Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XVIII: On the Political Doctrine of Bonaparte. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER XVIII: On the Political Doctrine of Bonaparte. - 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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On the Political Doctrine of Bonaparte.
One day M. Suard, who more than any other lettered Frenchman united the tact of literature with a knowledge of the great world, was speaking boldly before Bonaparte of the picture of the Roman emperors in Tacitus: “Very well,” said Napoléon; “but he ought to have told us why the Roman people suffered, and even liked those bad emperors. It is that which it was of importance to explain to posterity.” Let it be our endeavor not to incur, with respect to the Emperor of France himself, the censure which he passed on the Roman historian.
The two principal causes of Napoléon’s power in France were, above all, his military glory and the art with which he re-established order without attacking those selfish passions to which the Revolution had given birth. But not everything was included in these two problems.
It is pretended that, in discussions in the Council of State, Napoléon displayed a universal sagacity. I have some doubts of the ability ascribed to a man who is all-powerful; it is much more difficult for us, the common people, to earn our celebrity. One is not, however, master of Europe during fifteen years without having a piercing view of men and things. But there was in the mind of Bonaparte an incoherence which is a marked feature of those who do not range their thoughts under the law of duty. The power of commanding had been given by nature to Bonaparte; but it was rather because other men did not act upon him, than because he acted upon them, that he became their master. The qualities which he lacked served his purpose as well as the talents he possessed; and he made himself obeyed only by degrading those whom he subjected. His successes are astonishing; his reverses more astonishing still. What he performed, aided by the energy of the nation, is admirable; the state of torpor in which he left it can scarcely be conceived. The multitude of men of talent whom he employed is extraordinary; but the characters whom he debased have done more harm to the cause of liberty than the service that could be rendered to it by all the powers of intelligence. To him, above all, may be applied the fine image of despotism, in the “Spirit of Laws”;1 “he cut up the tree by its roots to obtain its fruit,” and perhaps he has even dried up the soil.
In a word, Bonaparte, the absolute master of eighty million men, and meeting nowhere with opposition, knew neither how to found a single institution in the state nor durable power for himself.2 What, then, was the destructive principle which haunted his triumphal steps? What was it? the contempt of mankind, and consequently of all the laws, all the studies, all the establishments, and all the elections of which the basis is respect for the human race. Bonaparte was intoxicated with the vile draught of Machiavellism; he resembled in many respects the Italian tyrants of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; and as he had read but little, the natural tendency of his character was not counteracted by the effect of information. The Middle Ages being the most brilliant era in the history of the Italians, many of them have but too much respect for the maxims of government at that period, and those maxims were all collected by Machiavelli.
Reading lately in Italy his famous treatise of The Prince, which still finds believers among power-holders, a new fact and a new conjecture appeared to me worthy of notice. In the first place, letters of Machiavelli found in the manuscripts of the Barberini library and published in 1813 prove clearly that he published his Prince in order to reconcile himself with the Medicis. They had put him to the rack on account of his efforts in favor of liberty; he was ruined, in bad health, and without resources; he gave up his principles, but it was after having been put to the torture—in our days, people yield to slighter things.
This treatise of The Prince, where we find unhappily that superiority of mind which Machiavelli had displayed in a better cause, was not composed, as has been believed, to render despotism odious by showing the frightful resources which despots must employ to maintain their authority. This supposition is too refined to be admitted.3 I am inclined to think that Machiavelli, detesting above everything the yoke of foreigners in Italy, tolerated, and even encouraged, the means, whatever they were, which the princes of the country could employ in order to be masters, hoping that they would one day be powerful enough to repulse the German and French troops. Machiavelli analyzes the art of war in his writings like a military man; he reverts continually to the necessity of a military organization entirely national; and if he sullied his reputation by his indulgence for the crimes of the Borgias, it was perhaps because he felt too strongly the desire of attempting every means of recovering the independence of his country. Bonaparte did not certainly examine the Prince of Machiavelli in this point of view; but he sought there what still passes for profound wisdom with vulgar minds, the art of deceiving mankind. This policy must fall in proportion to the extension of knowledge, as the belief in witchcraft has fallen since the true laws of natural philosophy have been discovered.
