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Napoleonic Ideas

Brownson's Quarterly Review, July, 1859

This work, which attracted less attention when first published than it deserves, is important both as an apology for Napoleon I, and as indicative of the policy of Napoleon III. It was written when its author was an exiled prince, and comparatively few ever dreamed that he was ever destined to occupy the French throne, or to play a prominent part in the political drama of the world; but now that he is seated on that throne, though as yet uncrowned, and threatens to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious uncle, it will probably be read, and the principles and policy it sets forth be carefully studied. We have always done justice to the abilities of Louis Napoleon, and we believed him to be as much as he has since proved himself, when nearly all the world counted him mad or little better than a fool. That he is the ablest sovereign in Europe no man can doubt, or that he is the least scrupulous. That his reign will redound to the glory of France and to the general good of Europe is not so certain. For ourselves, we believe still in truth and honesty, and expect no solid good for individuals or nations from their violation.

What most strikes us in this remarkable work, is the total absence of every moral and religious conception on the part of its author. Reasons of state are for him the supreme law, and material good the final end of man. Religion and morality, when they do not interfere with state policy or impose any restraint on the prince in his public or private conduct, are no doubt to be tolerated; - the clergy, as long as they do not aspire to power or influence, or to be a governing body, and keep in their place and tell the people to be submissive to Caesar, may be encouraged and even salaried by the state, whether Catholics, or Protestants, or Jews. But it is essential that they have no power even as a spiritual body not subjected to the direction and control of the prince. The work shows us clearly enough that the emperor will not suppress or make war on religion as long as he can use it, or as long as he does not find its practical influence interfering with his state policy. It commends Napoleon I, for keeping the clergy in subjection, suppressing monastic orders, and maintaining everywhere the supremacy of the state, and finds no fault with him for his treatment of either Pius VI or Pius VII. Every question it treats is treated from the point of view of a low human policy, and the author gives no indication that he has ever heard that a policy to be wise must be controlled by justice, and that there is a King of kings and a Lord of lords, whose will even Caesar is bound to obey. His conceptions are in general further removed from Christianity than those of a respectable heathen, and make the emperor a God on earth.

The ideas of the first Napoleon, it seems, were very different from what appearances indicated, or the world in general supposed, and perhaps still supposes. He was free from selfishness, disinterested, and ambitious only to do good. He was "the testamentary executor of the revolution of 1789," and labored only to secure its practical results for France and the world. He organized its principles, and made it his mission to establish them for all nations. His wars were never wars of aggression, nor were they wars taken to redress wrongs done either to himself or to his subjects. They were not wars for the aggrandizement or, till the last, for the defense of France or of himself, but wars waged in the second cause of humanity, to liberate oppressed nationalities, to establish the freedom of the people and the autonomy and independence of nations. He had conceived a grand system of European organization, entirely in the interest of liberty and the social and national prosperity of mankind, and went forth as its armed propagator. There were nations not prepared to adopt it, and these he had to convince or to subdue. He was the prophet of the Code and took that in one hand and his sword in the other, and as a second Mahomet, bid the nations accept the one and be happy, or prepare to fall by the other. He did not want war; he wanted peace, and when he could succeed without war he preserved peace. When he went to war it was only to force the enemy to accept his system, his religion of materialism, as that which was sure to work out their felicity. He was a true representative of the fraternity preached by the French revolution of 1789, which, as somebody has described it, was, "Harkee, stranger, come and embrace me as your brother, or I will cut your throat." The nations he conquered and held in subjection, he intended to liberate as soon as he had trained them for independence and freedom. His design was to restore all nationalities to their independence, with a wise and efficient internal organization and government. He failed in his wise and beneficent intentions, because he was almost constantly engaged in war, and he was almost constantly engaged in war because there was one nation, the perfide Albion, he could neither convince nor conquer.

