Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Representative men: Monarch-adventurers - The Bonapartes

the bonapartes.


If any seer in an early stage of human history had foreknown the regular order in which human society would grow and ripen, one of the last things that he would have looked for in the mirror of the future would have been a Monarch-Adventurer in Western Europe in the nineteenth century. He would have looked through the first period of society, when priesthoods engrossed all knowledge and all authority, and have there seen an ambitious priest here and there working his way up in his caste, till he reached the supreme rank of King and High Priest, as we see that personage painted in the tombs at Thebes, with a blue face and hands, the symbol of the sacerdotal class, and in his grasp the insignia of power over life, or the hair of a crowd of captives whose heads he is going to strike off. In such an age it was natural that the ablest man of the wisest class should become supreme, after having used his utmost efforts to be so.

The seer might well look next to the ensuing stage of society to find specimens of adventurer-kings. The military age was the very time for them to flourish—the military and the naval.

Conquest was then the chief means of greatness, not only when States were rising into importance, but even in the case of a Roman empire which awed the world. Even that empire, in its highest prosperity, was enriched and strengthened by annexing new territories and peoples, because the lands and towns were capable of improvement, and the people were sure to be benefited by their connection with a State which it was an honour to belong to. As long, therefore, as domestic interests were properly attended to, military successes won homage on all hands; and a great soldier was, or might be, the fittest man to rule. A man of the lowest birth might, at such a period, become the greatest of monarchs by universal consent; and his greatness might naturally be estimated by the extent of his conquests. This could not last very long. Strifes and struggles, plots, intrigues, murders, and revolutions must follow upon any established custom of making men kings by their military merits. Also, a new order of qualifications becomes necessary when conquest has reached a certain limit, and it is time for the industrial period of social progress to begin. The process is the same on land and sea. Monarch-Adventurers became vulgar and a nuisance in the decline of the Roman empire, and in the wild Scandinavian regions when the Sea-Kings had ravished more coasts than they could hold.

The seer might still look for Monarch-Adventurers for many generations, because industry could not grow up to be a firm basis of popular liberty till the great soldiers had killed off the larger proportion of their own order. While the conflicts of the feudal ages were bringing out all kinds of military adventurers, as if for a final exhibition of “war for an idea,” a middle-class was growing up, and sowing the earth with industry. At the mouth of great rivers those workers sat down and made cities: in inland plains they sat down and grew harvests. In the heart of forests they made clearings for the fertilising sun and air to enter, and exchanged their timber for flocks and herds, which again founded new arts of life. In the creeks of the shore they built vessels in which they ventured forth on trading errands. Watching such a process as this, the seer would understand that wars must henceforth be for commercial objects, and the character of adventurers must therefore be somewhat changed.

Then ensued the period briefly referred to in my notice of Rajah Brooke—the age of buccaneering for the discovery of gold, or the great prizes of barter; or for the capture of rich merchant or treasure ships; or to avenge any injuries done to commerce. A man here and there might make himself supreme by the strong arm in remote regions or exceptional cases; but it was not a favourable age for adventurers to fit themselves with crowns.

The time had come now for hereditary sovereignty in old-established states. Each nation being provided with its own royal stock, and with some long-founded polity, and with its own industrial occupations; so that all states were busy at home, and connected more or less by their respective industries, there might seem to be nothing for the adventurer to do—no access to the throne for him. Such pretenders as could make themselves attended to at all must be, or pretend to be, of royal birth, and simply dispute the succession to the throne. The seer might well suppose that it would be useless trouble to look for more Monarch-Adventurers at so late a period, except in countries which had not passed through the earlier stages of social progress.

The wiser the seer was, the more confidently might he say that the reasons and inducements for this kind of adventure were over. What could a man gain, in the commercial age of society, with its great popular liberties, by being a parvenu sovereign? There might be some dignity, and many salutary and happy affections sustained by a monarchy founded in remote antiquity, and administered by an ancient line of kings: but an upstart king is a vulgar object in all eyes in an age when use and antiquity are the main warrants of sovereignty. To be a supreme statesman or warrior is a higher honour in our time than to be a new made king, or, indeed, a king of any sort. And what could it be for? A man would scarcely snatch a crown from a river of blood and tears to promote industry, order, and peace: and if he does it with a view to conquest and military glory, he can be neither philosopher nor statesman, but a stupid egotist, who does not see that ruin must ensue upon any attempt to force the exhausted aims of a former period upon a later one, which has quite enough upon its hands with its own proper business. The seer would therefore conclude that there could be no Monarch-Adventurers in Europe in the nineteenth century; or that they must prove failures, after doing more or less of mischief to everybody about them.

