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Napoleon

A Political Life

by Steven Englund

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Napoleon
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A Political Life
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Steven Englund

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Book Summary

A political biography of Napoleon Bonaparte charts his rise and fall, detailing his devotion to the French Revolution and his seminal influence on the face of nineteenth-century European history.

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Excerpt: Napoleon

Frisson

Go to that chalet in Berchtesgaden, in southern Bavaria. Despite the panoramic pastorale, you will feel nothing but revulsion for its most famous Nazi occupant. Go to Red Square. You may have a tremor or two for the October Revolution, but you will feel only hatred for the man who betrayed it with his murderous tyranny over the Soviet empire, 1923-53. If you visit the mausoleum-like memorial for King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette in Paris's 8th arrondissement, you may feel reverence for a rich past, but it is one that is irretrievably far away and long ago. As for the Republic's Pantheon for France's "great men," you will find it a place that disappoints you for its spiritual void — surely emptier than the parish church of Sainte Genevieve, which it replaced.

Now go to Les Invalides, which is a veterans' hospital complex, an army museum, and a large church, on Paris's Left Bank. Here lies Napoleon Bonaparte, in a gigantic sarcophagus, emplaced on a high plinth, arising from the lower depths of the Church of Saint-Louis. The tomb lies directly under the grand cupola, towering two hundred feet above. The visitor looks down on it from a marble balustrade.

Visiting Les Invalides is like visiting the Lincoln Memorial: amid all the funereal marble and the airless geometric space, something is alive. You revere Abe Lincoln, you long to have known or at least heard him, you feel proud to be part of the republic that spawned him, and if you are born north of the Mason-Dixon line, you feel proud to be a descendant of those who fought for him.

But at le tombeau de l'Empereur, something is different. Here the abyss peers back.

The imperial sarcophagus is a costly slab of reddish porphyry — a hard and expensive crystalline rock — that is sculpted like a wave, a shape cut from a continuum: dense and heavy, frozen in stone yet eternally cresting. The stone is unexpectedly, almost shockingly, flesh-colored, not the customary black or white, which would more easily relegate it to a dead past. It is livid and living, the color of a flayed chest in an autopsy, exposing a raw, still-beating heart. The tomb is remarkably modern for an object constructed in the 1850s, quite impersonal and unpictorial, having no story to recount or symbolism to impart. It is not even characteristically French, but is more like the monolith from Stanley Kubrick's 2001 — still and powerful, knowing and alive, overwhelming the impressive ecclesiastical and military setting in which it is placed. You forget you are in a church and a hospital, and despite the presence of all the trophy flags of battle, which the Michelin guide has told you to look for, you even forget that this is a military establishment.

If the large presence is not characterized, it is because the architect of the tomb, Louis-Tullis Visconti (1791-1853), was all too aware of the paltriness of characterization in this case. Unlike historians and writers, the architect was satisfied with seeking to evoke, not to describe or (still less) explain, and in that regard he has succeeded with Nietzschean force: the power, the will, the threat, the thrill are all here. For how to describe or explain this man, though it has been tried and tried — and will be tried again in the pages of this book? As what do you characterize Napoleon? As Hitler? As Prometheus? Both analogies, and even Jesus Christ himself, have been invoked, but the man lying in this tomb was very far from any of them. One might rather say that Napoleon is a character unfinished, like Hamlet; and like Hamlet, a puzzle — full of contradictions, sublime and vulgar. One is pulled in opposing directions.

His tomb evokes no grief or sorrow, as does the Lincoln Memorial. The visitor's throat is not thick with emotion, nor does his heart reflexively fill with high resolve. Rather, his mind is troubled but wide awake, in response to what lurks down there — equally menacing and thrilling, with Sphinx-like qualities of good and evil and mystery. Most present in this place is the awe-evoking sense of human possibility, which is a different thing from hope. The wave of this tomb becomes a sleigh that will carry us off into an unknown future, even if only a hundred days' worth.

France cannot think of him without trembling, and in her trembling, as much as she regrets it, she is afraid of him, she is afraid of the longing that she still has for him.

