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Napoleon: A Sketch of his Life, Character, Struggles, and Achievements written by Thomas E. Watson who was an American politician, attorney, newspaper editor and writer from Georgia. This book was published in 1902. And now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.
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A Sketch of his Life, Character, Struggles, and Achievements
Thomas E. Watson
From a portrait by Lassalle.
In this volume the author has made the effort to portray Napoleon as he appears to an average man. Archives have not been rummaged, new sources of information have not been discovered; the author merely claims to have used such authorities, old and new, as are accessible to any diligent student. No attempt has been made to give a full and detailed account of Napoleon’s life or work. To do so would have required the labor of a decade, and the result would be almost a library. The author has tried to give to the great Corsican his proper historical position, his true rating as a man and a ruler,—together with a just estimate of his achievements.
Thomson, Georgia,Dec. 24, 1901.
Corsica, an island in the Mediterranean Sea, has an extreme width of 52 miles and length of 116. It is within easy reach of Italy, France, Spain, Sardinia, and the African coast. Within 54 miles lies Tuscany, while Genoa is distant but 98, and the French coast at Nice is 106. Across the island strides a chain of mountains, dividing it into two nearly equal parts. The slopes of the hills are covered with dense forests of gigantic pines and chestnuts, and on their summits rests eternal snow. Down from these highlands rapid streams run to the sea. There are many beautiful valleys and many fine bays and harbors.
The population of the island was, in the eighteenth century, about 130,000. The Italian type predominated. In religion it was Roman Catholic.
The history of Corsica has been wonderfully dramatic. Peopled originally by the Celts, perhaps, the island has been so often war-swept, so often borne down under the rush of stronger nations, that the native race almost disappeared. The Greeks from Asia Minor, back in the dim ages, seized upon a part of the coast and colonized it. Carthage, in her day of greatness, was its mistress; and then came Rome, whose long period of supremacy left its stamp upon the people, bringing as it did multitudes of Italians, with their language, customs, and religion.
After the day of Rome came Germans, Byzantine Greeks, Moors, Goths, Vandals, and Longobards. For centuries the island was torn by incessant war, the Corsicans doing their utmost to keep themselves free from foreign masters. The feudal system was fastened upon the struggling people by the chiefs of the invaders. The crags were crowned with castles, and half-savage feudal lords ruled by the law of their own fierce lusts. They waged war upon each other, they ground down the native races. Unable to defend themselves, miserably poor, but full of desperate courage, the Corsicans fled from the coasts to escape the pirate, and to the mountains to resist the feudal robber. In their distress the peasants found a leader in Sambuccio, who organized them into village communities,—a democratic, self-ruling confederation. There were no serfs, no slaves, in Corsica; freedom and equality the people claimed and fought for; and under Sambuccio they totally routed the barons.
The great leader died; the barons took up arms again; the peasants appealed to the margrave of Tuscany for aid; an army came from Italy, the barons were beaten, and the village confederation restored. From A.D. 1020 to A.D. 1070, Tuscany protected the Corsicans; but the popes, having looked upon the land with eyes of desire, claimed it for the Church, and, through skilful manipulations (such as are common in cases of that kind), the people were persuaded to submit. In the year 1098 Pope Urban II. sold the island to Pisa, and for one hundred years Corsica remained under the dominion of that republic.
Genoa, however, envied Pisa this increase of territory, claimed the island for herself, and backed her claim by arms. Corsica was rent by the struggle, and the Corsicans themselves were divided into hostile camps, one favoring Pisa, the other Genoa.
The leader of the Pisan faction, Guidice della Rocca, kept up, for many years, an unequal struggle, showing wonderful courage, fertility of resource, rigorous justice, and rare clemency. He killed his own nephew for having outraged a female prisoner for whose safety he, Della Rocca, had given his word. Old and blind, this hero was betrayed by his bastard son, delivered to the Genoese, and died in a wretched Genoese dungeon; and with his downfall passed away the Pisan sovereignty.
A period of anarchy followed the death of Della Rocca. The barons were unmerciful in their extortions, and the people were reduced to extreme misery. After many years appeared another valiant patriot of the Rocca race, Arrigo della Rocca (1392). He raised the standard of revolt, and the people rallied to him. He beat the Genoese, was proclaimed Count of Corsica, and ruled the land for four years. Defeated at length by the Genoese, he went to Spain to ask aid. Returning with a small force, he routed his enemies and became again master of the island. Genoa sent another army, Arrigo della Rocca was poisoned (1401), and in the same year Genoa submitted to France.
Corsica kept up the struggle for independence. Vincentello, nephew of Arrigo della Rocca, was made Count of Corsica, and for two years maintained a gallant contest. Genoa poured in more troops, and the resistance was crushed. Vincentello left the island. Soon returning with help from Aragon, he reconquered the county with the exception of the strongholds of Calvi and Bonifaccio. Inspired by the success of Vincentello, the young king of Aragon, Alfonso, came in person with large forces to complete the conquest. Calvi was taken, but Bonifaccio resisted all efforts. The place was strongly Genoese, and for months the endurance of its defenders was desperately heroic. Women and children and priests joined with those who manned the walls, and all fought together. Spanish courage was balked, Spanish pride humbled, and Alfonso sailed away. Vincentello, bereft of allies, lost ground. He gave his own cause a death-blow by abusing a girl whose kinsmen rose to avenge the wrong. The guilty man and indomitable patriot determined to seek aid once more in Spain; but Genoa captured him at sea, and struck off his head on the steps of her ducal palace (1434).
Then came anarchy in Corsica again. The barons fought, the peasants suffered. Law was dead. Only the dreaded vendetta ruled—the law of private vengeance. So harried were the people by continued feuds, rival contentions, and miscellaneous tumult, that they met in general assembly and decided to put themselves under the protection of the bank of St. George of Genoa. The bank agreed to receive this singular deposit (1453). The Corsican nobles resisted the bank, and terrible scenes followed. Many a proud baron had his head struck off, many of them left the country. Aragon favored the nobles, and they came back to renew the fight, defeat the forces of the bank, and reconquer most of the island.
