Chateaubriand's memoirs, XVI, 9

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XVI, 8 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XVI, 10


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XVI- Chapter 9
Bonaparte: his sophistry and remorse



A grave lesson can be drawn from Bonaparte’s life. Two actions, both wrong, began and brought about his fall: the death of the Duc d’Enghien, and the war with Spain. It was no good him passing on in all his glory, they remained there to ruin him. His destruction came from the very direction in which he thought himself strong, profound, invincible, by violating the laws of morality in his disregard for them, scorning his true strength, that is to say, his superior talent for order and justice. As long as he only attacked anarchy and France’s foreign enemies, he was victorious; he found himself stripped of his power as soon as he entered on the paths of corruption: the hair that Delilah cut represents nothing else but the loss of virtue. Every crime carries within itself a radical incapacity and the seed of tragedy: let us practice goodness to be happy, and let us be just to be clever.

In proof of that truth, note that at the very moment of the Prince’s death, the dissent began which, coming about through ill luck, led to the fall of the perpetrator of the tragedy of Vincennes. The Russian cabinet, in regard to the Duc d’Enghien’s arrest, made vigorous representations concerning the violation of Imperial territory: Bonaparte felt the blow, and responded in the Moniteur, in a violent article that mentioned the death of Paul I. At Saint Petersburg, a memorial service was celebrated for the young Condé. The cenotaph read: ‘To the Duc d’Enghien quem devoravit bellua Corsica (whom the Corsican monster devoured).’ The two powerful adversaries subsequently appeared to achieve reconciliation; but the mutual breach that politics had made and that insult widened, still remained: Napoleon did not think himself revenged until he had slept in Moscow; Alexander was not satisfied until he entered Paris.

The hatred shown by the Berlin cabinet rose from the same origin: I have mentioned Monsieur de Laforest’s noble letter, in which he told Monsieur de Talleyrand of the effect of the Duc d’Enghien’s murder on the court at Potsdam. Madame de Staël was in Prussia when the news of Vincennes arrived: ‘I was staying in Berlin,’ she says, ‘on the bank of the Spree and my apartment was on the ground floor. One morning, at eight, I was woken to be told that Prince Louis-Ferdinand was on horseback by my window, and requested that I come and speak with him. – Do you know, he said to me, that the Duc d’Enghien has been abducted from the territory of Baden, taken before a military commission, and shot twenty-four hours after arriving in Paris? – What foolishness! I replied; don’t you realise that enemies of France have circulated this rumour? In truth, I confess, my hatred, fierce as it was of Bonaparte, did not go as far as allowing me to believe in the possibility of such a thing. – Since you doubt what I say, Prince Louis replied, I will go and fetch the Moniteur, in which you can read the judgment. With these words, he departed, and the expression on his face spoke of vengeance or death. A quarter of an hour afterwards, I had the Moniteur of 22nd March (1st Germinal) in my hands, which contained the sentence of death, pronounced by the military commission meeting at Vincennes, on the person named Louis d’Enghien! It is thus that the French designate the scions of heroes who brought their country glory! If one is to abjure all prejudice in favour of illustrious birth, which the return of monarchical form would necessarily entail, is one nevertheless to blaspheme thus against the memories of the battle of Lens and that of Rocroi? This Bonparte who has gained victories does not even know how to respect them; for him there is neither past nor future; his imperious and scornful soul wishes to recognise no opinion as sacred; he only shows respect for direct forces. Prince Louis wrote to me, beginning his note with these words: – The person named Louis of Prussia, requests of Madame de Stael, etc. – He felt deeply the injury done to the royal line of which he sprang, to the memory of those heroes he longed to emulate. How, after this terrible deed, can a single king in Europe deal with such a man? Necessity, they say? There is a sanctuary of the soul which his empire must never penetrate; if it were not so, what would virtue amount to on earth? A liberal amusement only fit for the peaceful leisure hours of private men.’

This resentment of the Prince’s, for which he had to pay with his life, was still there when the Prussian Campaign opened in 1806. Frederick-William, in his declaration of the 9th of October, said: ‘The Germans have not avenged the death of the Duc d’Enghien; but among them the memory of that loss will never be effaced.’

These historical details, little noted, merit being so; since they explain enmities which one would otherwise find difficult to explain, and they reveal at the same time those degrees by which Providence leads a man’s destiny from crime to punishment.