THUS the famous young warrior had clutched at power and was not soon to let it slip. It had been a narrow escape. Fate had trembled dangerously in the balance on that gray November Sunday afternoon, but the gambler had won. His thin, sallow face, his sharp, metallic voice, his abrupt, imperious gesture, his glance that cowed and terrified, his long disordered hair, his delicate hands, became a part of the history of the times, manifesting the intensely vivid impression which he had made upon his age and was to deepen. He was to etch the impress of his amazing personality with deep, precise, bold strokes upon the institutions and the life of France.
He was, in reality, a flinty young despot with a pronounced taste for military glory. “I love power,” he said later, “as a musician loves his violin. I love it as an artist.” He was now in a position to indulge his taste.
Pending a wider and a higher flight, there were two tasks that called for the immediate attention of the three Consuls, who now took the place formerly occupied by the five Directors. A new constitution must be made, and the war against the coalition must be carried on.
The Constitution of the Year VIII (1799), the fourth since the beginning of the Revolution, hastily composed and put into force a month after the coup d’etat, was in its essentials the work of Bonaparte and was designed to place supreme power in his hands. This had not been at all the purpose of Sieves or of the committees appointed to draft the document. But Sieves’ plan, which had not been carefully worked out but was confused and uncertain in many particulars, encountered the abrupt disdain of Bonaparte. There was to be a Grand Elector with a palace at Versailles and an income of six million francs a year. This was the place evidently intended for Bonaparte, who immediately killed it with the statement that he had no desire to be merely “ a fatted pig.” Impatient with this scheme and with others suggested by the committees, Bonaparte practically dictated the constitution, using, to be sure, such of the suggestions made by the others as seemed to him good or harmless. The result was the organization of that phase of the history of the Republic which is called the Consulate and which lasted from 1799 to 1804.
The executive power was vested in three Consuls who were to be elected for ten years and to be reeligible. They were to be elected by the Senate, but, to get the system started, the constitution indicated who they should be — Bonaparte, First Consul; Cambaceres, the second, and Lebrun, the third. Practically all the powers were to be in the hands of the First Consul, the appointment of ministers, ambassadors, officers of the army and navy, and numberless civil officials, including judges, the right to make war and peace, and treaties, subject to the sanction of the Legislature.
The First Consul was also to have the initiative in all legislation. Bills were to be prepared by a Council of State, were then to be submitted to a body called the Tribunate, which was to have the right to discuss them but not to vote them. Then they were to go to the Legislative Body, which was to have the power to vote them but not discuss them. Moreover this “assembly of 300 mutes” must discharge its single function of voting in secret. There was also to be a fourth body, higher than the others — the Senate, which was to be the guardian of the constitution and was also to be an electing body, choosing the Consuls, the members of the Tribunate and the Legislature from certain lists, prepared in a cumbersome and elaborate way, and pretending to safeguard the right of the voters, for the suffrage was declared by the constitution to be universal. No time need be spent on this aspect of the constitution, for it was a sham and a deception.
All this elaborate machinery was designed to keep up the fiction of the sovereignty of the people, the great assertion of the Revolution. The Republic continued to exist. The people were voters. They had their various assemblies, thus ingeniously selected. Practically, however, and this is the matter that most concerns us, popular sovereignty was gone, Bonaparte was sovereign. He had more extensive executive powers than Louis XVI had had under the Constitution of 1791. He really had the legislative power also. No bill could be discussed or voted that had not been first prepared by his orders.
Once voted it could not go into force until he promulgated it. France was still a republic in name ; practically, however, it was a monarchy, scarcely veiled at that. Bonaparte’s position was quite as attractive as that of any monarch by divine right, except for the fact that he was to hold it for a term of ten years only and had no power to bequeath it to an heir. He was to remedy these details later.
Having given France a constitution, he secured the enactment of a law which placed all the local government in his hands. There was to be a prefect at the head of each department, a sub-prefect for a smaller division, a mayor for every town or commune. The citizens lost the power to manage their own local affairs, and thus their training in self-government came to an end. Government, national and local, was centralized in Paris, more effectively, even, than in the good old days of the Bourbons and their intendants.
Having set his house in order, having gained a firm grip on the reins of power, Bonaparte now turned his attention to the foreign enemies of France. The coalition consisted of England, Austria, and Russia. England was difficult to get at. The Russians were dissatisfied with their allies and were withdrawing from cooperation. There remained Austria, the enemy Bonaparte had met before.
