William Ellery Channing.

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

. (page 93 of 169)
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the admiration of the world. Accordingly
he again and again plunged into the depths
of an enemy's country, and staked his whole
fortune and power on a single battle. To be
rash was indeed the necessary result of his
self-exalting and self-relying spirit ; for to
dare what no other man would dare, to
accomplish what no other man would
attempt, was the very way to display him-
self as a superior being in his own and
others' eves. — ^To be impatient and restless
was another necessary issue of the attributes
we have described. The calmness of wisdom
was denied him. He, who was next to
omnipotent in his own eyes, and who delighted
to strike and astonish by sudden and con-
spicuous operations, could not brook delay or
wait for the slow operations of time. A work,
which was to be gradually matured by the
joint agency of various causes, could not
suit a man who wanted to be felt as the
great, perhaps only, cause ; who wished to



stamp his own agency in the most glaring
characters on whatever he performed ; and
who hoped to rival, by a sudden energy, the
steady and progressive works of nature.
Hence so many of his projects were never
completed, or only announced. They swelled,
however, the tide of flattery, which ascribed
to him the completion of what was not yet
begun, whilst his restless spirit, rusUng to
new enterprises, fo!]g:ot its pledges, and left
the promised prodigies of his creative genius
to exist only in the records of aduUtion. —
Thus the rapid and inventive intellect of
Bonaparte was depraved, and foiled to
achieve a growing and durable greatness.
It reared, indeed, a vast and imposing
structm^, but disproportioned, disjointed,
without strength, without foundations. One
strong blast was enough to shake and shatter
it, nor could his genius uphold it. Happy
would it have been for his tame had he been
buried in its ruins !

One of the striking properties of Bonaparte's
character was decision, and this, as we have
already seen, was perverted, by the spirit of
self-exaggeration, mto an inflexible stubborn-
ness, which counsel could not enlighten, nor
circumstances bend. Having taken the first
step, he pressed onward. His purpose he
wi^ed others to regard as a law of nature, or
a decree of destiny. It must be accomplished.
Resistance but strengthened it ; and so often
had resistance been overborne, that he felt as
if his unconquerable will, joined to his match-
less intellect, could vanquish all things. On
such a mind the warnings of human wisdom
and of Providence were spent in vain ; and
the Man of Destiny lived to teach others, if
not himself, the weakness and folly of that
all-defying decision which arrays the purposes
of a mortal with the immutableness of the
counsels of the Most High.

A still more fatal influence of the spirit of
self-exaggeration which characterized Bona-
parte remains to be named. It depraved to
an extraordinary degree his moral sense. It
did not obliterate altogether the ideas of duty,
but, by a singular perversion, it impelled him
to apply them exclusively to others. It never
seemed to enter his thought that he was sub-
ject to the great obligations of morality which
all others are called to respect. He was an
exempted being. Whatever stood in his way
to empire he was privileged to remove.
Treaties only bound his enemies. No nation
had rights but his own France. He claimed
a monopoly in perfidy and violence. He was
not naturally cruel, but. when human life
obstructed his progress, it was a lawful prey,
and murder and assassination occasioned as
httle compunction as war. The most lumi-
nous exposition of his moral code was given
in his counsels to the King of HoUand.



