As a civilian ruler he never quite forgot that he had been trained as a general. The habits of leadership remained, discouraging, except in the Council of State, objection or debate. “From my first entrance into [public] life I was accustomed to exercise command; circumstances and the force of my character were such that as soon as I possessed power I acknowledged no master and obeyed no laws except those of my own creating.”103 We have seen him, in 1800, emphasizing the civilian form of his rule—when the generals were plotting to depose him; but in 1816 he argued that “in the last analysis, in order to govern, it is necessary to be a military man; one can rule only in boots and spurs.”104 So, with a sharp eye to the secret and contradictory ideals of the French people, he declared himself a man of peace and a genius of war. Hence the relative democracy of the Consulate melted into the monarchy of the Empire, and finally into absolute power. The last of the Napoleonic codes—the penal (1810)—is a reversion to the barbaric severity of medieval penalties. Nevertheless he became almost as brilliant in government as in battle. He predicted that his achievements in administration would outshine his martial victories in human memory, and that his codes were a monument more lasting than his strategy and tactics (which are irrelevant to current war). He longed to be the Justinian as well as the Caesar Augustus of his age.

In the 3,680 days of his imperial rule (1804–14) he was in Paris for only 955,105 but in these he remade France. When at home, and before 1808, he presided regularly, twice a week, over the Council of State; and then, said Las Cases (himself a member), “none of us would have been absent for the whole world.”106 He worked hard; in his eagerness to get things done he sometimes rose at 3 A.M. to begin his working day. He expected almost as much from his administrative aides. They were always to be ready to give him precise up-to-the-hour information on any matter falling within their jurisdiction; and he judged them by the accuracy, order, readiness, and adequacy of their reports. He did not consider his day finished until he had read the memoranda and documents that almost daily came to him from the various departments of his government. He was probably the best-informed ruler in history.

For major ministries he chose men of first-rate ability, like Talleyrand, Gaudin, and Fouché, despite their troublesome pride; for the rest, and generally for administrative posts, he preferred men of the second rank, who would not ask questions or propose measures of their own; he had no time or patience for such discussions; he would take a chance on his own judgment, assuming the responsibility and risk. He required of his appointees an oath of fidelity, not only to France but to himself; in most cases they readily agreed, feeling the mesmerism of his personality and the grandeur of his designs. “I aroused emulation, rewarded every merits and pushed back the limits of glory.”107 He paid for his method of selecting aides by gradually surrounding himself with servitors who rarely dared to question his views, so that in the end there was no check upon his haste or pride except the power of his foreign foes. Caulaincourt in 1812 was an exception.

He was severe on his subordinates: stern to reprove and slow to praise, but ready to reward exceptional service. He did not believe in putting them confidently at their ease; some uncertainty of tenure would encourage diligence. He did not necessarily object to their liaisons, nor even to some shady elements in their past, for these gave him a hold on their good behavior.108 He used his assistants to the limit, then let them retire with a generous pension, and perhaps some sudden title of nobility. Some of them did not survive to that denouement; Villeneuve, defeated at Trafalgar, killed himself rather than face reproof. Napoleon was not long moved by protests against his severity. “A statesman’s heart must be in his head”;109 he must not let sentiment interfere with policy; in the operation of an empire the individual counts for little—unless he is a Napoleon. Perhaps he exaggerated his insensitivity to personal charms when he said, “I like only those people who are useful to me, and only so long as they are useful”;110 he continued to love Josephine long after she had become a hindrance to his plans. Of course he lied at need, like most of us; and, like most governments, he doctored his war bulletins to keep up public spirit. He had studied Machiavelli with pencil in hand; an annotated copy ofThe Prince was found in his carriage at Waterloo. He considered good anything that furthered his aims. He did not wait for Nietzsche to lead him “beyond good and evil” in “the will to power”; hence Nietzsche called him “that Ens realissimum” and the only good product of the Revolution. “The strong are good, the weak are wicked,”111 said the Emperor. “Joseph,” he mourned, “is too good to be a great man”; but he loved him.

