This is The Siècle, Supplemental 2: The Restoration According to Chateaubriand.
Welcome back. This is your host, David Montgomery, and as you might have noticed, I didn’t finish Episode 10 by my scheduled release date. But I didn’t want to leave the feed quiet, so I’m releasing this special episode to tide you over until I get back on track. Episode 10 is only partially written, so for this supplemental I turned to something that was written almost 200 years ago: an account of the Bourbon Restoration by the great writer and statesman Chateaubriand.
Chateaubriand has already popped up a few times in The Siècle, and he will recur again. Born into a family of Breton nobles, François-René de Chateaubriand emigrated during the Revolution, touring the fledgling United States where he met George Washington and saw Niagara Falls. He later returned to France and served under Napoleon, then broke with the emperor, with whom he had a complicated relationship. He cheered the Bourbon Restoration, serving in the Chamber of Peers, as foreign minister, and as ambassador to several countries including the United Kingdom. But Chateaubriand also had a difficult relationship with Louis XVIII, which kept him frequently in political opposition or obscurity despite his great fame and talents.
Right: Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, “Chateaubriand Meditating on the Ruins of Rome.” After 1808. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
That fame came largely from Chateaubriand’s pen. He is one of the founders of the Romantic movement in French literature, writing novels, travelogues, political tracts, apologetics and memoirs over his life. His 1802 work, The Genius of Christianity, defended Catholicism from Enlightenment attacks, and helped make Chateaubriand a literary and political sensation.
Politically, Chateaubriand was a royalist, a Catholic, and a liberal, all at once — a champion of constitutional monarchy, traditional religion, and civil liberties. You will hear all three of those strains in the passage that follows, excerpted from the fourth volume of Chateaubriand’s acclaimed memoirs, the posthumously published Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe, or Memoirs from Beyond the Grave.
The excerpt I’ve chosen begins with Chateaubriand’s reflections on the legacy of Napoleon, who Chateaubriand simultaneously admired as one of the great men of history and deplored as a tyrant. His thoughts on how France is to go on in the sudden absence of such a singular figure as Napoleon double in some way as a justification for this podcast, which deliberately treats Napoleon as prologue rather than subject.
We are then given Chateaubriand’s biting mockery of the Chamber of Peers during the Restoration, which he castigates as a glorified retirement community for mediocrities — himself excepted, of course. I’ve aggressively abridged this section to avoid burdening you with too many references to minor names and excerpts from speeches about long-forgotten disputes.
The dissolution of the Chambre introuvable, the Ultra-royalist parliament that clashed with the more moderate Louis in 1815 and 1816, was a personal turning point for Chateaubriand, too. He published a political book, De la Monarchie selon la Charte, or Monarchy According to the Charter, which was an innovative defense of constitutional monarchy. But it also pulled few punches against Louis’s ministers and even Louis himself, especially in a biting postscript, which led to the government seizing the book. Chateaubriand, always a champion of free speech and free press, challenged the seizure in a sordid squabble that ended up hurting everyone involved.
Finally, the excerpt concludes with Chateaubriand’s analysis of the character of Louis XVIII, about whom — as with Napoleon — Chateaubriand has mixed feelings. We get mostly the negative view in this passage, with only references to past praise to balance out criticism of the king’s coldness, selfishness and his propensity to lavish his affections on royal favorites.
It’s important, as I read this excerpt, to remember the Chateaubriand is not just a commentator but a participant in these events, and he is quite opinionated. Many of the people he slams in his memoirs — published safely after his death — loathed him as well. And Chateaubriand’s memoirs, though elegantly written, are not necessarily reliable as history. Historian José Cabanis dubbed them the best novel Chateaubriand ever wrote.
But even with these caveats, Chateaubriand’s memoirs represent a rare opportunity: analysis and observations by a first-rate mind who had a front-row vantage point to the people and events he chronicles. And that’s not to mention that he is a first-rate stylist.
Be sure to visit thesiecle.com/supplemental2 for the text of this excerpt, including footnotes from its English translator providing context for some of the more obscure references. I hope to release Episode 10 soon and then get back to a regular, semi-weekly release schedule.
