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Napoleon: A Political Life

Napoleon: A Political Life

Napoleon: A Political Life

5/5 (2 ratings)
1,059 pages
22 hours
May 11, 2010


This sophisticated and masterful biography, written by a respected French history scholar who has taught courses on Napoleon at the University of Paris, brings new and remarkable analysis to the study of modern history's most famous general and statesman.

Since boyhood, Steven Englund has been fascinated by the unique force, personality, and political significance of Napoleon Bonaparte, who, in only a decade and a half, changed the face of Europe forever. In Napoleon: A Political Life, Englund harnesses his early passion and intellectual expertise to create a rich and full interpretation of a brilliant but flawed leader.

Napoleon believed that war was a means to an end, not the end itself. With this in mind, Steven Englund focuses on the political, rather than the military or personal, aspects of Napoleon's notorious and celebrated life. Doing so permits him to arrive at some original conclusions. For example, where most biographers see this subject as a Corsican patriot who at first detested France, Englund sees a young officer deeply committed to a political event, idea, and opportunity (the French Revolution) -- not to any specific nationality. Indeed, Englund dissects carefully the political use Napoleon made, both as First Consul and as Emperor of the French, of patriotism, or "nation-talk."

As Englund charts Napoleon's dramatic rise and fall -- from his Corsican boyhood, his French education, his astonishing military victories and no less astonishing acts of reform as First Consul (1799-1804) to his controversial record as Emperor and, finally, to his exile and death -- he is at particular pains to explore the unprecedented power Napoleon maintained over the popular imagination. Alone among recent biographers, Englund includes a chapter that analyzes the Napoleonic legend over the course of the past two centuries, down to the present-day French Republic, which has its own profound ambivalences toward this man whom it is afraid to recognize yet cannot avoid. Napoleon: A Political Life presents new consideration of Napoleon's adolescent and adult writings, as well as a convincing argument against the recent theory that the Emperor was poisoned at St. Helena. The book also offers an explanation of Napoleon's role as father of the "modern" in politics.

What finally emerges from these pages is a vivid and sympathetic portrait that combines youthful enthusiasm and mature scholarly reflection. The result is already regarded by experts as the Napoleonic bicentennial's first major interpretation of this perennial subject.
May 11, 2010

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Top quotes

  • The young Napoleon became what his father was: an ardent paolisto who was, in fact, largely French, but frustrated by the obstacles blocking his progress in French society.

  • Fortunately for him, the army had lost most of its officer corps to emigration and desperately needed trained leaders. Lieutenant Bonaparte’s long absences were thus overlooked, and he was promoted to captain and given a large sum in back pay.

  • Napoleon’s moods and humors did not lead him into a psychological bind in the five years he was at Brienne, nor did they prevent him from making friends (including one gen-uine confidant, Bourrienne) or studying hard and doing well academically.

  • Napoleon’s moods and humors did not lead him into a psychological bind in the five years he was at Brienne, nor did they prevent him from making friends (including one genuine confidant, Bourrienne) or studying hard and doing well academically.

  • Thus the Directory staggered on; for all of its corruption and infighting, it yet car- ried the burden of war and domestic conflict without succumbing for four years,¹⁵ making it the longest-lived regime of the tumultuous revolutionary decade.

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Napoleon - Steven Englund


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Text set in Berthold Garamond

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Englund, Steven.

Napoleon : a political biography / Steven Englund.

p.  cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

1. Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, 1769-1821. 2. France—Politics and government—1789-1815. 3. Emperors—France—Biography. I. Title.

DC203.E64 2004


[B]   2003060371

ISBN 0-684-87142-4

eISBN: 978-1-4391-3107-7

ISBN: 978-0-6848-7142-4

for Lisa Drew



Book I: Allons enfants de la Patrie

I. Napoleone di Buonaparte

Unsceptered Isle: Corsica in the Eighteenth Century

The Buonapartes of Ajaccio

Napoleon’s Childhood

II. The Making of the Patriot

To France (Autun and Brienne)

Gentleman and Officer


Enfant de la Patrie (Psychology)

Enfant de la Patrie (Ideas)

Corsican Junkets

III. The Unmaking of the Patriot

Annuit Coeptis: The French Revolution and the Emergence of the Political

Divergences: Corsica and Napoleon in the Revolution

Styles of Patriotism: Paoli versus the Bonapartes

Interlude: Writer in the Making?

Napoleon in France (May-October 1792)

Forced Departure (1793)

Beyond Patriotism

IV. Robespierre on Horseback

The Supper at Beaucaire


The Dinner at Ancona

The Spinner’s Plans

Vendémiaire, Year IV

Book II: Le jour de gloire est arrivé

V. Love and War

Clisson in Love

A Rose by Any Other Name

The Improviser of Victory: The First Italian Campaign (1796-1797)

Three to One: The Moral Elements of Victory


VI. Apprenticeship in Statecraft: Italy and Egypt

Cister Republics

Death in Venice (of a Jacobin Reputation)

France Seen from the Army of Italy

Paris Interlude

A Passage to India: Egypt, 1798-1799, the Military Operation

Sultan El-Kebir—Governing Egypt

Egypt: A Balance Sheet

VII. Power (I): Taking It (Brumaire)

Politics and the Political

The National Mess: The State of France, 1798-1799

The Return of the Prodigy

Brumaire: An Actor’s Nightmare

VIII. Power (II): Using It (The Consulate)

The Pastiche of the Year VIII

War in Italy (Again): The Second Italian Campaign, 1800

The Blocks of Granite: Le Politique


Economy, State, and Society: Bourgeois Consolidation?

The Politics of Depoliticization …

… and the National Fix

Napoleon and the Bonapartes

Book III: Contre nous, de la tyrannie

IX. Power (III): Naming It (From Citizen Consul to Emperor of the French)

Parallel Lives, Parallel Plots (1800-1802)

Consul for Life (1802-1804)

The War of Dirty Tricks

Getting Worse: The Coming of the Empire

Stupete Gentes!: The Republican Emperor


Legitimacy: The Never-Ending Quest

X. La Guerre—Encore (et pour toujours)

The Failure of the Peace

Forming the Third Coalition

The Great Campaign (1805)

From Grande Nation to Grand Empire

The Fourth Coalition (1806-1807): The Prussian and the Russian Campaigns

Blockade (I)

XI. The Empire—and Its Fissures (1807-1810)

Imperator and Imperium

The Janus Face of the Grand Empire


The War of the Fifth Coalition: 1809

The Pope and the Emperor

Book IV: L’Etendard sanglant est levé

XII. The Great Unraveling (1810-1812)

Highwater: Divorce, Remarriage, Heir

The Crisis of 1810-1811

The Blockade (II)

