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Napoleonic Nobility

Napoleon passed through many phases: he had been the invincible champion of liberty, then the destroyer of Jacobinism and champion of order, then the new Constantine and restorer of the church, then the pacificator of the world, then the founder of a new monarchy in France. Between 1800 and 1805 Napoleon, under whatever title, was absolute ruler of France, including Belgium, the left bank of tha Rhine, Savoy, and Nice, and practically also ruler of Holland, Switzerland, and North Italy to the Adige, which states had a republican form. The title emperor meant in 1804 little more than military ruler. But now emperor had rather its mediaeval meaning of paramount over a confederacy of princes.

As the fear of socialism helped to found the consulate in 1799, so the royalist plot of 1804 precipitated the foundation of the Empire. Much as France abhorred the execution of the Duc d'Enghein, she was still more aghast at the prospect of the turmoils which would ensue, should Napoleon be suddenly removed from the head of affairs. "The need of repose and stability," says Miot de Melito, "was so pressing, the future so disquieting, the fear of terrorism so great, the return of the Bourbons so formidable that people quickly grabbed at any expedient which might save them from those dangers." Seven days after the Duke's murder, Fouche appealed to the Senate to establish hereditary government. The idea was taken up on every side.

On 18 May 1804, a constitution which had been elaborated by Fouche arid Talleyrand was adopted in the Senate with three dissentent voices. It decreed to Napoleon the title of Emperor of the French and settled the succession to the throne on his direct1 male issue, natural and legitimate. It enabled a childless emperor to adopt the children or grandchildren of his brothers, and designated Joseph and Louis Bonaparte (Napoleon's brothers) to the succession. If the essence of democracy was, as Napoleon contended, "a career open to talent," than the French Empire was democratic; but in every other respect it violated the principles of liberty.

To fortify the dynasty, Napoleon saw that it was necessary to create an hereditary nobility, but the opposition which had been made to the Legion of Honor in the name of equality warned him to proceed with caution. In the first instance he began by distributing foreign fiefs and titles, carving no less than 17 duchies out of the Venetian states; then in August 1806 license was given to exchange grand ducal fiefs for estates within the territory of the Empire, and to transfer to estates so acquired the privilege attaching to noble tenure.

Now suddenly, in 1807, he stood forth in the new character of head of a great European confederacy. It has been usual to contrast the consulate with the empire, but the great transformation was made by the wars of 1805-7, and the true contrast is between the man of Brumaire and the man of Tilsit. The empire as founded in 1804 did not perhaps differ so much from the consulate after Marengo as both differed, alike in spirit and form, from the empire such as it began to appear after Pressburg and was consolidated after Tilsit.

Napoleon became a king of kings. This system had been commenced in the consulate, when a kingdom of Etruria under the consul's protection was created for the benefit of hia ally, the king of Spain; it was carried a stage further on the eve of the war of 1805, when the kingdom of Italy was created, of which Napoleon himself assumed the sceptre, but committed the government to Engene Beauharnais as viceroy. But now almost all Italy and a great part of Germany was subjected to this system.

The Bonaparte family, which before had contended for the succession in France, so that Joseph actually refused, aa beneath him, the crown of Italy, now accepted subordinate crowns. Joseph becomes king of Naples, the Bourbon dynasty having been expelled immediately after the peace of Pressburg; Louis became king of Holland; Jerome, the youngest brother, received after Tilsit a kingdom in North Germany composed of territory taken from Prussia, of Hanover, and of the electorate of Hesse-Cassel, which had shared the fall of Prussia; somewhat earlier Murat, husband of the most ambitious of the Bonaparte sisters, Caroline, had received the grand-duchy of Berg. By the side of these Bonaparte princes there were the German princes who now looked up to France, as under the Holy Roman Empire they had looked up to Austria.

It was impossible to give crowns and principalities to the Bonaparte family without allowing a shale of similar distinctions to the leading politicians and generals of France. He was therefore driven to revive titles of nobility. To do this was to abandon the revolutionary principle of equality, but Napoleon always bore in mind the necessity of bribing in the most splendid manner the party upon whose support ever since Brumaire he had depended, and which may be described .shortly as the Senate. When in 1802 he received the life-consulate, hs had proceeded instantly to create new dotations for the senators; now he felt that he must devise for them still more splendid bribes. His first plan was to give them feudal lordships outside France. Thus Berthier, his most indispensable minister, became sovereign prince of Neufchatel, Bernadotte sovereign prince of Pontecorvo, Talleyrand prince of Benevento. Especially out of the Venetia- territory, given to France at Pressburg, were taken fiefs (not less than twelve in all), to which are attached the title of duke. These innovations fall in 1806, that ia, in the middle of the period of transformation.

