Research Subjects: Napoleon Himself



On becoming the First Consul for life (August 2 1802), Napoleon did not neglect any means he thought necessary for the consolidation of his authority.  A natural sagacity prompted him to feel that the lever the Almighty had just used to raise him so suddenly and so high, did not provide a sufficient fulcrum to support him.  Therefore it was in the ranks of our scientists, our men of letters and our great artists that he went looking for support; less visible but more effective.  He gave for his campaign, at Malmaison, dinners without pomp, where guests were invited successively in an adroit mixture; men whose character, whose talent, whose influence or whose popularity indicated that they could be useful in carrying out his designs.

Most of these dinners were spent in literary talks; where he prevailed on both sides with great friendship.  At the end table, the master of the house took turns at random with each of diners upon whom he desired to focus; and while walking arm in arm in the lounge or the garden, he said a few words which could lead to his goal, that he had not lost sight of.  The ambition for position, a sense of curiosity, the hope to play a role in events, the even more laudable and so natural desire to see a young captain that was already covered with an immense great celebrity, were reasons that one travelled the road from Paris to Malmaison!

Although the poet Ducis had already had frequent dealings with Napoleon, on the return from his first expedition in Italy, his name was not, however, placed first on the invitation lists; but the First Consul having resumed the tragedy of Macbeth at Theatre-French, he took advantage of the occasion to invite the author to dinner.  Ducis did not hesitate to accept and went to Malmaison, accompanied by his friend Legouvé, who had also received an invitation for this day.  On leaving, Ducis said when speaking of the First Consul:

—My dear, we now know what he can do, let us find out what he wants.

It seems however that one did not observe at Malmaison the same rigorous etiquette as at the Tuileries or even Saint-Cloud; because Ducis presented in an outfit that he had adopted for a long time: gray coat, wool stockings, round hat and cane in hand.

During the dinner, nothing remarkable happened, except if it was a few severe and often very fair observations, from Napoleon on the character of Macbeth, considered the main force of this tragedy; but during the evening, the conversation came to focus on matters of the moment, and the First Consul spoke of his plans of men to win and to overcome obstacles.

—We must use, he said to his guests, any laws other than those we have had so far.  When everyone is marching along at random, everyone faces colliding.  I do not see anywhere without planned regularity: our administration is still without a system, because the last government would not allow it.  I will reestablish order everywhere.  I want to put France in such a state, so that it can dictate laws to Europe.  I will conduct all the necessary wars, with the sole purpose of peace.  Let me give you strong institutions; I will establish harmony between our needs and habits, I protect religion: I want His ministers to be free from want.

—And after that?  Ducis interrupted gently.

—After that? Napoleon said with a smile, though somewhat surprised, after that, Papa Ducis (that was, as he was always referred to), if you are happy with me ...well!  You can name me a justice of the peace in any canton.

And everyone laughed at this naive ambition.

Sometime after, Ducis received a new invitation from the First Consul, which he hastened to go to as the first.  There was this time, in the reception he received, something more caressing; he was, during dinner, the subject of several distinctions that we judge were meant to flatter.  After coffee, Napoleon captured the poet and took him into the park, where they made a few rounds of the promenade; and it was there, after a mutual exchange of courtesies, that the following dialogue developed between them:

—How did you come here, Papa Ducis?

—But, General, in a good hired carriage, waiting for me at your door, which will also bring me home this evening to my place.

—What! In a hackney-coach (fiacre)!  At your age?  It does not suit you.

—General, I've never had any other carriage, when the journey seems too long for my legs.

—No, I tell you, it will not do any more: a man of your age deserves to have a good carriage for him, very simple, with good suspension. Let me do it, I will arrange it.

—General, resumed Ducis on seeing at the same time a flock of wild ducks crossing a cloud above their heads, are you a hunter?

—But yes, Napoleon responded ... who could not guess whether Ducis wanted to come.

—You see this swarm of birds that splits the clouds?

—What is the report? ...

—Well! There was no one there who smelled the powder and saw the flash of the gun of a hunter.

 —What are you saying?

