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CHARACTER OF NAPOLEON BONAPARTE,
SUGGESTED BY THE PUBLICATION OF
SCOTT'S LIFE OF NAPOLEON.
By W. E. CHANNING, LL.D.
The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte by Sir Walter Scott has been anticipated with an eagerness, proportioned to the unrivalled power of the author, and to the wonderful endowments and fortunes of the hero. That the general expectation has been satisfied, we cannot affirm. But few will deny, that the writer has given us a monument of his great talents. The rapidity with which such a work has been thrown off astonishes us. We think, however, that the author owed himself and to the public a more deliberate execution of this important undertaking. He should either have abandoned it, or have bestowed on it the long and patient labor which it required. The marks of negligence and haste, which are spread through the work, are serious blemishes, perhaps inexpiable defects. It wants compression and selection throughout. Many passages are encumbered with verbiage. Many thoughts are weakened by useless expansion and worse than useless repetition. Comparisons are accumulated to excess.; and whilst many are exquisite, perhaps as many are trite and unworthy of history. The remarks are generally just, but obvious, and we fear we must add, often superficial. We state these defects plainly, that we may express the more freely our admiration of the talents which have executed so rapidly a work so extensive and various, so rich in information, so fresh and vivid in description, and furnishing such abundant specimens of a free, graceful, and vigorous style.
The work has the great merit of impartiality. It is probably inaccurate in many of its details, but singularly free from prejudice and passion. Not a few, who considered that the author was both a Briton and a friend of the principles and policy of Pitt, were expecting from his pen a discolored delineation of the implacable foe of England and of that great minister. But the rectitude of his mind, and his reverence for historical truth, have effectually preserved him from abusing the great power, conferred on him by his talents, over public opinion. We think that his laudable fear of wronging the enemy of his country, joined to an admiration of the dazzling qualities of Napoleon, has led him to soften unduly the crimes of his hero, and to give more favorable impressions than truth will warrant.
But enough of the author, who needs not our praise, and can suffer little by our censure. Our concern is with his subject. A just estimate of the late Emperor of France seems to us important. That extraordinary man, having operated on the world with unprecedented power during his life, is now influencing it by his character. That character, we apprehend, is not viewed as it should be. The kind of admiration which it inspires, even in free countries, is a bad omen. The greatest crime against society, that of spoiling it of its rights and loading it with chains, still fails to move that deep abhorrence which is its due ; and which, if really felt, would fix on the usurper a brand of indelible infamy. Regarding freedom as the chief interest of human nature, as essential to its intellectual, moral, and religious progress, we look on men, who have signalised themselves by their hostility to it, with an indignation at once stern and sorrowful, which no glare of successful war, and no admiration of the crowd, can induce us to suppress. We mean then to speak freely of Napoleon.. But if we know ourselves, we could on no account utter one unjust reproach. We speak the more freely, because conscious of exemption from every feeling like animosity. We war not with the dead. We would resist only what we deem the pernicious influence of the dead. We would devote ourselves to the cause of freedom and humanity-a cause perpetually betrayed by the admiration lavished on prosperous crime and all-grasping ambition. Our great topic will be the Character of Napoleon; and with this we shall naturally intersperse reflections on the great interests which he perpetually influenced.
We begin with observing, that it is an act of justice to Bonaparte to remember, that he grew up under disastrous influences, in a troubled day, when men's minds were convulsed, old institutions overthrown, old opinions shaken, old restraints snapped asunder ; when the authority of religion was spurned, and youth abandoned to unwonted license; when the imagination was made feverish by visions of indistinct good, and the passions swelled by the sympathy of millions to a resistless torrent." A more dangerous school for the character cannot well be conceived. That All-seeing Being, who knows the trials of his creatures and the secrets of the heart, can alone judge to what degree crimes are extenuated by circumstances so inauspicious. This we must remember in reviewing the history of men, who were exposed to trials unknown to ourselves. But because the turpitude of an evil agent is diminished by infelicities of education or condition, we must not therefore confound the immutable distinctions of right and wrong, and withhold our reprobation from atrocities which have spread misery and slavery far and wide.
It is also due to Napoleon to observe, that there has always existed, and still exists, a mournful obtuseness of moral feeling in regard to the crimes of military and political life. The wrongdoing of public men on a large scale, has never drawn on them that sincere, hearty abhorrence which visits private vice. Nations have seemed to court aggression and bondage, by their stupid, insane admiration of successful tyrants. The wrongs, from which men have suffered most, in body and mind, are yet unpunished. True, Christianity has put into our lips censures on the aspiring and the usurping. But these reproaches are as yet little more than sounds, and unmeaning common-places. They are repeated for form's sake. When we read or hear them, we feel that they want depth and strength. They are not inward, solemn, burning convictions, breaking from the indignant soul with a tone of reality, before which guilt would cower. The true moral feeling in regard to the crimes of public men is almost to be created. We believe, then, that such a character as Bonaparte's, is formed with very little consciousness of its turpitude; and society, which contributes so much to its growth, is responsible for its existence, and merits in part the misery which it spreads.
