Friday, 12 November 2010

Hazlitt's Political Essays: Bonaparte and Müller

Johannes von Müller (1752 – 1809)

"The Celebrated Historian of Switzerland" - William Hazlitt.

There can have been fewer gloomier years in British history than those that followed Waterloo.

Faced with huge debts from financing the long wars with France, rising food prices, popular distress and industrial unrest, the British ruling classes felt far from secure.

Habeas Corpus was suspended in 1817, and the government took over the reading rooms to try to control the influence of Cobbet's radical journal The Political Register.

Critics of the government lived in fear of imprisonment or transportation.

In this climate of fear and repression the indefatigable supporter of the principles of 1789, William Hazlitt, prepared his political essays. These appeared in 1819, the year of the meeting of parliamentary reformers at St Peters Fields in Manchester. This "massacre" was henceforth to be remembered as Peterloo - an ironic reference to the killing fields of Waterloo.

Amongst the essays which Hazlitt reproduced was an extract from the papers of the Swiss historian Johannes von Müller, describing a meeting with Napoleon in 1806.

Hazlitt's reasons for including this are fairly clear: he was forlornly trying to counter two decades of British propaganda which had both belittled and ridiculed Napoleon as an upstart and as the "little corporal", and also somewhat paradoxically had portrayed him as a cloven hoofed monster. Müller's account of Napoleon did not fit easily into established British views of the Corsican ogre. I think it is fair to say that it still doesn't - as recent headlines about the "deluded Emperor" should indicate.

Müller's account of the meeting, and particularly his comparison of Napoleon with Frederick the Great, whom he had also met, is I think worth reading. I have not come across it in any other printed work.
On the 19th May I was informed by the Minister Secretary of State, Maret, that at seven o'clock of the evening of the following day I must wait on the Emperor Napoleon. I waited accordingly on this Minister at the appointed hour, and was presented. The Emperor sat on a sofa: a few persons whom I did not know stood at some distance in the apartment.

The Emperor / began to speak of the History of Switzerland; told me that I ought to complete it; that even the more recent times had their interest. He came to the work of mediation, discovered a very good will, if we do not meddle with any thing foreign, and remain quietly in the interior. He proceeded from the Swiss to the old Greek Constitution and History, to the Theory of Constitutions, to the complete diversity of those of Asia, (and the causes of this diversity in the climate, polygamy, &c.) the opposite characters of the Arabian (which the Emperor highly extolled), and the Tartarian Races (which led to the irruptions that all civilization had always to dread from that quarter, and the necessity of a bulwark): the peculiar value of European culture (never greater freedom, security of property, humanity, and better laws in general, than since the 15th century); then how every thing was linked together, and in the inscrutable guidance of an invisible hand; and how he himself had become great through his enemies: the great confederation of nations, the idea of which Henry the 4th never had: the foundation of all religion, and its necessity; that man could not well bear completely clear truth, and required to be kept in order; the possibility, however, of a more happy condition, if the numerous feuds ceased, which were occasioned by too complicated constitutions (such as the German), and the intolerable burden suffered by States from excessive armies.

A great deal more besides was said, and indeed we spoke of almost every country and nation. The Emperor spoke at first in his usual manner; but the more interesting our conversation became, he spoke in a lower and lower tone, so that I was obliged to bend myself quite down to his face; and no man can have understood what he said (and therefore many things I will not repeat) - I opposed him occasionally, and he entered into discussion. Quite impartially and truly, as before God, I must say, that the variety of his knowledge, the acuteness of his observations, the solidity of his understanding (not dazzling wit), his grand and comprehensive views, filled me with astonishment, and his manner of speaking to me, with love for him. A couple of Marshals, and also the Duke / of Benevento, had entered in the mean time; he did not break off. After five quarters, or an hour and a half, he allowed the concert to begin; and I know not, whether accidentally or from goodness, he desired pieces, which, one of them especially, had reference to pastoral life and the Swiss (Rans des Vaches). After this, he bowed in a friendly manner and left the room.

Since the audience with Frederick (1782), I never had a conversation on such a variety of subjects, at least with any Prince: if I can judge correctly from recollection, I must gve the Emperor the preference in point of solidity and comprehension; Frederick was somewhat Voltairian. Besides, there is in his tone much firmness and vigour, but in his mouth something as attractive and fascinating, as in Frederick. It was one of the most remarkable days of my life. By his genius and his disinterested goodness he has also conquered me.

1. pp 122-123 The Selected Writings of William Hazlitt. Volume 4 Political Essays ed Duncan Wu, London 1998.

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