1902 Encyclopedia > France > French History: The Empire (1804)

(Part 17)


The Empire (1804)

Imperialism is an overlordship over nations. It is more than this; it is, strictly speaking, the representation of both the empire of old Rome and the Holy Roman Empire, with all the high claims involved therein. In this sense, imperialism claims temporal lordship over all the earth, and rears its head side by side with the papacy, which asserts a spiritual headship as wife and as complete. The full theory of neither has ever been realized; and as time has gone on, both ideas have grown weaker, and pale images of both have sprung up. as the world has become wider, it has become clear that neither the principle of nationality nor that of independence of thought was compatible with either empire or papacy. And, as time has gone on, the imperial name itself has undergone large modifications. We have seen an empress of India, an emperor of Austria, an emperor of China, an emperor of Mexico, - all names completely wide of the true imperial idea. And the title of "Empereur des Francais," which Bonaparte now assumed, with acclamation of France, carried in itself a reversal of old ideas, for it affirmed a personal lordship, based on the sovereignty of the people, as expressed by a plebiscite. Be this as it may be, the power was real, and was wielded with iron will and unscrupulous genius.

The strength of England on the seas soon compelled Napoleon to make his chief attack on Austria, while England and Russia once more drew together against him. In 1805 his grand army penetrated into the valley of the Danube took Ulm, and in spite of the king of Prussia’s accession to the coalition, pushed on as far as to Vienna. Napoleon occupied all the upper and middle Danube valley, and then marched northwards in pursuit of the emperor Francis of Austria, who had fled into Moravia. On the 2d of December 1805 he won the great battle of Austerlitz, which for the time reduced the allies to impotence. Peace followed at Presburg (26th December 1805) between France and Austria, by which that ancient power was parted out among its neighbors.

Two months before this the decisive battle of Trafalgar had finally disposed of the remaining naval force of France and Spain (21st October 1805), and, leaving England in complete security, enabled her to continue without fear her task of obstinate resistance, at the very moment when France seemed to have completely triumphed over the united hostility of continental Europe.

The emperor at once, characteristically guided by his love of grand conceptions and far-reaching combinations, set himself to surround France with a great system of "federative states of the empire," in "three compact nations of Italians, Germans, Spaniards." But if he overrated his own constructive genius, he underrated the obstinacy of his enemies, and soon found himself met by a fourth coalition, against which he proposed to build up the Confederacy of the Rhine, and to restore the dependence of the lesser German princes on France, and so to carry out the ideas of Henry IV., of Richelieu and Mazarin. War, however, broke out in a different quarter. The restoration by France of Hanover to England, a part of the series of negotiations which followed the peace of Presburg and the death of Pitt, roused the utmost anger in Prussia, and led to new combinations, as a consequence of which the king of Prussia, without waiting for help from England or Russia, rushed on war (September 1806). The battle of Jena (14th October 1806) and Auerstadt completely overthrew the Prussian power, and the conquest of Prussia was completed before the end of the year, and before the Russians had time to come up to the succour of their allies. A winter campaign followed, in which the sufferings of the troops and the obstinate resistance of the Russians at Pultusk and Eylau (8th February 1807) arrested the triumphant movement of the emperor for a time. in the summer of 1807, having secure the line of the Vistula, he defeated the Russians at Friedland (14th June), and took Konigsberg. The treaty of Tilsit (7th July 1807) followed; for Russia needed rest, and Napoleon was not sorry to pause. It is the highest point of the emperor’s renown. His hand was left throughout all Europe; it seemed as if England alone was beyond his power.

