Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXII, 15

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XXII, 14 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXII, 16


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXII, chapter15
The publication of my pamphlet – De Bonaparte et Des Bourbons



However Napoleon was not yet dethroned; more than forty thousand of the best soldiers in the world accompanied him; he could withdraw beyond the Loire; the French armies which had arrived from Spain were making growling noises in the south; the seething military population might still discharge its lava; even among the foreign leaders, there was still talk of Napoleon or his son ruling France: for two days Alexander hesitated. Monsieur de Talleyrand was secretly inclined, as I have said, to the policy which favoured crowning the King of Rome, since he dreaded the Bourbons; if he did not enter unreservedly into the plan for the Regency of Marie-Louise, it was because, Napoleon still being alive, he, the Prince of Benevento, feared that he would be unable to retain control during a minority threatened by the existence of a restless, unpredictable and enterprising man still in the prime of life.

It was during these critical days that I launched my pamphlet De Bonaparte et des Bourbons in order to turn the scale: the effect is well known. I threw myself headlong into the fray to serve as a shield to renascent liberty against a tyranny which was still active and whose strength was increased threefold by despair. I spoke in the name of the Legitimacy, in order to lend my words the authority of pragmatic politics. I apprised France of what the old royal family represented; I told her how many members of that family were still alive, and their names and characters; it was as if I were listing the children of the Emperor of China, so thoroughly had the Republic and Empire invaded the present and relegated the Bourbons to the past. Louis XVIII declared, as I have mentioned several times elsewhere, that my pamphlet had been more use to him than an army of a hundred thousand men; he might have added that it acted as proof of his existence. I helped to crown him for a second time, by the favourable outcome of the Spanish War.

From the very beginning of my political career, I had made myself unpopular with the people, but from that moment on I also lost favour with the powerful. All those who had been slaves under Bonaparte detested me; on the other hand, I was suspect among all those who wished to return France to a state of vassalage. Of all the sovereigns, only Bonaparte himself was on my side at first. He perused my pamphlet at Fontainebleau: the Duke of Bassano had brought it to him; he discussed it impartially, saying: ‘This is right, this is not right. I have nothing to reproach Chateaubriand with; he opposed me when I was in power; but those swine, such and such!’ and he named them.

My admiration for Bonaparte has always been great and sincere, even when I attacked Napoleon most fiercely.

Posterity is not as just in its assessments as they say; there are passions, infatuations, errors of distance as there are passions and errors of proximity. When posterity admires someone unreservedly it is scandalised if the contemporaries of the man it admires had not the same opinion it holds itself. Yet, it is obvious: the things which offended in that person are done with; his infirmities died with him; of him, only the imperishable life remains; but the evil he caused is no less real; evil in itself and in essence, evil above all for those who endured it.

It is fashionable today to exaggerate Bonaparte’s victories: those who suffered have disappeared; we no longer hear the curses, the cries of pain, the distress of the victims; we no longer see France exhausted, with only women to till her soil; we no longer see parents arrested as hostages for their sons, or the inhabitants of a village sentenced one and all to punishments applicable to a deserter; we no longer see conscription notices posted on street corners, the passers-by crowding to see those vast death-warrants, searching, in consternation for the names of children, brothers, friends and neighbours. We forget that everyone mourned the victories; we forget that the slightest allusion antagonistic to Bonaparte, in the theatre, that escaped the censors, was seized on with joy; we forget that the people, the Court, the generals, the ministers, and Napoleon’s relatives were weary of his oppression and his conquests, weary of that game which was always won and always in play, of that existence which was brought into question each morning by the impossibility of peace.

The reality of our sufferings is revealed by the catastrophe itself: if France had been devoted to Bonaparte, would she have rejected him twice, abruptly and totally, without making a last effort to retain him? If France owed everything to Bonaparte, glory, liberty, order, prosperity, industry, commerce, manufacture, monuments, literature, and fine arts; if the nation had achieved nothing itself prior to his period of rule; if the Republic had neither defended nor enlarged its borders, devoid of genius and courage, then would not France have been truly ungrateful, truly cowardly, in allowing Napoleon to fall into the hands of his enemies, or at least in not protesting against the captivity of so great a benefactor?

This reproach, which might be justly levelled against us, is not however levelled against us, and why? Because it is evident that, at the moment of his fall, France did not wish to defend Napoleon; on the contrary, she deliberately abandoned him; in our bitter distaste, we no longer recognised anything in him but the author and despiser of our woes. The Allies did not conquer us: it was we ourselves, choosing between two scourges, who renounced the shedding of our blood, which had ceased to flow for freedom.