The nephew, now emperor of the French, intends, it is fair to suppose, to resume and carry out, the policy of his uncle. This policy, the author tells us, was the organization, on the principles of 1789, of a "federative Europe;" a policy, if practicable, and attempted by wise and just means, we are far from regarding as censurable, or as ill-adapted to the wants of European society. But Napoleon should have recollected that a federative Europe is inconceivable without a federative government, which must derive its existence and powers from the free action of the states federated, and that these states had not constituted him their sovereign and supreme legislator. If his nephew is to be believed, all his wars, except those after his Russian expedition, were really wars of propagandism, or wars to impose his political and social system on Europe; such wars are seldom, if ever, lawful, and are nearly always inexpedient. Napoleon started, we are told, with the principles of the revolution of 1789, but no permanent order can be founded on a revolutionary basis, and we can never arrive at liberty through the practice of tyranny. We cannot impose liberty on a nation by force of arms, because the employment of force against a nation for such a purpose, is a direct denial of its liberty. No people can receive its liberty from another; and any people to become free, must itself achieve its freedom by its own energy, courage, and heroism. To destroy a nation’s independence, is about as wise to destroy the life of a plant in order to facilitate its growth, or to improve the beauty of its flower, or the quality of its fruit.

Napoleon, if he really contemplated a federative Europe, misconceived its character and conditions. In a federation, the central power holds from the federated states, and is their creature; but the Napoleonic idea made these states themselves derive their existence and their powers from the central authority. The federated states elect the federal chief, and determine his rights and powers, as under the Carlovingian constitution; Napoleon reversed this, and his pretended free and independent nations could only have been provinces, prefectures, or vassals of France. The kingdoms he created and placed under members of his family, had no national autonomy, and existed only for the interest or glory of France, as his brother, the king of Holland, bitterly experienced. These kingdoms were created by Napoleon, and for his French empire; and their nominal sovereigns were allowed to have no will of their own. They must look to him, and obey him as their master. To tell us that they were organized with a view to nourishing and consolidating their nationality, and preparing them to become subsequently independent nations, is to pay no great compliment to our political understanding.

The nephew shares, we presume, the ideas of his uncle, and we have no doubt he intends, one after another, to carry them out; but he will proceed with less rashness and more moderation, and will be very cautious, as long as he is master of the situation, not to push matters to extremes. Yet we think he has less chance of succeeding than had his more brilliant and richly endowed uncle. He will find that there is more than one nation he can neither convince nor conquer. He succeeded in his policy in the Crimean war, made England contribute to the consolidation of his power in France, and won, by his moderation after victory, Russia to be his friend, and perhaps ally – for a time. He has taken his second step with consummate prudence, and with an adroitness equaled only by his unscrupulousness.

He has contrived, while suppressing liberty in France, to appear as its champion in Italy, and against Austria, the most decried and unpopular government in Europe. To fight for Italian liberty against Austria, is, in the minds of a large part of the world, to fight for the revolution against the pope, and against both Catholicity and despotism. This enlists on his side the sympathies of all the liberals of all nations, if not their active cooperation, and, if he could make other nations believe that he will stop with putting an end to Austrian domination in Italy, without substituting for it that of France, he would be sure of encountering only the Austrians for enemies. But a man who has proved that he can be bound neither by treaties nor by oaths, cannot aspire confidence. Nobody believes his professions, and nobody believes he will abide by any pledge he may give, unless he finds it for his interests to do so. Germany does not and will not trust him; and England, while she would not grieve to see Austria expelled from Italy, can never consent to see France installed in her place. France in possession of Italy, with the present expansion of her navy, excludes England from the Mediterranean, breaks up her trade with the East, and interrupts her communication with India by the way of Alexandria and the Red Sea. Great Britain, as a first class power, cannot suffer France to add Italy to her empire, either directly or indirectly, and whatever her anti-papal prejudices, she will never suffer it, so long as she can prevent it. Unless the war terminates speedily, and leaves the balance of power unaffected, it must become general, and turn into a war between the Germanic and so-called Latin nations, in which the Germanic nations are not likely to come off second best.