The determination of the emperor to rearrange the whole map of Europe, and to assert his power in every quarter, led him to that Spanish war whence sprang the resistance which at last overthrew him. For he decided on subduing the whole Peninsula, including Portugal; the Portuguese court took flight to Brazil on the approach of Junot, while Charles IV. of Spain, and his minister Godoy fled from Madrid at the approach of Murat. Napoleon, after some finessing with Charles’s son Ferdinand, placed Joseph Bonaparte, a very incompetent person, on the Spanish throne, and transferred Murat, who was his brother-in-law to the vacated throne of Naples. The Spaniards rose in revolt, and that wearing guerilla warfare began which opened the way for the successful arms of England. The capitulation of Baylen ruined for the time the French power in Spain; Dupont and Vedel were compelled to lay down their arms; in Portugal England now began to appear, and on 21st August 1808 Sir Arthur Wellesley won the battle of Vimiera. When Napoleon found that, as thus in Spain him, he ought to have recognized the hollowness of his friendships with the kings. He longed, however, to be one of their comity, as well as to have vassal kings and princes under himself; to this end he had created a new and high-sounding aristocracy around his throne; for this end when Germany, led by Austria, now began again to move against him, Napoleon drew towards Russia, and was completely duped by the emperor Alexander. Having, as he thought, made all safe on that side, he turned his attention to Spain, and, in spite of guerilla warfare, entered Madrid (4th December 1808). Sir John Moore, who from the west coast had penetrated as far as to Salamanca, was driven back by Soult supported by the emperor, and after the battle of Corunna (14th January 1809), in which he fought at bay and lost his life, the English had to embark and withdraw. The siege of Saragossa, however, contested with all the tenacity and devotion of the Spanish character, wore out the strength of the French forces, and their tenure of Spain was felt to be most precarious.

Now followed a fifth coalition against Napoleon, whose subjects at home were beginning to show signs of exhaustion. Still, when his army marched into Bavaria, it seemed as strong, as enthusiastic, as well commanded as ever. By splendid combinations and a series of victories, Napoleon swept down the Danube valley, and took Vienna. Ere long he was checked by the terrible battle of Gross Aspern or Essling (21st and 22d May 1809) just below Vienna, in which his victory was purchased at a price he could ill afford. He had to pause, while the Austrian court gathered itself together in Moravia. When he saw this, and felt that all Europe was beginning o move behind him, he too gathered his strength up, and marching against the Austrians defeated them, under the command of the archduke Chares, in the decisive battle of Wagram (5th and 6th July 1809), - a victory which, while it ruined for the time the military power of Austria, also weakened him to a dangerous point. It was therefore at once followed by the armistice of Znaim, which led, in a short time, to the hollow peace of Vienna. This agreement broke up the coalition, handed over to Napoleon the Illyrian provinces with a part of Tyrol, and gave him an imperial bride in Maria Louisa, daughter of the Austrian emperor. Napoleon at once returned to Paris, to celebrate his marriage, and to organize afresh his vast empire. Nothing escaped his care; he coerced the press, rearranged finance, which had grown to be a very heavy burden, saw that the church was duly submissive and duly paid, and held the pope in honorable bondage at Savona. In other parts things went not amiss: the follish Walcheren expedition mouldered away; in Spain Wellington with difficulty held out against Spanish indolence and corruption, and the genius of Marshal Soult. The lines of Torres Vedras (1810-1811), which the English general defended against Massena, form the turning-point of the history of Napoleon’s triumphs. His last great victory was Essling; henceforward his successes will bring no lasting good; his failures will draw him towards his fall. The successful winter in the Torres Vedras line swas followed by Wellington’s famous campaign of Almeirda, Badajoz, and Ciudad-Rodrigo (1811-1812), in which the English general separated Soult and Massena, while he secured for himself a splendid base of operations for the future.