One Austrian army was on the Rhine and Bonaparte sent Moreau to attack it. Another was in northern Italy and he went in person to attend to that. While he had been in Egypt the Austrians had won back northern Italy. Melas, their general, had driven Massena into Genoa, where the latter hung on like grim death, with rations that would soon be exhausted. Bonaparte’s plan was to get in between the Austrians and their own country, to attack them in the rear, thus to force them to withdraw from the siege of Genoa in order to keep open their line of communication. In the pursuit of this object he accomplished one of his most famous exploits, the crossing of the Great Saint Bernard pass over the Alps, with an army of 40,000, through snow and ice, dragging their cannon in troughs made out of hollowed logs. It was a matter of a week. Once in Italy he sought out the Austrians and met them unexpectedly at Marengo (June 14, 1800). The battle came near being a defeat, owing to the fact that Bonaparte blundered badly, having divided his forces, and that Desaix’s division was miles away. The battle began at dawn and went disastrously for the French. At one o’clock the Austrian commander rode back to his headquarters, believing that he had won and that the remaining work could be left to his subordinates. The French were pushed back and their retreat threatened to become a stampede. The day was saved by the appearance of Desaix’s division on the scene, at about five o’clock. The battle was resumed with fury, Desaix himself was killed, but the soldiers avenged his glorious death by a glorious victory. By seven o’clock the day of strange vicissitudes was over. The Austrians signed an armistice abandoning to the French all northern Italy as far as the Mincio.
Six months later Moreau won a decisive victory over the Austrians in Germany at Hohenlinden (December 3, 1800), thus opening the road to Vienna. Austria was now compelled to sue for peace. The Treaty of Luneville (February 9, 1801) was in the main a repetition of the Treaty of Campo Formio.
As had been the case after Campo Formio, so now, after the break-up of this second coalition, France remained at war with only one nation, England. These two nations had been at war continuously for eight years. England had defeated the French navy and had conquered many of the colonies of France and of the allies or dependencies of France, that is, of Holland and Spain. She had just compelled the French in Egypt, the army left there by Bonaparte, to agree to evacuate that country. But her debt had grown enormously and there was widespread popular dislike of the war. A change in the ministry occurred, removing the great war leader, William Pitt. England agreed to discuss the question of peace. The discussion went on for five months and ended in the Peace of Amiens (March, 1802). England recognized the existence of the French Republic. She restored all the French colonies and some of the Dutch and Spanish, retaining only Ceylon and Trinidad. She promised to evacuate Malta and Egypt, which the French had seized in 1798 and which she had taken from them. Nothing was said of the French conquest of Belgium and the left bank of the Rhine. This was virtually acquiescence in the new boundaries of France, which far exceeded those of the ancient monarchy.
Thus Europe was at peace for the first time in ten years. Great was the enthusiasm in both France and England.
The peace, however, was most unstable. It lasted just one year.
Napoleon said on one occasion, “ I am the Revolution.” On another he said that he had “destroyed the Revolution.” There was much error and some truth in both these statements.
The Consulate, and the Empire which succeeded the Consulate, preserved much of the work of the Revolution and abolished much, in conformity with the ideas and also the personal interests of the new ruler. Bonaparte had very definite opinions concerning the Revolution, concerning the French people, and concerning his own ambitions. These opinions constituted the most important single factor in the life of France after 1799. Bonaparte sympathized with, or at least tolerated, one of the ideas of the Revolution, Equality. He detested the other leading idea, Liberty. In his youth he had fallen under the magnetic spell of Rousseau. But that had passed and thenceforth he dismissed Rousseau summarily as a “madman.” He accepted the principle of equality because it alone made possible his own career and because he perceived the hold it had upon the minds of the people. He had no desire to restore the Bourbons and the feudal system, the incarnation of the principle of inequality and privilege. He stood right athwart the road to yesterday in this respect. It was he and his system that kept the Bourbons exiles from France fifteen years longer, so long indeed that when they did finally return it was largely without their baggage of outworn ideas. Bonaparte thus prevented the restoration of the Old Regime. That was done for, for good and all. Privilege, abolished in 1789, remained abolished. The clergy, nobility, and third estate had been swept away. There remained only a vast mass of French citizens subject to the same laws, paying the same taxes, enjoying equal chances in life, as far as the state was concerned. The state showed no partiality, had no favorites. All shared in bearing the nation’s burdens in proportion to their ability. And no class levied taxes upon another — tithes and feudal dues were not restored. No class could exercise a monopoly of any craft or trade — the guilds with all their restrictions remained abolished. Moreover all now had an equal chance at public employment in the state or in the army.
