The Mortal Realm



NAPOLEON had increased his burdens by multiplying his possessions, for the many regions that he had added to his empire differed in “race,” language, religion, customs, and character; they could not be expected to give unquestioning obedience to a foreign rule that sent their taxes to Paris and their sons to wars. Whom could he choose to govern these principalities wisely and faithfully while he attended to unmanageable France? He could trust a few of his generals to administer some minor regions; so he made Berthier prince of Neuchâtel, and Murat grand duke of Berg and Cleves; but most of his generals were commanding spirits untrained in the devious subtleties of government; and several of them, like the ambitious Bernadotte, were jealous of his supremacy, and would not be content without a throne.

So he turned to his own brothers as offering a blood bond of loyalty, and as having some measure of that native force which had shared in winning the consulate and the empire. He probably exaggerated their abilities and potentialities, for he had a strong sense of family, and did his best to meet their rising expectations of a share in his fortune and power. He would reward them well, but would expect their cooperation with his policies—especially in the enforcement of that Continental Blockade through which he hoped to move England to peace. Perhaps, too, their collaboration might be a step toward the union of all Europe under one law and head (both of them his own), and so promote a general prosperity and an end to dynastic or nationalistic wars.

He began with his older brother, Joseph, who had served him reasonably well in negotiations with Austria and England. Cornwallis, after dealing with Joseph at Amiens, described him as “a well-meaning, although not a very able man, … sensible, modest, gentlemanlike, … fair and open, … whose near connection with the First Consul might perhaps be in some degree a check on the spirit of chicanery and intrigue which the Minister of the Interior [Talleyrand] so eminently possesses.”1 Joseph loved money as Napoleon loved power; as early as 1798 he had been able to buy, at Morte-fontaine, near Paris, a sumptuous estate where he entertained friends, authors, artists, and visiting dignitaries with seignorial munificence. He itched to have his brother name him heir apparent to the imperial power, and he was not effusively satisfied when (March 30, 1806) Napoleon made him king of Naples—i.e., of southern Italy. The dethroned Bourbon, Ferdinand IV, clung to Sicily with the help of the British fleet, and his Queen Maria Carolina led an insurrection to restore him to his mainland throne. Napoleon sent forty thousand men, under Masséna and Régnier, to suppress the revolt at whatever cost; they did so, with a ferocity that left bitter memories for generations. Joseph tried to win the loyalty of his subjects by a mild and genial government, but Napoleon warned him that “a ruler, to establish himself, must make himself rather feared than loved.” The final judgment was favorable:

Joseph rendered me no assistance, but he is a very good man. … He loves me very sincerely, and I doubt not that he would do everything in the world to serve me. But his qualities are only suited to private life. He is of a gentle and kind disposition, possesses talent and information, and is altogether a very amiable man. In the discharge of the high duties which I confided to him he did the best he could. His intentions were good; and therefore the principal fault rests with me, who raised him above his proper sphere.2

Brother Lucien, born in 1775, had in him all the volatile elements that in Napoleon were controlled by a dominant ambition. In one sense Napoleon owed him the Consulate, for it was the refusal of Lucien, as president of the Five Hundred, to put to the vote the demand for outlawing the usurper, and his appeal to the soldiery to disperse the Council, that saved the day for Napoleon. Later he was a bit premature in proposing royal power for his brother, who removed him from the scene by sending him as ambassador to Spain. There he used all available means of swelling his private purse; soon, for a time, he was richer than Napoleon.3 Returning to Paris, he refused the political marriage that Napoleon recommended to him, married his own choice, and went to live in Italy. He came back to Paris to stand by his brother through all the dangers of the Hundred Days. He was made for poetry and wrote a long epic on Charlemagne.

Brother Louis too had a mind and temper of his own—combined with a degree of ability and conviction that made him restless under his brother’s dictation. Napoleon paid for his education, and took him to Egypt as an aide-de-camp. There Louis used a soldier’s privilege to contract gonorrhea and then proved too impatient to let himself be completely cured.4 In 1802, at Josephine’s urging, Napoleon induced the reluctant Louis to marry the reluctant Hortense de Beauharnais. Louis was a boorish husband, Hortense an unhappy and unfaithful wife,5 somewhat spoiled by the affection she received from her adoptive father. When she gave birth (December 15, 1802) to a boy, Napoléon-Charles, gossip named the First Consul as the father; and this unjust suspicion followed both Napoleon and Hortense to the end of their days. Napoleon gave some warrant for it by proposing to adopt the child, and by fondly calling him “our Dauphin,” or heir apparent to the throne;6 but the boy died at the age of five. Hortense went temporarily insane. In 1804 she gave birth to a second son, Napoléon-Louis, and in 1808 to Charles-Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who became Napoleon III.