The Republic had been too cruel, it is true, but everyone had hoped it would end, that sooner or later we would recover our rights, while retaining the defensive conquests it had made in the Alps and on the Rhine. All the victories it had brought us were gained in our name; for the Republic it was a question of France solely; it was ever France that had triumphed, that had conquered; it was our soldiers who had achieved everything and for whom triumphs or funeral celebrations were established; the generals (and there were some very great ones) won an honourable but humble place in public memory: such were Marceau, Moreau, Hoche, Joubert; the two latter destined to hold command under Bonaparte, who, new to glory, quickly encountered General Hoche, and rendered illustrious by his jealousy that warrior and peacemaker, who died shortly after his triumphs at Altenkirchen, Neuwied and Kleinnister.

Under the Empire, we vanished; it was no longer a question of us, everything belonged to Bonaparte: I have ordered, I have conquered, I have spoken; my eagles, my crown, my blood, my family, my subjects.

Yet what happened in those two situations at once similar and contrasting? We did not abandon the Republic in its reverses; it killed us, but it honoured us; we avoided the shame of being someone else’s property; thanks to our efforts, it was not invaded; the Russians, defeated beyond the mountains, had just shot their bolt at Zürich.

As for Bonaparte, he, despite his vast acquisitions, succumbed, not because he was defeated, but because France no longer wanted him. A mighty lesson! One that we ought always to remember, that there is a germ of death in everything that wounds human dignity.

Free spirits of every shade of opinion employed a common language at the time when my pamphlet was published. Lafayette, Camille Jordan, Ducis, Lemercier, Lanjuinais, Madame de Staël, Chénier, Benjamin Constant, Lebrun, thought and wrote as I did. Lanjuinais said: ‘We have been seeking a master among men whom the Romans did not desire as slaves.’

Chénier treated Bonaparte no more favourably:


‘A Corsican devoured the French inheritance.
You the elite, you heroes reaped in battle,
You martyrs, dragged with glory to the scaffold,
You died content with other hopes perchance.
Waves of blood, of tears have drenched France,
Those tears; that blood, one man inherited.
…………………………………………………….
Believer, for a while, I praised his victories,
In forum, senate, pleasures, and festivities.
…………………………………………………….
But, when he hurried home again, in flight,
Forsaking laurels for an Empire, overnight,
I did not bow before his glittering infamy;
My voice has ever been oppression’s enemy;
Watching while waves of flatterers, or worse,
Sold him, the State, their adulatory verse,
The court, the tyrant, caught no sight of me;
For I sang not of power, I sang of glory.’

                                                 (Promenade, 1805)

Madame de Staël passed no less severe a judgement on Napoleon:

‘Would it not provide a fine example to the human species, if the Directors (the five members of the Directory), very unwarlike men, could rise again from their ashes and call Napoleon to account for the lost frontiers of the Rhine and the Alps, conquered by the Republic, for the two-fold entry of foreign armies into Paris; for the three million French who perished from Cadiz to Moscow; above all for that sympathy the nations felt for the cause of French freedom, which is now transformed into an inveterate aversion?’

                             (Considérations sur la Révolution française)

Let us listen to Benjamin Constant:

‘He who, for twelve years, proclaimed he was destined to conquer the world, has made honourable amends for his pretensions……………………..

Even before his territory was invaded, he was the victim of problems he could not conceal. His frontiers were scarcely breached, when he divested himself of all his conquests. He required the abdication of one of his brothers; he agreed the expulsion of another; without being asked he announced his renunciation of it all.

While royalty, though conquered, never lost its dignity, why did the conqueror of the earth yield at the first obstacle? His relatives’ pleas, we are told, tore at his heart. Were not those who perished in Russia from the triple agony of wounds, cold and hunger, part of that family? Yet, while they died, deserted by their leader, that leader thought he was secure; now, the danger he shares has imbued him suddenly with feeling.

Fear is a poor counsellor, especially where there is a lack of conscience: there is no moderation in adversity, as in success, except through morality. Where morality holds no sway, success destroys itself in mania, adversity in debasement………………………………………..

What effect did that blind fear, that sudden faint-heartedness, without precedent in all our many troubles, have on a courageous nation? National pride found (it was at fault) a certain compensation in being oppressed by a leader who was at least invincible. Today what remains? No more prestige, no more triumphs, a mutilated Empire, the world’s execration, a throne whose glory is tarnished, whose trophies have been toppled, and whose only entourage are the wandering shades of the Duc d’Enghien, of Pichegru, of the many others who were murdered to establish it.’

