1902 Encyclopedia > Napoleon I > Early Life of Napoleon

Early Life of Napoleon

The family Bonaparte (written by Napoleon’s father and by himself down to 1796 Bounaparte, though the other spelling occurs in early Italian documents) was of Tuscan origin. A branch of it was settled in Corsica at least as early as the 16th century, from which time the Bonapartes appear as influential citizens of Ajaccio. They had an ancient title of nobility from the Genoese republic, and Napoleon’s grandfather obtained letters of nobility also from the grand-duke of Tuscany. They had therefore the right to sign De Buonaparte, but ordinarily dropped the preposition of honor. Charles Marie de Buonaparte (born in 1746, studied law at the university of Pisa, where he took his doctro’s degree in 1769) married at the age of eighteen Letitia Ramolino, who was not quite fifteen. The lady had beauty, but apparently neither rank nor wealth. In the children of this marriage the father, a somewhat indolent Italian gentleman with a certain taste for literature, seems traceable in Joseph, Jerome, and partly also in Lucien; the energy of which Lucien had a share, which caroline also displayed, and which astonished the world in Napoleon, seems attributable to the Corsican blood of the mother. Thirteen children were born, of who eight grew up. The list is follows: - Joseph king, first of naples, then of Spain), Napoleon, Lucien, Eliza (Princess Bacciochi), Pauline (married, first to General Leclerc, afterwards to Prince Borghese), Caroline (married to Murat, became queen of Naples), Louis (king of Holland), Jerome (king of Westphalia). Of these the eldest was born in 1768, the youngest in 1784. See Bonaparte.

Besides his brothers and sisters, Napoleon raised to importance Joseph Fesch, half-brother of his mother, a Swiss on the father’s side, who was afterwards known to the world as Cardinal Fesch.

The accepted opinion is that Napoleon was born at Ajaccio on August 15, 1769. This opinion rests indeed on the positive statement of Joseph Bonaparte, but it is certain from documents that on January 7, 1768, Madame Letitia bore a son at Corte, who was baptized by the name of Nabulione. And even in legal documents we find contradictory statements about the time and place of birth, not only of Napoleon, but also of Joseph. All difficulties disappear at once if we suppose that Napoleon and Nabulione were one and the same, and that Joseph was really the second son, whom the parents found it convenient to pass off as the first-born. This they may have found convenient when, in 1779, they gained admission for a son to the ,military school of Brienne. A son born in 1768 would at that date be inadmissible, as being above ten years of age. Thus it is conceivable that Napoleon was introduced by a fraud to that military career which changed the face of the world. Nevertheless it is certain from Lucien’s memoir that of such a fraud nothing was known to the younger members of the family, who regarded Joseph as without doubt the eldest.

After passing two or three months in a school at Autun for the purpose of learning French – he had hitherto been a thorough Italian- Napoleon entered Brienne on April 23, 1779, where he remained for more than five years, and then in September 1784 passed, as "cadet-gentilhomme," into the military school of Paris. In the next year, 1785, he obtained his commission of lieutenant in the regiment La Fere, stationed at Valence. He had already lost his father, who, undertaking a journey to France on business, was entertained at Montpellier in the house of an old Corsican friend Madame Permon, mother of the celebrated memoir-writer Madame Junot, and died there of the disease which was afterwards fatal to Napoleon, on February 25, 1785, at the age of thirty-eight years.

The fact principally to be noticed about Napoleon’s extraction and boyhood is that he was by birth a noble, needy and provincial, and that from his tenth year his education was exclusively military. Of all the great rulers of the world none has been by breeding so purely a military specialist. He could scarcely remember the time when he was not a soldier living among soldiers. The effects of this training themselves too evidently when he had risen to the head of affairs. The same time poverty in a society of luxurious noblemen, and the consciousness of foreign birth and of ignorance of the French language, made his school life at times very unhappy. At one time he demands passionately to be taken away, at another time he sends in a memorial, in which he argues the expediency of subjecting the cadets to a more Spartan diet. His character declared itself earlier than his talents. He was reported as "taciturn, fond of solitude, capricious, haughty, extremely disposed to egoism, seldom speaking, energetic in his answers, ready and sharp in repartee, full of self-love, ambitious, and of unbounded aspirations." So he appeared to his teachers, and an Englishman who remembered him at Brienne makes him a complete Timon, living as a hermit, and perpetually at war with his school fellows. His abilities do not seem to have excited wonder, but he was studious, and in mathematics and geography made great progress. He never, however, so Carnot tells us, became a truly scientific man. He had neither taste nor talent for grammatical studies, but was fond of books, and books of a solid kind. Of the writers of the day he seems to have been chiefly influenced by Raynal and Rousseau.

