Зображення сторінки

French empire, in a word, resembled the talismanic globe of the sorcerers in Thalaba, the slightest touch upon which caused the whole universe to tremble.

There are few subjects upon which public opinion has differed more widely than upon the moral character of Napoleon. Thirty years ago, most Englishmen believed him to be one of those wretched monomaniacs who have seemed to feel a pleasurable excitement in tormenting their fellow-creatures. Even now, he is generally considered as a man naturally cold and unfeeling, and hardened by habit into a total indifference to human suffering. But we do not think that either opinion will satisfy any person who impartially examines the present account of his actions and policy.

Mr Alison has supplied us with a new and very plausible palliation of Napoleon's ambition. He repeatedly and very reasonably insists on the precarious foundation of the French empire, and on the irresistible necessity which compelled its chief at once to dazzle and unite his subjects, by engaging them in successful war, If, indeed, this excuse stood alone, we should think comparatively little of its force. Necessity is the tyrant's plea. No spectacle can be more painfully interesting than that of a character naturally great and noble, whose moral sense has been blunted by the influence of early habit, and the encouragement of vulgar applause. But we feel no such sympathy for the man who knowingly and wilfully prefers his interest to his duty. Many a mind, which would have defied both intimidation and seduction, has been warped and weakened by the imperceptible force of custom; but when the strong temptation is combined with the enervating influence, we may well cease to wonder at its victory. Napoleon, bred, and almost born, a soldier and a revolutionist, preferred unjust war to political extinction. How many legitimate sovereigns have preferred it to undisturbed security !

We have been much gratified by the calm and impartial spirit in which Mr Alison discusses the general character of this extraordinary man. Indeed, we feel bound to remark, that throughout the whole of the present work, we do not recollect a single case in which the political prejudices of the author, uncharitable as they sometimes appear, have been able to hurry his calm and patient mind into a harsh or basty condemnation of individuals. His censure of Napoleon's ambition is, as we have seen, lenient almost to excess. Of his other misdeeds, real and imputed, he speaks with equal, though we trust better merited, forbearance. He is willing to acquit the First Consul of the mysterious deaths of Wright and Pichegru, which he ascribes to the apprehensive cruelty of the French police-men too well known to have been familiar with every form of violence and treachery. His narrative of the lamented fate of the Duc d'Enghien does the highest credit both to his humanity and his self-command. Nothing can be more feelingly expressed than his commiseration of the brave and innocent sufferer; but he has not permitted it to hurry him into rash or unthinking denunciations against the guilty party. He represents the crime of Napoleon in its true light-not as an act of wanton murder, but as the blind vengeance of a violent man, justly alarmed and enraged by the atrocious attempts of the French Royalists against his life. But there is one scene in Napoleon's career which no sophistry can palliate—which no imagination can elevate—which his most devoted partizans can but endeavour to forget. We allude to the treacherous detention of the English families travelling in France in 1801. We do not say that none of Napoleon's acts were more criminal; but we think that none were so inconsistent with the character of a great man. His other crimes, heavy as they may be, were at least the crimes of a conqueror and a statesman. They were crimes such as Attila or Machiavel might have committed or approved—crimes of passion, or of deep and subtle policy. The massacre of Jaffa, and the invasion of Spain might have been forgotten by a generation which had witnessed the atrocities of Ismail and Warsaw _which had pardoned Frederick-William for his sordid occupation of Hanover-and Alexander for the vile treachery which wrested Finland from his own brave and faithful ally. The ambition which provokes unjust war-the passions which prompt a violent and bloody revenge-even the craft which suggests deeplaid schemes of political treachery-have but too often been found consistent with many brilliant and useful virtues. But the measure of which we speak displayed the spirit of a Francis or a Ferdinand--the spirit which has peopled Siberia with Polish nobles, and crowded the dungeons of Austria with Italian patriots. It displayed the cold unrelenting spite of a legitimate despot, inured from childhood to the heartless policy of what is called a paternal government. We are not partial to a practice in which Mr Alison frequently indulges—that of attempting to trace the immediate interference of Providence in every remarkable coincidence of human affairs; but we cannot avoid being struck by a melancholy resemblance between the captivity in which Napoleon ended his life, and the lingering torments which he had wantonly inflicted on ten thousand of his harmless fellow-creatures.

We are pleased to find in Mr Alison a zealous, though discriminating admirer of the military genius of Napoleon. The contrary judgment has lately been proclaimed by a few military critics, and supported with a vehement and disdainful asperity, which strikes us, to say the least, as singularly ungraceful. This is

perhaps most unsparingly and offensively exemplified in a series of essays which appeared some years since in a professional Journal, and which, if we are rightly informed, excited considerable notice among military men. They are understood to be the production of an officer in the British army, well known for his speculations in the theory of war, and possessing, we believe, much experience in actual service. They are full of ingenious reasoning, of contemptuous invective, and of ironical derision. Now we have not the slightest wish to set up authority against argument. We shall not turn upon this critic and say, • The oldest and bravest generals in Europe still tremble at the 'memory of the man whom you undertake to prove a mere fortunate fool :-is it likely that your judgment should be more