Without further ado, here is an excerpt from Volume 4 of Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave:
To fall back from Bonaparte and the Empire to that which followed them is to fall from reality into nothingness, from the summit of a mountain into a gulf. Did not everything finish with Napoleon? Ought I to have spoken of anything else? What person can possess any interest beside him? Of whom and of what can there be any question after such a man? Dante alone had the right to associate himself with the great poets whom he meets in the regions of another life. How can one speak of Louis XVIII in the stead of the Emperor? I blush when I think that, at the present moment, I have to cant about a crowd of petty creatures, of whom I myself am one, dubious and nocturnal beings that we were on a stage from which the great sun had disappeared.
The Bonapartists themselves had shrivelled up. Their members had become bent and shrunk; the soul was lacking to the new universe so soon as Bonaparte withdrew his breath; objects faded from view from the moment when they were no longer illuminated by the light which had given them colour and relief. At the commencement of these Memoirs, I had only myself to speak of: well, there is always a sort of paramountcy in man’s individual solitude. Later, I was surrounded by miracles: those miracles kept up my voice; but at this present moment there is no more conquest of Egypt, no more Battles of Marengo, Austerlitz and Jena, no more retreat from Russia, no more invasion of France, capture of Paris, return from Elba, Battle of Waterloo, funeral at St. Helena: what remains? Portraits to which only the genius of Molière could lend the gravity of comedy!
While expressing myself upon our worthlessness, I taxed my conscience home: I asked myself whether I did not purposely incorporate myself with the nullity of these times, in order to acquire the right to condemn the others, persuaded though I were [in my heart] that my name would be read in the midst of all these obliterations. No, I am convinced that we shall all fade out: first, because we have not in us the wherewithal to live; secondly, because the age in which we are commencing or ending our days has itself not the wherewithal to make us live. Generations mutilated, exhausted, disdainful, faithless, consecrated to the annihilation which they love, are unable to bestow immortality; they have no power to create a renown; if you were to nail your ear to their mouth, you would hear nothing: no sound issues from the heart of the dead.
One thing strikes me, however: the little world to which I am now coming was superior to the world which succeeded it in 1830; we were giants in comparison with the society of maggots that has engendered itself.
The Restoration offers at least one point in which we can find importance: after the dignity of one man, that man having passed, there was born again the dignity of mankind. If despotism has been replaced by liberty, if we understand anything of independence, if we have lost the habit of grovelling, if the rights of human nature are no longer disregarded, we owe these things to the Restoration. Wherefore also I threw myself into the fray in order, as far as I could, to revive the species when the individual had come to an end.
Come, let us pursue our task! Let us descend, with a groan, to myself and my colleagues. You have seen me amid my dreams; you are about to see me in my realities: if the interest decreases, if I fall, reader, be just, make allowance for my subject!
After the second return of the King and the final disappearance of Bonaparte, the Ministry being in the hands of M. le Duc d’Otrante and M. le Prince de Talleyrand, I was appointed president of the electoral college of the Department of the Loiret. The elections of 1815 gave the King the Chambre introuvable.1 I was carrying all the votes at Orleans, when I received the Order which called me to the House of Peers2. My active career had hardly commenced, when it suddenly changed its course: what would it have been if I had been sent to the Elective Chamber? … My habits and manners were more in touch with the peerage, and, although the latter became hostile to me from the first moment, by reason of my Liberal opinions, it is nevertheless certain that my doctrines concerning the liberty of the press and against the vassalage to foreigners gave the Noble Chamber the popularity which it enjoyed so long as it suffered my opinions.
I received, at my entrance, the only honour which my colleagues ever did me during my fifteen years’ residence in their midst: I was appointed one of the four secretaries for the session of 1816. Lord Byron met with no more favour when he appeared in the House of Lords, and he left it for good: I ought to have returned to my deserts.
A bill had been introduced into the Hereditary Chamber relating to the elections. I declared myself in favour of the integral renewal of the Chamber of Deputies. It was not until 1824, being then a minister, that I passed it into law.
It was also in this first speech on the law governing elections, in 18163, that I said, in reply to an opponent:
“I will not refer to what has been said about Europe watching our discussions. Speaking for myself, gentlemen, I doubtless owe to the French blood that flows in my veins the impatience which I experience when, in order to influence my vote, people talk to me of opinions existing outside my country; and, if civilized Europe tried to impose the Charter on me, I should go to live in Constantinople.”