The Napoleonic Dream: Political Economy as National Economics

1812 Overture

The Flight Forward

The Leader and His Men

His Master’s Voice

XIII. The Collapse (1812-1814)


Pius and Impious (The Pope and the Emperor Again)

1813: The Crusade of the Sovereigns

The National Revival Manqué

The Lion in Winter: The Champagne Campaign (1814)



XIV. Nation-Talk: The Liberal Empire

Vesuvius Next Door to Naples: Napoleon on Elba (May 1814-March 1815)

The Kingdom of the Weather Vane: Restoration France

The Eagle Has Landed

The Hundred Days (March 20-June 29)

Sub specie aeternitatis …

The Jacobin Specter

The Nation-Talker: Napoleon Chameleon

Waterloo: Vae Victis

Abjection (II), Abdication (II)

XV. Shadows: The Liberal Empire

The New Saint


Sickness unto Death

The Napoleonic Tradition(s)

Introduction (Misplaced)


Bibliographical Comments



Map on page

Art following page


(The French National Hymn)

Allons enfants de la Patrie

Le jour de gloire est arrivé.

Contre nous, de la tyrannie,

L’Etendard sanglant est levé. [repeated]

Entendez-vous, dans nos campagnes

Mugir ces féroces soldats?

Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras

Egorger vos fils, vos compagnes.

Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons;

Marchons, marchons!

Qu’un sang impur abreuve à nos sillons.

Arise children of the motherland

The day of glory has arrived.

Against us, tyranny’s

Bloody flag is raised. [repeated]

Don’t you hear in our countryside

The roar of their ferocious soldiers?

They are coming into your homes

To butcher your sons and your companions.

To arms, citizens! Form your battalions!

We march, we march!

Let their impure blood water our fields.

The abyss peers back.

Napoleon’s Tomb, Hôtel des Invalides, Paris, © Giraudon / Art Resource, NY


Go to that chalet in Berchtesgaden, in southern Bavaria. Despite the panoramic pastorale, you will feel nothing but revulsion for its most famous Nazi occupant. Go to Red Square. You may have a tremor or two for the October Revolution, but you will feel only hatred for the man who betrayed it with his murderous tyranny over the Soviet empire, 1923-53. If you visit the mausoleum-like memorial for King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette in Paris’s 8th arrondissement, you may feel reverence for a rich past, but it is one that is irretrievably far away and long ago. As for the Republic’s Pantheon for France’s great men, you will find it a place that disappoints you for its spiritual void—surely emptier than the parish church of Sainte Genevieve, which it replaced.

Now go to Les Invalides, which is a veterans’ hospital complex, an army museum, and a large church, on Paris’s Left Bank. Here lies Napoleon Bonaparte, in a gigantic sarcophagus, emplaced on a high plinth, arising from the lower depths of the Church of Saint-Louis. The tomb lies directly under the grand cupola, towering two hundred feet above. The visitor looks down on it from a marble balustrade.

Visiting Les Invalides is like visiting the Lincoln Memorial: amid all the funereal marble and the airless geometric space, Something is alive. You revere Abe Lincoln, you long to have known or at least heard him, you feel proud to be part of the republic that spawned him, and if you are born north of the Mason-Dixon line, you feel proud to be a descendant of those who fought for him.

But at le tombeau de l’Empereur, something is different. Here the abyss peers back.

The imperial sarcophagus is a costly slab of reddish porphyry—a hard and expensive crystalline rock—that is sculpted like a wave, a shape cut from a continuum: dense and heavy, frozen in stone yet eternally cresting. The stone is unexpectedly, almost shockingly, flesh-colored, not the customary black or white, which would more easily relegate it to a dead past. It is livid and living, the color of a flayed chest in an autopsy, exposing a raw, still-beating heart. The tomb is remarkably modern for an object constructed in the 1850s, quite impersonal and unpictorial, having no story to recount or symbolism to impart. It is not even characteristically French, but is more like the monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001—still and powerful, knowing and alive, overwhelming the impressive ecclesiastical and military setting in which it is placed. You forget you are in a church and a hospital, and despite the presence of all the trophy flags of battle, which the Michelin guide has told you to look for, you even forget that this is a military establishment.

If the large presence is not characterized, it is because the architect of the tomb, Louis-Tullis Visconti (1791-1853), was all too aware of the paltriness of characterization in this case. Unlike historians and writers, the architect was satisfied with seeking to evoke, not to describe or (still less) explain, and in that regard he has succeeded with Nietzschean force: the power, the will, the threat, the thrill are all here. For how to describe or explain this man, though it has been tried and tried—and will be tried again in the pages of this book? As what do you characterize Napoleon? As Hitler? As Prometheus? Both analogies, and even Jesus Christ himself, have been invoked, but the man lying in this tomb was very far from any of them. One might rather say that Napoleon is a character unfinished, like Hamlet; and like Hamlet, a puzzle—full of contradictions, sublime and vulgar. One is pulled in opposing directions.

His tomb evokes no grief or sorrow, as does the Lincoln Memorial. The visitor’s throat is not thick with emotion, nor does his heart reflexively fill with high resolve. Rather, his mind is troubled but wide awake, in response to what lurks down there—equally menacing and thrilling, with Sphinx-like qualities of good and evil and mystery. Most present in this place is the awe-evoking sense of human possibility, which is a different thing from hope. The wave of this tomb becomes a sleigh that will carry us off into an unknown future, even if only a hundred days’ worth.


André Suarès

France cannot think of him without trembling, and in her trembling, as much as she regrets it, she is afraid of him, she is afraid of the longing that she still has for him.

*De Napoléon, in Cahiers de la Quinzaine (1912). Suarès is a French writer who straddles both centuries (1868-1948). His essays and other works are marked by a certain mysticism and cult of artistic creation, and deserve better than the neglect they are currently undergoing.


Allons enfants de la Patrie


Napoleone di Buonaparte

A man’s glory does not flow down to him from the past, it starts with him. The Nile’s source is known only by a few Ethiopians, but who is unaware of its mouth?



What, in all the world, is so naked, so abrupt, as this rock?

—Seneca, in exile

There are, in truth, very few things one has to know about the Corsica of Napoleon’s infancy and youth. When he departed it in haste, in the summer of 1793, he left it for keeps and never looked back—indeed at the end of his life, he declared Corsica ruinous for France—and for this, Corsican nationalists have never forgiven him. Yet Corsican tones broadly suffuse Napoleon and his life the way the famous idée fixe informs the entirety of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, and if we are to try to know Napoleon, then we must try to sound those chords.

