Chapter OneA Critical Moment
For each of us there is a critical moment; well or badly chosen, it decides our future. —Chateaubriand, Les mémoires d'outre-tombe
In the early months of 1814, an exhausted French nation watched almost impassively as its territory was invaded, and Paris offered vain resistance to the allied forces that took it on March 31. Napoleon had worked wonders to drive back the invaders, but the enemy's crushing numerical superiority finally overwhelmed what was left of the Grand Army. The Emperor abdicated and left for Elba. The man who legitimately claimed the French throne—vacant since the execution of Louis XVI in 1793—replaced him: Louis XVIII restored the Bourbon monarchy and granted his subjects a constitution that evidenced his desire for conciliation and suggested a gentle reappropriation of the country. The peace-loving king spared the French a civil war, but he lacked tact, firmness, and foresight. His many blunders and errors aroused contempt for his regime and led to the Hundred Days of Napoleon's return.
This return generated quite a bit of anxiety. To the post-revolutionary generation that had come to maturity during the Republic and the Empire, the name Bourbon did not mean much. People scarcely knew the new king; his brother, the Count of Artois, with his two sons, the Dukes of Angoulême and Berry; and finally his niece, Marie-Thérèse, daughter of the martyred king. The majority of the French certainly had no need to fear the anger of an heir frustrated at being so long deprived of his legacy, but many must have been alarmed as to his true intentions toward them. This was particularly so for the surviving members of the National Convention who had voted for Louis XVI's death, the military men who had turned monarchical Europe upside down, and the civil servants who had run the imperial machine. In one proclamation after another, the pretender to the French throne had shown a rather positive and encouraging evolution in his thought—but was he sincere?
Very early, he had promised a return to the ancien régime in all its purity and eternal damnation to those monsters, the regicide members of the Convention, before relaxing his position, notably when Napoleon was crowned in 1804: absolving the crimes of the Revolution and compromising his legitimacy was out of the question, but if he returned to France, he would proclaim a general amnesty, keep the military men at their ranks and the civil servants in their positions. In 1813, near London, when Napoleon's star was beginning to pale after the Russian disaster and the possibility of a restoration of the monarchy was taking shape, he went even further, promising to forget the events of unhappy times, abolish conscription, confirm the reforms in the administration and the army, and reward those soldiers who would join his cause. Finally, in May 1814, in Saint-Ouen, near Paris, the king—who had replaced the pretender—announced a new constitution that included all the basic freedoms but which would under no circumstances question the principle of the divine right of kings. This was the limit of Louis' renunciation: he had merely granted his people a constitution, the Charter, read in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies on June 4, 1814. Despite appearances, the king remained staunchly conservative, and there would be no lack of uncompromising royalists to support him in his reaction and get him to go back on his declarations.
INTEGRATE OR PURGE
Once the time of promises and concessions had come to an end, the task of the government proved difficult, if not impossible, as it tried to amalgamate the France of its supporters, whose loyalty had to be repaid with rewarding positions, and that of the imperial soldiers and civil servants. The first Restoration could not bring together these two versions of France, divided by what the Duke of Berry called twenty-five years of banditry. It served those who had remained faithful to Louis, before those who had supported the Emperor in his conquests.
Even so, most of the general officers who had fought brilliantly during the Empire accepted the change. The marshals, whom Napoleon had led to the summit, refused to follow him in his fall, and became the liegemen of their new overlord. After voting to depose Napoleon or approving his abdication, they all pledged allegiance to Louis XVIII.
The Dictionnaire des girouettes ("Dictionary of Turncoats"; literally, "weathervanes"), published in 1815, had ammunition aplenty, and some contemporaries con demned such a rapid passage to yesterday's enemy. But the military men could justify their declarations politically by pointing to unambiguous official proclamations: on April 2, 1814, the Senate, in the name of the entire French nation, had released them from their oaths; in Fontainebleau, Napoleon himself had asked his Imperial Guard to continue to serve France with honor and to be loyal to their new sovereign. The officers' fickleness is thus only one part of a whole that included this release from their oaths, the wearing effect of years of war, and a major change in their attitude: they were now the servants of the government and not of an individual in power; the army was no longer royal, republican, or imperial, but French. As for the civilians, they did the same, being in the habit, since the Revolution, of taking oaths without keeping them.
