INS: Journal Of Napoleonic Scholarship 1998

Napoleon as Journalist

D. M. Tugan-Baranovsky
Volgograd University

(re-printed from Questions of History, July 1795,
a monthly journal published in Moscow since 1926.)

As it is known, when it came to dealing with the press, the great military commander was famous not so much for his protection as for his persecution of the same. Already after a few months of his coming to power as First Consul he had closed down 60 of the 73 Paris newspapers on January 17, 1800, without other motive except on the grounds that A portion of the newspapers is being used as a weapon in the hands of the enemies of the Republic. Towards the end of 1800 the number of Parisian newspapers was reduced to nine and then eight.

E. V. Tarle wrote that Napoleon clung to the principle that said the fewer newspapers, the better. French newspapers became so speechless that the English called them handkerchiefs. The press was fully under the control of the Ministry of Police where there was a department which dealt with Public Opinion. And yet, it would be a mistake to believe that Napoleon was striving only towards the restriction of the printed word by every possible means. His attitude towards the press was more complex. Furthermore, the First Consul, and then Emperor of France, was one of the statesmen who actually understood the need to form public opinion in the direction which would be favorable to the regime, and who assigned an exceptional significance to this task. Let us give a few examples of Napoleon's incursion into this sphere. They are not widely known and escaped the attention of many specialists, including E. V. Tarle and A. Z. Manfred.

In 1919 the former editor of the newspaper, Figaro, Mr. A. Perivier, published a fundamental work on the journalistic activity of Napoleon. According to this professional newspaperman, there are in principle two kinds of journalists: the organizers and the writers. As for Napoleon, he embodied both of these types in one person. It appears that in the years of the Consulate he often invaded the publishing activity but he did this anonymously. Perivier managed to prove the authorship of the First Consul in regard to many articles published without signature in the Moniteur and at present these articles are included in the new compendium of Napoleon's writings. Apparently the historian, A. Thiers, became acquainted with the draft form of these articles and wrote: "We know the columns in the Moniteur which had been written by Bonaparte from 1800 to 1803 where he replied to the attacks from foreign newspapers; they were a masterpiece of good sense, eloquence and style."

In the archives of the Moniteur prior to the fire of 1858 were kept also numerous proof copies with corrections in Napoleon's handwriting. Finally there are letters from the Secretary of State, Maret, to the editor of the Moniteur where it said that the First Consul wanted to see such and such columns published tomorrow. These articles were usually appended to the letter.

Of the 13 newspapers left functioning by Napoleon after the establishment of the Consulate, only the Moniteur was declared to be the only official paper. Officially it was held in private hands and its editor was someone named S. François who kept only one privilege: to oversee the theater column. As for the Consul, he expressed his opinions directly through the Moniteur. Napoleon had the thought to make an official newspaper out of the Paris Bulletin, which was published by R. de St. Jean d'Angely, an active participant in the Brumaire coup d'état. But they talked Napoleon out of it by convincing him that one newspaper would suffice. The articles of the Moniteur were thereafter reprinted in the provincial papers. To a great extent it was thanks to Napoleon that the Moniteur got wide acclaim in the 19th Century. Thereafter the paper continued to be published until 1901. On its pages were printed the writings of many famous publicists and writers.

And his first anonymous article Bonaparte wrote on the evening of the 19th of Brumaire with the participation of two other people. It was devoted to the justification of the coup d'etat and the force used against the deputies of the Counsel of the 500. We see, it said there, a constant struggle of freedom and equality against privileges and of privileges against equality. If noble minds have reached up to the ideas of Republic, then there still remained lazy or rebellious minds: feelings, prejudices stemming from monarchy sympathizers widened the chasm between the old and new governments, and as the struggle became more virulent and as passions became more pronounced, the more violent and heartless the fighting turned. The second article followed seven days later, the 17th of November 1799. It was devoted to the intrigues of the English government and accused its head, W. Pitt; the article ended with a call for peace. Later on the word "peace" found a constant reference in the pages of the Moniteur and was employed in several political variations.

Let's offer an example. The 22nd of January 1800 the Moniteur reported a meeting of two German poets who had decided to write a play together. An unremarkable fact, but it gave the pretext to a Napoleonic anonymous remark:

Two of the greatest European governments are unable to reach an agreement and decide the issue of peace. And then only we would have a unique masterpiece.

