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The Life of Napoleon I (Volume 1 of 2) by Rose

Paoli saw the approach of anarchy

The new constitution of 1791 was also a source of discord. In its jealousy of the royal authority, the National Assembly seized very many of the executive functions of government. The results were disastrous. Laws remained without force, taxes went uncollected, the army was distracted by mutinies, and the monarchy sank slowly into the gulf of bankruptcy and anarchy. Thus, in the course of three years, the revolutionists goaded the clergy to desperation, they were about to overthrow the monarchy, every month was proving their local self-government to be unworkable, and they themselves split into factions that plunged France into war and drenched her soil by organized massacres.

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We know very little about the impression made on the young Buonaparte by the first events of the Revolution. His note-book seems even to show that he regarded them as an inconvenient interference with his plans for Corsica. But gradually the Revolution excites his interest. In September, 1789, we find him on furlough in Corsica sharing the hopes of the islanders that their representatives in the French National Assembly will obtain the boon of independence. He exhorts his compatriots to favour the democratic cause, which promises a speedy deliverance from official abuses. He urges them to don the new tricolour cockade, symbol of Parisian triumph over the old monarchy; to form a club; above all, to organize a National Guard. The young officer knew that military power was passing from the royal army, now honeycombed with discontent, to the National Guard. Here surely was Corsica's means of salvation. But the French governor of Corsica intervenes. The club is closed, and the National Guard is dispersed. Thereupon Buonaparte launches a vigorous protest against the tyranny of the governor and appeals to the National Assembly of France for some guarantee of civil liberty. His name is at the head of this petition, a sufficiently daring step for a junior lieutenant on furlough. But his patriotism and audacity carry him still further. He journeys to Bastia, the official capital of his island, and is concerned in an affray between the populace and the royal troops (November 5th, 1789). The French authorities, fortunately for him, are nearly powerless: he is merely requested to return to Ajaccio; and there he organizes anew the civic force, and sets the dissident islanders an example of good discipline by mounting guard outside the house of a personal opponent.

Other events now transpired which began to assuage his opposition to France. Thanks to the eloquent efforts of Mirabeau, the Corsican patriots who had remained in exile since 1768 were allowed to return and enjoy the full rights of citizenship. Little could the friends of liberty at Paris, or even the statesman himself, have foreseen all the consequences of this action: it softened the feelings of many Corsicans towards their conquerors; above all, it caused the heart of Napoleon Buonaparte for the first time to throb in accord with that of the French nation. His feelings towards Paoli also began to cool. The conduct of this illustrious exile exposed him to the charge of ingratitude towards France. The decree of the French National Assembly, which restored him to Corsican citizenship, was graced by acts of courtesy such as the generous French nature can so winningly dispense. Louis XVI. and the National Assembly warmly greeted him, and recognized him as head of the National Guard of the island. Yet, amidst all the congratulations, Paoli saw the approach of anarchy, and behaved with some reserve. Outwardly, however, concord seemed to be assured, when on July 14th, 1790, he landed in Corsica; but the hatred long nursed by the mountaineers and fisherfolk against France was not to be exorcised by a few demonstrations. In truth, the island was deeply agitated. The priests were rousing the people against the newly decreed Civil Constitution of the Clergy; and one of these disturbances endangered the life of Napoleon himself. He and his brother Joseph chanced to pass by when one of the processions of priests and devotees was exciting the pity and indignation of the townsfolk. The two brothers, who were now well known as partisans of the Revolution, were threatened with violence, and were saved only by their own firm demeanour and the intervention of peacemakers.

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