But before this, the flattering friendship of Russia had turned to gall. Ever since the end of 1809 Napoleon had seen how hollow all was in the north, and at last, early in 1812, warbroke out. Napoleon, misled by brilliant schemes, and ever trustful in his star, determined at once to crush the resistance of Russia; as he had entered Berlin, Madrid, and Vienna, so he would also enter Moscow, and thence at last dictate peace to all the world. He seemed to think he had two things only to do, "conscrire et prescire," – to summon up and sacrifice the whole youth of France as conscripts, and then to prescribe his own terms to Europe. This terrible blunder cost him his throne. He left his soldiers in Spain to take care of themselves; though he must have seen that they were almost as much in want of help as that army had been which he so selfishly left behind him in Egypt. With this difficulty in his rear, and the vast distances, huge armies, and terrible climate of Russia before him, he set forth in the spring of 1812 on his famous and fatal march to Moscow. He crossed the Niemen, and reaching Wilna, the capital of Lithuania, halted there to recruit his troops (June 1812), which were in unusual disorder. Here he proclaimed his sympathy for Poland, while he tried not to offend the Austrians or to unsettle their share of the dismembered kingdom. Negotiations also went on; the emperor of Russia offered terms, which were refused at once; Bernadotte, now by election prince-royal of Sweden (21st August 1810), who knew the character of his late master, also had dealings with Napoleon, while at the same time he made alliance with the czar, and began a sixth coalition against France; England joined the new league, and Turkey made peace with Russia. Still Napoleon preserved; he won the hard-fought battle of Smolensk (17th August 1812), though he did not succeed in cutting off the retreat of the Russians, who burnt everything as they withdrew, leaving a desert for the French. The terrible battle of Borodino, one of the hardest struggles in history, gave Napoleon a victory, though the Russians again withdrew in good order (7th September). They did not attempt to defend Moscow, retiring thence, and leaving the capital as "a snare in which the ruin of the foe was inevitable." And so it proved; the French army entered Moscow in triumph, and Napoleon established himself at the Kremlin (15th September); the next day the whole town burst into flames; after five days nothing was standing save the churches, and perhaps a tenth of the city. It was savage as it was heroic; at any rate, it was completely successful. The emperor Alexander spurned all overtures for peace; his armies grew more threatening; the French communications were clearly unsafe; the winter was not far off; it looked as if Napoleon might even he shut up in Moscow. The great retreat was inevitable. In the middle of October the French army began to pour out of the gates of Moscow, and hen began a running battle at every point. The army bled at every pore, and Ney with the utmost heroism protected the rear. A last Napoleon reached Wilna; there the worst of the pursuit seemed to be over, and there were both food and raiment; there he, leaving Murat in command, abandoned the shattered remnants of the grand army, and took flight to France (5th December 1812). The remainder of the retreat was even more ruinous than what had gone before; it was but a handful out of so great a host that reached the frontiers of France again. Of 450,000 men who set forth, probably not 100,000 returned . In Spain affairs had been almost as bad for France. Early in 1812 Wellington had taken Ciudad Rodrigo and Badakoz, and then advancing into Spain, defeated Marmont and the French at Salamanca (22d July 1812), and occupied Madrid. In the autumn Soult, by able dispositions and a stronger force, compelled him to retreat again to Ciudad Rodrigo. The campaign had shown the weakness of the French occupation, while it had greatly lessened their resources and the part of the Spanish territory at their disposal.

France still worshipped her chief. The new and severe conscription gave him another vast army; and he set forth to punish Prussia, which had declared war against him, in concert with Russia. The Germans always have honored this period of their history as a great resurrection, and as the birthtime of their true national life. The emperor passed through Mainz to Erfurt, and fought his first battle, a severe one,on the plain of Lutzen; the defeated Prussains and Russians fell back in good order through Dresden, Nepoleon following them hard defeating them and driving them out of their entrenched camp at Bautzen (20th May 1813), whence they retreated again imperfect order. It was evident that the temper of Germany had entirely changed since Jena. An armistice, which followedm, led to much negotiation at Dresden, where Napoleon’s headuarters lay. The upshot of it all was that Austria joined Russia and Prussia, and the war went on. The attack of the allies on Dresden, which lasted two days (26th and 27thAugust), ended in their repulse and defeat; Russian supports came up in October, and it was plain that they were going to cut the French communications, and coop Napoleon up in Dresden for the winter. The king of Bavaria at this moment joined the allies, and made the emperor’s position still more precarious. He now withdrew from Dresden, and near Leipsic came into collision with his enemies, who were waiting for him there. On the 16th of October 1813 began one of the decisive battles in the world’s history. Napoleon’s forces were far outnumbered by those of the allies; and some of his German troops deserted in the thick of the fight. The battle raged on the 16th and the 18th; on the 19th Napoleon, completely defeated, began to withdraw. At Hanau he overthrew Wrede, and cut a passage for his army; the victorious emperors followed closely on his heels, and barely half his men reached home. The campaign had broken to pieces the dominance of France in Europe; and all the imperial creations, the confederationof the Rhine, the kingdom of Westphalia, the Batavian republic, camed to an end. George III resumed the electrorate of Hanover; Austria recovered her lost provinces; in Spain the throne of Joseph Bonaparte fell, for the battle of Vittoria (21st June 1813) had utterly destroyed the power of the French in the peninsula. Wellington drove them out of Spain, and in spite of the vigor and ability of Soult, the two great frontier fortresses of pampeluna and St Sebastian fell. Wellington entered southern France, and in November threatned Bayonne. Napoleon could only complain, with the tone of an irritated master, that he had been defeated by the treason of his servants, that is, of his German subjects.