In 1464 Francesco Sforza of Milan took Genoa, and claimed Corsica as a part of his conquest. The islanders preferred Milan to Genoa, and but for an accidental brawl, peaceful terms might have been arranged. But the brawl occurred, and there was no peace. Years of war, rapine, and universal wretchedness followed. Out of the murk appears a valiant figure, Giampolo, taking up with marvellous tenacity and fortitude the old fight of Corsica against oppression. After every defeat, he rose to fight again. He never left the field till Corsican rivalry weakened and ruined him. Then, defiant to the last, he went the way of the outlaw to die in exile.
Renuccio della Rocca’s defection had caused Giampolo to fail. After a while Rocca himself led the revolt against Genoa, and was overthrown. He left the island, but came again, and yet again, to renew the hopeless combat. Finally his own peasants killed him to put an end to the miserable war, there being no other method of turning the indomitable man (1511).
Resistance over, the bank of Genoa governed the island. The barons were broken, their castles fell to ruin. The common people kept up their local home-rule, enjoyed a share in the government, and were in a position much better than that of the common people in other parts of Europe. But the bank was not satisfied to let matters rest there; a harsh spirit soon became apparent; and the privileges which the people had enjoyed were suppressed.
Against this tyranny rose now the strongest leader the Corsicans had yet found, Sampiero. Humbly born, this man had in his youth sought adventures in foreign lands. He had served the House of Medici, and in Florence became known for the loftiness and energy of his character. Afterward he served King Francis I., of France, by whom he was made colonel of the Corsican regiment which he had formed. Bayard was his friend, and Charles of Bourbon said of him, “In the day of battle the Corsican colonel is worth ten thousand men”; just as another great warrior, Archduke Charles of Austria, said of another great Corsican, serving then in France (1814), “Napoleon himself is equal to one hundred thousand men.”
In 1547 Sampiero went back to Corsica to select a wife. So well established was his renown that he was given the only daughter of the Lord of Ornano, the beautiful Vannina. The bank of Genoa, alarmed by the presence of such a man in the island, threw him into prison. His father-in-law, Francesco Ornano, secured his release.
Genoa, since her delivery from French dominion by Andrea Doria, was in league with the Emperor of Germany, with whom the French king and the Turks were at war. Hence it was that Sampiero could induce France and her allies to attack the Genoese in Corsica. In 1553 came Sampiero, the French, and the Turks; and all Corsica, save Calvi and Bonifaccio, fell into the hands of the invaders. Bonifaccio was besieged in vain, until, by a stratagem, it was taken. Then the Turks, indignant that Sampiero would not allow them to plunder the city and put all the Genoese to the sword, abandoned the cause, and sailed away. Calvi still held out. The Emperor sent an army of Germans and Spaniards; Cosmo de Medici also sent troops; Andrea Doria took command, and the French were everywhere beaten. Sampiero quarrelled with the incapable French commander, went to France to defend himself from false reports, made good his purpose, then returned to the island, where he became the lion of the struggle. He beat the enemy in two pitched battles, and kept up a successful contest for six years. Then came a crushing blow. By the treaty of Cambray, Franceagreed with Spain that Corsica should be given back to Genoa.
Under this terrible disaster, Sampiero did not despair. Forced to leave the island, he wandered from court to court on the continent, seeking aid. For four years he went this dreary round,—to France, to Navarre, to Florence. He even went to Algiers and to Constantinople. During this interval it was that Genoa deceived and entrapped Vannina, the wife of the hero. She left her home and put herself in the hands of his enemies. One of Sampiero’s relatives was fool enough to say to him, “I had long expected this.”—“And you concealed it!” cried Sampiero in a fury, striking his relative to the heart with a dagger. Vannina was pursued and caught, Sampiero killed her with his own hand.
Failing in his efforts to obtain foreign help, the hero came back to Corsica to make the fight alone (1564). With desperate courage he marched from one small victory to another until Genoa was thoroughly aroused. An army of German and Italian mercenaries was sent over, and the command given to an able general, Stephen Doria. The war assumed the most sanguinary character. Genoa seemed bent on utterly exterminating the Corsicans and laying waste the entire country. Sampiero rose to the crisis; and while he continued to beseech France for aid, he continued to fight with savage ferocity. He beat Doria in several encounters, and finally, in the pass of Luminada, almost annihilated the enemy. Doria, in despair, left the island, and Sampiero remained master of the field. With his pitifully small forces he had foiled the Spanish fleet, fifteen thousand Spanish soldiers, and an army of mercenaries; and had in succession beaten the best generals Genoa could send. All this he had done with half-starved, half-armed peasants, whose only strength lay in the inspiration of their patriotism and the unconquerable spirit of their leader. Few stronger men have lived and loved, hoped and dared, fought and suffered, than this half-savage hero of Corsica. With all the world against him Sampiero fought without fear, as another great Corsican was to do.
In open fight he was not to be crushed: on this his enemies were agreed, therefore treachery was tried. Genoa bribed some of the Corsican chiefs; Vannina’s cousins were roused to seek revenge; Vittolo, a trusted lieutenant, turned against his chief; and a monk, whom Sampiero could not suspect, joined the conspirators. The monk delivered forged letters to Sampiero, which led him to the ambuscade where his foes lay in wait. He fought like the lion he was. Wounded in the face, he wiped the blood out of his eyes with one hand while his sword was wielded by the other. Vittolo shot him in the back, and the Ornanos rushed upon the dying man, and cut off his head (1567).
The fall of Sampiero created intense satisfaction in Genoa, where there were bell-ringings and illuminations. In Corsica it aroused the people to renewed exertions; but the effort was fitful, for the leader was dead. In a great meeting at Orezzo, where three thousand patriots wept for the lost hero, they chose his son Alfonso their commander-in-chief.
After a struggle of two years, in which the youth bore himself bravely, he made peace and left the country. Accompanied by many companions in arms, he went to France, formed his followers into a Corsican regiment, of which Charles the Ninth appointed him colonel. Other Corsicans, taking refuge in Rome, formed themselves into the Pope’s Corsican guard.
