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General Bonaparte’s Private Views, Summer 1797

By John Hussey
Miot de Melito (1764-1841), later a Councillor of State, but then a French commissioner
in the conquered Italian provinces, and about to go on mission to Corsica, recorded a
private two-hour conversation in the summer of 1797 with General Bonaparte and the
leading Milanese noble and citizen, Melzi d’Eril (1753-1816), who dreamt of a northern
Italian kingdom “from the Alps to the Adige” separating Austria and France. This took
place at Mombello (or Montebello), Bonaparte’s residence near Milan. Miot himself says
that he was so struck by Bonaparte’s remarks that he recorded them at the time. The
leading Napoleonic scholar Jean Tulard terms the memoirs “a fundamental source”.
This extract comes from Comte Miot de Melito, Mémoires, Paris, 3 vols, 1858: vol 1,
pp.162-66. The translation from the French and all notes and explanations in square
brackets are by John Hussey.
Bonaparte said:
“What I have done so far is as nothing. I am only at the start of the career that I
must run. Do you think that it is to give greatness to the lawyers of the Directory
– the likes of Carnot, of Barras – that I triumph in Italy? And do you also believe
that it is to found a republic? What an idea! A Republic of thirty million beings!
With our morals and our vices! How should that be possible? It is a chimera
which has infatuated the French, but which will pass away like so many
others. What they want is glory, the satisfaction of their vanity. But as for
Liberty? – they understand nothing. Look at the Army! The victories that we
have just gained, our triumphs, have already shown the French soldier his true
character. I am everything to him. If the Directory were to think of depriving me
of the command it would soon see who is master. The nation requires a chief, a
chief rendered illustrious by glory, and not by theories of government, of phrases,
of discourses by ideologues to which the French don’t listen. Just give them
baubles and that will suffice; they will amuse themselves with them and let
themselves be led on, provided however that one is adroit enough to conceal the
end to which one is leading them.”
“As to your country, M de Melzi, there are even fewer elements of republicanism
than in France, and we will treat it with less consideration than any other. You
know this better than anyone; we shall do just as we like. But the time has not
come; we must put up with the present fever, and we shall create one or two
republics in our style. Monge will arrange that for us. In the meantime I have
already wiped out two [Venice and Genoa] from Italian soil, and although they
were very aristocratic republics they showed the greatest public spirit and
strongly held views, which could have caused us much embarrassment later. For the rest, my mind is made up: I shall not cede Lombardy or Mantua to
Austria. You (still speaking to M Melzi) can count on this, and you can see that
whatever we may decide for this country, you can adopt my views and not fear in
the least the return or the power of Austria. As compensation I shall give her
Venice and part of the terra firma of that old republic.
“We both at once protested at such a project that would leave Austria still at the
gates of Italy, and destroying every hope of a people that he himself had surely
not freed from the yoke of an odious oligarchy, only to put it under that of an
absolute monarchy in a slavery no less intolerable than that from which the
people had escaped. He replied that we should not cry out before we were
“I shall not do that unless by some stupidity of Paris I am obliged to make peace,
for my intention is in no way to finish with Austria so soon. Peace is not in my
interest. You see how I stand and what I can do now in Italy. Should peace be
made, if I am no longer at the head of this army that is attached to me, I shall
have to renounce this power, this high position I hold, to pay court to the lawyers
at the Luxembourg [Palais, seat of the Directors]. I would not wish to leave Italy
to play a role in France similar to what I play here, but the moment has not yet
come, the pear is not ripe. But all this does not depend solely on my own
actions. There are disagreements in Paris. One party is raising its head to
restore the Bourbons; I don’t want to contribute to its success. One day I should
much like to weaken the republican party, but for my own profit and not that of
the former dynasty. Till then one must march with the republican party. Peace
may be necessary to satisfy the desires of our Parisian idlers, and if it has to be
made it is I who shall make it. Were I to leave the merit to someone else, that act
of kindness would place him higher in public opinion than all my victories”.
The People Mentioned
Among the people mentioned here Carnot (1753-1823) had made his name as an
engineer officer who had saved France in 1793 by raising and equipping armies: “the
organizer of victory”. To call him a lawyer was to diminish and somewhat insult him. At
this time he was a leader among the five Directors and out of sympathy with the other
leading Director, Barras (1755-1829). The latter, who once had served as an army
officer (1771-86) and as a commissioner with the revolutionary armies, had from the
time of the siege of Toulon in 1793 constantly promoted Bonaparte’s career, had used
his services in putting down the royalist rising in Paris of 13 Vendémiaire Year IV (5 Oct
1795), and had personally appointed him to the Italian command on 2 March 1796,
whereas Carnot by contrast sought to place commissioners with that army to rein-in its
political activities. Monge (1746-1818) was in 1797 the French commissioner handling
surrendered or seized Italian works of art – mostly destined for France. He was to
remain a useful servant of Napoleon until 1815 in numerous posts concerned with
works of art and with education.The Political Background in France under the Directory.
After the fall of the monarchy and the Great Terror France was divided by different
views as to the future of the country. Carnot tended to the political right at this time, and
was open to some form of reconciliation with the émigrés and the pro-royalist Clichyens.
This group won a majority in the elections of April 1797, suppressed the ‘communist’
Babeuf conspiracy and sought to bring closure to the Revolution. How far this might
have gone is a question as fascinating as it is futile. Bonaparte meanwhile organized
petitions from his army against the Clichyens and when the Directors sought a
nomination for the command of the Paris military district, he sent his follower General
Augereau. The majority of the Directors then organized the coup of 18 Fructidor (4 Sept
1797). Carnot fled into exile.
The outcome was to make the Directory reliant on the revolutionary left, upon rule by
executive decree, and upon the army – which increasingly meant Bonaparte. Barras
thereafter tried to check Bonaparte’s political influence by appointing him to distant
posts, but when the latter returned from Egypt in late 1799, Barras still sought to use
him for his own purposes in fomenting the coup of 18 Brumaire. The coup
succeeded. It led to Barras’ eclipse the next day! He was thereafter kept at a distance
and spent several years in rustication and even exile, never to hold power again.
Carnot was permitted to return to France after the 1799 coup, briefly employed as War
minister but found Bonaparte’s rule unacceptable and resigned in 1800. He opposed
most of the acts of the Consulate and Empire, but when France was invaded in 1814 he
offered his services to Napoleon and was made governor of the Antwerp naval base
and fortress. For patriotic reasons he again served in 1815 as Minister of the Interior,
thereafter finishing his life in exile, a sad end to one of the greatest of his nation’s
Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2017