In the eighteenth century (and even today), Corsica was no place for the fainthearted or the indecisive; it frightened the anemic, horrified the otiose, and made the ambivalent, well, unsure. The île de Corse demanded of the visitor a degree of tolerance for discomfort unexpected in European venues north of the thirty-fifth parallel. It helped if he was a connoisseur of contrasts, a collector of sights and insights, an amateur of strong emotion and some danger, an admirer of vistas of rough scrub, miles of slow narrow roads punctuated with hairpin turns, bounded by jagged limestone cliffs. The seething morass of the island’s scrub retreated only provisionally and defiantly before the human intruder. Parts of Switzerland had the remoteness, quiet, and beauty of Corsica and the same awe-inspiring blend of elemental sky, earth, and water, but the fire was missing.

Corsican fire burned in the eighteenth century, as in the twenty-first. There is no admission fee to the high view from Lion Rock at Roccapina, the only price to be paid being the fear of death one bathes in, in getting there. This natural sculpture, here since neolithic times, is pounded, hundreds of feet below, by the swelling surf of a cobalt Mediterranean; the setting sun may blaze so strongly that for a moment you think it a dying star, and this rock the site Armageddon. The visitor lingers a time; he will not walk away calm and reassured, but pensive and grateful to be alive. In short, he does not readily imagine the white, pampered hand of an Edward Gibbon picking up his pen at a table in a calcium-white stucco villa above the port of Bonifacio, whence to contemplate in equanimity the hyperbolic conflicts of the declining Roman Empire. No, in Seneca’s time, as ever after, Corsica is no safe bet for equanimity. Rousseau himself, the great seeker after noble savages, thought hard about moving here, then thought better of it. Try Lausanne, Monsieur Gibbon.

Corsica has always impressed the outsider far more than she is impressed by him. The island calls to mind C. S. Forester’s observation about the naval destroyer: her mission in life was to give and not to receive. So it has been with Corsica. The individuals hailing from the island who have had large impacts on the mother societies of Genoa, England, and, above all, France, now in her 236th year of possession, are at the tip of most educated tongues. Of course, a French man or woman will smile if you ask him or her to name a Corsican who has affected France profoundly, but even if you add quickly, "I mean, other than that one, the person can still reel off names: Paoli, Pozzo di Borgo, Sebastiani, Piétri, Pasqua—all political men. Thinking hard, one can adduce a few names in the arts (the philosopher J. T. Desanti; singers Tino Rossi and César Vezzani, the ballerina Pietragalla), yet the balance is clear: Corsica’s main export to France has not been olive oil, wine, or chestnuts but politicos, including a vast throng of leading civil servants, nearly always of a distinctly authoritarian flavor. On the other hand, ask a Corsican, educated or not, to name a Frenchman (or, for that matter, an Italian) who has durably affected this island—who has been known and appreciated here in the ways that the above-named have affected France and been received there—and he or she will pause long. De Gaulle might come the answer, or if your interlocutor be frank, Pétain." And that is all. It is a short list for 236 years.

Repeatedly conquered and colonized from classical times onward, Corsica, after the mid-sixteenth century, came under permanent Genoese domination. The republican city-state on the west coast of Italy bestrode the finances of the island, founded a few coastal towns (including Ajaccio), and built those distinctive towers that give the island a certain quaint historical flavor, but by and large the Genoese did not greatly influence the island or its inhabitants. But then Corsica’s story has always been the same: it belongs essentially to itself. Its innumerable rebellions never had a happy issue, ending in defeat, imprisonment, execution, and exile. The eighteenth century saw them try again: a rebellion in 1729 evolved into a revolution, the first, it is said by Corsicans, of the democratic revolutions that have given the century its fame in modern times. A closer look might see the main role still going to religious traditionalism, feuding clans, and oligarchic powers parading as liberal, but so be it. The next decades saw continuous warfare until, in 1755, the Corsicans managed to adopt a government and elected a head: Pasquale Paoli, the thirty-year-old son of a leader of the 1729 revolution.¹

That name was far better known in his time than it is in ours, outside of Corsica and a certain town in eastern Pennsylvania. Born in 1725, Paoli spent much of his early life in exile in Naples. He would die in England in 1807, again in exile, but his story in the intervening years is in many ways ours, for the political and intellectual ferment he created proved to be the nursery of the man—also a Corsican, and a sometime patriot—whose name would eclipse Paoli’s as completely as in Macedonia, another rocky site, Alexander’s eclipsed Philip’s. Perhaps as gifted as Bonaparte intellectually, Paoli received a classical education in the kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Like Napoleon, he feasted on Plutarch, the first-century Greek biographer whose Parallel Lives memorialized for all time the great figures of classical antiquity. But Paoli did his contemporaries one better: he conscientiously emulated the Olympian hauteur and self-sacrifice of the noble Greeks and Romans. Even to his adversaries Paoli appeared heroic.

In November 1755, Paoli proclaimed a separate state, which the French and Genoese, distracted by the Seven Years’ War, tolerated. During the thirteen years of its luminous existence (1755-68), the nation of Corsica, or the realm of Corsica, as it styled itself (it did not call itself a republic since the term denominated the hated Genoese), pursued its experiment in self-government. It was led benevolently, but so very firmly, by the general of the nation, Paoli. The large peasant majority of the island’s 140,000 people called him Babbù (meaning father in Corsican) and more than likely found his sophisticated ideas impenetrable, but they liked his strong grip on the tiller. He would, he said, impose a regime on this feuding, assassinating, divisive, disputatious, and sullen people, but he would also teach them to govern themselves. The Anglo-Scot writer James Boswell, who came for a visit in 1765, fell for the Babbù’s austere charms. By then, Paoli had opened a printing press, a newspaper, and a university at Corte, the capital city—all startling acts of democratic faith and investment in so desperately poor and backward a country, but not items Paoli regarded as luxuries. Boswell observed truly when he wrote: His great object was to form the Corsicans in such a manner they might have a firm constitution, and might be able to subsist without him. Our state, said he, is young, and still requires the leading strings. I am desirous that the Corsicans should be taught to walk themselves.

