The Last Phase of Napoleon

ANYTHING from Lord Rosebery’s pen is sure to be sparkling and attractive. But the petty miseries of Napoleon at St. Helena, his squabbles with Sir Hudson Lowe, and the bickerings of his little household were hardly a subject worthy of being handled by one who has been Prime Minister of England, who may again be Prime Minister of England, and who is being courted as a leader by a large section of a great political party. Perhaps Lord Rosebery, while awaiting the call of Destiny, wishes to kill the time without mental strain by dallying with lighter themes. Though strictly critical and veracious, he is evidently under a spell, and feels that in dealing with the great conqueror he is dealing with something more than human.

Napoleon on his way to Elba, after his first deposition, found his statues overturned, and was more than once in peril of his life from the fury of the people against their fallen tyrant. He owed to the intrepidity of the allied Commissioners a narrow escape from a violent end. A mob surrounded the carriage, demanding his head ; and to save his life he had to escape by a back window, and ride the next post disguised as a courier with a white cockade upon his breast. Did he suffer any indignity worse than this at the hands of Lord Bathurst or Sir Hudson Lowe ? The political and municipal bodies of France at once, with one accord, acclaimed his fall and the deliverance of the country. One of his own marshals, Augereau, his companion in many victories, thus addressed the soldiers : —

“ Soldiers ! The Senate, the first interpreter of the national will, worn out with the despotism of Buonaparte, has pronounced, on the 2nd April, the dethronement of him and his family. A new dynasty, strong and liberal, descended from our ancient kings, will replace Buonaparte and his despotism. Soldiers ! You are absolved from your oaths : you are so by the nation, in which the sovereignty resides; you are still more so, were it necessary, by the abdication of a man who, after having sacrificed millions to his cruel ambition, has not known how to die as a soldier.”

Ney, on Napoleon’s return from Elba, marched against him, promising the King to bring him back in an iron cage.

Napoleon’s wonderful success after his return from Elba was due, not to love of him, but to hatred of the Bourbons, to the restless discontent of the soldiery, and to the fear of the peasantry that the old dynasty would restore the feudal system and resume the confiscated lands. Napoleon would never have been recalled by the French people. In Lord Russell’s interview with him at Elba, the subject of his anxious inquiry was the disposition, not of the people, but of the army. The disposition of the people he knew too well.

After his first deposition, the fallen Emperor was treated with studious respect by the allies, and notably by the British. He was received, says Alison, by Captain Usher, who commanded the vessel in which he sailed for Elba, agreeably to the orders of the government, with the honors due to a crowned head: a royal salute was fired as he stepped on board, the yards were manned, and every possible respect was shown to him by all, from the captain to the cabin boy. So great was the contrast between this reception and that with which he had met at the hands of his own subjects that he burst into tears. It was when he had broken his word, made his escape from Elba, and again for the purposes of his own ambition plunged the world into slaughter and havoc, that he was treated with less indulgence. That, with his invariable perfidy, he had from his first removal to Elba meditated breach of his parole and return to France, if he had a chance, can hardly be matter of doubt. In his interview with Lord Russell, he affected to fear that the allies had a design upon his life. He was evidently providing an excuse for his flight. He actually invited Lord Russell to visit him in Paris, and the invitation was repeated in the Hundred Days through Bertrand.

This man had sacrificed to his ambition at least two millions of lives. He had oppressed and plundered all the nations, till they rose together in united effort against the intolerable iniquities of his sway. He had formed a design, as he himself avowed, of reducing them all to satellites of France, the domestic liberties of which he had extinguished. He had, besides, committed a long series of particular crimes : he had murdered Pichegru, the Duc d’Enghien, ToussaintLouverture, and Hofer; he had slaughtered four thousand prisoners of war in cold blood, because he found it difficult to hold them. He had trampled on public faith as well as the laws of humanity. Had he, upon the renewal of his criminal attempts, been treated with more severity than he was, the measure would have been impolitic, certainly unsentimental, but it would not have been unjust. It might not even have been entirely impolitic, if it would have broken the spell the prevalence of which was to be so prolific of evil.

