Napoleon in council
This brief extract from a book written by John S.C. Abbott is particularly illustrative of the amazing pace and scope of Napoleon's governance. The sheer magnitude of his intellectual labor encompassing so many subjects through the vast correspondence he left behind him is confounding. Such energy of the mind is a phenomenon as rare as it is nearly frightening.
The amount of intellectual labor which Napoleon performed seems actually superhuman. No other man has ever approached him in this respect. His correspondence, preserved in the archives of Paris, would amount to many hundred volumes. His genius illumines every subject upon which he treats. The whole expanse of human knowledge seemed familiar to him. He treats of war, government, legislation, education, finance, political economy, theology, philosophy, engineering — upon every subject which can interest the human mind, and he is alike great in all. Notwithstanding the constant and terrible wars through which his banded foes compelled him to struggle, and all the cares of an empire, which at times seemed to embrace the whole of Europe, during the twenty years of his reign he wrote or dictated more than the united works of Lope da Vega, Voltaire, and Sir Walter Scott, three of the most voluminous writers of Spain, France, and
England. His confidential correspondence with the Directory, during the two years from 1796 to 1798, which was published in Paris in 1819, amounts to seven large closely-printed volumes. The following letter will be read with interest, as a specimen of his correspondence with his ministers. It strikingly shows his lofty spirit, his noble ambition, his expanded views, his practical wisdom, and the blended familiarity and elevation of tone with which he addressed his ministers.
"Fontainebleau, Nov. 14, 1807. Monsieur Cretet, Minister of the Interior,—You have received the Imperial decree by which I have authorized [a loan of] 1,600,000 dollars to the city of Paris. I suppose that you are employed in taking measures which may bring these works to a speedy conclusion, and may augment the revenues of the city. In these works there are some which will not be very productive, but are merely for ornament. There are others, such as galleries over the markets, the slaughter-houses, etc., which will be very productive. But to make them so will require activity. The shops, for which I have granted you funds, are not yet commenced. I suppose you have taken up the funds destined for the fountains, and that you have employed them provisionally for the machine at Marly. Carry on the whole with spirit. This system of advancing money to the city of Paris, to augment its branches of revenue, is also intended to contribute to its embellishment. My intention is to extend it to other departments.
"I have many canals to make; that from Dijon to Paris; that from the Rhine to the Saone; and that from the Rhine to the Scheldt. These three canals can be carried on as vigorously as could be wished. My intention is, independently of the funds which are granted from the revenues of the state, to seek extraordinary funds for the three canals. For this purpose I should like to sell the canals of St. Quentin, the produce of which might be employed to expedite the works of the canal of Burgundy. In fact, I would sell even the canal of Languedoc, and apply the proceeds to the construction of the canal from the Rhine to the Saone. I suppose that the canal of St. Quentin might be sold for 1,600,000 dollars; that of Loing for as much; and the canal of Languedoc
for more. There would then be 6,000,000 dollars procured immediately, which I should employ in carrying on the three great canals with all possible rapidity. I have the money. The state will lose nothing; on the contrary, it will gain; since if it loses the revenues of the canals of Loing, St. Quentin, and that of the South, it will gain the product of the canals of the Scheldt, Napoleon, and Burgundy. When these works are completed, if circumstances permit, I shall sell these, in order to make others. Thus, my object is to pursue a directly opposite course to that of England. In England, a charter would have been granted for constructing the canal of Quentin, and the work would have been left to capitalists. I have, on the contrary, begun by constructing the canal of St. Quentin. It has cost, I believe, 1,600,000 dollars; it will produce 100,000 dollars annually. I shall then lose nothing by selling it to a company for what it has cost me; since, with this money, I shall construct other canals. Make me, I beg of you, a report upon this subject, otherwise we shall die without seeing these canals navigated. In fact, it is six years since the canal of St. Quentin was begun, and it is not yet finished. Now, these canals are of much more importance. The expense of that of Burgundy is estimated at six millions. What can be expended from the general funds of the state does not exceed two hundred and fifty thousand yearly. The departments do not furnish more than 100,000 dollars. It would, then, require twenty years to finish this canal. What may not happen in this time? Wars and inefficient men will come, and the canals will remain unfinished. The canal from the Rhine to the Scheldt will also cost a large sum. The general funds of the state are not sufficient to carry them on as quickly as we could wish. The canal of Napoleon is in the same situation. Let me know how much it will be possible to expend yearly on each of these three canals. I suppose that, without injuring other works, we might allow to each, yearly, three or four millions; and that thus in five or six years we might see them all navigated. You will inform me how much the existing imposts will furnish for these three canals; how much I have granted for 1808; and the supplementary funds which I granted in 1806, for carrying on these works with the
greatest activity. You will propose to me to sell the three canals already finished, and at what price it would be best to sell them. I take upon myself the charge of finding purchasers: then we shall have money in abundance. You must tell me, in your report, how much the three, which I wish speedily to finish, are estimated to cost, and compare it with the sums which the three old canals have cost that I wish to sell.
