William Ellery Channing.

The complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction online

. (page 92 of 169)
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motion to merit, so that no origin, however insisted on the great benefits that had accrued

obscure, was a bar to what were deemed the to France from the establishment of uniform

highest honours of Europe, kindled the am- laws, which protected alike all classes of

bition of the whole people into a flame, and men ; and he might have virtually pledged

directed it exolusiN'ely to the camp. It is true, himsdf to the subversion of the feudal in-

the conscription, which thitmed so terribly the equalities which stiil diafiguie Europe. H«

ranks of her youth, and spread anxiety and mi^t have insisted on the fai^ottiablechiin^



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to be introduced into property, by abolishing
the entails which fettered it» the rights of
primogeniture, and the exclusive privileges of
a haughty aristocracy. He nnght have found
abuses enough against which to array him-
self as a ch^pion. Bv becoming the head
of new institutions, which would have in>
volved the transfer of power into new hands«
and would have offered to the people a real
improvement, he might evervwhere have
summoned to his standard the bold and
enterprising, and might have disarmed the
national prejudices to which he fell a prey.
Revolution was still the true instrument of
power. In a word, Napoleon lived at a
period when he could only establish a
durable and universal control through prin-
ciples and institutions of some kind or other,
to which he would seem to be devoted.

It vras impossible, however, for such a
man as Napoleon to adopt, perhaps to con-
ceive, a system such as has now been traced;
for it was wholly at war with that egotistical,
self-relying, self-exaggerating principle which
was the most striking feature of his mind.
He imagined himself able, not only to con-
quer nations, but to hold them together by
the awe and admiration which his own ch£^
racter would inspire ; and this bond he pre-
femed to every other. An indirect sway, a
control of nations b^ means of institutions,
principles, or prejudices, of which he was to
be <m\y the apostle and defender, was utterly
inconsistent with that vehemence of will, that
passion for astonishing mankind, and that
persuasion of his own invincibleness, which
we're his master feelings, and which made
force his dariing instrument of dominion.
He chose to be the great, palpable, and
sole bond of his empire; to have his imase
reflected from every establishment ; to be the
centre in which everv ray of glory should
meet, and fixmi which every impulse should
be propagated. In consequence of this ego-
tism, he never dreamed of adapting himself
to the moral condition of the world. The
sword was his chosen weapon, and he used
it without disguise. He insulted nations as
well as sovereigns. He did not attemfH to
gild their chains, or to fit the yoke gently to
their necks. The excess of his extortions,
the audacity of his claims, and the insolent
language in which Europe was spoken of as
(be vassal of the great empire, discovered
that he expected to reign, not only without
tinking himself with the interests, prejudices,
and national feelings of men, but by setting
aU at defiance.

It would be easy to point out a multitude
of instances in which he sacrificed the only
policy by which he could prevail, to the per-
suasion that his own greatness could more
than balanpe whatever opposition his violence



might awaken. In an age in which Chris-
tianity was exerting some power, there was
certainly a d^ree of deference due to the
moral convictions of society. But Napoleon
thought himself more than a match u>r the
moral instincts and sentiments of our nature.
He thought himself able to cover the most
atrocious deeds by the splendour of his name,
and even to extort applause for crimes by
the briUiancy of his success. He took no
pains to conciliate esteem. In his own eyes
he was mightier than conscience ; and thus
he turned against himself the power and re-
sentment of virtue in every breast where that
divine principle yet found a home.

Through the same blinding egotism, he
was anxious to fill the thrones of Europe with
men bearing his own name, and to multiply
everywhere images of himself. Instead of
placing over conquered coimtries efficient
men, taken from themselves, who, by up-
holding better institutions, would cany with
them large masses of the people, and who
would still, by their hostility to the old dynas-
ties, Unk their fortunes with his own, he
Dlaced over nations such men as Jerome and
Murat. He thus spread a jealousy of his
power, whilst he rendered it insecure ; for as
none of the princes of his creation, however
well disposed, were allowed to identify them-
selves with their subjects, and to take root in
the public heart, but were compelled to act
openly and without disguise as satellites and
prefects of the French Emperor, they gained
no hold on their subjects, and could bring
no strength to their master in his hour of
periL In none of his arrangements did Napo-
leon think of sectuing to his cause the at-
tachment of nations. Astonishment, awe,
and force were his weapons, and his own
great name the chosen pillar of his throne.