correct than theirs ?' But we think that the opposition of authority is a good reason, not for suppressing a theory, but for delivering it in modest and tolerant language. We know that argument is a weapon which the weakest may successfully wield, and which the strongest cannot resist. As the Chevalier Bayard complained of the arquebuse, in the hands of a child it may strike down the most valiant knight on earth. We therefore think it no presumption in the youngest ensign in the army to plead against Napoleon's claims to military glory. Let him fairly state his opinion, and fairly endeavour to establish it. The greater the impostor, the more dazzling the illusion—the higher will be our obligation to the bold and keen-sighted advocate who brings him to justice. We do not, therefore, complain of the military critics in question for attempting to place Napoleon's military reputation a step below that of Cope or Mack. But we protest against the advocate's usurping the functions of the judge. We protest against his assuming that he has triumphed—against his referring to the question as one irrevocably settled in his favour-against his pouring upon the accused the contempt and ridicule to which posterity alone can fitly sentence him. This is worse than mere disrespect to the memory of a celebrated man; it is arrogant and ridiculous self-fattery. A century and a half ago Louis XIV. acquired a high reputation as a general. Posterity has weighed and found him wanting. But suppose that a young officer of that day bad written of Louis as the critics of whom we speak write of Napoleon. We should have said that he might be a clever, clearheaded man; but that, if he chose to deliver a paradox in the tone of an oracle, it was his own fault that nobody listened to him. But this is the most favourable point of view. What do we say of the detractors whom posterity has pronounced in the wrong? What do we say of the slanderers of Marlborough and of Moore? The destruction of a brilliant but unmerited reputation is the most useful, the most difficult, the most invidious, and therefore, perhaps, the noblest task of an honest investigator of historic truth. But it requires candour and delicacy no less than boldness and acumen. When it is attempted from an obvious sense of duty, we admire the unflinching sincerity of the assailant, even though we condemn his severity. But when he undertakes it in the exultation of superior discernment-when he performs it with the insolence of personal antipathy-his victory will be unhonoured and unsympathized with, and his defeat will be embittered by universal scorn and indignation.

We do not possess the technical knowledge necessary to dissect the criticisms to which we have alluded. We can only judge as unlearned mortals, let scientific tacticians say what they will, always must judge-by general results. We can only consider what Napoleon did, and whether, according to the ordinary doctrine of chances, it is conceivable that he could have done so much had he been a man of no extraordinary powers. Napoleon, then, commanded in person at fourteen of the greatest pitched battles which history has recorded. Five times—at Marengo, Austerlitz, Jena, Friedland, and Wagram—he crushed the opposing army at a blow; finished the war, in his own emphatic phrase, by a coup-de-foudre ; and laid the vanquished power humbled and hopeless at his feet. Five times—at Borodino, Lutzen, Bautzen, Dresden, and Ligny-he was also decidedly victorious, though with less overwhelming effect. At Eylau the victory was left undecided. At Leipsic, the French were defeated, as is well known, by a force which outnumbered their own as five to three. At Waterloo, it is generally acknowledged that the overthrow of Napoleon was owing, not to any deficiency in skill on his part, but to the invincible obstinacy of the British infantry, who are admitted, even by the French accounts, to have displayed a passive courage, of which the most experienced warrior might be excused for thinking human nature incapable. At Aspern alone, to judge from the able account of Mr Alison, does the partial defeat of the French emperor appear to have been owing to any faulty arrangement of his own. Five of his ten actions were gained over equal or superior forces; and among the generals defeated by him, we find the distinguished names of Wurmser, Melas, Benningsen, Blucher, and above all, the Archduke Charles. We might produce still stronger testimonies. We might relate the glorious successes of his first Italian campaign, in which four powerful armies were successively overthrown by a force comprising, from first to last, but 60,000 men. We might notice his romantic achievements in Egypt and Syria, against a new and harassing system of hostility. We might enlarge on the most wonderful of all his exploits—the protracted struggle which he maintained in the heart of France, with a remnant of only 50,000 men, against the quadruply superior numbers of the Allies. But all this is unnecessary. If the successes to which we have alluded are insufficient to prove that Napoleon was a general of the first order, the reputation of no soldier who ever existed can be considered as established. If such numerous and extraordinary examples are insufficient to establish a rule, then there is no such thing as reasoning by induction. It is in vain to endeavour to explain away such a succession of proofs. Technical cavils can no more prove that Napoleon was a conqueror by chance, than the two sage Sergeants mentioned by Pope could persuade the public that Lord Mansfield was a mere wit. The common sense of mankind cannot be permanently silenced by scientific jargon Plain men, though neither lawyers nor mathematicians, see no presumption in pronouncing Alfred a great legislator, or Newton a great astronomer. It is equally in vain to attempt to neutralize the proofs of Napoleon's superiority, by balancing them with occasional examples of rash presumption ; or, even did such exist, of unaccountable infatuation. No number of failures can destroy the conclusion arising from such repeated and complete victories. The instances in which fools have blundered into brilliant success are rare; but the instances in which men of genius have been betrayed into gross errors are innumerable. And, therefore, where the same man has brilliantly succeeded and lamentably failed, it is but fair to conclude, that the success is the rule, and the failure the exception. Every man constantly forms his opinions respecting the affairs of real life upon this theory. In literature, in science, in the fine arts, no man's miscarriages are allowed to diminish the credit of his successes. Nobody denies that Dryden was a true poet because he wrote Maximin ; for it was more likely that a true poet should write Maximin than that a dunce should write Absalom and Achitophel. Nobody denies that Bacon was a true philosopher because he believed in alchemy; for it was more likely that a true philosopher should believe in alchemy, than that an empiric should compose the Norum Organum. No classical scholar denies the merit of Bentley's edition of Horace, because he failed in his edition of Milton. No man of taste refuses to enjoy the wit and humour of Falstaff, because the same author imagined the pedantic quibbles of Biron.

We shall not attempt to sketch the personal character of Napoleon. Yet it is a subject upon which, could we hope to do it justice, the ample materials supplied by the present history might well tempt us to linger. No laboured eulogium could impress us with so much admiration for his surpassing genius, as the

« НазадПродовжити »