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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 14

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Empress Josephine

Ernest John Knapton

published by
Harvard University Press,
New York, 1963

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 16

 p223  Chapter 15
Steps to a Throne

The consulate for life meant that Napoleon was a monarch in all but name, holding in his hands control of the succession. As he rose to this new dignity, he carried Josephine up with him, with the result that an imperial crown soon marked the supreme achievement of her extraordinary career.

At the beginning of 1804 the picture in France seemed most promising, for Napoleon's great administrative reforms were well under way. Abroad, the one great flaw in his plans was that England — 'Perfidious Albion' — had re‑entered the war and was busily at work whipping together a third great coalition against France. Bonaparte, nevertheless, had every confidence that he could deal with this threat, even as he had dealt with the Austrians at Rivoli and Marengo. And so it was entirely characteristic of his busy genius that he should simultaneously push forward the domestic reorganization of France, make his plans for the invasion and destruction of England, and prepare imperial titles for himself and Josephine.

As Bonaparte developed his military plans, the Channel coast rang with the preparations for war. Specially built invasion barges by the hundreds crowded the harbours, new roads were laid, ports were enlarged, and at the great camp of Boulogne an army of a hundred thousand men laboriously learned the techniques of embarkation and debarkation. Hopeful that his plans would soon bring England to defeat, Napoleon busied himself in January with a tour of supervision and inspection:

I am very well, my dear Josephine [he wrote from Boulogne]; the rain, the wind, and the cold do me no harm. I leave in a moment to continue my inspection, and I shall soon be in Paris. I am sending  p224 you some caricatures which I have received from England. A thousand fond greetings to your little cousin and to everyone.​1

If matters were going well on the Channel coast, troubles clearly were brewing in Paris. Some of these affected Josephine. Not all Frenchmen were satisfied with the new régime, and not all Bonaparte's generals were happy at the meteoric rise of their colleague. The secret police in Paris were soon aware of the discontent and knew that plots to assassinate the first consul, furthered by royalist groups outside France, were afoot. In August 1803 Georges Cadoudal, a fanatical leader of anti-republican forces in Brittany, was brought secretly in a British cutter across the Channel from his English exile. He turned up in Paris, where he joined with General Pichegru, another royalist who had returned by stealth after having been forced to leave France. The pair tried to win the support of General Moreau, who had been one of Bonaparte's aides at the time of the coup of Brumaire. Since then Moreau had grown very bitter at Bonaparte's steady rise and had gone into sullen retirement outside Paris. Moreau had married Mademoiselle Hulot, a creole and a friend of Josephine, as restless and ambitious as himself. When Bonaparte established the Legion of Honour, Moreau had scornfully bestowed a special collar of honour upon his dog.

The conspiracy of 1804 contemplated a domestic rising in the west​a of France, a simultaneous invasion of émigrés from across the Rhine, and the assassination of the first consul as he travelled along the road from Malmaison to Paris. The French secret police, who had their agents planted amid the conspirators, deliberately let the plot mature. Though in the end General Moreau refused to join the plot, he and his wife were so close to it as to bring embarrassment and pain to their good friend, Josephine.

On a chilly February morning Bonaparte was seated beside the fireplace in Josephine's salon at the Tuileries, holding Hortense's infant son, Napoléon-Charles, on his lap. Suddenly he addressed Josephine, 'Do you know what I have just done? I have given the order to arrest Moreau.' He rose, walked to Josephine, and held her by the chin. 'You are weeping.  p225 Why? Are you afraid?' Her answer was short, 'No, but I don't like what people will say.'2

Sur enough, on this very morning Moreau was arrested as he sought to leave Paris; soon afterwards Pichegru, Cadoudal, and many others were seized. An agitated Josephine wrote to her daughter at Compiègne telling her of the arrests and declaring that many of the conspirators had been in Paris for months, contemplating the murder of her husband. 'Truly,' she wrote, 'it makes one shudder.'3

Spectacular consequences followed. The secret police found evidence which seemed to implicate in the plot a person of royal blood, the young Duke d'Enghien, son of the last Prince de Condé and nephew of the Duke d'Orléans. Though the evidence implicating Enghien was less than convincing, Bonaparte struck ruthlessly. The duke was living quietly across the Rhine, in Baden. On the night of 14 March a troop of French cavalry crossed the imperial border, rode to the castle of Ettenheim, and in outrageous defiance of international law seized Enghien and brought him back to France for trial by a military court.