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" Never forget that, in the situation to which no human ^rmpathf, no human w<
my political system and the interests of my em^ divided his mind with the passion for
pire have called you, your first duty is towards dominion, and for dassling manifestatioos of
ME, your second towards France. All your his power. Before this, duty, honour, love,
other duties, even those towards the people humanity, fell prostrate. Josephme, we are
whom I have called you to govern, rank after told, was dear to him ; but the devoted wife,
these." To his own mind he was the source who had stood firm and faithful in the day of
and centre of duty. He was too peculiar and his doubtful fortunes, was cast off in his pros*
exalted to be touched by that vulgur stain perity, to make room for a stranger, who might
called guilt. Crimes ceased to be such when be more subservient to his power. He was
perpetrated by himself. Accordingly he al- affisctionate, we are told, to his brothcn and
ways speaks of his transgressions as of indif- mother; but his brothers, the moment they
ferent acts. He never imagined that tbey ceased to be his tools, were disgraced ; and
tarnished his glory, or diminished his claim his mother, it is said, was not aUowed to sit
on the homage of the world. In St Helena, in the presence of her imperial son.^ He was
though talking perpetually of himself, and sometimes softened, we are told, by the sight
often reviewing his guilty career, we are not of the fiekl of battle strewn with the wounded
aware that a single compuncdon escapes him. and dead. But, if the Moloch of his ambition
He sp^ks of his life as cahnly as if it had claimed new heaps of slam to-morrow, it was
been consecmted to dutv and beneficence, never denied. With all his sensibility, he gave
whilst in the same breath he has the audacity millions to the sword with as little oompunc-
to reproach unsparingly the faithlessness of tion as he would have brushed awav so many
almost every individual and nation with whom insects which had infested his march. To him
he had been connected. We doubt whether all human will, desire, power, were to bend,
history furnishes so striking an example of His superiority none might question. He
the moral blindness and obduracy to which insulted the fallen, who had contracted the
an unbounded egotism exposes and abandons guilt of opposing his progress ; and not even
the mind. woman's loveUness, and the dignity of a

His spirit of self-exaggeration was seen in queen, could give shelter from his contumely,
his openness to adulation. Policy indeed His allies were his vassals, nor was their vas-
prompted him to put his praises into the salage concealed. Too lofty to use the arts
mouths of the venal slaves who administered of conciliation, preferring command to per-
his despotism. But flattery would not have suasion, overtiearing, and all-giasping, he
been permitted to swell into exaggerations, spread distmst, exasperation, fear, and re-
now nauseous, now ludicrous, and now im- venge through Europe ; and, when the day
pious, if, in the bosom of the chief, there had of retribution came, the old antipathies and
not lodged a flatterer who sounded a loixler mutual jealousies of nations were swallowed
note of praise than all around him. He was up in one burning purpose to prostrate the
remarkably sensitive to opmion, and resented common t)rrant, the universal foe.
as a wrong the suppression of his praises. Such was Napoleon Bonaparte. Bat some
The press of all countries was watched, and wiU say he was still a great man. lliis we
free states were called upon to curb it for mean not to deny. But we would have it
daring to take liberties with his name. Even understood that there are various kinds or
in books published in France on general orders of greatness, and that the highest dkl
topics, he expected a recognition of his autho- not belong to Bonaparte. There are different
rity. Works of talent were suppressed, when orders of greatness. Among these, the first
their authors refused to offer incense at the rank is unquestionably due to mm^h/ greatness,
new shrine. He resolved, indeed, to stamp or magnanimity ; to that sublime energy by
his name on the literature, as on the legisla- which the soul, smittcnwith the love of virtue,
tion, policy, warfare of his age, and to com- binds itself indissolub)y, for life and for death,
pel genius, whose pages survive statues, to truth and duty ; espouses as its own the
columns, and empires, to take a place among interests of human nature ; scorns all mean-
his tributaries. ness, and defies all peril ; hears in its own

We close our view of Bonaparte's character conscience a voice louder than tbreatenings
by saying that his original propensides. re- and thunders ; withstands all the powers
leased from restraint, and pampered by indul- of the universe which wouki sever it
gence, to a degree seldom allowed to mortals, fhmi the cause of freedom and religion;
grew up into a spirit of despotism as stem reposes an unfaltering trust in God in the
and absolute as ever usurped the human heart, darkest hour, and is ever *' ready to be
The love of power and supremacy absorbed, offered up" on the altar of its country or of
consumed him. No other passion, no domes-
tic attachment, no private friendship, no love , * y« •»»«»i** ^ girt tMs yqy wMmbbu t^«[W«Pf-
of pl«umre, ni relSh for letters or^the arts, fe^u^S^' ch«acr,b«t oa •utborttr which wt «-