This was new. The Corsicans had known rebellion, but the Paolist revolution entailed the concerted political education of a society, the beginning of the formation of citizens. The island realm and its leader thus generated high interest among enlightened opinion in Europe and America, from Voltaire to Ben Franklin. Jean-Jacques Rousseau notes, in his political masterpiece, The Social Contract: I have the feeling this little island will one day astonish Europe, and he even devoted a small work to laying out a constitution for the little state. Thanks to Paoli’s unique blend of the progressive and the dictatorial, as well as his irreproachable personal morality and total dedication to the public weal, he gave Corsica one of the more original governments in Europe, and the celebrity status of a much admired nation. True, he evoked some grumbles for his Caesarian style of rule, yet in the end he was mainly seen as a figure out of Plutarch, a genuine matinee idol of the Enlightenment, and, for that matter, of European history since.²

What strikes the modern reader is the paradox between, on the one hand, Corsica’s landscape and people, physical vitality and raw primitivity, and, on the other, her apparent promise as an advanced social experiment. The contrast seemed intelligible and obvious to Boswell, but then the twenty-five-year-old writer was hardly more than an adolescent in an enlightened age that defined adolescence: ardent, impetuous, indiscreet, insouciant, curious, capable of scaling heights of optimism and high sentiment, while sinking into verbosity, malice, and self-occupation unrelieved by self-awareness.

Despite the fact that French Enlightenment thinkers praised the Corsican experiment, and many courtiers at Versailles were profoundly impressed by Paoli’s courage and nobility, King Louis XV, for reasons of state, stood with the Genoese against the Corsican republic. He was well aware of Corsica’s critical strategic position in the Mediterranean and the desirability of keeping it out of English hands. The Genoese, for their part, were wholly convinced of the truth of their old proverb The Corsicans aren’t worth the rope it takes to hang them. They eventually got tired of the expense of policing the island and handed over its governance to France. A vastly superior French expeditionary force inflicted an annihilating defeat on the little Corsican army in a remote and austere valley of the rocky northeast of the island, at a spot called Ponte Nuovo. Dumouriez, a French officer who was there, remarked with a sigh, The Corsicans loved liberty; we came to conquer them; they laid traps for us; they were right to do so.³ With infinite sadness, on June 13, 1769, Paoli embarked on a British frigate to return to the exile he knew too well.

This little-known struggle may be viewed in historical perspective as the rehearsal for the immensely larger conflict looming in 1789, and the Paolist State can be seen as a moment in European, not just Corsican, history.


Shortly before the final showdown at Ponte Nuovo, a man with a pronounced rhetorical flair gave an address to the Corsican Corta, or national assembly. The peroration—a call for courage and unity—must surely have moved Boswell (or the young Patrick Henry), not to say shaken many at the French court, if they heard about it: If it be written in the book of destiny that the greatest monarch on earth shall take his measure in battle with the smallest people on earth, then we have reason to be proud, and we are certain to live and die with glory, [for] … we fight as men with no hope who are yet resolved to win or die.⁴ Napoleon on St. Helena would be so moved by this speech, which he claimed to have known all his life, that he would toss off a paraphrase of equal beauty and considerably greater cogency: If, to be free, it were only enough to desire freedom, then all people would be free. But history shows that few receive the benefits of freedom because few have the energy, courage, or virtue that it takes.

Bonaparte family legend always held that the original speech before the Corta had been presented by their own Carlo Buonaparte when he was twenty-two. It now appears more likely that it was Paoli himself who gave it. What is undeniable is that the extremely personable, competent, and handsome young Carlo had rapidly drawn close to Paoli and become one of many of his trusted associates, perhaps a secretary. Problems for Carlo’s reputation arose, however, after the fall of the realm of Corsica, when Buonaparte made the transition to French rule with shocking rapidity in the eyes of many. For example, he dined with the brutal French military commander of the occupation two months after the battle of Ponte Nuovo. This, coupled with Carlo’s well-known ambition, have led some to question his fundamental patriotic sincerity, and to present the short, hardscrabble life (1746-85) of Napoleon’s father as an illustration of the social scrambler, not the political revolutionary. It is undeniable that Carlo was a classic frayed-cuff provincial patrician, descended from a long line of similar types, who married into a slightly more successful family. He was a man who, before and after he met Paoli, had few thoughts and took few steps that did not pertain to acquiring something for himself and his family (the terms being redundant, in Corsican eyes). But that is not to say he was unable to recognize or be profoundly affected by something else entirely, even long after it was gone. By accenting his youthful role in the Paolist moment—and four years is not so short a time—we place a different emphasis on Carlo’s life, and give it a different dignity.

Paoli was a charismatic moralist and teacher as well as politician, whose impact on people far older and cannier than Carlo Buonaparte was legendary. Carlo’s initial decision to become a paolisto perhaps had its self-interested side, but if so, it is not apparent. Surely his own conservative family and his Ramolini in-laws did not see the young man’s immersion in revolutionary politics as profitable, but rather, as risky. If they soon came round to it, it must have been due, in part, to the combined effect of their son’s (son-in-law’s) sincerity, their own patriotism, and the Babbù’s international prestige. Then, too, recall: Carlo stuck by Paoli down to the realm’s bloody end at Ponte Nuovo, where he himself was on hand—something by no means all paolisti had the courage to do. The Corta oration—whoever gave it—was no academic exercise but a speech-act in a colonial war, a blow struck for a democratic cause whose time had come. Future events in America and France over the next generation would relentlessly illustrate the historical impact of variously sincere young men with change on their minds.

What is undeniable is both that Paoli’s regime profoundly affected the generation of Corsicans born in the 1740s, and that those effects got passed on to their children. True, the light from the Paolist sun might have been dimmer in Napoleon’s generation, except that the French Revolution brought Paoli himself back to Corsica. The Babbù had armed his hardy simple folk with new concepts and a new vocabulary and had herded them onto history’s stage. Once there, they began the process of becoming a public, not just a population. Corsica had become more than an ultimate refuge to the likes of a Carlo Buonaparte; the ancient patria was now to be seen as a nation, in the modern, democratic sense of the term.

Without the Corsican revolution, of which he was the pure product, Carlo Buonaparte would have spent his life as generations of his ancestors had spent theirs: tending the modest family businesses and properties, a task to which he soon returned, but not as the man he had been. Thanks to Paoli, Carlo had become, for a time, a citizen of the new secular order, for which cause he might well have died at Ponte Nuovo. In return for his audacity and courage, Carlo received a political education and developed a political approach to society. I am desirous that the Corsicans should be taught to walk themselves, Paoli had told Boswell, and there is every reason to think that Carlo Buonaparte was one of many paolisti who appropriated the essentially political expectation that social life is, and should be, made by citizens and patriots acting as members, and on behalf of the nation. Carlo never forgot those years; they were what the ancient Greeks called the time of his kairos—of ecstasy, of meaning. He never stopped mythifying about them, gilding his own and his wife, Letizia’s roles to his children, who in turn gilded their parents’ roles—and with good reason. These years were what he knew of the historic. Carlo’s personal tragedy would be, as Napoleon understood, that he did not live to participate in the vastly larger, but similar revolution that swept France and Europe after 1789. Carlo lived small and dreamed big. Most of his life after 1769 was undeniably spent in the long forced march of social and economic grubbing. Nevertheless, to stress this is to overvalue the relentless unfolding of chronos, of clock-measured time, and to miss what was special. Carlo’s kairos was his time with Paoli.