So far was Bonaparte from magnifying the
contrast and distinctions between himself and
the old dynasties of Europe, and from attach-
ing men to himself by new principles and
institutions, that he had the great weakness-^
for so we view it — to revive the old forms of
monarchy, and to ape the manners of the old
court, and thus to connect himself with the
herd of legitimate sovereigns. This was not
only to rob his government of that imposing
character which might have been given to it,
and of that interest which it might have in-
spired as an improvement on former institu-
tions, but was to become competitor in a
race in which he could not but be distanced.
He could, indeed, pluck crowns from the
heads of monarchs ; but he could not by
any means infuse their blood into his veins,
associate with himself the ideas which are
attached to a long line of ancestry, or give to
his court the grace of manners which l^longs
to older establishments. His true policy was



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to throw contempt on distincdons which he
could not rival ; and, had he possessed the
genius and spirit of the fotmder of a new
era, he would have substituted for a crown,
and for other long-worn badges of power, a
new and simple style of grandeur, and new
insignia of dignity, more consonant with an
enlightened age, and worthy of one who
disdained to be a vulgar king. By the policy
which he iKlopted, if it be worthy of that
name, he became a vulgar king, and showed
m mind incapable of answering the wants and
demands of his age. It b weU known that
the progress of intelligence had done much
in Europe to weaken men's reverence for
pageantry and show. Nobles had learned to
lay aside their trappings in ordhiary life, and
to appear as gentlemen. Even royalty had
begun to retrench its pomp ; and, in the face
of all this improvement, Bonaparte stooped
from his height to study costumes, to legislate
about court dresses and court manners, and
to outshine his brother monarchs in their own
hne. He desired to add the glory of master
of ceremonies to that of conqueror of nations.
In his anxiety to belong to the caste of kings,
he exacted scrupulously the observance and
etiquette with which they are approached.
Not satisfied with this approximation to the
old sovereigns, with whom he had no common
interest, and from whom he could not have
removed himself too far, he sought to ally
himself by marriage whh the royal fttfnilies
in Europe, to ingraft himself and his posterity
on an old imperial tree. This was the very
way to turn l>ack opinion into its old channels;
to carry back Europe to its old prejudices; to
facilitate the restoration of its old order; to
preach up legitimacy ; to crush every hope
that he was to work a beneficent change
among nations. It may seem strange that
his egotism did not preserve him from the
imitation of antiquated monarchy. But his
egotism, though excessive, was not lofty,
nor was it seconded by a genins, rich and
inventive, except in vrar.

We have now followed Napoleon to the
height of his power, and given our views df
the policy by which he hoped to make that
power perpetual and unbounded. His fall is
easily explained. It had its origin in that
spirit of self-reliance and self-exaggeration of
which we have seen so many proofe. 1 1 began
in Spain. That country was a province in
reality. He wanted to make it one in name ;
to place over it a Bonaparte; to make it a
more striking manifestation of his power.
For this purpose he ** kidnapped " its royal
femily, stirred up the unconquerable spirit of
its people, and. after shedding on its plains
and mountains the best blood of Prance, lost
it for ever. Next came his expedition against
Russia, an expedition against which his wisest



