Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXII, 7

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXII, chapter 7
The Legislature convened – Then adjourned – The Allies cross the Rhine – Bonaparte’s anger – New Year’s Day 1814



The Legislature assembled on the 19th of December 1813. Astounding on the field of battle, remarkable in his councils of State, Bonaparte was less effective in politics: the language of liberty he knew nothing of; if he wished to express congenial feelings, or paternal sentiments, he was moved in an inappropriate way, and masked a lack of feeling with tender words. ‘My heart,’ he told the Legislature, ‘needs the presence and affection of my subjects. I have never been seduced by prosperity; adversity will find me immune to its sufferings. I have conceived and executed great schemes for the prosperity and good of the world. Monarch and father, I feel that peace enhances the security of thrones and that of families.’

An official Moniteur article said, in July 1804, that under the Empire, France would never extend beyond the Rhine, and its armies would no longer cross it.

The allies crossed that river on the 21st of December 1813, from Basle to Schaffhausen, with more than a hundred thousand men; on the 31st of the same month, the Army of Silesia commanded by Blücher, crossed in turn, from Mannheim to Coblentz.

By order of the Emperor, the Senate and the Legislature appointed two commissions charged with examining documents related to negotiation with the Coalition powers; foresight on the part of a power which, denying consequences which had become inevitable, wished to transfer the responsibility to another authority.

The Legislative commission, presided over by Monsieur Lainé, dared to state ‘that steps towards peace would be assured of their effect if the French were convinced that their blood would only be shed in order to defend the country and laws which protect them; that His Majesty must be implored to maintain the whole and constant execution of the laws which guarantee to the French the rights of liberty, security, and property, and to the nation the free exercise of its political rights.’

The Minister of Police, the Duke of Rovigo, has all traces of their report removed; a decree of the 31st December adjourns the Legislature; the doors of the room are locked. Bonaparte considered the members of the Legislative commission as agents in the pay of England: ‘The said Lainé, ‘he remarked, ‘is a traitor who corresponds with the Prince Regent through the intermediary De Sèze; Raynouard, Maine de Biran, and Flaugergues are dissidents.’

The soldier was astonished not to be encountering those Poles he had abandoned, who, drowning themselves in order to obey his orders, still shouted: ‘Long Live the Emperor!’ He called the report of the commission a motion passed by a Jacobin club. There is not a speech of Bonaparte’s in which his aversion for the Republic which spawned him does not emerge; though he detested its crimes less than its freedoms. Regarding this same report, he added: ‘Do they want to re-establish the sovereignty of the people? Well, in that case, I constitute the people; since I intend always to be wherever sovereignty resides.’ No despot has ever revealed his character more clearly: it is Louis XIV’s phrase re-visited: ‘The State: that is I.’

At the reception on New Year’s Day 1814, a scene was anticipated. I knew someone attached to the Court, who proposed to take his sword along in his hand, just in case. Nevertheless Napoleon went no further than violent words, though he uttered them in a quantity that even caused some embarrassment to his halberdiers: ‘Why,’ he shouted, ‘talk about these domestic matters in front of all Europe? Dirty linen should be washed in private. What is a throne? A piece of wood covered with a piece of cloth: all depends on who is seated there. France has more need of me than I of her. I am one of those men one can kill, but not dishonour. We will have peace in three months, or the enemy will be driven from our territory, or I will be dead.’

Bonaparte was accustomed to wash French linen in blood. In three months there was no peace, the enemy was not driven from our territory, and Bonaparte had not lost his life: death was not yet his fate. Overwhelmed by so many problems and the obstinate ingratitude of the master she had bestowed on herself, France saw herself invaded with the motionless stupor born of despair.

An Imperial decree mobilised one hundred and twenty-one battalions of the National Guard; another decree created a Regency Cabinet, presided over by Cambacérès and composed of Ministers, at whose head the Empress was installed. Joseph, an available monarch, back from Spain with his spoils, was made Commandant General of Paris. On the 25th of January 1814, Bonaparte left his palace for the army, off to light a brilliant flame as he faded away.