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Copyright © 2002 Paul Johnson.
All rights reserved.
Few individuals have had more impact on history than Napoleon Bonaparte. He is the grandest possible refutation of those determinists who hold that events are governed by forces, classes, economics, and geography rather than by the powerful wills of men and women. Though Bonaparte exercised power only for a decade and a half, his impact on the future lasted until nearly the end of the twentieth century, almost two hundred years after his death. Indeed, his influence may not yet be spent. People love reading about him and his spectacular rise, just as in Roman and medieval times they read about Alexander. And they ponder the question: Might I, in comparable circumstances, have done as well? Few persons of ambition have failed to see Bonaparte as an exemplar or a spur. It is significant how many of those who exercise various forms of power, and wish for more—media tycoons, for example—have decked their offices or even their persons with Napoleonic memorabilia.
It is one of the contentions of this book that Bonaparte was not an ideologue but an opportunist who seized on the accident of the French Revolution to propel himself into supreme power. I say "accident" because the example of Britain and the Scandinavian countries showed that all the desirable reforms that the French radicals brought about by force and blood could have been achieved by peaceful means. As it was, the horrific course of the Revolution led, as was almost inevitable, to absolutism, of which Bonaparte was the beneficiary. And once installed in power he relentlessly sought further power by extending his rule to encompass most of Europe. It does not seem to have occurred to him to study the example of his older contemporary George Washington, who translated military victory into civil progress and renounced the rule of force in favor of the rule of law. But Bonaparte always put his trust in bayonets and cannon. In the end, force was the only language he understood, and in the end it pronounced a hostile judgment on him.
In the meantime, though, Bonaparte unleashed on Europe the most destructive wars the continent had ever experienced. For the first time, large-scale conscription played a notable part in swelling the armies, and their encounters became battles of entire nations. As the wars proceeded, the military casualties increased relentlessly, but the civilian populations also suffered in growing measure. First Italy, then Central Europe, finally Spain and Russia became victims of Bonaparte's wars of conquest. The German-speaking lands in particular were fought over again and again, and the eventual revulsion against Bonaparte played a critical part in creating a spirit of German nationalism that was to become aggressive and threatening itself. A new concept of total warfare was born, and alongside it grew other institutions: the secret police, large-scale professional espionage, government propaganda machines, and the faking of supposedly democratic movements, elections, and plebiscites. France herself, though fought over only in the final phases of the wars, suffered bitterly, and some of her losses were permanent. At a time when other European populations were growing fast, France's slowed down and began to stagnate, and in due course France inevitably began to slip from her position as the leading power in Europe to second-class status—that was Bonaparte's true legacy to the country he adopted.
The statesmen who gathered in Vienna after the military collapse of Bonapartist France were determined to restore not only the old legitimist thrones but, so far as they could, the old conventions and rules of law that had kept the peace, or limited the impact of hostilities when war broke out. The Congress of Vienna must be regarded as one of the most successful peace settlements in history. With some exceptions, it determined the frontiers of Europe for a century, and though it did not prevent all European wars, it made a general conflagration far less likely. The nineteenth century was, in general, a time of peace, progress, and prosperity in Europe, until the old system finally broke down in 1914-18.
Thereafter, however, the Bonapartist legacy, aided by France's decision to treat the dead ruler as a national hero and exemplar to the world, came into its own. The First World War itself was total warfare of the type Bonaparte's methods adumbrated, and in the political anarchy that emerged from it, a new brand of ideological dictator took Bonaparte's methods of government as a model, first in Russia, then in Italy, and finally in Germany, with many smaller countries following suit. The totalitarian state of the twentieth century was the ultimate progeny of the Napoleonic reality and myth. It is right, therefore, that we should study Bonaparte's spectacular career unromantically, skeptically, and searchingly. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, anxious as we are to avoid the tragic mistakes of the twentieth, we must learn from Bonaparte's life what to fear and what to avoid.