Of the early influences under which Bonaparte was formed, we know little. He was educated in a military school'; and this, we apprehend, is not an institution to form much delicacy, or independence of moral feeling : for the young soldier is taught, as his first duty, to obey his superior without consulting his conscience; to take human life at another's bidding; to perform that deed, which above all others requires deliberate conviction, without a moments inquiry as to its justice, and to place himself a passive instrument in hands, which, as all history teaches, often reek with blood causelessly shed.
His first political association was with the Jacobins, the most sánguinary of all the factions which raged in France, and whose sway is emphatically called “the reign of terror.” The service which secured his command in Italy, was the turning of his artillery on the people, who, however dangerous when acting as a mob, happened in the present case to understand their rights, and were directing their violence against manifest usurpation...
His first campaign was in Italy, and we have still a vivid recollection of the almost rapturous admiration with which we followed his first triumphs ; for then we were simple enough to regard him as the chosen guardian of liberty. His peculiar tactics was not then understood; the secret of his success had not reached us; and his rapid victories stimulated the imagination to invest him with the mysterious powers of a hero of romance. We confess that we cannot now read the history of his Italian wars without a quickened movement in the veins. The rapidity of his conceptions; the inexhaustibleness of his invention ; the energy of his will, the decision which suffered not a moment's pause between the
between the purpose and its execution ; the presence of mind, which, amidst sudden reverses and on the brink of ruin, devised the means of safety and success: these commanding attributes, added to a courage, which, however suspected afterwards, never faltered then, compel us to bestow, what indeed we have no desire to withhold, the admiration which is due to superior power.
Let not the friends of peace be offended. We have said, and we repeat it, that we have no desire to withhold our admiration from the energies which war often awakens. Great powers, even in their perversion, attest a glorious nature; and we may feel their grandeur, whilst we condemn, with our whole strength of moral feeling, the evil passions by which they are depraved. We are willing to grant that war, abhor it as we may, often developes and places in strong light, a force of intellect and purpose, which raises our conceptions of the human soul. There is perhaps no moment in life in which the mind is brought into such intense action, in which the will is so strenuous, and in which irrepressible excitement is so tempered with self-possession, as in the hour of battle. Still the greatness of the warrior is poor and low compared with the magnanimity of virtue. It vanishes before the greatness of principle. The martyr to humanity, to freedom, or religion ; the unshrinking adherent of despised and deserted truth; who, alone, unsupported and scorned, with no crowd to infuse into him courage, no variety of objects to draw his thoughts from himself, no opportunity of effort or resistance to rouse and nourish energy, still yields himself calmly, resolutely, with invincible phim lanthropy, to bear prolonged and exquisite suffering, which one retracting word might remove : such a man is as superior to the warrior, as the tranquil and boundless heavens above us to the low earth we tread beneath our feet.
We have spoken of the energies of mind called forth by war. If we may be allowed a short digression, which however bears directly on our main subject, the merits of Napoleon, we would observe, that military talent, even of the highest order, is far from holding the first place among intellectual endowments. It is one of the lower forms of genius ; for it is not conversant with the highest and richest objects of thought. We grant that a mind which takes in a wide country at a glance, and understands almost by intuition the positions it affords for a successful campaign, is a comprehensive and vigorous one. The general, who disposes his forces so as to counteract a greater force ; who supplies by skill, science, and genius, the want of numbers; who dives into the counsels of his enemy, and who gives unity, energy, and success to a vast sphere of operations, in the midst of casualties and obstructions which no wisdom could foresee, manifests great power. But still the chief work of a general is to apply physical force; to remove physical obstructions; to avail himself of physical aids and advantages; to act on matter; to overcome rivers, ramparts, mountains, and human muscles; and these are not the highest objects of mind, nor do they demand intelligence of the highest order ; and accordingly nothing is more common than to find men, eminent in this department, who are almost wholly wanting in the noblest energies of the soul, in imagination and taste, in the capacity of enjoying works of genius, in large views of human nature, in the moral sciences, in the application of analysis and generalisation to the human mind and to society, and in original conceptions on the great subjects which have absorbed the most glorious understandings. The office of a great general does not differ widely from that of a great mechanician, whose business it is to frame new combinations of physical forces, to adapt them to new circumstances, and to remove new obstructions. Accordingly great generals, away from the camp, are commonly no greater men than the mechanician taken from his workshop. 'In conversation they are often dull. Works of profound thinking on general and great topics they cannot comprehend. The conqueror of Napoleon, the hero of Waterloo, undoubtedly possesses great military talents ; but we have never heard of his eloquence in the senate, or of his sagacity in the cabinet ; and we venture to say, that he will leave the world without adding one new thought on the great themes on which the genius of philosophy and legislature has meditated for
ages. We will not go down for illustration to such men as Nelson ; a man great on the deck, but debased by gross vices, and who never pretended to enlargement of intellect. To institute a comparison in point of talent and genius between such men and Milton, Bacon, and Shakspeare, is almost an insult to these illustrious names. Who can think of these truly great intelligences; of the range of their minds through heaven and earth; of their deep intuition into the soul; of their new and glowing combinations of thought; of the energy with which they grasped and subjected