from Recent essays
edited by W.A.J. Archbold
Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd. (1926)
In July 1907 the Westminster Gazette
offered a prize for an essay on this subject.
This was the successful essay.
THE day of the signature of the Convention of Brussels, June 26, 1815, is the point of time that divides into two strangely contrasted halves the greatest career of modern times, and ushers in the reign of the Napoleon of Peace. When, in that little room in the Hôtel de Ville, now filled every morning by crowds of tourists, the red-coated patrician, who had once been regarded by his partial countrymen as the rival of the lord of armies, sat listening in proud and stoical humiliation to the torrent of words poured forth in dispraise of war by his perambulatory host, who, with clenched fists, invoked the Goddess of Peace, the laconic Englishman probably thought that he was present at a Napoleonic farce of the usual character. He did not guess that his conqueror had in all truth drained the cup of Peace, a draught as bitter to Napoleon as Defeat was bitter to his conquered foe. Wellington, indeed, during the terrible week between the battle and the Convention, had not uttered one complaint against Blucher for breaking tryst, nor shown to his staff-officers one sign of his agony -- beyond the disuse of his customary oaths.
A new Napoleon had been evolved, the Napoleon of Peace, a mere shadow, in spiritual and intellectual force, of his former self. The Buonaparte of 1796 would have urged the advance of Ney's columns until they had destroyed the last of Wellington's regiments, and would himself, with the bulk of his army, have fallen on the traces of Blucher, instead of suffering him to effect a junction with the Austrians and Russians, and so present a barrier to the French reconquest of Germany. Nor would the Napoleon of 1813, who refused, in defeat, the most favourable offers of a settlement, have hesitated after such a victory as that of Mont St. Jean to undertake with a light heart the subjugation of Central and Eastern Europe. But the Napoleon of 1815, one week after his triumphal entry into Brussels, was offering to Wellington the same facilities to evacuate the scat of war which the English general had offered at Cintra, seven years before, to the defeated lieutenant of the Emperor. And this unexpected clemency was extended to England, in order as easily and as quickly as possible to remove from the scene of affairs and from the counsels of the Continental monarchs the paymaster and inveterate instigator of war, and so to clear the stage for Napoleon and the time-serving Metternich to arrange by collusion a permanent and lasting peace for all Europe, not exclusive of England herself.
Whence came this extraordinary change in the intentions, one might say in the character, of the French Emperor? The history of what passed in the headquarters at Brussels between June 16 and 26 can never be fully known, though whole libraries have been written upon the subject. Secret agents of Metternich had been in Brussels as early as June 14, with orders, in case Wellington were defeated, instantly to offer Napoleon the Rhine frontier and the bulk of the Italian Peninsula, and to represent to him how utterly impossible it was that he should hold down Germany after the national movement of 1813. The latter argument, though based upon a just insight into the condition of the Fatherland, would have had little effect upon the man to whom it was addressed had he been sure of support from France herself. But, so far from being dazzled by the news of Mont St. Jean, Paris, on June 20, formed a determined alliance of all classes and all parties -- Liberals, Jacobins, Royalists, and old servants of the Empire, -- to insist upon peace. The representatives commissioned by the Chambers and by other bodies, official and unofficial alike, were welcomed in the Belgian capital, and supported in their petition by all the marshals and by almost every superior officer. But Napoleon's will, it appears, was not finally overcome until the great review of June 24, held outside the town for the purpose of testing the attitude of the common soldiers. Though most of them were veterans, they had too lately rejoined the camp to be altogether insensible to the national feeling; many of them had come out to liberate France, not to subjugate Europe -- a task which no longer seemed as easy as before the days of Borodino and Leipzig. The long shout for "Peace" that ran down the lines seems to have dazed the Emperor. He spoke no word to the assembled troops to thank them for the late victory, rode slowly back like one in a trance, dismounted in the square, passed through the ante-chamber staring vacantly at his marshals and Ministers as if on men whom he had never seen before. As he reached the threshold of his cabinet his eye lit upon the Mameluke by the door, who alone in all the crowd was gazing with intense devotion on his master. The Corsican stopped, and still in a reverie, interpellated the Oriental: "The Franks are tired of war, and we two cannot ride out alone. Besides, we are growing old. One grows old and dies. The Pyramids they grow old, but they do not die." Then, with intense energy, he added: "Do you think one will be remembered after forty centuries?" He stood for a moment, as if waiting for an answer from the mute, then dashed through the door, flung himself at the table, and began dictating messages of peace to Wellington and the allied Sovereigns.