Many articles on international issues were published at the conclusion of the Luneville and Amiens peace treaty. On July 11, 1801, there appeared in the Moniteur another sharp article against Pitt, in which the First Consul said that he'd like to send Pitt and his ministers to the military camps and show them what was is like in all its manifestations. On the 2nd of February 1802 there followed an entry to defend the expedition to Santo Domingo. (the English were critical of this expedition.)

Then next appeared articles against the English press and parliament. Several retorts were devoted by the First Consul to those English publications where they printed news items and caricatures directed personally at him. Gradually the tone of the French press grew more and more threatening. On the 23rd of May 1803, at the moment when the Boulogne camp was being organized and actually earmarked for the invasion of England, Napoleon wrote an article where he pictured France as the country striving for peace and England as the source of aggression:

The spirit of madness for sometime has taken hold of the English government. It believes that we have neither armies nor ink.

At the beginning of 1804, taking advantage of the uncovering of an Anglo-Royalist plot in Paris, Napoleon sent to the English government in the next article the famous biblical warning Amene Tekel Fares,@ which signified that England's transgressions were already numbers, weighted and separated. To this affair Napoleon gave such importance that he even sent to England and other countries accredited persons with a view to having news reports drafted. To England was dispatched G. Fieve whose articles so pleased the First Consul that he had them published in 1802 in separate book form.

Napoleon, as a very emotional and easily wounded person, was especially and violently upset by English caricatures. The First Consul, after the signing of the Amiens peace treaty in 1802, managed to force the British government to start legal proceedings against one of the cartoonists. It is not surprising that he used the Moniteur to reply to those who made fun of him and generally he did not tolerate any reproaches directed at him. When the Parisian paper Friend of Laws, made allusions to his inclination for spending, the Moniteur published the following notice: The Friend of Laws says that the First Consul wishes to organize a celebration costing 100,000 francs. This is a lie! The First Consul is well aware that for 200,000 francs one brigade can subsist for six month, and soon the Friend of Laws was closed down.

Sometimes Napoleon managed to poke fun at Alexander I. When it was learned that Paul I had been assassinated in St. Petersburg, and the English had given some encouragement to it, the Moniteur published the following entry:

Paul I died during the night of March 24 to 25. The English squadron sailed by the Zuyder Zee on the 31st. History will determine the connection which may tie these two events together.

The same subject was broached by Napoleon in 1804 in connection with the execution of the Duke of Enghien. This descendant of the Bourbon family was snatched from the territory of another government by French soldiers in violation of its sovereignty. Thereafter the duke was accused of organizing an anti-French plot and shot. When the French government received an indignant diplomatic protest in this connection from the Russian government, the First Consul dictated the following acerbic reply to Talleyrand, his Foreign Minister:

What is the basis for this strange pretension of the Russian government? When the Emperor Paul died under the blows of assassins hired by England, wasn't France first in offering the mediation of International Law to bring to light the circumstances of this terrible secret? And if the organizers of the plot had been arrested within two leagues of the Russian frontier on foreign soil, would the Petersburg cabinet have asked for explanations concerning the violation of the frontier?

In the question there lay hidden a deep meaning: Napoleon was implying to Alexander I that the assassins of his father were not only avoiding arrest, but were to be found in the Russian capital enjoying riches and privileges, and the Czar, it followed, appears to be one of the chief culprits in his father's assassination. This entry in the Moniteur attests that Napoleon was a master of polemic in politics. Later, on the island of St. Helena, Napoleon remembered repeatedly with pleasure about his literary forays. Once when he was dictating something and later having read the result, he was dissatisfied and reproached his secretary for having changed his style.

But sir, objected the latter, where can I possibly become acquainted with your style? I dare ask you to point out to me what you have written so that we may better judge? Look at my proclamations and articles in the Moniteur, came the reply.

