At Tilsit, some sixty miles southeast of Königsberg, the rival armies peacefully faced each other on opposite sides of the River Niemen, and “a friendly understanding grew up between them”;36 the rival Emperors, however, at Alexander’s suggestion, met cautiously in a tent on a raft moored in the middle of the stream. Each ruler was rowed to the raft; Napoleon reached it first (as every French soldier had expected), and had time to walk through the tent and welcome Alexander on the other side. They embraced, and the opposed armies joined in a lusty cheer; “it was a beautiful sight,” said eye-witness Méneval.
Each ruler had reasons for being amiable: Napoleon’s army was in no condition (in number or equipment, or in the security of its rear, or in the support it might expect from a France crying out for peace) to invade an unknown land almost limitless in space and men; and Alexander—disgusted with the weakness of his allies and his troops, fearful of insurrection in his Polish or Lithuanian provinces, and hotly embroiled with Turkey and his troops—was glad to get a breathing spell before undertaking to defeat a man who (excepting Acre) had never yet been overcome. Besides, this Frenchman who had been playing chess with the map of Europe was not the “monster” and “barbarian” described by the Czarina and the Königin, but an engagingly courteous fellow whose hospitality was unobtrusive but complete. After that first meeting, Alexander readily agreed that their further conferences should be held in Tilsit town, in commodious quarters arranged by Napoleon and near his own. Often they dined at his table, sometimes with Prussia’s King, later with its Queen. For a time the Czar made himself a pupil, asking the Corsican to instruct him in the art of government, and agreeing with him that Louis XVIII (then living in Courland) lacked all the qualities needed in a sovereign, and “was the most insignificant nullity in Europe.”37
Each of the Emperors thought the other charming and deceivable. After apparently amiable negotiations, they signed not only a treaty but an alliance. Russia was to keep her present possessions intact, but she would end her cooperation with England, and would join France in maintaining peace on the Continent. By a secret agreement Russia was to be free to take Finland from Sweden (which had been hostile to France since 1792), and France was to be free to conquer Portugal, which had become an outpost of England in the war. Alexander pledged himself to mediate a satisfactory peace between England and France, and, if this failed, to join France in opposing England with blockade and war. This pledge delighted Napoleon, for he valued the cooperation of Russia in the blockade far above any acquisition of terrain.
Unprepared to sacrifice these agreements, and to undertake a war à outrance with Russia, Prussia, and Austria, Napoleon put aside as impracticable the idea of restoring Poland to her pre-partition boundaries, and contented himself with establishing, out of Prussia’s part of Poland, a grand duchy of Warsaw under a French protectorate. For this new state of two million persons he drew up (July 22, 1807) a constitution which abolished serfdom, made all citizens equal before the law, required public trials before juries, and prescribed the Napoleonic Code as the basis of legislation and justice. The liberum veto, the feudal dues, and the fainéant diet were abolished; the legislative power was to be vested in a senate of notables and a house of a hundred deputies; the executive, for the time being, was to be the King of Saxony, who was descended from former rulers of Poland. It was an enlightened constitution in terms of its place and time.
Generous to the Czar, Napoleon was merciless to the Prussian King who had broken his alliance with France to join her enemies. Frederick William III was required to surrender all Prussian territory west of the Elbe; most of this was reconstituted as the grand duchy of Berg and the kingdom of Westphalia. Nearly all of Prussian Poland went to the grand duchy of Warsaw, except that Danzig was made a free city under a French garrison. The surviving half of Prussia was to close its doors to British trade, was to join in war upon England if called upon, and was to be occupied by French forces until a heavy indemnity had been fully paid. Frederick William, who had not wanted the war, was emotionally stunned by these terms. Queen Louise, who had almost begotten the war, rushed up from Berlin (July 6), and appealed to Napoleon, with arguments, perfumes, smiles, and tears to soften his demands. He cooled her eloquence by offering her a chair (from which it is hard to be eloquent), and explained that someone had to pay for the war; and why not the government which, to wage it, had broken its treaty—at her behest? He sent her away with polite refusals, and on the next day ordered Talleyrand to conclude the treaties as previously formulated. The Queen went back to Berlin brokenhearted, and died within three years, at the age of thirty-four.
On July 9 the Emperors parted, each feeling that he had made a good bargain: Alexander had Russia, security on the west, and a free hand in Finland and Turkey; Napoleon had Berg, Westphalia, and a precarious truce. Years later he defined a “congress of the Powers” as “deceit agreed upon between diplomats; it is the pen of Machiavelli combined with the sword of Mahomet.”38 The next day he left for Paris, where he was received with hosannas of public gratitude not so much for his victories as for bringing peace. His report to the Corps Législatif on the state of the nation in 1807 was one of his proudest: Austria chastened, Prussia punished, Russia brought from enmity to alliance, new lands added to the Empire, 123,000 captives—and all expenses paid for by the defeated aggressors, without any rise of taxes in France.39
He announced, among many promotions, the elevation of Talleyrand to prince of Benevento. This brought the esurient abbé an added income of 120,000 francs, but it required his resignation as minister of foreign affairs, since protocol held that a ministry was beneath the dignity of a prince. In this way a difficult situation was eased, for Napoleon had come to distrust his brilliant but stealthy diplomat, and yet hesitated to antagonize him by a dismissal; indeed, he continued to use him in several major negotiations. After instructing his successor, Jean-Baptiste de Champagny, in the ways and wiles of his new office, Talleyrand was free to enjoy life at the luxurious château that he had bought at Valençay, partly with Napoleon’s money.
On August 15 the court celebrated Napoleon’s triumph with a fete recalling the splendor of the Grand Monarque: a concert, a ballet, an opera, and a reception attended by kings and ministers in formal costumes, and by women bearing fortunes in gowns and gems. Four days later he signalized his augmented royalty by abolishing the Tribunate, where a minority had for years dared to oppose his views and decrees. He softened the blow by appointing several harmless tribunes to administrative posts, and by merging most of the others with the Corps Législatif, which now acquired the right to discuss measures as well as to vote. The surviving and returned émigrés, in the reanimated palaces of the Faubourg St.-Germain, applauded Napoleon as almost worthy of noble birth. “Why isn’t he legitimate?” they asked one another; then France would be perfect. Rarely again would he be so popular, powerful, and content.