Below: Pierre-Louis de Laval, “Portrait of Francois-René, Vicomte de Chateaubriand.” Circa 1828. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
I found myself in an assembly in which my words, for three-fourths of the time, turned against myself. One can move a popular chamber; an aristocratic chamber is deaf. With no gallery, speaking in private before old men, dried-up remains of the old Monarchy, of the Revolution and of the Empire, anything that rose above the most commonplace seemed madness. One day, the front row of arm-chairs, quite close to the tribune, was filled with venerable peers, one more deaf than the other, their heads bent forward, and holding to their ears a trumpet with the mouth turned towards the tribune. I sent them to sleep, which is very natural. One of them dropped his ear-trumpet; his neighbour, awakened by the fall, wanted politely to pick up his colleague’s trumpet; he fell down. The worst of it was that I began to laugh, although I was just then speaking pathetically on some subject of humanity, I forget what.
The speakers who succeeded in that Chamber were those who spoke without ideas, in a level and monotonous tone, or who found terms of sensibility only in order to melt with pity for the poor ministers. M. de Lally-Tolendal thundered in favour of the public liberties: he made the vaults of our solitude resound with the praises of three or four English Lord Chancellors, his ancestors, he said. When his panegyric of the liberty of the press was finished, came a “but” based upon “circumstances,” which “but” left our honour safe, under the useful supervision of the censorship.
The Restoration gave an impulse to men’s minds; it set free the thought suppressed by Bonaparte: the intellect, like a caryatic figure relieved of the entablature that bent its brow, lifted up its head. The Empire had struck France with dumbness; liberty restored touched her and gave her back speech: oratorical talents existed which took up matters where the Mirabeaus and Cazalès had left them, and the Revolution continued its course.
My labours were not limited to the tribune, so new to me. Appalled at the systems which men were embracing and at France’s ignorance of the principles of representative government, I wrote and had printed the Monarchie selon la Charte. This publication marked one of the great epochs of my political life: it made me take rank among the publicists; it served to determine opinion on the nature of our government. The English papers praised the work to the skies; among us, the Abbé Morellet even could not recover from the transformation of my style and the dogmatic precision of the truths.
The Monarchie selon la Charte is a constitutional catechism: from it have been taken the greater part of the propositions which are put forward as new to-day. Thus the principle that “the King reigns but does not govern” is found fully set forth in Chapters IV., V., VI. and VII. on the Royal Prerogative.
Below: Paolo Toschi, “Élie Decazes,” circa 1813. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
As I was finishing my work, appeared the ordinance of the 5th of September 18164: this measure dispersed the few Royalists assembled to reconstruct the Legitimate Monarchy. I hastened to write the Postscript, which caused an explosion of anger on the part of M. le Duc de Richelieu and of Louis XVIII’s favourite, M. Decazes.
The Postscript added, I ran to M. Le Normant, my publisher’s. On arriving, I found constables and a police-commissary making out instruments. They had seized parcels and affixed seals. I had not defied Bonaparte to be intimidated by M. Decazes: I objected to the seizure; I declared that, as a free Frenchman and a peer of France, I would yield only to force. The force arrived and I withdrew…
I next found myself engaged in a rather long correspondence with M. the Chancellor, M. the Minister of Police and M. the Attorney-General Bellart5, until the 9th of November, on which day the Chancellor informed me of the order made in my favour by the Court of First Instance, which placed me in possession of my seized work. In one of his letters, M. the Chancellor told me that he had been distressed to see the dissatisfaction which the King had publicly expressed with my work. This dissatisfaction arose from the chapter in which I stood up against the establishment of a minister of General Police in a constitutional country.
Michel Marigny after François Gérard, “Le roi Louis XVIII méditant sur la Charte, assis à sa table de travail au palais des Tuileries,” circa 1814-1824. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
In my account of the journey to Ghent, you have seen Louis XVIII’s value as a descendant of Hugh Capet; in my pamphlet, Le Roi est mort: vive le roi!6 I have told the Prince’s real qualities. But man is not a simple unit: why are there so few faithful portraits? Because the model is made to pose at such or such a period of his life; ten years later the portrait is no longer like.
Louis XVIII did not see far the objects before or around him; all seemed fair or foul to him according to the way he looked at it. Smitten with his century, it is to be feared that “the most Christian King” regarded religion only as an elixir fit for the amalgam of drugs of which royalty is composed. The licentious imagination which he had received from his grandfather7 might have inspired some distrust of his enterprises; but he knew himself and, when he spoke in a positive manner, he boasted (well knowing it), while laughing at himself.
