Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXVI, 7

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXVI, chapter 7
My despatches, continued

I had only been sent to Berlin with an olive branch, and because my presence was a nuisance to the administration; but, knowing the inconstancy of fortune, and feeling that my political role was not complete, I kept an eye on events: I did not wish to desert my friends. I soon saw that the reconciliation between the Royalist party and the Ministerial party lacked sincerity; mistrust and prejudice remained; I was not dealt with as they had promised: they began to attack me. The entry to the Cabinet of Messieurs Villèle and Corbière excited the jealousy of the extreme right; it no longer marched beneath the banner of the former, and he, ambitiously impatient, became frustrated. We exchanged a few letters. Monsieur de Villèle regretted entering the Cabinet: he was wrong, and the proof that I had foreseen things correctly was that less than a year went by before he became Finance Minister and Monsieur de Corbière took the Interior Ministry.

I explained myself to Monsieur le Baron Pasquier also; on the 10th of February 1821 I wrote to him:

‘I learn from Paris, Monsieur le Baron, by the courier who arrived on the morning of the 9th of February, that it is claimed, wrongly, that I wrote from Mainz to the Prince de Hardenberg, or even that I sent a courier to him. I did not write to Monsieur de Hardenberg and even less did I send him a courier. I request, Monsieur le Baron, to be spared these machinations. If my services should prove no longer acceptable, it would give me no greater pleasure than to be told so quite openly. I neither solicited nor desired the mission with which I am charged; I have accepted an honourable exile neither from taste nor choice, but only for the good of harmony. If the Royalists have rallied to the Government, the Government knows that I have had the pleasure of contributing to that reconciliation. I would have some right to complain. What has been done for the Royalists since my departure? I have not ceased to write on their behalf: has anyone listened to me? Monsieur le Baron I have, by the grace of God, other things to do in life than to attend grand balls. My country requests my presence, my sick wife has need of my care, my friends ask for their guide. I am above or below the level of an Ambassador, and the same goes for Minister of State. You have no lack of men more skilful than I am in conducting diplomatic affairs; thus it would be useless to search for pretexts to quarrel with me. I can understand without having to have things spelt out; and you will find me ready to re-enter my previous obscurity.’

All this was sincerely said; the ability to drive things home, and regret nothing, would have been of great use to me, if I had possessed some ambition.


My diplomatic correspondence with Monsieur Pasquier took its course: continuing my pre-occupation with the affair at Naples, I wrote:

Nos. 15 and 16          ‘20th of February 1821
‘Austria is rendering a service to all monarchies by destroying the edifice of Jacobinism in the Two Sicilies; but she will lose the support of those monarchies if the result of a salutary and necessary expedition is the conquest of a province or the oppression of a people. It is necessary to free Naples from demagogic independence and establish monarchical liberty; break their shackles, not bring them chains. But Austria does not want a constitution for Naples: what will she give them? Men? Where are they? It only needs a liberal priest and two hundred soldiers to begin it again.
After occupation, voluntary or forced, you should intervene to establish a constitutional government in Naples under which all social freedoms can be respected.’

I had always retained in France a weight of opinion which obliged me to keep an eye on the interior. I dared to submit this plan to my Minister:

‘To definitely adopt a Constitutional form of government.
To introduce a septennial renewal with no intention of retaining any of the actual Chamber; a move which would be suspected; nor of retaining it all which would prove dangerous.
To renounce extra-ordinary laws, which are the source of arbitrariness, and an endless subject of quarrels and calumnies.
To free the districts from Ministerial despotism.

In my despatch of the 3rd of March, no. 18, I returned to the question of Spain; I wrote:

‘It would be possible for Spain to speedily change its monarchy into a republic: its constitution ought to bear fruit. The King will flee, or be killed or deposed; he is not strong enough to take a grip on revolution. It is yet possible that Spain might remain for some time under popular rule, if it is organised into a federal republic, for the aggregation of which it is more suitable than any other country by reason of the diversity of its kingdoms, its manners, its laws and even its language.’
The affair at Naples appears two or three times. I observed (6th of March, no. 19):
‘That the Legitimacy has been unable to put down deep roots in a State which has so often changed ownership, and whose customs have been overthrown by so many revolutions. Affection has not had time to be born, habits to receive the uniform imprint of centuries and institutions. There are many corrupt or savage men among the Neapolitans who have no relationship with each other, and who are only weakly attached to the Crown: royalty is too close to beggary and too far from being Calabrese to be respected. To establish democratic freedom, the French had to show too much military ability; the Neapolitans will not show enough.’

