Volume II - Chapter 2

 

AT WORK WITH THE EMPEROR (1)

 

Le jardin des Tuileries

 

While Malmaison was a place that permitted both work and (relative) relaxation, the Tuileries Palace, “as sad as grandeur,” in Bonaparte's famous phrase, was the official residence of the man who ruled France.

 

THE TUILERIES: THE PALACE OF POWER

 

In the Palace, Napoleon occupied the apartment overlooking the garden, at the far end of the apartments on the first floor.

 

After a first sleep, he rose around 2:30 AM, and clad only in a dressing gown, made his way to his “inner office”: two rooms, one where the Emperor worked, and the other that he merely passed through on his way.

 

Once there, he profited from the still of night to flesh out the details of affairs that his hectic daytime schedule did not permit. At daybreak, he called his valet, Constant (who had previously been a servant to Josephine), and asked him to draw a bath. At 5 AM he went back to bed.

 

Two hours later, he was up again, ready for the daily marathon.

 

What was his study like?

 

In the middle of the room, which was described as being of “mediocre grandeur,” lit by a single window situated in the corner overlooking the garden, was a desk that Napoleon himself had designed. It was no doubt less esthetic than the “magnificent desk” described by Meneval, one of the secretaries during the time of the Consulate, but it was shrewdly designed: in the center, two hollow curves, one for the Emperor, the other for the person facing him, allowing them to discuss at a reasonable distance. With its two wide circular ends for receiving paper and files under study, the desk looked like a violin.

 

Near the fireplace, in the corner, was a love seat covered in green taffeta. It was here that Napoleon sat to read the countless dispatches that he had piled up as they arrived on a small table at the side.

 

Napoleon worked with his back to the fireplace, facing the door leading to the salon. In the window frame, a secretary sat, “as silent as the furniture.”

 

Practically everything that concerned France and the Empire passed through the Emperor's hands. This included the statements for his minor personal expenses, which were calculated to ensure that his entire wardrobe – two uniforms a year, white trousers and jackets, low boots, shoes and all other accessories – never cost more than 1500 francs (a year!).

 

The quantity of mail he received was enormous, since in addition to the official papers and dispatches sent by ministers and ambassadors from every part of the Empire and the world, there were the interminable solicitations collected by the Chamberlain during audiences, by an aide-camp returning from a review, by an equerry who had collected a pile of requests during a hunting trip, not to mention the requests, complaints and applications that were sent via regular mail.

 

To this can be added all the questions related to the Great Army: numbers, positions, materials, supplies… for the Emperor trusted no one else to ensure the effectiveness of this prodigious war machine that was the guarantee of the country’s safety.

 

Secretary: a monastic calling

 

There were so many parasitical papers under which the official state correspondence seemed in danger of disappearing, but which Napoleon graciously refused to ignore, since as one of the secretaries remarked, “he attempted by every means to procure swift justice for those whom he was the only resort.” Hardly a week passed that some justifiable request did not receive a reply.

 

It was the private secretary’s task to sort through this jumble of letters.

 

Already, during the Italian campaign, the mail had been a far from easy task, even causing a young man appointed secretary to Commander-in-Chief Bonaparte to collapse on the job.

 

History has conserved three names: Bourrienne, Meneval and Fain.

 

Bourrienne, one of Bonaparte’s classmates in military school, was dismissed for being involved in a financial scandal and replaced by Meneval, former secretary for Joseph Bonaparte. The workload was such, however, that it soon threatened to deplete the strength of just one man. The Emperor therefore added Fain, as division head of the state secretariat. The position entailed considerable discretion, as can be seen when Napoleon wrote in his own hand in the Memoirs of Fleury de Chaboulin, master of petitions in the State Council: “Meneval and Fain lived such a secluded existence that after four years of service in the Palace, some of the Chamberlains had never once seen them.”

