Born on 5 July, 1766, in Neunkirchen (Germany), where his father was stationed, Montalivet began his career as an officer cadet in the Royal Nassau Hussards, a regiment in the French service. He left in 1779 to complete his law studies in Valence, from where his family was originally.
In 1785, he worked as a lawyer in Grenoble before being named as a councillor to the town's parliament. It was there, during the Revolution, that he became acquainted with a young officer named Napoleon Bonaparte, who was stationed in Valence (February – September, 1791). This friendship led to Bonaparte visiting the Château des Montalivets, in Beaumont-les-Valence.(1)
In 1793, Montalivet was elected député for Valence and left for Paris. On return to Valence and in order to escape the Terreur, he signed up for the Armée d'Italie. Between 1794 and 1796, he was mayor of Valence, Commissaire du Directoire exécutif for the Drôme and Commissaire ordonnateur attached to the Armée d'Italie.
After the Brumaire coup d'Etat, Montalivet rallied to Bonaparte and on 14 April, 1801, the First Consul named him Prefect for La Manche, a former chouan territory. He was successful in this post, and on 31 March, 1804, he was named Prefect for the Seine-et-Oise. From this point on, he became known as a dynamic prefect of integrity.
In 1805, he entered the Conseil d'Etat and on 5 May, 1806, Napoleon named him director for the Ponts-et-Chaussées (department for infrastructure), replacing de Crétet, who was to die shortly afterwards. Napoleon, who originally wanted to be a builder, attached a great deal of importance to this role. Under Montalivet, the department's administration, the engineer corps and their auxiliaries underwent a complete reorganisation (the department had, after all, changed much since its inception in 1791).
At the head of the Ponts-et-Chaussées administration, the director general was, in effect, the Minister for Public Works. In reality, he was attached to the Minister of the Interior. With a salary of 80,000 francs, the director general was responsible for the construction, maintenance and policing of roads, the regularisation, management, overseeing and use of rivers, and the construction of canals, quays, bridges, and ports, as well as provisions for Paris, a duty often overlooked by historians.
Moreover, the director general also presided over the general council for the Ponts-et-Chaussées, the land register, and the administration for the department for Postes et Télégraphes. As a result, the director general had serving under him 134 chief engineers as well as 306 engineers and 350 operators in the Ponts-et-Chaussées department.
Montalivet is associated with the many of the great works completed during the period, including the Canal de l'Ourcq, the main roads and the Alpine crossings.(2) In 1807, in the middle of winter, he visited the building sites for the Mont-Cenis road, which won him the French Emperor's congratulations. Made a Comte de l'Empire on 27 November, 1808, and Grand Officier in the Légion d'honneur, Montalivet went on to be named Minister of the Interior on 1 October, 1809, where he would remain until 1814.
The Minister of the Interior's responsibilities were varied and far-reaching: as well as public works, he was also expected to oversee public information, Fine Arts, agriculture, and commerce, and this for 130 départements in the Grand Empire, from Holland to Rome.(3) Such was Montalivet's workload that the Emperor felt obliged to create a Ministry for Commerce and Manufactories on 16 January, 1812,(4) the direction of which was given to Collin de Sussy.(5)
In particular, Montalivet oversaw the various different improvements instigated in Paris: new bridges over the Seine (Pont des Arts, Pont d'Austerlitz, Pont d'Iéna), the increased number of fountains (according to the historian Georges Poisson, it was “the golden age of Parisian fountains”), the increase in pavements and gutters, the creation of a sewer pipe system which followed the road network (J. Favier, Paris Deux mille ans d'histoire, 1997, p. 218), gas lighting, extensions to the Seine quaysides, and new markets and warehouses. Furthermore, the Hôtel des Postes, the Archives, the Saint-Denis Basilica and the Eglise Sainte-Geneviève were all restored and completed under Montalivet.(6) In the provinces, he worked on the Anvers and Ostend basins, whilst in Savoy he pursued the boring of the “Napoleon” tunnel,(7) and in Chambéry had built a superb barracks between 1804 and 1812.(8)
Montalivet also sat on the Conseil des Subsistances, which was created on 28 August, 1811, to regulate against bread shortages in 1811 and 1812; the supply of Paris is also one of the subjects that is constantly discussed in the correspondence between Montalivet and Napoleon whilst the latter was on campaign in Russia (see the Dictionnaire Napoléon, p. 1291, “Pain”, by Jean Tulard). During the latter years of the Empire, Napoleon's main priority became the improvement of Parisian daily life. In a letter to Montalivet written on 9 February, 1811, the French Emperor explained: “I hold that the four most important things to the city of Paris are the Ourcq waters, the new markets at Les Halles, the abattoirs, and the Halle aux vins.” The following year, he pressed for the completion of the overflow granary: “The Arc-de-Triomphe, the Pont d'Iéna, the Temple de la Gloire can be put back two or three years without any inconvenience.”
