Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIII, 3

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXIII, chapter 3
A plan for the defence of Paris

The King’s speech filled me with hope. Discussions were held at the residence of the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Monsieur Lainé. I met Monsieur de Lafayette there: I had only seen him at a distance in another epoch, that of the Constituent Assembly. The proposals varied; for the most part they were spineless, as happens when danger looms: some wanted the King to quit Paris and retire to Le Havre; others spoke of conveying him to the Vendée; this group here spewed out words without reaching a conclusion, that over there said we must wait and see what happens: yet what was happening was extremely apparent. I expressed a contrary opinion: a singular thing, Monsieur de Lafayette supported me, and warmly! (Monsieur de Lafayette confirms, in his Memoirs, precise as to facts, published since his death, the singular agreement of his opinion and mine concerning Bonaparte’s return. Monsieur de Lafayette sincerely loves honour and freedom. Note: Paris, 1840) Monsieur Lainé and Marshal Marmont were also of my opinion. I spoke thus:

‘Let the King keep his word; let him stay in the capital. The National Guard support us. Let us secure Vincennes. We have money and weapons: with money we command the weak and greedy. If the King leaves Paris, Paris will allow Bonaparte to enter; Bonaparte as master of Paris is master of France. The army has not gone over en masse to the enemy; several regiments, many generals and officers, have not yet betrayed their oath: let us stand firm, and they will remain loyal. Let us disperse the Royal family, only protecting the King. Let MONSIEUR go to Le Havre, the Duc de Berry to Lille, the Duc de Bourbon to the Vendée, the Duc d’Orléans to Metz; Madame la Duchesse and Monsieur le Duc d’Angoulême are already in the Midi. Our various points of resistance will prevent Bonaparte from concentrating his forces. Let us barricade ourselves within Paris. The National Guards of neighbouring departments are already coming to our aid. In the midst of this activity, our aged monarch, protected by Louis XVI’s last will and testament, with the Charter in his hand, will rest easy seated on his throne in the Tuileries; the Diplomatic Corps can range themselves around him; the two Chambers can meet in the two pavilions of the château; the King’s household can camp on the Carrousel and in the Tuileries Garden. We will line the quays and the riverside terrace with cannon: let Bonaparte attack us in that scenario; let him assault our barricades one by one; let him bombard Paris if he wishes and if he has the guns; let him render himself obnoxious to the whole population, and we shall see the result of his enterprise! If we can hold out for only three days, victory is ours. The King, by defending himself in his own palace, will arouse universal enthusiasm. Finally, if he must perish, let him die in a manner worthy of his rank let Napoleon’s last exploit be the slaughter of an old man. Louis XVIII, by sacrificing his life, would have won the only battle he shall have fought; he would win it to benefit the liberty of the human race.’

So I spoke: one is never welcomed for saying all is lost when nothing has yet been tried. What would have been finer than an ancient son of Saint Louis overcoming with the French, in a few moments, a man whom all the kings conjured from Europe spent so many years trying to defeat?

This suggestion, apparently born out of desperation, was in fact quite realistic and offered not the least risk. I will always remain convinced that Bonaparte, finding Paris opposed to him, and the king in residence, would not have attempted to take it by force. Without artillery, without supplies, without money, he had with him only an army collected by chance, still in disorder, astounded at their sudden change of cockade, their oaths of loyalty sworn in flight on the highways: they would have been swiftly scattered. A few hours delayed and Napoleon would have been lost; it only required a little courage. At that time we could even count on sections of the army; the two Swiss regiments kept faith: did not Marshal Gouvion Saint-Cyr re-adopt the white cockade in the Orléans garrison two days after Bonaparte entered Paris? From Marseilles to Bordeaux, everyone recognised the King’s authority throughout the whole of March: at Bordeaux the troops wavered; they would have remained loyal to the Duchesse d’Angoulême, if the King had been known to be at the Tuileries and Paris defending itself. The provincial towns would have followed Paris’s lead. The Tenth Regiment of the Line fought well under the Duc de Angoulême; Masséna revealed himself as cautious and undecided; at Lille, the garrison responded to a lively proclamation by Marshal Mortier. If all this evidence of potential loyalty existed despite the possibility of the King’s flight, what might there not have been in the event of resistance?

If my plan had been adopted, there would have been no new foreign invasion of France; our Princes would not have returned with the enemy armies; the Legitimacy would have saved itself. There would have been one thing only to fear after that success: too great a confidence on the part of Royalty in armed force, and in consequence attempts to limit our national rights.

