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

But indirectly the matter was infinitely important


The

dealings of the French commercial commissioners and the beginnings of the Emmett plot increased the tension caused by Napoleon's masterful foreign policy; and the result was seen in the King's message to Parliament on March 8th, 1803. In view of the military preparations and of the wanton defiance of the First Consul's recent message to the Corps Legislatif, Ministers asked for the embodiment of the militia and the addition of 10,000 seamen to the navy. After Napoleon's declaration to our ambassador that France was bringing her forces on active service up to 480,000 men, the above-named increase of the British forces might well seem a reasonable measure of defence. Yet it so aroused the spleen of the First Consul that, at a public reception of ambassadors on March 13th, he thus accosted Lord Whitworth:

"'So you are determined to go to war.' 'No, First Consul,' I replied, 'we are too sensible of the advantage of peace.' 'Why, then, these armaments? Against whom these measures of precaution? I have not a single ship of the line in the French ports, but if you wish to arm I will arm also: if you wish to fight, I will fight also. You may perhaps kill France, but will never intimidate her.' 'We wish,' said I, 'neither the one nor the other. We wish to live on good terms with her.' 'You must respect treaties then,' replied he; 'woe to those who do not respect treaties. They shall answer for it to all

Europe.' He was too agitated to make it advisable to prolong the conversation: I therefore made no answer, and he retired to his apartment, repeating the last phrase."[249]

This curious scene shows Napoleon in one of his weaker petulant moods: it left on the embarrassed spectators no impression of outraged dignity, but rather of the over-weening self-assertion of an autocrat who could push on hostile preparations, and yet flout the ambassador of the Power that took reasonable precautions in return. The slight offered to our ambassador, though hotly resented in Britain, had no direct effect on the negotiations, as the First Consul soon took the opportunity of tacitly apologizing for the occurrence; but indirectly the matter was infinitely important. By that utterance he nailed his colours to the mast with respect to the British evacuation of Malta. With his keen insight into the French nature, he knew that "honour" was its mainspring, and that his political fortunes rested on the satisfaction of that instinct. He could not now draw back without affronting the prestige of France and undermining his own position. In vain did our Government remind him of his admission that "His Majesty should keep a compensation out of his conquests for the important acquisitions of territory made by France upon the Continent."[250] That promise, although official, was secret. Its violation would, at the worst, only offend the officials of Whitehall. Whereas, if he now acceded to their demand that Malta should be the compensation, he at once committed that worst of all crimes in a French statesman, of rendering himself ludicrous. In this respect, then, the scene of March 13th at the Tuileries was indirectly the cause of the bloodiest war that has desolated Europe.

Napoleon now regarded the outbreak of hostilities as probable, if not certain. Facts are often more eloquent than diplomatic assurances, and such facts are not wanting. On March 6th Decaen's expedition had set sail from Brest for the East Indies with no anticipation of immediate war. On March 16th a fast brig was sent after him with orders that he should return with all speed from Pondicherry to the Mauritius. Napoleon's correspondence also shows that, as early as March 11th, that is, after hearing of George III.'s message to Parliament, he expected the outbreak of hostilities: on that day he ordered the formation of flotillas at Dunkirk and Cherbourg, and sent urgent messages to the sovereigns of Russia, Prussia, and Spain, inveighing against England's perfidy. The envoy despatched to St. Petersburg was specially charged to talk to the Czar on philosophic questions, and to urge him to free the seas from England's tyranny.


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