Napoleon's physical condition probably contributed no less than the attitude of the French army and people to the formation of his great resolution; during the critical week, the decision between peace and war seems to have been as much as he could attend to in his waking hours, which were greatly curtailed by his peculiar malady. Hence it was that he made no serious effort to follow Blucher's retreat through Namur, beyond leaving a free hand to Grouchy. Though he was not yet sufficiently cognisant of his growing feebleness to delegate to anyone either his military or political duties, he seems to have been subconsciously aware that the two together were beyond his strength. It is, therefore, not strange that he decided to accept the Rhine frontier and the hegemony in the Italian Peninsula as the basis of a permanent peace, and that his ever-increasing lassitude of body kept him faithful to the decision during the last twenty years of his life.
Those years were a period of but slight change for Europe. Monarchs and peoples were too much exhausted to engage in war for the alteration of frontiers; internal reform or revolution was rendered impossible by the great standing armies, which the very existence of Napoleon on the French throne, valetudinarian though he was known to be, rendered necessary, or at least excusable, in England, Austria, and the German States. Hatred of the crowned Jacobin, and fear of renewed French invasions, gave to the Governments of the ancien régime a measure of popularity with the middle classes which they would not otherwise have enjoyed; it has even been suggested that reform might have made some notable step forward in England within twenty years of Mont St. Jean, had the great Tory champion succeeded in overthrowing the revolutionary Emperor on the field of battle.
As it was, the condition of England was most unhappy. In spite of the restoration of trade with the Continent impeded indeed by the extravagantly high tariffs due to Napoleon's military ideas of economic science, in spite of our continued supremacy at sea, the distress grew yearly more intolerable, both among the rural and industrial populations. The taxation necessary for the maintenance of both fleet and army on a war footing allowed no hope of amelioration; yet while Napoleon lived and paraded his own army and fleet as the expensive toys of his old age, the Tory Ministers could see no possibility of reduction on their part. Probably they were glad of the excuse, for the great army enabled them to defy the Reformers, who became ever more violent as year after year passed by without prospect of change. If Mont St. Jean had been a victory for England, and if it had been followed by that general disarmament to which Wellington himself had looked forward as the natural consequence of Napoleon's downfall, Catholic Emancipation must have been granted to Ireland, and this concession would at least have averted the constant revolts and massacres in that unhappy country which so sorely tempted Napoleon to resume hostilitie's during the last ten years of his life. In Great Britain, where starvation and repression were the order of the day, there occurred in 1825 the ill-advised but romantic rebellion of Lord Byron, in whose army the rank and file consisted almost entirely of working men, and the leaders (except Napier) had no more knowledge of war than was possessed by such ruffians as Thistlewood and the ex-pirate Trelawny. The savage reprisals of Government established the blood-feud between one half of England and the other. The execution of Lord Byron made a greater noise in the world than any event since the fall of the Bastille, though it was not immediately followed by political changes. After two years of terror, Canning, who was always suspected by his colleagues of semi-populax sympathies, restored partial freedom of the Press in 1827, and it became apparent in the literature of the next decade that all young men of spirit were no longer anti-Jacobins -- no longer even Whigs, but Radicals. The worship of the dead poet went side by side with the worship of the living. The writings of Shelley, especially after his long imprisonment, obtained a popularity which was one of the most curious symptoms of the time. His "Men of England, wherefore plough?" was sung at all Radical gatherings, and his ode on the death of Napoleon (The Dead Anarch, 1836) passed through twenty-five editions in a year. The younger literary stars, like Tennyson and Arthur Hallam, blazed with revolutionary ardour. Excluded from Oxford and Cambridge, the Dissenters and Radicals formed a University at Manchester, which soon almost monopolised the talent of the country. Meanwhile serious politicians like Lord John Russell and the irrepressible Mr. Brougham abandoned the older Whig creed and declared for Universal Suffrage. No wise man, in the year after Napoleon's death, would have foretold with confidence whether England was destined to tread the path of revolution or to continue in the beaten track of tyranny and obscurantism. At least, it was clear that there was no longer any third way open to her, and that the coming era would be stained with blood and violence. Whiggery died with Grey -- that pathetic and futile figure, who had waited forty years in vain. The English character was no longer one of compromise; it was being forced by foreign circumstances into another and more violent mould.
Similarly in the Continental States outside the limits of the Napoleonic Empire, the ancien régime was not only triumphant but to some extent popular and national, because the late persecutor of the German and Spanish peoples still remained as their dangerous neighbour, and was still by far the most powerful prince in Europe. In Spain the Liberals and Freethinkers were extirpated with an efficiency which Torquemada might have approved; the Inquisition was indeed abolished in consequence of Napoleon's threat of war in 1833, a year in which the Tories were unable to give Spain diplomatic support, because the execution of the eccentric "gypsy-Englishman" for smuggling Bibles into Andalusia had raised a momentary storm among their Evangelical supporters in the House and country. But the disappearance of the Inquisition made no real difference to the methods of Church and State in Spain, and the diplomatic incident only served, as it was intended, to restore the old Emperor's popularity with the French Liberals.