Napoleon Bonaparte was born on 15 August 1769 at Ajaccio on the island of Corsica. It is a paradox that this man who thought in terms of conquering entire continents should have had his life bounded by three islands: Corsica, less than half the size of Wales, no bigger than Vermont; Elba, much smaller, where a parody of his glory was enacted; and Saint Helena, a mere speck on the ocean, his death-prison. It was a vintage time to be born: 1769 was also the birth year of Bonaparte's nemesis, the duke of Wellington, and the politician who backed him, Viscount Castlereagh; and in and around this date were born many of the greatest spirits of the coming age: Chateaubriand and Madame de Sta'l, two more of Bonaparte's dedicated enemies; Wordsworth and Coleridge, who cursed him in prose and verse; Beethoven, who dedicated his Eroica Symphony to the First Consul, then tore out the page in anger when he became emperor; and a host of others—Hegel and Schlegel, Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, George Canning, Metternich, and Sir Walter Scott.
It was a vintage year in other ways. The Industrial Revolution was just taking off in Britain, with textiles leading the way; and Captain Cook, landing at Botany Bay, brought the final continent, Australasia, into the West's compass. But Corsica was very remote from these and other great events. It was poor, wild, neglected, exploited, politically and economically insignificant. Exactly a hundred years later, the English artist Edward Lear descended on the island with his sketching materials and produced a scintillating visual record of its appearance, unchanged in a century: spiny, vertiginous mountains, almost impenetrable pine forests, vast fields of rocks and rare cataracts, and endless barren scrubland, known locally as le maquis, a word that was to become synonymous with guerrilla country. Its total income was tiny. The courts of Europe regarded it as almost worthless. The British took it twice in the eighteenth century, and twice relinquished it as more trouble than it was worth. It had belonged for hundreds of years to the Italian city-state of Genoa, which had acquired it in the age when Genoa was, next to Venice, the richest maritime power in the Mediterranean. But Genoese rule had never penetrated much inland from the sea towns, Bastia, Calvi, Bonifaccio, and Ajaccio. There was no profit in it. So local insurgents ruled the interior and occasionally struck at the walled coastal towns. In the 1760s, increasingly weak Genoa turned to the French for assistance, which the French provided. But they disagreed with Genoa's policy of allowing in the hated Jesuits, banned in France. They withdrew their forces, and in 1767 the insurgents took Ajaccio. For Genoa, this was the last straw, and in 1768 it sold the entire island to France by treaty, in return for a paltry sum. This was a critical event for Bonaparte for, born the next year, he automatically became a French citizen.
Not everyone despised Corsica. In his Du contrat social (1762), Jean-Jacques Rousseau remarked that, while government corruption was universal in Europe, one tiny country was still capable of legislating against it, in a spirit of primitive simplicity. That was Corsica, and he added that he had a presentiment that this island of nature would one day astonish Europe. In consequence, the sage was invited by the insurgents to come to Corsica and draw up a constitution, which would serve when they won their independence by the sword. He did not go. But he persuaded his young friend James Boswell, the future biographer of Dr. Samuel Johnson, to include the island in his grand tour, and arranged for him to see the leader of the insurgents, Pasquale Paoli, who bore the title of "General of the People." Boswell went, formed a lifelong admiration and friendship for Paoli, and left a vivid record of his journey, both in his diaries and in the book about Corsica he published on his return to Britain. The book made him famous—he was known as "Corsica Boswell"—and it was widely read in Europe. Among his readers was the young Bonaparte. It gave him ideas.