Finally, one of the duties of the Minister of the Interior was to present an annual report to the Corps Législatif on the Empire's internal situation; this responsibility Montalivet completed three times, on 13 December, 1810, 29 June, 1811, and 23 February, 1813 (this last report, given the actual situation, the most difficult that he had to deliver).
Montalivet was particularly devoted to Napoleon, even in 1813 and 1814, a period of numerous defeats and setbacks. However, in fulfilling his functions, he was occasionally stricken by onsets of gout which required him to use crutches to get about, and he was often unable to attend council hearings and meetings due to his poor health.
He died on 22 January, 1823, in the Château de Lagrange, aged 57 years. He lies buried at Saint-Bouize (in the Cher département).
Napoleon, whilst on St. Helena, said of Montalivet: “An honest man, who, I believe, remained tenderly attached to me.” (André Palluel, Dictionnaire de l'Empereur, Plon, 1969, p. 774). In the Chambre des Pairs, Montalivet's elegy was delivered by Daru, who had served under him in his youth, and alongside him later on, as well as being a personal friend. “There is not one minister in modern times who has had the pleasure of leaving as many monuments by his side as the Comte de Montalivet [had].” In Valence, a statue of Montalivet, designed by Crauk (1867) was erected on the north side of the Place Général Leclerc. A copy of this statue still remains in Saint-Bouize, in the Château de Lagrange. The title of Comte de Montalivet continues to this day.
Revue du souvenir Napoléonien n° 460-461
(Tr. & ed. H.D.W., September, 2009)
(1) At the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Valence is a painting by Noël Louis Ageron entitled “Devant la maison des Têtes, le lieutenant Bonaparte fait ses adieux à Montalivet, qui deviendra plus tard son ministre de l'Intéreur” (see the Revue Napoléon Ier, n° 26, May-June, 2004, p. 11).
(2) See the entry for “Routes” by Jean Tulard, in the Dictionnaire Napoléon, p. 1482.
(3) Today, the Minister of the Interior's duties also include religion and faiths. This was not the case during the Empire; the post of Minister for Religion existed, which was held by Portalis, from 1804 until his death in 1807, and then Bigot de Préameneu, from 1807-1814.
(4) This ministry was not to last long: in 1814, Talleyrand had it reintegrated into the Ministry of the Interior.
(5) For more information on Collin de Sussy, see his entry by Jean Tulard in the Dictionnaire Napoléon, p. 436.
(6) The finished Arc de Triomphe would be inaugurated on 1 May, 1838 by Camille de Montalivet, son of Napoleon I's minister, and himself Minister of the Interior to Louis-Philippe.
(7) The “Napoléon” Tunnel was an incredible project for the time: 308 metres long, it was begun in 1808 and was just about finished in 1814, at the moment when the Austrians arrived, interrupting the work. The tunnel was only opened to traffic in 1820, during the Sardinian regime (cf. André Charvet, Les Pays du Guiers, 1984, p. 104).
(8) The construction project for an entirely new barracks “as beautiful as [it was] vast and modern”, on land owned by the Ursulines and modelled on the Les Invalides complex, was launched by the Premier Consul. The work was completed between 1804 and 1810. By 1810, a large part of the work had been completed. At the end of the century, the barracks took on the name “Caserne Curial”, after a Savoyard General who served under Napoleon (Philibert Curial, 21 April 1774-30 May, 1829, see G. Six, tome 1, p. 275, Maurice Messiez, “Le général Curial”, Société Savoisienne d'Histoire et d'Archéologie, January 1987). Since the 1970s, when the barracks seized to be used by the army, the building has undergone successful renovation. The former barracks now holds the original building ordinance, whilst the other areas have been adapted to house businesses and offices.
Michaud, Biographie universelle, tome 29, p. 31
Dictionnaire Napoléon: p. 1191, “Montalivet”, by Jean Tulard; p. 1353, “Ponts-et-Chaussées”, by A. Lorion; p. 365, “Canaux”, by Michèle Merger; p. 1482, “Routes”, by Jean Tulard
Napoléon, Editions Rencontre, 1969, tome 3, p. 184 ; tome 4, p. 141
La glorieuse épopée de Napoléon, la France sous l'Empire, Atlas, juillet 2004: “Le corps des ingénieurs et les Ponts-et- Chaussées”, p. 26
J.-P. Tarin, Les notabilités du Premier empire, leurs résidences en Île-de-France, Ch. Terana, éditeur, 2002, tome 1, p. 271
Thierry Lentz, Dictionnaire des ministres de Napoléon, éd. Christian, 1999
Georges Poisson, Napoléon Ier et Paris (Tallandier, 2002)
Maurice Guerrini, Napoléon et Paris, trente ans d'histoire, Téqui, Paris, 1967