Volume II - Chapter 4





Based on his experience that unforeseen events can hinder, even put an end to major projects, Napoleon took special care that whatever work was begun was never wasted.


The goal he set every year for his engineers was to finish the whole by finishing the parts.


"If you start everything, you finish nothing", he often liked to say.


For example, to offset the effects of the natural tendency of project directors to begin work on every front at the same time – a practice that horrified him – Napoleon adopted an impeccably logical system. One of its secretaries explains it this way:


"To every sum of money that was authorized, he assigned a definite result; he wanted each season of work to produce its immediate, finished result, and in every long-winded project there was always a clear, progressive relationship between the money that was spent and the percentage of work that was completed. For example, if a project was supposed to take place over ten years, each year that used up one-tenth of the total credits had to produce one-tenth of the finished work. If he authorized twenty-five million francs for upgrading a fortress, the project manager had to take care not to start wildly using his hammer on everything in sight, since a war could break out, in which case he would find himself in the position of having spent money to do more harm than good. What was needed was a totally opposite approach that would not compromise current strength in any way. All work had to be carried with an aim of strengthening; every single planned improvement must, one after the other, and in step with spending, be incorporated complete and finished into the former structure."


In simple terms, a new fortress must be able to act in a defensive role from the very first day of work, even if only as a simple advance post.


More roads and canals than all the Bourbons put together


It was not just military projects that profited from the Emperor’s vigilance. The same was true for civil construction.


When, after deciding on the overall plan, he initiated work on the gallery at the Louvre, he asked the architect to carry out the work in sections:


"If am unable to finish it, at least I shall not leave behind me a long line of stunted columns, sadly waiting to be crowned with their vaults and the rest of the edifice; a glance at the Carrousel will beautify as many complete arcades as I could have erected and the Tuileries service will profit from this wing more quickly than the Louvre."



In 1801, the Exhibition of the Products of Industry, in the "Cour Carrée" of the Louvre, was the symbol of restored prosperity under the Consulate.


Constructing a canal? Same approach. Once the course was defined, he required that the first stretch be opened entirely before continuing, without interruption, always taking care to finish what had been begun. 


"It is better to be the possessor of a canal ten leagues long every ten years than to wait a century for a hundred-league canal to be completed."


Another example: opening a road. The engineers must not tear up all the existing surface, but unroll the pavement one toise at a time over the surface to be graded. The completed part could then be used independently of the parts that remained to be done.


This system was inspired by the conviction that the community should profit as quickly as possible from the money committed by the state.


When he was received in March 1802 after the signing of the peace of Amiens by the man who was then First Consul, the marquis of Lucchesini, the Prussian ambassador, was surprised to find the conqueror of the forces of the Second Coalition to be a man totally devoted to peace.


In a dispatch to his government, the diplomat stated that Bonaparte had spoken to him "with conviction of the canals to be finished and opened, of highways to be constructed and repaired, of ports to be cleaned, of towns to be adorned, of places of worship and pious institutions to be opened, of public instruction and education to be paid for…."



The Lycée Bonaparte, now the Lycée Condorcet


When we realize that this ambassador was – and would always remain – a fervent enemy of Republican, Consular, and then Imperial France, his testimony should carry some weight!


Few people know that in less than fifteen years, and in spite of 15 years of incessant coalitions Napoleon, as First Consul then as Emperor, oversaw the construction of more roads and canals than all the Bourbons combined.


We should recall a phrase – written in 1803 a short time before the Treaty of Amiens was broken – from the Russian ambassador in London, Woronzov, who was also well-known for his hostility to the new France, to First Consul Bonaparte and then to Emperor Napoleon:


"Its system of government [the London cabinet] will always be to eradicate France as its only rival, and afterwards to reign despotically over the entire universe."


This one sentence throws, in the most unambiguous terms possible, a new, harsh light on the twelve tragic years that were to follow that is difficult, almost impossible to contemplate squarely, so skilful was the propaganda of the English, as conveyed by their faithful Allies, the French royalists.


Following is list of some of the major works that were undertaken during the Empire:




- From Mont-Cenis (linking Lyon to Turin and to Genoa)

- From Simplon (linking Geneva to Milan)

- From Lautaret

- From Alexandria to Savona

- From Genoa to Alexandria

- From Parma to La Spezia

- From Piacenza to Genoa

- From Paris to Madrid by Bayonne

- From Paris to Amsterdam

- From Paris to Namur-Liège-Hamburg

- From Paris to Mayence

- From Tournus to Chambéry

- Plus departmental roads…



- The Ourcq canal

- Roule, Rochechouart, Ménilmontant, Villejuif, and Grenelle abattoirs.