A general principle, whatever it might be, was displeasing to Bonaparte, as a thing foolish or hostile. He listened only to the considerations of the moment, and examined things merely with a view to their immediate utility; for he would have wished to stake the whole world in an annuity on his own life. He was not sanguinary but indifferent respecting the lives of men, considering them but as a means of attaining his end or as an obstacle to be removed out of his way. He was even less irascible than he often seemed to be: he wished to terrify by his words, in order to spare himself the act by the threat. Everything with him was means or end; nothing involuntary was to be found either in good or evil. It is pretended that he said, “I have so many conscripts to expend by the year”; and it is probable that he held that language, for Bonaparte had contempt enough for his hearers to delight in a kind of sincerity which is nothing less than impudence.
He never believed in exalted sentiments, either in individuals or in nations; he considered the expression of these sentiments as hypocrisy. He believed that he held the key of human nature by fear and by hope, skillfully presented to the selfish and the ambitious. It must be allowed that his perseverance and activity were never slackened on behalf of the slightest interests of despotism; but it was that very despotism which was destined one day to fall upon his head. An anecdote, in which I happened to have some share, may give an additional idea of the system of Bonaparte relative to the art of governing.
The Duke of Melzi,4 who was for some time vice president of the Cisalpine Republic, was one of the most distinguished characters which Italy, so fertile in every production, has brought forth. Born of a Spanish mother and an Italian father, he blended the dignity of one nation with the vivacity of the other; and I am not sure whether even in France a man could be cited more remarkable for his powers of conversation, and for the more important and essential talent of knowing and appreciating all those who acted a political part in Europe. The First Consul was obliged to employ him, because he had the greatest influence over his fellow-citizens, and because his attachment to his country was unquestioned. Bonaparte did not like to make use of men who were disinterested and whose principles, whatever they might be, were not to be shaken; he was therefore continually circumventing Melzi, in order to corrupt him.
Having caused himself to be crowned King of Italy in 1805, Bonaparte went to the legislative body of Lombardy and informed the Assembly that he had the intention of giving a considerable estate to the Duke of Melzi as a testimony of public gratitude toward him: this, he hoped, would render him unpopular. Being then at Milan, I saw that same evening M. de Melzi, who was quite in despair at the perfidious trick that Napoléon had played him, without having given him the slightest warning. As Bonaparte would have been irritated by a refusal, I advised M. de Melzi to appropriate instantly to a public establishment the revenues with which Napoléon wanted to overwhelm him. He followed my advice, and the next day, walking with the Emperor, he told him that such was his intention. Bonaparte, seizing him by the arm, exclaimed, “This, I would wager, is an idea of Madame de Staël; but take my advice, and do not give in to the romantic philanthropy of the eighteenth century; there is only one thing to do in this world: that is to get continually more money and more power; all the rest is chimerical.” Many people will say that he was right; I think, on the contrary, that history will show that by establishing this doctrine, by setting men loose from the ties of honor everywhere but on the field of battle, he prepared his partisans to abandon him, according to his own precepts, when he should cease to be the strongest; and indeed he may well boast of having met with more disciples faithful to his system than adherents devoted to his misfortunes. He consecrated his policy by fatalism, the only religion suitable to this devotedness to fortune; and his prosperity constantly increasing, he ended by making himself the high priest and idol of his own adoration, believing in himself as if his desires were presages and his designs oracles.
The duration of the power of Bonaparte was a perpetual lesson of immorality. If he had always succeeded, what should we have been able to say to our children? There would have been left, it is true, the solace of religious resignation; but the mass of the inhabitants of the world would have sought in vain to discover the intentions of Providence in human affairs.
