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Art. V.-History of the Consulate and the Empire. By M. THIERS.
Translated by D. FORBES CAMPBELL, Esq. 3 Vols. London: Colburn. 1845.
These volumes, on their appearance, excited an extraordinary sensation in Paris. No book, however great its interest, has the power of doing this in our own capital. The talkers and the readers there are a distinct class, and before the reading class has communicated the impulse to the talking class, the gloss of novelty is off. Many books with us obtain great vogue tensive popularity-none agitate and occupy society. M. Thiers' book had not to win its way gradually to notice to gain attention, and penetrate slowly through the various social ramifications, but at once it seemed to take every thing and every body by storm; for one week, the clubs, coffee-houses, circles, saloons, great and small, talked of nothing else. The feuilleton was forgotten,
and the journals did nothing but review and extract from * The Consulate and Empire.' It is true the excitement lasted but its week, M. Thiers being superseded by Horace Vernet and his Taking of Smahla,' and he by General Tom Thumb and his carriage-and-four. But this brilliant launch into the world, and a literary success almost unprecedented, though they do not make a permanent reputation, yet certainly do not preclude the book from attaining one, if it deserve it. This is a question which may very naturally be asked, when we call to mind the immense number of Histories of Napoleon which have been written, and are now forgotten.
This seems, justly or unjustly, to be the fate of Sir Walter Scott's Life of Napoleon. Yet that was surrounded at its first appearance with as splendid promise, and excited as much attention throughout Europe, as the present. The richest, the easiest, the most celebrated narrator of the century, had undertaken to write the history of his own times. Goëthe's Letters give evidence of the interest with which this ' romance of the dead lion,' as they called it, was received in Germany:
* As soon as I saw it announced, I felt what a great gift this Life of Napoleon would be to me, and therefore I let people first babble themselves tired about it; but I can now contain myself no longer, and have boldly set to work on the book. If you have time and inclination to retrace in tranquillity the remarkable current of events in which we have been hurried along for fifty years, read through this work from beginning to end. A man of sound, vigorous understanding, with the thoughts and feelings of a citizen, whose youth fell in the period of the French Revolution; who, in his best years, observed this momentous event with the eyes of an Englishman, watched and viewed it in all its bearings ; this man, the best narrator of his time, gives himself the trouble to place before us the whole series of events in bis own peculiarly clear and distinct manner.'—Goëthe to Zelter, Nov. 1827.
Very great merit must be allowed to Scott's Life. In the happy art of telling a story in the most interesting way, it is, perhaps, inferior to none of its author's most celebrated works; and its general correctness, making such allowance as must always be made for one who writes the history of a country not his own, notwithstanding it has been heavily impeached by French writers, has most honourably stood the brunt of twenty years' criticism, and the publication of several additional sources of information.
With all this there is that about Scott's Life which, even before M. Thiers' publication, had caused it to be put aside, as not the Life of Napoleon which one would select. This is, in short, the narrow view which its author took of the men and events of the Revolution. The most exciting scenes of Scott's youth had been the Edinburgh Light Horse, the reviews and sham-fights of the Musselburgh Sands; and he never lost the impression. To the last he saw the Revolution with the eyes of Wyndham or Perceval, and he took a mere contemporary view of it. These impressions, though softened by age, good sense, and above all, by the reception he met with in Paris in 1826, have still given their colouring to Scott's work. It is very far from offering
such a calm and comprehensive appreciation of Napoleon and his policy as can alone satisfy the present generation, which is now beyond the reach of the passions of the time.
Does M. Thiers supply such a history?
It must be observed, that this is almost the first attempt by any French writer of eminence to give a general history of the Empire. The innumerable publications to which we have alluded have been partial or personal history; biography, or rather memoir, recounting only such facts as were known to the writer himself,-contributions towards history, rather than history. M. Thiers has forsaken this ground, the position of a contemporary, and taken that of posterity-posterity, whose function it is to judge. He reviews and resumes the whole cycle of memoirs, and founds his history on a collation of all the sources. The English translator claims for him the merit of having ‘procured from exclusive sources the choicest materials for his present work.' (Preface, p. vii.) This assertion, we imagine, is not true to any considerable extent. The archives were thrown open to Sir W. Scott, who, however, made too hasty and cursory an inspection of them. He was barely ten days in Paris (from October 29 to November 7, 1826). And his Life, though during the progress of composition it was expanded very much beyond the dimensions at first proposed, yet was, he acknowledges, on too confined a plan to embrace even all the materials that were in his hands. M. Capefigue, however, consulted nearly all the depositories of state papers in Europe for his history. M. Capefigue is a laborious compiler, one who, like Mr. G. P. R. James, causes us astonishment by the quantity he writes. Be the quality as wretched as it may, it is wonderful that such a number of grammatical sentences should have proceeded from one man's pen. But it is possible that, even after Capefigue and Thibaudeau, something may have been left for M. Thiers to glean. But he does not claim for his work this species of merit. To give new facts, to put forth new information, is not the object with which he writes. He aims at producing an harmonious whole, a connected history, in which the events shall bear only the prominence assigned by their own importance, and not by the writer's having hit on a document hitherto unpublished: he has doubtless largely consulted, during his four years' labour, the public archives, but it is to perfect and fill up the outline in his own mind, not to extract matter like ordinary book-manufacturers. A German historian,-M. Raumer, for example, - copies out every syllable that he can find bearing on his period, translates it, and prints it at full length, with commentary more verbose and enigmatical in its language than the state papers it illustrates, and thus produces his original work on some one's life and times. M. Thiers may have gone through equal labour, but its result is perceived not in its being spread out over weary pages in infinite verbiage, but in the completeness of his picture, in that mastery of his subject which familiarity with its details confers. If he occasionally relates a fact communicated by an original witness, it is given not because it is new, but because it illustrates what he has in hand at the time. Hence he rigidly excludes anecdote, old as well as new. Napoleon's life, more than that of most great men, abounded in pithy speeches and piquant traits. But besides that many of these, and some of the most characteristic, are apocryphal, they degrade history to the level of a newspaper report, and have been especially the plague of that of Napoleon. Coleridge used to complain of a set of people who thought they accounted for the French Revolution by anecdotes. So closely have some of these stories engrafted themselves on the events they relate to, that it must have required no little boldness to resolve upon their banishment, as M. Thiers has done.