Thrown back into the power of Genoa, Corsica suffered all the ills of the oppressed. Wasted by war, famine, plague, misgovernment, a more wretched land was not to be found. Deprived of its privileges, drained of its resources, ravaged by Turks and pillaged by Christians, it bled also from family feuds. The courts being corrupt, the vendetta raged with fury. In many parts of the country, agriculture and peaceful pursuits were abandoned. And this frightful condition prevailed for half a century.
The Genoese administration became ever more unbearable. A tax of twelve dollars was laid on every hearth. The governors of the island were invested with the power to condemn to death without legal forms or proceedings.
One day, a poor old man of Bustancio went to the Genoese collector to pay his tax. His money was a little short of the amount due—a penny or so. The official refused to receive what was offered, and threatened to punish the old man if he did not pay the full amount. The ancient citizen went away grumbling. To his neighbors, as he met them, he told his trouble. He complained and wept. They sympathized and wept. Frenzied by his own wrongs, the old man began to denounce the Genoese generally,—their tyranny, cruelty, insolence, and oppression. Crowds gathered, the excitement grew, insurrectionary feelings spread throughout the land. Soon the alarm bells were rung, and the war trumpet sounded from mountain to mountain. This was in October, 1729.
A war of forty years ensued. Genoa hired a large body of Germans from the Emperor, and eight thousand of these mercenaries landed in Corsica. At first they beat the ill-armed islanders, who marched to battle bare of feet and head. But in 1732 the Germans were almost destroyed in the battle of Calenzala. Genoa called on the Emperor for more hirelings. They were sent; but before any decisive action had taken place, there arrived orders from the Emperor to make peace. Corsica had appealed to him against Genoa, and he had decided that the Corsicans had been wronged. Corsica submitted to Genoa, but her ancient privileges were restored, taxes were remitted, and other reforms promised.
No sooner had the Germans left the island than Genoese and Corsicans fell to fighting again. Under Hyacinth Paoli and Giafferi, the brave islanders defeated the Genoese, at all points; and Corsica, for the moment, stood redeemed.
In 1735 the people held a great meeting at Corte and proclaimed their independence. A government was organized, and the people were declared to be the only source of the laws.
Genoa exerted all her power to put down the revolt. The island was blockaded, troops poured in, the best generals were sent. The situation of the Corsicans was desperate. They stood in need of almost everything requisite to their defence, except brave men. The blockade cut off any hope of getting aid from abroad. English sympathizers sent two vessels laden with supplies, and keen was the joy of the poor islanders. With the munitions thus obtained they stormed and took Alesia.
But their distress was soon extreme again, and the struggle hopeless. At this, the darkest hour, came a very curious episode. A German adventurer, Theodore de Neuhoff, a baron of Westphalia, entering the port with a single ship, under the British flag, offered himself to the Corsicans as their king. Promises of the most exhilarating description he made as to the men, money, munitions of war he could bring to Corsican relief. Easily believing what was so much to their interest, and perhaps attaching too much importance to the three English ships which had recently brought them supplies, the Corsican chiefs actually accepted Neuhoff for their king.
The compact between King Theodore and the Corsicans was gravely reduced to writing, signed, sealed, sworn to, and delivered. Then they all went into the church, held solemn religious services, and crowned Theodore with a circlet of oak and laurel leaves. Theodore took himself seriously, went to work with zeal, appointed high dignitaries of the crown, organized a court, created an order of knighthood, and acted as if he were a king indeed. He marched against the oppressors, fought like a madman, gained some advantages, and began to make the situation look gloomy to the Genoese.
Resorting to a detestable plan, they turned loose upon the island a band of fifteen hundred bandits, galley-slaves, and outlaws. These villains made havoc wherever they went. In the meantime, the Corsican chiefs began to be impatient about the succors which Theodore had promised. Evasions and fresh assurances answered for a while, but finally matters reached a crisis. Theodore was told, with more or less pointedness, that either the succors must come or that he must go. To avoid a storm, he went, saying that he would soon return with the promised relief. Paoli and the other Corsican chiefs realized that in catching at the straw this adventurer had held out to them, they had made themselves and Corsica ridiculous. They accordingly laid heavy blame on Theodore.
Cardinal Fleury, a good old Christian man, who was at this time (1737) minister of France, came forward with a proposition to interfere in behalf of Genoa, and reduce the Corsicans to submission. Accordingly French troops were landed (1738), and the islanders rose en masse to resist. Bonfires blazed, bells clanged, war trumpets brayed. The whole population ran to arms. The French were in no haste to fight, and for six months negotiations dragged along. Strange to say, the Corsicans, in their misery, gave hostages to the French, and agreed to trust their cause to the king of France. At this stage who should enter but Theodore! The indefatigable man had ransacked Europe, hunting sympathy for Corsica, and had found it where Americans found it in a similar hour of need—in Holland. He had managed to bring with him several vessels laden with cannon, small arms, powder, lead, lances, flints, bombs, and grenades. The Corsican people received him with delight, and carried him in triumph to Cervione, where he had been crowned; but the chiefs bore him no good-will, and told him that circumstances had changed. Terms must be made with France; Corsica could not at this time accept him as king—oaths, religious services, and written contract to the contrary notwithstanding. Theodore sadly sailed away.
The appeal to the French king resulted in the treaty of Versailles, by whose terms some concessions were made to the Corsicans, who were positively commanded to lay down their arms and submit to Genoa. Corsica resisted, but was overcome by France. In 1741 the French withdrew from the island, and almost immediately war again raged between Corsican and Genoese.
In 1748 King Theodore reappeared, bringing munitions of war which the island greatly needed. He seems to have succeeded in getting the Corsicans to accept his supplies, but they showed no inclination to accept himself. Once again he departed—to return no more. The gallant, generous adventurer went to London, where his creditors threw him into prison. The minister, Walpole, opened a subscription which secured his release. He died in England, and was buried in St. Anne’s churchyard, London, December, 1756.