—What I am is one of these birds, General: I'm like a wild duck.

After this singular reply, it was difficult to carry the conversation farther; but Napoleon attached little importance to this witticism of the poet, that he saw as passing fancy of someone that he could overcome when wanted to place the name of Ducis on the list of the first batch of Senators; but the latter refused opinionatedly, albeit with restraint and dignity, merely to respond to the insistences and the prayers of his friends, who wanted him to accept this high dignity:

—My determination is irrevocably taken.

The First Consul came to create the Order of the Legion of Honor.  Ducis had undeniable rights to this institution, which was designed to reward all glories, to decorate all talents.  At the end of the year 1803, this distinction was awarded to him by the General Council of the Legion of Honor, which in its origin, had only the power of nominations.  Ducis still refused, and explained the reason for his refusal in a letter he wrote to M. de Lacépède.  Napoleon was informed, and without the slightest discontent shown against an example that one might fear a little to spread, he merely said:

—Well!  I will rest on his decision; Father Ducis is an original.

Indeed, for a few days we said in a low voice: The old Ducis has become quite mad; then it was over.  However, the following year, Madame de Boufflers reported, the story of the stubbornness of Ducis (as it was described that it was an act of conscience on his part):  I recount here! said this lady, who loved Ducis: This is a real Roman!

At least, not during the time of emperors! said the Chevalier de Boufflers, with the finesse of mind that was so natural.

Among the more unusual quirks of Napoleon, quirks that brought rest in him of sharp enjoyment, was that of travelling incognito in Paris, in the manner of the famous sultan that the author of A Thousand and One Nights immortalized in his Tales.

Almost always accompanied by his grand vizier Giaffar, that is to say Duroc or, failing him, the service aide-de-camp, Napoleon emerged from the Tuileries sometimes before morning.  Then the person he took with him was responsible for responding with the password to the sentries staggered around the garden: The Emperor! The commander of the post only recognized him.  After exchanging words of command and rally, this officer of the guard opened the gate by which Napoleon wanted to leave the garden, and he escaped and what he jokingly called his prison of theTuileries.

In these excursions through the city, he was always dressed in a dark blue frock, as in recent times, fully buttoned up the chest; he wore a round hat with a wide brim.  His companion also wore nothing that could reveal his rank.  These walks were good for Napoleon, as far as they broke up the monotony of almost continuous work.  Whether it was high morning or the night’s end, when Duroc saw Napoleon out of his apartment interiors and dressed, he knew in advance what he had to do, and without further instruction, he would disguise himself in a bourgeois coat.  Sometimes also instead of leaving the palace by one of the garden pavilions, especially if it was in summer and the Tuileries were still open to pedestrians, he crossed the courtyard of the chateau and escaped by the window which faces the Rue de l’Echelle.  Duroc gave him his arm.  They came together into the shops on Rue Saint-Honoré to bargain or even buy a few objects of little value.  It sometimes happened that they would risk entering the galleries of the Royal Palace; but a small world was found there. Ordinarily the evening excursions could not go any further.

When entering a shop, Duroc cast his eyes on objects that he appeared to want to buy, and during this time, Napoleon began his role as questioner.  There was nothing more comic than to try to see the manners, the language and the tone taken by a man of fashion, he usually was so positive, so simple and so natural.  That awkwardness that came from no sign of appreciation ended when raising the edges of his black tie, standing up on tiptoe and lowering himself all of a sudden on his calves, he said in a patronizing tone:

—Well! Madam, what do you say now that the First Consul has made peace? ... Are we content? ... Your successful business? ... Your shop seems pretty well supplied, it must be the home to many buyers?

