Read CHAPTER VII - The new feudalism of The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte Vol. III, free online book, by William Milligan Sloane, on

Imperial France The Aristocracy The Vassal Sovereigns Suppression of the Tribunate The Right of Entail Evasions of Law The New Nobility Titles and Emoluments Style in the First Empire Theory of the University Its Establishment The Lycées Effects of the System Regulation of the Court The Emperor’s Moods Matrimonial Alliances with Royalty Gloom at Court Decline of Talleyrand’s Influence His New Rôle.

It was not long before the people of Paris and of all France were in the best possible humor; they were busy, they were clothed, they were fed, they were making and saving money. With every hour grew the feeling that their unity and strength were embodied in the Emperor. Mme. de Remusat was tired of his ill-breeding: it shocked her to observe his coarse familiarity, to see him sit on a favorite’s knee, or twist a bystander’s ear till it was afire; to hear him sow dissension among families by coarse innuendo, and to see him crush society that he might rule it. But such things would not have shocked the masses of plain burgher Frenchmen at all. When the querulous lady opened her troubles to the sympathetic Talleyrand, and bemoaned the sad fate which kept her at the imperial court to gain a living, his reply was not consoling. As time passed, the gulf between the ruler and his venal but soft-spoken minister had been widening, and the Prince of Benevento had oftentimes to hear taunts and reproaches in scenes of such violence as were unsuspected even by the complaining lady in waiting. But nevertheless Talleyrand replied to her that Napoleon still stood for the unity of France, and it was both his and her duty to endure and support their monarch.

No doubt the Emperor was perfectly aware of the situation. But he felt that what was a new aristocracy in truth, though not yet so in name, must be appeased as well as the people. He was furious at times with the venality of his associates. Talleyrand once admitted that he had taken sixty millions from various German princes. Massena, Augereau, Brune, and Junot were not so colossal in their greed, but they were equally ill-disposed, and very successful in lining their coffers. With Talleyrand Napoleon never joked; but when he wished to give a warning to the others he drew a bill for some enormous sum on one or other of them, and deposited it with a banker. There is no evidence that such a draft was ever dishonored. On one occasion Massena disgorged two millions of francs in this way. Of the ancient nobility the Emperor once said, with a sneer: “I offered them rank in my army, they declined the service. I opened my antechambers to them, they rushed in and filled them.” To this sweeping statement there were many noteworthy exceptions, but on the whole Napoleon never classed the estate of the French nobles lower than they deserved. Still they had a power which he recognized, and it was with a sort of grim humor that he began to distribute honors and the sops of patronage among both the old and the new aristocracy a process which only made the latter independent and failed to win the affections of the former.

It was in the hope of securing the good will of the ancient nobility that he took two steps radical in their direct negation of Revolutionary principles: the destruction of the tribunate and the restoration of the right of entail. The connection between the two lies in the tendency of both: merging tribunate and legislature made it easy to substitute for an elective senate a hereditary house of lords. Feeling himself sufficiently strong, Napoleon clearly intended to gratify in others the weak human pride which, as Montesquieu says, desires the eternity of a name, and thereby to erect a four-square foundation for the perpetuity of his own dynasty. The brothers Joseph, Louis, and Jerome were now no longer Bonapartes, but Napoleons, ruling as Joseph Napoleon, Louis Napoleon, Jerome Napoleon, over their respective fiefs. Murat, the brother-in-law, was already provided for in the same way, and there were three reigning princes among the satellites of the imperial throne. All these could transmit their name and dominions in the line of hereditary succession. It may be read in the “Moniteur” of July, 80, that, in whatever position they were placed by Napoleon’s politics and the interest of his empire, their first duty was to him, their second to France. “All your other duties, even those to the people I may intrust to you, are only secondary.”