- The flower and bird markets

- The “Halle aux vins”

- Egg and fish market in the Halles Sainte-Eustache

- The Carmes, des Blancs-Manteaux, Saint-Joseph, Popincourt, Saint-Germain markets

- Pont des Arts

- Pont d’Austerlitz

- Pont d’Iéna

- Temple de la Gloire (now the Church of the Madeleine)

- The Arc de triomphe at the Carrousel

- The Vendôme Column

- Restoration of the Panthéon

- Reconstruction of the Odéon

- Works on the Louvre, the Tuileries, the Chamber of Deputies, and the Sainte-Geneviève and Saint-Denis churches

- Quais du Louvre, Debilly, Morland, de la Cité

- Palais des Archives

- Fifteen fountains

- Streets: de Rivoli, de Castiglione, des Pyramides, de la Paix, Soufflot, d’Ulm, Clovis, Champs-Élysées, etc.

- Excavation of ten kilometers of sewers

- Père-Lachaise cemetery




Two hundred and seventy-seven million francs




One hundred and three million francs



- Saint-Quentin

- From Escaut to the Somme

- From Burgundy (begun under Louis XV, completed in 1832)

- From the Rance to the Vilaine

- From the Baltic to the Seine

- From Lübeck to Hambourg

- From Nantes to Brest

- From the Sambre to the Escaut

- From Niort

- Loire Lateral Canal

- From the Rhine to the Rhone by the Doubs, linking the North Sea to the Mediterranean

- Plus a certain number of smaller canals




- Cherbourg

- Le Havre

- Dunkirk

- Calais

- Saint-Valéry

- Dieppe

- Bayonne

- Sète

- Marseilles

- Anvers

- Vlissingen

- Ostend (and the canal)




Fifty-five million francs




Fifty-five million francs




- Scrivia (Italy)

- Tours

- Tilsit (in Lyon)

- Isère

- La Durance

- Bordeaux

- Moissac, Agen, etc.

Bridge and wharfs in Rouen

- Roanne

- Givet

- Vey

- Arves

- Sèvres

- Saint-Cloud…


1804 AND 1813:


Thirty-one million francs



The Austerlitz bridge


From the (too) brief examples given above, we will understand that the man that many prefer to see only as wartime commander, was also a great builder whose dreams, situated far from the battlefield, were endlessly interrupted by wars imposed by the European monarchies for the sole benefit of England.


The State Council, "complement to administrative thought"


Even though this phrase of the Emperor’s is well known, it always useful to quote it in order to rid him of that image of unassuaged warrior that he was forced to endorse, believing he would find satisfaction in it.


“My glory is not in winning forty battles; what nothing can erase, what will live eternally, is my Civil Code and the proceedings of the State Council.”



Bonaparte First Consul

surrounded by the members of the State Council


What is this State Council that he was so proud of?


One of the private secretaries, Fain, provides a partial answer:


"It was not a power; it was only a complement to administrative thought; it was a Council in all the full meaning of the term, which could movement and act only upon the impetus that it received from the Emperor; which advised only when the Emperor told it to: Advise me!; which dealt only with the matters on which it was consulted; whose duty was then to advise the Emperor on the advantages or disadvantages of proposals made by the ministers, indicating amendments and improvements that the projects appeared to require, but never offering any more than an opinion [ underlined in the text ]. Such indeed was the official title of its deliberations and the actual object of its work."


Let us look first at some practical details.


First of all, the place.


The General Assembly of the Council convened in a room in the Tuileries alongside the chapel, on the side of the courtyard. Its principal ornament was a representation of the battle of Austerlitz on the ceiling. At one end of the room, on a dais, were the desk of the Arch Chancellor and that of the Arch Treasurer; set on a higher level the chair where Napoleon’ sat. In the middle was the horseshoe-shaped table of the advisers. Placed transversely at the end of the room was a third table that accommodated the Masters of Requests. The auditors sat on chairs arranged along the sides, behind the advisers.


It would be well to pause for a moment on these auditors. These disciples of the Councilors were Napoleon’s creation :


"I’m raising administrators for the future. They are being trained in the workshop of regulations and laws. They will be imbued with our principles and our maxims of public order. Always surrounded with good counsel and good judgment, sometimes under the eyes of the government, sometimes on important missions, when they arrive at public functions, their tested character and knowledge are my guarantee that they possess all the requisite maturity of experience.”"


They then finished their training in the field. Many of the auditors continued their education in the harsh classroom of war by participating, in the Russian and other campaigns.


The State Council was made up of about six hundred men, including two hundred foreigners, Germans, Italians and Dutch, whose presence was explained by these countries’ union with France. They were, as in the institution today, Councillors, Masters of Requests and Auditors. Many, incidentally, were often sent far from Paris on missions to the Army, to embassies and other posts where their presence was needed.