But if M. Thiers is not the gossiping chronicler or anecdotemonger, it is not to be inferred that he is therefore the philosophical historian, a doctrinaire, bent on promulgating a political theory in the guise of a history. His book is what it professes to be,—a genuine ' History of the Consulate and Empire.' The writer's character, that most unamiable and suspicious one of a political adventurer, who has raised himself by the sheer energy of talent to the highest station in the kingdom, might lead to other anticipations. But there is not throughout the smallest symptom of effort, of fine writing, of display of the author, or the exhibition of conscious talent. Close, succinct, and businesslike, the narrative marches on, intent only on telling what it has to tell
, and not stopping to make reflections. Not Cæsar himself sticks more closely to his story. Civil events justly related give out at once their true lesson; when the historian turns aside to question and put them to the torture, they too often give false evidence. It is the work not of the laborious pedant, nor the clever speculator, but of the statesman. Neither too far removed in point of time from the period he describes, to be obliged to exhaust his forces in ascertaining facts, nor too near to it to write under the influence of party spirit, he describes parties, passions, and interests with which he has himself had practically to deal. For the men and the parties of 1830, however we may regard them as a new generation and a new world, were yet moulded by the influences of the empire; so that his political career gave him not merely the usual advantages which an observer may draw from action, but also that of having to act among the results and relics of that which he proposes to describe. When a statesman writes history, the very best period he can choose is that immediately preceding his own age.
Such being the merit of the work in point of execution, let us see what is the value of the views, political or other, which it contains. We have said that the author does not stop to dogmatize or make remarks; but still, as must be expected, one system of politics is dominant throughout, and guides the pen when it does not appear on the surface.
Those who are acquainted with the History of the Revolution,' and are thence, as is natural, led to compare the two, will find a remarkable difference of tone between them, a difference which age and the possession of power alone are not sufficient to account for, though they may have concurred in producing it. It is twenty years since the History of the Revolution' was published. The object of the young and aspiring author was no less than to vindicate and revive the doctrines of '91. There was at that time no such
thing as a Republican party. There were many, indeed, dissatisfied with Charles X., some who wished for a revolution, but these were rather Liberals of vague and speculative views, offshoots of Italian and German Carbonarism, than children of the Revolution. Some few of the old Republicans, such as the Abbé Gregoire, might be still living; but they had no followers, they had survived their party, and, still more, their reputation. The atrocities of the reign of terror had cast a shade over the whole movement, and all parties, Liberals as well as Royalists, were agreed to forget the Revolution. M. Thiers undertook to resuscitate and repopularise its principles. Rightly distinguishing between the Jacobins, the men of '93, and the Constituent Assembly, he vindicated the vast achievements and the high aims of this body, showing, what had been forgotten, that so far from their cause being that of the Jacobins, these were their greatest enemies, who had but marred their work. Not, however, that even the Jacobins were wholly condemned. The Committee of Public Safety and the Convention had been regarded with unjust prejudice; its crimes were great, but they had been exaggerated; the epoch had been disfigured, partly through fear, partly through ill-will
. In M. Thiers' pages it assumed the air of a slandered, an injured party; the Republican era, from which all eyes had been long averted as a scene of blood, strife, and confusion, resumed an appearance of order and regularity-it was reconstituted--and people began to wonder how they had ever fancied it such a chaos; now it seemed only like any other period, having its settled order of events interrupted by its peculiar irregularities. A few flowers might be thrown upon the victims, but the pomp and colours of victory were bestowed on the executioners and the scaffold. The young generation, alienated from the Restoration, but having hitherto had no point of attachment, caught eagerly at these new doctrines, or rather at the old doctrines revived. They regarded themselves, indeed, not as innovators, but as restorers of '93.
The History of the Revolution,' then, was the vindication, or rather the apotheosis of the old Republicans. What has become of this in the ' History of the Consulate and Empire ?'
In the first place, it is obvious that it is impossible to sympathize fully and entirely both with the Republic and the Empire. The Empire was the contradiction and denial of the former, and was founded upon its extinction. It is true that Napoleon always professed great deference for the men of '91, and carried out many of their plans ; but the one main principle on which all they did rested-constitutional liberty-he completely crushed. Their social and administrative reforms were upheld, while it was the fashion at the Imperial Court to smile at their political