Bonaparte summed this policy up in the phrase “careers open to talent.” This idea was not original with him, it was contained in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. But he held it. Under him there were no artificial barriers, any one might rise as high as his ability, his industry, his service justified, always on condition of his loyalty to the sovereign. Every avenue was kept open to ambition and energy. Napoleon’s marshals, the men who attained the highest positions in his armies, were humbly born — Massena was the son of a saloon-keeper, Augereau of a mason, Ney of a cooper, and Murat of a country inn-keeper. None of these men could have possibly become a marshal under the Old Regime, nor could Bonaparte himself possibly ever have risen to a higher rank than that of colonel and then only when well along in life. Bonaparte did not think that all men are equal in natural gifts or in social position, but he maintained equality before the law, that priceless acquisition of the Revolution.
He did not believe in liberty nor did he believe that, for that matter, the French believed in it. His career was one long denial or negation of it. Neither liberty of speech, nor liberty of the press, neither intellectual nor political liberty, received anything from him but blows and infringements. In this respect his rule meant reaction to the spirit and the practice of the Old Regime. It is quite true that the Convention and the Directory had also trampled ruthlessly upon this principle, but it is also quite true that neither he nor they could successfully defy what is plainly a dominant preoccupation, adeep-seated longing of the modern world. For the last hundred years the ground has been cumbered with those who thought they could silence this passion for freedom, and who found out, to their cost and the cost of others, that their efforts to imprison the human spirit were unavailing. There are still, after all these instructive hundred years, rulers who share that opinion and act upon it. They have been able to preserve themselves and their methods of government in certain countries. But their day of reckoning, it may safely be prophesied, is coming, as it came for Napoleon himself. They fight for a losing cause, as the history of the modern world shows.
The activities of Bonaparte as First Consul, after Marengo and during the brief interval of peace, were unremitting and far-reaching. It was then that he gave his full measure as a civil ruler. He was concerned with binding up the wounds or open sores of the nation, with determining the precise form of the national institutions, with fashioning the mould through which the national life was to go pulsing for a long-future, with consolidating the foundations of his power. A brief examination of this phase of his activity is essential to a knowledge of the later history of France, and to our appreciation of his own matchless and varied ability, of the power of sheer intellect and will applied to the problems of a society in flux.
First, the party passions which had rioted for ten years must be quieted. Bonaparte’s policy toward the factions was conciliation, coupled with stern and even savage repression of such elements as refused to comply with this primary requirement. There was room enough in France for all, but on one condition, that all accept the present rulers and acquiesce in the existing institutions and laws of the land. Offices would be open freely to former royalists, Jacobins, Girondists, on equal terms, no questions asked save that of loyalty. As a matter of fact Bonaparte exercised his vast appointing power in this sense for the purpose of effacing all distinctions, all unhappy reminders of a troubled past. The laws against the emigres and the recalcitrant priests were relaxed. Of over 100,000 emigrants, all but about 1,000 irreconcilables received, by successive decrees, the legal right to return and to recover their estates, if these had not been already sold. Only those who placed their devotion to the House of Bourbon above all other considerations found the door resolutely closed.
Bonaparte soon perceived that the strength of the Bourbon cause lay not in the merits or talents of the royal family itself or its aristocratic supporters, but in its close identification with the authorities of the Roman Catholic Church. Through all the angry religious warfare of the Revolution the mass of the people had remained faithful to the priests and the priests were subject to the bishops. The bishops had refused to accept the various laws of the Revolution concerning them and had as a consequence been driven from the country. They were living mostly in England and in Germany, taking their cue from the Pope, who recognized Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI, as the legitimate ruler of France.