For ourselves we have no special sympathy with Austria, and we should be glad to see Italy restored to her autonomy, and taking her proper rank as a free, independent, and untied nation. If the French expedition to Italy results in reestablishing Italian independence, and opening a career for the Italian nobility, which they now lack, we shall not regret it; yet we have no belief that such will be its result. French expeditions to Italy have usually proved disastrous, both to her and to France. The French have hitherto proved themselves more successful depredators than liberators. Their domination in Italy, after the first Napoleon, was such as to make the return of the Austrians hailed as a blessing; and we have no reason to think that the French are any better now than they were then. As between the French and the Austrians in this war, our sympathy is with the latter. Austria has given no cause of offence either to France or to Sardinia; she has violated no treaty, broken no faith with either. She has simply stood on her legal rights, while scrupulously respecting the rights of all the others. She has done nothing to provoke hostility, and the war is one of pure aggression on the part of France and Sardinia. We know the talk about bad government, but everybody knows that the most prosperous and best governed part of Italy, is that part which is under Austrian rule. Piedmont is by no means so well governed, is by no means so prosperous as the Lombardo-Venetian kingdom, and her subjects have less freedom. The "cry of anguish which comes to us from Italy," comes almost exclusively from Piedmont, or from Piedmontese, and there were far better excuses for the French to intervene against Sardinia than in her favor.

We are strongly attached to constitutional and parliamentary government, but we have never regarded the constitution of Sardinia as any thing more than a mockery, fitted only to throw power into the hands of a faction. No country in Europe has been worse governed for the last eight years than Sardinia. There is none more deeply in debt, in proportion to its resources, and none in which the people are so heavily taxed. A large portion of the people are actually or virtually serfs, and have by no means the personal freedom, or the material well-being of the rural population of the Lombardo-Venetian kingdom. The liberty the Piedmontese constitution secures, is liberty for the nobles and wealthy burghers to tax the rest of the nation. Yet even such liberty as the constitution was intended to secure, is now suppressed. The parliament is prorogued, probably never to assemble again; and the king governs as absolute dictator under the emperor of the French. The French hold the strong places of the kingdom, the Piedmontese army is absorbed in the French, and Victor Emmanuel is simply a general of division in the imperial army, under the orders of Napoleon III. We cannot say what the future will bring forth, but at present Sardinia is absorbed in France, and has no more autonomy than Lombardy or Venice, and if the French are victorious and the emperor regards it as safe to annex her, she will find herself at the conclusion of the war, once more a part of the French empire, governed by an imperial prefect. We think she would do well to secure her own freedom and independence, and set an example of good government, before assuming to be the champion of Italian liberty and independence. Napoleon III, who has by a coup d’etat destroyed the republican constitution he swore to observe and defend, suppressed liberty, and established a worse despotism than it can be pretended obtains in Austria, does not strike us as the most suitable person to establish Italian independence, and to consolidate the freedom of the Italian people.

The Italian system is no better than the Austrian, and in fact not so good, for it is less honest and frank, and deals largely in fraud and deception. It professes to recognize popular suffrage, but the bodies it suffers to be elected have no substantive power, and are mere instruments for aiding the emperor to carry out his will. His breath has made them, and his breath can unmake them. The emperor boasts that under his system the equality of all systems is recognized and secured; but that is little, for despotism is a universal leveler, and all slaves are equal. The question is not, Are all equal before the law? But, Does the law recognize and protect the equal rights of all? It is nothing that all Frenchman may vote for members of a legislative body, when by the constitution that body is a sham, and can only register the imperial will. A legislative body is of no importance, unless it has power to bind or to resist, if necessary, the executive. This is not the case with the senate and assembly of France. They have no power. The departmental or communal bodies elected by the people, as popular institutions, are only shams, for they have power only as instruments of the imperial will. Look through the whole imperial constitution, and you will find that there is no substantive power in the empire, but that of the emperor. To attempt to palm off such a system of downright caesarism as a system of liberty, or to pretend that to fight for its extension to Italy is to fight for Italian freedom and independence, is an outrage upon common sense. But to pretend that the upholder of this system has the right to make war, without any provocation, in the name of liberty, upon Austria, is something a little too gross to be swallowed.