Peace was concluded between Genoa and Corsica, whose privileges were restored. For two years quiet reigned. Family feuds then broke out, and the island was thrown into confusion. Following this came a general rising against the Genoese, in which the English and Sardinians aided the Corsicans. Genoa applied to France, which sent an army. Dismayed by the appearance of the French, the island came to terms. Cursay, the commander of the French, secured for the unfortunate people the most favorable treaty they had ever obtained. Dissatisfied with Cursay, the Genoese prevailed on France to recall him. Whereupon the Corsicans rose in arms, Gaffori being their chief. He displayed the genius and the courage of Sampiero, met with the success of the earlier hero, and like him fell by treachery. Enticed into an ambuscade, Gaffori was slain by Corsicans, his own brother being one of the assassins. The fall of the leader did not dismay the people. They chose other leaders, and continued the fight. Finally, in July, 1755, the celebrated Paschal Paoli was chosen commander-in-chief. At this time he was but twenty-four years old. Well educated, mild, firm, clear-headed, and well balanced, he was very much more of a statesman than a warrior. His first measure, full of wisdom, was the abolition of the vendetta.
Mainly by the help of his brother Clemens, Paoli crushed a rival Corsican, Matra, and established himself firmly as ruler of the island. Under his administration it flourished and attracted the admiring attention of all European liberals. Genoa, quite exhausted, appealed to France, but was given little help. As a last resort, treachery was tried: Corsican was set against Corsican. The Matra family was resorted to, and brothers of him who had led the first revolt against Paoli took the field at the head of Genoese troops. They were defeated.
Genoa again turned to France, and on August 6, 1764, was signed an agreement by which Corsica was ceded to France for four years. French garrisons took possession of the few places which Genoa still held. During the four years Choiseul, the French minister, prepared the way for the annexation of Corsica to France. As ever before, there were Corsicans who could be used against Corsica. Buttafuoco, a noble of the island, professed himself a convert to the policy of annexation. He became Choiseul’s apostle for the conversion of others. So adroitly did he work with bribes and other inducements, that Corsica was soon divided against herself. A large party declared in favor of the incorporation of the island with France. In 1768 the Genoese realized that their dominion was gone. A bargain was made between two corrupt and despotic powers by which the one sold to the other an island it did not own, a people it could not conquer,—an island and a people whose government was at that moment a model of wisdom, justice, and enlightened progress. Alone of all the people of Europe, Corsica enjoyed self-government, political and civil freedom, righteous laws, and honest administration. Commerce, agriculture, manufactures, had sprung into new life under Paoli’s guidance, schools had been founded, religious toleration decreed, liberty of speech and conscience proclaimed. After ages of combat against awful odds, the heroic people had won freedom, and, by the manner in which it was used, proved that they had deserved to win it. Such were the people who were bargained for and bought by Choiseul, the minister of France, at and for the sum of $400,000. The Bourbons had lost to England an empire beyond seas—by this act of perfidy and brutality they hoped to recover some of their lost grandeur.
Terrible passions raged in Corsica when this infamous bargain became known. The people flew to arms, and their wrongs sent a throb of sympathy far into many lands. But France sent troops by the tens of thousands; and while the Corsicans accomplished wonders, they could not beat foes who outnumbered them so heavily. Paoli was a faithful chief, vigilant and brave, but he was no Sampiero. His forces were crushed at Ponte Nuovo on June 12, 1769, and Corsica laid down her arms. The long chapter was ended, and one more wrong triumphant.
Chief among the painful features of the drama was that Buttafuoco and a few other Corsicans took service with France, and made war upon their own people.
Paoli with a band of devoted supporters left the island. From Leghorn, through Germany and Holland, his journey was a triumphal progress. Acclaimed by the liberals, honors were showered upon him by the towns through which he passed; and in England, where he made his home, he was welcomed by the people and pensioned by the government.
The French organized their administration without difficulty. The Buttafuoco element basked in the warmth of success and patronage. For a while all was serene. Later on the French grip tightened, the Corsican time-honored privileges were set aside, the old democracy was no longer the support of a government which relied more and more on French soldiers. Power, taken from the village communities, was placed entirely in the hands of a military governor and a council of twelve nobles. Frenchmen filled all the important offices. The seat of government was moved from Corte to Bastia and Ajaccio. The discontent which these changes caused broke into open rebellion. The French crushed it with savage cruelty. After that Corsica was a conquered land, which offered no further resistance; but whose people, excepting always those who had taken part with France, nursed intensely bitter feelings against their conquerors.
Of this fiery, war-worn, deeply wronged people, Napoleon Bonaparte was born; and it must be remembered that before his eyes opened to the light his mother had thrilled with all the passions of her people, her feet had followed the march, her ears had heard the roar of battle. As Dumas finely says, “The new-born child breathed air that was hot with civil hates, and the bell which sounded his baptism still quivered with the tocsin.”
“From St. Charles Street you enter on a very small square. An elm tree stands before a yellowish gray plastered house, with a flat roof and a projecting balcony. It has six front windows in each of its three stories, and the doors look old and time-worn. On the corner of this house is an inscription, Letitia Square. The traveller knocks in vain at the door. No voice answers.”
Such is the picture, drawn in 1852, of the Bonaparte mansion in Ajaccio. Few tourists go to see it, for Corsica lies not in the direct routes of the world’s trade or travel. Yet it is a house whose story is more fascinating, more marvellous, than that of any building which cumbers the earth this day.
We shut our eyes, and we see a picture which is richer than the richest page torn from romance. We see a lean, sallow, awkward, stunted lad step forth from the door of the old house and go forth into the world, with no money in his pocket, and no powerful friends to lift him over the rough places. He is only nine years old when he leaves home, and we see him weep bitterly as he bids his mother good-by. We see him at school in France, isolated, wretched, unable at first to speak the language, fiercely resenting the slights put upon his poverty, his ignorance, his family, his country—suffering, but never subdued. We see him rise against troubles as the eagle breasts the storm. We see him lay the better half of the civilized world at his feet. We see him bring sisters and brothers from the island home, and put crowns on their heads. We see him shower millions upon his mother; and we hear him say to his brother on the day he dons the robes of empire, “Joseph, suppose father were here—!”
As long as time shall last, the inspiration of the poor and the ambitious will be the Ajaccio lawyer’s son: not Alexander, the born king; not Cæsar, the patrician; but Napoleon, the moneyless lad from despised Corsica, who stormed the high places of the world, and by his own colossal strength of character, genius, and industry took them!
