Napoleon: For and Against

By Pieter Geyl; Olive Renier | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
BARON BIGNON

THE WRITER

THE first historian who undertook a broad treatment of the subject and whose work is still of value, is Bignon, whose Histoire de France depuis le 18 Brumaire began to appear in 1829. He died in the beginning of 1841, having brought his voluminous work as far as 1812.1 His son-in-law, Ernouf, took it up to the Battle of Leipzig on the basis of his notes.

In Napoleon's will, signed at Longwood, on April 15th, 1821, the thirty-second legacy reads as follows: 'Item to Baron Bignon, one hundred thousand francs. I commission him to write the history of French diplomacy from 1792 to 1815.'

Bignon entered the diplomatic service in 1797, and had filled important posts under the First Consul and the Emperor in various German capitals and in Warsaw, in the capacity of Minister, sometimes also as Governor. In the foreword to the first part of his book he gave an account of himself intended to allay the suspicions of a supposed inquisitive reader -- the general attitude to Napoleon was still rather unfavourable. 'It is true', he says, in effect, 'that I served Napoleon zealously, and that I flattered him. Who did not? It is also true that I was commissioned to write the book by the Emperor himself. Indeed I have the greatest admiration for him.' Does that necessarily imply that he supports despotism? Certainly not. Since 1817 he has sat in the Chamber of Deputies, on the left wing benches. 'Having served glory for a long time, I have devoted the rest of my life to liberty.''Then you will let us have some slashing attacks on imperial tyranny?' suggests the reader. But the writer, having affirmed his dislike of despotism, whatever its label, and having confessed that in his youth, in common with many others, he had succumbed to republican illusions, explains that the imperial despotism was a dictatorship, not, as Turgot desired, to establish liberty, but to build the supremacy of France in Europe. The

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1
Eleven volumes; in 1842 there appeared a double column edition in two quarto volumes, published in Brussels, from which I quote.

-37-

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