Nevertheless, in 1811, the Germans still called Bonaparte the man of fate, and the imagination even of some Englishmen was dazzled by his extraordinary talents. Poland and Italy still hoped for independence from him, and the daughter of the Caesars had become his consort.5 This badge of honor caused him a transport of joy foreign to his nature; and for some time it might be believed that his illustrious partner would change the character of the man with whom destiny had connected her. Even at this time Bonaparte lacked but one good sentiment to have become the greatest monarch upon earth; either that of paternal affection, which induces men to take care of the inheritance of their children; or pity for the French who rushed to death for him whenever he gave the signal; or equity toward foreign nations who gazed at him with wonder; or, finally, that kind of prudence natural to every man toward the middle of life, when he sees the approach of the vast shadows by which he must soon be enveloped: one virtue, one single virtue would have sufficed to have fixed all human prosperity on the head of Bonaparte. But the divine spark did not exist.
The triumph of Bonaparte in Europe, as well as in France, was founded on a great equivocation which endures with a number of people. The nations persisted in considering him the defender of their rights at the very moment when he was their greatest enemy. The strength of the French Revolution, of which he had been the inheritor, was immense, because it was composed of the will of the French and of the secret desires of other nations. Napoléon made use of this power against the old governments during several years, before the people discovered that their interest was not his object. The same names still subsisted: it was still France, lately the center of popular principles; and although Bonaparte destroyed republics and stimulated kings and princes to acts of tyranny, in opposition even to their own natural moderation, it was yet believed that all this would end in liberty; and he often himself talked of a constitution, at least when speaking of the reign of his son. Nonetheless, the first step that Bonaparte made toward his ruin was the enterprise on Spain;6 for he there met with a national resistance, the only one from which no corruption or diplomatic art could set him free. He had not suspected the danger which awaited his army in a war of villages and mountains; he did not believe in the power of the soul; he counted bayonets, and there being scarcely any in Spain before the arrival of the English troops, he had not learned to dread the only invincible power—the enthusiasm of a whole nation. The French, said Bonaparte, are nervous machines, by which he meant to explain that mixture of obedience and mobility which constitutes their character. This reproach is perhaps well founded; but amidst these defects they have displayed an invincible perseverance during nearly thirty years; and it was because Bonaparte flattered their ruling passion that he reigned. The French long believed that the imperial government would preserve them from the institutions of the Old Regime, which to them are peculiarly odious. They also long confounded the cause of the Revolution with that of a new master; many people with good intentions suffered themselves to be deluded by this motive; others held the same language, though they had no longer the same opinion; and it was long before the nation lost its interest in Bonaparte. But from that moment forward an abyss was hollowed under his steps.
[1. ] Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, book 5, chap. 13, 59.
[2. ] This statement must be taken with a grain of salt. Napoléon’s legacy includes, among other things, the famous Napoleonic Code (enacted in 1804) and the introduction of the modern professional conscript army. For an overview of Napoléon’s institutional legacy (the administration, the fiscal and judicial systems, education, the army, and the relations between the state and the church), see Bergeron, France Under Napoléon, 23–84; and Alexander, Bonapartism and Revolutionary Tradition in France. A detailed study of legislation under Napoléon can be found in Beck, French Legislators, 1800–1834.
[3. ] This interpretation of Machiavelli as the founder of “Machiavellianism” has recently been challenged and nuanced by scholars (such as Quentin Skinner and Maurizio Viroli) who emphasized his republicanism. The classical biography of Machiavelli remains Ridolfi, The Life of Niccolò Machiavelli.
[4. ] Francesco Melzi d’Eril (1753–1816) became vice president of the Cisalpine Republic in 1801. Four years later, he was appointed grand chancellor of the Kingdom of Italy and was ennobled in 1807.
[5. ] After divorcing Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoléon married Marie Louise, Archduchess of Austria, in 1810.
[6. ] From 1807 to 1813. The French army’s occupation of the north of Spain provoked the revolt of May 1808. The war began after Napoléon installed his brother Joseph Bonaparte as the king of Spain. The war ended in 1813, when Ferdinand VII (of the Bourbon dynasty) became the king of Spain.