 

Meneval recounts with some humor his first day at work with the man who as yet was only First Consul:

 

“I sat at the table that was placed in the window-recess; I waited for almost two hours for the first Consul to come in; he finally arrived, holding a paper in his hand, without seeming to notice that I was installed in the study, as if I were its habitual occupant and as if I had always occupied the same place. He dictated a note for the Minister of Finance so volubly that I could hardly understand or transcribe half of what he said. Without asking me whether I had understood or if I had finished writing, he took the paper from my hands and did not allow me to attempt to read it; when I remarked that it was in an illegible scrawl, he returned to the salon taking my note with him, saying that the Minister was familiar with the subject, and would know what to make of it. I never found out if Monsieur Gaudin was able to decipher my handwriting. I feared that my paper would come back to me with a request for clarifications that would have been impossible to supply, yet that was the last I ever heard of the matter.”

 

The topographical bureau could be considered an integral part of this study; it was a mobile office that followed the Emperor to all his residences, and naturally, oyn campaigns. It was headed by geographer-engineer, Bacler d’Albe. This was the man Napoleon depended on when he needed a map to help him interpret military dispatches. Almost the entire surface of the room that served as the topographical bureau was taken up by a vast table. It was here that Albe deployed his maps and plans, using pins with red or black heads to indicate the respective positions of French and enemy troops.

 

Using a carefully-chosen combination of colors, the geographer highlighted rivers, mountains, borders, altitudes, then prepared calculations of distances, indicated the scale of the map, opened his compass, then waited.

 

When everything was ready, Napoleon arrived. After the geographer’s summary report, the compass would begin to move among the pins, guided by the Emperor's hand. This occasionally gave rise to a comic scene. Owing to the large size of the maps, the Emperor was obliged to stretch full out over the table. Bacler d’Albe, who wanted to remain in control of the situation, did the same. The two men were often so absorbed in their observations that they banged their heads together. The examination of the terrain was then interrupted by an exclamation, probably a curse, which we can presume issued from the Emperor.

 

Greater and lesser police forces

 

Let us now look at the operations of the secretariat:

 

The day began with the signing – always, of course, after careful rereading – then with the dispatching of the letters relating to the decisions made the previous day.

 

The dispatches received during the night were then read along with the morning correspondence, to which were added copies of the most interesting documents sent by Marshall Berthier, Major General of the Great Army, by the Minister of War and by the Minister of External Affairs.

 

As soon as a letter was read and replied to, Napoleon dropped it on the floor. In the classification employed in the Emperor’s office, this was answered. Piled up on the table were the papers that would keep the Emperor busy throughout the day: these were labeled current. A third pile, made up of business requiring further reflection, was labeled pending.

 

Every government has some kind of secret police that generates an enormous quantity of reports of every kind.

 

Those from the Ministry of Police disgorged their sinister store of crimes, fires, and accidents from every corner of the Empire, what we today call minor news items.

 

The Prefecture of Police also provided its share of information. Since this related only to the events that had occurred the previous night, it at least had the merit of being up-to-date.

 

The Military Police never rested, and provided precious information on its own special domain: troops crossing the capital, the number of men in hospital, the names of generals who had arrived or left for their assignments, and reports on foodstuffs and provisions.

 

Finally, and least important of all, were the reports from the “petite police” (cost: 500 francs a month from the Imperial purse), which reported the gossip from bars, the street and other public places. By bestowing this lowly position upon him, Napoleon allowed a former head of battalion who had served under the orders of General Bonaparte to earn a decent living.