What would he have said to the Bonapartes, if he had foreseen them putting off from their Corsican bay, and soon dispersing themselves over half the thrones of Europe?

Their leader and his course are easily accounted for. His career was so far opened for him that his ability was the only other condition requisite to make him what he was.

It was essential that society in France should take some shape, according to some principle or method, if it was to be saved from utter dissolution. At the crisis, war was forced upon the nation by neighbouring sovereigns: Bonaparte made himself indispensable by his military ability; his personal tendencies then had free scope, and he led back the nation in the direction of barbarism as fast and as far as his genius, in conflict with his age, could permit. The result would have been clear from the beginning, if men had understood history even as well as they do now,—which is not saying much.

It would have been clear to any philosophical statesman, from the day when Bonaparte became Emperor, that France must suffer for a while, to admit of a new start in concurrence with the great natural laws of human progress, instead of in opposition to them. From the time of Napoleon I. becoming Emperor, it was inevitable that France should be drained of her choicest manhood, as well as of her wealth; that her industry should be paralysed during his reign; her political morals corrupted; her national aim degraded; her companionship repelled by her neighbours, and her aggressions finally punished. All this happened, as it necessarily must; and no one had the heart to ask the humbled nation whether a few fits of intoxication from vanity, and big words of adulation exchanged between the nation and its temporary arbiter were an adequate reward for the cost.

Throughout the hills and vales, and towns and villages of France, the generation of young men was almost extirpated. Towards the last, women were in all the posts of industry, and boys made up the army. For half a century the population has oscillated a little across the point at which Napoleon I. left it, but has never made the regular advance which is a matter of course with its neighbours. The great gap in its manhood during a generation has retarded its agriculture and its commerce; and the consequence is a kind and degree of poverty, in Paris and in the provinces, which is not seen or imagined in England.

After the stroke of retribution there was an interval of nearly half a century, which all Europe wished to see made into a fresh start on the road of progress. Whatever may have been the faults and errors of the various European governments and people, no one of them has shown the slightest disposition to injure France. Free from attack and from interference, she had only to shape or pursue her own course. Yet now, at the end of the long interval, we see her again ridden by a Monarch-Adventurer fast on the same downward road which she travelled before.

Few of the order—perhaps none—have been from childhood adventurers, aiming at the throne, on other than hereditary grounds. The strongest peculiarity in the case of Napoleon III., next to his lot being cast in so late a century, is his life-long preparation as a parvenu (as he calls himself) for the throne.

He was the youngest of three brothers; and he had many cousins—five in one family—who stood nearer to their uncle’s throne than himself. The eldest of his brothers died in infancy; but, till he was three-and-twenty he had an elder brother; and his early-planted ambition was altogether of a personal character. He was not in the front rank of the Bonapartes by birth: he is unlike them in the whole cast of his character and quality of his genius, and he evidently uses his ostensible relationship to the first Emperor as a mere charm over the imaginations of his more noisy and excitable subjects. It is for himself and by himself that he has been the Monarch-Adventurer; and he has used the Bonapartes generally, and the Emperor in particular, as helps to his purpose.

He has that dreamy, unreasoning, superstitious and egotistical cast of mind which affords all the strength of pertinacity as long as imagination will serve; but when the moment for reason and conviction arrives, the false supports do not avail, and weakness appears, to the surprise of others and his own dismay. He was absorbed in the idea of gaining a throne till he had got it: and the steadiness of his expectation had generated an universal belief in the unalterableness of his purposes. This has given way, amidst the pressure of cares and difficulties, to a fickleness and obvious embarrassment of judgment, which cast a strong light on the interior workings of his faculties, and enable us to speak of him with more clearness than at any time since he first came before the world as a candidate for notoriety of some sort.

I believe he does not pretend to the distinction of an array of comets and falling stars and fights in the clouds at his birth; but he certainly was the only one of the name, except the Emperor’s own son, whose birth was announced by the firing of cannon.

The Emperor was affectionate towards the boy’s mother, Hortense, the daughter of his wife Josephine by her first marriage; and he not only favoured her with dignities and privileges while living apart from her husband, Louis Bonaparte, but had an idea of adopting this her youngest son as his successor, if he should have no natural heir. When the boy was seven years old, the Emperor set him before him in the Champ de Mai, and presented him to the soldiers. Though this was no sign of adoption, because the little King of Rome was then living, the incident deeply impressed the imagination of the visionary and ambitious child.