Carlo’s life was also pregnant with another kind of meaning, no less significant: his wife, Letizia (né Ramolino), was large with child when Paoli embarked on the Rachel for England. Two months later, she gave birth to her second son, whom they named for Carlo’s uncle Napoleone. The boy, like his brother, was born in the new day. In common with his older brother, Joseph, and his future brothers and sisters, he would have a passion for the nation and equality before the law, and a taste for the political—that is, the expectation that being active in the public arena was natural and desirable.

Once in Corsica, the Buonapartes⁶ of Saint Charles Street lived a short walk from the sixteenth-century cathedral of Notre-Dame. Ajaccio was then a town of four thousand. Bastia, the new French capital, which replaced Corte, was the largest town of the island, with a population of five thousand. At the time that Carlo found himself out of his job as revolutionary secretary and part-time orator, he was the father of two sons: Joseph, born in January of the year prior (1768), six months before Genoa ceded Corsica to the French; and Napoleon, born on August 15, 1769, a French citizen from birth. They would be followed by Lucien (1775), Elisa (1777), Louis (1778), Pauline (1780), Caroline (1782), and Jérôme (1784). An attractive couple, Carlo and Letizia were not a match made in heaven. Carlo had loved another, a woman of no importance, whom his family staunchly opposed for marriage. They had lobbied instead for the alliance with the better-off, if far from wealthy, Ramolinis. As for Letizia, who was all of fifteen years old when she married, we know nothing of her feelings, only that they would not have mattered in eighteenth-century Corsica. She was marrying a good catch (Carlo stood a sporting chance to inherit all of the Buonaparte property one day), and that was enough.

For important reasons, however, there was no church wedding. Contrary to legend and to the belief of their own children, the Buonapartes were not joined in holy matrimony on June 1, 1764, in the cathedral. Carlo, resentful at having to give up the woman he loved and marry one he did not, appears to have refused to go through with the hypocrisy of the cathedral wedding that had been planned. The legal union would have to suffice, though for appearances’ sake, the family (probably his uncle Lucciano, an archdeacon) altered the church registry, to make it look as if their nuptial mass had taken place. This deficiency never weighed on Carlo; unlike most Corsicans, he was a thoroughly secularized man, Voltairian in his attitude toward religion and the Church.

Soon after his marriage, Carlo committed the one serious indulgence of his life. Leaving a pregnant wife,⁷ he skipped off to Italy, theoretically for further education, but in fact to act the part of the spendthrift playboy for several months. This ended when he joined the paolisti. That youthful fling, plus a later tendency toward some profligacy of dress, travel, and dining well when he could—which left him occasionally penniless or in debt to relatives—have all but ruined Carlo’s historical reputation, including in his children’s eyes, unjustly so. Contrary to myth, the family was far from impoverished, even if its cash flow was tight. The Buonapartes and the Ramolinis were both of respectable northern Italian stock whose mercenary forebears had settled in Ajaccio not long after the port’s foundation in 1492, and if neither family enjoyed the genealogy it boasted of, they lived comfortably. Carlo’s efforts to establish the family’s noble status bore fruit under the French administration, and he was able to use it to considerable advantage. In short, if the Buonapartes were small fry compared with the island’s rich, the windows of their roomy three-story house were metaphorically lace-curtained.

Something did bind Carlo and Letizia closely: their intense dissatisfaction with their social estate, and the consistency and coherence with which they labored for its improvement. Ambition, not l’amour, bound them. Letizia had stood with Carlo from the first moment he joined Paoli, and she stood with him over the long decade and a half following Paoli’s defeat—the years that saw Carlo Buonaparte virtually fetter himself and his wife to his career project of improving his family’s condition. With the same energy with which he had served the Babbù, he pursued the very unromantic tasks of social promotion: landing a civil post for himself, obtaining a certificate of nobility, squeezing a profit from an olive grove, procuring a government subsidy for a draining project, pursuing a lawsuit against a neighbor over a house, winning an appointment in local government, etc. He died at thirty-nine, broken in health, and who can say his labors in these vineyards were not part of the reason? He once wrote a friend that his life could provide the material for a complete romance, but Carlo’s life contained only some promising early pages of romance. The story turned abruptly prosaic after Ponte Nuovo.

To serve or not to serve the French overlords was not exactly a tormenting existential question for most Corsicans, even many devoted paolisti. The French, after all, dominated, and the Corsicans had a long history of making do with conquerors. A gambler by temperament, a charmer by personality, and a courtier in style, Carlo availed himself of the chance to meet the much older Marbeuf, the French military governor of Corsica. The governor liked Carlo and valued his advice and information about how to govern these prickly, suspicious, vindictive Corsicans. But if Marbeuf took to Carlo, he may have taken Letizia. Dorothy Carrington presents a serious case for the old polemical thesis argued by opponents of Napoleon for two centuries that Mme Buonaparte, early in the 1770s, embarked on a decade-long affair with the intendant, a man nearly three times her age.⁸ It has even been argued, though this may be pressing things too far, that Marbeuf was the father of Louis, the future king of Holland and father of Napoleon III. In truth, the evidence does indicate that Carlo was roundly delighted at the prestige and benefits procured for the family by their relationship with Marbeuf. Paoli had been, in Carrington’s words, the first great chance of his life,⁹ and undoubtedly the second—of a different, more familiar kind—was the association with Marbeuf.


I was born when the homeland [patrie] was perishing.

On St. Helena in exile, Corsica returned. Napoleon talked endlessly, and in loving detail, about his infancy and childhood. This makes for an unfamiliarly modest and attractive picture of our subject, but it is also one we should not peer at too deeply, for if history be a trick we play on the dead, then the sort of autobiography Napoleon was grinding out at St. Helena is the most devious. The St. Helena testimony speaks more accurately to Napoleon’s state of mind on the last island in his life than it provides us with sure information about his early years on the first island in his life. In point of fact, little that can be independently confirmed about Napoleon’s early years is known, as is so often the case with historical figures before our century.