oounsdlois RTOonstrBied, bot whidi had e^^fiiy
recommendation to a man who regarded him-
self as an exooition to his race, and able to
triumph over tSe laws of nature. So insane
were his self-oonfidence and impatience of
opposition, that he drove by his outrages
Sweden, the 0I4 ally of France, into the arms
of Russia, at the very moment that he was
about to throw himsdf into the heart oC that
nighty empire. On his Russian campaign
we have no desire to enlarge. Of aU tie
moumfel pages of history, none are more
aad than that whid) recoida the retreat of
the French army from Moscow. We remem-
ber that, when the intelligence of Napoleon's
discomfiture in Russia first reached this coun-
try, we were among those who exulted in it,
thinking only of the results. But when sub-
sequent and minuter accounts brought dis-
tinctly before our eyes that nnequalled army
of France, broken, £amished, slaughtered,
seeking shelter under snowdrifts, and perish-
ing by intense cold, we looked back on our joy
with almost a consciousness of guilt, and ex-
piated by a suicere grief our insenst&ility to
the sufferings of our fdlow-creaturea. We
understand that many interesting notices of
Napoleon, as he appeared in this disastrous
campaign, are given in the Memoirs of Count
Segur, a book from which we have been
repelled by the sorrows and miseries which it
details. We can conceive few subjects more
worthy of Shakspeare than the mind of Na-
poleon, at the moment when his fate was
sealed ; when the tide of his Tkrtories was
suddenly stopped and rolled backwards ; when
his dreams of invindbleness were broken as
by a peal of thunder ; when the word which
had awed nations died away on the bleak
waste, a powerless sound; and when he, whose
spirit Europe could not bound, fled in fear
from a captive's doom. The shock must
have been tremendous to a mind so imperi-
ous, scornful, and imschooled to humiliation.
The intense agony of that moment, when he
gave the unusual orders, to retreat ; the deso-
lateness of his soul, when he saw his brave
soldiers and his chosen guards sinking in the
snows, and perishing in crowds around him ;
his unwiUiagness to receive the details of his
losses, lest self-possession should £ul him;
the levity and Indinage of his interview with
the Abb^ de Pradt at Warsaw, discovering a
mind labouring to throw o£f an insupportable
weight, wrestling with itself, struggling against
misery; and, though last not least, his uncon-
querable purpose, stiU clinging to lost empire
as the only good of life ; these workings of
such a spirit would have furnished to the
great dramatist a theme worthy of his trans-
cendent powers.

By the irretrievable disasters of the Russian
campaign, the empire of the worid was effeo-



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OP NAPOLEON BONAPAkTR. 4^3

tttdiy placed beyond the gnop of Napoleon, feither. Hi» retraat to Elba, his irruption
The tide of conquest had ebbed never to re* into France, bis signal overthrow, and his
turn. The spell which had bound the nations banishment to St. Helena, though th^ add
was dissolved. He was no longer the Invin- to the romance of his history, throw no new
cible. The weight of military power, which light on his character, and would, of course,
had kept down the spirit of nations, was re- contribute nothing to our present object,
moved, and their long-smothered sense of There are, indeed, incidents in this portion
wrong and insult broke forth like the fires of of his life which are somewhat inconsistent
a volcano. Bonaparte might still, perhaps, with the firmness and conscious superiority
have secured the throne of FVance ; but that which belonged to him. But a man into whose
of Europe was gone. This, however, he did character so much impulse and so little prind-
not. could not, would not understand. He pie entered, must not be expected to preserve
bad connected with himself too obstinately unblemished, in such hard reverses, the dignity
the character of the workl's master to be able and self-respect of an emperor and a hero.
to rehnqnish it. Amidst the dark omens In the course of these remarks, our views
which gathered round him he still saw, in his of the Conqueror, of the First Consul, and of
past wonderful escapes, and in his own exag- the £niperor, have been given plainly and
gcrated energies, the means of rebuilding his freely. The subject, however, is so important
ftdlen power. Accordingly, the thought of and interesting that we have thought it worth
abandoning his pretensions does not seem to our while, though at the hasard of some
have crossed his mind, and his irreparable repetition, to bring together, in a narrower
defeat was onlv a summons to new exertion. oompasSk what seem to us the great leading
We doubt, indeed, whether Napoleon, if he features of the intellectual and mor^l cha-
Gould have understood fiiUy bis condition, racter of Napoleon Bonaparte,
would have adopted adifierent course. Though His intellect was distinguished by rapidity
despairing, he would probably have raised of thought He understood by a glance what
new armies, and fought to the last. To a most men. and superior men, could learn
mind which has placed its whole happiness only by study. He darted to a conclusion
in having no equal, the thought of descending rather by intuition than reasoning. In war,
to the level even of kings is intolerable, which was the only subject of which he was
Napoleon's mind had been stretched bv such master, he seized in an instant on the great
ideas of universal empire that France, though points of his owm and his enemy's positions ;
reaehing from the Rhine to the Pyrenees, and combined at once the movements by
seemed narrow to him. He could not be which an overpowering force might be thrown
shut tip in it Accordingly, as his fortunes with unexpected fuiy on a vulnerable part oi
darkened, we see no signs of relenting, the hostile line, and the fate of an army be
He could not wear, he said, "a tamish«l decided in a day. He understood war as a
crown;" that is, a crown no brighter than science ; but his mind was too bold, rapid,
those of Austria and Russia. He continued and irrepressible to be enslaved bv the
to use a master's tone. He showed no technics of his profession. He found the old
tiumge but such as oppositioa wodcs in the armies fighting by tule. and he discovered
Obstinate ; he lost his temper and grew sour, the true characteristic of genius, which, with-
He heaped reproaches on his marshals and out despising rules, knows when und how to
the legislative body. He insulted Mettermch, break them. He understood thoroughly the
the statesman on whom, above all others, immense moral power which is gained by
bis late depended. He irritated Murat by originality and rapidity of operation* He
sarcasms, which rankled within him, and astonished and pualyzed his enemies by his
accelerated, if they did not determine, his de- unforeseen and impetuous assaults, bv the
tertion of his master. It is a striking example suddenness with which the storm of battle
of retribution, that the venr vehemence and burst upon them ; and, whilst giving to his
sternness of his will, which had borne him soldiers the advantages of modem discipline,
onward to dominion, now drove him to the breathed into them, by his quick and decisive
rejection of terms which might have left him movements, the enthusiasm of ruder ages,
ft formidable power, and thus made his ruin This power of disheartening the foe, and of
entire. Refusmg to take counsel of events, spreading through his own ranks a con-
he pel lev ered in fighting with a stubbornness fidence, and exhilarating courage, which
whkh reminds us of a spoiled child, who made war a pastime, and seemed to make
Millenly grmsps what he knows he must victory sure, distinguished Napoleon in an
rdinquish. struggles without hope, and does age c^ uncommon mihtary talent, and was
not give over resistance until his little fingers one main instrument of his future power,
are one 1^ one unclenched from the object The wonderiul effects of that rapidiW of
on which he has set his heart. Thus fell thought by which Bonaparte was marked,
Napoleon. We shall follow his histoiy no the »gnal success of his new mode <^ war^



