VOLUME II – CHAPTER 15
Undertaking great projects is as
necessary to the interests of my
people as to my own satisfaction
(Napoleon to his Minister of Interior, Crétet)
The victory of Austerlitz was so brilliant and so exemplary that it tends to obscure the fact, as often happened after each of Napoleon’s triumphs over those who had declared war against France, that he was not the war strategist thirsty for victory that he appeared to be. Yet that is the reputation his detractors both past and present - for they are no less biased today - have deliberately, maliciously and persistently attempted to make him bear.
There is a quotation of his that should always be remembered whenever the question arises, as it shows that this unequalled leader in war strived after one thing only, peace, without which he could not govern France, and bring prosperity to this “great nation” for which he wanted “the sceptre of the whole world.” This peace would always be denied him.
The quotation is as follows:
“I am distressed at this way of life that drags me away to army camps and diverts my attentions from the concern that is closest to my heart – a good and sound organization of banks, factories and businesses.”
It is a sentiment that finds its echo in the words quoted in the epigraph, which he said to the Minister of the Interior, Crétet, in 1810:
“I have made the glory of my reign consist in changing the face of my empire. Undertaking great projects is as necessary to the interests of my people as to my own satisfaction.”
Therefore, when Napoleon returned from Austerlitz wreathed in laurels, with a peace treaty and war reparations in his pocket, he had only one thought in mind. He wished to speed up the great projects underway and to embark on new ones.
Restoration of government finance
But to complete these projects and similar grandiose schemes, it was essential that money should not run short.
The first task was therefore to put some order into government finance.
It was not enough to have defeated Austria and Russia (still under the influence of the English, the Tsar had refused to sign the peace treaty); Napoleon had first and foremost to become an administrator so as to restore some order to public finance. While he was in Vienna, he had received news of an alarming financial crisis that had shaken the whole country.
He arrived in Paris on Sunday, January 26, 1806, at ten o’clock at night. The following morning he summoned High Chancellor Cambacérès, Treasury Minister Barbé-Marbois, and Minister of Police Fouché.
Napoleon had good cause for concern. The deficit in the Treasury which had initially been estimated at eighty million francs had, in fact, risen to one hundred and forty-one million. There was an immediate and furious reaction from the victor of Austerlitz.
“If I had been defeated, the Coalition’s most effective ally would have been the Treasury Minister.”
A statement which was confirmed by a well-informed observer, the Minister of Finance, Gaudin, who founded the Cour des comptes to audit government spending, when he wrote, that if Napoleon had been beaten at Austerlitz, he would not even have found a million francs left to run the country.
Napoleon’s fit of temper was more than justified for the deficit exceeded the sum that Austria had been forced to pay as a war indemnity, following a campaign that had been exceedingly costly despite its happy outcome. It should also be remembered, that the crisis had caused a shortage of currency.
“This state of affairs becomes all the more alarming because we do not know how long it may last, and the industrialists, manufacturers and contractors say they will be forced to lay off their workers if it continues…,” wrote the worried Prefect of Police, Aulard, on November 3, 1805, when the crisis had reached its height.
The victory of Austerlitz restores confidence
All his life, Napoleon was haunted by the specter of waste and squandering of the treasury, just as he would always remain utterly contemptuous of financiers and speculators, whom he described as “the lowest of the aristocracy” .
The guilty party in the present affair was none other than the Treasury Minister in person, not through dishonesty, but because he had been foolish enough to place his trust in a handful of financiers who were notorious scoundrels. The most famous of them was Gabriel Ouvrard, a former supplier of military provisions who like many of his kind was extremely dishonest and unscrupulous. Half bankers, half speculator, he had made a colossal fortune by speculating on all the vicissitudes of the frail new régime of the Directoire. However, it is also fair to say that Ouvrard had, more than once, rescued the foundering régime when it was on the verge of bankruptey, but without ever neglecting his own interests.
On this occasion, Ouvrard had seriously compromised himself with various international speculations that had brought about the collapse of several large banks, and now threatened to destabilize the national economy. This set off a panic on the Paris Stock Exchange, as sensitive then as it is today to unforeseen events in the political and military sphere.
Barbé-Marbois had allowed himself to become involved in a gigantic manipulation (the exact details are far too complex to be explained here) that had led him to take the extraordinary measure of handing over the national Treasury to the cunning and dishonest financier, Ouvrard. To cope with unprecedented obligations towards the investors, he approached the Bank of France. To satisfy the demands of the Minister, the bank printed more money, which inevitably very rapidly began to lose its value.
The news of the victory at Austerlitz had reassured everybody, including the Paris Stock Exchange, happy to see the Emperor return with the fifty million franc indemnity in his pocket payed by the defeated aggressor, Austria.
The scene between Napoleon and the main actors in the scandal was, in the words of a witness, one of rare violence, yet the Emperor, who is so often portrayed as excessively severe and relentless, took no action against the predators. He was content to make Ouvrard and his accomplices pay up and reimburse the Treasury with everything they owned to cover the eighty-seven million franc deficit. As for Barbé-Marbois, he was dismissed on January 27, 1806, and replaced by Mollien.