"You understand what I wish. My intention is to go beyond your report. Perhaps it will lead to opening a fund for public works, into which the proceeds of the navigation of the canals would be immediately thrown. We might thus grant to this the proceeds of the sale of the three canals, and of others besides, if there are any which can be sold. With this institution, we should change the face of the country.
"I have made the glory of my reign to consist in changing the surface of the territory of my Empire. The execution of these great works is as necessary to the interest of my people as to my own satisfaction. I attach equal importance and great glory to the suppression of mendicity. Funds are not wanting. But it seems to me that the work proceeds slowly, and meantime, years are passing away. We must not pass through this world without leaving traces which may commend our memory to posterity.
"I am going to be absent for a month. Be ready on the 15th December, to answer all these questions, which you will have examined in detail, that I may be able, by a general decree, to put the finishing blow to mendicity. You must find, before the 15th December, in the reserved funds, and the funds of the communes, the necessary means for the support of sixty or one hundred houses for the extirpation of beggary. The places where they shall he erected must be designated, and the regulations completed. Do not ask me for three or four months to obtain further instructions. You have young auditors, intelligent prefects, skillful engineers. Bring all into action, and do not sleep in the ordinary labors of the bureau. It is necessary, likewise, that, at the same time, all that relates to the administration of the public works, should be completed; so that, at the commencement of the fine season,
France may present the spectacle of a country without a single beggar, and where all the population may be in action to embellish and render productive our immense territory.
" You must also prepare for me all that is necessary respecting the measures to be taken for obtaining, from the draining of the marshes of Cotentin and Rochefort, money for supporting the fund for public works, and for finishing the drainings, or preparing others.
"The winter evenings are long; fill your portfolios, that we may be able, during the evenings of these three months, to discuss the means for attaining great results." Napoleon
At a meeting of the Privy Council Napoleon appeared much incensed against one of his generals. He attacked him with great severity asserting that his principles and opinions tended to the entire subversion of the state. A member of the Council, who was a particular friend of the absent general, undertook his defense, stating that he lived quietly on his estate, without obtruding his opinions upon others, and that consequently they were productive of no ill effects. The Emperor vehemently commenced a reply, when suddenly he stopped short, and turning to the defender of the absent said, "But he is your friend, sir. You do right to defend him. I had forgotten it. Let us speak of something else."
M. Daru was at one time Secretary of State. He was distinguished for his indefatigable application to business. Napoleon said of him that "he labored like an ox, while he displayed the courage of a lion." On one occasion only were his energies ever known to fail. The Emperor called him at midnight to write from his dictation. M. Daru was so completely overcome by fatigue, that he could scarcely hold his pen. At last nature triumphed, and he fell asleep over his paper. After enjoying a sound nap, he awoke, and to his amazement perceived the Emperor, by his side, quietly engaged in writing. He saw, by the shortness of the candles, that he had slept for some time. As he sat for a moment overwhelmed with confusion, his eyes met those of the Emperor.
"Well, sir;" said Napoleon with rather an ironical smile, "you see that I have been doing your work, since you would not do
it yourself. I suppose that you have eaten a hearty supper, and passed a pleasant evening. But business must not be neglected."
"I pass a pleasant evening, Sire!" exclaimed M. Daru, "I have been for several nights closely engaged in work, without any sleep. Of this your Majesty now sees the consequence. I am exceedingly sorry for it."
"Why did you not inform me of this?" said Napoleon, "I do not wish to kill you. Go to bed. Good-night M. Daru." [...]