Ten years earlier General Bonaparte had declared that what the French wanted was glory and the gratification of their vanity; of liberty, he said, they knew nothing. The Emperor Napoleon, in one of his spoken musings, applied the same conception to all continental Europeans, saying that there were everywhere a few men who knew what freedom was and longed to secure it; but that the masses needed paternal guidance, and enjoyed it as long as they were comfortable. The asylum of this enlightened minority in France was for a time the tribunate; to many it seemed that, if free government be government by discussion, in the tribunate alone was any semblance of freedom left; its name had consequently retained a halo of nobility, and its mere existence was a comfort to the few who still recalled the ideals of the Revolution. But, in truth, the body itself had ceased to have any dignity whatsoever. The system of legislation was briefly this: from the throne came a message exposing the situation of the country, the council of state then formulated the measures set forth as necessary, the tribunate approved them in one or other of its sections, and the legislature gave the enacting vote. The suppression of the tribunate, therefore, appeared to the general public like final proceedings in bankruptcy. Some of the members went into the legislature, some into official administrative positions, and the right of discussion in committee behind closed doors was transferred to certain sections of the legislature. By way of compensation it was “decreed by the senate,” as the formality was called, that no man could thenceforth sit in the legislature until he had reached the age of forty. Perhaps Napoleon remembered that his own fiery ambition had made him emperor before he was thirty-six. The measure was announced to the tribunes as a mere matter of course, and created no stir at the time. In later years it was recalled that the English Parliament under the Plantagenets had never entirely perished, and so was ready for powerful deeds in more propitious days. But in France’s later crisis the French tribunate could not be revived; with it disappeared forever the last rallying-point for the scattered remnant still true to the Revolution.

The complement of this negative measure was the creation of the right to transmit together, and for an indefinite time, a title and the realty on which its dignity reposed. Though the restoration of this institution was slightly anterior in time to the other as to its beginnings, yet the final decree was not published until 808, and logically it is complementary and subsequent to it. To this day many men of ancient and honorable name in France have not ceased to bemoan the destruction of primogeniture by the Revolution and the Code Napoleon. They are proud to transmit their title untarnished to their descendants, are ready to make serious sacrifices in its behalf, to exercise the rigid self-denials of family control for its sake, and to engrave the motto of “noblesse oblige” on their hearts in order to sustain it; but they bitterly complain that without the majorat, and the transmission of outward, visible supports in land and houses to strengthen it, the empty sound carries little weight. The compulsory subdivision of estates at the death of the owner enables every scion to live, if not to thrive, on the home stock. The failure of France in colonization is largely due to the absence of men from good families among the colonizers, while England sends her younger sons to the ends of the earth, there to found new houses and perpetuate the old line under favorable conditions. Hence, too, the petty dimensions of aristocratic French life: little fortunes, little ambitions, little establishments, little families, among that very class in society which by cultivating the sentiment of honor should leaven the practical, materialistic temper of the multitude. At the present time, when the burghers amass in trade far greater fortunes than the aristocracy possess, when the learned secure greater power by intellectual vigor, when the demagogues grow mightier by the command of votes, titles alone carry little weight, and the virtues of honor, of chivalry, of elegance, can with difficulty display their example.

No argument can ever restore general confidence in the institution of primogeniture, but it dies hard, even in England. In the United States the absolute liberty of testamentary disposition enables a wealthy father to found a family almost as perfectly as if the right of entail existed, and the bulk of large fortunes is constantly left by will to the most capable son, in order that he may keep up the family name, the family estates, and the family pride. But under the provisions of the Code Napoleon such a course is impossible. As the lawgiver did not hesitate to contravene his own legislation in the case of the Jews, so he again disregarded it in order to consolidate that aristocracy of which he hoped to make another strong prop to his throne; for he already had the Church and the people. “The code,” he said, “was made for the welfare of the people; and if that welfare demands other measures, we must take them.” This was not difficult, because the imperial power had gradually shaped two instruments wherewith to act: one was the laws sanctioned by the legislature and pertaining ordinarily to abstract questions of jurisprudence; the other was the Emperor’s personal decrees, which, though discussed by the council of state, were the expression of the Emperor’s will, and covered in their scope the whole field of authority.