Thus persuaded that he was to be a supreme personage some day, his aspirations took their direction from the spectacle of the Emperor in his fall. The boy went to see him, with his mother, during his depression at Malmaison; and he heard what the dethroned monarch had to say about Waterloo, when his last hopes had been shattered there. The effect on his mind of what he heard about St. Helena, as the dreary years passed, may partly be conceived. Emotional topics are profoundly affecting to children of sensibility; and especially to dreamers, before twelve years old; and Louis Napoleon was twelve when the ex-Emperor died in a remote tropical island, a weird scene thronged with fearful imagery.

Never boy more needed the control and companionship of a father than this strange egotist, for whom his mother was no competent guide; but Louis Napoleon never had experience of paternal care. His youth and early manhood were wayward and eccentric, not only from his own character, but from the influences under which he was placed.

Robespierre’s friend, Lebas, had a son who was as staunch a republican as himself, and full of enthusiasm for socialism; and this man, of all men in the world, was the tutor of Hortense’s son in Switzerland. The effect of his instructions is seen in the early works of the future Emperor. He had a military education also at Thun, where he strengthened himself for military life by travels among the Alps. He was a republican socialist in Switzerland; he was a revolutionary volunteer in Italy in 1831, when his brother died at Pesaro from fatigue and anxiety; he was a fugitive and an exile after the failure of the Italian revolts; he was an author, giving out revolutionary ideas in a strange tone of dogmatic reverie: yet, all the while he was dreaming of an imperial destiny for himself, and expecting the future homage of mankind, while thus far manifesting no qualities which could procure him consideration from any quarter. The Emperor’s son, too, was still living,—a fact which gave the last finish of absurdity to the anticipations of the dreamer; and the French army was actually prepared, in 1832, to try its strength for the restoration of the youth who is now called Napoleon II., but who was then known by his Austrian title as the Duc de Reichstadt. In that year the boy died; and Louis Napoleon sprang at once into a habit of very definite dreaming indeed, which is commonly called conspiracy.

After the accession of the Orleans dynasty, he had made an attempt to get admission for his family into France, even petitioning for leave to serve as a private soldier in the army. Louis Philippe and his counsellors were too wary to open such a risk, and every successive application was rejected. The next step was to force an entrance; and, in 1836, the Strasburg raid showed Louis Napoleon in his permanent character of Adventurer, aiming at empire.

His failure in that snatch at the crown seemed to disclose a mind so unpractical, and an egotism so certain to be disgusting to the generality of men, that he was contemptuously spared the penalties of high treason. Such a man could never become formidable, it was thought; and he would form a good monument of the clemency of a citizen government. It is now believed, however, that he carried in his breast that vow which has been the grand difficulty of his career, the poison of his tranquillity, the disturber of his policy, and the cause of the great European warfare which we are all looking for as now inevitable. It is believed on all hands that while in Italy he bound himself by the vow of the chief Secret Society of the day to do all that ever might be in his power for the emancipation of Italy, taking upon himself the penalty of death, which is the established sanction of that vow. It is believed that when he knocked at the gate of Strasburg, to steal a throne, he was under the obligation of which Orsini ultimately reminded him, so forcibly that the consequences will live for ever in the history of Europe.

It must have been difficult for anybody but himself and his mother to believe that any world-wide interests could depend on a man who had made such a beginning, and who showed no trace in his procedure, any more than in his person, of any kinship to the great Conqueror whom he aped. The matter seemed more decided still in 1840, when the low-theatrical scene of Boulogne was played, with a tame eagle for the pathos of the piece. Its absurdity saved his life; but he was troublesome, and therefore he was put out of the way by imprisonment in the same apartments in which the retrograde ministers of the last Bourbon sovereign had mourned over the liberties of the nineteenth century, as curses preceding the end of the world.

In that prison of Ham, Louis Napoleon meditated and wrote, and nourished his dreams, and strengthened his prejudices, affording us an insight into his mind which we ought to have profited by more than we have. Among other things, we should, by due study, have perceived that one great element of character,—one essential condition of sound intellect, was absent from his constitution. He has no conscience; though he may possibly suppose that he has. He has sentiment; he has superstition; he has, perhaps, affections; but there is nothing in the whole course of his life which indicates the presence of any moral sense in his own person. If we had early understood how a man of ability may give out fine sentiments with a certain sincerity while incapable of good faith, the prospects of Europe might have been more cheerful than they are now; and if we had taken due heed to his scepticism in regard to human character, we should not now have to bear the provocation of his insults to the understanding of all the world. It may be true that the habit of rule, and the atmosphere of adulation in which he has been living for some years, have destroyed his perception of what men ordinarily are and can do; so that his attempts upon the credulity of society become more gross and weak from year to year; but still, it is abundantly evident that he never took into his account the general parity of power among thinking men, or the general existence of mutual trust as a basis of social action. So we might have foreseen, if we had suspected the importance of the study, that in time this schemer and dreamer would arrive at making incessant protestations which nobody believes, and manifestations which manifest only his delusions about the intellect of mankind.