Napoleon introduced this year into the financial department, the most rigid system of accounts by double entry. The decree requiring this is in force to the present day. It has rendered the French system of accounts the most sure, the most accurate, and the most clear of any in Europe.
In one of the meetings of the Council, Napoleon proposed that long galleries, or rather streets, covered with glass, for pedestrians only, should be constructed, to shelter buyers and sellers from the vicissitudes of the weather. This was the origin of those brilliant Passages, where every visitor to Paris loiters away so many pleasant hours. Forty slaughter houses had deformed Paris, filling the air with pestilent odors and paining the eye with the revolting necessities of the shambles. At the suggestion of Napoleon they were all removed. Four large and peculiarly appropriate houses were constructed for these purposes outside of the city, and near the four principal entrances to the metropolis.
The generals and the soldiers who had endured such wasting fatigue, and who had achieved such Herculean enterprises for France, were most magnificently rewarded. Besides their regular pay, nearly four millions of dollars were expended in gifts, as an expression of gratitude. A handsome annuity was settled upon every wounded soldier. Napoleon seemed never weary in lavishing favors upon those, who, in fields of blood, had defended and established the independence of France.
He was magnificent in his provision for others. He was simple, frugal, economical in the highest degree, in everything which related to himself. With an eagle eye he guarded against the slightest misapplication of the public funds.
The adopted mother of Josephine having died at Martinique, he directed that the negroes and negresses who had served her, should be made free and placed in a condition of comfort for the rest of their lives. He ordered the number of Christian chapels to be increased to 30,000, that the benefits of divine service might be extended to every village in the empire. He endowed several theological seminaries to encourage suitable persons to enter the priesthood.
The nation insisted that the civic code, which had become the crowning glory of France, should be called the Code Napoleon.
"Assuredly," says Thiers, "if ever title was merited, it was this. For that code was as much the work of Napoleon as were the victories of Austerlitz and of Jena. He had soldiers who lent him their arms. He had lawyers who lent him their knowledge. But to the force of his will, to the soundness of his judgment, was owing the completion of that great work."
It will remain, through all time, a memorial which never can be sullied, of Napoleon's genius and philanthropy. The Emperor wrote to all the princes under his influence urging them to introduce into their respective states this code of justice and of civil equality. It was thus established in large portions of Europe, conveying, wherever it went, perfect equality of rights, and putting an end to feudal tyranny.
In his intense desire to promote the grandeur of France, Napoleon appreciated, perhaps more highly than any other sovereign, the glory of intellectual achievements. Science, literature, arts, he encouraged in every possible way. He was the first general the world has ever known, who united with his army, a literary and scientific corps to extend the bounds of human knowledge. Under his fostering care Lagrange gave a new power to abstract calculation. Laplace, striding beyond the limits attained by Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, rendered his name as immortal as those celestial bodies whose movements he had calculated with such sublime precision. Cuvier exploring the mausoleums of past creations, revealed the wondrous history of our planet, when "the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face
of the deep."
The world is destined to be as much astonished by the writings of Napoleon as it has been by his deeds. Neither Bourbon nor Orleanist has been willing to do justice to his fame. His letters, his proclamations, his bulletins, his instructions to his ministers, glow with the noblest eloquence of genius. They will soon be given to the world. And they will disperse much of that mist of calumny and detraction which have so long sullied his renown. No one can peruse the papers of this extraordinary man without admiring the majesty of his all comprehensive mind. The clearness, the precision, the fervor, the imperious demonstration, and the noble simplicity which are impressed upon all of his utterances, give him a place in the foremost ranks of science, of literature, and of eloquence.
"Singular destiny," exclaims Thiers, after perusing volumes of manuscripts from his pen, "of that prodigious man, to be the greatest writer of his time, while he was its greatest captain, its greatest legislator, its greatest administrator." [...]
The power of Napoleon was absolute. Circumstances, which he could not control, rendered it necessary that it should he so. It was essential that he should he invested with dictatorial authority to repel the foes handed against the independence of France. Every intelligent man in France recognized this necessity. That Napoleon devoted this absolute power to the glory of France, and not to his own selfish indulgence, no one can deny. He says, with his accustomed glow of eloquence:
"I had established a government the most compact, carrying on its operations with the utmost rapidity, and capable of the most nervous efforts. And, truly, nothing less was required to triumph over the immense difficulties with which we were surrounded, and to produce the marvels which we accomplished. The organization of the prefectures, their action and results, were alike admirable. The same impulse was given at the same instant to more than forty millions of men. By the aid of these centres of local activity the movement was as rapid at all the extremities as at the heart of the Empire. Strangers who visited us were astonished at this system.
