Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIII, 18

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XXIII, 17 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXIII, 19


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXIII, chapter 18
Chapter 18: Return of the Emperor – Re-appearance of Lafayette – Bonaparte’s fresh abdication – Stormy sessions of the Chamber of Peers - Threatening omens for the Second Restoration



On the 19th of June a hundred-gun salute from the Invalides announced the victories at Ligny, the Sambre, Charleroi, and Quatre-Bras; it celebrated the now-dead victories of the eve of Waterloo. The first courier who brought the news of that defeat, one of the greatest in history considering its results, was Napoleon himself: he entered the gate on the night of the 21st; one would have said it was his shade returning to tell his friends he was no more. He halted at the Elysée-Bourbon: when he arrived from Elba he had halted at the Tuileries; those two sanctuaries, chosen instinctively, revealed his altered fate.

Fallen to the foreigner in noble combat, Napoleon had to suffer, in Paris, attacks from lawyers who wanted to rake over his misfortunes: he regretted not having dissolved the Chamber before his departure for the army; he was also frequently sorry he had not had Fouché and Talleyrand shot. But it is certain that Bonaparte, after Waterloo, forbade all violence, either in obedience to his usually calm temperament, or because he had been tamed by fate; he no longer said as he had before his first abdication: ‘They will see what a great man’s death is like.’ That eloquence was gone. Antipathetic to liberty, he thought of quashing that Chamber of Representatives presided over by Lanjuinais, of citizens become Senators, of Senators become Peers, of Peers become citizens again, of citizens about to become Peers again. General Lafayette, one of the deputies, read from the rostrum a proposal which declared: ‘The Chamber to be in permanent sitting, for it to be a crime of high treason to make any attempt to dissolve it, and for anyone to be considered a traitor to the country, and judged as such, who renders himself guilty of such.’ (21st of June 1815.)

The General’s speech commenced with these words: ‘Gentlemen, in raising for the first time in many years a voice which the former friends of liberty will still recognise, I feel myself summoned to speak to you of the danger facing the country……………………………………………………..

This is the moment for us to rally to the tricolour, to that of 89, that of liberty, equality and public order.’

The anachronism of that speech created an illusion for an instant: it was as if one saw the Revolution, personified in Lafayette, emerge from the tomb and present itself wrinkled and pallid at the rostrum. But these motions regarding order, taken from Mirabeau, were no more than weapons beyond use, drawn from an antique arsenal. Though Lafayette was linking the end of his life to its beginning in a noble manner, it was not in his power to weld together the two sections of a chain broken by time. Benjamin Constant went to see the Emperor at the Elysée-Bourbon; he found him in the garden. The crowd, filling the Avenue de Marigny, were shouting: ‘Long Live the Emperor!’ a moving cry escaping from the populace’s innards; it addressed the vanquished! Bonaparte said to Benjamin Constant: ‘What do they owe me? I found them, and left them, poor.’ They were perhaps his only heartfelt words, if, that is, the deputy’s emotion did not confuse his ears. Bonaparte, foreseeing the eventuality, anticipated the summons being prepared for him; he abdicated in order not to be forced to abdicate: ‘My political life is over,’ he said, ‘I declare my son, with the title of Napoleon II, Emperor of the French.’ A vain attempt, like that declaration of Charles X in favour of Henri V: one can only hand on crowns one possesses, and men foil legacies made in adversity. Besides, the Emperor was no more sincere in relinquishing the throne for a second time than he had been on the first occasion; also, when the French Commissioners went to tell the Duke of Wellington that Napoleon had abdicated, he replied: ‘I knew that a year ago.’

The Chamber of Representatives, after a number of debates in which Manuel spoke, accepted the fresh abdication of its sovereign, but in vague terms and without naming the Regency.

An executive committee was created: the Duke of Otranto presided; three Ministers, a Councillor of State and an Imperial General composed it, and despoiled their master anew: they were Fouché, Caulaincourt, Carnot, Quinette, and Grenier.

During these transactions, Bonaparte turned over ideas in his head: ‘I no longer have an army,’ he thought, ‘I have only fugitives. A majority of the Chamber of Deputies are fine; I only have Lafayette, Lanjuinais and a few others against me. If the nation rises, the enemy will be wiped out; if instead of raising a levy, they spend their time arguing, all will be lost. The nation has not sent the Deputies to overthrow me, but to support me. I fear them not at all, whatever they do; I will always be the idol of the people and the army: if I said a word they would yield. But if we quarrel among ourselves instead of listening to each other, we will meet the fate of the Low Countries.’

A deputation from the Chamber of Representatives arriving to congratulate him on his fresh abdication, he replied: ‘Thank you: I hope that my abdication will bring France happiness: but I do not expect it.’

He repented of it soon afterwards, when he realised that the Chamber of Representatives had nominated a committee of five members. He said to the Ministers; ‘I did not abdicate in favour of a new Directory; I abdicated in favour of my son: if he is not proclaimed, my abdication is null and void. It is not by showing the Allies a bowed head, while kneeling on the ground, that the Chambers will force them to recognise national independence.