Any idea that consideration was due to Napoleon for having, after Waterloo, abstained from putting himself at the head of the Jacobin populace of Paris, and prolonging the resistance to the allied armies, is preposterous. There was not between him and the populace the sympathy by which such a combination could have been formed. He hated the populace of Paris. In the Hundred Days, Guizot saw him, after receiving at a window a mob demonstration, turn away with a shrug of disdain.

Suppose, after all that Napoleon had done, — the physical and, still worse, moral evil that he had brought upon the world, the loss and suffering which he had brought upon Great Britain in particular, and the pertinacious malignity with which he had sought her ruin, — a British minister, upon the renewal of all this, did, in a letter to his colleague, give vent to his indignation in an angry phrase suggesting that Napoleon deserved to be handed over to the King of France for treatment as a rebel: was this a thing to fill the world with horror ? Lord Liverpool did not really expect the King of France to put Napoleon to death as a rebel, nor had he the slightest intention of doing anything of the kind himself.

It was unfortunate, perhaps, that the British government should have had to undertake the custody of a prisoner whose extraordinary genius and still more extraordinary fortunes were sure to create a sentiment in his favor and against his keepers. But this could hardly have been helped. A fortress in Russia or Prussia would have been more penal than St. Helena. To allow the ex-Emperor to go to the United States, there to cabal against Great Britain, would have been fatuous. It must be remembered that there were French, Austrian, and Russian Commissioners at St. Helena. Prussia was invited to send a Commissioner, but did not.

In the indictment of the British government, as presented by Lord Rosebery, there are three counts : —

I. The denial of the imperial title. Napoleon was allowed himself to assume, and did assume, the title, as he did all the forms of imperial state. But could the government have given it to him ? His own legislature had dethroned him, and forced him to sign his abdication. With his little empire of Elba he had been allowed to retain his title of Emperor. But how, without disparagement to the title of the restored dynasty, could he be recognized as Emperor of the French ? Does not the revival of the title by Napoleon III. show that there was a substantial reason for refusal ? On the captive’s playing at Emperor no restriction seems to have been placed. All the forms of imperial etiquette were strictly observed in his little court. Its members were kept standing for hours, till they nearly dropped from fatigue. At dinner, Lord Rosebery tells us, he was served on gold and silver plate, and attended by his French servants in rich liveries. When he took an airing, it was in a carriage and six, with an equerry riding on each side. A really noble nature surely would have preferred to lay aside a title which had become a mockery of forfeited greatness, and have found a higher majesty in simple manhood, dignified as it would have been by misfortune.

II. The second charge is niggardly supply of funds. But this seems at once to fall to the ground. The original allowance was £8000 a year. This was enlarged to £12,000, and ultimately there was no fixed limit. If there were rats at Longwood, there was wherewithal to buy ratsbane, and the governor could scarcely be blamed for leaving that business to the suite. Napoleon appears to have been supplied with everything that he desired, including, it is curious to hear, large consignments of books, of which, we are told, this mighty conqueror was a great, even a voracious reader. Bertrand confessed that St. Helena was better than Elba.