On June 5, 1806, the Emperor made his difficult brother king of Holland. Louis fell in love with the Dutch people more readily than with his wife. He knew how much of Holland’s prosperity depended upon its trade with England and her colonies; and when the Dutch found ways of violating the Continental Blockade against British goods, Louis refused to prosecute them. Napoleon insisted, Louis persisted. French troops marched into Holland; Louis abdicated (July 1, 1810); Napoleon annexed Holland to France, bringing it under his direct rule. Louis retired to Graz, became an author in prose and verse, and died at Livorno in 1846.*

Hortense separated from Louis in 1810, and received from Napoleon an endowment of two million francs per year for the care of her sons. To these she added another in 1811 as the result of a liaison with Comte Charles de Flahaut; however, Mme. de Rémusat tells us, Hortense was of an “angelic disposition, … so true, so purehearted, so perfectly ignorant of evil.”8 After Napoleon’s first abdication she joined her mother at Malmaison, where she received marked attention from Czar Alexander. She dined with Louis XVIII, to the dismay of Bonapartists. When Napoleon returned from Elba she acted as hostess for him. When he abdicated again she secretly gave him a diamond necklace for which she had paid 800,000 francs; it was found under his pillow when he died at St. Helena, and was restored by General de Montholon to Hortense, who was thereby saved from poverty. She died in 1837, and was buried beside the remains of her mother in Rueil.9 There were many lives in each life in those crucial days.

Jérôme Bonaparte, youngest of the brothers, divided his lives and wives between two hemispheres. Born in 1784, called at sixteen to serve in the Consular Guard, he fought a duel, was wounded, was banished to the Navy, sowed wild oats, and paid for them by borrowing from Bourrienne, who billed Napoleon for the unredeemed loans. When Jérôme, at Brest, asked for 17,000 francs, Napoleon wrote to him:

I have received your letter, Sir Ensign; and I am waiting to hear that you are studying, on board your corvette, a profession which you ought to consider your road to glory. Die young, and I shall have some consolatory reflections; but if you live to sixty without having served your country, and without leaving behind you any honorable memories, you had better not have lived at all.10

Jérôme left the Navy in the West Indies, traveled to Baltimore, and there in 1803, age nineteen, he married Elizabeth Patterson, daughter of a local merchant. When he brought her to Europe a French court refused to recognize the marriage, on the ground that both husband and wife were minors, and Napoleon denied the wife entry into France. She went to England, and there gave birth to a son, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte. She returned to America, received an allowance from Napoleon, and became the grandmother of Charles Joseph Bonaparte, who served as Secretary of the United States Navy under Theodore Roosevelt.

Jérôme was given a command in the French Army, and distinguished himself in the campaigns of 1806–07, capturing several Prussian fortresses. Napoleon rewarded him by making him king of Westphalia—a composite of areas taken from Prussia, Hanover, and Hesse-Cassel. To give him a scent of royalty he secured for him in marriage Princess Catherine, daughter of the King of Württemberg. On November 15, 1807, Napoleon sent to Jérôme a letter in the best spirit of a still constitutional ruler:

I enclose a constitution for your kingdom. It embodies the conditions on which I renounce all my rights of conquest, and all the claims I have acquired over your state. You must faithfully observe it. … Don’t listen to those who say that your subjects are so accustomed to slavery that they will feel no gratitude for the benefits you give them. There is more intelligence in the kingdom of Westphalia than they would have you believe; and your throne will never be firmly established except upon the trust and affection of the common people. What German opinion impatiently demands is that men without hereditary rank, but of marked ability, shall have an equal claim upon your favor and employment, and that every trace of serfdom, or of a feudal hierarchy between the sovereign and the lowest class of your subjects, shall be done away with. The benefits of the Code Napoléon, public trial, and the introduction of juries, will be the leading features of your government. … For the extension and consolidation of your reign I count more upon the effects of these measures than upon the most resounding victories. I want your subjects to enjoy a degree of liberty, equality, and prosperity hitherto unknown to the German people. … Such a method of government will be a stronger barrier between you and Prussia than the Elbe, the fortresses, and the protection of France.11

Jérôme was still too young, at twenty-three, to appreciate this advice. Lacking the self-control and sober judgment needed in government, he indulged himself in every pomp and luxury, treated his ministers as underlings, and adopted a foreign policy of his own, irking a brother who had to think in terms of a continent. When Napoleon lost the pivotal battle of Leipzig (1813) Jérôme could not keep his “subjects” loyal to the imperial cause; his kingdom collapsed, and Jérôme fled to France. He supported his brother bravely at Waterloo, and then fled to his father-in-law’s protection in Württemberg. He lived long enough to become a president of the Senate under his nephew Napoleon III, and had the luck to die (1860) at the peak of another mortal realm.