By 20 March Enghien found himself in the ancient fortress of Vincennes, outside Paris. Josephine tried twice to save him. She had spoken to Bonaparte on Passion Sunday when they attended High Mass in the chapel of the Tuileries. 'I have done what I could,' she told Madame de Rémusat as they drove back to Malmaison, 'but I am afraid his mind is made up.'​4 A day or so later Josephine interceded again in the park at Malmaison where Bonaparte was walking with Talleyrand. 'I fear that cripple,' she told Joseph Bonaparte, who was with her, and so Joseph, obligingly for once managed to lure Talleyrand away. Her efforts were useless, for when Josephine appealed directly to her husband on behalf of Enghien, Bonaparte dismissed her with the words: 'Go away; you are a child; you do not understand public duties.'​5 Actually, Enghien's fate had been settled from the moment when he was seized, and neither Josephine nor anyone else could do anything about it. As he crossed the dry moat at Vincennes to meet his judges within, he passed an open grave, dug just two  p226 hours before. He was found guilty and shot by the light of torches before dawn broke over the castle. At St Helena Napoleon defended his actions, saying that Enghien had frankly confessed to be planning the invasion of France. In our own day Napoleon's biographer, Kircheisen, has stated that by all the rules of war Enghien deserved his punishment. Nevertheless, the conscience of conservative Europe was outraged and an irreparable breach was erected between the Bonapartes and the Bourbons.

Other punitive actions soon followed. General Pichegru, having been arrested, was found strangled in his cell, under circumstances that have defied explanation. General Moreau, loudly insisting that he had refused to join the conspirators, was given the light sentence of two years in prison, quickly commuted to exile, which he chose to spend in America.​b Twenty other conspirators were sentenced to death. Twelve of them, including Cadoudal, were executed; the others were pardoned. The pardoned owed much to Josephine and her kinswomen for their escape. She managed to introduce the former Duchess de Polignac, elderly mother of two of the conspirators, as well as the parents of another royalist into Bonaparte's study at Saint-Cloud. When Madame de Polignac fainted at the great man's feet he relented. Hortense lay in wait outside with the daughter of another conspirator; Bonaparte's sisters, Elisa and Caroline, confronted him with still more grieving relatives. Thanks to this mass feminine onslaught, the lives of eight of those involved in the plot against the first consul were spared.

Bonaparte's determination to convert the life consul­ship into an imperial régime went forward amid a loud chorus of family bickerings. The Bonaparte clan could hardly object to an empire, for the heightened prestige that would envelop the entire family was obvious. What did give concern was the perennial problem of the succession. Neither Bonaparte's marriage nor his casual affairs with several transient figures had resulted in proof that he was capable of fatherhood. It was still not clear what claims to the succession, in the event of  p227 Bonaparte's death, could be asserted by his brothers against Josephine, whose only children were the fruits of her first marriage. Josephine had believed that some of these difficulties would be solved by Hortense's marriage to Louis Bonaparte, but this, unhappily, had not turned out well. The sickly and sullen son-in‑law had shown little interest in domesticity and, despite her friendly overtures, had developed a savage hatred for Josephine. He tried to turn Hortense against her mother by raking up and retailing to her some of the scandalous gossip concerning Josephine's earlier years. Poor Hortense could do little except keep these sorry revelations, of which her mother was unaware, to herself. In the autumn of 1803 what looked like a reconciliation came about Louis and Hortense; she became pregnant again; but concomitantly her unhappy husband began to exhibit some signs of mental disorder.

Bonaparte now talked of adopting as his heir Napoléon-Charles, the infant son of Louis and Hortense. He would do this, so he hinted, by passing over any claim that Louis might think he had to the succession, as he would also exclude his brother, Joseph, whose two children, alas, were both daughters. He had no intention of considering the other two brothers, Lucien and Jérôme, both having kicked over the traces. Lucien's first wife, the beautiful Christine Boyer, had died, and Lucien had refused Bonaparte's suggestion that he marry the widowed queen of Etruria. Instead he had secretly married a Madame Jouberthon, of whom Bonaparte strongly disapproved. Jérôme, the youngest brother, had done even worse. Cruising pleasantly with a French squadron in the West Indies, he had left his ship for a tour of the United States, where in 1803 he had impetuously married the beautiful Miss Patterson of Baltimore — an unspeakable mistake that most emphatically ruled him out.​c