He is now a Lieutenant of artillery in the service of Louis XVI. The next years are spent mainly with his regiment at Valence, Lyons, Douai, Paris, Auxonne, Seurre, Auxonne again. But he takes long holidays with his family at Ajaccio, obtaining permission on the ground of ill-health. Thus he was at Ajaccio in 1787 from February to October, again from December 1787 to May 1788, again from September 1789 to February 1791. During this period he is principally engaged in authorship, being consumed by the desire of distinction, and having as yet no other means of attaining it. He produces Letters on the History of Corsica, which he proposes to dedicate first to Paoli, afterwards to Taynal; he competes for a prize offered by the academy of Lyons for the best essay written "to determine the truths and feelings which it is most important to inculcate on men for their happiness." Among his smaller compositions is The Narrative of the Masked Prophet. Of all these writings, which are to be distinguished from the pamphlets written by him with a practical object, it may be said that they show more character than literary ability. As the compositions of a boy they are indeed remarkable for their precocious seriousness, but what strikes the reader most in them is a sort of suppressed passion that marks the style, a fierce impatience, as if the writer knew already how much he had to get through in a short life. But his sentiments, love of liberty, of virtue, of domestic happiness, are hollow, and his affectation of tenderness even ridiculous. The essay, as a composition, is positively bad, and was naturally unsuccessful.

Meanwhile his active life had begun with the Revolution of 1789. The first chapter of it is separate from the rest, and leads to nothing. That astonishing career which has all the unity of a most thrilling drama does not begin till 1795. The six years which preceded it may be called his Corsican period, because for the greater part of it he may be thought to have regarded Corsica as the destined scene of his future life. It must be very summarily treated here.

In 1789 the Italian of Corsica had been for twenty years a dependency of France. But France had acquired it in a most unscrupulous manner by purchasing the rights of the republic of Genoa over it. She did this in 1768, that is, when Corsica had contested those rights in a war of nearly forty years, and had been practically independent and happy for about thirteen years under the dictatorship of Pasquale Paoli. It was an act similar to the partition of Poland, and seems to mark a design on the part of France-which had just lost its American colonies-to extend its power by way of the Mediterranean into the east. Paoli was compelled to take refuge in England, where he was still living when the French Revolution broke out. In the fall of Corsica a certain Matteo Buttafuoco played a disgraceful part. He had been sent by Paoli to treat as plenipotentiary with France, was won over by Choiseul, declared against the national cause, and appeared in the island as colonel of Louis XV.’s Corsican regiment. He too was still living when the states-general met, and represented there the noblesse of Corsica, while Salicetti, a name of no little prominence in the Revolution, was one of the representatives of the Corsican tiers etat. The revolution was as dangerous an event to the relation between France and Corsica as to that between France and St Domingo. Would the island assert its independence, and, if so, could the assembly deny its right to do so? The islanders and the exile Paoli at their head took a moderate view. France must guarantee a good deal of local freedom; on such conditions, they thought, the relation might continue, if only to prevent the republic of Genoa from reviving its pretensions. Accordingly, on November 30, 1789, Corsica was declared by the National Assembly to be a province of France on the motion of Salicetti himself, and the protest against this decree made by Genoa was treated with contempt. Paoli left London, was received in France with an ovation, appeared before the national Assembly on April 22, 1790, where he received the honors of the sitting, and landed in Corsica on July 14th, after an absence of twenty-one years. Thus was Corsica reconciled to France by the Revolution of 1789; but the good work was undone by the Second Revolution of 1792.

Since 1769 the French power in the island had rested mainly on the noblesse and clergy. The Bonaparte family, as noble, had been on the unpatriotic side; Napoleon’s father appears always as a courtier of the French governor Marboeuf and as a mendicant at Versailles; Madame Letitia in soliciting a place for her son Louis styles herself "the widow of a man who always served the king in the administration of the affairs of the island of Corsica." It is therefore a remarkable fact that almost immediately after the taking of the Bastille Napoleon hurried to Ajaccio and placed himself at the head of the revolutionary party with all the decision characteristic of him. He devoted himself to the establishment of a National Guard, of which he might hope to be the La Fayette, and he published a letter to Buttafuoco which, properly understood, is a solemn desertion of the principles of his family, similar to that of Mirabeau. This letter has all the intensity of his other early writings, but far more effectiveness. It lashes Buttafuoco for his treason of 1768, describing him as a cynic, who had no belief in virtue, but supposed all men to be guided by selfish interest. The invective had lost its edge for us who know that Bonaparte soon after openly professed this very creed. In declaring for the Revolution he obeyed the real inclination of his feelings at the time, as we may see from his writings, which are in the revolutionary tone of Raynal. But had he not really, we may ask, an ulterior object, viz., to make Corsica independent of France, and to restore the old rule of Paoli, aiming himself at Paoli’s succession? Probably he wished to see such a result, but he had always two strings to his bow. In his letter to Buttafuoco he carefully avoids separating Corsican liberty from the liberty offered by the French Revolution. Had the opportunity offered, he might no doubt have stood forth at this time as the liberator of Corsica; but circumstances did not prove favorable, and he drifted gradually in quite the opposite direction.