III. There is, unfortunately, more foundation for the charge of want of tact and indelicacy on the part of Sir Hudson Lowe, whose vigilance was extreme, but who was otherwise ill chosen for his rôle. Sir Hudson was haunted by fears of an escape; for which, in fact, there were plots on foot, and one, as the Russian government thought, feasible, though there could hardly be serious danger, considering the inaccessibility of the island and the unwieldy corpulence of the captive. Lowe’s instructions were “to permit every indulgence to Napoleon compatible with the entire security of his person.” It is not alleged that he departed from the first part of these instructions, but only that he was overstrict and maladroit in the execution of the second. He seems to have shown no ill will. He raised the allowance on his own responsibility. In inviting the ex-Emperor to meet Lady Loudon at dinner he may have committed a social blunder, but he meant only to be kind. Napoleon was irritable and petulant. “ Lowe was antipathetic to him,” says Lord Rosebery, “ as a man and as a jailer. Consequently, Napoleon lost his temper outrageously when they met.” This seems to suggest a fair summary of the case. Napoleon, it will be remembered, for an unfortunate though well-intended remark, kicked Volney in the stomach, so that he had to be carried out of the room. He gave vent “ outrageously ” to his temper against the British ambassador, Lord Whitworth, before the whole diplomatic circle. He shoots Madame Bertrand’s pet kids, to her great distress, because they strayed upon his garden, and other innocent animals share their fate. So he used to shoot his wife’s favorite birds at Malmaison. He had in him, in fact, a strong dash of the Quilp. Lamartine thought that he insulted in order to provoke insult and found a case for his friends in the British Parliament, whose intervention was his hope of release. Montholon, one of his confidants at Longwood, in fact, avowed that this was their game. If Napoleon had allowed Sir Hudson Lowe to see him regularly without seriously intruding on his privacy, even to see him at a window, all would apparently have gone well.

Pope Pius VII. was the head of Catholic Christendom. Yet the treatment which he received as Napoleon’s captive was less respectful, according to Lord Rosebery, than that received by Napoleon. “ He was put into captivity, not as Napoleon was confined, but almost as malefactors are imprisoned.” A cardinal who had displeased the despot was confined in a state prison in Savoy. All these things, as well as the conqueror’s far more serious offenses against humanity, were then fresh in the minds of the people with whom he had to deal.

One of Napoleon’s occupations at St. Helena, as Lord Rosebery evidently believes, was the forging of a document which, if genuine, would have thrown the blame for the catastrophe in Spain off his own shoulders, and on to those of Murat. Another was the execution of a will leaving a legacy to Cantillon, who had attempted to assassinate Wellington. The duke had some reason for saying that Napoleon was not a gentleman. It is true that this man was a Jupiter; true also that he was a Jupiter Scapin. He seems to have been framed by nature to show the difference between intellectual and moral greatness. His views of humanity were sagacious as his intellect was great; they were low as his character was mean.

Lord Rosebery has given us a vivid and amusing picture of the companions of Napoleon in his exile. A curious set they seem to have been. Never, surely, did august adversity receive a less impressive tribute from the attachment and sympathy of friends. In fact, as Lord Rosebery admits, Napoleon had no friends. He speaks of Ney, Murat, and Soult in the most unfeeling way. His own brothers and sisters defied and abandoned him. Two of his sisters, on whom he had conferred royalty, tried to make independent terms for themselves with the enemy. He avowed that he cared for people who were useful to him only for so long as they were useful. He would bear no divided attachment. “ You are mad to love your mother so,” said Napoleon to Gourgaud. “ How old is she?” “Sixty-seven, Sire.” “Well, you will never see her again ; she will be dead before you return to France.”

“ Napoleon,” says Lord Rosebery, “ was not good in the sense in which Wilberforce or St. Francis was good. Nor was he one of the virtuous rulers. He was not a Washington or an Antonine.” On the other hand, he was not a monster, like Eccelino or Timur the Tartar. He did not love evil for its own sake. He was a Corsican, and a thorough Corsican, of extraordinary genius, initiated in wickedness under the Jacobins and confirmed under the Directory, probably about the two worst schools in which it was possible for any human being to be trained. He was utterly unscrupulous, utterly regardless of faith or truth, absolutely selfish, absolutely devoid of the slightest sense of humanity or the slightest feeling for the sufferings of his kind. The horrors of the retreat from Moscow, the horrors of the retreat from Leipsic, touched him not. His bulletin at the end of the Russian campaign contained no word of remorse, but announced to bleeding France that the Emperor never was in better health. On the morrow of a battle he always went over the field, and presumably felt pleasure in the sight. To drag generation after generation of French boys from their homes for consumption in his wars, till he had actually reduced the stature and physique of the country, cost him not a pang. At the last, his only regret was that he could not stake his few remaining conscripts on the gambling table. Constant installments of glory he deemed necessary to his position ; and what was necessary to his position was to be supplied, no matter at what cost to his nation or to mankind. Brougham used to repeat a story told him by one who accompanied the Emperor’s flight from Waterloo. Seeing Napoleon depressed, and thinking that he might be touched by the slaughter of so many old comrades, his companion said,