When Bonaparte's intentions about the succession gradually became clear and the hopes of Josephine seemed about to be realized, little remained for these brothers actually to do. Lucien, once so helpful to his brother on the day of Brumaire, renounced further interest in a public career, and retired to an estate near Rome where he devoted himself, agreeably enough,  p228 to the twin pursuits of agriculture and archaeology. Although Joseph felt the keenest sense of outrage he had no desire to cut himself off from public affairs. Yet the situation rankled, and on occasion he gave vent to his Corsican ire by firing his pistol point-blank at a full-length portrait of brother Napoleon. Having thus found relief, he continued to serve as a reasonably faithful servant of the régime.

By the year 1804 this problem of the succession was closely involved with the much larger question of proclaiming the Empire. Kingship may have been good enough for the Bourbons, but for Bonaparte, whose authority now extended over large parts of Italy, the Rhineland, and the Netherlands, nothing less than an imperial title would suffice. When Josephine and Napoleon paid a visit to Hortense in April, the first consul offered to adopt her son. Hortense begged to refuse, whereupon Bonaparte declared, 'Very well, then, I will obtain a law that will at least make me master of my family.'​6 What he had in mind was that a law regulating the succession would be included with the new legislation by means of which he was about to establish the Empire.

The plans were quickly worked out through the smoothly operating machinery of the consular régime. The tribunate adopted the principle of heredity in April, and gave approval to the title of emperor for Napoleon. The senate added its assent early in May. A legal statement was quickly drawn up, adopted by the tribunate and then formally proclaimed by the senate as a Senatus Consultum on 18 May. This declared that 'the government of the republic is to be entrusted to an emperor', and that his official title shall be 'Emperor of the French'. It went on to say that 'Napoleon Bonaparte, at present first consul of the Republic, is Emperor of the French', and it stipulated that 'the imperial dignity is hereditary.' The Emperor was to fix the widow's dower of the Empress, which was to be paid out of the civil list and be unalterable by his successors.

The official transition from republic to empire came with very little fanfare on this same day, when the senate proceeded in a body to Saint-Cloud. Napoleon, in military uniform,  p229 received the visitors standing with a semicircle made up of his councillors-of‑state and his generals. Following the ceremony with Napoleon, the senate was admitted into the presence of the Empress, where Cambacérès offered Josephine his homage and expressed the gratitude of the French people. In extravagant words, which nevertheless had some echo of truth, Cambacérès assured her that her reputation of being always accessible to the unfortunate would be of great strength to her husband; future generations, he insisted, would learn from her that to dry the tears of the suffering is the surest way to reign over the hearts of all.

The lengthy arguments over the succession were disposed of in three articles of the Senatus Consultum. These dangled a gleaming prize before Joseph and Louis Bonaparte, only, alas, to snatch it away from them. Joseph Bonaparte and his male descendants, then Louis Bonaparte and his male descendants, could inherit the imperial dignity by right of primogeniture, but only after Napoleon had exercised his right of 'adoptive succession'. Napoleon had the right to adopt the children or grandchildren of his brothers when they reached the age of eighteen, provided that he had no male children of his own. As much as could be, therefore, the interests of Josephine's grandson had been protected, and the Beauharnais had scored a clear victory over the Bonapartes. A plebiscite held in November gave the spectacular total of 3,572,329 votes in favour of the Empire and only 2,567 against.

With the appearance of the Empire a splendid new hierarchy began to envelop the lives and activities of Napoleon and Josephine. Titles came back in a flood. Only those members of the imperial family who were in the actual line of succession were to have the title of prince or princess. Joseph, Louis, and their wives were therefore 'in', while Lucien and Jérôme were most definitely 'out', as were Napoleon's three married sisters: Elisa Bacciochi,º Caroline Murat, and Pauline Borghese. The din of protest was instantaneous and deafening; and Napoleon's efforts to answer his sisters by protesting acidly, 'Truly, mesdames, considering your pretensions one might think that we had inherited the crown from the late king, our father,' did  p230 him no good.​7 The sense of outrage continued and would not be abated until at last the Moniteur soothingly announced that the sisters of the Emperor were entitled to be called 'Princess'. Even so, echoes of this family storm lasted through the entire period of the coronation.

