Volume II - Chapitre 3




It is common knowledge that Napoleon kept an eye on everything.


Few people, however, are really aware of just how many administrative tasks he undertook and the care he took to perform them.


This is what we shall attempt to show in this section.



The secretaries who usually worked with him rarely saw Napoleon as motionless as David represents him on this portrait. During his work sessions, the Emperor paced up and down in his study, "the frequency of his comings and goings, wrote one of his secretaries, perfectly reflected the movement of his thoughts."


However superhuman he may have appeared, even he could not remember everything. Consequently, the Emperor required that everyone who served him – that is, who served the country – should comply with his system of work:


“The wheels,” one of his private secretaries wrote, “were only allowed to move inside the grooves that he himself had laid down. Each compartment of his memory was supplemented by a book. He transformed his office into a piano keyboard to which all the strings of government were attached, and alone with his Secretary, he struck whichever chords he chose.


At least once a month, more often every two weeks, Napoleon’s ministers submitted these famous books that had been drawn up according to the model that he had developed personally.

The “military books”


Let us begin with the matters relating to the Grand Army, since in the previous issue we stated that the Emperor allowed no one else to ensure the effectiveness of this prodigious and complex war machine that guaranteed the safety of the Empire against the monarchies of Europe.


It should come as no surprise to discover that the Minister of War was the largest supplier of books. These were classified by regiment, military division, army Corps, etc.


What was in them?


Everything that related to the affairs of the regiments: the names of the colonel and all the superior officers, the various battles the regiments were involved in, in which Army, in which active division, each battalion was employed, where it was stationed, its strength and the number of men under arms, the records of the number of sick and wounded in hospitals, the anticipated number of recruits from conscription that year and the departments that were supposed to supply these recruits, etc.; for the military division: the names of the general commanding the division, the staff officers and the heads of places, the number of companies of sappers and miners, of artillery troops, the number of cannon, of battalions of veterans, of arsenals..; the books supplied by the Army corps provided information on the military headquarters, its staff, and its military administration, on the divisions and their brigades: at a single glance, the Emperor could note the names of the generals and colonels, the names of towns and villages, the corps number, the strength of each division in terms of men, horses, and cannon, with a note specifying the number of reinforcements marching to join it.

Furthermore, the minister of war came once a week to submit a paper – the “movement sheet” – upon which his marching orders were recorded, and dates of departure and arrival precisely calculated. It was laid out in a column format that made it possible to follow any troop along its journey day by day. It was so detailed that every night, the Emperor knew where the smallest detachment was stationed.


One very important book should not be forgotten: the one supplied by the prefects, which gave the details of all the dodgers and deserters and which served as a kind of political barometer.


Napoleon attached the greatest importance to these status reports. Accordingly, when he wrote to his stepson Eugene, to reproach him for providing insufficient or vague information, he ended his letter with a statement that accurately summarizes the question of the books of war:


For my French Army, the minister provides me with eighteen [!] volumes twice a month, showing the status of the army from every point of view.


Thus it was that the entire Grand Army could be found arrayed upon a corner of the Imperial desk at the Tuileries, its generals placed, in accordance with regulations, at its head.


The “honorable correspondants”


Since he also needed to have projections on the armies of the monarchies of Europe, which, depending on alliances, might become allies or adversaries, the Minister of External Affairs supplied the Emperor with reports on foreign armies based on the model of those used for French troops. It should come as a surprise to no one to learn that these reports were far less accurate.


There are several stories in this regard recounting that more than one foreign minister made Napoleon an offer to “supplement” this information – for a price, naturally. The Emperor refused, as corruption was totally foreign to his nature. This prompted the person who recorded the incident to remark:


“Perhaps he was wrong; perhaps politicians should prey on human weakness; if so, we must agree that in this regard the Emperor was not the best politician of his time.”


When the time came, we shall see that Tsar Alexander – not to mention the English – would not experience the same pangs of conscience.


Although he refused to yield to the venality of foreign ministers, Napoleon did not spurn the services rendered by “honorable correspondents,” namely, members of French delegations abroad. Their instructions (secret, naturally) were to record every troop movement they witnessed, particularly noting the countries they were leaving from and the ones they were headed for. Once received, this information was filed in a special office at the war ministry. In spite of its somewhat random nature, this intelligence gathering allowed Napoleon, with his talent for estimating the size of military units, to get a fairly accurate idea of the enemy’s forces. This was so effective that, during the Russian campaign, when Cossacks seized a coach carrying papers relating to the Russian Army, the leaders were convinced that the papers had been stolen from them.