André Suarès

Copyright © 2004 by Steven Englund

From Chapter I: Napoleone di Buonaparte

A man's glory does not flow down to him from the past, it starts with him. The Nile's source is known only by a few Ethiopians, but who is unaware of its mouth?

— Chateaubriand

Unsceptered Isle: Corsica in the Eighteenth Century

What, in all the world, is so naked, so abrupt, as this rock?

— Seneca, in exile

There are, in truth, very few things one has to know about the Corsica of Napoleon's infancy and youth. When he departed it in haste, in the summer of 1793, he left it for keeps and never looked back — indeed at the end of his life, he declared Corsica "ruinous for France" — and for this, Corsican nationalists have never forgiven him. Yet Corsican tones broadly suffuse Napoleon and his life the way the famous idée fixe informs the entirety of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, and if we are to try to know Napoleon, then we must try to sound those chords.

In the eighteenth century (and even today), Corsica was no place for the fainthearted or the indecisive; it frightened the anemic, horrified the otiose, and made the ambivalent, well, unsure. The île de Corse demanded of the visitor a degree of tolerance for discomfort unexpected in European venues north of the thirty-fifth parallel. It helped if he was a connoisseur of contrasts, a collector of sights and insights, an amateur of strong emotion and some danger, an admirer of vistas of rough scrub, miles of slow narrow roads punctuated with hairpin turns, bounded by jagged limestone cliffs. The seething morass of the island's scrub retreated only provisionally and defiantly before the human intruder. Parts of Switzerland had the remoteness, quiet, and beauty of Corsica and the same awe-inspiring blend of elemental sky, earth, and water, but the fire was missing.

Corsican fire burned in the eighteenth century, as in the twenty-first. There is no admission fee to the high view from Lion Rock at Roccapina, the only price to be paid being the fear of death one bathes in, in getting there. This natural sculpture, here since neolithic times, is pounded, hundreds of feet below, by the swelling surf of a cobalt Mediterranean; the setting sun may blaze so strongly that for a moment you think it a dying star, and this rock the site Armageddon. The visitor lingers a time; he will not walk away calm and reassured, but pensive and grateful to be alive. In short, he does not readily imagine the white, pampered hand of an Edward Gibbon picking up his pen at a table in a calcium-white stucco villa above the port of Bonifacio, whence to contemplate in equanimity the hyperbolic conflicts of the declining Roman Empire. No, in Seneca's time, as ever after, Corsica is no safe bet for equanimity. Rousseau himself, the great seeker after noble savages, thought hard about moving here, then thought better of it. Try Lausanne, Monsieur Gibbon.

Corsica has always impressed the outsider far more than she is impressed by him. The island calls to mind C. S. Forester's observation about the naval destroyer: "her mission in life was to give and not to receive." So it has been with Corsica. The individuals hailing from the island who have had large impacts on the "mother" societies of Genoa, England, and, above all, France, now in her 236th year of possession, are at the tip of most educated tongues. Of course, a French man or woman will smile if you ask him or her to "name a Corsican who has affected France profoundly," but even if you add quickly, "I mean, other than that one," the person can still reel off names: Paoli, Pozzo di Borgo, Sebastiani, Piétri, Pasqua — all political men. Thinking hard, one can adduce a few names in the arts (the philosopher J. T. Desanti; singers Tino Rossi and César Vezzani, the ballerina Pietragalla), yet the balance is clear: Corsica's main export to France has not been olive oil, wine, or chestnuts but politicos, including a vast throng of leading civil servants, nearly always of a distinctly authoritarian flavor. On the other hand, ask a Corsican, educated or not, to name a Frenchman (or, for that matter, an Italian) who has durably affected this island — who has been known and appreciated here in the ways that the above-named have affected France and been received there — and he or she will pause long. "De Gaulle" might come the answer, or if your interlocutor be frank, "Pétain." And that is all. It is a short list for 236 years.