Why was I born to an epoch to which I was so badly suited? Why was I a Royalist against my instincts at a time when the wretched race at Court neither listened to nor understood me? Why was I thrown amongst that crowd of mediocrities who treated me like an idiot, when I spoke of courage; as a revolutionary if I spoke of freedom?

It was merely a question of self-defence! The king had nothing to fear, and my plan pleased him sufficiently by the grandeur, à la Louis XIV somewhat, that it possessed; but other faces lengthened. The diamonds from the royal coronet were packed away (acquired in the past with the sovereigns’ private funds), leaving thirty-three million crowns in the treasury and forty-two millions of personal effects. These seventy-five millions were the fruits of taxation: they should have been returned to the people rather than left to the tyrant!

A dual procession mounted and descended the stairs of the Pavillon de Flore; people asked what was to be done: there was no reply. The Captain of the Guards was asked; the chaplains, cantors, and priests were interrogated: nothing: idle chatter, idle projects, and an idle flow of news. I have seen young men weep in fury over their vain requests for orders and weapons; I have seen women taken ill in their anger and contempt. Approach the King, impossible; etiquette sealed the door.

The grand measure decreed to counter Bonaparte was an order to charge (courir sus): Louis XVIII, with deficient limbs, to charge a conqueror over-striding the earth! That formula of the ancient law, revived for this occasion, suffices to reveal the mental capacity of the officers of State at that time. To charge in 1815! Charge! Against what: against a wolf, against a brigand chief, against an errant Lord? No: against Napoleon who had himself charged kings, captured them, and branded them on the shoulder forever with his ineffaceable N!

In this decree, when considered more closely, a political truth which no one has observed is revealed: the legitimate race, strangers to the nation for twenty-three years had remained in the hour and place where the Revolution had left them, while the nation had advanced through time and space. From that arose the impossibility of them understanding or re-joining it; religion, ideas, interests, language, heaven and earth, all were different for people and King, because they were no longer at the same point on the road, because they were separated by a quarter of a century, equivalent to many centuries.

But if the order to charge appears strange in its retention of an ancient legal phrase, had Bonaparte the intention initially to act in any more effective a way, even though he was employing a new manner of speech? The papers of Monsieur de Hauterive, catalogued by Monsieur Artaud, prove that it took a great deal of effort to prevent Napoleon from having the Duc d’Angoulême shot, despite what the official statement in the Moniteur said, a statement issued and left behind for show: he found it unacceptable that the prince stood up for himself. And yet the fugitive from Elba, in leaving Fontainebleau, had recommended that his soldiers should be loyal to the monarch France had chosen. At the moment when Napoleon again spoke of killing a son of France, was he anything more than the dual usurper of the new Bourbon monarchy and popular liberty? What! Was the Duc d’Enghien’s blood insufficient for him? Bonaparte’s family had been respected; Queen Hortense had obtained the title of the Duchesse de Saint-Leu from Louis XVIII; Caroline, who still reigned in Naples, had merely had her kingdom traded by Monsieur de Talleyrand during the Congress of Vienna.

That epoch, where everyone lacked openness, seared the heart: everyone threw a profession of loyalty before them, like a footbridge over the difficulties of the hour; even if it meant changing direction, the difficulty was traversed: only youth was sincere, because it retained traces of the cradle. Bonaparte solemnly declares that he renounces the crown; he leaves and returns after nine months. Benjamin Constant publishes his vigorous protest against the tyrant, and changes his mind within twenty-four hours. Later you will discover, in a further book of these Memoirs, who it was inspired him to this noble action, to which the changeability of his nature did not allow him to remain faithful. Marshal Soult stirrs the troops against their former leader; a few days later he roars with laughter at his proclamation in Napoleon’s study at the Tuileries, and becomes Major-General of the Army of Waterloo; Marshal Ney kisses the King’s hand, swears to bring him Bonaparte in an iron cage, and then hands over to Bonaparte all the corps he commands. Alas! And the King of France....He declares that at sixty he can embrace no better end to his career than dying in defence of his people…and then goes off to Ghent! At this lack of truthfulness in the expression of feeling, at this discord between words and actions, one was seized with disgust at the human species.

Louis XVIII, on the 20th of March, intended to died at the heart of France; if he had kept his word, the Legitimacy might have endured for a century; nature even seemed to have robbed the aged king of the means of retreat, by saddling him with infirm health; but the future destiny of the human race would have been hindered if the author of the Charter had accomplished his resolution. Bonaparte hastened to the aid of the future; that Christ of evil powers took this latest paralytic by the hand, and said to him: ‘Take up thy bed and go; surge, tolle lectum tuum.’