Every branch of the army and navy (boats in harbour, leaving port, being disarmed, under construction or in repair dock) received the same attention.

Making every penny count

Napoleon’s desire for economy is legendary. In the previous chapter, we saw the extreme care that he devoted to expenses for his personal wardrobe. It should therefore come as no surprise that he should exercise the same vigilance over public affairs.


Like his colleagues in the Army and the Navy, the Minister of Finance had to supply the Emperor with a report of each transaction, each expenditure and each deposit. Napoléon always succeeded in extracting what was important – or suspicious— from this jumble of tightly written lines.


One day, during the working session with Gaudin, his Finance Minister, the Emperor pointed out a sum of 60,000 francs paid to a regiment in Paris.

This was the dialogue that ensued:

“So you say this payment was made in Paris.”


“All the documents have been properly checked?”

“Of course.”

“It’s monstrous! The detachment is a hundred leagues from Paris; look closely; there’s major fraud here!”


In fact, the fraud had been perpetrated using printed forms bearing forged signatures, imitated to perfection.

Let us give the Emperor’s “economic performance” the appreciation it deserves.


Napoleon’s distaste for speculators


Why did he put so much effort into tracking down fraud?


First of all because Napoleon never overcame his disgust over the crooked dealings of the Directory and its shameless speculators — from that time on, the Emperor harboured a veritable dread of seeing the interests of the state controlled by speculators and private capital. (Compromised in international speculation which led to the failure of several banks along with the shady financier Ouvrard, Treasury Minister Barbé-Marbois was stripped of his post.) He had never forgotten the contents of the French treasury when he took over the reins of power: 167,000 francs! – nor the astronomical size of the public deficit: 250 million francs, a third of the national budget! Because he remembered the measures that needed to be implemented with the aid of his counselors Gaudin et Mollien to rectify this enormously difficult situation. (One result of these efforts was the creation of the Bank of France in February 1800.) Because he remembered the cuts that had to be made everywhere possible without raising taxes. Most surprising of all, in spite of the colossal expenditures incurred in 15 years of wars imposed on France by England via the foreign monarchies, the franc was never devalued and the economy experienced zero inflation.


A miracle of rigorous administrative management?


No doubt, but this was not sufficient on its own.

The Emperor – justly so, in our opinion – sought subsidies and indemnities in the form of money from the countries that had declared war upon him – and lost.


Accordingly, after the treaty of Presbourg following its defeat at Austerlitz, Austria – which with Russia had received over five million pounds from the English to form this third coalition – was obliged to pay a tax of 48 million francs in 1806 and a further 88 million after its defeat at Wagram in 1809.


Prussia, which paid for its shameless provocations with its doubly crushing defeat at Iéna-Auerstedt, had to pay out 700 million francs in indemnities.


These sums were paid partly into the “extraordinary domain” the secret fund that the Emperor could resort to in the event of a serious crisis; they were also used to partly finance major works, and occasionally, to provide assistance to scholars, artists and industrialists in difficulty.


There was one more reason why Napoleon insisted so scrupulously on complete transparency in public spending: although he had been made Emperor, it did not mean that the French people had to revert to their rather humiliating former condition of “subjects.” They had remained citizens.


As one of his private secretaries explained: “He wanted ordinary citizens to be able, without consulting administrative information, and solely with the aid of the accounts published by ministers, to easily retrace all the major steps and results of the financial operations of the Empire.”


And if this source is to be believed, that goal was achieved.


A constant preoccupation: the price of wheat


In the past, a large number of insurrectionist incidents – hunger riots –had been caused by the high price of wheat, and consequently, of bread.


“What I am afraid of” he said one day to Chaptal, who was still his minister of the Interior, “is an insurrection brought about by a lack of bread; I would be less afraid of a battle against 200,000 men.”


Thus it was that Napoleon attached particular importance to the price of wheat, as for him it constituted a veritable “safety gauge.”


In order to assess at a glance the usually vague and confusing figures relating to market price lists (the “mercuriales”), – reports on the price of produce on public markets – the Emperor set up a rather unusual map of France, on which each department was represented by a square. Inside the square was recorded the local price of wheat, based on the latest rates.