Repeatedly conquered and colonized from classical times onward, Corsica, after the mid-sixteenth century, came under permanent Genoese domination. The republican city-state on the west coast of Italy bestrode the finances of the island, founded a few coastal towns (including Ajaccio), and built those distinctive towers that give the island a certain quaint historical flavor, but by and large the Genoese did not greatly influence the island or its inhabitants. But then Corsica's story has always been the same: it belongs essentially to itself. Its innumerable rebellions never had a happy issue, ending in defeat, imprisonment, execution, and exile. The eighteenth century saw them try again: a rebellion in 1729 evolved into a revolution, the first, it is said by Corsicans, of the "democratic revolutions" that have given the century its fame in modern times. A closer look might see the main role still going to religious traditionalism, feuding clans, and oligarchic powers parading as liberal, but so be it. The next decades saw continuous warfare until, in 1755, the Corsicans managed to adopt a government and elected a head: Pasquale Paoli, the thirty-year-old son of a leader of the 1729 revolution.

That name was far better known in his time than it is in ours, outside of Corsica and a certain town in eastern Pennsylvania. Born in 1725, Paoli spent much of his early life in exile in Naples. He would die in England in 1807, again in exile, but his story in the intervening years is in many ways ours, for the political and intellectual ferment he created proved to be the nursery of the man — also a Corsican, and a sometime patriot — whose name would eclipse Paoli's as completely as in Macedonia, another rocky site, Alexander's eclipsed Philip's. Perhaps as gifted as Bonaparte intellectually, Paoli received a classical education in the kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Like Napoleon, he feasted on Plutarch, the first-century Greek biographer whose Parallel Lives memorialized for all time the great figures of classical antiquity. But Paoli did his contemporaries one better: he conscientiously emulated the Olympian hauteur and self-sacrifice of "the noble Greeks and Romans." Even to his adversaries Paoli appeared heroic.

In November 1755, Paoli proclaimed a separate state, which the French and Genoese, distracted by the Seven Years' War, tolerated. During the thirteen years of its luminous existence (1755-68), "the nation of Corsica," or "the realm of Corsica," as it styled itself (it did not call itself a "republic" since the term denominated the hated Genoese), pursued its experiment in self-government. It was led benevolently, but so very firmly, by "the general of the nation," Paoli. The large peasant majority of the island's 140,000 people called him Babbù (meaning "father" in Corsican) and more than likely found his sophisticated ideas impenetrable, but they liked his strong grip on the tiller. He would, he said, impose a regime on this feuding, assassinating, divisive, disputatious, and sullen people, but he would also teach them to govern themselves. The Anglo-Scot writer James Boswell, who came for a visit in 1765, fell for the Babbù's austere charms. By then, Paoli had opened a printing press, a newspaper, and a university at Corte, the capital city — all startling acts of democratic faith and investment in so desperately poor and backward a country, but not items Paoli regarded as luxuries. Boswell observed truly when he wrote: "His great object was to form the Corsicans in such a manner they might have a firm constitution, and might be able to subsist without him. Our state, said he, is young, and still requires the leading strings. I am desirous that the Corsicans should be taught to walk themselves."

This was new. The Corsicans had known rebellion, but the Paolist revolution entailed the concerted political education of a society, the beginning of the formation of citizens. The island realm and its leader thus generated high interest among enlightened opinion in Europe and America, from Voltaire to Ben Franklin. Jean-Jacques Rousseau notes, in his political masterpiece, The Social Contract: "I have the feeling this little island will one day astonish Europe," and he even devoted a small work to laying out a constitution for the little state. Thanks to Paoli's unique blend of the progressive and the dictatorial, as well as his irreproachable personal morality and total dedication to the public weal, he gave Corsica one of the more original governments in Europe, and the celebrity status of a much admired nation. True, he evoked some grumbles for his Caesarian style of rule, yet in the end he was mainly seen as a figure out of Plutarch, a genuine matinee idol of the Enlightenment, and, for that matter, of European history since.