In October 1790 he met Paoli at Orezza, where Corsica constituted itself as a French department, Paoli being president, Salicetti procurrent-general syndic, Arena and Pozzo di Borgo (also from Ajaccio) members of the Directorium. Paoli is said to have hailed Napoleon as :one of Plutrach’s men." As the only Corsican officer trained at a royal military school, Napoleon might aspire to become commander of a paid native guard which it was proposed to create for the island. But France had misgivings about the use to which such a guard might be put, and the minister of war rejected the proposal. In the next year, however, he was successful in a second attempt to get the command of an armed force in Corsica, and betrayed in the course of this attempt how much more intent he was at this time upon Corsican than upon French affairs. It was decided to create four battalions of national volunteers for Corsica, and Napoleon became candidate for the post of lieutenant-colonel in the district of Ajaccio. The choice was in the hands of the volunteers themselves, and in pursuing his canvass Napoleon did not hesitate to outstay his furlough, and thus forfeit his French commission by willful absence from a great review of the whole French army which was appointed for the opening day of 1792. He was, however, elected, having, it is said, executed the first of his many coups d’etat by violently imprisoning a commissioner sent down to superintend the election. We can understand his eagerness when we remark that anarchy in Corsica was steadily increasing, so that he may have believed that the moment for some military stroke was at hand. He did not long delay. At the Easter festival of 1792 he tried to get possession of Ajaccio under cover of a tumult between the volunteers and the refractory clergy. The stroke failed, and he fled from the island. The European war was just breaking out, and at Paris everything was in confusion; otherwise he would probably have been tried by court-martial and shot.

A rebel in Corsica, a deserter in France, what was he to do? He went to Paris, where he arrived on May 21. The Second Revolution was at hand, and he could observe him. He witnessed the 10th of August and the downfall of the monarchy. To him this revolution was a fortunate event for the new Government, attacked by all Europe, could not dispense with the few trained officers whom the emigration had left. On August 30th his name was restored to the army list with the rank of captain, a commission dated back to the 6th February, and arrears of pay. He was saved from the most desperate condition to which he was ever in his whole life reduced. On September 2d (terrible date!) he is engaged in withdrawing his sister Eliza from St Cyr (the House of St Louis having been suppressed). The next step he takes is remarkable. The great war which was to carry him to the pinnacle of fame was not in full progress. By undeserved good luck his military rank is restored to him. Will he not hurry to his regiment, eager to give proof of his military talents? No, his thoughts are still in Corsica. On the pretext of conducting his sister to her home he sets off without delay for Ajaccio, where he arrives on the 17th. The winter was spent in the unsuccessful expedition, which may be called Napoleon’s first campaign, made from Corsica against the island of Sardinia. On his return he found a new scene opened. The Second Revolution was beginning to produce its effect in Corsica, which was no mere province of France, and in which everything was modified by the presence of Paoli. Elsewhere the Convention was able by its Representatives in Mission to crush opposition, but they could not so crush Corsica and Paoli. There was thus a natural opposition between the Convention and Paoli, and the islanders began to fall into opposite parties, as adherents of the former or of the latter. It might have been expected that Bonaparte, who all his life had glorified Paoli, and whose early letters are fully of hatred to France, would have been an enthusiastic Paolist. But a breach seems to have taken place between them soon after napoleon’s return from Paris, perhaps in consequence of his escapade of Easter 1792. The crisis came on April 2d, when Paoli was denounced before the Convention, among others by Marat, and it was decreed that he and Pozzo di Borgo should come to Paris and render an account of their conduct to the Convention. Paoli refused, but with the remarkable, perhaps excessive, moderation which characterized him offered to leave Corsica if his presence there appeared to the Convention undesirable. But the islanders rallied round him almost as one man.

There could be no reason why the horrors of the Second Revolution should extend to Corsica, even if we consider them to have been inevitable in France. For a Corsican patriot no fairer opportunity could offer of dissolving with universal approbation the connection with France which had begun in 1769. Napoleon took the opposite side. He stood out with Salicetti as the leading champion of the French connection and the bitterest opponent of Paoli. Was his motive envy, or the bitterness caused by a recent personal quarrel with Paoli? We cannot positively say, but we form an estimate of the depth of that insular patriotism which fills the Letters on the History of Corsica. Paoli summoned a national consulta at the end of May, and the dissolution of the French connection now began. The consulta denounced the Bonaparte family by name. Napoleon answered by desperate attempts to execute his old plan of getting possession of the citadel of Ajaccio. But he failed, and the whole Bonaparte family, with madame Letitia and Fesch, pursued by the fury of the people, took refuge in France. With this Hijra the first period of Napoleon comes to an end.

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