Meanwhile the revolted Spanish colonies in South America continued their efforts for freedom with ever-increasing success until the interference of the English army, sent out by Government on pure anti-Jacobin principles, against the wish and the interest of the British merchants trading in those parts. "We must preserve," said Castlereagh, "the balance between monarchy and Republicanism in the New World as in the Old." But not enough troops could be spared from policing the British Islands to do more than prolong the agony of the Transatlantic struggle. The vast expanses of the Pampas became a permanent Field of Mars, where liberal exiles and adventurers of all countries, principally English and Italian, side by side with the well-mounted Gauchos, waged a ceaseless guerilla war on the English and Spanish regulars. Here Napier's brothers avenged his death on the army of which they had once been the ornaments; and Murat, riding-whip in hand, was seen at the head of many a gallant charge, leading on the Italians whose idol he had now become in either hemisphere. "The free life of the Pampas" became to the young men of Europe the symbol of that spiritual and political emancipation which could be realised only in exile and secured in rebellion and in war. Hence it is that the note of the Pampas is as prevalent as the note of Byron in the literature and art of that epoch.
In Germany the national hopes of union and liberty were cheated by the monarchs, who continued, however, to enjoy safety, prestige, and the bodyguard of those great standing armies which were necessary to secure French respect for the Rhine frontier. The reforms previously effected in those German States which had been either subject to Napoleon's rule or moved by his example, were permitted to remain, wherever they made for the strength of the monarchic principle. The Prussian peasants were not thrust back into serfdom; the reformed Civil Service was kept in some of the "Westphalian" States; the Act of Mediation and the Abolition of the Prince-Bishoprics were maintained for the benefit of the larger princes. But all traces of the Code Napoléon were abolished in Hesse-Cassel and Hanover; while the University and National movements were effectively suppressed throughout the Fatherland under Austrian influence, paramount since the failure of Blücher in Flanders and the deal between Metternich and Napoleon at the Conference of Vienna in 1815. If Prussia obtained nothing else, she recovered her share of Poland whose cries were smothered by the Christian Powers of the East as easily as Greece was put down by the Turk.
The only Germans who were at once contented and well governed were those on the left bank of the Rhine, who continued to be, in peace as in war, the quietest and most loyal of all Napoleon's subjects. The French were less easy to satisfy; they had, indeed, forced their lord to make peace, but could they also compel him to grant that measure of liberty which they now claimed? The solution of that question would scarcely have been possible except by violent means had the Emperor retained half of his old health and vigour. But it was solved provisionally from year to year, because the energies of the autocrat decreased in almost exact proportion to the increase of his subjects' demand for freedom. He cared not who wielded powers which he was no longer in a condition to exercise himself, and was ready, out of sheer indifference, to hand them scornfully over to Ministers more or less in sympathy with the Chambers. So long as he could keep his own eye on the censorship, it was rigid; but when he became too ill to read anything except the most important despatches, the censorship was again as feebly administered as in the days of the last two Bourbons. Under these conditions of irritating but ineffectual repression, French literature and thought were stimulated into a life almost as flourishing as in the days of the Encyclopædists. The Romantic movement undermined the Imperial idea with the intellectuals; the "breath of the Pampas" was felt in the Quartier Latin. It was in vain that the police broke the busts of Byron and forbade plays in which the unities were violated.
Yet as long as Napoleon lived and let live the Liberals, the quarrel of the ruled against their ruler was but half serious. The movement towards a fresh revolution was rather a preparation for his death than a very deliberate disloyalty to the man who had saved France from the ancien régime. And whatever the workmen and students might think, the peasants and soldiers regarded the political and social condition of France after Mont St. Jean as almost perfect. The soldiers were still the favourites of Government; the peasants at length tilled in peace and security the lands which their fathers had seized from the nobles and the clergy. The religion of the vast majority of Frenchmen was respected, but the priest was confined to the church; the home and the women belonged to the father of the family, and the school to the state.
Indeed, the chief cause of complaint against Napoleon's government, in the eyes of the majority of his subjects, was not political, social, or religious, but administrative. The executive machine at Paris, to which the life of the remotest hamlets was "mortised and adjoined," worked with an inefficiency resultant on the bad health of the autocrat. His personal attention to business became more and more irregular, and since the ineradicable tradition of the imperial service was to wait upon his initiative, France was scarcely better governed from the Tuileries in 1820 than she had been in 1807 from the camp-fires of Poland.