What strikes the modern reader is the paradox between, on the one hand, Corsica's landscape and people, physical vitality and raw primitivity, and, on the other, her apparent promise as an advanced social experiment. The contrast seemed intelligible and obvious to Boswell, but then the twenty-five-year-old writer was hardly more than an adolescent in an enlightened age that defined adolescence: ardent, impetuous, indiscreet, insouciant, curious, capable of scaling heights of optimism and high sentiment, while sinking into verbosity, malice, and self-occupation unrelieved by self-awareness.

Despite the fact that French Enlightenment thinkers praised the Corsican experiment, and many courtiers at Versailles were profoundly impressed by Paoli's courage and nobility, King Louis XV, for reasons of state, stood with the Genoese against the Corsican republic. He was well aware of Corsica's critical strategic position in the Mediterranean and the desirability of keeping it out of English hands. The Genoese, for their part, were wholly convinced of the truth of their old proverb "The Corsicans aren't worth the rope it takes to hang them." They eventually got tired of the expense of policing the island and handed over its governance to France. A vastly superior French expeditionary force inflicted an annihilating defeat on the little Corsican "army" in a remote and austere valley of the rocky northeast of the island, at a spot called Ponte Nuovo. Dumouriez, a French officer who was there, remarked with a sigh, "The Corsicans loved liberty; we came to conquer them; they laid traps for us; they were right to do so." With infinite sadness, on June 13, 1769, Paoli embarked on a British frigate to return to the exile he knew too well.

This little-known struggle may be viewed in historical perspective as the rehearsal for the immensely larger conflict looming in 1789, and the Paolist State can be seen as a moment in European, not just Corsican, history.

The Buonapartes of Ajaccio

Shortly before the final showdown at Ponte Nuovo, a man with a pronounced rhetorical flair gave an address to the Corsican Corta, or national assembly. The peroration — a call for courage and unity — must surely have moved Boswell (or the young Patrick Henry), not to say shaken many at the French court, if they heard about it: "If it be written in the book of destiny that the greatest monarch on earth shall take his measure in battle with the smallest people on earth, then we have reason to be proud, and we are certain to live and die with glory, [for]...we fight as men with no hope who are yet resolved to win or die." Napoleon on St. Helena would be so moved by this speech, which he claimed to have known all his life, that he would toss off a paraphrase of equal beauty and considerably greater cogency: "If, to be free, it were only enough to desire freedom, then all people would be free. But history shows that few receive the benefits of freedom because few have the energy, courage, or virtue that it takes."

Bonaparte family legend always held that the original speech before the Corta had been presented by their own Carlo Buonaparte when he was twenty-two. It now appears more likely that it was Paoli himself who gave it. What is undeniable is that the extremely personable, competent, and handsome young Carlo had rapidly drawn close to Paoli and become one of many of his trusted associates, perhaps a secretary. Problems for Carlo's reputation arose, however, after the fall of "the realm of Corsica," when Buonaparte made the transition to French rule with "shocking" rapidity in the eyes of many. For example, he dined with the brutal French military commander of the occupation two months after the battle of Ponte Nuovo. This, coupled with Carlo's well-known ambition, have led some to question his fundamental patriotic sincerity, and to present the short, hardscrabble life (1746-85) of Napoleon's father as an illustration of the social scrambler, not the political revolutionary. It is undeniable that Carlo was a classic frayed-cuff provincial patrician, descended from a long line of similar types, who married into a slightly more successful family. He was a man who, before and after he met Paoli, had few thoughts and took few steps that did not pertain to acquiring something for himself and his family (the terms being redundant, in Corsican eyes). But that is not to say he was unable to recognize or be profoundly affected by something else entirely, even long after it was gone. By accenting his youthful role in the Paolist moment — and four years is not so short a time — we place a different emphasis on Carlo's life, and give it a different dignity.