It was by the latter course that he had intended to create the new nobility. Ostensibly the measure was to be the last blow of the ax at the root of feudalism. The new dignities carried no privilege with them; they were, it was explained, a sort of civic crown to which any one might aspire, and their creation was therefore in no way derogatory to the principle of equality. The holders might become too independent and self-reliant, they might even display a class spirit; but the Emperor felt himself to be striving upward, these creatures of his would have to run fast before they could outstrip their master. At St. Helena the prisoner, recalling with bitterness the ingratitude of his beneficiaries, declared that he took the unfortunate step in order to reconcile France with the rest of Europe. He was by that time aware that though the Legion of Honor was, and would continue to be, an institution dear to the French heart, this one was not so, and needed an apology; for his imperial nobility had never been taken seriously or kindly by the people, who could not draw the nice distinction between a feudal and an imperial aristocracy. Even in the first steps of his enterprise he was made to feel the need of caution, and it was by statute, after all, not by decree, that the whole matter was finally regulated. So curious is popular fickleness that an Emperor who could boldly tyrannize in almost any other direction felt that he dared not take the risk of constituting himself a fountain of honor, such as legitimate monarchs were.

The system was for the world outside like some fairy wonder completed overnight, since the duchies had been ready the year before. The Italian titles were the most honorable and the most highly endowed. They were either at once or later given as follows: Soult, Duke of Dalmatia; Mortier, Duke of Treviso; Savary, Duke of Rovigo; Bessieres, Duke of Istria; Duroc, Duke of Friuli; Victor, Duke of Belluno; Moncey, Duke of Conegliano; Clarke, Duke of Feltre; Massena, Duke of Rivoli; Lannes Duke of Montebello; Marmont, Duke of Ragusa; Oudinot, Duke of Reggio; Macdonald, Duke of Taranto; Augereau, Duke of Castiglione; Bernadotte, Prince of Ponte Corvo. In Germany there were created three similar duchies Auerstaedt for Davout, Elchingen for Ney, and Dantzic for Lefebvre. Berthier was made Prince of Neufchatel. So much for the military officials. In civil life there were corresponding distinctions: Cambaceres, Duke of Parma; Maret, Duke of Bassano; Lebrun, Duke of Piacenza; Fouche, Duke of Otranto; Champagny, Duke of Cadore. The members of the senate, the councilors of state, the presiding officers of the legislature, and the archbishops were all created counts. Each one of these titles was, like the others, richly endowed with land from the public domains in Poland, Germany, and Italy. But the distinction bestowed on the soldiers was marked in the difference between the accompanying gifts to them and those to civilians. The only portion of the great force which had returned to France was the guard, who were instructed to keep themselves as exclusive as possible. A most lavish pension-system, as it was considered even in that age of military splendor, drew from the army chest five hundred francs a year for soldiers who had lost a limb; officers received as high as ten thousand francs, according to the nature of their disabilities. But the marshals were showered with gold. Berthier had a million; Ney, Davout, Soult, and Bessieres, six hundred thousand each; Massena, Augereau, Bernadotte, Mortier, and Victor, four hundred thousand apiece; and the rest two hundred thousand. But even this was nothing to what some of them secured later by holding several offices at once. At one time Berthier had a yearly income of a million three hundred and fifty-five thousand francs; Davout, of nine hundred and ten thousand; Ney, of seven hundred and twenty-eight thousand; Massena, of six hundred and eighty-three thousand. The ministers were able to secure salaries averaging about two hundred thousand francs, and ambassadors had incomes corresponding to their dignity. Caulaincourt, the ablest of all the latter class, had eight hundred thousand francs at St. Petersburg wherewith to support the imperial state of France. It is interesting to note from Napoleon’s letters that he had occasionally to admonish some of these gentlemen to make use of their titles.

