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William Doyle is the author of 15 books, including The Oxford History of the French Revolution.
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Napoleon Bonaparte Pocket Giants
By William Doyle
The History PressCopyright © 2015 William Doyle
All rights reserved.
The Revolutionary Legacy
The Revolution, despite all its horrors, has nevertheless been the true cause of the regeneration of our ways.
Though it was often predicted, the seizure of power in France by a soldier only came about after ten years of revolution. Even then, as General Bonaparte surrounded the legislature with soldiers on 9 November 1799, not all obeyed him without hesitation. The unreliability of the army had dogged the French Revolution from the start. Nobody had trusted it in 1789. The people of Paris were terrified that the king would use troops to dissolve the self-proclaimed National Assembly and cow the capital into acceptance. That was why they had stormed the Bastille on 14 July, in a desperate search for arms to defend themselves. But mutinous soldiers had also joined the insurrection. The French Revolution succeeded because Louis XVI dared not risk sending troops he no longer trusted into the riotous city.
The next three years brought a widespread collapse of military discipline as the ranks turned against their aristocratic officers and many of the latter emigrated. Foreign rulers watched with malicious pleasure, concluding that any future conflict with France would be a walk-over. The coming of war in 1792 proved them wrong, but until 1794 the French army was fully occupied in defending the embattled Republic against external enemies and provincial rebels. There were no spare troops to police Paris, and, without reliable defenders, the National Convention was at the mercy of the revolutionary militants of the capital, the sans-culottes.
The army was transformed after 1793 by mass conscription, and by victories against both foreign and internal enemies. By 1795 the Convention felt confident enough to deploy disciplined troops against Parisian insurgents – most spectacularly in October under the command of 'General Vendémiaire'. From then on, the army and its generals were regularly involved in politics and constantly concerned that the quarrels of civilians might squander the fruits of their victories.
Those quarrels were largely about the meaning of the Revolution. It had begun when Louis XVI, an absolute monarch who shared his authority with nobody, was forced by financial collapse and bankruptcy to convoke a long-defunct representative assembly, the Estates-General. Elections throughout the spring of 1789 proved the occasion for an outpouring of grievances about the way the kingdom was governed and society organised. Yet, six weeks after the Estates convened, nothing had been achieved as the claims of commoner deputies for a voice commensurate with the numbers they represented were resisted by nobles insisting on their traditional privileges.
Non-noble frustration boiled over on 17 June when a majority of the deputies declared themselves to be the National Assembly, in effect seizing sovereignty from the king in the name of the French nation. Louis XVI was reluctantly forced to accept this – a loss he barely understood as yet. His failure to act against the rioters on 14 July saved the Assembly and vindicated its claims. Henceforth the sovereignty of the nation was accepted as the founding doctrine of the French Revolution. Successive regimes, including Napoleon's, acknowledged it whenever they made constitutional changes, rigged though the plebiscites which endorsed them might be.
The National Assembly saw its mission as giving France a written constitution. Prefaced by a Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the constitution enshrined representative government, the rule of law, equality (of men at least) before the law, careers open to talent, freedom of thought and expression, and security of persons and property from arbitrary power. Inspired by these fundamental principles, the Assembly abolished most of the social and institutional structures that had evolved in France over many centuries and replaced them by what the deputies hoped were more rational and humane values, deriving from the enlightened thought of the decades before 1789.
Boundaries were redrawn wholesale. Administrative units were made as equal and uniform as possible. A commitment was declared – and honoured by subsequent assemblies – to produce a single nationwide decimal system of weights and measures and a uniform code of laws. Cruel and unusual punishments were abandoned. Even the death penalty was challenged, albeit unsuccessfully. (The guillotine, its new instrument, was chosen because it was swift, reliable and presumed painless and humane.)
Reforms so comprehensive could not fail to alienate those groups who lost by them. Nobles, stigmatised from the start by the fierce resistance of many of their number to the establishment of the National Assembly, soon found themselves deprived of the privileges and social advantages they had traditionally enjoyed. Increasing numbers flaunted their disgust by emigrating. In 1790 the Assembly decreed the abolition of nobility itself. (By then the term 'aristocratic' had come to mean anything contrary to the spirit of the Revolution.) Not all nobles, including the young Buonaparte, were opposed to the new order, but the antics of the émigrés left them all under constant suspicion.
Even more explosive were the Revolution's dealings with the Catholic Church. From the start, the Assembly's policy was to nationalise it. Paradoxically, this implied taking away the Church's former monopoly of public recognition and granting full toleration to other creeds. As early as August 1789 the Church was stripped of its income, and only weeks later its lands (a sixth of the country) were confiscated and put up for sale to fund the nation's debts. Monasteries were dissolved, dioceses and parishes rationalised, and the clergy transformed, under the Civil Constitution of the Clergy of 1790, into elected, salaried servants of the state. The pope was not consulted, and he made his hostility increasingly plain, leaving many clerics uncertain about accepting the reforms. Outraged at such flouting of the national will, the Assembly subjected the entire clergy to an oath of loyalty. It was stunned to find that over half refused.