They never failed to attribute the immense results which were attained, to that uniformity of action pervading so great a space. Each prefect, with the authority and local patronage with which he was invested, was in himself a little emperor. Nevertheless, as he enjoyed no force but from the central authority, owed all his lustre to official employment, and had no natural or hereditary connection with the territory over which his dominion extended, the system had all the advantages of the feudal government without any of its inconveniences. It was indispensable to clothe them with all that authority. I found myself made dictator by the force of circumstances. It was necessary, therefore, that all the minor springs should be entirely dependent on, and in complete harmony with the grand central moving power."
The efficiency of this government no one can question. That France was driven to its adoption by the incessant attacks of its foes cannot be denied. That this alone enabled Napoleon for twenty years to triumph over the combined despots of Europe, in arms against him, is equally beyond a doubt. France in her peril surrendered herself to a dictator in whom she reposed confidence, and invested him with absolute power. Nobly did Napoleon requite the trust. He concentrated every energy of his body and every thought of his soul to the promotion of the welfare of France. Wherever he erred, it was in the path of a lofty and a generous ambition.
His power was as absolute as that of Alexander. But the Czar was the monarch of the nobles; Napoleon the chosen sovereign of the people. The centralization of power was, however, appalling. The Emperor selected the members of the Council of State, the Senate, and the Legislative Bodies. He appointed all the officers in the army and the navy. The whole police of France, all the magistrates, the judges of all the courts; all persons connected with the customs, the revenue and the excise; all the ministers of religion, the teachers in schools, academies and universities, the postmasters, and all persons concerned in the administration of roads, bridges, public buildings, canals, fortresses etc., were either directly or indirectly subject to the appointment of the Emperor.
One day Napoleon at St. Helena, was reading the infamous memoir of his life by Goldsmith. He found himself there accused of every crime which a demon could perpetrate. Calmly laying down the book he said:
"After all, let them abridge, suppress, and mutilate as much as they please, they will find it very difficult to throw me entirely into the shade. The historian of France cannot pass over the Empire. If he has any honesty he will not fail to render me my share of justice. His task will be easy. The facts speak of themselves. They shine like the sun.
"I closed the gulf of anarchy and cleared the chaos. I purified the Revolution, dignified nations, and established kings. I excited every kind of emulation, rewarded every kind of merit, and extended the limits of glory. This is at least something. And on what point can I be assailed on which an historian could not defend me? Can it be for my intentions? But even here I can find absolution. Can it be for my despotism? It may be demonstrated that the dictatorship was absolutely necessary Will it be said that I restrained liberty? It can be proved that licentiousness, anarchy, and the greatest irregularities, still haunted the threshold of freedom. Shall I be accused of having been too fond of war? It can be shown that I always received the first attack. Will it be said that I aimed at universal monarchy? It can be proved that this was merely the result of fortuitous circumstances, and that our enemies led me step by step to this determination. Lastly shall I be blamed for my ambition? This passion I must doubtless be allowed to possess, and that in no small degree. But at the same time my ambition was of the highest and noblest kind that perhaps ever existed — that of establishing and consecrating the empire of reason, and the full exercise and complete enjoyment of all the human faculties. And here the historian will probably feel compelled to regret, that such ambition should not have been fulfilled and gratified. This is my whole history in a few words." [...]
The 15th of August 1807, Napoleon was thirty-eight years of age. A brilliant party was assembled at the Tuileries. It was an evening of surpassing loveliness. All Paris, intoxicated with en-
thusiasm, thronged the spacious garden of the palace. With loud acclamations they called for their sovereign. He repeatedly appeared in the balcony, holding the Empress by the hand, and surrounded by a brilliant group. Spontaneous bursts of applause, from one hundred thousand voices, greeted him whenever he appeared. Taking the arm of his faithful friend Duroc, Napoleon, in disguise, left the palace and mingled with the groups crowding the garden. Every where he heard his name pronounced with gratitude and love. A little boy was shouting with transport, Vive l'Empereur. Napoleon caught the child in his arms. "Why do you shout in that manner?" said he. "My father and mother," replied the child, "taught me to love and bless the Emperor." Napoleon conversed with the parents. He found that they had fled from the horrors of civil war in Brittany and had found employment and competence in Paris. With glowing hearts they testified to the blessings which Napoleon had conferred upon France. The next day a present from the Emperor informed them to whom they had unbosomed their gratitude.