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manldnd. Of tWs moral CTcatness, which
throws all other forms of greatness into
obsciirity, we see not a trace in Napoleon.
Though clothed with the power of a god,
the thought of consecrating himself to the
introduction of a new and higher era, to the
exaltation of the character and condition of
his race, seems never to have dawned on his
mind. The spirit of disinterestedness and
self-sacrifice seems not to have waged a
moment's war with self-will and ambition.
His ruling passions, indeed, were singularly
at variance with magnanimity. Moral great-
ness has too much simplicity, is too unosten-
tatious, too self-subsistent, and enters into
others* interests with too much heartiness, to
h've an hour for what Napoleon always lived,
to make itself the theme, and gaze, and won-
der of a dazzled world. Next to moral,
comes intellectual greatness, or genius in the
highest sense of that word; and by this
we mean that sublime capacity of thought
through which the soul, smitten with the love
of the true and the beautiful, essays to com-
prehend the universe, soars into the heavens,
penetrates the earth, penetrates itself, ques-
tions the past, anticipates the future, traces
out the general and all-comprehending laws
of nature, binds together by innumerable
affinities and relations all the objects of its
knowledge, rises from the finite and transient
to the infinite and the everiasting, frames to
itself from its own fulness lovelier and
sublimer forms than it beholds, discerns the
harmonies between the worid within and the
world without us, and finds in every region
of the universe types and interpreters of its
own deep mysteries and glorious inspirations.
This is the greatness which belongs to philo-
sophers, and to the master spirits in poetry
and the fine arts. — Next comes the gr^tness
of action, and bv this we mean the sublime
power of conceiving bold and extensive plans ;
of constructing and bringing to bear on a
mighty object a complicated machinery of
means, energies, and arrangements, and of
accomplishing great outward effects. To this
head belongs the greatness of Bonaparte, and
that he possessed it we need not prove, and
none wiU be hardy enough to deny. A man
who raised himself from obscurity to a throne,
who changed the face of the world, who made
himself fdt through powerful and civilized
nations, who sent the terror of his name
across seas and oceans, whose will was pro-
nounced and feared as destiny, ^vhose dona-
tives were crowns, whose antechamber was
thronged by submissive princes, who broke
down the awful barrier of the Alps and made
them a highway, and whose fame was spread
beyond the boundaries of civilization to the
Steppes of the Cossack, and the deserts of
the Arab; a man who has left this record



of himself in history, has taken out of our
hands the question whether he shall be
called great. All must concede to him a
sublime power of action, an energy equal to
great efiects.

We are not disposed, however, to consider
him as preeminent even in this order of
greatness. War was his chief 8pli«i«. He
gained his ascendency in Eurcme by the
sword. But war is not the fidd for the
highest active talent, and Napoleon, we sus-
pect, was conscious of this truth. The glory
of being the greatest general of his ago would
hot have satisfied him. He woiud have
seomed to take his place by the side of Marl-
borough or Turenne. It was as the foimder
of an empire, which threatened for a time to
comprehend the world, and which demanded
other talents besides that of war, that he
challenged unrivalled fame. And here we
question his claim. Here we cannot award
nim supremacy. The project of universal
empire, however imposing, was not original.
The revolutionary governments of France
had adopted it before ; nor can we consider
it as a sure indication of greatness, when we
remember that the weak and vain mind of
Louis the Fourteenth was large enough to
cherish it. The question is, Did Napoleon
bring to this design the capacity of advancing
it by bold and original conceptions, adapted
to an age of civilization, and of singular in-
tellectual and moral excitement? Did he
discover new foundations of power? Did
he frame new bonds of union for subjugated
nations? Did he discover or originate some
common interests by which his empire might
be held together? Did he breathe a spirit
which could supplant the old national attach-
ments, or did ne invent any substitutes for
those vulgar instruments of force and cor-
ruption which any and every usurper would
have used? Never in the records of time
did the worid furnish such materials to work
with, such means of modelling nations afresh,
of building up a new power, of introducing a
new era, as did Europe at the period of the
French Revolution. Never was the human
mind so capable of new impulses. And
did Napoleon prove himself equal to the
condition of the world ? Do we detect one
original conception in his means of uni-
versal empire? Did he seize on the enthu-
siasm of his age, that powerful principle,
more efficient than arms or policy, and bend
it to his purpose ? What did he do but follow
the beaten track — but apply force and fraud
in their very coarsest forms? Napoleon
showed a vulgar mind when he assumed
self-interest as the sole spring of human
action. With the sword in one hand and
bribes in the other, he imagined himself abso-
lute master of the human mind. The strength



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of moral* national, and domestic feeling. he
oould not comprehend. The finest and, after
all, the most powerful elements in htmian
nature hardly entered into his conceptions of
it ; and how, then, could he have established
a durable power over the human race ? We
want little more to show his want of origi-
nality and comprehensiveness, as the founder
of an empire, than the simple fact that he
chose as his chief counsellors Talleyrand and
Fouch^, names which speak for themselves.
We may judge of the greatness of the master
spirit from Uie minds which he found most
congenial with his own. In war Bonaparte
was great, for he was bold, original, and
creative. Beyond the camp he indeed showed
talent, but not superior to that of other emi-
nent men.