His works and his ways were not studied, however; and one day he exchanged clothes with a carpenter who was employed on some repairs in the fortress, shouldered a plank, and walked forth into the free world which he hoped to enslave in true Bonaparte style. This was in 1846, after six years’ imprisonment; and he was left unnoticed in England as long as the Orleans family remained burdened with state cares.

In 1848, after the fall of that family, he found his opportunity. He was elected to the legislature, and afterwards to the Presidentship of the Republic. The nation had let in the Bonapartes again, and it needed no ghost from the grave to tell what would happen. There must be the old story over again—a Bonaparte absolutism; the extinction of popular liberty; a constant persecution of intellect and public spirit; a humouring of the lowest national foibles, in order to the extinction of its highest virtues; a retrogression, in short, to the furthest point of barbarism to which one man can carry a great nation.

This is precisely what we are witnessing: the only mystery in the case being the Italian war. It is still asked why a man who has murdered liberty at home went forth to resuscitate it anywhere else. The old Italian vow may have been at the bottom of it; and if a man is really under sentence of death, and aware that he is so, unless he pursues a certain course, it can be no wonder that that is the course which he pursues. There were, however, words dropped about Waterloo long before, and frequent expressions of jealousy of surrounding nations, and an eagerness for a war about the Holy Places, as soon as he was seated on his throne, which indicated a career of attempted conquest, though he was not a professional soldier. He had received a military education, we must remember; and his best work was on the artillery. He has since acted the part of a soldier in Lombardy; and he now attempts in vain to conceal imperialist purposes very like those of the First Empire. Our business here, however, is with his character and attributes rather than his policy.

His restlessness is now perhaps his most notorious attribute, next to his bad faith, which will always be the most prominent of his characteristics. In the combination of the two it seems easy to read his ultimate fate. Without attempting to prophesy how long he will reign, and whether he will die an emperor, or an exile, or a disgraced adventurer, we may say confidently, that the end will be failure in one way or another. Ours is not an age in which a man can wade through blood to a throne without having to answer for his crime. Ours is not an age in which a man can stifle liberty among thirty millions of people who have known in their own experience what liberty is. Ours is not an age in which arms can give empire in Europe, or in which territories can be captured and held at the pleasure of any man. A singular conjunction of circumstances may prostrate the resistance of a nation, and give the despot a career longer or shorter; but it is too unnatural for permanency. That Louis Napoleon himself is, or has been, of this way of thinking, appears by his far-sighted preparation of an army and a seat of empire in Algeria, where he might retire in case of mischance, and whence he might trouble France and other countries at his own convenience. Meantime, he has indicated his career, while in France, by addressing himself to the old French foibles of military vanity and ambition of conquest. It is true we know not, and he perhaps knows not, how small or how large a proportion of the nation has that weak side. All that is known is, that the proportion is smaller by far than half a century ago, and continually lessening till he set himself to increase it. If that proportion is small, he will fail at home, by subjecting the people to sacrifices which they do not think the object worth. If the proportion is large—even as large as he would have it—he will fail by the resistance of the world outside of France. When he has proved to the world that his aims are incompatible with its peace and advancing civilisation, he will be removed from the seat of power like his predecessor. No man can now resist the tendencies of his age with ultimate success; and his chance is less than that of his predecessor by the lapse of half a century.

The question is the while, “What is it all for?” And this is a rational question.

The Monarch-Adventurer of old had a feasible object in view. Power was then a personal possession, an honour and glory, a state of wealth and privilege, which it is not now, and never can be again. An ambition which may look like that old one in every respect is still only pinchbeck beside the gold—the hobby-horse in presence of the warrior’s barb. It is so because the function of usurper is changed, and an adventurer no longer takes divine right by force, as it were, but only makes himself comfortable in another king’s house. Where there has once been parliamentary government there can never again be a usurping dynasty securely enthroned.

The Bonapartes can hardly therefore be called a Representative family: and if Louis Napoleon be regarded in that way at all, it can be only as showing how degenerate the type becomes when it is out of its proper place. His whole position and surroundings are (however wonderful in their way), in the first place—vulgar. The pervading egotism, and the inaptitude of them to the world and the men in it, render them vulgar to an extent which no temporary success can redeem.

This may show why the primeval seer would have been perplexed by such a phenomenon as a Monarch-Adventurer in the nineteenth century. The attributes of the personage are deteriorated or lost; and if his objects could be gained at his own heart’s desire, the human race would still disappoint him, for they would wonder—and more and more as time passed on—what he could be about; and, as for his ambition, what it was all for.

Ingleby Scott.