Nevertheless the statement is worth remembering: "I was born when the patrie was perishing." Written in a letter to Paoli in 1789, it sheds light on the lifelong mind-set of this paolisto son. The sentence continues, Thirty thousand Frenchmen spewed onto our coasts, engulfing the throne of liberty in seas of blood: such was the odious sight that first met my eyes. Despite the sternness of such rhetoric, what is important here is not the anti-French sentiment but the diffuse passion underlying it. Napoleon has clearly inherited Carlo’s predilection for the political, as evidenced by his apparently neutral invocation of the patrie, for the word must not be confused with the land or the people of Corsica. Neither of these was perishing under the French, despite the high casualties at Ponte Nuovo. What the French had destroyed was the realm of Corsica—that is, the republican political experiment of Paoli, whose destruction was well symbolized by their shutting down of the University of Corte. The highly emotional significance of the Babbù’s Camelot regime, encased in the hearts of all paolisti, must not close our eyes to how much it was a political construct. Napoleon on St. Helena, looking back across the arc of his life, has instinctively signaled that his life had a political, not just a patriotic inception in the patrie.

Napoleon’s early years in Ajaccio were anything but romantic storm and stress. Nuclear families were not the Corsican way. The child Napoleon was part of a large, extended, functional family that reached out to include the boy’s great-uncle Lucciano, who lived next door. As a ranking priest (archdeacon) at the cathedral, Lucciano was a well-known figure in Ajaccio and he played a large, if contentious role in the family. A pro-Genoese÷anti-French believer, Lucciano had his share of arguments with his nephew Carlo, but however irascible or tightfisted the old man was, he was the soul of dependability, and his constant presence was an important element in Napoleon’s life. At times, his loans and gifts—not to mention the legacy he left on his death in 1791—enabled the family to cope better.

For the most part, however, Napoleon was surrounded by women—Minana (Letizia’s mother), Saveria (Carlo’s mother), Geltrude (Carlo’s sister), and his nurse, Camilla Ilari. The few among them who survived into the Empire amply enjoyed the Emperor’s largesse, in return for the happy childhood he readily granted had been his. The extremely devout Camilla Ilari, in fact—in return for her years spent defusing little Napoleon’s temper—would one day enjoy an hour and a half private audience with His Holiness, Pius VII, during which the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church did nothing but question her to death about what was he like as a child.¹⁰

The center of the young Napoleon’s emotional world was his mother, although the boy, perhaps like most boys, would have preferred it to be his father. That was not to be. Certainly, Carlo’s two life-ordering convictions—his politicization by Paoli and his quest for social advancement—marked his children, as did the man’s intellectual and cultural values. The children grew up in the presence of a library of one thousand volumes (including, of course, a copy of Boswell’s Account of Corsica), which can only have represented a huge expense and luxury—a paolisto sort of investment, indeed. Napoleon, Joseph, and Lucien grew up readers and remained so all their lives. The novelist Stendhal speculated that the young Napoleon was exposed to high-toned, patriotic conversations among the ex-paolisti gathered chez Carlo.¹¹

Carlo was also the indulgent and good-tempered father we would expect him to be, though when seen from his children’s memoirs, he becomes something of a weak presence in the family, compared to his wife. Day to day, the patriarch was gone a good deal of the time—to Bastia, for meetings of the Corsican assembly, where he represented the Ajaccio nobility, or to France, on family business. Napoleon’s later judgments of Carlo, while not wholly unappreciative, ran to the harsh (e.g., he was too fond of pleasure), which leads one to think that the son harbored a degree of permanent grudge or disappointment where the father was concerned. Nevertheless, a profound complicity—of political maturity and the drive for recognition—joined father and son at the root, and Napoleon never forgot it. When he stood in Notre-Dame Cathedral in December 1804, having crowned himself and his wife Emperor and Empress of the French, after being blessed by the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church who had never before come to Paris for such an event, Napoleon leaned over to Joseph and whispered, Si babbù ci vidi! (If Father could see us now).

Carlo’s physical and perhaps psychological absence left Letizia to run the family—a very Corsican state of affairs. She was a formidable woman: young, beautiful, and energetic, frank to a fault, loving but without indulgence; her children loved her but they also feared her. As her second son (who was also her favorite) put it, Her tenderness was severe… . Here was the head of a man on the body of a woman. High praise from a Corsican boy for his mother, but then Napoleon acknowledged that he owed his success to the character formation he received from Letizia—particularly her emphasis on working and suffering without complaint. None of her other children responded to her lessons about self-discipline as well as Napoleon did. As the inimitable Carrington puts it, he was her masterpiece, fashioned in the nine years’ loving intimacy between the proud, spirited, handsome young mother and her intrepid little son.¹²

His siblings would play large roles in his life, but not until later. Only Joseph occupied the stage of Napoleon’s childhood, for Lucien, Elisa, and Louis were still babies when the older boys left for school in 1778, while Pauline, Caroline, and Jérôme were not born yet. Joseph was apparently a happy child, of a placid, even serene disposition that stood in sharp contrast with that of his brother. For young Napoleon, the adjectives are usually poured into two categories: on the one hand, turbulent, combative, nervous, and inattentive (especially to his appearance; his socks were always down around his shoes); on the other hand, clever, quick-witted, mathematically gifted, self-confident, and willful. But one should add, Napoleon was also affectionate and given to feeling guilty, a boy who responded easily to people who responded to him. In his small body were lodged a large intelligence and even larger will, which, if they made him stubborn and headstrong, also rendered him attractive and fascinating. Though Joseph was eighteen months his senior and always physically larger, Napoleon enjoyed complete ascendance over him (forcing him, e.g., to do his homework for him). On the other hand, and this is not a small point: he and Joseph handled things in a way that left them profoundly close to each other, almost as twins can be. The mature Emperor would observe that he loved very few people, and Joseph was among them.

For want of material to paint a complete portrait of the young Napoleon, one should refrain from speculating that the boy possessed any of the traits assigned him in their extreme form. Child Napoleon stood out in his family for his intellectual talents and willful character, but he was not an apparent genius, megalomaniac, or neurotic. I do not see deep-seated conflict or neurosis lodged in the boy that explains or even sheds much light on his later behavior. Here was not a psychologically hobbled man or a fascinating case of child psychopathology. Napoleon was, overall, I think, a rather bold, brave, and turbulent boy whom it was probably easy to love—and find exasperating.

On the basis of their personalities, Joseph’s and Napoleon’s careers were determined for them: the Church, for Joseph; the military, for Napoleon. Napoleon had already made it clear this is what he wanted—as a little boy, he played soldier, dressed up like a soldier, made friends with the troops in the nearby garrison, and ate their dark bread with them. Joseph was less certain of his vocation, but an ecclesiastical career seemed a good bet, given that Comte de Marbeuf ’s brother was the Bishop of Autun and would assure the boy an excellent future. An ecclesiastical career denoted high prestige and was often sought on purely careerist grounds. If the Church of Rome no longer enjoyed the hegemony of bygone days, she yet remained the ideological backbone of the ancien régime—France’s First Estate; the nobility came second.