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4*4



OA^ THE UFE AND CHARACTER



fare, and the almost incredible speed with
which his fame was spread through the
nations, had no small agency Sn fixing his
character and determining for a jjeriod the
fate of empires. These stirring influences
infused a new consciousness of his own
might. They gave intensity and audacity
to his ambition ; gave form and substance
to his indefinite visions of glory, and
raised his fiery hopes to empire. The burst
of admiration which his early career called
forth must in particular have had an in-
fluence in imparting to his ambition that
modification by which it was charactericed,
and which contributed alike to its success
and to its fall. He began with astonishing
the world, with producing a sudden and uni-
versal sensation^ such as modem times had
not witnessed. To astonish^ as well as to
sway by his energies, became the great aim of
his life. Henceforth, to rule was not enough
for Bonaparte. He wanted to amare, to
daule, to overpower men's souU, by striking,
bold, magnificent, and unanticipated results.
To govern ever so absolutely would not have
satisfied him, if he must have governed
silently. He wanted to reign through wonder
and awe, by the grandeur and terror of his
name, by displays of power which would
rivet on him every eye, and make him the
theme of every tongue. Power was his
supreme object, but a power which should be
gazed at as well as felt, which should strike
men as a prodigy, which should shake old
thrones as an eartiiquake, and, by the sudden-
ness of its new creations, should awaken
something of the submissive wonder which
miraculous agency inspires.

Such seems to us to have been the distinc-
tion, or characteristic modification of his love
of fame. It was a disea&d passion for a kind
of admiration, which from the principles of
our nature cannot be enduring, and which
demands for its support perpetual and more
stimulating novelty. Mere esteem he would
have scorned. Calm admiration, though imi-
versal and enduring, would have been insipid.
He wanted to electrify and overwhelm. He
lived for effect. The worid was his theatre,
and he cared little what part he played if he
might walk the sole hero on the stage, and
call forth bursts of applause which would
silence all other fame. In war, the triumphs
which he coveted were those in which he
seemed to sweep away his foes like a whirl-
wind; and the immense and unparalleled
sacrifices of his own soldiers, in the rapid
marches and daring assaults to which he
owed his victories, in no d^ree diminished
their worth to the victor. In peace, he
delighted to hurry through his dominions ; to
multiply himself by his rapid movements ; to
gather at a glance the capacities of improve-



ment which every important place possessed ;
to suggest plans which would startle by their
originality and vastness; to project in an
instant works which a life could not accom-
plish, and to lea\'e behind the impression of a
superhuman energy.