 

Like every head of state, the Emperor was compelled to resort to such shady institutions, for which he had only very limited respect. He also carefully ensured that those invested with this police power did not abuse it to the detriment of citizens. Fain quotes a particularly severe letter addressed to Savary, Fouché’s successor in the Police Department:

 

“You must never forget that in ordinary affairs, only magistrates have the authority to issue an arrest warrant to a citizen, and if by a delegation of my dictatorship [in the Latin sense of supreme magistrate] you are able to avail yourself of this right, you must know that it may only be in very rare cases of high policy and urgent necessity, but even then you must immediately send me a report of this extralegal act; it was never my intention, however, that such a right should descend to your subordinates. It is perhaps already rather too much that it has descended as far as you! It is perhaps even too much that I am able to employ it myself! Extraordinary times sometimes require extraordinary powers, but I have entrusted you with a weapon for my defense; you alone must use it, and you will answer to me for any abuse of this authority committed by others.”

This letter, a veritable profession of faith, was motivated by an excerpt from a memorandum reporting the case of a citizen who, upon the orders of a police underling, was thrown into prison in total disregard for due legal process.

 

 

The “pirates” of the Imperial Mail

 

There was another source of information that Napoleon had recourse to, which had great similarities with what we would today call intelligence gathering.

 

The product of this activity was presented in the form of a red Morocco portfolio marked “foreign Gazettes.” This system – which was not created by Napoleon but by Louis XIV – allowed the Emperor to know what foreign diplomats chose to reserve for the exclusive attention of their own sovereigns, who, of course, employed similar systems.

 

In order to direct such a sensitive service, Napoleon needed a man he could trust implicitly. His choice fell upon Lavalette, one of his former aides-de-camp, who remained Minister of the Post Office throughout the duration of the Empire, and was consequently in charge of this clandestine office.

 

How did the system operate?

 

During the sorting of arriving and departing mail, discreet hands redirected letters from foreign ambassadors and also those of their subordinates, who were often well informed and often less reserved. From this sorting office, the mail passed directly into what might be called the laboratory, which communicated with the post office through a secret door. There, in less time than it took to write them, the dispatches were opened, analyzed, and immediately put back into circulation.

 

Nothing resisted these clandestine post-office workers, not wax seals, complicated envelopes, nor codes, since in the rue du Coq-Héron, in the neighborhood of les Halles, was a kind of school where every aspect of the trade was taught: the use of chemicals, calculation of probabilities and grammatical analysis to decipher encoded messages, and how to soften the wax then harden it once more to restore the seal.

To everyone assigned to this rather singular occupation — which was most often passed down from father to son — Napoleon provided fictitious job-descriptions that allowed them to carry out their activities in utter secrecy.

 

In order to prepare them for this line of work, the Emperor and his Post Office Minister spared nothing: future mail pirates were sent at great cost to foreign countries to familiarize themselves with the most popular expressions in each language, with the most obscure handwriting and the most common abbreviations. French ambassadors were apparently unaware of the true mission of such travelers, who concealed their activities behind the mask of trade, banking, or diplomacy.

 

Foreign sovereigns who resorted to the same practices issued orders to their diplomatic representations not to send confide important dispatches to the care of the Imperial Mail but to special couriers, who carried what we today call a “diplomatic bag.”

 

Fortunately, however, there still remained the lesser diplomats, consuls, for example, who because they lacked the power to utilize such means, continued to use the mail, believing themselves protected by the use of complex codes.

 

Although as a private citizen, Napoleon might have found such practices repugnant, like every head of state, he had to ensure that certain private correspondence was “explored.” Even though this was always performed on the advice of the highest Police authority, the pirates of the “foreign Gazettes” left it up to second-rate employees to perform what they considered to be an ignoble task.

 

Sometimes these measures could have positive consequences for the person whose mail was intercepted. Obliged to take refuge in France for his devotion to King Joseph Bonaparte, a Spanish gentleman who had been a minister of King Ferdinand VII was wasting away in a state of extreme destitution. When a letter informing one of his friends of his distress came to Napoleon’s attention, the Emperor ordered one of his secretaries to send him 3000 francs per month, to be taken not from the State coffers, but from his own pocket.

 

Finally, after reading his mail and the newspapers, particularly le Moniteur in which he re-read the articles that he himself had “inspired,” Napoleon sat down at his desk to attack the pile – and what a pile – of current affairs.