Paoli was a charismatic moralist and teacher as well as politician, whose impact on people far older and cannier than Carlo Buonaparte was legendary. Carlo's initial decision to become a paolisto perhaps had its self-interested side, but if so, it is not apparent. Surely his own conservative family and his Ramolini in-laws did not see the young man's immersion in revolutionary politics as profitable, but rather, as risky. If they soon came round to it, it must have been due, in part, to the combined effect of their son's (son-in-law's) sincerity, their own patriotism, and the Babbù's international prestige. Then, too, recall: Carlo stuck by Paoli down to the "realm's" bloody end at Ponte Nuovo, where he himself was on hand — something by no means all paolisti had the courage to do. The Corta oration — whoever gave it — was no academic exercise but a speech-act in a colonial war, a blow struck for a democratic cause whose time had come. Future events in America and France over the next generation would relentlessly illustrate the historical impact of variously sincere young men with change on their minds.

What is undeniable is both that Paoli's regime profoundly affected the generation of Corsicans born in the 1740s, and that those effects got passed on to their children. True, the light from the Paolist sun might have been dimmer in Napoleon's generation, except that the French Revolution brought Paoli himself back to Corsica. The Babbù had armed his hardy simple folk with new concepts and a new vocabulary and had herded them onto history's stage. Once there, they began the process of becoming a public, not just a population. Corsica had become more than an ultimate refuge to the likes of a Carlo Buonaparte; the ancient "patria" was now to be seen as a "nation," in the modern, democratic sense of the term.

Without the Corsican revolution, of which he was the pure product, Carlo Buonaparte would have spent his life as generations of his ancestors had spent theirs: tending the modest family businesses and properties, a task to which he soon returned, but not as the man he had been. Thanks to Paoli, Carlo had become, for a time, a citizen of the new secular order, for which cause he might well have died at Ponte Nuovo. In return for his audacity and courage, Carlo received a political education and developed a political approach to society. "I am desirous that the Corsicans should be taught to walk themselves," Paoli had told Boswell, and there is every reason to think that Carlo Buonaparte was one of many paolisti who appropriated the essentially political expectation that social life is, and should be, made by "citizens" and "patriots" acting as members, and on behalf of "the nation." Carlo never forgot those years; they were what the ancient Greeks called the time of his kairos — of ecstasy, of meaning. He never stopped mythifying about them, gilding his own and his wife, Letizia's roles to his children, who in turn gilded their parents' roles — and with good reason. These years were what he knew of the historic. Carlo's personal tragedy would be, as Napoleon understood, that he did not live to participate in the vastly larger, but similar revolution that swept France and Europe after 1789. Carlo lived small and dreamed big. Most of his life after 1769 was undeniably spent in the long forced march of social and economic grubbing. Nevertheless, to stress this is to overvalue the relentless unfolding of chronos, of clock-measured time, and to miss what was special. Carlo's kairos was his time with Paoli.

Carlo's life was also pregnant with another kind of meaning, no less significant: his wife, Letizia (né Ramolino), was large with child when Paoli embarked on the Rachel for England. Two months later, she gave birth to her second son, whom they named for Carlo's uncle Napoleone. The boy, like his brother, was born in the new day. In common with his older brother, Joseph, and his future brothers and sisters, he would have a passion for "the nation" and "equality before the law," and a taste for "the political" — that is, the expectation that being active in the public arena was natural and desirable.

Once in Corsica, the Buonapartes of Saint Charles Street lived a short walk from the sixteenth-century cathedral of Notre-Dame. Ajaccio was then a town of four thousand. Bastia, the new French capital, which replaced Corte, was the largest town of the island, with a population of five thousand. At the time that Carlo found himself out of his job as revolutionary secretary and part-time orator, he was the father of two sons: Joseph, born in January of the year prior (1768), six months before Genoa ceded Corsica to the French; and Napoleon, born on August 15, 1769, a French citizen from birth. They would be followed by Lucien (1775), Elisa (1777), Louis (1778), Pauline (1780), Caroline (1782), and Jérôme (1784). An attractive couple, Carlo and Letizia were not a match made in heaven. Carlo had loved another, a woman of no importance, whom his family staunchly opposed for marriage. They had lobbied instead for the alliance with the better-off, if far from wealthy, Ramolinis. As for Letizia, who was all of fifteen years old when she married, we know nothing of her feelings, only that they would not have mattered in eighteenth-century Corsica. She was marrying a good catch (Carlo stood a sporting chance to inherit all of the Buonaparte property one day), and that was enough.