When in 1816 Napoleon received a shipment of books on St. Helena, among which was a collection of the Moniteur, he became absorbed in reading its issues and did not tear himself away for a long time, re-reading his own articles. And then exclaimed with pleasure, "And they, (meaning the English) dared to assert that I donšt know how to write." But while he was First Consul he did not look there very often, and said to his secretary who offered him to peruse the newspaper: "I already know what is there, they say what suits me." He preferred to get acquainted with English and German presses. And, when it came to formulate public opinion he was guided by a curious principle:

If something takes place which is not favorable to the government, we must not rush to announce it in the newspapers; we should wait until all the details are known; when it becomes well-known then we must avoid mentioning it even more because even so the people will be well informed about it.

At the same time Napoleon took great care to maintain his prestige and did not allow that his fame should grow quiet even for a second. To this end he made sure that they would publish in the Moniteur the description of his Egyptian campaign except for a few interruptions. He was not troubled in the least that the French army in Egypt had been practically abandoned to its fate and that her new commanders were left in a very difficult situation. In the Moniteur, along with the description of the campaign, there appeared an appeal of the First Consul to the Eastern Army where the following words were to be found:

Trust Kléber (the new commander) just as you would trust me. He deserves it.

After such expressions no one would possibly imagine that a letter from J. B. Kléber was full of accusations against Napoleon.

On another occasion, the First Consul encouraged the writers close to him to compose political essays. In November 1800 there appeared an anonymous brochure, a comparisons between Caesar, Cromwell, Monk and Bonaparte, which produced a considerable echo within society. It attempted to prove by extolling and praising, that Bonaparte accomplished more famous deeds than his predecessors and that he can in no way be compared simply with Cromwell and Monk, and even Caesar, because the First Consul is not just a great military commander, but he has also united and pacified the nation.

Public opinion immediately noticed in this pamphlet which had grossly praised Napoleon, a dangerous tendency: his striving for sole and unshared power. Inasmuch as he really wanted to reinforce the principle of authority, this brochure became his touch-stone in the corresponding preparation of public opinion. His secretary in his own memoirs told the story of the publication of this brochure. When he read it he came to the conclusion that everything in it preached hereditary monarchy. And soon after he learned that the brochure came from behind the walls of the Interior Ministry which was headed by Napoleon's brother, Lucien Bonaparte. The First Consul asked him if he had read this thing and what he thought of it. The secretary answered: AI think, General, that this booklet is capable of causing untold harm in the eyes of public opinion, it seems to me premature, because it unveils your plans too soon. Napoleon took the brochure and threw it on the floor. Already the next day the prefects closest to Paris sent copies of it to the First Consul and in one of the reports even mentioned that such a composition was liable to direct against him the daggers of new assassins. Napoleon summoned to his office the Minister of Police, J. Fouche. The conversation took place in the presence of the secretary.

What is this pamphlet? What are they saying about it in Paris? -Angrily inquired the First Consul.

General, replied the minister, Everyone considers it a very dangerous one.

If so, how did you allow it to be published? This is unforgivable.

But, General, your brother, Lucien, took this booklet under his protection, it was printed and published at his order; in a word, it came from the Ministry of the Interior.

I don't care! In this case you, as the Minister of Police, were obliged to arrest Lucien and lock him up in the Temple. This character does not know what else to dream up to harm me.

And after these words he left his study, slamming the door. To place the author in the Temple prison? -Said Fouche to the secretary.

That would be rather difficult.

And further on, he tells about what is known to him:

As soon as I learned about this booklet, I went to see Lucien immediately to make him realize his carelessness. Lucien then, instead of a reply, went to fetch the manuscript which he showed me and what did I see? The corrections and remarks made in the handwriting of the First Consul.

Napoleon was also the author of a whole series of slogans:

The revolution has ended; we must bring forth her reality, we must unite the nation by creating a genuine popular government. No red caps nor red heels. (that is, no jacobins, no aristocrats)

France wants peace.

And so on. These ideas were further developed by journalists and writers and were transformed into individual stereotyped thinking.


    Aulard, A. Political History of the French Revolution
    Tarle, E. The Press in France Under Napoleon (collected works)
    Thiers, A. History of the Consulate and Empire
    General History of the French Press
    Napoleon Bonaparte (collected works)
    Fievee, J. Letters about England, Napoleon Bonaparte
    Bourienne Memoirs about Napoleon
    Bourienne Collected Works

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