In the treaties of Autumn 1815 the wily Metternich had succeeded by a masterpiece of cunning, in retaining the Venetian territories for Austria, as the price of abandoning at the conference the claims of Prussia to expansion in Germany. As in Northern Europe the Rhine, so in Italy the Mincio, became the geographic boundary between the Napoleonic system and the ancien régime -- both as yet rather feebly threatened by the rising spirit of Italian nationality. Murat, who had by his recent conduct fairly sacrificed the goodwill of both parties, lost his kingdom and fled to South America. No one dared to propose to Napoleon the restoration of the temporal power of the Pope; it had, indeed, no more claim to recognition than that of the Prince-Bishops, whose recently secularised territories none of the German Princes proposed to restore. Sicily, protected by the British ships, remained to the House of Bourbon. From the moment that the signature of peace the fear of the French invasion, British influence waned at Palermo, and the old methods of Sicilian despotism returned. But the fact that the King of Sicily was obliged by the Powers to renounce all his claims to the throne of Naples stood him in good stead with his insular subjects, whose jealousy was appeased by this act of separation.
All the Italian peninsula, except the territory of Venice, was subject to the unifying influence of the French Imperial system. The Code Napoléon, the encouragement of the middle class, the abeyance of clerical influence in government and education in favour of military and official ideals, continued as before the peace. The Clerical and Liberal forces, still divided by the deadliest enmity, which would certainly break out in bloodshed if the foreigner were ever to be expelled from Italy, were alike hostile to the French. But, whereas the Clericals hoped to restore the ancien regime, either by extending the Austrian dominions or calling back the native Princes, and especially the Pope, the Liberals, on the other hand, dreamed of an Italian Republic. These two movements were represented to Italy and to the world, the one by the Prince of the House of Savoy, the hope of the reactionaries; and the other by the son of the Genoese doctor, the founder of the formidable "Società Savonarola," in which many of the rising generation hastened to enlist themselves. In 1832 both these romantic young men fell victim Napoleon's police; Charles Albert was detected in disguise in Turin, and suffered the fate of the Duc d'Enghien. Mazzini, who had the year before escaped with difficulty from the Venetian Alps, where he had raised the national flag against Austria, attempted a rising against Napoleon in the streets of Genoa, but being opposed by the Italian soldiery, who found all that they wanted in the existing régime, was captured and shot, with twelve of his followers.
The executions of the Savoyard Prince and the Genoese prophet served to remind Europe that Napoleon, in his old age, still remained, as in his youth, the enemy alike of the ancien régime and of democratic liberty. Which of the two would be the chief gainer by his death it was impossible to predict.
On the evening of June 4, 1836, Napoleon was presiding, with even more than his habitual invalid's lethargy, at one of his Councils of State. The latest reports from Italy were presented, and a closer entente with the Austrian police was under discussion. The Emperor had been sitting, silent and distracted, his head sunk on his breast. Suddenly the word "Italy" penetrated to his consciousness. He looked up with fire in his eyes. "Italy!" he said; "we march to-morrow. The army of the Alps will deserve well of the Republic." Then, more distractedly, he murmured: "I must leave Josephine behind. She will not care." He had often of late been talking thus of his first Empress, whom he seemed to imagine to be somewhere in the palace, but unwilling to see him. It was the custom of the Council, dictated by the physicians, to adjourn as soon as he mentioned her name. The Ministers therefore retired.
The rest of the story can best be told by M. Villebois, physician of the Imperial Household:
"While the Council sat I was walking in the Tuileries Gardens below. It was a hot and silent night of June. The city was at rest and the trees slept with her. Suddenly from the open window of the Council Chamber, a noise, inconceivably unmelodious, makes itself heard. I look up, and behold the Emperor standing alone at the balcony, with the lights behind him framing him like a picture. With the gestures of a wild animal just set free, he is intoning, in a voice of the most penetrating discord, the Revolutionary hymn of France, which he has forbidden under penalty of the law to the use of his subjects. But to him, I know it, it is not a hymn of revolution but a chant du depart. I rush upstairs, and find a group of Ministers and lackeys trembling outside the door. No one dares enter. 'Doctor,' said old Marshal ----, 'he sang that cursed song like that the night before we crossed into Russia. On that occasion we stood in the room below and trembled, and one told me that he had sung it thus, in solitude, on the night before he first crossed into Italy.'
"Pushing past the brave old man, I opened the door and entered alone. The sound had now ceased, but the song had penetrated through the summer night, and in the Rue de Rivoli a drunken ouvrier had caught it up and was thundering it out. I looked round for my master, and did not at first see him. Suddenly I perceived that Napoleon was lying dead at my feet. I heard the oaths of the ouvrier as the police seized him under the arcade."