Napoleon: Basking in the Glow of Glory
When the 28-year-old General Napoleon Bonaparte returned to Paris in early December 1797, it must have seemed like he had the entire world at his feet. In a very short period of time, he had saved his government from overthrow at home and defended her against attack from abroad. The Italian campaign had been an overwhelming success, and everyone knew it. The Directory’s financial picture was good only to the extent that Napoleon had managed to send incredible riches home, and Paris was now the home to some of the world’s greatest artistic and historic treasures.
Everyone loves a hero, and Parisians were certainly no exception. Napoleon was wined and dined at every opportunity. Generals, diplomats, and politicians paid homage at his home, which was often quite crowded. Napoleon was in great demand at every imaginable social function, and he also held court at numerous salons — afternoon meetings of intellectuals and others.
In some ways, the salons may have been Napoleon’s favorite activity. He quite rightfully saw himself as an intellectual and scholar, and the salons, run by fashionable ladies whose husbands were of means (which means they had money!), gave him the opportunity to rub shoulders with the best intellectual minds of Paris.
Achieving high honors
The greatest tribute that can be paid to an intellectual in France is election to the National Institute of Sciences and Arts of France, which had been created on August 22, 1795. That august body, known today as the French Institute, is made up of the crème de la crème of France’s intellectual elite, and membership is closely controlled. Napoleon’s election to the Institute was a telling measure of the esteem in which he was held. It was a well-deserved tribute and one that Napoleon always held with great pride. And he would soon justify the honor many times over.
With Napoleon’s credentials even more firmly established, he was in even greater demand on the social circuit. He met intellectuals of all stripes. The most notorious of these was Madame Anne Louise Germaine de Staël. Her salon was perhaps the most important, and she met Napoleon at numerous social functions. At first enamored with Napoleon, in time she turned against him and was his nemesis for many years, writing scathing criticisms of his rule. Even so, Madame de Staël (as she is generally known) was one of the most important and influential women of her time.
Other tributes ranged from the humorous to the touching. The Directory paid Napoleon several honors, including throwing banquets for him, despite its growing concern over his popularity and his disdain for the governing body’s lack of competence. Composers and poets wrote in his honor, and he was given the best seats at any performance he wished to attend. Finally, the street his home was on was renamed Rue de la Victoire (“Street of Victory”) in his honor. Glory can be fleeting, and Napoleon understood this well, but for the moment, things were great.
However, not everything was as it seemed.
Looking for a new campaign
Napoleon had had great success and had achieved a position of enormous popularity. Now, who could possibly have a problem with that? For one, the Directory — a collection of incompetent, greedy politicians that was running France. It was one thing to have a popular General Bonaparte running around in Italy; it was quite another to have him running around in Paris. Napoleon was obviously ambitious, and the Directory feared he might turn that ambition in its general direction.
Napoleon, to his credit, kept out of politics and played the game more or less to the satisfaction of all. Still, the Directory wanted him out of town, soon. A new campaign was needed, and one was quickly found. Only England remained in opposition to France, and England had to be defeated, one way or another.
The most obvious way to defeat England would be by direct invasion. This idea had been around a long time, of course, but now France seemed ready. Victorious on land, her armies led by a great general (who, as it happened, the Directory wanted out of Paris — now!), the time seemed incredibly ripe. But the idea just wouldn’t float.
The idea of invading England literally wouldn’t float, as it happens. Any invasion would have to deal with the little matter of the English Channel, that body of water between the British Isles and Continental Europe that had always been England’s first line of defense. To invade England, France would have to go by ship, and therein lay a problem: England had the greatest navy in the world, and France had not much of a navy at all.
That little detail didn’t stop the French from having a go at it. The French were allied with Spain at the time, and Spain did have a pretty decent fleet. Napoleon put together a plan of battle but kept coming up against the fact that he simply would not have sufficient sea power to prevail. By February 1798, he was finally forced to face reality. He wrote the Directory, suggesting that at best the invasion was at least a year away, and at worst the time had already come and gone. France would have to look elsewhere for a victory over her archenemy, England.
Napoleon was anxious for a new campaign to keep his glory alive. The Directory was anxious to see him off on just such a campaign, the farther away from Paris the better. Soon, the two would agree on a win-win plan: Napoleon would invade Egypt.