LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

The “Pope” of Holland House
Léonard Simond de Sismondi to John Whishart, [November? 1815]

Chapter I: 1813
Chapter II: 1814
Chapter III: 1815
Chapter IV: 1816
Chapter V: 1817
Chapter VI: 1818
Chapter VII: 1819
Chapter VIII: 1820
Chapter IX: 1821
Chapter X: 1822
Chapter XI: 1824-33
Chapter XII: 1833-35
Chapter XIII: 1806-40
Chapter XIV: Appendix
Creative Commons License

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Produced by CATH

Buonaparte no longer threatens Europe with subjugations. Speculation on his military and political views have in a great measure ceased. But the general system and the peculiarities of his moral and intellectual character are the universal topics of conversation throughout Christendom. By a strange fatality, also, it has happened that as his possession of power kept the world in constant agitation, so his existence in retreat has produced a sort of torpor in all parties in France. The fear of his return checks the Royalists, in their ill-concealed designs of disturbing the property and restoring the old abuses of their country, and the possibility of paving the way for him prevents the republicans from exerting themselves, and deadens the activity even of those who, with more moderate views, are anxious to reduce the power of the Crown within some reasonable limits. It would be difficult to form a satisfactory judgment of a man who has been at all times the object either of the basest adulation or the grossest abuse, and whom it is now not only safe and fashionable, but even profitable, to calumniate. Those who have lived by his favour, and those who have employed every art of flattery and deception to palliate his crimes, and intoxicate him with praise, are as eager to obliterate their former servility by repeating and forging anecdotes to his dishonour as those who have suffered under his tyranny are to load his memory with every species of
Sismondi on Napoleon
abuse without examining the foundations on which such an accusation may rest. But, though it is difficult to ascertain facts which depend on the veracity of the relater, and therefore impossible to draw his character with certainty, the results of his elevation are more obvious, and it is an easier task to infer from them how far his life has been beneficial and show how far it has been injurious to mankind in general and to the countries which he has governed for some years in particular.

“I will give you my opinion without disguise and without prejudice—that is, without reference to any opinions which I have formerly entertained or expressed.

“He was certainly no ‘monster’; that is, not a Caligula, a Nero, a Catherine de Medici, or a Marat. He was, however, in many senses a tyrant, and in all a subverter of that power to which he owed everything; a prince who combined great military talents with as great military means, indulged without scruple or moderation that odious and childish passion of conquest which has misled many absolute, and nearly all French, kings, has at all times created so much calamity in the world, and often, as in the present instance, conducted those who gave way to it through much false glory, to defeat and degradation. He had the same propensity to disturb mankind as Louis XIV., Charles XII., and other princes who have been called ‘Great’; but he had greater means than many, and more virtues than most of those princes. He was, therefore, more formidable, but not more guilty or odious. His worst qualities, viz., his hatred of
Sismondi on Napoleon
Liberty and love of conquest, he had in common with most kings; his means of gratifying them, especially his capacity, he had in common with but few. But as he exerted them for such detestable ends he deserved his fall; and inasmuch as his designs were hostile to the independence of many nations, and his capacity nearly equal to his undertakings, his fall must be considered as a fortunate event for the great Powers of Europe and for England in particular.

“But is it so for France, or for those countries which under him were annexed to, or dependent on, France?

“This question can only be solved by examining the good and evil of his Government, by comparing his system with that which preceded it, and, above all, by comparing the evils of his Government with those of such as have succeeded, or are likely to succeed, to him. These questions, as they effect France, would require very laborious inquiries and very long discussions. I shall only make some cursory remarks upon them.

“The evils of his system in France may be classed under three heads: the want of liberty, the waste of life, and the waste of money.