Thus the religious dissension was fused with political opposition — royalists and bishops were in the same galley. Bonaparte determined to sever this connection, thus leaving the extreme royalists high and dry, a staff of officers without an army. No sooner had he returned from Marengo than he took measures to show the Catholics that they had nothing to fear from him, that they could enjoy their religion undisturbed if they did not use their liberty, under cover of religion, to plot against him and against the Revolutionary settlement. He was in all this not actuated by any religious sentiment himself, but by a purely political sentiment — he was himself, as he said, “Mohammedan in Egypt, Catholic in France,” not because he considered that either was in the exclusive or authentic possession of the truth, but because he was a man of sense who saw the futility of trying to dragoon by force men who were religious into any other camp than the one to which they naturally belonged. Bonaparte also saw that religion was an instrument which he might much better have on his side than allow to be on the side of his enemies. He looked on religion as a force in politics, nothing else. Purely political, not spiritual, considerations determined his policy in now concluding with the Pope the famous treaty or Concordat, which reversed much of the work of the Revolutionary assemblies, and determined the relations of church and state in France for the whole nineteenth century. This important piece of legislation of the year 1802 lasted 103 years, being abrogated only under the present republic, in 1905.
Bonaparte’s thought was that by restoring the Catholic Church to something like its former primacy he would weaken the royalists. The people must have a religion, he said, but the religion must be in the hands of the government. Many of his adherents did not agree at all with him in this attitude. They thought it far wiser to keep church and state divorced as they had been by the latest legislation of the Revolution. Bonaparte discussed the matter with the famous philosopher Volney, whom he had just appointed a senator, saying to him, “France desires a religion.” Volney replied that France also desired the Bourbons. At this Bonaparte assaulted the philosopher and gave him such a kick that he fell and lost consciousness. The army officers who were anti-clerical were bitter in their opposition and jibes, but Bonaparte went resolutely ahead. He knew the influence that priests exercise over their flocks and he intended that they should exercise it in his behalf. He meant to control them as he controlled the army and the thousands of state officials. The control of religion ought to be vested in the ruler. “ It is impossible to govern without it,” he said. He therefore turned to the Pope and made the treaty. “ If the Pope had not existed,” he said, “ I should have had to create him for this occasion.”
By the Concordat the Catholic religion was recognized by the Republic to be that “of the great majority of the French people” and its free exercise was permitted. The Pope agreed to a reorganization involving a diminution in the number of bishoprics. He also recognized the sale of the church property effected by the Revolution. Henceforth the bishops were to be appointed by the First Consul but were to be actually invested by the Pope. The bishops in turn were to appoint the priests, with the consent of the government. The bishops must take the oath of fidelity to the head of the state. Both bishops and priests were to receive salaries from the state. They really became state officials.
The Concordat gave great satisfaction to the mass of the population for two reasons — it gave them back the normal exercise of the religion in which they believed, and it confirmed their titles to the lands of the church which they had bought during the Revolution, titles which the church now recognized as legal. The church soon found that Bonaparte regarded it as merely another source of influence, an instrument of rule. The clergy now became his supporters and in large measure abandoned royalism. Moreover Bonaparte, by additional regulations to which he did not ask the Pope’s assent, bound the clergy hand and foot to his own chariot.
The Concordat was nevertheless a mistake. France had worked out a policy of entire separation of church and state which, had it been allowed to continue, would have brought the blessing of toleration into the habits of the country. But the Concordat cut this promising development short and by tying church and state together in a union which each shortly found disagreeable it left to the entire nineteenth century an irritating and a dangerous problem. Nor did it preserve, for long, happy relations between Napoleon and the Pope. Not many years later a quarrel arose between them which grew and grew until the Pope excommunicated Napoleon and Napoleon seized the Pope and kept him prisoner. Napoleon himself came to consider the Concordat as the worst blunder in his career. However, its immediate advantages were considerable.
“ My real glory,” said Napoleon at St. Helena, “is not my having won forty battles. What will never be effaced, what will endure forever, is my Civil Code.” He was undoubtedly mistaken as to the durability of this achievement, but he was correct in placing it higher than that activity which occupied far more of his time. The famous Code Napoleon was an orderly, systematic, compact statement of the laws of France. Pre-revolutionary France had been governed by a perplexing number of systems of law of different historical origins. Then had come, with the Revolution, a flood of new legislation, inspired by different principles and greatly increasing the sum-total of laws in force. It was desirable to sift and harmonize all these statutes, and to present to the people of France a body of law, clear, rational, and logically arranged, so that henceforth all the doubt, uncertainty, and confusion which had hitherto characterized the administration of justice might be avoided and every Frenchman might easily know what his legal rights and relations were, with reference to the state and his fellow-citizens. The Constituent Assembly, the Convention, the Directory, had all appreciated the need of this codification and had had committees at work upon it, but the work had been uncompleted. Bonaparte now lent the driving force of his personality to the accomplishment of this task, and in a comparatively brief time the lawyers and the Council of State to whom he intrusted the work had it finished. The code to which Napoleon attached his name preserved the principle of civil equality-established by the Revolution. It was immediately put into force in France and was later introduced into countries conquered or influenced by France, Belgium, the German territories west of the Rhine, and Italy.