The Church split, opening up the deepest wound inflicted by the Revolution. A polarised clergy meant a polarised laity. The virulence of resistance to the oath eventually cast doubt on the loyalty of even those 'constitutional' clergy who had taken it. By 1793 attempts were being made to 'dechristianise' the country entirely, and in 1795 the Republic renounced all religious affiliations. Priests were vilified as fomenters of counter-revolution, and wherever they went French armies were particularly violent towards the Church and the clergy. In 1799 the army marched on Rome and captured the pope himself. Pius VI died in France six weeks before Napoleon returned from Egypt. When the Consulate began it seemed as if the pope might have no successor.
The most spectacular casualty of religious division was the monarchy itself. There had been little or no republicanism at the outset of the Revolution in 1789, and faith in the king's good intentions only eroded slowly. The transfer, under popular pressure, of the royal family and the National Assembly from Versailles to Paris in October 1789 was intended to guarantee Louis XVI's continued co-operation with the process of reform. But, as the evolving constitution left him with ever fewer independent powers, the king realised that he had become a prisoner. When, in 1791, the pope condemned the Civil Constitution and the clergy who accepted it, the king faced a crisis of conscience. He tried to escape but was stopped at Varennes and brought back to a capital now seething with republican sentiment. His cause was not helped when foreign rulers began to threaten intervention on his behalf.
Desperate to save the constitutional monarchy it had spent two years planning, the Assembly reinstated the king and hurried its work to completion. The constitution came into operation in October with a newly elected Legislative Assembly. But when it passed laws against the émigrés and nonjuring priests, the king vetoed them. To compel him to reveal his true colours, the legislature began to press for war against the Austrians. Hoping for rescue by his wife's family, Louis XVI happily concurred, but a disastrous start to the campaign and bloodthirsty threats from the advancing enemy provoked the people to an attack on the royal palace on 10 August 1792, witnessed with incredulity and disgust by the young Napoleon. The monarchy was overthrown, and a new national assembly – the Convention – was elected to draft a constitution for a republic. It put the deposed king on trial for betraying the nation and, in January 1793, he was condemned to death.
War had brought the monarchy down. Launched with the king's fatal connivance, by the end of 1792 the war had become a republican struggle against the monarchies of Europe, with the French promising fraternity and help to all peoples struggling to recover their liberty. Few responded. Most states and their populations were appalled at the prospect of a godless regicide republic declaring open-ended war. Many French citizens were equally horrified, and in the spring of 1793 open rebellion broke out in the Vendée and other parts of western France among those seeking the restoration of Church and king. Over the summer the major cities of the south also rose up against the Paris-dominated Convention.
There followed a year of civil as well as foreign war, as the Republic struggled for survival. A low point was reached at the end of August, when the great Mediterranean naval port of Toulon surrendered to the British. It seemed that traitors were everywhere, and the Convention reacted, under sans-culotte pressure, by proclaiming a reign of terror against them. As soon as centres of rebellion were retaken, hundreds were executed in massive reprisals. At Toulon, recovered through a plan devised by artillery captain Bonaparte, there were mass shootings. Elsewhere, the guillotine left streets running with blood. Upwards of 30,000 perished in nine months, culminating in the early summer of 1794 with weeks of centralised bureaucratic executions in Paris. It was a shocking spectacle which would mar the memory of the French Revolution for ever.
The rhetoric of the Jacobins who ran the Terror, and their figurehead Maximilien Robespierre, whose downfall in July signalled its end, claimed that it was necessary to secure the survival of liberty and the egalitarian, rational and humane values that the original revolutionaries had set out to establish. Certainly the Terror's ferocity ensured that the Republic survived the crisis of 1793–94. But could the Republic work without it? 'It was terror', Napoleon later opined, 'that killed the republic.'
Over the next five years, there were sincere efforts to make the Republic work. A new constitution divided executive power between five directors with an annually elected legislature of two 'Councils'. To ensure that it operated as intended, two thirds of the seats were initially reserved for members of the Convention which had produced the constitution, but monarchists, who had hoped to use free elections to restore the émigré brother of Louis XVI, saw this as a betrayal. It was a conservative uprising against the Two Thirds Law that was dispersed by Bonaparte's guns in Vendémiaire. The elections in 1797 gave further impetus to the conservative cause; within months they had to be largely annulled with the open connivance of the conqueror of Italy, in the coup of Fructidor. Nor were the elections of the next two years entirely free – or their results unchallenged by the Directory.