At these words of shop fairly well supplied, which sounded odd in the ear of the merchant, he looked across to this singular questioner; his figure became darker, and he didn’t respond except in single words, or did not respond at all, not knowing to whom he was dealing at all.  Sometimes even, suspecting that this could at least be a revolutionary, to cut short the indiscreet questions of a trawling net whose drift were not those of a man in need, she called her husband, or a clerk to get rid of this unwelcomed one.  On day even occurred (it was shortly after the coronation) that the Emperor had requested in a mocking tone to a jeweler of the Rue de la Loi (Rue Richelieu) what was thought of this joker Napoleon , the latter, who was one of his most dedicated admirers believed he had been transacting with a former Jacobin or a poorly disguised spy of the police, assaulted him with a broom which was he found at the door and threatened the man daring enough to speak before him, with so much irreverence, for His Majesty the Emperor and King.  The grand marshal hastened to intervene, apologizing, for good as for evil, his friend, who had taken the time to get out avoiding anything other than threats.  According to Napoleon, the moment when, having spoken ill of himself in this shop, he avoided being hunted to death with a broom, was one of the most gay and happiest of his life.

It must be said, in this costume of Harroun-al-Raschid, as he called himself, Napoleon had the strangest physiognomy and appearance.  He just had a manner of donning this round hat, usually incorrectly, that he wore sometimes too far back, sometimes too far forward, and folded over the eyes so as not to be recognized.  As for the overcoat, its cut and its magnitude were truly burlesques.  Napoleon could not be bothered to suffer in his clothes, much less for them to be fitted.  Michel, his tailor, made him coats and especially overcoats that he went out in, to serve as an example then fashionable, as if he had taken measurements from a sentry box; finally, the same care he took to disguise his actions, his attitude and his regular approach, under the manners and the approach of common people, taken by Napoleon to act the part could not help but be seen as laughable, as a kind of lively originality.  Moreover, if these incognito excursions were not always in favor of his self-esteem, those who were quite happy to receive some of them were found.

As Consul and walking one morning in the delicious orangery of Malmaison, then very close, he saw a man called the father Olivier.  He was a former gardener of Petit-Trianon, where sometimes Louis XV had given speeches in his days of a joyful mood.  Father Olivier, proud of this great favor, recounted it to anyone who would listen.  Napoleon, surprised to see an old man working with such activity, although appearing to succumb under the weight of years, approached him, and in a tone full of interest:

—What are you making each day, my good man? Asked Napoleon, who, on that day, was wearing his usual frock with two simple epaulets.

With these words, the old gardener tried to take in everything, and, looking at Napoleon who he had never seen, responded to him by removing his cap:

—Forty-five sous per day, monsieur colonel.

—This is not too much; but why do I not see you dressed the same way as others?

The gardeners of Malmaison then had a kind of uniform consisting of a jacket (habit-veste) and trousers, grey iron in color.

—My faith! I do not know, responded father Olivier; it is thought that Mr. Lucas (he was the head gardener) sets aside money from my clothes to make annuities after my death.

—Ah! Ah! you believe that? Napoleon continued with a laugh on the reflecting on old man; in this case, here are 200 francs to pay you, for your lifetime, the first half of your backlogged wages.  In the future, you will receive 400 francs annually, with a jacket like that of the others.

—Oh God! Is this possible? Cried the father Olivier transported with joy at the sight of gold that Napoleon put him in hand.  It is clear that you are from the home of the citizen First Consul: How is he doing?

—Very-Good.  He told me to give you this money: are you not the dean of the gardeners here?

—Of course! Ah! A worthy victor of Italy! I just want to see a bit before dying! ... But I am afraid though not; I've never had a chance.

—Bah! Bah! You have perhaps already seen him without knowing that it was him. Have you had a military past?

—No, monsieur Colonel, because in my time, the time of His Majesty the late Louis XV, you do not fight as at present.

—That is fair; despite this, you had to see many things?

—Oh! yes. I have seen the King with the Countess Dubarry many times.  They spoke to me, the lady! as I do with you, neither more nor less; but you, for having known me, you're too young.

—It's true, but I have heard about a lot.

—I think.  As for me, now, if my orangery is clean and that planters do not make me too mad, it's all equal politics to me; I have always been a moderate, I do not interfere in government.

—And you're right, I know many people who would be delighted to be able to say so. Farewell, my good man, goodbye.

—Many apologies, monsieur Colonel, and many thanks to the citizen First Consul. He is like His Majesty the late Louis XV.

—Yes, yes, with some difference! said Napoleon who smiled and quietly continued his walk.