We need not go into the details of the deliberations, just explain the Emperor’s vision of the State Council and what he expected from it.


For him, the Council of state was not just a machine for "manufacturing opinions" but a storehouse of men capable of expressing themselves on his behalf, to the Senate or to the Legislative Corps. They were a variety of civilian aides-de-camp, whose purpose was to transmit, not like their counterparts in the Army, orders for the performance of delicate maneuvers, but civilian instructions, by going wherever the march of administration needed extra impetus.


The corollary to this desire and need to surround himself with competent individuals was that the Emperor did not get involved in any of the quarrels between the parties, did not make a selection criterion of any of the opinions professed by each at the beginning, and if a candidate had the benefit of a political recommendation, he was only appointed if he was suited for the post.


Their careers then progressed according to their merits and the service rendered by each one.         

The sessions of the State Council began at noon. They could last very late, except when the Emperor was absent: it was then that Arch Chancellor Cambacérès took over, and these sessions, gastronomie oblige, unfailingly ended at dinner time.


In truth, the proceedings of the State Council, generally loaded down with routine administrative tasks, were rarely passionate affairs. Things went differently, however, when the Emperor attended the sessions.


His arrival was announced by a roll of the drum in the guardroom. The bailiffs cried out: "the Emperor!" And everyone rose to greet him.


No one will be surprised to learn that his presence changed the tone of the meeting. As Fain reports it:


"There were no deliberations that did not instantly assume greater interest, because he always said something, and what he said was utterly remarkable."


One inconvenience for the gentleman of the State Council was that the sessions often dragged on well into the evening. This was the case under the Consulate, and one day when the session lasted until the small hours, Bonaparte shook the assembly with these words:


"Come, come, citizen ministers, wake up! It’s only two o’clock in the morning, we have to earn the money that the French people pay us!"


He always remained fresh, which prompted Las Cases, one the Masters of Requests who later made himself a name as the memorialist of the purgatory of St. Helena, to remark:


"I sometimes saw him prolong the session until the evening, and show at the end the same facility, abundance, and freshness of mind and the same strength of purpose as when he began, while we others were dropping from fatigue."


A prodigious brain


The Emperor’s extraordinary intellectual faculties always stupefied his contemporaries. Two examples:


- The Fontainebleau Military School: One day, Napoleon came up with a plan to establish a military school in the Palace of Fontainebleau. He sent for Chaptal, his minister of the Interior, explained the broad outlines of his plan and asked him to clear up the details for the next day. At the appointed time, Chaptal appeared before the Consul, his work under his arm. The Consul was not satisfied. This is how Chaptal relates the incident:

“He made me to sit down and for two or three hours dictated to me an organization plan containing five hundred and seventeen articles. I think that nothing more perfect has ever issued from a man’s head.”


The "Boulogne dictation": in April 1805, the Emperor was in his headquarters at Pont-de-Briques, where he was waiting for Admiral Villeneuve to return from his mission in order to protect the French invasion fleet on its way to England. Napoleon flew into a violent range when he learned that Villeneuve had taken refuge in Ferrol (Spain). Catching sight of Daru, upon whom the first fury of the storm was unleashed, he pointed to a desk overloaded with papers and said "Sit there and write!" and without missing a beat, without hesitation, he dictated to him the entire campaign plan that would end with the triumph of Austerlitz: the about-face of the Army that is still the Côtes de l’Océan Army–that arrayed itself in a line along a front almost two hundred leagues in length: about nine hundred kilometers! –the order of the marches and how long they would last, the points of convergence between the various army corps, the sites of the battles, and because he never doubted himself, the victories. Even the date of his entry into Vienna. Although like everyone else he was used to the Emperor’s displays of genius, Daru was dumbfounded. Some people, of course, think it was rehearsed. However this may be, everything was so well ordered in his brain, everything was so accurately predicted by his military genius, everything was so exactly classified in his prodigious memory, that the Emperor was able to dictate his campaign plan without hesitation and without a single error, since he knew down to the last soldier all the well-oiled mechanisms of his Army, which for two years, had been exercising rapid, precise movements. Two hundred thousand men then marched east. Toward Austerlitz!


We hardly think that could have been "rehearsed."





Contrary to one of those tenacious legends that has always dogged his memory, the Emperor never once acted despotically during the Council sessions. More than once, one of the secretaries saw that he was the only one to hold a certain opinion, and Las Cases reports that he often postponed a subject under discussion and even cancelled a decision already made because a member of the Council had come to him personally to give him new reasons.


The University’s regulations were rewritten twenty times.

What was the most brilliant episode in the life of the State Council? The verdict is unanimous: the discussion on the Codes.



Napoleon's personal copy of the Civil Code


 "My glory consists not of having won forty battles ;

that which nothing will erase, that which will live eternally,

is my Civil Code and the Minutes of the State Council."