The events of the Revolution had, in fact, left the political nation so polarised that the electorate could not be trusted to support the republican constitution. Many, perhaps a majority, did not want a republic at all. They saw it as illegitimate – established by violence and maintained by terror – and they longed for a stability that seemingly could only be provided by a return to monarchy, priests and the consolations of religion. Although open rebellion in the Vendée had been crushed, much of western France remained disturbed by counter-revolutionary lawlessness inspired by monarchism and support for persecuted priests. Whole swathes of the south witnessed a murderous 'White Terror' targeting Jacobins who had wielded local power in the time of Robespierre.
The latter, and their sympathisers, were often called anarchists by their enemies, but at least they were republicans. Accordingly, when royalism needed to be resisted, the Directory encouraged them. Not for nothing were the months after Fructidor known as the 'Directorial Terror', with renewed persecution of priests, ex-nobles and émigrés. Jacobinism acquired a new momentum when war, which had gone so well for the Republic since 1794, once more began to go badly in the dying months of 1798. Systematic mass conscription was introduced, provoking widespread resistance and compounding rural disorder which the Directory seemed incapable of curtailing. Sinister echoes of the Terror began to be heard from old Jacobins, with calls for the persecution of nobles, émigrés and the rich in general.
By the end of the summer the crisis was abating. The armies were winning battles again, and a proposal to suspend the rule of law by formally declaring the country to be in danger was defeated. But everyone was rattled. Lurching from crisis to crisis, the Directory seemed incapable of stabilising the Republic created by the Revolution. By the time General Bonaparte returned from his heroic adventure in Egypt, he was welcomed by men seeking military support to overthrow the constitution and start afresh.CHAPTER 2
A Corsican's Luck
That little bugger of a general scares me.
General P.F.C. Augereau, 1796
Napoleon always believed in luck, and his career is unimaginable without it. He was even lucky to be French. When he was born in Ajaccio, Corsica, on 15 August 1769, the island had only been a French possession for a year, after centuries of Genoese rule. His ancestors were Italian, and he spoke Italian as readily as French. He was also lucky to be born into a noble family. The island's new French rulers set out to cultivate influential natives and arranged for the sons of Carlo Buonaparte to be educated in colleges reserved for poor nobles in France. Napoleon went to a military academy at Brienne, and then on to the Military School in Paris to be trained as an artillery officer. As a student he read widely, and as a young officer he even tried writing pamphlets and fiction. On his later campaigns he always travelled with a portable library of classics.
He felt an outsider among his French classmates, however, and his earliest political dreams were of returning to Corsica to lead an independence movement. He found regular pretexts for going back and spent four of his first six years as an officer on periodic leave in his native island. If he welcomed the coming of the Revolution it was largely because it allowed the return from exile of Paoli, the legendary leader of mid-century campaigns for Corsican freedom. But Paoli distrusted the Buonapartes, and soon enough he was quarrelling with the new regime in Paris. The young officer, who liked what the revolutionaries were trying to achieve and saw no reason to resign his commission, soon became identified with French interests. Early in 1793 his family was driven out of the island by Paolist mobs.
This too was a sort of luck. It dispelled Napoleon's ambivalence about where his loyalties lay. From this point on he began to spell his name the French way. Within the year he was proving his value as a French officer with his plan to retake Toulon. Here he had the first of many fortunate escapes, when he sustained a bayonet wound in the thigh. At the Battle of Arcola in 1796 he was almost drowned; in Paris in 1800 he avoided by seconds the explosion of an 'infernal machine' primed to assassinate him; at the siege of Ratisbon in 1809 he was hit by a spent round; at Eylau in 1807 and during the retreat from Moscow in 1812 he was almost captured by Cossacks. His escapes from Egypt in 1799 and Elba in 1815 also seemed little short of miraculous. No wonder he came to believe that a benevolent 'star' guided his destiny. He believed it of others, too: when a name came before him recommended for command, he would often ask, 'Is he lucky?'
The Revolution was a fortunate time for a young officer of talent. The emigration of so many noble officers unblocked the channels of promotion. Merely being noble could attract suspicion, but ostentatious patriotism could outweigh it. The next stage in Napoleon's progress owed much to a chance meeting with another noble-turned-revolutionary activist, Paul Barras. Sent by the Convention to oversee the siege of Toulon, Barras secured the promotion to brigadier general of the captain who planned the port's recapture – a rise which would have been unthinkable before 1789. It was Barras who gave the new general command of the troops in Vendémiaire. And then he introduced him to the widow Beauharnais, his former mistress.
Excerpted from Napoleon Bonaparte Pocket Giants by William Doyle. Copyright © 2015 William Doyle. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: A Giant at 5ft 6in 7
1 The Revolutionary Legacy 19
2 A Corsican's Luck 31
3 Ending the Revolution 43
4 Building a Future 55
5 Napoleonic Wars 67
6 Upending Europe 77
7 Resistance 89
8 Downfall 99
9 Aftermath 109
Family Tree 8
Further Reading 125
Web Links 127