Malmaison was a place that permitted both work and (relative) relaxation, the TuileriesPalace, “as
sad as grandeur,” in Bonaparte's famous phrase, was the official residence of
the man who ruled France.
TUILERIES: THE PALACE OF POWER
Palace, Napoleon occupied the apartment overlooking the garden, at the far end
of the apartments on the first floor.
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.
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.
hours later, he was up again, ready for the daily marathon.
was his study like?
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.
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.
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.”
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!).
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
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
Secretary: a monastic calling
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.
the private secretary’s task to sort through this jumble of letters.
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.
has conserved three names: Bourrienne, Meneval and Fain.
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.”
recounts with some humor his first day at work with the man who as yet was only
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.”
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.
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.
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
now look at the operations of the secretariat:
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
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
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.
government has some kind of secret police that generates an enormous quantity
of reports of every kind.
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
did the system operate?
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
himself had great difficulty reading what he had written. He therefore reserved
his enigmatic writing for his Empress; for everyone else, he used dictation.
most perilous of exercises!
though the story is well known, it provides a valuable insight into the way the
affairs of the Empire were conducted.
“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
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.
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
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
secretary with the most intimate acquaintance with the matter in hand could
hope to succeed in such a task.
explains it as follows:
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
at 9 AM, the
Chamberlain would announce the arrival of the ministers who had some message to
communicate to the Emperor.
second part of the morning was about to commence.