It cannot be denied that most of the many thousands of letters written or dictated by Napoleon are not shining examples of the epistolary art. They are immediate, factual, often brief and aggressive, in general written in haste in order to transmit the movement, action or reaction of the prime mover. They make Napoleon look like a prodigious machine, governing, commanding, organising, and predicting, all down to the tiniest detail. Indeed the non-specialist reader can sometimes be left a little non-plussed.
However, from time to time, very occasionally, the man in a hurry pauses. Napoleon, all of a sudden, stops, takes time to explain – to Joseph, to Louis, to Murat, to one of his Marshals. Then he reveals what he really thinks, straightforwardly, brutally even. And these letters are extraordinary. Not in the least pompous but offering his deep, mature reflections on the subject. It can be disturbing, but it is never boring. Several such letters can be found in the Correspondance, but one of the most remarkable is probably that which Napoleon wrote to his step-son Eugène in June 1805, several days before his being nominated Viceroy of Italy: he addresses a young man with no political experience, and gives him a précis of what he expects, in passing giving some fascinating lessons in statesmanship, drawn from his own experience.
Letter from Napoleon to Eugène
Milan, 18 Prairial, An XIII [7 June, 1805](1)
My cousin, in entrusting you with the government of our kingdom of Italy, we have given you proof of the high esteem which your actions have inspired in us with respect to you. However, since you are still at an age where one does not understand the perversity of the human heart, we cannot recommend too highly to you circumspection and prudence.
Our Italian subjects are more naturally dissimulators than the citizens of France. You have only one way to preserve their high esteem and to provide for their contentment, namely, not to accord full trust to anyone, nor to say to anyone what you think of the ministers and grand officers in your entourage. This dissimulation, which is natural at a certain age, should be for you a matter of principle and of obligation. If you speak from the heart without being forced to do so, you should tell yourself that you have committed an error, so as not to make the same mistake twice.
Show just the right amount of esteem to the nation you govern, particularly since you will learn reasons for esteeming it less. There will come a time when you will see that there is very little difference between one people and the next. Since your administration is for the contentment of my peoples in Italy, the sacrifice you make regarding the elements of their customs which you are passionately against is the first of your duties.
In every other position outside that of Viceroy of Italy, make it your pride and honour to be French; but as Viceroy you must forget this and you will only succeed if you manage to make them believe that you love the Italians. They know that one only loves what one esteems highly. Cultivate their language; seek them out as your principal society; at fêtes, make sure that they are distinguished in a particular way; approve what they approve and like what they like.
Speak as little as possible; you are not learned enough and your education is not sufficiently developed for you to be able to let yourself go in discussions of all sorts. Learn to listen, and remember that silence often produces the same effect as learning. Do not be ashamed to ask questions. Whilst you may be viceroy, you are only twenty-three years old, and whatever flattery your hear, everyone knows deep down what you know, and they hold you in esteem more in the expectation of what you will become rather than from their opinion of what you are now.
Do not imitate the way I act; you need to be more restrained. Preside over the Council of State but rarely; you do not know enough to preside over it effectively. I would not take it amiss that you were present under the presidency of a consultant, who would effectively be president from his place. Your lack of knowledge of the Italian language, and also of legislation, is a very good pretext for not presiding. Never address the Council: they would listen to you without replying, but they would soon see that you are not up to discussing a subject. You cannot measure the strength of a prince who does not speak; when he speaks, he must be conscious of a great superiority.
Do not put any trust in spies. They are more trouble than they are worth. There are never any matters of concern in Milan, and perhaps even in any country. Your military police, which polices your troops, is all you need. The army is a major matter which you can deal with directly yourself, using your own knowledge (…).
The most important thing for you is to treat the locals well, to know them all, their names and their families. Do not be too interested in foreigners; nothing is ever to be gained from them. An ambassador will never speak well of you because it is his job to speak badly of you. Foreign ministers are, in the fullest sense of the term, official spies. It is not a problem to distance them from you; they are always more disposed to think more highly of someone they see very little than someone who shows them friendship and kindness (…).
The public decree which I have signed designates the amount of authority I have invested in you; however I reserve for myself the greater authority of directing you in your operations. Write to me every day telling me about what happens to and around you. It is only later that you will learn how I see each question and matter. Do not show my letters to anyone, for any reason whatsoever. It should not be known either that I write to you or the contents of my letters. Have a chamber into which no one is allowed to enter, not even your private secretary or your ‘secrétaire des commandements' (…).
Your role is important and the weight of your office is quite considerable. Get to know the history of each of the towns which make up my kingdom of Italy; visit the fortresses and all the sites of famous battles. It is possible that you will go to war before you are thirty, and knowledge of the territory is a huge advantage.
Finally, be severe with the dishonest. The discovery of a corrupt accountant is a victory won for the administration. Do not allow the French army to deal in contraband.(2)