Bonaparte’s own direct share in this monumental work was considerable and significant. Though no lawyer himself, and with little technical knowledge of law, his marvelous intellectual ability, the precision, penetration, and pertinence of many of his criticisms, suggestions, questions, gave color and tone and character to the completed work. He presided over many of the sessions of the Council of State devoted to the elaboration of this code. “ He spoke,” says a witness, “without embarrassment and without pretension. He was never inferior to any member of the Council; he often equaled the ablest of them by the ease with which he seized the point of a question, by the justness of his ideas and the force of his reasoning; he often surprised them by the turn of his phrases and the originality of his expression.” Called a new Constantine by the clergy for having made the Concordat, Bonaparte was considered by the lawyers a new Justinian.
He was as a matter of fact, in many respects, the superior of both.
During these years of the Consulate Bonaparte achieved many other things than those which have been mentioned. He improved the system of taxation greatly, and brought order into the national finances. He founded the Bank of France, which still exists — and another institution which has come down to our own day, the Legion of Honor, for the distribution of honors and emoluments to those who rendered distinguished service to the state. Opposed as undemocratic, as offensive to the principle of equality, it was nevertheless instituted. Though open to those who had rendered civil service as well as to those who had rendered military, as a matter of fact Napoleon conferred only 1,400 crosses out of 48,000 upon civilians.
Nor did this exhaust the list of durable achievements of this crowded period of the Consulate.
The system of national education was in part reorganized, and industry and commerce received the interested attention of the ambitious ruler. Roads were improved, canals were cut, ports were dredged. The economic development of the country was so rapid as to occasion some uneasiness in England.
Thus was carried through an extensive and profound renovation of the national life. This period of the Consulate is that part of Bonaparte’s career which was most useful to his fellow-men, most contributory to the welfare of his country. His work was not accomplished without risk to himself. As his reputation and authority increased, the wrath of those who saw their way to power barred by his formidable person increased also. At first the royalists had looked to him to imitate the English General Monk who had used his position for the restoration of Charles II. But Bonaparte had no notion of acting any such graceful and altruistic a part. When this became apparent certain reckless royalists commenced to plot against him, began considering that it was possible to murder him.
An attack upon him occurred shortly after Marengo. Many lives were lost, but he escaped with his by the narrowest margin.
A more serious plot was woven in London in the circle of the Count of Artois, younger brother of Louis XVI. The principal agents were Georges Cadoudal and Pichegru. Bonaparte, through his police, knew of the plot. He hoped, in allowing it to develop, to get his hands on the Count of Artois. But the Count did not land in France. Cadoudal and his accomplices were taken and shot. Pichegru was found strangled in prison.
Bonaparte wished to make an example of the House of Bourbon which would be remembered.
This led him to commit a monstrous crime. He ordered the seizure on German soil of the young Duke d’Enghien, the Prince of Conde, a member of a branch of the Bourbon family. The prince, who was innocent of any connection whatever with the conspiracy, was abducted, brought to Vincennes at five o’clock on the evening of March 20, 1804, was sent before a court-martial at eleven o’clock and at half-past two in the night was taken out into the courtyard and shot. This was assassination pure and simple and it was Bonaparte’s own act. It has remained ever since an odious blot upon his name, which the multitudinous seas cannot wash out. Its immediate object, however, was achieved. The royalists ceased plotting the murder of the Corsican.
A few days after this Bonaparte took another step forward in the consolidation of his powers. In 1802, after the Treaty of Amiens had been made, he had astutely contrived to have his consulate for ten years transformed into a consulate for life, with the right to name his successor. The only remaining step was taken in 1804 when a servile Senate approved a new constitution declaring him Emperor of the French, “ this change being demanded by the interests of the French people.” It was at any rate agreeable to the French people, who in a popular vote or plebiscite ratified it overwhelmingly. Henceforth he is designated by his first name, in the manner of monarchs. It happened to be a more musical and sonorous name than most monarchs have possessed.
“I found the crown of France lying on the ground,’’ Napoleon once said, “and I picked it up with my sword,” a vivid summary of an important chapter in his biography.