Eugène de Beauharnais was a better pupil. He was a lovable lad of fifteen when his mother married Napoleon; he at first resented the brusque young general as an intruder, but soon warmed to Napoleon’s growing affection and solicitude. He was flattered to be taken to Italy and Egypt as aide-decamp to the whirlwind conqueror; his sympathies were divided between husband and wife when he learned of his mother’s infidelity; his tears restored their union, and thereafter the bond of loyalty between stepfather and stepson was never to be broken. On June 7, 1805, Napoleon made Eugène viceroy of Italy; but, seeing what a responsibility he was placing upon a youth of twenty-four, he left him a ream of advice.

By entrusting you with the government of Our Kingdom of Italy, we have given you proof of the respect your conduct has inspired in us. But you are still at an age when one does not realize the perversity of men’s hearts; I cannot therefore too strongly recommend to you prudence and circumspection. Our Italian subjects are more deceitful by nature than the citizens of France. The only way in which you can keep their respect and serve their happiness is by letting no one have your complete confidence, and by never telling anyone what you really think of the ministers and high officials of your court. Dissimulation, which comes naturally at a maturer age, has to be emphasized and calculated at yours….

In any position but that of Viceroy of Italy you may boast of being a Frenchman; but here you must forget it, and count yourself a failure unless the Italians believe that you love them. They know that there is no love without respect. Learn their language; frequent their society; single them out for special attention at public functions.…

The less you talk, the better; you aren’t well educated enough, and you haven’t enough knowledge, to take part in formal debates. Learn to listen, arid remember that silence is often as effective as a display of knowledge. Don’t imitate me in every respect; you need more reserve. Don’t preside often over the State Council; you have too little experience to do so successfully. … Anyhow, never make a speech there; … they would see at once that you aren’t competent to discuss business. So long as a prince holds his tongue his power is incalculable; he should never talk unless he knows he is the ablest man in the room. …

One last word: punish dishonesty ruthlessly. …12

Eugène fulfilled the Emperor’s expectations. With the help of his ministers he reorganized finances, improved the civil service, built roads, introduced the Code Napoléon, and led the Italian Army with his usual courage and a growing skill. The pleased Emperor visited him in 1807, and took the occasion, by the “Milan Decree,” to respond, with stringent regulations, to a British Order in Council requiring neutral vessels to touch at an English port before proceeding to the Continent. Eugène did his best to carry out the irritating Continental Blockade. He remained loyal to Napoleon through all wars and abdications, and died (1824) only three years after the death of his adoptive father. Stendhal’s Chartreuse de Parme repeatedly testifies to Italy’s loving memory of his enlightened rule.13

Having more lands than brothers, Napoleon endowed his sisters too with terrain. Elisa (Maria Anna), with her complaisant husband Felice Bacciocchi, was given the principalities of Piombino and Lucca; these she governed so well—financing public works, patronizing literature and art, encouraging Paganini—that in 1809 Napoleon made her grand duchess of Tuscany, where she continued her dictatorial beneficence.

Pauline Bonaparte, whom Napoleon considered the most beautiful woman of her time, found it unbearable to confine her charms to one bed. At seventeen (1797) she married General Charles Leclerc; four years later—probably to distance her frivolity—Napoleon bade her accompany her husband to St.-Domingue in the campaign against Toussaint L’Ouverture; Leclerc died there of yellow fever; Pauline returned to Europe with his corpse, and with her fabled beauty weakened by disease. In 1803 she married Prince Camillo Borghese, but she soon slipped into adultery, and Camillo sought solace with a mistress. Napoleon asked his and her uncle, Cardinal Fesch, to reprove her. “Tell her, from me, that she is no longer as pretty as she was, and that in a few years’ time she will be much less so, whereas she can be good and be respected all her life.”14 Unchastened, Pauline separated from the Prince, and opened her lavish home to the gayest society. Napoleon made her duchess of Guastalla (in the province of Reggio Emilia in Italy), but she preferred to hold court in Paris. Charmed by her looks and ways and good nature, he tolerated her transgressions until, in a mirror, he saw her mocking his new Empress, Marie Louise. He banished her to Italy; soon she ruled a salon in Rome. Later on (as we shall see) she came to his aid in his misfortunes. In 1825 she was reunited with her husband, and died in his arms. “After all,” he had said, “she was the kindest creature in the world.”15