Not that Bonaparte ever had the ambition to become Corsica's liberator. That was Paoli's thankless role, and a small-time part at best. To people of Bonaparte's background, the future lay not inland but outward—on the high seas and the great landmasses beyond. People moved into and out of Corsica all the time. Among the ambitious of the coastal towns, there was no such thing as the timeless stability of the interior. The Bonapartes originally came from the minor nobility of sixteenth-century Tuscany. In Ajaccio they had become, as it were, hereditary lawyers, while retaining their titles of nobility, sixteen quarterings (ancestors with titles of nobility), and so forth. They operated on a small scale and were just rich enough to own their own house and garden and to employ servants. Carlo Mario da Buonaparte, as he called himself, married the fourteen-year-old Letizia, also of distant Italian noble extraction, but from a family that had heavily intermarried with the squireens of the wild interior. She gave him eight children who lived, of whom Napoleon, or Nabulion as he was registered, was the second. The name, eventually to give itself to an age, was of no significance. The father, from some notion of family pietà, simply repeated the name given by his great-grandfather to his second son. Bonaparte scarcely ever used it. An analysis of Napoleonic autographs, of which thousands exist, shows that he always signed himself Buonaparte, then later Bonaparte. This was the name by which all his friends, and even his first wife, Josephine, knew him and addressed him, both officially and familiarly, and it is the name I use throughout this book. When he became emperor, he reluctantly adopted Napoleon as his name, for reasons of royal protocol, and his second wife called him such. But he rarely signed the name Napoleon in full, simply scribbling "Nap" or "Np"; and sometimes he forgot his new rank and signed "Bonaparte."
Bonaparte has had more books written about him than any other individual, with the sole exception of Jesus Christ. They continue to appear at brief intervals, especially in English and French but also in many other languages, and they are read: publishers regard a Napoleon book as more likely to sell, by virtue of its subject alone, than any other biography. Nearly all these books speculate on the family or genetic origins of Bonaparte's soaring ambitions. Virtually all agree that the hardness in his nature came from his mother, not his father, an apparently ineffectual person who died young. Madame Mère was of sterner stuff. Some biographers therefore see his bellicosity as deriving from his wild Corsican forebears, with their cult of the iron law of revenge, the vendetta. Oddly enough, the one form of ferocity in which Bonaparte was a little deficient was revenge; he was uncharacteristically, if unpredictably, forgiving of injuries—not always or even usually, but often enough to surprise. Beyond reading Boswell's book and deriving from it lessons that had nothing to do with the island, he took no interest in the place once he had left it. He never visited it. It never figured in his geopolitical calculations. On the other hand, he gave no sign that he was ashamed of his origins. He simply dismissed it from the forefront of his mind as carrying no importance in the economy of his ambition.
The alternative theory of biographers is that Bonaparte was a throwback to the distant condottiero of his Tuscan ancestors, a soldier of fortune who would sell his sword to whoever would pay handsomely for it, and found a dynasty on the profits of war. It is true that, until France took over in 1768, Corsica looked to Italy, which was much nearer, and supplied its written language and culture. But Bonaparte never showed any affection for Italy as a country—he agreed with Metternich's definition of it: "a mere geographical expression"—and when he called his son and heir king of Rome, he was reincarnating a quite different and much earlier entity. He showed no sentiment toward any of its historic cities either, treating them like mere gold or silver coins to be snatched from enemies and awarded to members of his family or allies. The Italians themselves he despised.
Looking outward, to the sea, as a Corsican in Ajaccio would, he formed a boyhood admiration for the Royal Navy, which rode the Mediterranean waters, so far from home, so confidently. He expressed a desire to join the British navy as a midshipman cadet, and in due course to command one of those wonderfully polished, burnished, pipe-clayed, and smartly painted—and formidable—three-deckers that occasionally anchored in the harbor. But that required money, and even more "interest" (influence or pull), neither of which his family possessed. So the moment passed. But it is curious to reflect on this, his earliest ambition, and to wonder at how differently history would have evolved had his boyhood whim been satisfied. As a boy Bonaparte was distinguished by his gift for mathematics, which remained with him throughout his life and was of inestimable value in his profession. But it would have served him well at sea, too, and there can be no doubt he would have risen high in naval service and become a rival to Nelson. As it was, the sea, so inviting to ambitious Corsicans, became and remained his mortal enemy. He did not understand its true strategic significance, and the naval dimension of geopolitics always eluded him—his last, terminal mistake was to step aboard the HMS Bellerophon, on 15 July 1815, never to be a free man again. Bonaparte's bitterness against the British sprang partly from his belief that the power their supremacy at sea gave them was somehow unnatural, even unfair. It was his frustration at the unjust success of blockade that led him into the endless labyrinth of the Continental System, which proved a salient part of his undoing.