The wretched minister thought he could justify himself to Napoleon (who had never doubted his sincerity) by assuring him he was not a thief. The Emperor retorted bluntly, with his usual common sense, “I would prefer that, one hundred times over. Dishonesty has its limits, stupidity has none!”
This setback and the crisis that had just been avoided made Napoleon take immediate measures to reform the Bank of France so that it would never again find itself in the situation brought about by Barbé-Marbois’s reckless irresponsibility. On April 22, he appointed a governor, the first of whom was Crétet, who would be answerable to the sovereign for the smooth running of the establishment.
The measures proved effective as, in less than a year, bank currency was back in favour with the French public, who soon preferred it to gold. That, alone, says it all.
“To change the face of my empire…”
Once this immediate problem was solved, the military leader stepped aside – unfortunately for him, alas! only temporarily – in favour of the head of state and administrator. Napoleon wished to “change the face of [his] empire,” starting with France.
In Paris itself, as the Emperor himself said, there was “more to demolish than to build.”
The dark, twisting alleys that had been wide enough when goods were carried by mule could no longer accommodate the traffic of “our long, wide drays, our large carriages and our heavy carts,” wrote Fain, Napoleon’s secretary.
Napoleon, as usual, was bubbling with ideas.
“Why not, for example, demolish the entire quarter of La Cité? It is a huge ruin only fit for the rats of Old Lutetia… I want a quincunx design like that of the Champs Élysées laid out there. It will be the most beautiful promenade in Paris! Notre-Dame Basilica and the old palace of Saint-Louis will make it look majestic...
“In general, the beautiful terraces that line the quays of Paris should be embellished. With the river on one side, they deserve to be adorned with the finest houses in the city on the other. The façades of the main squares should all match in appearance and consist only of the highest quality houses. Look at Place Vendôme! Look at Place des Victoires! Just imagine the square that could be built in front of Saint-Sulpice! And calculate; for in the difference between what exists and what there could be, is there not enough to fully pay for these improvements?”
As for the financial arrangements to pay for these projects, they show just how modern the Emperor's ideas were.
“Why does the City not intervene in each operation of this type? Could we not first form an association between the owners of the houses in their present state and the City, which would vouch for the project and guarantee that the former owners still enjoyed their previous revenue? It would later keep as profit on the additional value that each house had acquired. Each operation would be liquidated separately and individually and not be intermingled with the others. As soon as a square or a façade is completed, the City would immediately sell its ownership and thus cash the money that was lent together with a profit and could then immediately invest the sum in another project.”
Imperial architect: a profession that left little time for leisure
The city was soon covered with construction sites.
The architects – Percier, Fontaine, Brongniart (who designed the Bourse and after whom it is named), Vignon, and others – were constantly busy. All the more so because the Master, even when away from Paris, was frequently breathing down their necks, sending dispatches, bombarding them with questions, always specific and never irrelevant, on the progress of the projects they were in charge of.
Let us remark in passing that to be one of Napoleon’s architects left little time for leisure.
Jean-Antoine Chaptal, the great chemist who invented sulfuric acid in France and who was also a State Counsellor and Minister of the Interior from 1800 to 1804, recounts that very often the Emperor made up his mind abruptly. Work started with the same abruptness.
One day, Napoleon summoned Fontaine and ordered him to bring five hundred men the following morning at five o’clock to a specific spot in the Place du Carrousel to build a triumphal arch in honour of the Grande Armée.
Fontaine remarked respectfully that there were no plans or estimates. The Emperor insisted. Therefore…
The following morning, at the appointed time, five hundred men started to break the ground.
When Duroc, the Grand Marshal of the Palace, awoke, he observed the bustle and concluded that only Daru, the Quartermaster General of the Grande Armée, could have ordered the work, without advising him. When Daru arrived post haste, he was as much surprised as Duroc.
They sought out Fontaine, who told them what had taken place and without delay requested permission to return to his studio to draw up plans for the work and set up a budget.
Quays were constructed (eight kilometres of quays would be built by 1812), roads were cut through. The rue de Rivoli, de Castiglione and de la Paix (initially named after Napoleon, which was only justice but the Bourbons soon saw to that it was renamed) started to see light of day. In June 1806, the Russian and Austrian cannon that had been captured at Austerlitz were at the foundry about to be cast into a column that was to be erected on Place Vendôme in honour of the Grande Armée. The improvements to the Louvre were underway and almost completed. The first stones of the Arc de Triomphe were laid on August 15, 1806. Bridges, five in all, were being built over the Seine, etc., etc.
As for the decision to raise a temple to the Grande Armée (the future Church of the Madeleine as it is today) it was still only an idea in Napoleon’s mind. The order was to be given on December 2, 1806, after the defeat of Prussia.
Unfortunately, the incessant wars started by the English, Russians, Prussians and Austrians, prevented him from completing all the grandiose projects that he cherished for Paris – and for France.
(To be continued)