There have been two circumstances which
have done much to disarm or weaken the
strong moral reprobation with which Bona-
parte ought to have been regarded, and
which we deem worthy of notice. We refer
to the wrongs which he is supposed to have
suffered at St Helena, and to the unworthy
use which the Allied Powers have made of
their triumph over Napoleon. First, his sup-
posed wrongs at St. Helena have excited a
sympathy in his behalf which has thrown a
veil over his crimes. We are not disposed to
deny that an unwarrantable, because unneces-
sary, severity was exercised towards Bona-
parte. We think it not very creditable to the
British government that it tortured a sensitive
captive by refusing him a title which he had
long worn. We think, that not only religion
and humanity, but self-respect, forbids us to
inflict a single useless pang on a fallen foe.
But we should be weak indeed if the moral
judgments and feelings with which Napo-
leon's career ought to be viewed, should give
place to sympathy with the sufferings by
which it was closed. With regard to the
scruples, which not a few have expressed, as
to the right of banishing him to St. Helena, we
can only say that our consciences are not yet
refined to such exquisite delicacy as to be at
all sensitive on this particular. We admire
nothing more in Bonaparte than the effron-
tery with which he claimed protection from
the laws of nations. That a man, who had
set these laws at open defiance, should fly
to them for shelter; that the oppressor of
the world should claim its symmthy as an
oppressed man, and that his claim should
find advocates; these things are to be set
down among the extraordinary events of this
extraordinary age. Truly the human race is
in a pitiable state. It may be trampled on,
spoiled, loaded like a beast of burden, made
the prey of rapacity, insolence, and the sword ;
but it must not touch a hair, or disturb the
pillow of one of its oppressors, unless it can



find chapter and verse in the code of national
law, to authorize its rudeness towards the
privileged ofiender. For ourselves, we should
rejoice to see every tyrant, whether a usurper
or hereditary prince, fastened to a lonely rode
in the ocean. Whoever gives clear, un-
doubted proof that he is prepared and sternly
resolved to make the earth a slaughternouse,
and to cnish every will adverse to his own.
ought to be caged like a wild beast ; and to re-
quire mankind to proceed against him accord-
ing to written laws and precedents, as if he
were a private citizen in a quiet court of justice,
is just as rational as to require a man, in immi-
nent peril from an assassin, to wait and pro-
secute his murderer according to the most
protracted forms of law. There are great
solemn rights of nature, whichprecede Uws,
and on which law is founded. There are great
exigencies in human aflairs, which specJc for
themselves, and need no precedent to teach
the right path. There are awful periods in
the history of our race, which do not belong
to its ordinary state, and which are not to
be governed and judged by ordinary rules.
Sudn a period was that when Boi^aparte,
by infraction of solemn engagements, had
thrown himself into France, and convulsed
all Europe ; and they who confound this
with the ordinary events of history, and see
in Bonaparte but an ordinary foe to the peace
and independence of nations, have certainly
very difierent intellects from our own.

We confess, too, that we are not only
unable to see the wrong done to Napoleon
in sending him to St. Helena, but that we
cannot muster up much sympathy for the
inconveniences and privations which he en-
dured there. Our sympathies in this piar-
ticular are wa3rward and untractable. When
we would carry them to that solitary island,
and fasten them on the illustrious victim of
British cruelty, they will not tarry there, but
take their flight across the Mediterranean to
Jaffa, and across the Atlantic to the platform
where the Duke d'Enghien was shot, to the
prison of Toussaint, and to fields of battle
where thousands at his bidding lay virdtering
in blood. When we strive to fix our thoughts
upon the sufferings of the injured hero, other
and more terrible sufferings, of which be was
the cause, rush upon us ; and his complaints,
however loud and angry, are drowned by
groans and execrations, which fill our ears
from every region which he traversed. We
have no tears to spare for fiaillen greatness,
when that greatness was founded in crime,
and reared by force and perfidy. We reserve
them for those on whose ruin it rose. We
keep our sympathies for our race, for hxmMn
nature in its hiunbler forms, for the im-
poverished peasant, the widowed mothd".
the violated virgin ; and are even perveaie