After Tilsit, when Napoleon felt more strongly both the power and the necessity of rewarding his servants, he created formally a new noblesse and revived the majorat in defiance of the revolutionary code. In the end, besides the three sovereign prmces just mentioned, he created four hereditary princes (Berthier is in both lists) and thirty-one hereditary dukes. There were also many counts and barons. The system was prodigiously wasteful. Of public money Berthier received more than 50,000 a year, Davoust about 30,000, nine other officials more than 10,000, and twenty-three others more than 4000.

Napoleon, while he maintained the first principle of the Revolution hostile to privilege, understanding human nature and recognising that men liked to be called by names which put them on a higher level than their fellow- creatures, even though they did not invest them with privileges, scattered titles broadcast, making his Marshals and Ministers, Princes and Dukes, and including in the distribution of minor honors numerous members of the old nobility who rallied to the Empire. When Buonaparte composed his new nobility, he usually conferred the title of count on the lieutenant-generals, and that of baron on the major-generals, and colonels of regiments. As he never created a marquis or vicomte, these two titles are the most respected since the return of the Bourbons. He had not time to see the hereditary effect of his creations.

The creation of hereditary titles was the natural sequence of the foundation of the Empire, and the creation of the principalities which had been conferred in 1806. The senatus consultum created hereditary nobility. On March 1st, 1807, there had been registered at the Senate two statutes, one providing for the creation of titles of princes, dukes, counts, barons, and knights; the other establishing the regulation of the institution and composition of settled estates.

Finally, on 01 March 1809, a new nobility was created, the titles to be hereditary and the noble lands to be entailed. The barons and counts were legion, there were wanting only viscounts and marquises. In all, 31 dukes, 388 counts, 1,090 barons, and about 1,500 knights were created under the first Empire. Napoleon was uneasily conscious that aristocracies were the product of time, and that the nobility of the Ancient Regime despised the unstart dignitaries of the Empire. "I have made princes and dukes,* he said at Saint Helena, "but I could not make real nobles."

All the territorial titles, if the phrase can be nsed in this case, were placed in foreign countries. This was one of the characteristic precautions taken by Napoleon in creating a fresh nobility. The passions of the Revolutionary party would have been violently excited by a creation of French titles, a measure which would also have displeased the old nobility. But when titles such as Due de Castiglione were given, it was difficult for any Frenchman to object to a dignity which recalled a French triumph and French ascendency. Their inconvenience was afterwards shown in the case of Marmont, whom the Court of Vienna refused to receive after the fall of Napoleon unless his title of Ragusa was dropped.

These dignities were accompanied by grants of extensive feudatories in France, or the countries which had been annexed to the empire, the income from which was fixed at a fifteenth of the general revenue of the several estates. The possessors of ancient titles tempted by this revival of the respect paid to birth and rank, did not fail to mingle with those whose nobility rested on the new creation; and the Emperor distinguished those olden minions of royalty with considerable favor, as they mingled among the men of new descent, and paid homage to the monarch of the day; 'because,' as one of them expressed himself, 'one must necessarily serve some person.' The nobility founded by Napoleon was said to be no more in opposition to the principles of equality than the institution of the Legion of Honour. That is what distinguished it from the old nobility, which had been a privileged and feudal aristocracy. The new nobility was injured by what was remembered of the old. The imperial nobility would have needed, before being judged, to have undergone the developments which time would have brought with it. It was the fruit of an idea of organization, which, as Napoleon used to say, would have characterized the century.

The old aristocracy formed an association outside the people which, separated from it by almost insurmountable barriers, was naturally hostile towards it. In creating a new nobility, open to merit of every kind, Napoleon counterpoised the old closed aristocracy and prepared its transformation. In the Emperor's mind the imperial nobility restored the equality which had been proscribed by the old nobility. Napoleon wished to realize three important objects: The amalgamation of old France with the new France; the reconciliation of France with Europe; and the efface- ment in Europe of the vestiges of feudality, by attaching the idea of nobility to services rendered to the State. The superiority which the old nobility arrogated to itself would have been effaced by its fusion with the new. The Princess de Beauvau, whose merits and attachment the Emperor highly esteemed, hearing that her eldest son had been created a baron, could only bring herself by force to recognize a favor in this gift of a title. She ignored that her son would have recovered, in time, the title to which he had a right. The members of the ancient nobility, bearing names recommended by ancient services, or remarkably illustrious, would have resumed the titles they had formerly borne, after the peace and under conditions which would have made of the two nobilities, one historical nobility.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:58:20 ZULU