As long as time shall last his name will inspire not only the individual, but the masses also. Wherever a people have heard enough, read enough, thought enough to feel that absolutism in king or priest is wrong; that special privilege in clan or clique is wrong; that monopoly of power, patronage, wealth, or opportunity is wrong, there the name of Napoleon will be spoken with reverence, despot though he became, for in his innermost fibre he was a man of the people, crushing to atoms feudalism, caste, divine right, and hereditary imposture.
* * * * *
As early as the year 947 there had been Bonapartes in Corsica, for the name of one occurs as witness to a deed in that year. There were also Bonapartes in Italy; and men of that name were classed with the nobles of Bologna, Treviso, and Florence. It is said that during the civil wars of Italy, members of the Bonaparte family took refuge in Corsica, and that Napoleon’s origin can be traced to this source. It is certain that the Bonapartes of Corsica continued to claim kindred with the Italian family, and to class themselves as patricians of Italy; and both these claims were recognized. In Corsica they ranked with the nobility, a family of importance at Ajaccio.
At the time of the French invasion the representatives of the family were Lucien, archdeacon of Ajaccio, and Charles Bonaparte, a young man who had been left an orphan at the age of fourteen.
Born in 1746, Charles Bonaparte married, in 1764, Letitia Ramolino, a Corsican girl of fifteen. She was of good family, and she brought to her husband a dowry at least equal to his own estate. Beautiful, high-spirited, and intelligent, Madame Letitia knew nothing of books, knew little of the manners of polite society, and was more of the proud peasant than of the grand lady. She did not know how to add up a column of figures; but time was to prove that she possessed judgment, common sense, inflexible courage, great loftiness and energy of character. Misfortune did not break her spirit, and prosperity did not turn her head. She was frugal, industrious, strong physically and mentally, “with a man’s head on a woman’s shoulders,” as Napoleon said of her.
Charles Bonaparte was studying law in Italy when the war between France and Corsica broke out. At the call of Paoli, the student dropped his books and came home to join in the struggle. He was active and efficient, one of Paoli’s trusted lieutenants. After the battle of Ponte Nuovo, realizing that all was lost, he gave in his submission (May 23, 1769) to the French, and returned to Ajaccio.
The policy of the French was to conciliate the leading Corsicans, and special attention seems to have been given to Charles Bonaparte. His mansion in Ajaccio, noted for its hospitality, became the favorite resort of General Marbeuf, the bachelor French governor of the island. With an ease which as some have thought indicated suppleness or weakness of character, Bonaparte the patriot became Bonaparte the courtier. He may have convinced himself that incorporation with France was best for Corsica, and that his course in making the most out of the new order of things was wisdom consistent with patriotism.
Resistance to France having been crushed, the policy of conciliation inaugurated, and the Corsicans encouraged to take part in the management of their own affairs, subject to France, one might hesitate before condemning the course of Charles Bonaparte in Corsica, just as we may hesitate between the policies of Kossuth and Déak in Hungary, or of Kosciusko and Czartoryski in Poland. We may, and do, admire the patriot who resists to the death; and, at the same time, respect the citizen who fights till conquered, and then makes the best of a bad situation.
In 1765 Madame Letitia Bonaparte gave birth to her first child; in 1767, to her second, both of whom died while infants. In 1768 was born Joseph, and on August 15, 1769, Napoleon.1
1 During the period of this pregnancy, Corsica was in the storm of war; and Madame Bonaparte, following her husband, was in the midst of the sufferings, terrors, and brutalities which such a war creates. The air was still electrical with the hot passions of deadly strife when the young wife’s time came. On the 15th of August, 1769, Madame Bonaparte, a devout Catholic, attended service at the church; but feeling labor approaching, hastened home, and was barely able to reach her room before she was delivered of Napoleon on a rug upon the floor.
The authority for this statement is Madame Bonaparte herself, who gave that account of the matter to the Permons in Paris, on the 18th of Brumaire, the day on which the son thus born was struggling for supreme power in France.
The story which represents the greatest of men and warriors as having come into the world upon a piece of carpet, or tapestry, upon which the heroes of the “Iliad” were represented, is a fable, according to the express statement made by Madame Bonaparte to the American General Lee, in Rome, in 1830.
Other children came to the Bonapartes in the years following, the survivors of these being: Elisa, Lucien, Louis, Pauline, Caroline, and Jerome. To support this large family, and to live in the hospitable fashion which custom required of a man of his rank, Charles Bonaparte found a difficult matter, especially as he was a pleasure-loving, extravagant man whose idea of work seemed to be that of a born courtier. He returned to Italy after the peace; spent much of his patrimony there; made the reputation of a sociable, intelligent, easy-going gentleman; and took his degree of Doctor of Laws, at Pisa, in November, 1769.
It was his misfortune to be cumbered with a mortgaged estate and a hereditary lawsuit. Whatever surplus the mortgage failed to devour was swallowed by the lawsuit. His father had expensively chased this rainbow, pushed this hopeless attempt to get justice; and the steps of the father were followed by the son. It was the old story of a sinner, sick and therefore repentant; a priest holding the keys to heaven and requiring payment in advance; a craven surrender of estate to purchase the promise of salvation. Thus the Jesuits got Bonaparte houses and lands, in violation of the terms of an ancestor’s will, the lawsuit being the effort of the legal heirs to make good the testament of the original owner.
In spite of all they could do, the Bonapartes were never able to recover the property.
Charles Bonaparte, a man of handsome face and figure, seems to have had a talent for making friends, for he was made assessor to the highest court of Ajaccio, a member of the council of Corsican nobles, and later, the representative of these nobles to France. With the slender income from his wife’s estate and that from his own, aided by his official earnings, he maintained his family fairly well; but his pretensions and expenditures were so far beyond what he was really able to afford that, financially, he was never at ease.
It was the familiar misery of the gentleman who strives to gratify a rich man’s tastes with a poor man’s purse. There was his large stone mansion, his landed estate, his aristocratic associates, his patent of nobility signed by the Duke of Florence; and yet there was not enough money in the house to school the children.