“ Wellington also has lost many of his friends.” “Yes,” replied Napoleon with an oath, “ but he has n’t lost the battle.” When the list of the slain was brought to Wellington, tears ran down the iron cheeks.

The supreme genius of Napoleon for war nobody disputes. Perhaps his only rivals are Alexander, Hannibal, and Cæsar. Marlborough would hardly be placed in the same rank, though it is to be remembered that he conquered, with armies composed of very motley material and long used to defeat, the victorious veterans of Louis XIV., not to mention that he left off victorious. Napoleon had the great advantage of being despot as well as commander in chief, with his hands entirely free, unaffected by failure, and master of all the resources of the state. He had no English Parliamentary Opposition to interfere with him, or Dutch Deputies to tie his hands. In warpower the political element always stands for a good deal. Napoleon was fortunate, also, in having to command such people as the French, brave, light-hearted, fired with enthusiasm by the Revolution, and at the same time inured to obedience by immemorial absolutism, which was as complete under Robespierre as under Louis XIV., while the conscription had recruited the army with men of a superior class.

Napoleon’s special characteristic as a general seems to be the wonderful celerity of his movements, which he owed partly to his admirable physique. He was able, Lord Rosebery tells us, to fight Alvinzi for five consecutive days without taking off his boots. But latterly he grew corpulent and somewhat torpid. Lord Russell said that when he saw him at Elba he was so fat that, as he laid his hand upon the table, you could hardly see his knuckles. Hence, no doubt, his fatal delay between Ligny and Waterloo. His decline as a general, however, appears to have begun before his last campaign. Experts think that it showed itself at Leipsic, where he neglected to provide sufficient bridges for his retreat.

In peace, as in war, Napoleon was a first-rate organizer and administrator. The government which, as First Consul, he gave France could hardly fail to be welcome, after a reign of murderous anarchy followed by one of unprincipled cabal, maladministration, and corruption, when it was for order rather than for liberty that everybody pined. But he lacked the moral element of statesmanship which would have enabled him to found an enduring polity, and his system was only set up again by the cracksman of Ham to fall ignominiously once more. How little root it took in the lifetime of its author the scandalous success of Malet’s conspiracy showed. Glory ever fresh, its author admitted, was essential to its existence. But fresh glory could not be supplied forever, while ultimate defeat was sure, and on the first, second, and third trial proved to be ruin.

The brightest point in Napoleon’s history is the Code to which he had the good fortune to give his name, and on which, though the body of it was the work of professional jurists, his practical sagacity and extraordinary powers of application seem in a wonderful degree to have left their mark. It must not be supposed, however, that the Code Napoléon was a sudden light out of darkness. Those who fancy that it was forget Tanucci, Bentham, and the general progress of European jurisprudence. The main lines of the Code had, in fact, been laid down by the Constituent Assembly, which had decreed the liberty of worship, trial by jury, publicity of criminal proceedings, with other securities for fairtrial, a uniform system of criminal jurisprudence, equality in taxation, abolition of all feudal burdens and privileges.

The article of the Code which Lord Rosebery specially connects, and which is generally connected, with Napoleon’s name is the rule of inheritance subdividing the land. This, however, had been already introduced, and it seems doubtful whether, in retaining it, Napoleon was obeying the dictate of his own judgment, or yielding to the anti-feudal sentiment of the people. If he wished to create an hereditary aristocracy, as it appeared he did, he could scarcely be an enemy to entails. In either case the results were the same : an immense body of landowners ; a territorial democracy, conservative, or at all events opposed to communism ; and, in large districts at least, the civilization of La Terre. The Revolution having made a clean sweep of the past, Napoleon’s genius had the great advantage of a perfectly blank paper on which to work.