“Liberty of discussion, at least on political topics, there was none in France under him; and even of security for personal liberty there was very little. There must have existed more freedom of speech than we supposed, or than some of his predecessors would easily have endured, because there are many instances not only of bon-mots but of injurious expressions being uttered by him, and even to him by persons
Sismondi on Napoleon
whom he, in his turn, outrageously and scurrilously abused, but whom he left, not only at liberty, but in authority and office. It is, indeed, a remarkable circumstance, and one very discreditable to his understanding, if not to his heart, that he was at all times more disposed to insult than to injure those who had offended him. He was, however, an enemy to freedom; and, to use an affected word, must be considered as a ‘Liberticide.’ In this part of his character two things are, nevertheless, to be observed: first, that he left many forms and institutions which, though he himself dispensed with or broke through them, might have survived him; secondly, that notwithstanding his disputed title and irritable temper, fewer persons were found, at the time of his disposal, in prison for State crimes than under
Louis XVI., the hereditary monarch of France and, if we can believe his panegyrists, the mildest and meekest of all royal personages.

“Was the old system, then, such as required, even in its mildest form, a larger number of unfortunate wretches to be immured in dungeons than the new one admitted of, even under a fierce and unrelenting military usurper?

“The advantages enjoyed under Buonaparte’s government are not to be exclusively ascribed to him. Many of them were due to the Revolution and Republic.

“They were:—

“1st. The complete freedom of worship and conscience.

“2nd. Speedy and impartial justice administered
Sismondi on Napoleon
in all civil concerns and in all criminal matters, also where political questions were not involved.

“3rd. A strict appropriation of public money to public purposes. ( N.B. Napoleon, after paying his household from a civil list of half the amount granted to Louis XVIII., with a regularity unequalled in the frugal management of a private person, saved more than a third, which he distributed to individuals of merit in the army.)

“4th. The gratification of national glory.

“5th. The magnificence of all public works, useful or ornamental.

“6th. The excellence and cheapness of the police.

“7th. The easy access to office and distinction for all persons whose talents fitted them for the discharge of public duties.

“Such were the evils and such the advantages of his government. Which of the first has the late Revolution corrected? How many of the last has it destroyed? and what new benefit has it conferred? also what fresh evils has it occasioned?

“The first of these questions must be answered in the singular number. One enormous evil is for the present removed, viz., the conscription. The relief will be complete if a long peace can be preserved, and if a war can be maintained without some mode of levying troops as oppressive and perhaps less impartial. The taxes which ‘Monsieur’ promised to repeal have been continued, and even increased. In the meantime the salaries of efficient offices, military and civil, are less punctually paid, while the number of sinecures and court attendants is increased; works of great
Sismondi on Napoleon
magnificence are in a great measure, and works of utility still more, neglected and abandoned.

“The price of land is falling, the security of property is very sensibly diminished, prompt obedience no longer follows the laws; much discontent prevails, and many persons have been already executed for their resistance to the newly restored authorities.

“National glory is gone. Buonaparte, perhaps, destroyed as he had created it. But no one expects the old race to revive it.

“The only new institution the king has introduced—viz., the Maison du Roi—it is said, will be confined only to such as can prove their nobility. Processions, reliques, and suppression of business on feast days have been enjoined. Whether these are benefits I do not know; but they certainly are not so considered by the public.

“So much for France. Italy and Belgium remain to be considered. For, as to Holland and Switzerland, if the first can maintain anything like independence, she must be the gainer by the late events. It is as absurd to deny that her subjugation was subversive to her happiness as to maintain that Buonaparte’s late settlement of the cantons was not beneficial to Switzerland. Napoleon not only corrected the evils of which he had been the immediate cause, under the Republic, in Switzerland, but he actually improved the condition of that country with reference to the state in which it stood previously to the Revolution war. Except in Geneva, which he annexed to France, he has no enemies in Switzerland, and he has many adherents and more admirers in the cantons.

Sismondi on Napoleon

“In Belgium the public opinion is decidedly hostile to him and his Government, and the people are as much delighted at his downfall as they had been lately at the expulsion of the Austrians, and formerly at the evacuation of the Spaniards. A calm calculation of their interests might lead them to another conclusion. France afforded them a permanent market for their manufactories and productions, and was powerful enough to protect them from incursions and conquests. Surrounded by independent states, they will in peace be harassed with the custom-house regulations of their neighbours, and in war are destined to become again, as they have so frequently been before, the theatre of war—the arena on which the great military powers carry on contests for glory—contests which it is the fate of Flanders to witness and to feed, but the glory of which she is no longer allowed to partake. If they belong to Austria or to Prussia they will hardly be relieved from the evils of a levy as severe as the conscription. If to the Protestant provinces of the Netherlands, they will be subjected to those to whom they feel the strongest repugnance, and in all cases they will be more exposed to the evils of war and less gratified by admission to high offices of a great empire, which, from policy or from accident, Napoleon rendered very accessible to the natives of the annexed provinces.