For important reasons, however, there was no church wedding. Contrary to legend and to the belief of their own children, the Buonapartes were not joined in holy matrimony on June 1, 1764, in the cathedral. Carlo, resentful at having to give up the woman he loved and marry one he did not, appears to have refused to go through with the hypocrisy of the cathedral wedding that had been planned. The legal union would have to suffice, though for appearances' sake, the family (probably his uncle Lucciano, an archdeacon) altered the church registry, to make it look as if their nuptial mass had taken place. This deficiency never weighed on Carlo; unlike most Corsicans, he was a thoroughly secularized man, Voltairian in his attitude toward religion and the Church.

Soon after his marriage, Carlo committed the one serious indulgence of his life. Leaving a pregnant wife, he skipped off to Italy, theoretically for further education, but in fact to act the part of the spendthrift playboy for several months. This ended when he joined the paolisti. That youthful fling, plus a later tendency toward some profligacy of dress, travel, and dining well when he could — which left him occasionally penniless or in debt to relatives — have all but ruined Carlo's historical reputation, including in his children's eyes, unjustly so. Contrary to myth, the family was far from impoverished, even if its cash flow was tight. The Buonapartes and the Ramolinis were both of respectable northern Italian stock whose mercenary forebears had settled in Ajaccio not long after the port's foundation in 1492, and if neither family enjoyed the genealogy it boasted of, they lived comfortably. Carlo's efforts to establish the family's noble status bore fruit under the French administration, and he was able to use it to considerable advantage. In short, if the Buonapartes were small fry compared with the island's rich, the windows of their roomy three-story house were metaphorically lace-curtained.

Something did bind Carlo and Letizia closely: their intense dissatisfaction with their social estate, and the consistency and coherence with which they labored for its improvement. Ambition, not l'amour, bound them. Letizia had stood with Carlo from the first moment he joined Paoli, and she stood with him over the long decade and a half following Paoli's defeat — the years that saw Carlo Buonaparte virtually fetter himself and his wife to his career project of improving his family's condition. With the same energy with which he had served the Babbù, he pursued the very unromantic tasks of social promotion: landing a civil post for himself, obtaining a certificate of nobility, squeezing a profit from an olive grove, procuring a government subsidy for a draining project, pursuing a lawsuit against a neighbor over a house, winning an appointment in local government, etc. He died at thirty-nine, broken in health, and who can say his labors in these vineyards were not part of the reason? He once wrote a friend that his life could provide the material for a complete romance, but Carlo's life contained only some promising early pages of romance. The story turned abruptly prosaic after Ponte Nuovo.

To serve or not to serve the French overlords was not exactly a tormenting existential question for most Corsicans, even many devoted paolisti. The French, after all, dominated, and the Corsicans had a long history of making do with conquerors. A gambler by temperament, a charmer by personality, and a courtier in style, Carlo availed himself of the chance to meet the much older Marbeuf, the French military governor of Corsica. The governor liked Carlo and valued his advice and information about how to govern these prickly, suspicious, vindictive Corsicans. But if Marbeuf took to Carlo, he may have "taken" Letizia. Dorothy Carrington presents a serious case for the old polemical thesis argued by opponents of Napoleon for two centuries that Mme Buonaparte, early in the 1770s, embarked on a decade-long affair with the intendant, a man nearly three times her age. It has even been argued, though this may be pressing things too far, that Marbeuf was the father of Louis, the future king of Holland and father of Napoleon III. In truth, the evidence does indicate that Carlo was roundly delighted at the prestige and benefits procured for the family by their relationship with Marbeuf. Paoli had been, in Carrington's words, "the first great chance of his life," and undoubtedly the second — of a different, more familiar kind — was the association with Marbeuf.

Copyright © 2004 by Steven Englund