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439



enough to rejoice that the ocean has a prison-
house where the author of those miseries
may be safely lodged. Bonaparte's history
is to us too solemn, the wrongs for which
humanity and freedom arraign him are
too flagrant, to allow us to play the part
of sentimentalists aroimd his grave at St.
Helena. We leave this to the more refined
age in which we live ; and we do so in the
hope than an age is coming of less tender
mould, but of loftier, sterner feeling, and
of deeper S3rmpathy vrith the whole human
race. Should our humble page then live,
we trust, with an undoubting faith, that the
uncompromising indignation with which we
plead the cause of our oppressed and in-
sulted nature will not be set down to the
account of vindictiveness and hardness of
heart.

We observed, that the moral indignation of
many towards Bonaparte had been impairol
or turned away, not only by his supposed
wrongs, but by the unworthy use which his
conquerors made of their triumph. We are
told that, bad as was his despotism, the Holy
AU»nce is a worse one ; and that Napoleon
was less a scourge than the present ccxilition
of the continental monarohs, framed for the
S)rstematic suppression of freedom. By such
reasom'ng his crimes are cloaked, and his fall
is made a theme of lamentation. It is not
one of the smallest errors and sins of the
Allied Sovereigns that they have contrived,
by their base policy, to turn the resentments
and moral displeasure of men from the
usurper upon themselves. For these sove-
RHgns we have no defence to offer. We
yield to none in detestation of the Holy
Alliance, profanely so called. To us its doc-
trines are as false and pestilent as any
broached by Jacobinism. The Allied Mon-
archs are acfding to the other wrongs of
despots that of flagrant ingratitude ; of in-
gratitode to the generous and brave nations
to whom they owe their thrones, whose spirit
<^ independence and patriotism, and whose
hatred of the oppressor, contributed more
than standing armies to raise up the fallen,
and to strengthen the falling monarchies olf
Europe. Be it never forgotten in the records
of despotism, let history record it on her
most durable tablet, that the first use made
by the principal .continental sovereigns of
their regained or confirmed power, was to
conspire against the hopes and rights of the
natioiis by whom they had been saved; to
ooratMne the military power of Europe against
free hkstitations, against the press, against
the ^nrit of liberty and patriotism which
had sprung up in the glorious struggle with
Napoleon, against the right of the people
ti> exert an infiuetice on the governments by
wluch their deatest interests* were to be con-



trolled. Never be it forgotten that such was
the honour of sovereigns, such their requital
for the blood which had been shed freely
in their defence. Freedom and humanity
send up a solemn and prevailing cry against
them to that tribunal where kings and sub-
jects are soon to stand as equals.

But still we should be strangely blind if
we were not to feel that the fall of Napoleon
was a blessing to the world. Who can look,
for example, at France, and not see there a
degree of freedom which could never have
grown up under the terrible frown of the
usurper? True, Bonaparte's life, though it
seemed a charmed one, must at length have
ended ; and we are told that then his empire
would have been broken, and that the general
crash, by some inexplicable process, woiUd have
given birth to a more extensive and durable
liberty than can now be hoped. But such an-
ticipations seem to us to be built on a strange
inattention to the nature and inevitable conse-
quences of Napoleon's power. It was wholly
a military power. He was literally turning
Europe mto a camp, and drawing its best
talent into one occupation, war. Thus
Europe was retracing its steps to those ages of
calamity and darkness, when the only law was
the sword. The progress of centuries, which
had consisted chiefly in the substitution of
intelligence, public opinion, and other mild
and rational influences, for brutal force, was
to be reversed. At Bonaparte's death, his
empire must, indeed, have been dissolved;
but military chiefs, like Alexander's lieutenants,
would have divided it. The sword alone



Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 93 of 169)