“Italy, in political liberty, can have lost nothing under Napoleon, for she had nothing to lose. In all that a Government not founded on liberty could bestow, she had gained prodigiously under the French domination. The conscription and the taxes were,
Sismondi on Napoleon
indeed, grievances, and grievances of a nature to which Italians had never been subject, and which they were therefore less prepared to endure.

“But, on the other hand, the general improvement of their agriculture, their means of communication, and their police, were benefits hitherto unknown in that country; and the security of persons and property, together with full admission of all the natives to the highest posts, both in their own country and in the empire, were advantages which they had never enjoyed, and which might be thought to compensate even for the taxes and military service required of them. Assassinations were hardly known in the kingdom of Italy and the provinces annexed to France. The administration of justice was public and impartial and in the hands of the Italians: there was a full toleration of religious opinions; the arts most congenial to the country were encouraged, not only by the rewards, but by the consideration conferred on their professors; and other arts of life were gradually introduced into the country. If the balance between good and evil had been struck under the Viceroy Beauharnais’ government, the conscription and national degradation must have been placed in one scale, security of person and property and an excellent administration of justice in the other. By the recent change they may possibly get rid of the conscription; but the degradation of their national character will not only remain, but be aggravated by those of superstition, persecution, and depression of talents. In Piedmont every man who has served the country which his sovereign lost and abandoned, for these last
Sismondi on Napoleon
ten years, is either banished or dismissed. The magnificent roads by which the intercourse with foreign nations was facilitated, are to be destroyed. The academies and schools are to be shut up; the improvements, even in medicine, are prohibited, and the Inquisition, which did not exist there, is to be introduced.1

“At Rome the Pope has denounced those authors of all mischiefs, the Freemasons, though I believe all the allied Sovereigns who restored him are of that foolish but innocent fraternity, and the mode by which his Holiness proposes to bring them to justice is by assigning one-half of their property to their accusers and the other to the judges who shall condemn them!

“The very lamps and pavements of Rome are denounced as impious innovations, and the old darkness and dirt are to be immediately re-established. The ancient modes of law proceedings are to be carefully restored, and all the benefits of sanctuaries and other kinds of impunity to be scrupulously extended to those worthy objects of compassion who live by depredation, and have been betrayed into the venial offences of stabbing their fellow-creatures. The roads are infested with robbers; the towns and villages abound with assassins. The taxes remain, or are increased, though not one of them is applied to objects beneficial to Italy. Sugar, coffee, and relief from conscription they have gained; justice, enterprise, security, and magnificence in public works they have lost by the change. They have still foreigners for

1 Note by Mr. Whishaw, “This is denied.”

Sismondi on Napoleon
their taskmasters; but the French opened to the natives a career of fortune and glory; and, though they pillaged them for purposes of war, they encouraged old and brought new arts into the country. The Austrians take their money and give them nothing in return but insolence and contempt.

“It is not wonderful that Napoleon should have many partisans among the Italians, for who can deny [that his fall] has restored with much aggravation all the evils which retarded the progress and debased the character of that highly ingenious people for two or three centuries.

“Great, however, as the calamity of his downfall will be to that country, that of his restoration would be still greater. Endless civil wars would ensue. The fears of one party and the vengeance of the other would desolate the country with persecution; but though the condition of Italy would not be bettered by an effort to recall him, it is unquestionably worse than when it had quietly submitted to his authority. The appearance of the peasantry, and of the country, has improved as much under Buonaparte in Italy as it has in France since the Revolution; and though newspapers and the Public may rail at that event, the traveller must be blind who, in passing through France, does not perceive that the division of property, the suppression of odious privileges, and the real equality of condition have improved the face of the country and the state of its inhabitants, and must ultimately have some effect in ennobling the rural intellects and the political character of the nation.