Selfish and unprejudiced, Louis XVIII desired his peace of mind at any price: he supported his ministers so long as they held the majority; he dismissed them so soon as the majority was shaken and his tranquillity liable to be upset: he did not hesitate to fall back when, to obtain the victory, he ought to have taken a step forward. His greatness was patience: he did not go towards events; events came to him.
Without being cruel, the King was not humane; tragic catastrophes neither astonished nor touched him; he was satisfied with saying to the Duc de Berry, who apologized for having had the misfortune to disturb the King’s sleep by his death:
“I have finished my night.”
Below: François Gérard, “Portrait de Zoé Victoire Talon, comtesse du Cayla,” 1825. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Nevertheless, this quiet man would fly into horrible rages when annoyed; and also, this cold, unfeeling Prince had attachments which resembled passions: thus there succeeded each other in his intimacy the Comte d’Avaray, M. de Blacas, M. Decazes8; Madame de Balbi9, Madame de Cayla10. All these beloved persons were favourites; unfortunately they have a great deal too many letters in their hands.
Louis XVIII appeared to us in all the profundity of historic tradition; he showed himself with the favouritism of the ancient royalties. Does the heart of our isolated monarchs contain a void which they fill with the first object they light upon? Is it sympathy, the affinity of a nature analogous to their own? Is it a friendship which drops down to them from Heaven to console their greatnesses? Is it a leaning for a slave who gives himself body and soul, before whom one conceals nothing, a slave who becomes a garment, a plaything, a fixed idea bound up with all the feelings, all the tastes, all the whims of him whom it has subdued and whom it holds under the empire of an invincible fascination? The viler and closer a favourite has been, the less easily is he to be dismissed, because he is in possession of secrets which would put one to the blush if they were divulged: the chosen one derives a dual force from his own baseness and his master’s weaknesses.
When the favourite happens to be a great man, like the besetting Richelieu11 or the undismissable Mazarin12, the nations, while detesting him, profit by his glory or his power; they only change a wretched king de jure for an illustrious king de facto.
“On an occurrence when the chamber, or a deputation of it, brought to Louis XVIII some extravagant expression of its loyalty and love of kings, the monarch observed, no one can now tell whether in sincerity or irony, that such a chamber was introuvable, apparently impossible to find or replace. The epithet was too good to be lost; and the Chamber of 1815 was known to its contemporaries, and will be remembered in French history, as the Chambre introuvable” (Eyre Crowe, History of the Reigns of Louis XVIII and Charles X.).—T. ↩
The Order nominating the Vicomte de Chateaubriand to the Chamber of Peers is dated 17 August 1815.—B. ↩
3 April 1816.—B. ↩
This ordinance, published in the Moniteur of the 7th of September, dissolved the Chamber of 1815, which Louis XVIII himself had called the Undiscoverable Chamber.—B. ↩
Nicolas François Bellart (1761-1826) had distinguished himself by defending a large number of the victims of the Revolution. He was appointed Attorney-General by the Restoration, and was principal counsel for the prosecution in the trial of Marshal Ney.—T. ↩
Paris: Le Normant the Elder, 1824.—B. ↩
Louis XV. was the most licentious king that ever sat on the throne of France.—T. ↩
Élie Duc Decazes (1780-1860), Prefect of Police (July 1815), Minister of the General Police (September 1815), peer of France, with the title of count (September 1816), Minister of the Interior (1818), and President of the Council (1819). In 1820, he left office to take up the Embassy in London, with the title of duke, and retained it till 1822. In 1834, he succeeded the Marquis de Sémonville as Grand Referendary of the Chamber of Peers.—B. ↩
Anne Jacoby Comtesse de Balbi (circa 1758-1842), née de Caumont La Force, lady-in-waiting to the Comtesse de Provence, later Joséphine Queen of France (1780), a favourite of the Comte de Provence, later Louis XVIII, until the Comte d’Avaray supplanted her at Coblentz.—T. ↩
Zoé Victoire Comtesse de Cayla (1785-1852), née Talon du Boullay-Thierry, favourite to Louis XVIII from 1819 till the King’s death in 1824.—T. ↩
Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal Duc de Richelieu (1585-1642), governed France without interruption from 1623 to 1642.—T. ↩
Jules Cardinal Mazarin (1602-1661) succeeded Richelieu as Prime Minister, remaining in power, with two short intervals, until the day of his death. Each of the two cardinals, therefore, governed France for nineteen years.—T. ↩