Part One

An Irreducible Belligerent Situation

Upon his accession to supreme power in November 1799, First Consul Bonaparte inherited an explosive general situation whose origins traced back to 1789. He found a military situation that had deteriorated markedly by comparison to that which he had left upon his departure for Egypt in May 1798. The bad news coming from France had in fact prompted his return home.

Established at the instigation of Pitt, the British prime minister, the Second Coalition against France included Britain, Austria, Sweden, the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, Portugal, and the Holy Roman Empire.

Going from defeat to defeat, the armies of the Directory had been forced back upon the national borders, losing all the gains made by Bonaparte at Campoformio. France thus found itself under direct threat of a general invasion.

Having scornfully rejected Bonaparte’s offer of negotiations, the Coalition partners were constrained by force of arms to sign the treaties of Lunéville with Austria in February 1801 and Amiens with Britain in March 1802. We will return in Part Three to the episodes of this war, marked notably by the legendary victory of Marengo on June 14, 1800, achieved by Bonaparte in person, and by the brilliant success of General Moreau at Hohenlinden on December 30 of the same year.

Ending nine years of uninterrupted wars between the new France and the European monarchies, the Treaty of Amiens was received everywhere with indescribable enthusiasm. Europe appeared finally to have achieved a durable peace.

Unfortunately, this was but a grand illusion to which even Bonaparte succumbed for a time, as he later declared at Saint Helena: “At Amiens, I believed fully that the futures of France, of the Empire, and of me were settled. For myself, I could now focus solely on the administration of France, and I believed that I could produce prodigies.”

It is easy to understand the smug optimism of the young First Consul, surrounded by glory and already adored by the people. He would not long remain on this little cloud, staying only the time necessary for a cruel recall to order by inexorable international realities.

Three sources of conflict, tightly entangled with each other, combined to lead inevitably to war, the bedrock of the entire history of the Empire:

— The thirst for revenge of the defeated;

— The inflexible monarchist reaction to newborn democracy;

— The implacable Franco-English rivalry.

The Thirst for Revenge of the Defeated

The repeated military reverses suffered at the hands of French armies had left in the spirit of the defeated a lively sense of humiliation, principally in Austria. These defeats had been punished by significant territorial amputations. It is natural that an irrepressible thirst for revenge animated the vanquished, waiting only for an opportune moment to wash away the outrage of their cruel defeats and recover their former possessions.

For Austria, the territorial losses had been considerable. By the Treaty of Lunéville, signed in its own name but also in its role as head of the German Empire, Austria paid dearly for the defeats suffered in its incessant wars against France in Italy and Germany. The Holy Roman Empire had to recognize the Rhine as the natural frontier of the new France. France finally saw the realization of an old dream vainly pursued for centuries. Had it not been said that “when France drinks out of the Rhine, Gaul will be at an end?” The Holy Roman Empire confirmed the loss of the Belgian provinces and recognized the republics of Batavia (Holland) and Switzerland. In addition, France gained a degree of influence in German affairs, in order to remove the threat from the east. Yet, as a token of peace, France gave up its fortified places on the right bank of the Rhine.

In Italy, Lunéville confirmed the Austrian losses of the Congress of Rastadt on November 30, 1797. Its frontier was fixed at the Adige River. Austria had to recognize the Cisalpine and Ligurian Republics and consent to exchange the Grand Duchy of Tuscany for the archbishopric of Salzburg.

In short, morally bruised and considerably amputated, Austria came out of the war filled with a vengeful rancor.

The Treaty of Amiens put an end to the war between France and Britain. Spain and the Netherlands were also associated with this peace. Britain returned to France the Antilles and the trading ports of the Indies. France retained Trinity, seized from Spain, and Ceylon, taken from the Netherlands. It restored the Cape of Good Hope to the Dutch. Above all, France promised to evacuate Egypt and restore Malta to its Order within three months. This last clause was to constitute a seed of discord ultimately fatal to the peace.

