Chateaubriand's memoirs, VI, 8

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VI, 7 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> VII, 1

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book VI - Chapter 8
Comparison of Washington and Bonaparte

Bonaparte is not long dead. Since I have come knocking on Washington’s door, the parallel between the founder of the United States and the Emperor of the French naturally springs to mind; even more appropriately, at the moment I trace these lines, Washington himself is no more. Ercilla, fighting and singing in Chile, stopped in the midst of his journey to tell of the death of Dido; I halt at the beginning of my travels, in Pennsylvania, in order to compare Washington and Bonaparte. I would rather not have concerned myself with them until the point where I had met Napoleon; but if I came to the edge of my grave without having reached the year 1814 in my tale, no one would then know anything of what I would have written concerning these two representatives of Providence. I remember Castelnau: like me Ambassador to England, who wrote like me a narrative of his life in London. On the last page of Book VII, he says to his son: ‘I will deal with this event in Book VIII,’ and Book VIII of Castelnau’s Memoirs does not exist: that warns me to take advantage of being alive.

Washington did not belong, as Bonaparte did, to that race of beings that exceed human stature. There was nothing astonishing about him; he was not placed in a vast theatre; he did not deal with the most able generals and the most powerful monarchs of his time: he did not speed from Memphis to Vienna, from Cadiz to Moscow: he acted defensively with a handful of citizens in a land not yet famous, within a narrow circle of domestic hearths. He did not give himself over to battles that recalled the triumphs of Arbela and Pharsalus; he did not overthrown thrones in order to create others from their ruins; he never said to kings at his door:

‘That they were long overdue, and that Attila was bored.’

A degree of silence envelops Washington’s actions; he moved slowly; one might say that he felt charged with future liberty, and that he feared to compromise it. It was not his own destiny that inspired this new species of hero: it was that of his country; he did not allow himself to enjoy what did not belong to him; but from that profound humility what glory emerged! Search the woods where Washington’s sword gleamed: what do you find? Tombs? No; a world! Washington has left the United States behind for a monument on the field of battle.

Bonaparte shared no trait with that serious American: he fought amidst thunder in an old world; he thought about nothing but creating his own fame; he was inspired only by his own fate. He seemed to know that his project would be short, that the torrent which falls from such heights flows swiftly; he hastened to enjoy and abuse his glory, like fleeting youth. Following the example of Homer’s gods, in four paces he reached the ends of the world. He appeared on every shore; he wrote his name hurriedly in the annals of every people; he threw royal crowns to his family and his generals; he hurried through his monuments, his laws, his victories. Leaning over the world, with one hand he deposed kings, with the other he pulled down the giant, Revolution; but, in eliminating anarchy, he stifled liberty, and ended by losing his own on his last field of battle.

Each was rewarded according to his efforts: Washington brings a nation to independence; a justice at peace, he falls asleep beneath his own roof in the midst of his compatriots’ grief and the veneration of nations.

Bonaparte robs a nation of its independence: deposed as emperor, he is sent into exile, where the world’s anxiety still does not think him safely enough imprisoned, guarded by the Ocean. He dies: the news proclaimed on the door of the palace in front of which the conqueror had announced so many funerals, neither detains nor astonishes the passer-by: what have the citizens to mourn?

Washington’s Republic lives on; Bonaparte’s empire is destroyed. Washington and Bonaparte emerged from the womb of democracy: both of them born to liberty, the former remained faithful to her, the latter betrayed her.

Washington acted as the representative of the needs, the ideas, the enlightened men, the opinions of his age; he supported, not thwarted, the stirrings of intellect; he desired only what he had to desire, the very thing to which he had been called: from which derives the coherence and longevity of his work. That man who struck few blows because he kept things in proportion has merged his existence with that of his country: his glory is the heritage of civilisation; his fame has risen like one of those public sanctuaries where a fecund and inexhaustible spring flows.

Bonaparte might have enriched public life equally; he acted on the most intelligent, bravest, most brilliant nation on earth. What a ranking he would have today if he had joined magnanimity to whatever he possessed of the heroic, if, at once Washington and Bonaparte, he had appointed liberty as the sole legatee of his glory!

But that giant never linked his own destiny to that of his contemporaries; his genius belonged to the modern age: his ambition was that of ancient times; he could not see that the miracles of his life were worth more than a coronet, and that such Gothic ornaments suited him ill. At one moment he launched himself at the future, at another he fell back into the past; and whether he stirred or followed the current of his time, with his prodigious force he drove on or held back the waves. Men were in his eyes only a means to power; no identification was established between their happiness and his own: he promised to deliver them, and he enchained them; he isolated himself from them, they distanced themselves from him. The Egyptian Pharaohs sited their funeral pyramids not among flowering meadows, but in the midst of sterile sands; those great tombs stand like eternity in the solitude: Bonaparte built the monument to his fame in their image.