In addition to the family of Napoleon and the existing roster of senators, councillors, and other public officials, a long list of new dignitaries soon emerged. After the hereditary princes came the six grand imperial dignitaries, the military grand officers, and the civil grand officers. Subordinate to these was the long roster including the prefects of the palace, the chamberlains, the equerries, aides, and pages. As the Empire grew in size and as Napoleon's authority enlarged, fiefs and principalities, usually with large revenues attached to them, were allotted to his most faithful and useful subordinates. Talleyrand, for example, became prince of Benevento in southern Italy; Joseph Bonaparte became king of Naples. A graded system of titles was widely applied to public offices, so that by final tally Napoleon had created 31 dukes, 452 counts, 1,500 barons, and 1,474 chevaliers.

Within the framework of this ever more dazzling imperial structure Josephine now had to organize her life. In truth, much of it was organized for her. Under the watchful and system-loving eye of the Emperor, the household of the Empress gradually attained an order, a preciseness, and a definition that the pleasure-loving, warm-hearted, extravagant Josephine never could have given it. Nothing was left to chance or improvisation. By 1808 the long list of her officials, the exact stipulation of their duties, and even the very rooms in which they were to serve were all carefully set forth to the last detail in an imposing quarto, Etiquette du palais impérial.

A lull, or at all events a change, in the feverish rush of activities connected with the proclamation of the Empire came in the summer of 1804. While the Emperor, still absorbed in preparations for the invasion of England, spent the last two weeks of July and most of August in another of his characteristically  p231 detailed tours of inspection, Josephine was off on a new venture to try the waters of the famous Rhineland resort of Aix-la‑Chapelle.

Napoleon kept in touch with his wife by means of letters couched in the easy, comfortable language that now was standard between the husband and wife. 'Madame and dear wife,' he begins on 21 July, 'during the four days that I have been away from you I have been steadily on horseback and on the move, without in any way impeding my health.'​8 Napoleon entertains her with a dramatic picture of a shipwreck and rescue amid a Channel storm, and he advises her to make the trip to Aix in slow stages in order to avoid fatigue. And that is all. Nevertheless, a second letter written on this same day burns with the old ardour:

I have arrived, my dear little Josephine, in good health at Boulogne, where I shall stay for twenty days. Here I have fine troops, fine ships, and everything to make me pass the time pleasantly. All that is lacking is my good Josephine, but I mustn't tell her that. For men to be loved, they must cause the ladies to doubt and fear the extent and duration of their power. . . .​9

On 3 August he writes again:

My dear, I hope to learn soon that the waters have done you much good, and I am sorry for the difficulties you have experienced. I wish that you would write to me often. My health is very good, though I am somewhat tired. In a few days I shall be at Dunkirk, where I shall write to you again. Eugène has gone to Blois. I cover you with kisses.​10

From Ostend of 14 August there is a little more news:

My dear, I have had no news of you for several days. I would be relieved to learn about the effects of the waters, and about the way in which you are passing your time. I have been at Ostend for a week. Tomorrow I shall be at Boulogne for a splendid celebration. Tell me by the courier what you plan to do and when you will be through at the waters.

I am very pleased with the army and the flotillas. Eugène is still at Blois. I hear no more from Hortense than if she were in the Congo. I am writing to scold her. A thousand good wishes to everyone.​11

 p232  Another letter from Boulogne sends the good news that Hortense — 'this dear daughter who is always good, sensible, and sympathetic' — and her infant son, Napoléon-Charles, have spent two happy days with the Emperor beside the sea.​12 One would like to have a picture of the conqueror of Marengo thus basking on the sands. Still another letter informs Josephine that in ten days he will be in Aix-la‑Chapelle and that she should await him there. 'My health is good,' he writes, in answer to what seems to have been concern on her part. 'I am longing to see you, to tell you of all that you inspire in me, and to cover you with kisses. This bachelor life is wretched; and nothing can equal the worth of a wife who is good, beautiful, and tender.'13

A few days later, with a sort of elephantine coyness, Napoleon announces the plans for his arrival:

Tomorrow I shall be in Saint-Omer. On the 28th [of August] I shall be at Arras, on the 30th at Mons, and on 31 August or 1 September at Aix-la‑Chapelle.