How then can France justify the present war, which is really one of her own making? By what right, by virtue of what commission, does she assume to be the liberator of Italy, - she, who is herself even more in need of a liberator? The world has not forgotten that the Lombardo-Venetian kingdom is legitimately in possession of the Austrian crown. Lombardy has been a fief of the German empire at least since the twelfth century. The Lombards, the Longobardi, from the province takes its name, were a Germanic people. Charlemagne was king of the Lombards, and Lombardy went on the division of the empire with his Germanic states. Even the victory obtained by the famous Lombard league over Frederic Barbarossa, while it secured the local independence of the Lombard cities, left the right of investiture with the German Kaiser. Lombardy was a dependency of the house of Hapsburg at the breaking out of the French revolution, and had been, with brief intervals, for three hundred years. It was taken from the Austrians from the French, and on the dissolution of the empire was restored to the Austrians, in 1815. Venice was destroyed as an independent state by the French under General Bonaparte, and given over to Austria by the Treaty of Campo Formio. It was finally confirmed to her by the congress of Vienna in exchange for the Austrian Netherlands transferred to the new king of Holland. There is no title by which France can claim to hold Brittany, or the ancient kingdom of Armorica, Gascony, Provence, Arles, Burgundy, Franche Compte, Lorraine, Alsace, or any portion of her dominions, except the ancient duchy of France, which Austria cannot plead in behalf of her right as the basis of the European public law, were suicidal for Piedmont, for it is only by virtue of those treaties that she holds Genoa; and there is no argument Napoleon can use to justify his making war on Austria to wrest from her her former possessions, or even on himself, to wrest from his grasp and to restore to Genoa or to the Holy See, the island of Corsica, the birth-place of his family.

The emperor has made an appeal to what are called "oppressed nationalities." Did he do this in 1854 when he waged an unprovoked war with Russia to preserve for the chief of Islam the power to oppress the Greek, Sclavonian, Syrian, and do many other nationalities within the Ottoman empire? Does he propose to restore all oppressed nationalities to independence? Let him begin, then, with his own empire, and restore Navarre, Brittany, Aquitaine, Provence, Lorraine, etc., to their independence; let him proceed as his next step to wrest from the house of Savoy, "his ally" which is not Italian, its Italian provinces, and reestablish them in their autonomy. He may then cross the channel and wrest Ireland from the grasp of Victoria, and reestablish the Irish pentarchy. Having done that, let him pass over to Scotland, and reinstate the Picts and Scots in their former independence. From Scotland let him pass to England, drive out the Normans, restore Wales to her autonomy, and reestablish the Saxon heptarchy. Then let him visit Russia, another of his allies, and restore Finland, Courland, Esthonia, Livonia, Lithuania, Pomerania, the Ukraine, and all Poland proper, and Circassia, Girghistan, etc., to their independence, - but we stop. All the present states of Europe are "agglomerations" of former independent nations, or tribes, and to restore all so-called oppressed nationalities, that is, nationalities which by conquest or treaties have been in the course of time annexed to other nationalities, would be an endless and impossible task, which could not be attempted without unsettling the whole civilized world, and plunging Europe into a worse barbarism than that which prevailed at the epoch of the German conquest of the empire. It is contrary also to the "Napoleonic idea," which accepts the revolution of 1789, and that effaced for France the provinces, established uniform departments, and sought, in the name of liberty, of fraternity, to efface as much as possible all national distinctions, as in the supernatural society they are effaced by Christianity. It is also incompatible with the modern doctrine of the "solidarity of peoples," preached by Kossuth, the new friend of the emperor.

In human affairs prescription must count for something, and unless we mean to lapse into barbarism, and give up the nations to perpetual war, we must observe the faith of treaties, and respect the settlements they have made. No doubt the North of Italy was confirmed to Austria by the congress of Vienna for the purpose of preventing it from falling again into the hands of France, and nobody can doubt that if the Austrians were driven out, France would possess or control all Italy, and add the vast resources of the peninsula to her own. She would thus, with her warlike, enterprising, and aggressive character, be too powerful for the peace of Europe, or the safety of any other European state. We see many evils resulting from the Austrian supremacy in Italy, but we cannot persuade ourselves that more and greater evils would not result from the domination of France, and one or the other must dominate, for the whole peninsula cannot be united in a single state, and if divided at all, no one state can be found powerful enough to resist French influence without a close union with Austria, for France is essentially aggressive, or if you prefer, propagandist, and can never live in peace with her neighbors, unless she controls them, especially if governed by a Bonaparte.

