Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XI: Bonaparte Emperor. The Counter-revolution Effected by him. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER XI: Bonaparte Emperor. The Counter-revolution Effected by him. - Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, newly revised translation of the 1818 English edition, edited, with an introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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Bonaparte Emperor. The Counter-revolution Effected by him.
When Bonaparte, at the close of the last century, put himself at the head of the French people, the whole nation desired a free and constitutional government. The nobles, long exiled from France, aspired only to return in peace to their homes; the Catholic clergy invoked toleration; as the republican warriors had effaced by their exploits the splendor of the distinctions of nobility, the feudal race of ancient conquerors respected the new victors, and a revolution had taken place in the public mind. Europe was willing to resign to France the barrier of the Rhine and the Alps; and the only thing that remained was to secure these advantages by repairing the evils which the acquisition of them had brought along with it. But Bonaparte conceived the idea of effecting a counter-revolution to his own advantage by retaining in the state nothing new except himself. He re-established the throne, the clergy, and the nobility; a monarchy, as Mr. Pitt said, without legitimacy and without imitation; a clergy who were only the preachers of despotism; a nobility composed of old and new families who exercised no magistracy in the state and served only as a gaudy decoration of arbitrary power.1
Bonaparte opened the door to ancient prejudices, flattering himself that he could arrest them precisely at the point which suited his omnipotence. It has been often said that he would have kept his place if he had been moderate. But what is meant by moderate? If he had established with sincerity and dignity the English constitution in France, he would doubtless still have been emperor. His victories made him a prince; it was his love of etiquette, his thirst for flattery, titles, decorations, chamberlains, that made re-appear in him the character of an upstart. But however rash his system of conquest might be, from the moment that his soul became so miserable as to see no grandeur except in despotism, it was perhaps impossible for him to do without continual wars; for what would a despot be without military glory in a country like France? Could the nation be oppressed in the interior without giving it the fatal compensation of ruling elsewhere in its turn? Absolute power is the scourge of the human race; and all the French governments which have succeeded the Constituent Assembly have perished by yielding to this seduction under some pretext or other.
At the moment when Bonaparte wished to be named emperor, he believed it was necessary to give new confidence, on the one hand, to the revolutionaries with respect to the possibility of the return of the Bourbons, and on the other, to prove to the royalists that in attaching themselves to him, they separated themselves irremediably from the cause of the ancient dynasty. It was to accomplish this double end that he perpetrated the murder of a prince of the blood, the Duke d’Enghien.2 He passed the Rubicon of crime, and from that day his downfall was written in the book of destiny.
One of the Machiavellian politicians of the court of Bonaparte said on this occasion that the assassination of D’Enghien was much worse than a crime, for it was a fault. I have, I acknowledge, a profound contempt for all those politicians whose talent consists in showing themselves superior to virtue. Let them for once show themselves superior to egoism; that will be more uncommon, and even more ingenious.
Nevertheless, those who blamed the murder of the Duke d’Enghien as a bad speculation were right even in this view of the matter. The revolutionaries and the royalists, in spite of the terrible cement of innocent blood, did not deem themselves irrevocably united to the lot of their master. He had made interest the deity of his partisans; and the partisans of his doctrine practiced it against himself when misfortune struck him.
In the spring of 1804, after the death of the Duke d’Enghien and the abominable prosecution of Moreau and Pichegru, when every mind was filled with a terror which might in an instant be changed into revolt, Bonaparte sent for some senators with whom he conversed with affected negligence on the proposition which had been made to him of declaring himself emperor, treating it as a matter on which he had not yet come to a fixed resolution. He reviewed the different lines of conduct which might be adopted for France—a republic, the recall of the ancient dynasty, lastly, the creation of a new monarchy; like a person conversing on the affairs of another and examining them with perfect impartiality. Those who talked with him resisted with the most vehement energy every time he exhibited arguments in favor of any other power than his own. At last, Bonaparte allowed himself to be convinced: Very well, said he, since you believe that my nomination to the title of Emperor is necessary to the happiness of France, take at least precautions against my tyranny—Yes, I repeat it, against my tyranny. Who knows if, in the situation in which I am about to be placed, I shall not be tempted to abuse my power?
The senators went away moved by this amiable candor, the consequences of which were the suppression of the Tribunate, all-complaisant as it was; the establishment of the exclusive power of the Council of State as an instrument in the hand of Bonaparte; the government of the police, a permanent body of spies; and, in the sequel, seven state prisons where those who were confined could be judged by no tribunal, as their lot depended merely on the decision of the ministers.3
To maintain such a tyranny, it was necessary to satisfy the ambition of all who would engage in its support. The contributions of the whole of Europe afforded scarcely a sufficient supply of money; and accordingly Bonaparte sought other treasures in vanity.