The widowed mother of Madame Letitia had married a second husband, Fesch, a Swiss ex-captain of the Genoese service, and by this marriage she had a son, Joseph Fesch, known to Napoleonic chronicles as “Uncle Fesch.” This eleven-year-old uncle taught the young Napoleon the alphabet.
In his sixth year Napoleon was sent to a dame’s school. For one of the little girls at this school the lad showed such a fondness that he was laughed at, and rhymed at, by the other boys.
Napoleon di mezza calzetta
Fa l’armore a Giacominetta.2
2Napoleon with his stockings half off
Makes love to Giacominetta.
The jeers and the rhyme Napoleon answered with sticks and stones.
It is not very apparent that he learned anything here, for we are told that it was the Abbé Recco who taught him to read; and it was this Abbé whom Napoleon remembered in his will. As to little Giacominetta, Napoleonic chronicles lose her completely, and she takes her place among the “dream children” of very primitive poesy.
Just what sort of a boy Napoleon was at this early period, it is next to impossible to say. Perhaps he did not differ greatly from other boys of his own age. Probably he was more fractious, less inclined to boyish sports, quicker to quarrel and fight. But had he never become famous, his youthful symptoms would never have been thought to indicate anything uncommon either for good or evil.
At St. Helena, the weary captive amused himself by picturing the young Napoleon as the bad boy of the town. He quarrelled, he fought, he bit and scratched, he terrorized his brothers and sisters, and so forth. It may be true, it may not be; his mother is reported as saying that he was a “perfect imp of a child,” but the authority is doubtful.
The Bonaparte family usually spent the summer at a small country-seat called Milleli. Its grounds were beautiful, and there was a glorious view of the sea. A large granite rock with a natural cavity, or grotto, offered a cool, quiet retreat; and this is said to have been Napoleon’s favorite resort. In after years he improved the spot, built a small summer-house there, and used it for study and meditation.
It is natural to suppose that Napoleon as a child absorbed a good deal of Corsican sentiment. His wet-nurse was a Corsican peasant, and from her, his parents, his playmates, and his school companions he probably heard the story of Corsica, her wrongs, her struggles, and her heroes. Della Rocca, Sampiero, Gaffori, and Paoli were names familiar to his ears. At a very early age he had all the passions of the Corsican patriot. The French were masters, but they were hated. While the Bonapartes had accepted the situation, they may not have loved it. The very servants in the house vented their curses on “those dogs of French.”
General Marbeuf, the warm friend of the family, encouraged Charles Bonaparte to make the attempt to have the children educated at the expense of France. In 1776 written application was made for the admission of Joseph and Napoleon into the military school of Brienne. At that time both the boys were on the safe side of the age-limit of ten years. But the authorities demanded proofs of nobility,—four generations thereof,—according to Bourbon law; and before these proofs could be put into satisfactory shape, Joseph was too old for Brienne.
Chosen in 1777 by the nobles of Corsica as their deputy to France, Charles Bonaparte set out for Versailles in 1778, taking with him his sons Joseph and Napoleon. Joseph Fesch accompanied the party as far as Aix, where he was to be given a free education for the priesthood by the seminary at that place. Joseph and Napoleon both stated in after years that their father visited Florence onthe way to France, and was given an honorable reception at the ducal court.
The Bishop of Autun, nephew of General Marbeuf, had been interested in behalf of the Bonapartes; and it was at his school that Joseph was to be educated for the Church. Napoleon was also placed there till he could learn French enough for Brienne. On January 1, 1779, therefore, he began his studies.
The Abbé Chardon, who was his teacher, says that he was a boy of thoughtful and gloomy character. “He had no playmate and walked about by himself.” Very naturally. He was a stranger to all the boys, he was in a strange country, he could not at first speak the language, he could not understand those who did speak it—how was the homesick lad to be sociable and gay under such conditions? Besides, he was Corsican, a despised representative of a conquered race. And the French boys taunted him about it. One day, according to the teacher, the boys threw at him the insult that “the Corsicans were a lot of cowards.” Napoleon flashed out of his reserve and replied, “Had you been but four to one you would never have conquered us, but you were ten to one.” To pacify him the teacher remarked, “But you had a good general—Paoli.”—“Yes,” answered the lad of ten, “and I would like to resemble him.”
According to the school register and to Napoleon’s own record, he remained at Autun till the 12th of May, 1779. He had learned “enough French to converse freely, and to make little themes and translations.”
In the meantime, Charles Bonaparte had been attending his king, the young Louis XVI., at Versailles. Courtier in France as in Ajaccio, the adroit lawyer had pleased. A bounty from the royal purse swelled the pay of the Corsican delegates, a reward for “their excellent behavior”; and for once Charles Bonaparte was moderately supplied with funds.
On May 19, 1779, Napoleon entered the college of Brienne. Its teachers were incompetent monks. The pupils were mainly aristocratic French scions of the privileged nobility, proud, idle, extravagant, vicious. Most of these young men looked down upon Napoleon with scorn. In him met almost every element necessary to stir their dislike, provoke their ridicule, or excite their anger. In person he was pitifully thin and short, with lank hair and awkward manners; his speech was broken French, mispronounced and ungrammatical; it was obvious that he was poor; he was a Corsican; and instead of being humble and submissive, he was proud and defiant. During the five years Napoleon spent here he was isolated, moody, tortured by his own discontent, and the cruelty of his position. He studied diligently those branches he liked, the others he neglected. In mathematics he stood first in the school, in history and geography he did fairly well; Latin, German, and the ornamental studies did not attract him at all. The German teacher considered him a dunce. But he studied more in the library than in the schoolroom. While the other boys were romping on the playground, Napoleon was buried in some corner with a book.
On one occasion Napoleon, on entering a room and seeing a picture of Choiseul which hung therein, burst into a torrent of invective against the minister who had bought Corsica. The school authorities punished the blasphemy.
At another time one of the young French nobles scornfully said to Napoleon, “Your father is nothing but a wretched tipstaff.” Napoleon challenged his insulter, and was imprisoned for his temerity.