France, that is, Napoleon III, since for the present he is France, is alone responsible for the present war, and the best interests of Europe, as far as we can judge, require his defeat. The peace of Europe will never be established on a solid basis till it is clearly settled that Austria is amply able to defend herself against French ambition, however disguised under the name of liberty and humanity. France is the only real aggressive power among the great powers of Europe. Great Britain and Russia may seek to extend their dominions in the East, but the former seeks no conquest on the continent, and the latter seeks and is in fact able, to make no further advance to the West. Austria has never been an aggressive power, and has seldom, if ever, fought except in self-defense. The rest of Germany seeks no external conquest. It is only France that disturbs the peace of Europe, and renders necessary the immense standing armies now kept up, and which are so ruinous to the great powers; and even she would prove herself a peaceable neighbor when once made to feel that Austria is her match without foreign alliances. Perhaps the present war will prove that, and teach her that Austria can stand alone against her. We hope it will, for then, but not till then, will the settlement of the Italian question be practicable or possible.

The bearings of the present war in the interests of religion cannot be good, let the victory be on which side it may. The settlement of the Italian question, as Napoleon wishes to settle it, requires the pope to be absolutely stripped of his temporal sovereignty, or to be rendered absolutely dependent on France for protection against his Italian neighbors. If Austria is driven out of Italy, the Lombardo-Venetian kingdom must either pass under the dominion of France, or, as most likely, at least in the first instance, be given to the house of Savoy. Tuscany, Parma, and Modena, will probably be erected into a kingdom or grand duchy of Etruria, for Prince Napoleon Jerome, and the two Sicilies be given to a Murat. No one of these will respect the independence of the pope as temporal sovereign; and least of all, the house of Savoy, which has ever been a bitter and persevering enemy of the Holy See. Possessing the whole North of Italy, it will be constantly seeking to extend its power southwards, at the expense of the papal territory, in which it may count on an ally in the Prince Napoleon; and what protection against either can the Holy Father find but in France? Austria, driven out of Italy, and without a navy, can no longer come to his aid, and the other great powers are heretical or schismatic, and will not. Whether stripped of his temporal power or not; the pope will be at the mercy of his Italian neighbors, and have no power on which he can lean, but France, and France unrestrained by any other power. He will be far more overborne and oppressed by France, than he is by Austria now; and his difficulty in reconciling his duties as sovereign pontiff, with his interests as an Italian prince, will increase a hundred fold. If the French are defeated, the conservative influence of Austria will prevent any of those reforms in his estates which, no doubt, time and its changes have rendered necessary, and the clamors raised against the papal government, to the great detriment of religion, will continue louder than ever.

It is true the temporal sovereignty of the pope is not essential to his existence as sovereign pontiff. But if he is not a temporal sovereign, he must be a subject. There is no middle ground. Of what power shall he be the subject? Of Sardinia, Etruria, Austria, or France? As the subject of one or another of these, he would, indeed, retain his infallibility in deciding questions of faith and morals, but he would cease to be free in the government of the church, in regard to discipline and administration. The Franks were real protectors of the Holy See – the French have seldom been. The Bonapartes may profess much, but they have inherited a large portion of Greek dissimulation, and of Italian astuteness, and they can never be trusted. Napoleon I proves what they are when dealing with the papacy. The Napoleonic idea is, that Caesar is supreme, and that Peter must be subservient to him. Napoleonism uses the clergy, but it has no respect for the rights of religion, and never concedes the supremacy of the moral order. It places Caesar above law, and requires him to be worshipped as a divinity. It protects the pope so long as he wields his temporal and spiritual power in the interests of Caesar, and when he refuses to do it, it drags him from his throne, carries him a prisoner into France, and confiscates his estates. That is the "Napoleonic ideas," which we are old enough to have seen acted on once, and are perhaps young enough to see acted on again.

We are told France is too Catholic to suffer such an idea to be carried out. Perhaps it is so – we should be glad to believe it; but we fear that the more hostile the emperor proves himself to the papacy, the more certainly can he count on the support of the most energetic class of Frenchmen. The dominant thought, the reigning intellect of France, is, if not absolutely Voltairian, at least decidedly anti-papal. The peasantry may love processions and the external forms and pomp of religion, and may speak very affectionately of le bon cure, but they have little of the soul of religion, and will follow the lead of the emperor, and place the glory of France above the glory of Heaven. But, after all, let the result of the war be what it may, the papacy will survive, and Catholicity will prosper. England and Russia, anti-papal as they are, will be used by Providence in his service, as they were before, and if Napoleon attempts to follow out the policy of his uncle, he can hardly fail to meet his uncle’s fate.