As it is possible that I may arrive at night, lovers beware! I would be sorry to discommode them, but one must seek his advantage wherever he can. My health is good, and I work hard. But I am too serious, and this hurts me. I long to see you and to tell you a thousand loving things.

Eugène is courting all the ladies of Boulogne, and has nothing but success.​14

Full of his new imperial dignity, Napoleon reached Aix-la‑Chapelle on 2 September. En route he had been greeted by the prefect of Arras. 'God made Bonaparte,' the prefect declared in his public oration, 'and then rested.'​15 Josephine now found herself for the first time subject to the rigorous formalities of her new position. Napoleon had arranged for her to have a house, but since it proved to be too small she had accepted the hospitality of the prefecture. Sophie Gay, an old friend who was there, noted the comical efforts of the local officials to reproduce something of the elegant ceremonial of the old monarchy — efforts that were made less embarrassing by Josephine's innate graciousness and invariable good cheer. She had reached the age, so Madame Gay candidly thought,  p233 'when one appreciates her elegance much more than her beauty.'​16 Among other activities, the imperial couple attended a Te Deum in the cathedral, where they were shown the celebrated relics of Charlemagne and where Napoleon may have had some inspiration for his plans concerning the coronation. Josephine found time to send a letter to Hortense, urging her to write at once to Napoleon who seemed annoyed at not having heard from her:

Tell him of the hope which you cherish to see me at the time of your confinement. I cannot bear to think of being away from you at such a time. . . . So speak of it to Bonaparte, who loves you as if you were his own child, and thereby heightens my devotion to him.​17

Leaving Aix on 11 September, Napoleon and Josephine made the romantic voyage up the Rhine, visiting Cologne, Bonn, Coblenz, and Mainz. Here they parted company, Napoleon continuing his tour of inspection and Josephine returning to France. At Nancy an elaborate reception, complete with triumphal arch, decorations, transparencies, and illuminations, greeted her. Pushing on, she was back in Paris in time for the birth of Hortense's second son, Prince Napoléon-Louis, on 11 October. This was domestic happiness, indeed, yet grandiose public plans quickly overshadowed such lesser excitements. For the first time in its history France was about to witness the dazzling spectacle of an imperial coronation.

The Author's Notes:

1 Savant, p164. Not given in Bourgeat.

2 Claire Elisabeth de Rémusat, Mémoires (Paris, 1880), I.300‑1.

3 LNJ, II.229‑31. Should be March, 1804.

4 Rémusat, Mémoires, I.313.

5 Ibid., p315.

6 Masson, NSF, II.375.

7 Ibid., p401.

8 Bourgeat, pp89‑90.

9 N. T. Dagher, Napoléon textes inédits et variantes (Geneva, 1955), pp15‑16. Not in Savant or Bourgeat.

10 Bourgeat, p90.

11 Ibid., p91.

12 Savant, pp173‑6. Not in Bourgeat.

13 Ibid., p176. Not in Bourgeat.

14 Ibid., p178. Not in Bourgeat.

15 Bourrienne, II.385.

16 S. Gay, Le Salon de l'impératrice Joséphine à Aix-la‑Chapelle (n. p., n. d., pamphlet, BN), pp120‑52.

17 LNJ, II.233‑4.

Thayer's Notes:

a The printed text has east: a slip not caught in the author's proofreading. Cadoudal was from Brittany, and it was the core territory in which he worked for a decade to get the people going against the republican régime.

b Moreau spent a year in Spain, then from 1805 to 1813 lived in the United States, founding a school, the Ecole Economique, in New York City. He was persuaded back to Europe to fight against Napoleon, and was killed the same year at the battle of Dresden. Ernest Daudet's L'exil et la mort du général Moreau (Paris, 1909) covers this period of Moreau's life.

c The details of Jérôme's American courtship and marriage are given in Chapter 1 of Macartney and Dorrance, The Bonapartes in America; a marriage high-handedly 'annulled' by Napoleon, who married him off to a dynastically acceptable woman and put him on the throne of Westphalia in 1806. After Waterloo Jérôme stayed on in Europe, never returning to the United States. His son, however, born in England, returned to Baltimore where the family became good American citizens. His grandson Jerome graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1852 (biographical sketch in Cullum's Register) but resigned from the U. S. Army shortly afterwards to fight for the French army in the Crimean War and later in Algeria. When his cousin Napoleon III was deposed in 1870, Jerome returned to the United States, and left American descendants.

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