Akin to these views—learned in Corsica and war—was his oft-repeated opinion that men are moved, and can be ruled, only by interest or fear.112 So, year by year, these feelings became the levers of his government. In 1800, sending General Hédouville to suppress a rising in the Vendée, he advised him, “as a salutary example, to burn down two or three large communes [towns], chosen among those whose conduct is worst. Experience has taught him [the First Consul] that a spectacularly severe act is, in the conditions you are facing, the most humane method. Only weakness is inhuman.”113 He instructed his judicial appointees to pass severe sentences. “The art of the police,” he told Fouché, “consists in punishing rarely and severely.”114 He not only employed a large force of police and detectives under Fouché or Régnier, but organized an additional secret police agency whose duty it was to help—and spy on—Fouché and Régnier, and to report to the Emperor any anti-Napoleonic sentiments expressed in the newspapers, the theater, the salons, or in books. “A prince,” he said, “should suspect everything.”115 By 1804 France was a police state. By 1810 it had a new supply of minor Bastilles—state prisons in which political offenders could be “detained” by imperial order, without a regular procedure in the courts.116 We should note, however, that the Emperor had moments of mercy. He issued many pardons, even to those who had plotted to kill him,117 and sometimes he reduced the severity of a court penalty.118 To Caulaincourt, in December, 1812, he mused:

“They think I am stern, even hardhearted. So much the better—this makes it unnecessary for me to justify my reputation. My firmness is taken for callousness. I shall not complain, since this notion is responsible for the good order that is prevailing. … Look here, Caulaincourt, I am human. No matter what some people say, I too have entrails [‘bowels of mercy’], a heart—but the heart of a sovereign. I am not moved by the tears of a duchess, but the sufferings of the people touch me.”119

Unquestionably he was a despot, often enlightened, often hastily absolute. He confessed to Las Cases, “The state was myself.”120 Something of his tyranny might be excused as the usual control, by the government, of a nation’s economy, theaters, and publications in time of war. Napoleon explained his omnipotence as necessary in the difficult transition from the licentious liberty of the Revolution after 1791 to the reconstructive order of the Consulate and the Empire. He recalled that Robespierre, as well as Marat, had recommended a dictatorship as needed to restore order and stability to a France verging on the dissolution of both the family and the state. He felt that he had not destroyed democracy; what he had replaced in 1799 was an oligarchy of corrupt, merciless, and unscrupulous men. He had destroyed the liberty of the masses, but that liberty was destroying France with mob violence and moral license, and only the restoration and concentration of authority could restore the strength of France as a civilized and independent state.

Until 1810 Napoleon could forgivably feel that he had been true to the Revolution’s second goal—equality. He had upheld and spread the equality of all before the law. He had established not an impossible equality of abilities and merits, but an equality of opportunity for all talents, wherever born, to develop themselves in a society offering education, economic opportunity, and political eligibility to all; perhaps this carrière ouverte aux talents was his most lasting gift to France. He almost ended corruption in public life;121 this alone should immortalize him. He gave to all the example of a man using himself up in administration when not called to the battlefield. He remade France.

Why did he fail? Because his grasp exceeded his reach, his imagination dominated his ambition, and his ambition domineered over his body, mind, and character. He should have known that the Powers would never be content to have France rule half of Europe. He succeeded measurably in leading Rhineland Germany out of feudalism into the nineteenth century, but it was beyond him, or any man at that time, to bring into a lasting federation an area long since partitioned into states each with its jealous traditions, dialect, manners, creed, and government. Just to name those diverse realms, from the Rhine to the Vistula, from Brussels to Naples, is to feel the problem: kingdoms or principalities like Holland, Hanover, Westphalia, the Hanseatic cities, Baden, Bavaria, Württemberg, Illyria, Venice, Lombardy, the Papal States, the Two Sicilies—where could he find men strong enough to rule these areas, to tax them, finally to take their sons to war against nations more akin to them than the French? How could he forge a unity between those forty-four additional departments and the eighty-six of France, or between those proud and sturdy 16 million added people and these proud and volatile 26 million Frenchmen? Perhaps it was magnificent to try, but it was certain to fail. In the end imagination toppled reason; the polyglot colossus, standing on one unsteady head, tumbled back into difference, and the rooted force of national character defeated the great dictator’s will to power.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!