Britain only accepted the peace because she was momentarily isolated in Europe and especially under the pressure of the businessmen of the city, who feared a major economic crisis. Yet it was certain that, at the first favorable juncture, Britain would attempt to refurbish its tarnished image, even more so because it would never pardon France for its decisive support to the “rebels” during the American War of Independence.

As for the other great European powers, notably Prussia and Russia, they were no longer concerned by territorial issues. However, they shared in varying degrees with the other monarchies in their hostility to the Republican France produced by the Revolution.

The Inflexible Monarchist Hostility

“The sovereigns of Europe would all like to come to my funeral, but they dare not unite.”

—Napoleon, 1809

An ideological confrontation without mercy reinforced the effect of territorial conflict.

Upon his arrival in power on November 9, 1799, Bonaparte inherited a new France that was drowning in the blood of the Bourbon monarchy. This contagious political upheaval had panicked all the monarchs, who feared with good reason for their thrones. The “Liberation” wars of the Revolution reinforced the gravity of the threat. In the First Coalition, the monarchies had forged an inflexible doctrine, ratified by the Conference of Angiers of April 6, 1793. The representatives of Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia had scheduled nothing less than the annihilation of Revolutionary France.

In the name of Britain, Lord Auckland declared a desire to “reduce France to a mere cipher in politics.” Not to be outdone, the Austrian Marcy-Argenteau wished to “crush France by terror, exterminating a large segment of the active party and virtually all of the government party of the nation.” Nothing less! His compatriot Thugut had even proposed a bewildering partition of spoils: to Britain, Dunkirk and the colonies; to Austria, Flanders and the Artois; to Prussia, Alsace and Lorraine. An unusual variant was to give Alsace and Lorraine to the Duke of Bavaria, in return for annexing his own duchy to Austria. This visceral hatred by the Austrian representatives owed much to the Revolution’s decapitation of Marie Antoinette, an Austrian archduchess. Russia wanted to benefit itself in Poland. Its plenipotentiary Markov ably summarized the purpose of the Coalition’s war which they would pursue with an implacable determination to Waterloo:

All actions against France are permissible. We must destroy anarchy. We must prevent France from ever regaining its former preponderance. It appears that these two goals can be accomplished at once. Let us take possession of those French provinces that seem convenient…. That accomplished, let us all work together to give whatever remains of France a stable and permanent monarchical government. She will become a second-rate power that will no longer threaten anyone and we will eliminate the hotbed of democracy that thought to set fire to Europe.

This piece of bravado is well worth an extended citation.

It is true that the monarchy of the tsars was more exposed than the others to the contagion of human rights. Its social system constituted an insult to human dignity. An arrogant aristocracy held the peasantry in serfdom, a situation very close to slavery.

The Emperor Napoleon did not yet exist at that time. Thus, these autocrats were engaged in a gross deception when they later claimed that it was only Napoleon as an individual, and not France as a whole, that they opposed.

Ten years after their first conference, the hatred of the European monarchs was not attenuated in the least. Quite the contrary. The easy victories of the French revolutionary armies owed much to their enthusiastic reception by the populations concerned and to the inhibiting effect on the enemy combatants who opposed the “liberators.”

The autocrats of Divine Right tottered more than ever on their shaky thrones. To save their regimes, they needed at all costs to extirpate “the French evil” at the root, smother the Revolution once and for all, and return the French people to their places so that no other people would try to imitate them.

An experienced diplomat, the Count de Hauterive, expressed perfectly the inexorable nature of the confrontation between monarchical Europe and the new France:

One must kill the other. Either France must perish, or it must dethrone sufficient kings so that those who remain can no longer form a coalition. The coalition will have destroyed the French Empire the day it forces that Empire to retreat, because in that march than can be no stopping.