On his return to Paris, the emperor found the tone of feeling very much changed. In the legislative body men ventured to denounce his rule; such outspoken words had not been heard for years. He angrily replied with his "l’etat, c’est moi," to attack me is to attack the nation," and abruptly closed their session. Henceforth he would rule alone, and alone with the ruins of his armies face the terrible invasion that was coming on. The whole conditions of his warfare changed; he must now act on the defensive, and bear to see France trodden under foot, even as France till now had trodden all Europe under her feet. The allies came in almost without resistance in three armies, - the Austrian from Basel advancing to Langres; Blucher with the Prussians crossed the Vosges to Nancy; the army of the north, Russians and Prussians, came down to Namur, and thence to Laon. In all there were full 200,000 of them, a force quite double that at the emperor’s disposal. They all sat on the inner slopes of the mountains which form the northern, north-eastern, and eastern defences of France, awaiting the moment to advance. Napoleon, had the one great advantage of the inner line. But after fighting the severe battle of Arces-sur-Aube, he tried to paralyse the allies by striking at their communications, and sol lost his one advantage ; for they, instead of hesitating, marched boldly on for Paris, defeated Mortier and Marmont in the very suburds, and forced the proud capital to surrender before Napoleon could come up to its defence. The allied emperors were received with cries of "Long live the king," "Long live the emperor Alexander." A provisional government of senators decreed the downfall of Napoleon; the other constituted bodies followed; the imperial government was a swept away as in an instant. The emperor, amazed at this sudden impulse of the country, abdicated 96th April 1814) on behalf of his son, and finally (11th April) he abdicated completely, offering himself, as he said, a "personal sacrifice" to France. His titles, honors, an ample income, and the island of Elba in full sovereignty, were left to him.

The restoration of the Bourbons followed at once. Louis XVII. Appeared in Paris, the protégé of foreign bayonets, and not ashamed to own that he owed his return to English help. Peace followed at once; France shrank back to her old dimensions, as she had been in 1792, with some slight modifications. Louis XVIII. lastly promulgated a new charter, granting some constitutional rights to his subjects. The document was dated as of the 19th year of his reign, as though Napoleon and the revolution had never been. The peerage was restored, its numbers now unlimited except by the king’s will, who alone could appoint peers; a chamber of deputies, elected by a limited suffrage, had really but little power, as the king reserved to himself the initiative of all laws; the Roman Catholic religion was declared the faith of the state, and full toleration granted to all dissidents. This was the constitutionalism of the reaction. It showed how far France had traveled from the days of the old regime. There was no question of ancient privileges or of feudal usages; the very name of States-General had disappeared. No reaction, however severe, ever brings things back to the point from which they had drifted; France could never again be what she had been under Louis XIV.