The principal moving power of the French Revolution was the love of equality. Equality in the eye of the law partakes of justice, and consequently of liberty: but the desire of annihilating every superior rank is one of the pettinesses of self-love. Bonaparte well knew the influence of this failing in France, and this is the mode in which he availed himself of it. The men who had participated in the Revolution were not willing that there should be classes above them. Bonaparte rallied them round his standard by promising them the titles and dignities of which they had stripped the nobles. “Do you wish for equality?” said he to them. “I will do better still, I will give you inequality in your own favor: MM. de la Trémouille, de Montmorency, &c. will be, according to law, private citizens of the state, while the titles of the old regime and the offices at court will be possessed, if it so pleases the Emperor, by the most vulgar names.” What a strange idea! Would not one have thought that a nation so prompt at laying hold of improprieties would have delivered itself up to the inextinguishable laugh of the gods of Homer at seeing all those republicans disguised as dukes, counts, and barons, and making their attempts in the study of the manners of great lords, like men repeating a part in a play? A few songs indeed were composed on these upstarts of every kind, kings and footmen; but the splendor of victories and the force of despotism made everything succeed, for some years, at least. Those republicans who had been seen disdaining the rewards given by our monarchs had no longer room enough upon their coats for the broad badges, German, Italian, and Russian, that bedecked them. A military order, the iron crown,4 or the Legion of Honor might be accepted by warriors, in whom such distinctions recalled their wounds and their exploits; but did the ribbons and keys of a chamberlain, with all the other apparatus of courts, suit men who had stirred heaven and earth to abolish such vain pomp? An English caricature represents Bonaparte as cutting up the red cap of liberty into shreds to make a grand cordon of the Legion of Honor. How exact an image of the nobility invented by Bonaparte, who could boast of nothing but the favor of their master! The French troops can no longer be regarded but as the soldiers of an individual, after having once been the defenders of the nation. Ah! how great were they then!
Bonaparte had read history in a confused way; little accustomed to study, he made much less use of what he had learned from books than of what he had picked up by his observation of men. There remained, however, in his head a certain respect for Attila and Charlemagne, for feudal laws and Oriental despotism, which he applied indiscriminately, never making a mistake as to what would instantaneously promote his power, but on other points quoting, blaming, praising, reasoning, as chance conducted him. He would speak in this way for hours together, with so much the more advantage that nobody interrupted him, except by the involuntary applauses which always burst forth on such occasions. It is a singular circumstance that, in conversation, several of Bonaparte’s officers have borrowed from their leader this heroical gabble, which in truth has no meaning but at the head of eight hundred thousand men.
Bonaparte, therefore, to make at once a Carolingian and an Oriental empire, bethought himself of creating fiefs in the countries conquered by him, and of investing with them his generals or principal ministers. He fixed the rights of primogeniture, he issued decrees concerning substitutions, he did one the service of concealing his former situation under the unknown title of Duke of Rovigo;5 while, on the contrary, by taking away from Macdonald,6 from Bernadotte, from Massena,7 the names which they had rendered illustrious by so many noble exploits, he as it were defrauded renown of its rights and remained alone, as he desired, in possession of the military glory of France.
It was not enough to have degraded the republican party by entirely changing its nature; Bonaparte wished also to deprive the royalists of that dignity which they owed to their perseverance and their misfortunes. He gave the greater part of the offices of his household to nobles of the Old Regime. He thus flattered the new race by mingling them with the old, and as he himself united the vanity of an upstart to the gigantic talents of a conqueror, he loved the flattery of the courtiers of the former reign because they were more skillful in that art than the new men, whatever might be the eagerness of the latter to distinguish themselves in the same career. As often as a gentleman of the old court called back to recollection the etiquette of the days that were gone and proposed an additional bow, a certain mode of knocking at the door of an antechamber, a more ceremonious manner of presenting a dispatch, of folding a letter, or concluding it with such or such a form, he was received as if he had made a contribution to the happiness of the human race. The code of imperial etiquette is the most remarkable document of the meanness to which the human race may be reduced. The followers of Machiavellian principles will say that it is in this way that men must be deceived; but is it true that men are deceived in our days? Bonaparte was obeyed (let us not cease to repeat it) because he gave military glory to France. Whether that was a benefit or the contrary, it was at least a clear and unsophisticated fact. But all the Chinese farces which were played off before his car of triumph were agreeable only to his servants, whom, had it been convenient for him, he might have led in a hundred other ways. Bonaparte frequently took his court for his empire; he liked better to be treated as a prince than as a hero; perhaps, at the bottom of his soul, he was conscious that he had more right to the first of these titles than to the second.
The partisans of the Stuarts, when the crown was offered to Cromwell, took their ground upon the principles of the friends of liberty to oppose him, and it was not till the epoch of the Restoration that they resumed the doctrine of absolute power; but at least they remained faithful to the ancient dynasty. A great part of the French nobility hastened to the courts of Bonaparte and his family. When a man of very high birth was reproached for having become chamberlain to one of the princesses, But what would you have me to do? he said. I must serve someone. What a reply! Does it not contain the full condemnation of governments founded upon the spirit of a court?