Upon another occasion he was condemned by the quartermaster, for some breach of the rules, to wear a penitential garb and to eat his dinner on his knees at the door of the common dining-room. The humiliation was real and severe; for doubtless the French lads who had been bullying him were all witnesses to the disgrace, and were looking upon the culprit with scornful eyes, while they jeered and laughed at him. Napoleon became hysterical under the strain, and began to vomit. The principal of the school happening to pass, was indignant that such a degradation should be put upon so dutiful and diligent a scholar, and relieved him from the torture.
“Ah, Bourrienne! I like you: you never make fun of me!” Is there nothing pathetic in this cry of the heart-sick boy?
To his father, Napoleon wrote a passionate appeal to be taken from the school where he was the butt of ridicule, or to be supplied with sufficient funds to maintain himself more creditably. General Marbeuf interfered in his behalf, and supplied him with a more liberal allowance.
The students, in turn, were invited to the table of the head-master. One day when this honor was accorded Napoleon, one of the monk-professors sweetened the boy’s satisfaction by a contemptuous reference to Corsica and to Paoli. It seems well-nigh incredible that the clerical teachers should have imitated the brutality of the supercilious young nobles, but Bourrienne is authority for the incident. Napoleon broke out defiantly against the teacher, just as he had done against his fellow-students: “Paoli was a great man; he loved his country; and I will never forgive my father for his share in uniting Corsica to France. He should have followed Paoli.” Mocked by some of the teachers and tormented by the richer students, Napoleon withdrew almost completely within himself. He made no complaints, prayed for no relief, but fell back on his own resources. When the boys mimicked his pronunciation, turned his name into an offensive nickname, and flouted him with the subjection of his native land, he either remained disdainfully silent, or threw himself single-handed against his tormentors.
To each student was given a bit of ground that he might use it as he saw fit. Napoleon annexed to his own plat two adjacent strips which their temporary owners had abandoned; and by hedging and fencing made for himself a privacy, a solitude, which he could not otherwise get. Here he took his books, here he read and pondered, here he indulged his tendency to day-dreaming, to building castles in the air.
His schoolmates did not leave him at peace even here. Occasionally they would band together and attack his fortress. Then, says Burgoing, one of his fellow-students, “it was a sight to see him burst forth in a fury to drive off the intruders, without the slightest regard to their numbers.”
Much as he disliked his comrades, there was no trace of meanness in his resentments. He suffered punishment for things he had not done rather than report on the real offenders. Unsocial and unpopular, he nevertheless enjoyed a certain distinction among the students as well as with the teachers. His pride, courage, maturity of thought, and quick intelligence arrested attention and compelled respect.
When the students, during the severe winter of 1783–84, were kept within doors, it was Napoleon who suggested mimic war as a recreation. A snow fort was built, and the fun was to attack and defend it with snowballs. Then Napoleon’s natural capacity for leadership was seen. He at one time led the assailants, at another the defenders, as desperately in earnest as when he afterward attacked or defended kingdoms. One student refusing to obey an order, Napoleon knocked him down with a chunk of ice. Many years after this unlucky person turned up with a scar on his face, and reminded the Emperor Napoleon of the incident; whereupon Napoleon fell into one of his best moods, and dealt liberally with the petitioner.
During the whole time Napoleon was at Brienne he remained savagely Corsican. He hated the French, and did not hesitate to say so. Of course the French here meant were the pupils of the school—the big boys who jeered at his poverty, his parentage, his countrymen. It is worth notice that he never by word or deed sought to disarm his enemies by pandering to their prejudices. He made no effort whatever to ingratiate himself with them by surrendering any of his own opinions. He would not even compromise by concealing what he felt. He was a Corsican to the core, proud of his island heroes, proud of Paoli, frankly detesting those who had trampled upon his country. It must have sounded even to the dull ears of ignorant monks as something remarkable when this shabby-looking lad, hardly in his teens, cried out, defiantly, “I hope one day to be able to give Corsica her freedom!” He had drunk in the wild stories the peasants told of Sampiero; he had devoured the vivid annals of Plutarch, and his hopes and dreams were already those of a daring man.
During these years at Brienne, General Marbeuf continued to be Napoleon’s active friend. He seems to have regularly supplied him with money, and it was the General’s interference which secured his release from imprisonment in the affair of the duel. Through the same influence Napoleon secured the good-will of Madame de Brienne, who lived in the château near the school. This lady warmed to the lad, took him to her house to spend holidays and vacations, and treated him with a motherly kindness which he never forgot.
The character which Napoleon established at Brienne varied with the point of view. To the students generally he appeared to be unsocial, quarrelsome, and savage. To some of the teachers he seemed to be mild, studious, grateful. To others, imperious and headstrong. M. de Keralio reported him officially as submissive, upright, thoughtful, “conduct most exemplary.” On all he made the impression that he was inflexible, not to be moved after he has taken his stand. Pichegru, afterward conqueror of Holland, and after that supporter of the Bourbons, was a pupil-teacher to Napoleon at Brienne, and is thought to have been the quartermaster who put upon him the shame of eating on his knees at the dining-room door. Bourbon emissaries were eager to win over to their cause the brilliant young general, Bonaparte, and suggested the matter to Pichegru. “Do not try it,” said he. “I knew him at Brienne. His character is inflexible. He has taken his side, and will not change.”
When Napoleon, in his last years, came to speak of his school days, he seemed to have forgotten all that was unpleasant. Time had swept its effacing fingers over the actual facts, and he had come to believe that he had not only been happy at Brienne, but had been a jolly, frolicksome fellow—a very cheerful, sociable, popular lad. It was some other youth who had shunned his fellows, fenced himself within a garden wall, combated all intruders with sticks and stones, and hated the French because they teased him so. The real Napoleon, according to the captive Emperor, was a boy like other boys, full of fun, frolic, tricks, and games. One of the sportive tricks of the merry and mythical Bonaparte was this: An old commandant, upward of eighty, was practising the boys at target-shooting with a cannon. He complained that the aim was bad, none of the balls hit the target. Presently, he asked of those near him if they had seen the ball strike. After half a dozen discharges, the old general bethought himself of counting the balls. Then the trick was exposed—the boys had slipped the balls aside each time the gun was loaded.