Words of premonition …

From 1789 to 1815 the fierce will of the European monarchs to cut down Revolutionary France never failed, and ended by becoming a malignant obsession. Neither the institution of the Empire with its monarchical pageant nor the matrimonial alliance with the Hapsburgs impaired this visceral hostility in the least, a fact that, one must note in passing, constituted the greatest Republican homage rendered to the imperial regime.

In early 1813, his ministers Rumiantsev and Nesselrode would persuade the conquering tsar that “Holy Russia” was charged with a divine mission to deliver Europe from Napoleon. This fanaticism was in large measure shared by the other courts.

We must consider not a coalition but a crusade against France, where public opinion responded in like manner. The “Song of Departure,” the most popular of the epoch, immortalized French hostility to monarchy: “Tremble, enemies of France, kings drunk on blood and conceit, the sovereign people are on the march. Tyrants will fall to the grave. The Republic calls….”

It only needed the inextricable religious question to take the general hostility against Consular France to its greatest height of convulsions. Among the outrages perpetrated by an unbridled Revolution, the tragic persecution of Catholics and the de-Christianization of the country provoked the opposition of the papacy and of all those whom Europe counted as devout. One excess provoked another. Bonaparte as heir to the Revolution was not far short of being considered the antichrist whom humanity would not rest until it had eliminated as quickly as possible and by any means necessary. Later, after he became emperor, his courageous emancipation of the Jews was unlikely to lessen this Catholic hostility toward him, which rivaled in intensity the Catholic abomination of Great Britain.

The Implacable Franco-British Rivalry

The bitter antagonism between France and Britain obviously did not begin with the Consulate, but existed throughout the tangled history of the two countries. The Hundred Years War comes instantly to mind. It would be more accurate to speak of a conflict of a thousand years, in which even today some sequels exist, although fortunately not military ones.

Britain had quietly encouraged the disorders of the Revolution in order to weaken France. The records of a Russian diplomat include the following information: “The English agents Clark and Oswald are members of the Jacobin Club. It would have been more honorable [for Britain] to make war on France than to foment the troubles and massacres that have horrified all humanity.”

At the time of the Consulate, three interconnected conflicts nourished the hostility between the two powers: the old territorial dispute in Europe, a pitiless economic rivalry, and the inexorable race for world hegemony.

The Territorial Dispute in Europe

The Franco-English territorial conflict in Europe is as old as the two countries, but the expansion of Revolutionary France in the last decade of the 18th century greatly exacerbated it. France historically sought to secure itself by establishing its borders along the natural frontiers (the Rhine River, the Alps and the Pyrenees) and, by the mid-1790s, the French revolutionary armies had firmly secured these borders. The French revolutionary government extended its control to the neighboring states (Switzerland, Italy and Low Countries), where a series of republics formed a buffer zone around France. These conquests, however, collided with two fundamental principles of British diplomacy.

The first is that of the “European balance,” the fixed foundation of all British foreign policy that, even in our time, has not lost any of its validity. Albion has never tolerated and will never permit any European power to dominate the continent to an excessive degree. This principle goes both to the security and the prosperity of Britain. Each time that a country has been about to achieve such domination, Britain has mobilized all its forces and all its subsidiaries to oppose that country with military coalitions. That was precisely the situation with regard to the Consulate in 1800.

The second principle, a corollary to the first, is the postulate that Great Britain finds its security to be incompatible with the occupation of the North Sea coastline by any great power. This is the famous “pistol aimed at the heart of England.” Britain will not forget that she has already been invaded twice from this coastline, by Julius Caesar and William the Conqueror. Thus, the Convention had annexed Belgium in 1795 and the Treaty of Luneville had effectively placed the Netherlands under French sovereignty. By the time Bonaparte came to power, France and Britain had been long engaged in a protracted war, with neither side willing to concede. Moreover, the French presence in these strategic regions also constituted a threat to close off the flourishing British trade with Europe.