The South, the North, the East the West and the center were represented in different colors that corresponded to a key in the margin, showing the highest, lowest, and average rates for each region. And the bottom of the map was a two-line summary citing the average price for the whole of France and the two departments with the highest and lowest prices respectively.


Every two weeks, this system informed Napoleon of the variations in the price of wheat for the whole country, thus allowing him to see where there were shortages and surpluses, and where appropriate remedies needed to be applied.


He was thus never caught unawares.


The same was true for internal security. As soon as trouble was reported, he was able to locate the closest troops at a glance into the “book of war”.


Should he dispatch a greater number? The movement sheet informed him of all troops in the vicinity, so that he could redirect them.


Should he visit a stronghold? Using the same system, he knew the number of cannons, cannonballs and the quantities of gun powder, often better than the commandant himself.


Should he visit a prefecture? If the prefect brought up the topic of conscription, he knew, down to a man, how many had deserted from the last contingent.


 Bonaparte First Consul





When the international situation permitted, that is, when the monarchs of Europe were not preparing some coalition, Napoleon enjoyed visiting the various parts of the Empire.

Lyon, the commercial capital, had always merited special treatment, and every time he went to Italy, the Emperor never missed the chance of stopping in the former religious capital of Gaul.

In 1805, on his way to Milan he visited, in turn, the departmental seats of Champagne, Bourgogne et Bresse.

In 1810, accompanied by Empress Marie-Louise, he visited Rouen, which as First Consul Bonaparte he had visited in 1802. The following year he visited Cherbourg, then made a tour of the other Departments of Normandy.

Napoléon visited Belgium four times: in 1803, in 1804, in 1810 and in 1811. His favorite cities were Brussels, Anvers and Gand. He availed himself of his trip to Belgium in 1804 to visit Aix-la-Chapelle, Cologne, Mayence, Coblence and Luxembourg.

Due to the war in Spain, he went to Bordeaux and Bayonne three times. At the same time he visited Gers, the department where one of his few true friends, Marshal Lannes, was born, and l’Ariège. After returning by way of Toulouse et Montauban, he then went to Rochefort and Vendée – for which he arranged payments of 10 million francs in restitution for the still open wounds of the war between the Republican “blues” and the Royalist “whites.” He then stopped off at Nantes, Angers and Tours.

The last trip on which he was able to unite pleasure with utility was to Holland in 1811.



One last point that is quite well known, but nonetheless appropriate to mention, since this small mark of attention deeply affected those who benefited from it: Whenever Napoleon performed a military inspection, he knew everything about the battles and campaigns the veterans had taken part in, and was able to tell the new conscripts, who were so disoriented by their new existence, the name of the town of their birth, thereby breaking the ice and winning their hearts.


The “administrative councils”


We are familiar with the term “state council” (whose work we shall return to later) yet we are far less familiar with “administrative councils.”


The term obviously did not mean what it means today – these were working sessions that were held on Mondays, Tuesdays and Sundays –  whose purpose was to examine one single question or one single type of question in depth.


These included the councils of commerce, subsistence, engineering, artillery, bridges and highways and public works, naval works and war.



The commercial Port of Cherbourg, by Théodore Deslinières (RR)


To get a small idea of the importance that the Emperor attached to these sessions, let us take the example of the administrative council of bridges and highways. Several times a year Napoleon inspected all the projects under way throughout the empire, including the works in Alexandria (Italy), Anvers and Danzig, the canals, the roads over the Alps, the basin of Cherbourg, the beautification of Paris, and so on.



Antwerp, 2 May 1810: the launching of the vessel "The Friedland"

in the presence of Napoleon and Empress Marie-Louise

by Matthijs van Bree (1773-1839) (RR)


Since bureaucrats could not give him enough information on all these matters, Napoleon got representatives from the actual sites to come to him.


All these people temporarily abandoned the works they were in charge of and hurried, from Spain, Belgium, Italy, and of course France, to report to the Emperor.


It was a good opportunity for all these people to present their projects, to defend their reputations, and to obtain the maximum possible credit. These sessions were usually very intense, since Napoleon wanted to know and understand everything, and generally lasted several hours.


Yet while he accorded the credit that he judged to be due and necessary, Napoleon always exercised discretion in this regard.


(To be continued)


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