The only other occasion when Bonaparte offered his sword as a mercenary was when, already trained and commissioned as an officer in the French army, but angry at slow promotion, he considered serving the sultan of Turkey, as many European officers did at that time. But an opportunity to serve France in higher rank came just in time, so this moment passed, too. Bonaparte was not by temperament a mercenary. But he was not a patriot, either. He was not moved by sentiment, secular or religious. If metaphysical forces played on him at all, he was a victim of superstition, though a willing one. He believed in his stars, like the ancient Romans he admired (insofar as he admired anyone). He felt he had a destiny, and most of his life he was confident in it. But, sure as he was of what destiny intended for him, he nonetheless was determined to wrest it from events with his own brain, arms, and will. In his material calculations, he was quite clear and consistent. He needed not a paymaster, like a mercenary, not a disembodied ideal, like a patriot, but a source of power, so that he could capture it and obtain more power. So he asked himself: Where does the nearest source of real power lie? And the answer came immediately: France.
Hence the significance of Bonaparte's birthdate, which made him a subject of the French crown. And there was a further stroke of fortune. From 1772 to 1786, the virtual ruler of Corsica, or rather of the walled coastal cities, was a Breton nobleman, the comte de Marbeuf. He built up his own local party, which included Carlo Bonaparte. Carlo was almost penniless but he had his sixteen quarterings, so Marbeuf was able to send him to Versailles as a representative of the local nobility. He was away some time, and while so, Marbeuf, aged sixty but a lifelong womanizer, had a leisurely affair with Letizia (or so the evidence suggests). In return, he made use of a fund that, every year, awarded 600 places at high-class French schools to the children of poor French parents who could prove their noblesse. The family could do that, if nothing else, and on 31 December 1778, young Bonaparte, aged nine, was gazetted by the ministry of war with a place at a royal military school. His elder brother, Joseph, was similarly privileged, and Marbeuf arranged free places for both of them at a preparatory school at Autun.
Hence, at the end of the following year, Bonaparte and brother Joseph left for France, to learn French in the first instance, from there to be enveloped in the public service of the Bourbon monarchy. A year at Autun was followed by five years at the military college at Brienne and a year at the academy for officers in Paris. These seven years marked the transformation of Bonaparte into a professional French soldier. He was struck by two things. The first was the comparative luxury in which mere cadets lived, being privileged beneficiaries of the ancien régime. He cut all this out when he acquired a say in how the French army was run—all its components, officers included, had to acquire their comforts by their ability to win and their rapacity in securing the trophies of victory. Second, he realized how important it was to make use of his capacity for figures. This got him through the academy (forty-second out of fifty-eight) and a commission as a second lieutenant in the La Fère regiment of artillery, a good starting point for a subaltern without the money or influence needed to serve in smart guards or cavalry outfits. But, more important, Bonaparte began to pay constant attention to the role of calculation in war: distances to be covered; speed and route of march; quantities of supplies and animals, and the vehicles required for their transport; rates at which ammunition was used in varying engagements; replacement rates of men and animals; wastage figures from disease, battle, and desertion—all the elements of eighteenth-century military logistics. He made a habit of working these things out in his head, so that they could easily be dictated for orders. He also became a master map reader, with a gift amounting almost to genius for visualizing terrain from a two-dimensional, often fallible piece of engraved paper. Few young officers of his day had this skill, or bothered to acquire it. Asked how long it would take to get a siege train from the French fortress of Verdun to the outskirts of Vienna, most officers of the day would shrug bewildered shoulders or make a wild guess. Bonaparte would consult a map and give the answer in exact days and hours. This calculating approach to war made Bonaparte more than a tactician. He had the makings of a strategist—indeed, a geostrategist.