Was I more extreme than that in writing De Bonaparte et des Bourbons? Do not the proclamations of the authorities in 1814, which I am going to reproduce in a moment, repeat, affirm, and confirm these various opinions? That the authorities who expressed themselves in this way have been revealed as cowardly and degraded by their initial admiration has harmed the writers of these addresses, but does not reduce the force of their arguments.

I could multiply these quotations endlessly, but I will repeat no more than two, because of the opinion held regarding the two authors: Béranger, that constant and admirable admirer of Bonaparte, did not think it necessary to excuse himself, witness these words: ‘My enthusiastic and constant admiration for the Emperor’s genius, my idolatry, had never blinded me to the tyranny ever present in the Empire.’ Paul-Louis Courier, speaking of Napoleon’s advent to the throne, said: ‘What is the point, tell me…, of a man like him, Bonaparte, a soldier, military leader, chief captain of the world, wanting to be called Majesty! To be Bonaparte and wish to be Sire! He aspires to descend: rather he thinks he is ascending by imitating kings. He prefers a title to a name. Poor man, his ideas are inferior to his success…Caesar understood it all better, and was a different kind of man: he made no use of worn-out titles; but of his name he made a title superior to that of kings.’ Our living talents have taken the same path to freedom, Monsieur de Lamartine at the rostrum, Monsieur de Latouche in retirement; in two or three of his finest odes, Monsieur Victor Hugo has echoed the sound of those noble tones:


         ‘In the gloom of crime, in the glare of victory,
         That man oblivious to God, who sent him, etc

Finally, beyond our frontiers, the judgement of Europe was just as severe. I will only quote the sentiments of the English Opposition, who accepted our Revolution in its entirety and supported it entirely: read Mackintosh in his defence of Peltier. Sheridan, at the time of the Peace of Amiens, said in Parliament: ‘Whoever arrives in England, after leaving France, thinks to escape a prison in order to breathe the air and spirit of freedom.’

Lord Byron, in his Ode to Napoleon, treats him with indignation:

         ’T is done – but yesterday a king!
             And arm’d with kings to strive,
         And now thou art a nameless thing
              So abject – yet alive.

The whole ode is in this style; each stanza bids to outdo the last, which did not prevent Lord Byron celebrating the grave on St Helena. Poets are birds: any sound makes them sing.

Whenever the finest of minds of great diversity find themselves in agreement in their judgement, no admiration sincere or insincere, no arrangement of facts, no system dreamed up after the fact, can change the sentence. What! Could one, as Napoleon did, substitute his will for law, persecute all independent life, enjoy dishonouring men of character, trouble existence, violate private morals as well as public freedom; and could the generous-minded opposition rising up against these enormities, be declared slanderous and blasphemous! Who would defend the cause of the weak against the strong, if courage, exposed to the vengeance of present vileness, had still to wait on the blame cast by cowards yet to come!

That illustrious minority, formed in part from the children of the Muses, gradually became the national majority: as the Empire drew to an end everyone hated the Imperial tyranny. A grave reproach is associated with Bonaparte’s memory: he rendered his yoke so heavy that the hostile feeling against foreigners was weakened, and invasion, deplorable though it is to recall today, seemed, at the moment of its accomplishment, something of a deliverance: that is indeed the Republican opinion, enunciated by my brave and unfortunate friend Carrel. ‘The return of the Bourbons’ said Carnot in turn, ‘produced universal delight in France; they were welcomed with an inexpressible effusion of feeling, former Republicans sharing sincerely in the universal transports of joy. Napoleon had persecuted them especially; all the classes in society had suffered so greatly, that there was no one to be found who was not truly intoxicated with it all.’

There is only one authority lacking to sanction and confirm these opinions: Bonaparte is charged with certifying their truth. Taking leave of his soldiers in the courtyard of Fontainebleau, he admitted proudly that France rejected him: ‘France herself,’ he said, ‘has chosen another course.’ An unexpected and memorable confession, whose weight nothing can diminish, whose value nothing can reduce.

God, in his infinite patience, sooner or later brings justice: in the moments when Heaven seems asleep, all will be well if an honest man’s disapproval wakes, acting as a brake on absolute power. France has never repudiated noble spirits, who denounced her servitude, when all were prostrate, when there were many advantages in being so, many blessings to be received through flattery, much persecution to be suffered through sincerity. Honour then to Lafayette, De Staël, Benjamin Constant, Camille Jordan, Ducis, Lermercier, Lanjuinais, and Chénier, who, standing amidst the swirling crowd of nations and kings, dared to scorn conquest and protest against tyranny!