Caroline was almost as beautiful, and, in the final days, much more damaging. We are told that her skin was like pink satin; “her arms, hands, and feet were perfect, like those of all the Bonapartes.” At seventeen (1799) she married Joachim Murat, who had already made his mark in the Italian and Egyptian campaigns. For these services, and his vital performance at Marengo, he was made grand duke of Berg and Cleves. While he was busy in his capital, Düsseldorf, Caroline remained in Paris, and allowed such intimacies to General Junot that Napoleon sent him to Bordeaux. Murat returned to Paris to reclaim his wife, but battle was his passion and danger was his hobby. In his frequent absences at the front Caroline took over the administration of their duchy, and managed so well that Murat was not missed except for his gorgeous costumes.

Above all this lusty band of brothers and sisters sat their mother, Letizia, firm, undeluded, and indestructible. She shared with fierce pride and grim grief their triumphs and disasters. In 1806 Napoleon made her, then fifty-six, the empress dowager, with an allowance of 500,000 francs per year. He provided her with a handsome home in Paris and many servitors, but she lived with her wonted frugality, saying that she was saving against a crash in his fortunes.16 She was addressed as Madame Mère, but had and sought no political influence. She accompanied her son to Elba, and on his return; she watched with anxiety and prayer the drama of the Hundred Days. In 1818 she appealed to the Powers to release him from St. Helena as a man now too ill to be dangerous to them; she received no reply. She bore with her customary stoicism the death of Napoleon, Elisa, and Pauline, and of several grandchildren. She died in 1836, aged eighty-six. Voilà une femme!

The family plan did not work, partly because it was not founded on the needs of the peoples ruled, and partly because every one of the rulers (except Eugène) was an individualist, with his own ideas and desires—Napoleon most so. He thought of his own power first, and laid down laws excellent as compared with a feudalism that had become functionless; but he hedged and diluted them by financial and military exactions. Though he was destroying feudalism, he was establishing another of his own—thinking of his brothers and sisters as holding fiefs of his giving, and therefore requiring them to be obedient vassals, to raise conscripts for his needs in time of war, and taxes in time of peace. He defended his conception of the situation by explaining that nearly all the territories so governed had been conquered in wars forced upon him by the Powers; therefore they were subject to the “laws” of war, and they were lucky to get the up-to-date laws of France and the paternal rule of an enlightened despot. As to his family, he summed up the matter sadly in St. Helena:

It is very certain that I was poorly seconded by my family. … Much has been said of the strength of my character, but I was reprehensibly weak for my family, and they were well aware of it. After the first storm of [my] resistance was over, their perseverance and stubbornness always carried the day, and they did with me what they liked. I made great mistakes in this. If each one of them had given a common impulse to the masses I had entrusted to their rule, we could have marched together to the Poles; everything would have fallen before us; we should have changed the face of the globe. I did not have the good fortune of Genghis Khan, with his four sons, who knew no other rivalry than that of serving him faithfully. If I made a brother of mine a king, he at once thought himself king “by the grace of God,” so contagious had this phrase become. He was no longer a lieutenant in whom I could repose confidence; he was one enemy more to beware of. His efforts did not tend to second mine, but to make himself independent. … They actually came to regard me as an obstacle. … Poor things! When I succumbed, their dethronement was not exacted or even mentioned by the enemy [it was automatic]; and not one of them is capable now of exciting a popular movement. Sheltered by my labor, they enjoyed the sweets of royalty; I alone bore the burden.17

Having conquered more principalities than he had princes and princesses of his blood, Napoleon conferred strategic minor dependencies upon his generals or other servitors. So Marshal Berthier received the province of Neuchâtel; Cambacérès became prince of Parma; Lebrun, duke of Piacenza. From other regions of Italy a dozen minor duchies were cut; Fouché became duke of Otranto, Savary of Rovigo. Ultimately, Napoleon hoped he would join the disjecta membra of Italy into one state, and make this a unit in a European Federation under the leadership of France and his dynasty. If only all those units, so proud of their differences and so jealous of their place, could sink these sustaining delusions in some sense of the whole—and in some readiness to let a distant and alien power write their laws and regulate their trade!

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