The Revolution had chosen to find its artistic expression in the correct and strict severity of classical forms. Napoleon had from the beginning of his career been under the spell of Greek and Roman examples. Thus it happened that the art of the First Empire was what it is heavy, conventional, and reminiscent. With the ever-growing rigidity of censorship, literature sometimes took refuge in abstractions, or, what is much the same thing, in the contemplation of events so remote that their discussion could give no offense. Sometimes authors accepted the curious task of defending the external forms and results of the Revolution as expressed in the Empire, while combating every principle from which the movement had sprung. Able men like Chenier published some of their writings, and locked others in their desks against a brighter day. In religion the Emperor’s principle was that his subjects should hate the English because they were heretics, and the Pope because he was a fanatic. The “ideologues” and “metaphysicians” were anarchists, for the public order was endangered by their teachings. The newspapers were not only gagged, but metamorphosed the “French Citizen” into the “French Courier,” the “Journal of Debates” into the “Journal of the Empire.” Their columns were filled with laudations of the Emperor; their political articles were virtually composed in the Foreign Office; and there was not a symptom of anything like the existence of party feeling. A certain journalist having been allowed to make statements concerning the luxury at court, the editor of the offending paper was given to understand that the Emperor would tolerate no such criticism nor any remarks contrary to his interests.

But the crowning work of this period was the final realization of the plan for organizing public instruction in what was designated by the head of the state as the Imperial University. Though somewhat changed in name and character, it exists to-day virtually as it came from the maker’s hand. Like the institution of the prefecture, it is a faultless machine of equalization and centralization, molding the mass of educated Frenchmen into one form, rendering them responsive and receptive to authoritative ideas from their youth upward, and passive in their attitude toward instruction. Joseph de Maistre used to preach that, all social order depending on the authority of beliefs as well as on the authority of behavior, no man who denied the supremacy of the Pope would permanently admit the sovereignty of the state. Napoleon furnished a standing refutation of this thesis. The whole system of public instruction in France has under the third republic not merely been secularized, but it has been made, and for a quarter of a century has remained, substantially infidel. Twenty-five academic generations of living French citizens, reckoning each year’s output as a generation, have come out from its laboratory with a minimum of faith; but state supremacy and state socialism are, in a moderate form, more prevalent among them than among any similar body of men elsewhere.

The University of France means literally the totality of all instruction in the country, organized by successive stages into a single system, and rigidly controlled from above. The outlines sketched in the law passed in 802, and supplemented in 806, were carefully followed by Napoleon in his final step, and neither the theory nor the method need be again discussed. It is significant that it was an imperial decree, and not a statute, which on March seventeenth, 808, created the organism. There was an endowment of four hundred million francs, and a separate budget, “in order that instruction might not suffer by passing disturbances in imperial finances.” In order, also, that its doctrine might not feel the influence of every passing philosophical fashion, the corporation was subordinate to, but separate from, the ministry, with a grand master, chancellor, and treasurer of its own, and thirty members, of whom ten were appointed for life by the Emperor, the rest being annually designated by the grand master. They made rules for the discipline, revised the textbooks, and chose the instructors of all the institutions of learning in all France, except some of the great ecclesiastical seminaries and a few of the technical schools. At the outset it was ordered that all the masters, censors, and teachers in the great intermediate schools or lyceums should be celibates! The professors might marry, but in that case they could not live in the precincts of what was virtually a military barrack.

Liberal culture, so far as given, was provided in the lyceums, and they really form the heart of the university. Under the Empire their instruction was largely in mathematics, with a sprinkling of Latin. It is now greatly broadened and elevated. The pupils of the primary schools felt a quasi-dependence on the Emperor; those of the lyceums were the very children of patronage, for the cheapness of their education, combined with their semi-military uniforms and habits, impressed at every turn on them and their families the immanence of the Empire. They entered by government examinations; all their letters passed through the head master’s hands; they were put under a threefold system of espionage culminating in the grand master; the one hundred and fifty scholarships and bourses in each were paid by the state; the punishments were, like those of soldiers, arrest and imprisonment. With the acquisition of military habits the young lyceen could look forward to military promotion, for two hundred and fifty of the most select were sent every year to the military schools, where they lived at the Emperor’s expense, expecting professional advancement by the Emperor’s patronage. Others of less merit were detached for the civil service, and in that also their careers were at the imperial mercy. They were daily and hourly reminded of Napoleon’s greatness, for twenty-four hundred foreigners from the vassal states of the Empire were scattered among these institutions, where they were turned into Frenchmen and docile subjects at the Emperor’s expense, while being virtually held as hostages for the good behavior of their parents. These powerful engines did not work in vain. During the comparatively short existence of the Empire their product assumed enormous proportions, and largely modified the temper of society throughout France. The youth educated by priests or tutors were found unable to keep pace with their favored contemporaries from the government schools, and from the first no prophet was needed to foretell the destiny of private institutions and ecclesiastical seminaries. Little by little they made way for or became annexed to the lyceums which one after another were founded wherever needed. The charges of the latter were, and are, very low; and thrifty fathers appreciate the fact. The state is at enormous cost to support them; but public sentiment, preferring indirect to direct taxation, approves of the expenditure, while crafty statesmen, whether royalist, imperialist, or republican, employ them to create citizens of the kind in power at the time.