A congress at once assembled at Vienna, under Metternich’s presidency, with a view to a peaceful resettlement of Europe. It was, however, suddenly turned to warlike thoughts by the startling news that Napoleon, leaving Elba, had landed near Cannes (1st March 1815). He appealed to citizens and soldiers alike; he appealed to the people; he spoke only of peace and liberty, and a popular constitution. The army at once saluted him again as its emperor; France with a spontaneous plebiscite restored him to his throne, and Louis XVIII. fled to Ghent. Napoleon entered Paris amidst delirious transports of delight. Cooler reflexions soon followed, when the declaration of the allied sovereign was heard, and troubles began in the old royalist districts. Nor were men better pleased when it was seen that Napoleon returned at once to his old despotic manner of governing; signs of alienation showed themselves; the allied armies drew towards the frontiers of France. Blucher, with his Prussians, came down to join Wellington, who had landed in Flanders, and Napoleon hastened up to prevent their union. He sent Ney to encounter and check the English, while he himself tried to destroy the Prussians. He found them at Ligny, where, on June 16, 1815, he defeated them, though Ney was unable to force Quatre Bras, so as to be ready to fall on their flank and complete the rout. The consequence was that Blucher drew off his army unbroken to Wavre; and Wellington, to keep near him, also fell back to the village of Warerloo, where he could both cover Brussels and await the Prussians. There, on the 18th of June, 1815, took place the battle of Waterloo, in which Napoleon and Ney made their final effort for the empire. The object of Wellington was to hold his ground till Blucher could come up; the object of Napoleon was, by detaching Grouchy towards Wavre; to hinder the Prussians, till he could crush the English. Grouchy, however, let himself be deluded by a single Prussian corps, while Blucher slowly made his way towards Waterloo; and Wellington’s Englishmen and Germans, with heroic tenacity, had held their ground against all attacks. In the afternoon the Prussians began to come up, and after the repulse of the French guards towards evening, napoleon knew that all was lost. He entrusted his shattered army to Soult, and fled headlong to Paris. There, finding all hope gone, he once more abdicated, on behalf of his son. He withdrew to Rochefort, hoping to find means of escaping to America; but the English cruisers rendered this impossible, and he threw himself on the generosity of his hated foes. He was taken on board the Bellerophon, and conveyed as a state prisoner to the island of St Helena, where he lived, the mere shahow of his former self, in a hated and inglorious ease, till death released him in 1821, at the age of fifty-two.

There is a saying attributed to Talleyrand, which hits the prominent characteristics of Napoleon’s nature: - "What a pity that so great a man was so ill brought up!" For he had genius and no breeding; he never shook off the adventurer-element in his life; nor had he that high sense of honor, truthfulness, and gentleness which go with true nobility of soul. With a frame of iron, Napoleon could endure any hardships; and in war, in artillery especially and engineering, he stands unrivalled in the world’s history. His quick intelligence was altogether scientific in the colder and harder aspects of scientific knowledge. He took no interest in moral sciences or history, or the brighhhter works of imagination. Throughout we discern in him the precisian, the despot on exact principles. Even when he unbent among his intimate friends, his was "a tyrant’s familiarity," with a touch of Oriental ferocity under it. He was ever on the watch against rivals, ever full of distrust, treating great men with a false and feline grace of manner, which seemed to be expecting a surprise. No one was ever so naturally untrue as he; he never hesitated to lie and to deceive; the most important dispatches he would readily falsify, if he thought there was anything to be gained by it. There was in him a swiftness of intelligence which answered to his hot and passionate mature; the true and solid balance was wanting. He could not rest, and knew not when he had achieved success. And this was immediately connected with another Oriental quality, his vast and unmeasured ambition, and the schemes and dreams of a visionary, which led him to the greatest errors of his life, - his expedition to Egypt and his hopes of an Eastern empire, and his terrible attack on Russia. The same largeness of vision showed itself in his endeavors to reconstruct the map of Europe, and to organize anew the whole of society in France. He could have in his mouth the phrases and cries of the 18thcentury, and with them he knew how to charm mankind. Yet with this gift, and with his amazing power of influencing his soldiers, who sacrificed themselves in myriads for him with enthusiasm, there was a coldness of moral character which enabled him to abandon those who had given up all for him, and made him show shameless ingratitude towards those who had done him the greatest services. We can gauge a man’s character by his complaints against others, for those complaints are always the reflection of his own characteristics. Napoleon was ever inveighing against the deceit of Alexander, the treachery of the Germans, the perfidy of Pitt, the warfare of savages which he had to face; and the phrases represent the worst elements in his own character. He was, in fact, the successor and representative of the "18th century despots," the military follower of the Pombals, the Arandas, the Struenzees of the past. He had their unbalanced energies, their fierce resistance to feudalism and the older world, their ready use of benevolent and enlightened phraseology, their willingness to wade through blood and ruin to their goal, their undying ambition, their restlessness and revolutionary eagerness to reorganize society. Like them, with well-sounding professions, he succeeded in alienating the peoples of Europe, in whose behalf he pretended to be acting. And when they learnt by bitter experience that he had absolutely no love for liberty, and encouraged equality only so long as it was an equality of subjects under his rule, they soon began to war against what was in fact a world-destroying military despotism. When the popular feeling was thoroughly aroused against him in Spain, in Germany in England, his wonderful career was at last brought to an end.

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