Another anecdote told by the Emperor brings him more immediately within the circle of our sympathies. Just above his own room at the college was a fellow-student who was learning to play on the horn. He practised loudly, and at all hours. Napoleon found it impossible to study. Meeting the student on the stairs, Napoleon feelingly remonstrated. The horn player was in a huff at once, as a matter of course. His room was his own, and he would blow horns in it as much as he pleased. “We will see about that,” said Napoleon, and he challenged the offender to mortal combat. Death could have no terrors compared to the incessant tooting in the room above, and Napoleon was determined to take his chances on sudden sword thrust rather than the slow tortures of the horn practice. Fellow-students interfered, a compromise was reached, and the duel did not come off. The student who roused the ire of Napoleon in this extreme manner was named Bussey, and in the campaign of 1814 Napoleon met him again, received offers of service from him, and named him aide-de-camp. It is a pleasure to be able to record that this fellow-student of Brienne remained faithful to Napoleon to the very last, in 1814 and again in 1815.
In the year 1810 the Emperor Napoleon, divorced from Josephine, was spending a few days in seclusion in the Trianon at Versailles, awaiting the coming of the Austrian wife, “the daughter of the Cæsars.” Hortense and Stephanie Beauharnais were with him, and Stephanie mischievously asked him if he knew how to waltz. Napoleon answered:—
“When I was at the military school I tried, I don’t know how many times, to overcome the vertigo caused by waltzing, without being able to succeed. Our dancing-master had advised us when practising to take a chair in our arms instead of a lady. I never failed to fall down with the chair, which I squeezed affectionately, and to break it. The chairs in my room, and those of two or three of my comrades, disappeared one after another.”
The Emperor told this story in his gayest manner, and the two ladies laughed, of course; but Stephanie insisted that he should even now learn to waltz, that all Germans waltzed, that his new wife would expect it, and that as the Empress could only dance with the Emperor, he must not deprive her of such a pleasure.
“You are right,” exclaimed Napoleon. “Come! give me a lesson.”
Thereupon he rose, took the merry Stephanie in his arms, and went capering around the room to the music of his own voice, humming the air of The Queen of Prussia. After two or three turns, his fair teacher gave him up in despair; he was too hopelessly awkward; and she flattered him, while pronouncing him a failure, by saying that he was made to give lessons and not receive them.
* * * * *
Toward the close of 1783 a royal inspector of the military schools, Keralio by name, examined the students at Brienne for the purpose of selecting those who were to be promoted to the higher military school at Paris. M. de Keralio was greatly impressed by Napoleon, and emphatically recommended his promotion. This inspector having died, his successor examined Napoleon the second time, and passed him on to the Paris school, which he entered on October 30, 1784. On the certificate which went with him from Brienne were the words, “Character masterful, imperious, and headstrong.”
When Napoleon alighted from the coach which brought him from Brienne to Paris, and stood, a tiny foreign boy, in the midst of the hurly-burly of a great city, he must have felt himself one of the loneliest and most insignificant of mortals. Demetrius Permon found him in the Palais Royal, “where he was gaping and staring with wonder at everything he saw. Truly, he looked like a fresh importation.” M. Permon invited the lad to dine, and found him “very morose,” and feared that he had “more self-conceit than was suitable to his condition.” Napoleon made this impression upon Permon by declaiming violently against the luxury of the young men at the military school, denouncing the system of education which prevailed there, comparing it unfavorably to the system of ancient Sparta, and announcing his intention of memorializing the minister of war on the subject.
Napoleon, at the military school of Paris, continued to be studious, and to read almost constantly. He was obedient to the authorities, and defiant to the young aristocrats who surrounded him and looked down on him. The extravagance, indolence, and superciliousness of the noble students, together with the general luxury which prevailed in the establishment, disgusted and enraged a scholar who had no money to spend, and who had come there to study. When he, as head of the State, came to reorganize the educational system of France, he did not forget the lessons taught by his own experience. As a man he adopted a system which avoided all the abuses which as a boy he had denounced.
During this period he may have occasionally visited the Permons in Paris and his sister Elisa, who had been admitted into the State school at St. Cyr. Madame D’Abrantes so relates in her Memoirs; and while there is a difficulty about dates, her narrative is, perhaps, substantially correct. It is a lifelike picture she paints of Napoleon’s gloom at Paris and Elisa’s sorrow at St. Cyr: Napoleon wretched because he could not pay his way among the boys; Elisa miserable because she could not keep step with the girls. Napoleon sulked and denounced luxury; Elisa wept and bewailed her poverty. Elisa was consoled by a tip given by Madame Permon. As for Napoleon, he refused to borrow: “I have no right to add to the burdens of my mother.”
On final examination, August, 1785, Napoleon stood forty-second in his class—not a brilliant mark, certainly, but it sufficed. He received his appointment of sub-lieutenant with joy unbounded. His days of tutelage were over: henceforth he was a man and an officer. Having chosen the artillery service, he set out with Des Mazis, a friend he had made at the military school, to join the regiment of La Fère, which was stationed at Valence. According to one account, Napoleon borrowed money from a cloth merchant to make this journey; according to another, Des Mazis paid the way of both. However that may be, it seems that when the young officers reached Lyons, a gay city of the south, they relaxed the rigors of military discipline to such an extent that their money all vanished. The remainder of the distance to Valence was made on foot.
* * * * *
Those biographers who devote their lives to defaming Napoleon, lay stress on the alleged fact that he was educated by the King. In becoming an adherent of the Revolution, these writers say that he betrayed an amount of moral obliquity quite appalling. Louis XVI. was king while Napoleon was at Brienne, and the suggestion that Napoleon owed a debt of gratitude to Louis XVI. is amusing. The tax-payers, the people, educated Napoleon; and whatever debt of gratitude he owed, he owed to them. In going with the Revolution, he went with those who had paid his schooling. He himself drew this distinction at the time. When M. Demetrius Permon rebuked him for criticising royalty, throwing the alleged debt of gratitude in his teeth, the boy replied, “The State educates me; not the King.”
Of course Permon could not admit the distinction, he being a noble of the Old Order; nor can biographers who write in the interest of modern Toryism admit it. But the distinction is there, nevertheless; the boy saw it, and so does impartial history.
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