Finally, I said a few words again about Portugal and Spain.

The rumour had spread that John VI of Braganza had embarked at Rio de Janeiro for Lisbon. It was an irony of fate worthy of our age that a King of Portugal should go to seek shelter from a South American revolution beneath a European one, while passing the base of a rock which had held the conqueror who had forced him to take refuge in the New World.

‘The worst is to be feared regarding Spain,’ I wrote (17th of March, no.21); the Peninsular revolution will run in cycles, unless someone lifts an arm capable of halting it; but where is that arm? That is forever the question.’

That arm I had the honour of discovering in 1823; it was that of France.

I discover once more with pleasure, in this passage of my despatch of the 10th of April, no. 26, my antipathetic jealousy against the allies and my preoccupation with the dignity of France; I said apropos of Piedmont:

‘I do not fear a prolongation of the troubles in Piedmont given their immediate outcome; but they may produce a deferred evil in motivating military intervention by Austria and Russia. The Russian army is continually on the move and has received no counter-orders.
Consider if, in that case, it would not be better for the safety and dignity of France to occupy Savoy with twenty-five thousand men, while Russia and Austria are occupying Piedmont. I am convinced that such an action, vigorously conducted and politically strategic, flattering to French pride, would by that alone gain great popularity and bring infinite honour to the ministers concerned. Ten thousand Royal Guardsmen and a selection of the rest of our troops will easily create for you an army of twenty-five thousand excellent and loyal soldiers: the white cockade will be assured of success when it faces the enemy once more.
I feel, Monsier le Baron, that we should avoid wounding French self-esteem and that the dominance of the Russians and Austrians in Italy ought to arouse our national pride; but we have an easy means of satisfying it, which is to occupy Savoy ourselves. The Royalists would be delighted and the liberals could only applaud if they saw us adopting an attitude worthy of our might. We would have at the same instant the pleasure of wiping out a demagogic revolution and the honour of re-establishing the superiority of our arms. It would be to greatly misunderstand the French spirit if we feared to assemble twenty-five thousand men to march into a foreign country, and rank ourselves alongside the Russians and Austrians as a military power. I would answer for the outcome with my head. We may have stayed neutral in the Naples affair: can we do so in safety and with glory where the disturbances in Piedmont are concerned?’

Here all my method is revealed: I was a Frenchman; I had my settled political views well before the Spanish War, and I glimpsed how the responsibility of success, if I obtained it, might weigh on my head.

All I recall here is doubtless of interest to no one; but such is the inconvenience of Memoirs: when there are no historical facts to record, they only tell you about the author, and stupefy you. Leave these forgotten shades alone! I prefer to recall that Mirabeau, as yet unknown, fulfilled a secret mission in Berlin in 1786, and was obliged to train a pigeon to send news to the King of France of the Mighty Frederick’s last sighs.

‘I was in some perplexity,’ Mirabeau writes, ‘I was certain that the gates of the city were closed; it was even possible that the bridges from the island of Potsdam had been raised as soon as the event occurred, and in that case things might remain in a state of uncertainty for as long as the new King wished. Given the first supposition, how could a courier leave? There was no way of scaling the ramparts or the palisades, without exposing oneself to a challenge; the sentries forming a chain every forty paces behind the palisade, and every sixty paces behind the walls, what to do? Had I been the Ambassador, the certainty that the symptoms were mortal would have encouraged me to send a despatch before he died, since what more can the word dead deliver? In my position what ought I to do? Whatever it might be, the most important thing was to be of service…I had good reason to be wary of the activities of our embassy. What should I do? I sent a reliable man on a lively and vigorous mount four miles out of Berlin, to a farm, from whose pigeon-loft I had acquired some days ago two pairs of pigeons, whose ability to return had been proven, so that unless the bridges of the island of Potsdam had not been raised, I was sure of my actions.

…I decided then that we were not rich enough to throw a hundred louis out of the window; I renounced all my fine preparations that had cost me an amount of thought, activity, and louis, and I released my pigeons with the word home. Did I do right? Did I do wrong? I do not know; but I had no express orders, and people are sometimes less than grateful when one does more than one’s duty.’