On the ensuing day Napoleon, accompanied by his marshals, and followed by an immense concourse of people, met the Council of State, the Senate and the Legislative Body. He thus addressed them:
"Gentlemen! Since your last session, new wars, new triumphs, new treaties of peace have changed the political state of Europe. All nations rejoice with one accord, to see the influence which England exercised over the Continent destroyed forever. In all that I have done, I have had in view solely the prosperity of my people, more dear in my eyes than my own glory. I am desirous for maritime peace. No resentment shall be allowed to interfere with this desire. But whatever be the issue which the decrees of Providence have allotted to the maritime war, my people shall find me ever the same, and I shall ever find my people worthy of me. Your conduct, when your Emperor was more than fifteen hundred miles away, has heightened my esteem. The proofs of attachment which you have given me, have excited my warmest emotions.
"I have contemplated various plans for simplifying and im-
proving our institutions. I have created several imperial titles to give new lustre to distinguished subjects, to honor eminent services by eminent rewards, and to prevent the revival of any feudal title incompatible with our Constitution. My Minister of the Interior will inform you of the public works, which have been commenced or finished. But what remains to be done is of far greater importance. I intend that in all parts of my Empire, even in the smallest hamlet, the prosperity of the citizen and the value of land shall be augmented by the effect of the general system of improvement which I have conceived. Gentlemen! Your assistance will be necessary for me to arrive at this great result. I have a right to rely firmly upon it."
This speech was heard with deep emotion and applauded with transport. After Napoleon had retired, the President of the Legislative Body gave utterance to the almost unanimous sentiment of France, in the following words:
"The picture set before our eyes seems to present the image of one of those pacific kings, exclusively engaged, in the internal administration of his dominion. And yet all these useful labors, all these wise projects, were ordered and conceived amid the din of arms on the furthest confines of conquered Prussia, and on the frontiers of threatened Russia. If it be true that, at the distance of five hundred leagues from the capital, amid the cares and the fatigues of war, a hero prepared so many benefits, how is he about to increase them by returning among us! The public welfare will wholly engage him, and his glory will be the more touching for it.
"He displaces, he contracts, he extends, the boundaries of empires. All are borne away by his ascendency. Well! This man, covered with so much glory, promises us still greater. Peaceable and disarmed, he will prove that this invincible force, which, as it runs, overturns thrones and empires, is beneath that truly royal wisdom, which preserves states by peace, which enriches them by agriculture and industry, adorns them with master-pieces of art, and founds them everlastingly on the two-fold support of morality and the laws." [...]
Napoleon, accompanied by generals and doctors, visits the great military hospital "Les Invalides" in Paris
At St Helena he said:
"It was the subject of my perpetual dreams, to render Paris the real capital of Europe. I sometimes wished it, for instance, to become a city with a population of two, three, or four millions, in a word, something fabulous, colossal, unexampled until our days, and with public establishments suitable to its population.
"Had Heaven but granted me twenty years, and a little more leisure, ancient Paris would have been sought for in vain. Not a trace of it would have been left. I should have changed the face of France. Archimedes promised everything, provided he was supplied with a resting place for his lever. I should have done as much, wherever I could have found a point of support for my energy, my perseverance, and my budgets. A world might be created with budgets. I should have displayed the difference between a Constitutional Emperor, and a King of France. The kings of France have never possessed any administrative or municipal institution. They have merely shown themselves great lords, who ruined their men of business.
"The nation itself has nothing in its character, but what is transitory and perishable. Everything is done for the gratification of the moment and of caprice; nothing for duration. That is our motto. And it is exemplified by our manners in France. Every one passes his life in doing and undoing. Nothing is ever left behind. Is it not unbecoming, that Paris should not possess even a French theatre, or an opera house, in any respect worthy of its high claims?