But the boys were now at least second-class citizens. They were fortunate indeed, as the time for serious schooling arose, that their father had lobbied so effectively for the family’s inscription in the list of the French nobility. This was far more than a question of vanity. Old regime France, unlike Corsica, was a rigidly stratified society that benefited the top two estates. In all, Louis XVI’s government integrated seventy-eight Corsican families into the French nobility—useful in forging loyalty to the Crown among many who had lingering paolisti or pro-Genoa sentiments. Had Carlo’s family not been allowed to add the yearned-for particle to their names, signing themselves, "de Bonaparte,"¹³ then Joseph and Napoleon would have been ineligible to attend French gentlemen schools, and could not have aspired to all the other forms of social promotion that were now open to them in the Church and the army. (Nor would Carlo have been permitted to remain deputy of the Ajaccio nobility to the Corsican assembly, a position that gave him some visibility and clout in France, as well as his homeland.)

So, on December 12, 1778, Joseph and Napoleon Bonaparte, accompanied by their parents, departed Ajaccio for Bastia, thence by boat to the French mainland. They were accompanied by their father’s young stepbrother, Joseph Fesch, aged fifteen, who would soon receive a scholarship to study for the priesthood at the seminary of Aix-en-Provence. The journey to Bastia took several days—going inland, east, across the plains surrounding their hometown, then north, their route gradually steepening as it came to thick forests of pine and chestnut trees. Eventually, they arrived at Morosaglia, the birthplace of Paoli; soon they would be skirting rugged, fair-sized mountains, a few with summits of over 7,500 feet, where snow lingered into the summer. On this journey to the capital, the Bonaparte family did two things that were characteristic of their place in the Corsican past and present. They stopped off in Corte, the old capital, where they lingered a time with Carlo’s and Letizia’s paolisti comrades, and they made the last lap of the journey with Letizia traveling in the berlin of His Excellency the military governor.


The Making of the Patriot

I know my weakness: a too sincere awareness of the jaded human heart [although] … I still retain that enthusiasm which so often evaporates under a keen knowledge of men.

—Napoleon Bonaparte, 1788


Doubtless, the nine-year-old sailing from Bastia on that mid-December day did not feel himself lucky to be going to France, the more so as he knew that his schooling would not permit him to return home anytime soon (for nearly eight years, as it turned out). Yet lucky he was—historically lucky. Had Genoa not ceded Corsica to France, he would not be going anywhere at this point, for the Genoese did not give scholarships to minor Corsican noble sons. Perhaps, when he had been older, he would have gone to an Italian university, probably Pisa, as his father had done, or maybe Naples, where Paoli had studied. In one or the other of these ancient, respectable academies, he would have received a decent education—in letters, probably a finer education than he actually got at the royal military schools of France—but then where would he have been? The republic of Genoa had been in decline for decades; it offered few hopes for promotion for its own young nobles, let alone for colonial sons. But France was entirely another matter. With its twenty-two million people, it was the most populous country in Europe. Moreover, the splendor of its monarchy, the robustness of its economy, the brilliance of its culture all made the kingdom of Louis XVI the center of the civilized world. The prospects it could offer an impecunious rustic must have seemed (as indeed they were) incomparable.

In short, it is unlikely that a boy as smart and ambitious as Napoleon Bonaparte did not sense his good fortune and contemplate his future with excitement as he arrived at the collège (in French usage) of Autun, one of the oldest and better preparatory schools in France. Here he spent the winter studying French; then, in the spring, he transferred to one of twelve royal military schools situated around France, the one located in Brienne, sixty miles east of Paris, in the Champagne region. He spent five years (1779-84) there, after which he completed his military studies with a year at the Ecole Militaire in Paris. None of this fell automatically into place. This talk of collèges and studies should not distract us from the fact that Napoleon was only a boy in these years, a boy who was having to conjure with a foreign language which he spoke (and would always speak) with a strong accent. His inadequate command of French put him at a permanent disadvantage in literature classes, and required him, in general, to work harder than the rest. Then, too, Napoleon was younger than his schoolmates. For example, he was only sixteen when he took his commission in the Royal Artillery in 1785.

For all that they were severe, even draconian institutions, Autun, Brienne, and the Ecole Militaire constituted a fancy education for a provincial impoverished noble. Yet the experience had a dark side for Napoleon. In the registry of Autun, one may find this entry in the neat handwriting of one of the priest-teachers: "M. Néapoleonne de Bounaparte pour trois mois vingt jours, cent onze livres, douze sols, huit deniers 111, 12, 8." The words say little: only that the named student has spent three months, twenty days at the college (which he is about to leave) and owes money. Two details stand out. First, the sum of money owed represents, by itself, 10 percent of Carlo Bonaparte’s annual salary as county assessor for Ajaccio, his main job. The family had other sources of income, but when the cost of the education of the other children is added to Napoleon’s, one gets an idea of the relative enormity of Carlo’s investment in his children’s education. He never ceased scrounging for the sums to make those payments.

Second, we notice the orthographic crucifixion of Napoleon’s name by a teacher who considered him superb. It is a sign of what went wrong at Autun, and would continue to go wrong at Brienne and the Ecole Militaire. The priest in question, the admiring Father Chardon, may have pronounced Napoleon’s name correctly, but the boy’s comrades did not. In their ragging, Napoleone became the silly paille au nez (straw-in-nose). It is hardly surprising. A nine-year-old rustic from a recently conquered territory arrives at an elite boarding school in a kingdom famous for its snobbery and hidebound class system. He may react in one of two general ways to the inevitable teasing that anyone who has attended a boys’ boarding school understands. The boy may ingratiate himself or he may isolate himself; blend in and be liked, or stand out and be noticed. Joseph Bonaparte did the first. At Autun, where he spent six years, he was considerate and endeared himself to one and all, although it is clear from his memoirs that the experience cost him something, and he was not as happy there as we are usually told. Napoleon took the second option. He became taciturn, distant, irascible, making himself famously disliked and feared. His way entailed a considerably greater price than Joseph’s.

Accounts by Napoleon’s contemporaries of his years of schooling in France were all written decades afterwards and reflect their authors’ strong feelings on this subject,¹ yet are relevant for their agreement, not only among themselves but also with many of the Emperor’s own later observations about Brienne. They concur that Napoleon was unhappy as a student in France, and as a result, he made the people around him unhappy, or tried to. Those describing the adolescent Napoleon trot out the usual adjectives: unadapted, unsociable, unpopular and aggressive, gloomy and fierce beyond measure, giving of piercing, scrutinizing glances, etc. Certainly, one has no difficulty believing that Napoleon was these things. We can easily picture him at Brienne, for example, as he once described himself, gloomily ensconced under his oak tree, feeling desperately sorry for himself, nursing his wounded amour-propre by meditating on how much he hates his French comrades, and they, him (but more on the former than the latter), and what harm he will do you French one day.