In the meantime he matured fast, reaching his full height of five feet five, pale, thin, saturnine, with lank dark hair over a broad brow. Not interested in food or drink, he ate his meals, if he had any choice in the matter, in ten minutes and never caroused. No one ever saw him drunk. He was not exactly a loner, because he liked to lay down the law to comrades. But he could be solitary and he made no lifelong friends at the college or the academy. Boyhood, even youth, fled swiftly. In February 1785, his father died of stomach cancer. Though still only fifteen and the second son, Bonaparte took over, by general consent, his father's place as head of the family, in preference to the amiable but unassertive Joseph. A year older, Joseph (1768-1844) had decided to forgo a military career and to become a lawyer like his father. He was to be a willing but ineffectual tool in Bonaparte's rise and fall. The next brother, Lucien (1775-1846), was more amenable to Bonaparte's schemes, serving him as a soldier and later as king of Holland; but ill-health and lack of enthusiasm forced him to abdicate in 1810, when he faded from public life. The youngest brother, Jérôme (1784-1860), who most resembled Bonaparte in his vigor and enthusiasm, was rewarded with the kingdom of Westphalia and served in many of the great campaigns, including Russia and Waterloo, after which he went into exile until Louis's son, later Napoleon III, restored the family fortunes in France. Of Bonaparte's sisters, the eldest, Eliza (1777-1820), married a Corsican, Prince Bacciochi, whom Bonaparte made prince of Piombino; but she left him soon after and was made grand duchess of Tuscany. Pauline (1781-1825) was the most beautiful of the girls and married in turn Bonaparte's West Indian commander, Charles Leclerc, then the Roman prince, Camillo Borghese, in whose family palace Antonio Canova's reclining, seminude statue of Pauline can still be seen. The youngest sister, Caroline (1782-1839), the most untrustworthy, married Bonaparte's cavalry commander, Joachim Murat, and in due course the couple were made king and queen of Naples. It has to be said that Bonaparte did the best, according to his lights, for his siblings, provided they obeyed him. He showered on them and their spouses principalities and kingdoms, but all were lost, and all his siblings met misfortune or underwent long years in exile.
But at the time the sixteen-year-old Bonaparte took over direction of the family fortunes, all this was in the future and all were young. His father left virtually nothing. The youth's pay was ninety-three livres a month, of which room and board took twenty. It was little more when he was promoted first lieutenant in 1791. His problem was to ensure that his mother's widowhood was honorable and that his brothers and sisters did not starve. In the artillery parc at Valence, he tried to educate himself by intensive reading, as the young Winston Churchill was to do during his Indian service. He still wrote letters in Italian, though his French, grotesquely misspelled, was improving. He read Plato's Republic; Buffon's Histoire naturelle; Rousseau and Voltaire; James Macpherson's Ossian works, those bibles of the early Romantics; various histories and biographies; and a volume, in English, of English history, which he read with particular attention, believing England to be a successful country, well worth studying for its secrets—though he never seems to have grasped the essence of the English constitution, then regarded as its chief virtue. He took copious notes, chiefly of statistics. But he read fiction, too, historical romances chiefly. He also wrote fiction, including a short story set in London in 1683, about Whig plotting against Charles II, in which macabre murders, reformist politics, and divine retribution are strangely mingled.