The English nobles preserved much more dignity in their civil disturbances; for they did not commit two enormous faults from which the French nobles cannot easily exculpate themselves: the one, that of having joined foreigners against their own country; the other, that of having accepted places in the palace of a man who, according to their maxims, had no right to the throne; for the election of the people, supposing that Bonaparte could have alleged it in his favor, was not in their eyes a legitimate title. Assuredly they have no right to be intolerant after such proofs of compliance; and less injury is done, in my opinion, to the illustrious House of Bourbon by wishing for constitutional limits to the authority of the throne than by having held places under a new sovereign tainted by the assassination of a youthful warrior of the ancient race.
Could the French nobles who served Bonaparte in the employments of the palace pretend that they were constrained to do so? Far more petitions were refused than places given; and those who did not choose to submit to the desires of Bonaparte in this respect were not obliged to make part of his court. Adrian and Mathieu de Montmorency, whose names and characters drew attention, Elzear de Sabran, the Duke and Duchess of Duras, several others also, though not in great numbers, would have no concern with employments offered by Bonaparte; and although courage is requisite to resist that torrent which in France carries everything in the direction of power, these courageous persons preserved their virtuous pride without being obliged to renounce their country. In general, to do nothing is almost always possible, and it is proper it should be so, since there is no excuse for acting contrary to one’s principles.
There were certainly none of the French nobles who fought in the armies like the courtiers who were personally connected with the dynasty of Bonaparte. Warriors, whoever they are, may allege a thousand excuses, and better than excuses, according to the motives which influenced them and the conduct which they followed. For at every epoch of the Revolution France has existed; and surely the first duties of a citizen are to his country.
Never had a man the art of multiplying the ties of dependence more ably than Bonaparte. He surpassed everybody in his knowledge of the great and the little means of despotism; he concerned himself perseveringly with the dress of the women, that their husbands, ruined by their expenses, might be obliged to have recourse to him more frequently. He wished likewise to strike the imaginations of the French by the pomp of his court. The old soldier who smoked at the door of Frederick II was sufficient to make him respected by all Europe. Bonaparte without doubt had enough of military talents to obtain the same result by the same means; but to be master was not all that he desired: he wished also to be a tyrant; to oppress Europe and France, one had to resort to all the means of degrading the human species; and accordingly the wretch has succeeded but too well!
In life, the balance of human motives to good or evil is usually in equilibrium, and it is conscience which decides. But, when under Bonaparte, more than forty million sterling of revenue and eight hundred thousand armed men threw their weight into the scale of bad actions, when the sword of Brennus was on the same side with the gold to make the balance incline; how powerful was the seduction! Yet the calculations of ambition and avarice would not have been sufficient to render France submissive to Bonaparte; something great is required to excite masses of people, and it was military glory which intoxicated the nation while the nets of despotism were spread out by some men whose meanness and corruption cannot be sufficiently emphasized. They treated constitutional principles as a chimera, like the courtiers of the old governments of Europe, whose places they aspired to occupy. But their master, as we shall soon see, coveted more than the crown of France, and did not limit himself to that bourgeois despotism with which his civil agents would have wished him to be satisfied at home, that is to say, among us.
[1. ] On this issue, see Furet, Revolutionary France, 219–25, 248–51; and Bergeron, France Under Napoléon, 3–22. Madame de Staël’s words must be taken with a grain of salt and might be more appropriate to a later phase of Napoléon’s rule (after 1808). As many historians have pointed out, the great conquests of 1789 did not disappear in 1804, when Napoléon became emperor. Moreover, the new privileges sanctioned by Napoléon were not hereditary; on the contrary, as Furet argued, “the dialectic of equality and status wove Napoleonic society together more closely than ever” (250). Yet, it is revealing that toward the end of his reign, in 1813, Napoléon predicted: “After me, the Revolution—or, rather, the ideas which formed it—will resume their course. It will be like a book from which the marker is removed, and one starts to read again at the page where one left off” (Furet, Revolutionary France, 265–66). His words vindicated to some extent Madame de Staël’s opinion.
[2. ] The Duke d’Enghien, the son of the last Condé, lived in the town of Baden, a few kilometers away from the French border. At the recommendation of Fouché, Bonaparte sent his men to arrest the duke, who was considered a potential conspirator capable of sowing discord and turmoil in France. He was brought to Vincennes, where he was executed on March 21, 1804.
[3. ] In early May 1804, the Tribunate asked that Napoléon be given the title “Hereditary Emperor of the French.” A plebiscite followed in which fewer than ten thousand voters failed to vote. The coronation ceremony took place at Nôtre Dame on December 2, 1804.
[4. ] The Order of the Iron Crown was created by Napoléon (as King of Italy) in 1805 to reward outstanding civil and military exploits.
[5. ] General Savary (1774–1833), one of Napoléon’s most faithful collaborators, became Duke of Rovigo in May 1808.
[6. ] Etienne-Jacques-Joseph-Alexandre MacDonald, Duke of Taranto (1765–1840), commander of the French army at Naples in 1799, was promoted to the rank of marshal in 1809.
[7. ] André Masséna (1758–1817) was a military officer who became Duke of Rivoli (in 1808) and Prince of Essling (in 1809).