Throughout the late summer and autumn of 807 the imperial court was more stately than ever before. The old nobility became assiduous in their attendance, and, as one of the Empress’s ladies in waiting is said to have remarked they “received good company.” On his return Napoleon had found Josephine’s extravagance to be as unbounded as ever; but he could not well complain, because, although for the most part frugal himself, he had latterly encouraged lavishness in his family. Still, it was not agreeable to have dressmakers’ bills flung into his carriage when driving in state with his consort, and on one occasion he sent an unprincipled but clever milliner to the prison of Bicetre for having disobeyed his orders in furnishing her wares to the Empress at exorbitant prices. The person was so indispensable to the court ladies, however, that they crowded her cell, and she was soon released. At St. Cloud, Malmaison, the Tuileries, and Fontainebleau the social vices of courts began to appear; but they were sternly repressed, especially high play. By way of contrast, the city of Paris was at that very moment debauched by a profusion of gambling-hells and houses of prostitution, all licensed at an enormous figure by Fouche and producing great revenues for the secret police. The gorgeous state uniforms of the marshals, the rich and elegant costumes of the ladies, the bespangled and begilt coats of the household, dancing, theatricals, concerts, and excursions all these elements should have combined to create brilliancy and gaiety in the imperial circle, but they did not.

There was something seriously amiss with the central figure. He was often sullen and morose, often violent and even hysterical. To calm his nervous agitation the court physician ordered warm baths, which he spent hours in taking. Then again he was irregular in his habits, being often somnolent during the daytime, but as frequently breaking his rest at midnight to set the pens of his secretaries scampering to keep pace with the flow of his speech. With old friends he was coarse and severe: even the brutal Vandamme confessed that he trembled before that “devil of a man,” while Lannes was the only human being who still dared to use the familiar “thou” in addressing his old comrade. To the face of his generals the Emperor was merely cold: behind their backs he sneered saying, for instance, of Davout that he might give him never so much renown, he would not be able to carry it; of Ney that he was disposed to ingratitude and turbulence; of Bessieres, Oudinot, and Victor that they were mere mediocrities. Among all these dazzling stars he himself moved in simple uniform and in a cocked hat ornamented with his favorite cheap little cockade. It was a well-calculated vanity, for with increasing corpulence plainness of dress called less attention to his waddling gait and growing awkwardness of gesture.

The summer of 807 saw the social triumph of the Bonaparte family, the sometime Jacobins, but now emperor and kings. Jerome Napoleon was married on August twenty-second to the Princess Catherine of Wuertemberg. The Emperor had already spoken at Tilsit with the Czar about unions for himself and family suitable to their rank, but the hint of an alliance with the Romanoffs was coldly received. In the Emperor’s opinion this, however, was a really splendid match. The Rhine princes and subsidiary monarchs hastened to Paris, and one of them showed his want of perspicacity by marked attentions to Josephine, which he hoped would secure her husband’s favor. When men of such lofty and undisputed lineage were joining what was apparently an irresistible movement, the recusant nobility of France itself could not well stand aloof any longer. It amused and interested the Emperor to see them obey Fouche’s hint, and throng to be introduced in the correct way to the new and undisputed sovereign, not merely of France, but of western Europe.