The Pitiless Economic Reality

The commercial competition of France had become a great matter of uneasiness for the merchant classes of Britain.

Leading all nations in the Industrial Revolution, Britain at the start of the century was the foremost economic power in the world. Yet, post-Revolutionary France was at the point of economic takeoff. She was regaining her losses and checkmating British exports in Europe. The French-British free trade treaty of 1786 had already given way to a more protectionist system, aimed at protecting French industry against foreign competition and ensuring its supplies of raw materials and tropical products. In 1793 this commercial competition transformed itself into economic warfare by forbidding the export of grains to enemy nations and the importation of all products from those same nations.

The Directory had violated the practice according to which the flag protected the merchandise on board. English products transported in neutral bottoms were declared fair prizes for seizure by privateers. A draconian law of October 1798 had further hardened the preference given to French goods.

In sum, the economic war had ended by blending into the military conflict. The escalation of such measures would not stop until it reached its logical conclusion in the disastrous continental blockade.

The Race for Global Hegemony

For some time previously the Franco-British rivalry had reached beyond the oceans to develop on a planetary scale. Henceforth it would assume the character of a race for global hegemony to obtain cheap raw materials, protected commercial markets, and secure strategic positions. The Russian ambassador to London in 1803, Voronzov, left this edifying testimony of an experienced diplomat: “The system of the English cabinet will always aim to destroy France as its sole rival, and to reign despotically over the entire universe.”

At the accession of Bonaparte, Britain scarcely bothered to hide its ambition to dominate the world. She was in full colonial expansion. In this enterprise, she collided with Spain and the Netherlands but above all with France, which Britain wished to deprive of her remaining colonies in order to build an immense empire. Britain had recently expelled the French from Canada. France had taken her revenge by contributing to the independence of the United States of America. Now Albion coveted Martinique and Guadaloupe. She struggled with France for control of the India trade, the Seychelles Islands, Maurice, and La Reunion. In this overseas confrontation, Britain benefited decisively from its maritime superiority, while France enjoyed a strong position only on the European continent. In effect, a new Punic War was under way on a global scale.

Britain showed itself most aggressively in the Mediterranean. The control of this waterway of primordial importance determined British mastery of its communications with its empire in the Indies. At one point Britain had occupied Toulon, sole French naval base in the Mediterranean, followed soon thereafter by Corsica, which it attempted to annex to the British crown. In response, France made Britain nervous in Egypt from 1798 to 1801, already at the initiative of Bonaparte. Sovereign at Gibraltar since the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Britain also maintained the land and naval forces that it continued to reinforce on the Balearic Islands, at Malta, at Naples, in Sicily, and as far as Livorno.

This provocative domination of the Mediterranean by a foreign power had long constituted a humiliating infringement on the legitimate presence of France in this sea that washed a thousand kilometers of its continental coastline as well as Corsica. Matters could not possibly remain indefinitely in that state.

Thus, at the start of the Consulate, the situation in Europe was nothing less than explosive. Moved by a strong emotion of vengeance and fearing for their economic survival, the European monarchies only waited for an auspicious occasion to strike down the Republic in France and restore the Ancien Régime to the frontiers of 1789. In full imperialist expansion, Albion was in an excellent position to coalesce the hatreds of France in order to strike the hereditary enemy with whom it had disputed world supremacy for so many years.

Inscribed by fate and programmed in spirit, the war against France was thus unavoidable except by surrendering without conditions, which the French dignity could not tolerate.

At this stage in our discussion, one may say that Napoleon was already condemned to perpetual warfare from the moment of his arrival in power.

The non-recognition, real or simulated, of this tragic reality is at the origin of many of Napoleon’s errors of judgment, too often depicted as the work of a warmongering tyrant.

We shall see that, on the contrary, he made every effort to avoid the war for which he had neither taste nor interest to provoke, nor time with which to adjust. He was to fight only when constrained to do so, always in a state of legitimate defense of France.

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