 

The dictation ritual

 

It is well known that the Emperor's handwriting was awful. It was thus pure generosity rather than recognition for services rendered that inspired him to dig into his personal purse for a pension for his former handwriting teacher: the truth was that his hand was too slow and heavy to follow his prodigious train of thought, and managed only to scrawl hieroglyphics, seldom finishing words, or even lines. As one of his secretaries so delicately put it: “he did not scruple to bypass all of the requirements of handwriting.”

 

Napoléon himself had great difficulty reading what he had written. He therefore reserved his enigmatic writing for his Empress; for everyone else, he used dictation.

 

The most perilous of exercises!

 

Even though the story is well known, it provides a valuable insight into the way the affairs of the Empire were conducted.

 

The “machine” started up quite slowly, but as it came to life, it picked up speed. The Emperor then rose from his desk, paced up and down the room with giant strides, and, as one of the secretaries who took his dictation noted, the frequency of his comings and goings faithfully reflected the movements of his thoughts.

 

For the secretary, it was out of the question to compose, prepare or edit – Napoleon was in charge – but the Emperor dictated so rapidly that it was truly an arduous task. Many, many pens were used up during this exercise.

 

Make him repeat the phrase? This would have been out of the question, since it would have meant “an unwelcome invasion into the inner dialogue into which his imagination had retreated.” And the entire construction of his thoughts would have suffered.

 

For the Secretary, who could not let himself be overwhelmed by sentences that, like waves, rolled in one after the other, there was but one strategy: to learn how to leave gaps in order to follow the train of thought. These were filled in later, when the smoke had cleared, but in order to be able to do so, he had to perfectly understand the thoughts he had jotted down if ever he was to express them faithfully.

 

Only a secretary with the most intimate acquaintance with the matter in hand could hope to succeed in such a task.

 

Meneval explains it as follows:

 

“My entire merit consisted in the knowledge that I had of the sequence and conduct of [the Emperor's] affairs, in the foresight that this knowledge gave me of their direction and their outcome, and in the familiarity that I had acquired with the complexion of his mind, the accuracy of his style, and even the originality of his expressions. I possessed no shorthand procedure such as stenography, tachograpy or anything of the sort; I was thus unable to transcribe literally everything the Emperor dictated, but made a note of key items that served as reference points and of some characteristic expressions. I rewrote the letter in more or less the same terms, and when he reread before signing it, which only happened when it was a particularly thorny subject that preoccupied him, he beheld his own style in it, if I may so express myself.”

 

A golden opportunity occurred the moment the Emperor left his office. The Secretary would throw himself onto the answered pile, that is, the paper lying on the floor, and at a glance, verify the accuracy of what he had just noted down. One last doubt? It was enough just to note the terms and circumstances that gave rise to the request to understand the sense of the reply perfectly.

 

These intelligent men were happy when they were able, thanks to this system, to rectify information that they had snatched from the air: figures, technical data, names of people and places, which the Emperor often mispronounced to the point of incomprehensibility: in his mouth, the Elba became the Ebra and Salamanca, Smolensk and vice versa! But that also is well-known.

 

It goes without saying that each of the Emperor's dictations had to be copied out, usually twice, sometimes three times. First of all, a copy for mailing: the document, which had to be prepared quickly for submission for signing, was written on vellum edged with gold, in a square format, without a margin, and no spaces between paragraphs; then another copy for the Emperor’s own files that replaced the rough.

 

Two hours of imperial dictation meant a day’s work for the secretary, since Napoleon was always opposed to ordinary clerks knowing his affairs. In his view, secrecy and bureaucracy were incompatible.

 

Then, at 9 AM, the Chamberlain would announce the arrival of the ministers who had some message to communicate to the Emperor.

 

The second part of the morning was about to commence.

 

(To be continued)

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