He also began, but never finished, a history of Corsica. He could not finish it because he kept changing his mind about what Corsica's future should be. Before he died, Carlo Bonaparte broke with General Paoli and the cause of independence. Paoli never forgave the family, whom he classed as traitors and foreigners. In 1789, the new French National Assembly allowed Paoli, who had been in English exile, to return to Corsica. He at once set about organizing an independent republic there. Between September 1786 and June 1793, Bonaparte returned to Corsica four times: first as a moderate supporter of French power, in gratitude to Marbeuf; then as an open critic of an increasingly oppressive French regime, run from Paris; then as an outright supporter of Paoli and a colonel in the Corsican militia; finally as a critic and opponent of Paoli, who not only showed him no favor but exercised dictatorial powers and proposed to separate Corsica finally from France. At this point Bonaparte threw in his lot with the Corsican Jacobins. Civil war broke out on the island in April 1793. For Paoli, who had become increasingly suspicious of the young, swiftly rising soldier, with his French training and education, this was the end. He had the entire Bonaparte family publicly sentenced to "perpetual execration and infamy." Thus indicted in a land where the vendetta ruled, all of them, the mother included, ran for safety to France, never to return.
Though it is clear Bonaparte had bitter memories of his native isle, and wished to erase it from his mind, it did provide him with something important: a map of the kind of power he sought. Though Paoli became his enemy, he remained in a sense Bonaparte's hero-mentor. For Paoli was not a warlord, or at any rate not just a warlord, as all his predecessors in the struggle for independence had been. He was a man of the Enlightenment who believed—as did Jefferson, Adams, and Washington on the far side of the Atlantic; Burke and Fox in England; and Lafayette in France—that revolution and armed struggle were no more than the necessary prelude to creating a humanitarian republic endowed with an ideal constitution. He was the man Rousseau had been looking for to turn little Corsica into a model commonwealth, an example to all Europe for the wisdom of its laws. Paoli emerges from Boswell's copious writing and much other evidence as noble, disinterested, fearless, and sensible; a man who had absorbed in exile British pragmatism and, like the Founding Fathers in America, blended it skillfully with the more abstract idealism of Rousseau, Diderot, and the encyclopédistes. He seized with both hands the opportunity to treat Corsica, as Rousseau had envisaged, as a tabula rasa on which could be inscribed a scheme of government and code of laws that would make it, though small and weak, a world exemplar. Alas, his sword was not strong enough to win and maintain Corsican independence alone, and his British ally deserted him, so that he, too, ended his life in exile.
But the archetype of Paoli, not just conquering soldier but supreme legislator and enlightened ruler as well, became part of the furniture of Bonaparte's mind. He was already seeking power, but the fate of Corsica enabled him to give a purpose to power. Winning a battle, a campaign, a war, was not an end in itself but an opportunity to impose a new order on the old corrupt and inefficient systems. He was to be a Paoli for all Europe, built in an incomparably larger mold and operating on a continental, perhaps a world scale, for the better governance of mankind. He did not realize, and perhaps he never realized, that there was a fundamental contradiction in this vision. Whereas Paoli, acting on behalf of the Corsicans themselves, was a mere liberator who then legislated with their consent, Bonaparte, with his overarching scheme for Europe, was not so much a liberator as a conqueror, and the violence of the conquest was incompatible with the idealism planned for the subsequent government, which thus became mere occupation by force, unjust and cruel. Warfare, from being a means to an end, became an end in itself, and Bonaparte, having once unsheathed his sword, found it impossible to lay it down for long. He ended by being no nearer his goal, and no safer, than his last victory—thus inviting inevitable nemesis. All this seems clear enough to us now. But nothing was clear then, in the early 1790s, except that the world could be reorganized afresh—that all Europe was a tabula rasa—and that a bold soldier was exactly the man to write his destiny on it.
Excerpted from Napoleon by Paul Johnson. Copyright © 2002 by Paul Johnson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Chapter One: The Corsican Background
Chapter Two: Revolutionary, General, Consul, Emperor
Chapter Three: The Master of the Battlefield
Chapter Four: The Flawed and Fragile Empire
Chapter Five: The Graveyards of Europe
Chapter Six: Elba and Waterloo
Chapter Seven: The Long Good-bye