"I have often set myself against the feasts which the city of Paris wished to give me. They consisted of dinners, balls, artificial fire-works, at an expense of two or three hundred thousand dollars, the preparations for which obstructed the public for several days, and which afterward cost as much to take away as they had cost in their construction. I proved that with these idle expenses, they might have erected lasting and magnificent monuments.
"One must have gone through as much as I have, in order to be acquainted with all the difficulties of doing good. If the business related to chimneys, partitions, and furniture for some individuals in the imperial palaces, the work was quick and effectual. But if it were necessary to lengthen the garden of the Tuileries, to render some quarters wholesome, to clean some sewers, and to accomplish a task beneficial to the public, in which some particular person had no direct interest, I found it requisite to exert all the energy of my character, to write six, ten letters a day, and to get into a downright passion. It was in this way that I paid out as much as six millions of dollars in sewers, for which nobody was ever to thank me. I pulled down a property of six millions in houses in front of the Tuileries, for the purpose of forming the Carousel, and throwing open the Louvre. What I did is immense. What I had resolved to do, and what I projected, were still much more so."
Some may suppose that the above account of Napoleon's administrative labors, is the glowing eulogy of a friend. Read then the testimony of an English historian. Every page of Lockhart's Life of Napoleon, bears the impress of his hostility to the mighty Emperor against whom England waged such unrelenting warfare. And yet Lockhart is constrained to witness to the following facts:
"Wherever the Emperor was, in the midst of his hottest campaigns, he examined the details of administration at home more closely perhaps than other sovereigns of not half so great an empire did during years of profoundest peace. His dearest amusement, when he had nothing else to do, was to solve problems in geometry or algebra. He carried this passion into every department of affairs. Having with his own eye detected some errors of importance in the public accounts shortly after his administration begun, there prevailed henceforth, in all the financial records of the state, such clearness and accuracy as are not often exemplified in those of a large private fortune. Nothing was below his attention, and he found time for everything. The humblest functionary discharged his duty under a lively sense of the Emperor's personal superintendence. The omnipresence of his police, came in lieu, wherever politics were not touched upon, of the guarding powers of a free press, free senate, and public opinion. Except in political cases, the trial by jury was the right of every citizen. The Code Napoleon, that elaborate system of jurisprudence, in the formation of which the Emperor labored personally, along with the most eminent lawyers and enlightened men of the time, was a boon of inestimable value to France. 'I shall go down to posterity,' said he, with just pride, 'with the code in my hand.' It was the first uniform system of laws which the French monarchy had ever possessed; being drawn up by consummate skill and wisdom. It at this day forms the code not only of France, but of a great portion of Europe besides. Justice, as between man and man, was administered on sound and fixed principles and by unimpeached tribunals. ... In the splendor of his victories, in the magnificence of his roads, bridges, aqueducts, and other monuments, in the general predominance to which the nation seemed to be raised through the genius of its chief, compensation was found for all financial burdens, consolation for all domestic calamities, and an equivalent for that liberty, in whose name the tyrant had achieved his first glories. But it must not be omitted that Napoleon, in every department of his government, made it his first rule to employ the men best fitted, in his mind, to do honor to his service
by their talents and diligence. ... He gratified the French nation by adorning the capital, and by displaying in the Tuileries a court as elaborately magnificent as that of Louis XIV himself. The old nobility returning from their exile, mingled in those proud halls with the heroes of the revolutionary campaigns, and over all the ceremonies of these stately festivities Josephine presided with the grace and elegance of one born to be a queen. In the midst of the pomp and splendor of a court, in the ante-chambers where kings jostled each other, Napoleon himself preserved the plain and unadorned simplicity of his original dress and manners. The great Emperor continued throughout to labor more diligently than any subaltern in office; Napoleon, as Emperor, had little time for social pleasures. His personal friends were few. His days were given to labor, and his nights to study. If he was not with his army in the field, he traversed the provinces, examining with his own eyes the minutest details of arrangement, and even from the centre of his camp, he was continually issuing edicts which showed the accuracy of his observation during those journeys, and his anxiety to promote, by any means consistent with his great purpose, the welfare of every French district, town, or even village."
Such was Napoleon, as delineated by the pen of his enemies...
Taken from The History of Napoleon Bonaparte by John S C Abbott,
Harper and Brothers, Publishers, New York 1874,
Volume II, pp. 579-98