Finally, the marshals, with their sudden royalist feelings, were also keeping their eyes on their patiently amassed nest eggs: "great lords of the Empire united to their pensions by sacred and indissoluble bonds, no matter what hand is dispensing them." Napoleon had given them all they could wish for; Louis was able to mollify them by promising always to rely on their support. His intelligence and courteous ways enabled him to carry out an enterprise of seduction that consisted of giving prestige to the new clothes of the imperial aristocracy by sticking onto them the labels of the aristocracy of the ancien régime. He bought their services without waiting for the proofs of trustworthiness that his generosity would have been expected to recognize. Napoleon had created the imperial nobility; the king confirmed it and made ten marshals peers of France. Napoleon had distinguished them in the Legion of Honor; the king promoted them into the royal Order of Saint Louis.
The generals were just as easy to persuade. As soon as Napoleon abdicated, they began to support the government and continued to flock to it. Clauzel is a good example: Knight of Saint Louis on June 1, 1814, inspector-general of infantry on December 30, count the next day, and Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor on February 11, 1815. How many men could display, side by side on their chests, the Legion of Honor and the Cross of Saint Louis? Even those one would not suspect of compromise had accepted investiture into the Royal Order or strove to be admitted.
Because of his role in the battle of Austerlitz and his military talent, Napoleon had come to terms with the touchy General Vandamme's reputation as a plunderer and a ruffian. Corpulent, his neck buried between broad, round shoulders, with a slight stoop and a small forehead, Vandamme's massive physique suited his bad temper perfectly. Returning from captivity in Russia, where he had succeeded in exasperating the czar with his retorts, he asked for an audience with the king, who refused to receive him. On September 24, 1814, the minister of war requested he leave Paris within twenty-four hours for his estate in Cassel in northern France. The general took offense at the calumnies that he thought had motivated the decision. He had never personally slain émigrés: "A brave man like me fights, kills, but does not murder." Vandamme's great fear was that the oblivion in which it seemed he was being enveloped would make him lose the fruits of twenty-five years of glory, including twenty-two as general. The king did not give in. Vandamme was added to the already-long list of officers retired from active duty.
Appointing General Dupont as the first war minister was not a good idea from the point of view of national reconciliation. His name was linked to the defeat of Baylen in Spain, one of the first to shake the pedestal of Napoleon's invincibility. While that might retrospectively earn him the gratitude of the royalists, it was nonetheless true that this disaster was a millstone around his neck, all the more unbearable because he did not deserve all its infamy. The danger was that his decisions would be interpreted as the vengeance of a humiliated man. Dupont began by reducing the size of the army, both the enlisted men and the officer corps, but this was only in response to peace treaty stipulations, budgetary necessities, and a reduced need in times of peace.
A royal edict eliminated infantry and cavalry regiments and sent into retirement the officers with seniority, the injured, and the infirm, condemning to destitution those who had not served long enough to qualify for retirement. It suspended thousands of others from active duty, those resistant to the idea of serving the Bourbons, and, above all, those who were no longer needed. The latter were put on half pay, barely enough to live on. The government had created a new social category, that of half-pays whose image, with cane, top hat, and frock coat, was perpetuated by the engravers and writers of the time. Joining the malcontents, they did their best to influence public opinion and create a poisonous climate in the army, whiling away their time and forgetting their poverty by venting their spleen on a hated regime, in Paris as in the provinces. The army, formerly the terror of families, became friendly and popular, and its past glory became national property.
