Revolution closed, to consolidate its basic gains, and end the chaos and anxiety and class war.
Now, after chastening the royalists with an execution, he was ready to accept their basic claim—that France was not prepared, emotionally or mentally, for self-government; and that some form of authoritarian rule was indispensable. In 1804, according to Mme. de Rémusat, “certain persons, somewhat closely connected with politics, were beginning to assert that France felt the necessity of absolute right in the governing power. Political courtiers, and sincere supporters of the Revolution, seeing that the tranquillity of the country depended upon one life, were discussing the instability of the Consulate. By degrees the thoughts of all were once more turned to monarchy.”100 Napoleon agreed with them. “The French,” he remarked to Mme. de Rémusat, “love monarchy and all its trappings.”101
So, to begin with, he gave them the trappings. He ordered official costumes for the Consuls, the ministers, and the other personnel of the government; velvet was made prominent in these garments, partly to encourage its Lyons manufacturers. Napoleon gathered to his personal service four generals, eight aides-de-camp, four prefects, and two secretaries (Méneval had begged for assistance). The consular court took on a complexity of etiquette and protocol rivaling that of established royalty. Comte Auguste de Rémusat was put in charge of this ritual, while his wife Claire headed the four ladies who attended Josephine. Liveried servants and ornate carriages added to the ordained complexity of official life. Napoleon observed all these forms in public, but soon took refuge in the simplicity of his private ways. However, he smiled consent upon court festivities, fancy-dress or masked balls, and formal visits to the opera, where his wife might display gowns reminiscent of another extravagant queen, lately pitifully dead. Paris indulged him, as he indulged Josephine; after all, might not some flourishes and frippery be allowed to this young ruler, who was adding the statesmanship of Augustus to the victories of Caesar? It seemed so natural that imperator should become empereur.
Strange to say, many groups in France heard without resentment the rumors of an impending crown. Some 1,200,000 Frenchmen had bought, from the state, property confiscated from the Church or from émigrés; they saw no security for their title deeds except in preventing a return of the Bourbons; and they saw in the permanence of Napoleon’s power the best protection against such a calamity. The peasants reasoned likewise. The proletariat was divided; it was still fond of the Revolution as having been so largely its work, but with a fondness fading as it enjoyed the steady employment and good wages that the Consulate had brought; and it was not immune to the rising cult of glory, or to the glamour of an empire that might surpass in splendor any of those that contended with France. The bourgeoisie was suspicious of emperors, but this would-be emperor had been faithfully and effectively their man. The lawyers, brought up on Roman law, were almost all in favor of transforming France into an imperium that would resume the work of Augustus and the philosopher-emperors from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius. Even the royalists, if they could not have a pedigreed Bourbon, would think it a step forward if monarchy should be restored in France. The clergy, though they knew that Napoleon’s piety was political, were grateful for the restoration of the Church. Almost all classes, outside of Paris, believed that only a stable monarchical government could control the individualistic passions and class divisions that rumbled under the crust of civilization.
But there were negative voices. Paris, which had made the Revolution and had suffered for it in body and soul, could not without some audible or secret regrets lay it to rest with all its more or less democratic constitutions. The surviving Jacobin leaders saw in the contemplated change an end to their role in the guidance of France; and perhaps to their lives. The men who had voted for the execution of Louis XVI knew that Napoleon despised them as regicides; they had to rely on Fouché to protect them, but Fouché could be dismissed again. The generals who had hoped to divide and share Napoleon’s power cursed the movement that was preparing to clothe in royal purple that “whippersnapper” from Corsica.102 The philosophers and the savants of the Institute mourned that one of its members was planning to drown democracy in an imperial plebiscite.
Even in the nearly royal family there was a division of sentiment. Josephine was fearfully opposed to any move toward empire. Napoleon, made emperor, would even more powerfully itch for an heir, and therefore for a divorce, since he could expect none from her; so her whole dazzling world of dresses and diamonds could fall in ruins at any moment. Napoleon’s brothers and sisters had long since urged him to get divorced; they hated the Creole as a wanton seducer, an obstacle to their own dreams of power; now they supported the drive toward empire as a step toward displacing Josephine. Brother Joseph formulated the argument that
the conspiracy of Cadoudal and Moreau decided the declaration of an hereditary title. With Napoleon as consul for a period, a coup-de-main might overthrow him; as consul for life the blow of a murderer would have been required. He assumed hereditary rank as a shield; it would thus no longer suffice to kill him; the whole state would have to be overthrown. The truth is that the nature of things tended toward the hereditary principle; it was a matter of necessity.103
Councilors, senators, tribunes, and others in the government moved to complaisance with Napoleon’s wishes, and for simple reasons: consent would merely lessen their freedom of debate—which was already vestigial; opposition might cost them their political lives; early complaisance might earn a rich reward. On May 2, 1804, the legislative bodies passed a triple motion: “1. That Napoleon Bonaparte … shall be appointed Emperor of the French Republic; 2. That the title of Emperor, and the Imperial power, shall be hereditary in his family. … 3. That care shall be taken to safeguard Equality, Liberty, and the rights of the people in their entirety.” On May 18 the Senate proclaimed Napoleon emperor. On May 22 the registered voters of France, by ballots individually signed, approved this fait accompli by 3,572,329 yeas to 2,569 nays. Georges Cadoudal, hearing the news in his prison cell, remarked, “We came here to give France a king; we have given her an emperor.”104