The juriconsultes, as can be expected “occupied the floor,” but the Emperor left his mark. Not as much as he would have wished; for the penal code and the code of procedure, in particular, he would regret until the end of his days that he did not revise the articles himself.


Fain especially remembers a session during which the Emperor was obliged to retreat in the face of the systematic hardness of the criminal law. This case is particularly revealing of the sense of humanity that animated Napoleon.


Under threat of a death sentence, a woman living in Amsterdam had been acquitted – no less than three times! For obscure reasons known only to legal specialists more preoccupied with texts than with humanity, the question had arisen of trying this unfortunate woman’s case one more time. Napoleon saw the three acquittals as sufficient reason for the law to leave her alone at last. The cause of justice has not ended, the president of the court of Cassation replied to him, backed up by the whole assembly of jurists.


So, isolated in his humanistic convictions, the Emperor spoke these words:


"Gentlemen, it is the majority that pronounces here; I stand alone, but I declared to you that in my conscience, I only yield to forms. You have reduced me to silence yet have utterly failed to convince me. The question of leniency, however, does concern me, and if the fourth judgment contradicts the first three, I intend to exercise my right."


Secretary of State Hugues-Bernard Maret: a civilian Berthier


The day ended with work in the Company of the Secretary of State, the function was not that of the deputy minister that we know today.


The crushing task was to centralize and share out the essential part of the work and orders of the Emperor related to the gigantic Imperial machinery.

Roughly speaking, we can say that the Secretary of State was to Napoleon the Emperor – in all times and in all places, while traveling, on campaign or in the Tuileries Palace – what his Major General, Marshal Berthier, had been to Napoleon, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army.


As soon as one of Napoleon's decisions became a decree, its execution became the responsibility of the Secretary of State. From that moment on, depending on the importance of the subject, and/or the distances to be traveled, the entire machine – state messengers, couriers, telegraph, and if necessary, all the auditors of the State Council, were at his disposal.


Here is a summary of the function as seen by Napoleon:


"All my acts emanated from my minister, the Secretary of State. He was the great notary of the Empire, signing and legalizing all the documents; through him, I launched my decisions and my desires in every direction and everywhere; so much so that with the Secretary of State and half a dozen secretaries I could have governed the Empire from deepest Illyria or the shores of the Neman as easily as from my own capital."


This crucial ministry needed a man at its head in whom Emperor could have complete confidence. He found this man in the person of Hugues-Bernard Maret, who was later made Duke of Bassano. He occupied the post for 12 years until Napoleon’s marriage with Marie-Louise en 1810, upon which he took that of the Minister of External Affairs, before resuming it two years later. Maret remain faithful to the Emperor until the time of his last battle: Waterloo.


The Emperor "closes his drawers"


Like everyone else, the Emperor ended his day with dinner. He sat at table around 7 pm alone with the Empress when he was at the Tuileries, with his ministers after the Council session on Wednesdays, in campaign with Marshals Berthier and Bessières, and with Secretary of State Maret.


Besides the Emperor’s table, there was that of his senior officers, usually presided over by the Grand Marshal of the Palace, Duroc, or in his absence, by the Grand Écuyer, Caulaincourt, or by the Emperor’s aide-de-camp.


It should be noted that this man, the permanent target of royalist assassins, never, to the astonishment of those close to him, took any particular precautions for his safety and that he had complete confidence in his servants, "abandoning his life to them as if the idea of danger had never occurred to him."


On this matter, Secretary Fain, who was extremely well placed to judge, wrote that he had "never heard any concern expressed about poisoning or any extraordinary precautions."


We shall not return to the Emperor’s culinary tastes – these had not changed since Malmaison – nor for the time actually spent at table:  never more than fifteen to twenty minutes.


After dinner, Napoleon went into the salon of Empress Marie-Louise. There he found the Duchess of Montebello, the widow of Marshal Lannes and Marie-Louise’s maid of honor and the officers in service at the palace, marshals, ministers, and intimates such as Cambacérès, Duroc, Caulaincourt, Lavallette, Savary, General Bertrand (who took over from Duroc after his death in 1813), one of his aides-de-camp, General Count de Narbonne…


The evening generally came to close around nine or ten o’ clock. The Emperor went back to his apartments. This was always the moment that Maret chose to ambush him and submit an urgent dispatch that arrived by telegraph, a document to be signed, or an article for the Moniteur, to be reread before sending it to the printers.


Then and only then, Napoleon could contemplate taking a rest like an ordinary man, but in order to do so, he had a very personal method, as perhaps might be expected:


"When I want to interrupt an affair, I close its drawer and I open that of another. They never get mixed up and never bother nor tire me. When I want to sleep, I just close all the drawers and off I go to sleep."


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