Soldiers were not the only target of the first Restoration. In all of the senior branches of the civil service there were high- ranking officials associated with the imperial and—even worse—the revolutionary past, such as the members of the Convention who had voted for the death of the king. In 1814 many were still in responsible posts where they could not remain. Some did not need to be booted out, understanding on their own the incongruity of their situation. How could one shout "Long live the king!" after having his brother guillotined, defending the Republic, and then serving the Emperor? Others did not have the same good grace, but the result was the same; the regicides were gotten rid of. And they were not the only ones to disappear. The king refrained from appointing former senators known for their revolutionary opinions to the Chamber of Peers, which replaced the Senate, and the Council of State was purged of pillars of the imperial regime.
The first Restoration, however, burned no one at the stake, condemned no one. It acted like a political force taking back the control of the sensitive sectors of the state with reins long abandoned to other hands. But while tact was used in dismissing the elite, it was forgotten in firing thousands of modest civil servants and reducing anonymous junior military men to half pay.
THE NORTHERN CONSPIRACY
The only thing we are certain of is the alarm this news has occasioned through out the country. Parties are forming, and if the Bourbons do not arrest this evil in the bud, the most serious consequences may follow. The army, it is feared, are in his favor, while the conduct of the old Noblesse, Clergy and Emigrants has disgusted the people and divided their sentiments. The King is growing very popular, but the rest of the Royal family are not liked, except the Duchess of Angoulême, who inspires a general interest in her favor, from her virtues and her sufferings. The English, who are detested on the continent, are suspected of being at the bottom of this affair, with a view to create a civil war in France.
This is the picture of France that William Lee, since 1801 United States consul in Bordeaux, sketched for Secretary of State James Monroe on March 12, 1815. For twelve days Napoleon had been marching toward Paris at the head of a band whose original corps had landed on a Mediterranean beach. No one had seen it coming, particularly not those whose assignment it was to keep their eyes and ears wide open, because the notion of an imperial return seemed so ludicrous to them. Even when Napoleon was again on French soil, the seriousness of the event was played down; in Gironde, the authorities pretended to consider it the last effort of a madman. But the American consul knew by a letter from Lainé, president of the Chamber of Deputies, to his friends in Bordeaux that the situation was worrisome. He himself was not surprised. Unlike courtiers and ministers incapable of making a diagnosis, Lee felt the arrhythmic pulsations that were troubling a large portion of the country and was able, as an attentive observer, to analyze their cause.
The End of Illusions
The hope of a France at peace, free and just, had led people to accept the Bourbons, but this hope dwindled away and discontent spread through all levels of society. The common people, who had everything to gain after being bled dry by twenty years of war, felt completely lost, as did people of note, irritated by the aristocratic pretensions encouraged by the monarchy. An era thought bygone was resurfacing, and the throne, priesthood, and nobility spared no effort to make this clear to one and all and directed their hatred against the friends of the imperial cause. The Count of Artois, heir to the throne who looked back nostalgically to former times, was disappointing, as were his sons. Married to her cousin, Marie-Thérèse, Duchess of Angoulême, who had miraculously escaped the scaffold, was the exception because people felt sorry for her. The Charter was flouted, the press censored; political opposition increased, and satire had a field day. The ministers seemed incapable of controlling the country, which was going to the dogs. England was accused of running it behind the scenes and of savoring the nation's collapse. Even the army was plunged into gloom.
At the beginning of the Restoration, it is true, a great number of general officers had been enthusiastic because the king had successfully flattered them and received them at court to ensure their loyalty. These men, who were well taken care of, intended to enjoy their incomes and pursue in tranquility careers that until now had had their share of wounds and bruises. The situation was quite different for many military men, who could no longer put up with the government's indifference to their service records. Paris police reports abound with their "grousing," their "despicable" comments about the king during meals labeled "scandalous orgies." The reports also deplore the bad frame of mind of the troops and the fact that the officers did nothing to remedy any of this.
In December 1814, the appointment of Marshal Soult as war minister had seemed a wise move. Talented and hardworking, he was supposed to make people forget his predecessor's erring ways, but in his frenzy to please the king he managed to antagonize everyone—both the Bonapartists, who accused him of going back on the imperial religion, and the royalists, who accused him of going too far to be truly sincere. Soult was universally hated.