Still, it was not all tumult. No less critical: Napoleon’s moods and humors did not lead him into a psychological bind in the five years he was at Brienne, nor did they prevent him from making friends (including one genuine confidant, Bourrienne) or studying hard and doing well academically. Napoleon was generous, rarely held grudges, and possessed a powerful imagination. He took pleasure in the learning he accomplished at the several French schools he attended, notably Brienne. The young Napoleon was good at mathematics—he received a prize in it—but he took to ancient history even more. Indeed, one can scarcely overemphasize the illustrational impact of Rome on the political culture of the old regime; it more or less openly replaced Christianity as the storehouse, par excellence of maxims for men in public life. Even the Catholic teaching orders could not stop themselves: their monks were constantly accenting the stories and characters of Plutarch, Nepos (author of On Illustrious Men), Livy, Virgil, Cicero, etc., while at the same time ruing that these pre-Christian souls were all consigned to hell or limbo (a contradiction that sufficed to make the adolescent Napoleon lose his faith).

At Brienne, Napoleon probably discovered Caesar, which is hardly a surprise, given the attention Plutarch gives the Roman Empire’s founder. Plutarch afforded him models which the eighteenth-century world took gravely seriously. The driving force of Plutarch’s narrative, the effect of which is to present his leading figures (Alexander, Caesar, Cicero, Brutus, etc.) as undifferentiated heroes likely made its mark on Napoleon. Napoleon, like Plutarch, admired Brutus as well as Caesar, and did not draw the careful moral or political lines between them that the Romans drew. What mattered was that both were viri illustres: great men.

In sum, Brienne was not just a personal or an intellectual ordeal for Napoleon. Much of the challenge he passed with flying colors, and he knew it. As Napoleon noted at St. Helena, I was the poorest of my mates … they had pocket money, I never did. But I was proud and I made every effort to see to it that nobody noticed. … I never learned to laugh and play like the others. Most likely, this was not said angrily but with a degree of deserved satisfaction. Midway in his tenure at Brienne, Napoleon had a visit from his father and mother. Letizia found her son frighteningly thin and complained of a change in his features. Such mother-displeasing alterations do occur in young adolescents sent off at a young age to a demanding prep school. Pace Letizia, they may not be a bad sign.

A habit Napoleon manifested at Brienne that would persevere throughout his life was the expression of concern for his family. It is remarkable to see the degree to which an adolescent with a great many more immediate concerns pressing in on him gives so much time to thinking and worrying about his relatives—and writing to them, too. Only a few of his letters survive and offer insight into the young Napoleon’s character. The first, dated July 1784 and addressed to an uncle, is written in the aftermath of Carlo’s visit to Brienne. The father came to deliver Lucciano (Lucien) to the school’s and his brothers’ safekeeping. Napoleon’s pride in the nine-year-old and his apparent pleasure in having him there are more paternal than fraternal:

My dear Uncle,

… Lucciano is 9 years old, and 3 feet, 4 inches, and 6 lines tall.

He is in the sixth class for Latin, and is going to learn all the subjects in the curriculum. He shows plenty of good disposition and has good intentions. It is to be hoped he will turn out well. He is in good health, is a big upstanding boy, quick and devil-may-care, and so far, they are pleased with him. He knows French well and has forgotten his Italian. He will add a message to you at the end of my letter. I shall not tell him what to say, so that you may see for yourself his Savoir-faire. I hope he will write you more often now than when he was at Autun.²

In a second letter, written after he has learned that Joseph will be attending Brienne, Napoleon writes Mon cher Père to say, I will be hugging Joseph before the end of October and the three brothers will be together—a prospect that brings consolation to their hearts. What is agitating Napoleon this time is his worries about his father’s health: he hopes that Carlo’s return to Corsica will speed his recovery, so that your health will be as good as my own.³

At the end of the academic year of 1783, the inspector of military colleges visited Brienne and is said to have found Cadet de Buonaparte to be "docile [caractère soumis], gentle [doux], honest, grateful [reconnaissant], [and] regular in his habits." He judged him ready, though barely fourteen years old, to go to the Ecole Royale Militaire in Paris for final training before his commission. The teachers at Brienne disagreed; they argued strongly he was still too young. Napoleon stayed another year at Brienne, then left for the capital.

Many years later, Napoleon was speeding to Italy on critical business for the Empire. It was April 1804 and the war had recommenced. France was at loggerheads with a formidable host of great powers, yet the Emperor stopped off for two days at Brienne. He walked the grounds of his ruined school, which had not survived the Revolution, received the former employees, examined with the local municipality the possibility of reviving the institution (contributing 12,000 francs to that end), and expressed disappointment that the priest who had given him his first communion was not around. The next day he galloped off on his Arabian horse, riding across the fields surrounding Brienne, gazing at sights he remembered from long past. For three hours, his staff followed him as best they could; then they had lunch. Wrote one of them: rarely was he so gracious. In his last testament on St. Helena, Napoleon would designate a bequest of a million francs for Brienne. None of this resembles the words or actions of a man beset by unhappy memories of his school days—on the contrary.


On the evening of October 19, 1784, Napoleon and four schoolmates arrived to take up their admissions in the Ecole Royale Militaire (ERM), on the Left Bank of the Seine. They came by boat but perhaps it took an islander like Napoleon to describe their arrival as landing at a port of call. (Was he aware that Paris is the center of the île de France?) The school, designed by one of the era’s leading architects, Jacques-Ange Gabriel, was housed in a magnificent set of neoclassical buildings, with imposing façades of Corinthian columns.

Such was the care taken with admission to this institution that each boy had been named to the school by a brevet signed by the king himself, as well as the minister of war. The school was of recent origin (1776), and although it certainly aimed to turn out competent officers, that was not its main goal. Promotion and advancement were not based on achievement or intellect. Instruction, here, ceded place to formation of blue-blooded sons in the love and service of the monarchy and in the ways of the court. Such loyalties were not automatic. They were not dispositions that could be taken for granted; the French nobility was a notoriously independent and divided caste that boasted (there is no other word for it) a long history of insubordination, or indeed rebellion, against the king. Moreover, a prejudice of the leading noble families held that their sons did not, after all, really need training, for they were born to the military life and could lead regiments with their pedigrees. Since early in the century royal policy lay in convincing the high aristocratic families to accept alliance with the middle and lower ranks of the nobility in obedience and service to their king. This newly unified Second Estate was, at one and the same time, to

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