One word more, and we conclude these desultory remarks. We are accused of disliking the French, and hardly less effort has been expended in making us pass for anti-French, than has been expended to make us pass for anti-Irish. We do not dislike the French; we do not dislike the French nation, but we do not like the French government, French ideas, French tastes, or French influence. France has many of the finest conceivable traits of character, and a large population that for intelligence, for faith, for piety, and for solid worth, is unsurpassed, if not unequalled elsewhere. But it so happens that the good in France, as in other countries, are not in power, and are not the part of the nation that shapes or controls its policy. Louis Napoleon feels it far more important for him to conciliate the anti-papal, sneering, scorning, irreligious portion of the French people than he does the truly Catholic portion; and his whole conduct since he became emperor proves it. Were he to push matters to extremity with the Holy Father, the bishops and clergy of France would certainly regret it, and a few would make reclamations, but even the Catholic part of France would not rise against him, or cease to give him their loyal support,- till they found him ceasing to be successful. For ourselves we do not believe there is faith enough, or sufficient attachment in the mass of the French, or of any so-called Catholic nation of Europe, to move them to do bloody battle for religion; and therefore we do not believe the obstacles Napoleon has to fear are on the side of Catholic France, or the Catholic feeling in any part of Europe. Public sentiment in Europe is anti-papal, and anti-clerical, if not absolutely infidel. Nothing but physical force or political reasons will restrain the emperor in any expedition he chooses to set on foot. Providence will protect his church, but more by means of the rivalries and jealousies of the great European powers, than by the courage or devotion of the faithful. It is sad to think it is so, but so we believe it is, and hence we regard with sad forebodings the future of Europe. In the present war neither party represents the Catholic cause. Austria would simply preserve the status quo, and Napoleon would simply efface the papacy as a political power. The sympathies of Europe are with him rather than with Austria, but the political and other interests of Great Britain and Germany are against him, and these may enlist them against him, and in so doing sustain the pope as temporal sovereign. But things cannot last in Europe as they are, for the present constitution of European society is rotten to the core, and a grand breakup, sooner or later, is inevitable.

Europe seems to us not unlikely to follow the old Asiatic world, and, after a few more struggles between the despots and the mob, to fall under oriental despotism. Especially does this seem to us to be true of the so-called Latin nations. We have no hope from these nations, whether French, Italian, or Spanish. They have been false to the faith, they have deserted their God, and he perhaps will desert them. Our hope is in the yet unexpected energies of the Germanic nations, and especially in this New World. The church has to create a new Christendom, and out from the new must go forth the forces to redeem the old. The field of Catholicity in a few years will most likely be transferred from the South to the North of Europe, and to the Untied States of America. In both the North of Europe and in the Untied States Catholicity will spread and become predominant, as soon as it is seen to be fairly detached from the effete or despotic civilizations of the southern nations. Let Austria perish, let France perish, Germany, Great Britain, and the Untied States remain, and the church will soon repair her losses. It is for these nations themselves, not for the church, we fear.

In the complications of our times we think Catholics have really more to hope from Protestant Great Britain, than from any so-called Catholic state; and hence we think it time for us to change the tone of our remarks towards that nation, the only bulwark of liberty in Europe. We deny, we palliate none of her faults or her crimes, but we would see the bonds of friendship between her and Catholics everywhere drawn closer and strengthened. This is a new position for us, we grant; but the true Catholic will never suffer his prejudices to prevent him from pursuing the just policy most likely to promote the interests of his religion. A close union of Great Britain and the United States is needed to sustain the cause of true liberty, and to create a balance of power alike against European despotism and European Jacobinism, the two principal enemies of Catholicity. For us Catholics, in this country, our duty is to stand by the cause of freedom, and to labor incessantly, under the inspirations of the successor of Peter, to gather this great and growing nation into the one fold of Christ, that we may in the faith and piety of the West balance the defections in the East; and if we duly consider it, Great Britain is more an American than a European power, and she and we have very much the same interests and tendencies.