Moreover, they were no longer impertinent. They remembered the fate meted out to Mme. de Stael for her solemn innuendos, and did not forget that the last item in the indictment on which Mme. de Chevreuse had been banished was a snippish remark to Napoleon’s face. Astonished at the splendor of her diamonds, he had in his own court clumsily asked if they were all real. “Indeed, sire, I do not know,” she replied; “but they are good enough to wear here.” In consequence, therefore, of this new and now well-intentioned element the court swelled in numbers and gained in grace, but not in joyousness. The Empress was already foreboding her fate; there was the stiffness of inaptitude about everything, even the amusement, and the languid weariness of the ladies was an unforgiven imperial sin. The quick wit of the Emperor remarked this annoying fact, and demanded counsel of Talleyrand. The Prince of Benevento had by this time resigned his position as minister, and the relations between himself and the Emperor were strained, but he was not rebuked when he ventured on the old license of speech. “It is because pleasure will not move at the drum-tap,” was his answer, “and you look as if you would command every one just as you do the army: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, forward march!’”

Talleyrand’s numberless intrigues, his venality and self-seeking, his cynicism and contemptuous airs, had finally destroyed his preponderance with Napoleon, although he still retained much influence. No one was better aware of the fact than he was. Thus far he had reckoned himself an indispensable factor in the administration of the Empire; now he saw that he was so no longer, that his time had come.

He had a sterile mind, and was destitute of principle. Constructive politics were beyond his powers, and he was hopelessly ignorant of social movements. The real Europe of his time was to him a closed book; and while Napoleon was well served in every other function of state, because he himself could assist and supervise, he was wretchedly betrayed in the matter of permanent gains by diplomacy, in which he was personally a blunderer and a tyro. Talleyrand was a distinguished and typical aristocrat of the old French school, elegant, adroit, smooth-spoken, and sharp. He was an unequaled courtier, influential by his moderation in word, gesture, and expression, but a feeble adviser, and utterly incapable of broad views. His character, being unequal to his skill, was not strong enough either to curb or guide a headstrong master, for his intellect was neither productive nor solid. No treaty ever made by him was lasting, and he must have known that even the peace of Tilsit would begin to crumble almost before the papers were signed. The balance of Europe was disturbed but temporarily by that agreement, not permanently, as had been intended; the attempted seclusion of Prussia by Napoleon destroyed her old antagonism to other German powers, and marked the beginning of amalgamation with all her sister states for the reconstruction of an avenging German nationality.

Something may be forgiven to an adventurer in the storms of revolution, but Talleyrand trimmed his sails to every wind, outrode every storm, and made gains in every port. He was a trusted official of the Republic, the Consulate, the Empire, and the restored monarchy. Wise in his day and generation, he had long before made ready to withdraw, if necessary, from active life, by the accumulation of an enormous fortune, heaped up by means which scandalized even imperial France. He had been embittered at the close of the Consulate by Napoleon’s determination that his ministers should not be his highest dignitaries, his arch-officers. The title of “prince,” with two hundred thousand francs a year, was a poor consolation when men like Lebrun and Cambaceres had the precedence as arch-treasurer and arch-chancellor, while most unendurable of all they drew salaries of three hundred and fifty thousand francs. Berthier, the Prince of Neufchatel, had recently been made vice-constable to represent Louis Bonaparte, who, though still constable, had left Paris to become Louis Napoleon, King of Holland. This was Talleyrand’s opportunity to resign from the ministry on his own initiative. He demanded a dignity for himself similar to that accorded to Berthier. The Emperor told him that, accustomed to power as he had become, he would be unhappy in a station which precluded his remaining in the cabinet. But the minister knew his rôle in the little comedy, and, persisting, was on August ninth made vice-grand elector, while Champagny, an excellent and laborious official, took his seat at the council-board as minister of external relations. Talleyrand’s withdrawal had not the slightest influence on the Emperor’s foreign policy; in fact, the quidnuncs at Fontainebleau declared that he was seen limping into Napoleon’s office almost every evening. But he was so well known in every court, his circle of personal acquaintances was so large, so timorous, and so reverential, that superstitious men believed his retirement augured the turn of Napoleon’s fortunes.