Among other curious points, Lord Rosebery has dealt with Napoleon’s religion. In a passage of Newman’s works to which he refers, and which he thinks beautiful, the cardinal has tried to secure the countenance of the famous conqueror for the religion of Christ. But there is no ground, according to Lord Rosebery, for this claim. The only religion to which Napoleon was inclined appears to have been Mahometanism, which had taken his fancy in Egypt, partly perhaps by its militant character, but principally as a religion of the East, to which, as the most grandiose field of enterprise, his imagination constantly turned. His restoration of the Catholic Church in France was purely political. He seems himself to have attended mass in the Tuileries by doing business in an adjoining room. He admitted that if he had turned his mind to religious subjects, he would not have been able to do great things. Assuredly, he would not have been able to do some things which he deemed great, had he been under the restraints of religion even in the slightest degree.

Napoleon, says Lord Rosebery, indefinitely raised mankind’s conceptions of its own powers and possibilities. He indefinitely raised, among other conceptions, that of human servility and of the proneness of mankind to worship mere power. A glance at the starry heavens will measure the stature of the intellectual giant. Moral power will not lose by the comparison. It is itself, if our inmost nature does not lie to us, a particle of the power “ through which the heavens are fresh and strong.”

Lord Russell, when the present writer questioned him about Napoleon’s look, said, and emphatically repeated, that there was something evil in the eye. He had remarked that it flashed on an allusion to the excitement of war as contrasted with the dullness of Elba. A feature in the character which, perhaps, has hardly been enough noticed was a sheer lust of war, and especially of battles, the emotions of which, Napoleon seems to have owned, were agreeable to him. It appears not improbable that this had a share, together with his insatiable ambition and his political need of glory, in launching him on his mad invasion of Russia, for which it is difficult to assign any political purpose, as he refused to restore the kingdom of Poland.

Another feature not much noticed in Napoleon’s character is his classicism. In his early days he had employed his garrison leisure partly in reading Roman history ; and instead of being repelled, he had been fascinated by the presentation of the Roman Empire in Tacitus. We see the result in his Eagles, his Legion of Honor, his political nomenclature, and the general cast of his political institutions. Perhaps the image of the Roman Empire as a model for reproduction floated vaguely before his mind, as it does before those of our imperialists at the present day. A grosser anachronism, it is needless to say, there could not be than an attempt to impose upon the European family of living nations anything like the yoke imposed by Rome on a set of conquered provinces in which national spirit was extinct.

Longwood, Lord Rosebery will own, as vividly described by him, is not sublime. The glory of sunset is not upon it. It was, in truth, no harvest sun that was setting there, but a meteor, brilliant and baleful, that was ending its course. Not that its course was then altogether ended. In 1871, Napoleon, reimpersonated in his nephew, brought an invading army for the third time into Paris.

Joinville, in his wisdom, carried the bones of Napoleon from their resting place in St. Helena to Paris. He carried with them the Napoleonic lust of military adventure which largely contributed to the overthrow of the monarchy, bourgeois, drab-colored, and pacific, of his own house.

Judgment on Napoleon’s character must, of course, be qualified by due allowance for the influences under which it was formed. But if he was not the worst of men, he was about the worst of all enemies to his kind. When we consider not only the havoc which he made in his lifetime, but all that followed, — the Holy Alliance and the absolutist reaction, the violence with which the pendulum afterwards swung back to revolution, the spirit of militarism which now pervades the world, — we shall be ready to admit that, of all the disastrous accidents of history, not one is more disastrous than that which made the Corsican a citizen of France.

Goldwin Smith.

  1. 2Napoleon: The Last Phase. By LORD ROSEBERY. New York : Harper & Brothers. 1900.