Our sketch of Bonaparte would be impep*
feet indeed, if we did not add, that he was
characteriied \xj nothing more strongly than
by the spirit of seI/-^xappereUion» The sin-
gular energy of his intelfect and will, through
which he had mastered so many rivals and
foes, and overcome what seemed insuperable
obstacles, inspired a consciousness of bdng
something more than man. His strong ori-
ginal tendencies to pride and self-exaltation,
fed and pampered by strange success and
unbounded applause, swelled into almost an
insane conviction of superiiuman greatness.
In his own view, he stood apart from other
men. He was not to be measured by the
standard of humanity. He was not to be
retarded by difficulties to which all others
yielded. He was not to be subjected to
laws and obligations which all others were
expected to obey. Nature and the human
will were to bend to his power. He vras the
child and favourite of fortune, and, if not the
lord, the chief object of destiny. His history
shows a spirit of self-exaggeration unrivalled
in enlightened ages, and which reminds us of
an Oriental king to whom incense had been
burnt from his birth as to a deity. This was
the chief source of his crimes. He wanted
the sentiment of a common nature with his
fellow-beings. He had no sympathies with
his race. That feeling of brotherhood, which
is developed in truly great souls with pecular
energy, and through which they give up them-
selves willing victims, joyful sacrifices, to the
interests. of mankind, was wholly unknown to
him. His heart, amid its wild beating never
had a throb of disinterested k>ve. The ties
which bind man to man he broke asunder.
The proper happiness of a man, which con-
sists in the victory of moral energy and social
a flection over the selfish passions, he cast
away for the lonely joy of a despot. With
powers which might have made him a glorious
representative ami minister of the beneficent
Divinity, and with natural sensibilities which
might have been exalted into sublime virtues,
he chose to separate himself from his kind, to
forego their love, esteem, and gratitude^ that
he might become their gaze, their fear, their
wonder; and, for this selfish, solitary good,
parted with peace and imperishable renown.

This insolent exaltation of himself above
the race to which he belonged broke out in the
beginning of his career. His first success In
Itiuy gave him the tone of a master, and he
never laid it aside to his last hour. One caa
hardly help being struck with the mUnrml



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OP NAPOLEON BONAPARTE.



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manxier with which he arrogates supremacy
in his conversation and proclamations. We
never feel as if he were putting on a lordly
air.> In his proudest claims he speaks from
his ovm mind, and in native language. His
style is swollen, but never strained, as if he
were conscious of playing a part above his
real claims. Even when be was foolish and
impious enough to arrogate miraculous
powers and a mission from God, his language
showed that he thought there was something
in his character and exploits to give a colour
to his blasphemous pretensions. The empire
of the world seemed to him to be in a
measure his due, for nothing short of it
corresponded with his conceptions of him-
self ; and he did not use mere verbiage, but
spoke a language to which he gave some
crailit, when he called his successive con-
quests " the fulfilment of his destiny."

This spirit of self-exaggeration wrought its
own misery, and drew down upon him terrible
punishments ; and this it did bv vitiating and
perverting his high powers. First, it diseased
bis fine intellect, gave imagination the ascen-
dency over judgment, turned the inventiveness
and fruitfulness of his mind into rash, im-
patient, restless energies, and thus precipitated
him into projects which, as the wisdom of his
counsellors pronounced, were fraught with
ruin. To a man whose vanity took him out
of the rank of human beings, no foundation
for reasoning was left. All things seemed
possible. His genius and his fortune were
not to be bounded by the barriers which
experience had assigned to human powers.
Ordinary rules did not apply to him. He
even found excitement and motives in
obstacles before which other men would
have wavered ; for these would enhance the
glory of triumph, and give a new thrill to



Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 92 of 169)