Alas! Father Olivier did not enjoy the benefits that came to relieve his old age for a long time, because when he came to learn, the same evening, it was the First Consul in person who gave this gold, who had promised a new coat, who had finally appeared before him, he experienced such a strong transport of joy that he died suddenly of a devastating apoplexy, exclaiming:

—Ah! my God! It was he... !

At Saint-Cloud, an evening in the month of April 1804, being alone with Josephine, Napoleon had taken into the library a volume of Theater of Voltaire, and while walking diagonally in the small blue salon, where, in turn, Josephine was busy putting her birds to bed, he declaimed a few chosen verses at random.  After having recited them as if in our great tragic place in the mouth of Antoine:

“Caesar, you are going to prevail. This is the day august
Where the Roman people, for you always unjust,
Changed by your virtues, will recognize in you,
Its avenger, its support, its victor and its King ...”

Napoleon stopped, placed the book on a table, and addressed his wife, who, as we know, had always shown a very pronounced taste for royal forms:

—One may be emperor of a republic, he said, but not the king of a republic. Do you not feel, my dear friend, how these two words contrast together?

For a long time Napoleon had spoken to his family and those of the most loyal to his government, about the title of emperor as the one he deemed most suitable to the new sovereignty he wanted to establish in France.  He found that it was not quite a restoration of the old regime, and was supported mainly on what had been known as the title that Caesar had carried.

The Tribune Curé was the first who, the 30th of April 1804, in the assembled Tribunate, addressed the big question, proposing to raise the First Consul to the dignity of emperor. Carnot alone among his colleagues, saw to combat this motion, prepared a while ago by courtiers of the time consular.

However, it was not without difficulty that one managed to rally the majority of minds in the adoption of this measure.  The old supporters of the legitimacy would not sign this kind of capitulation until the bitter end.  As for the army, the exchange was accepted by acclamation for it.  The different bodies of the state were assembled and consulted; the people perhaps showed even more enthusiasm than the army itself.

Things were thus, when Napoleon resolved to use the anniversary of July 14, to spread before the eyes of all the Parisians all the imperial pomp and give them a foretaste of those he pondered for the coronation, but it therefore changed the primary reason for this totally Republican commemoration, and that it would have been impossible to recognize it as the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and the first federation.  And then, Napoleon was not going to offend by gradually erasing these memories, which began to weigh him, and to better achieve this, he wanted first of all the ceremony to take place on 15th and not the 14th.

—It will fall on a Sunday, he said on that occasion, so that it will not cause any loss of time for workers who want to attend.

This pattern, which seemed very fair, was even more clever, because, indeed, it no longer honored the victors of the Bastille, but the victors of Italy, Switzerland, the Holland, and to deliver to each the feeling of the Legion of Honor.  The ceremony was beautiful.  All military present in Paris attended.  This was in the church of the Hotel de Invalides that it took place, and many assistants there seemed more devoted to the Emperor than to the God of Christians.

As early as the preceding June, Napoleon, as in Saint-Cloud, had convened a small committee of a few advisers of State, among whom were Berlier, Treilhard, Regnault de Saint-Jean-D'Angély, Muraire, Cambacérès, etc.. etc.. To learn from them if he should or should not bring the Pope to Paris to have him legitimize his new dignity.  Opinions were divided; Napoleon settled the issue in his own way by exclaiming:

—Indeed!  Is the fall of the Bourbons my doing?  I haven’t found that throne vacancy instead of a vacant throne.  This throne, note I haven’t overthrown it; I take it up today.  I take it up for me, and for mine, it's true; but because it is not in my power to take it from any other ... The head of the Church can come here to recognize me, in his own interest and in that of France.

A letter written somewhat in this vein was given to the Holy Father in Rome in the following September, by General Caffarelli, then aide-de-camp to Napoleon.  Pius VII, standing above all the prejudices that sought to arise in his mind, and to enter this thought, that the great Bonaparte, as he was usually called, had always been led by Providence, left Rome to come himself to sit Napoleon on the throne of Louis XIV!


Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2008


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