He complained that Lafayette, Sébastiani, Pontécoulant and Benjamin Constant had conspired against him, and that the rest of the Chamber lacked energy. He said that he alone could renew everything, but that the leaders would never consent to it, that they would rather be swallowed by the abyss than unite with him, Napoleon, to seal it.

On the 27th of June, at Malmaison, he wrote this sublime letter: ‘In abdicating power, I have not renounced the noblest right of a citizen, that of defending my country. In these grave circumstances, I offer my services as a general, regarding myself still as the foremost soldier of the motherland.’

The Duke of Bassano having represented to him that the Chambers would not support him: ‘Well, I can see,’ he said, ‘that I must always concede. That vile Fouché cheats you, only Caulaincourt and Carnot are worth anything; but what can they do, with a traitor, Fouché, and two fools, Quinette and Grenier, and two Chambers that do not know what they want? You all believe like imbeciles at the fine promises made by foreigners; you think they’ll put a chicken in the pot, and give you a prince after their fashion, do you? You are wrong.’

Plenipotentiaries were sent to the Allies. On the 29th of June, Napoleon asked for two frigates, stationed at Rochefort, to carry him away from France; while waiting for them he withdrew to Malmaison.

Discussion was lively in the Chamber of Peers. A long time enemy of Bonaparte, Carnot, who signed the order for the executions at Avignon, without taking the time to read them, had time, during the Hundred Days, to submerge his republicanism beneath the title of count. On the 22nd of June, at the Luxembourg he had read a letter from the Minister of War, containing an exaggerated report of French military resources. Ney, newly arrived, could not listen to it without anger. Napoleon in his bulletins had spoken of the Marshal with barely concealed dissatisfaction, and Gourgaud accused Ney of having been the principal cause of the Battle of Waterloo being lost. Ney rose and said: ‘The report is false, false on all points. Grouchy could only have had twenty to twenty-five thousand men under his command at the very most. There was hardly a single soldier of the Guard to rally: I commanded it; I saw it completely destroyed before leaving the field of battle. The enemy is at Nivelle with eighty-thousand men; they can be in Paris in six days: you have no other means of saving the country than opening negotiations.’

Flahaut, the aide-de-camp, tried to justify the Minister of War’s report: Ney replied with fresh vehemence: ‘I repeat; you have no other means of salvation but negotiation. You must recall the Bourbons. As for me I will retire to the United States.’

At these words, Lavalette and Carnot showered the general with reproaches; Ney replied with scorn: ‘I am not one of those men for whom self-interest is everything: what would I gain from Louis XVIII’s return? To be shot for desertion; but I owe my country the truth.’

In the session of the Peers of the 23rd, General Drouot, recalling that scene, said: ‘I heard with sadness what was said yesterday in diminishment of the glory of our armies, in exaggeration of our disasters and regarding the diminution of our resources. My astonishment was the greater in that those speeches were uttered by a distinguished General (Ney), who by his great courage and military understanding has merited the nation’s recognition on so many occasions.’

In the session on the 22nd, a second storm had erupted after the first: it concerned Bonaparte’s abdication; Lucien insisted that his new Emperor be recognised. Monsieur de Pontécoulant interrupted the speaker, and demanded by what right Lucien, a foreigner and a Roman prince, was permitted to select a sovereign for France. ‘Why,’ he added, ‘should we recognise a child who resides in a foreign country?’ At this question, La Bédoyère leapt from his seat: ‘I have heard certain of these voices beside the throne of a fortunate Emperor; they distance themselves from him now he has met with misfortune. There are those who would not recognise Napoleon II, because they wish to be ruled by foreigners, to whom they give the name of Allies.

Napoleon’s abdication is indivisible. If his son is not to be recognised, he must take up his sword, surrounded by Frenchmen who have shed their blood for him, and who are all still covered with wounds.

He will be abandoned by those base generals who have already betrayed him.

But if we declare that every Frenchman who deserts his flag shall be covered in infamy, his house razed, his family proscribed, then there will be no more traitors, no more manoeuvres that have occasioned the recent catastrophes some of whose authors perhaps are sitting here today.’

The Chamber rose in tumult: ‘Order! Order! Order!’ bellowed those wounded by the blow: ‘Young man, you forget yourself!’ Masséna cried. ‘Do you think you are still with the Guards?’ said Lameth.

All the omens of the Second Restoration were threatening: Bonaparte had returned at the head of four hundred Frenchmen, Louis XVIII returned behind four hundred thousand foreigners; he passed by Waterloo’s sea of blood, to go towards Saint-Denis as if towards his tomb.

It was while the Legitimacy was thus on the march that those shouts rang out in the Chamber of Peers: there had been who knows how many terrible revolutionary scenes enacted there in the days of our great evils, when the knife circulated on the benches in the hands of future victims. Various soldiers, whose fatal fascination had led to the ruin of France, by instigating a second invasion of foreigners, struggled on the threshold of the Palace; their prophetic despair, their gestures, their funereal words, seemed to announce a triple death: death for themselves, death for the man they had blessed, death for the race they had proscribed.