The World's Famous Orations/Volume 6/The Character of Napoleon
THE CHARACTER OF NAPOLEON
He is fallen! We may now pause before that splendid prodigy, which towered among us like some ancient ruin, whose frown terrified the glance its magnificence attracted.
Grand, gloomy, and peculiar, he sat upon the throne, a sceptered hermit, wrapped in the solitude of his own originality.
A mind bold, independent, and decisive—a will, despotic in its dictates—an energy that distanced expedition, and a conscience pliable to every touch of interest, marked the outline of this extraordinary character—the most extraordinary, perhaps, that, in the annals of this world, ever rose, or reigned, or fell.
Flung into life, in the midst of a revolution that quickened every energy of a people who acknowledged no superior, he commenced his course, a stranger by birth, and a scholar by charity!
With no friend but his sword, and no fortune but his talents, he rushed into the lists where rank, and wealth, and genius had arrayed themselves, and competition fled from him as from the glance of destiny. He knew no motive but interest—he acknowledged no criterion but success—he worshiped no God but ambition, and with an Eastern devotion he knelt at the shrine of his idolatry. Subsidiary to this, there was no creed that he did not profess, there was no opinion that he did not promulgate: in the hope of a dynasty, he upheld the crescent; for the sake of a divorce, he bowed before the Cross: the orphan of St. Louis, he became the adopted child of the Republic; and with a paricidal ingratitude, on the ruins both of the throne and the tribune, he reared the throne of his despotism.
A professed Catholic, he imprisoned the pope; a pretended patriot, he impoverished the country; and in the name of Brutus, he grasped without remorse, and wore without shame, the diadem of the Cæsars!
Through this pantomime of his policy, fortune played the clown to his caprices. At his touch, crowns crumbled, beggars reigned, systems vanished, the wildest theories took the color of his whim, and all that was venerable, and all that was novel, changed places with the rapidity of a drama. Even apparent defeat assumed the appearance of victory—his flight from Egypt confirmed his destiny—ruin itself only elevated him to empire.
But if his fortune was great, his genius was transcendent; decision flashed upon his counsels; and it was the same to decide and to perform. To inferior intellects, his combinations appeared perfectly impossible, his plans perfectly impracticable; but, in his hands, simplicity marked their development, and success vindicated their adoption.
His person partook the character of his mind—if the one never yielded in the cabinet, the other never bent in the field.
Nature had no obstacles that he did not surmount—space no opposition that he did not spurn; and whether amid Alpine rocks, Arabian sands, or polar snows, he seemed proof against peril, and empowered with ubiquity! The whole continent of Europe trembled at beholding the audacity of his designs, and the miracle of their execution. Skepticism bowed to the prodigies of his performance; romance assumed the air of history; nor was there aught too incredible for belief, or too fanciful for expectation, when the world saw a subaltern of Corsica waving his imperial flag over her most ancient capitals. All the visions of antiquity became common places in his contemplation; kings were his people—nations were his outposts; and he disposed of courts, and crowns, and camps, and churches, and cabinets, as if they were the titular dignitaries of the chess-board!
Amid all these changes he stood immutable as adamant. It mattered little whether in the field or the drawing-room—with the mob or the levee—wearing the jacobin bonnet or the iron crown—banishing a Braganza, or espousing a Hapsburg—dictating peace on a raft to the Czar of Russia, or contemplating defeat at the gallows of Leipsic—he was still the same military despot!
Cradled in the camp, he was to the last hour the darling of the army; and whether in the camp or the cabinet, he never forsook a friend or forgot a favor. Of all his soldiers, not one abandoned him, till affection was useless; and their first stipulation was for the safety of their favorite.
They knew well that if he was lavish of them, he was prodigal of himself; and that if he exposed them to peril, he repaid them with plunder. For the soldier, he subsidized every people; to the people he made even pride pay tribute. The victorious veteran glittered with his gains; and the capital, gorgeous with the spoils of art, became the miniature metropolis of the universe. In this wonderful combination, his affectation of literature must not be omitted. The jailer of the Press, he affected the patronage of letters—the proscriber of books, he encouraged philosophy—the persecutor of authors, and the murderer of printers, he yet pretended to the protection of learning!—the assassin of Palm, the silencer of De Stael, and the denouncer of Kotzebue, he was the friend of David, the benefactor of De Lille, and sent his academic prize to the philosopher of England.
Such a medley of contradictions, and at the same time such an individual consistency, were never united in the same character. A Royalist —a Republican and an Emperor—a Mohammedan—a Catholic and a Patron of the Synagog—a Subaltern and a Sovereign—a Traitor and a Tyrant—a Christian and an Infidel—he was, through all his vicissitudes, the same stern, impatient, inflexible original—the same mysterious incomprehensible self—the man without a model, and without a shadow.
His fall, like his life, baffled all speculation. In short, his whole history was like a dream to the world, and no man can tell how or why he was awakened from the reverie.
Such is a faint and feeble picture of Napoleon Bonaparte, the first (and it is to be hoped the last) emperor of the French.
That he has done much evil there is little doubt; that he has been the origin of much good, there is just as little. Through his means, intentional or not, Spain, Portugal, and France have arisen to the blessings of a free constitution; superstition has found her grave in the ruins of the inquisition, and the feudal system, with its whole train of tyrannic satellites, has fled for ever. Kings may learn from him that their safest study, as well as their noblest, is the interest of the people; the people are taught by him that there is no despotism so stupendous against which they have not a resource; and to those who would rise upon the ruins of both, he is a living lesson, that if ambition can raise them from the lowest station, it can also prostrate them from the highest.
- This specimen of Phillips' style is probably the most successful of his grandiloquent efforts. It has long been familiar in the mouths of schoolboys. Its date is about the year of the second Restoration, after the exile of Napoleon to St. Helena.