Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 15


In the centre is the man--the man we have described; the man of Punic faith, the fatal man, attacking the civilisation to arrive at power; seeking, elsewhere than amongst the true people, one knows not what ferocious popularity; cultivating the still uncivilized qualities of the peasant and the soldier, endeavouring to succeed by appealing to gross selfishness, to brutal passions, to newly awakened desires, to excited appetites; something like a Prince Marat, with nearly the same object, which in Marat was grand, and in Louis Bonaparte is little; the man who kills, who transports, who banishes, who expels, who proscribes, who despoils; this man with harassed gesture and glassy eye, who walks with distracted air amid the horrible things he does, like a sort of sinister somnambulist.

It has been said of Louis Bonaparte, whether with friendly intent or otherwise,--for these strange beings have strange flatterers,--"He is a dictator, he is a despot, nothing more."--He is that in our opinion, and he is also something else.

The dictator was a magistrate. Livy[1] and Cicero[2] call him praetor maximus; Seneca[3] calls him magister populi; what he decreed was looked upon as a fiat from above. Livy[4] says: pro numine observatum. In those times of incomplete civilisation, the rigidity of the ancient laws not having foreseen all cases, his function was to provide for the safety of the people; he was the product of this text: salus populi suprema lex esto. He caused to be carried before him the twenty-four axes, the emblems of his power of life and death. He was outside the law, and above the law, but he could not touch the law. The dictatorship was a veil, behind which the law remained intact. The law was before the dictator and after him; and it resumed its power over him on the cessation of his office. He was appointed for a very short period--six months only: semestris dictatura, says Livy.[5] But as if this enormous power, even when freely conferred by the people, ultimately weighed heavily upon him, like remorse, the dictator generally resigned before the end of his term. Cincinnatus gave it up at the end of eight days. The dictator was forbidden to dispose of the public funds without the authority of the Senate, or to go out of Italy. He could not even ride on horseback without the permission of the people. He might be a plebeian; Marcius Rutilus, and Publius Philo were dictators. That magistracy was created for very different objects: to organize fêtes for saints' days; to drive a sacred nail into the wall of the Temple of Jupiter; on one occasion to appoint the Senate. Republican Rome had eighty-eight dictators. This intermittent institution continued for one hundred and fifty-three years, from the year of Rome 552, to the year 711. It began with Servilius Geminus, and reached Cæsar, passing over Sylla. It expired with Cæsar. The dictatorship was fitted to be repudiated by Cincinnatus, and to be espoused by Cæsar. Cæsar was five times dictator in the course of five years, from 706 to 711. This was a dangerous magistracy, and it ended by devouring liberty.

[1] Lib. vii., cap. 31.

[2] De Republica. Lib. i, cap. 40.

[3] Ep. 108.

[4] Lib. iii., cap. 5.

[5] Lib. vi., cap. 1.

Is M. Bonaparte a dictator? We see no impropriety in answering yes. Praetor maximus,--general-in-chief? the colours salute him. Magister populi,--the master of the people? ask the cannons levelled on the public squares. Pro numine observatum,--regarded as God? ask M. Troplong. He has appointed the Senate, he has instituted holidays, he has provided for the "safety of society," he has driven a sacred nail into the wall of the Pantheon, and he has hung upon this nail his coup d'état. The only discrepancy is, that he makes and unmakes the law according to his own fancy, he rides horseback without permission, and as to the six months, he takes a little more time. Cæsar took five years, he takes double; that is but fair. Julius Cæsar five, M. Louis Bonaparte ten--the proportion is well observed.

From the dictator, let us pass to the despot. This is the other qualification almost accepted by M. Bonaparte. Let us speak for a while the language of the Lower Empire. It befits the subject.

The Despotes came after the Basileus. Among other attributes, he was general of the infantry and of the cavalry--magister utriusque exercitus. It was the Emperor Alexis, surnamed the Angel, who created the dignity of despotes. This officer was below the Emperor, and above the Sebastocrator, or Augustus, and above the Cæsar.

It will be seen that this is somewhat the case with us. M. Bonaparte is despotes, if we admit, which is not difficult, that Magnan is Cæsar, and that Maupas is Augustus.

Despot and dictator, that is admitted. But all this great éclat, all this triumphant power, does not prevent little incidents from happening in Paris, like the following, which honest badauds, witnesses of the fact, will tell you, musingly. Two men were walking in the street, talking of their business or their private affairs. One of them, referring to some knave or other, of whom he thought he had reason to complain, exclaimed: "He is a wretch, a swindler, a rascal!" A police agent who heard these last words, cried out: "Monsieur, you are speaking of the President; I arrest you."

And now, will M. Bonaparte be Emperor, or will he not?

A pretty question! He is master,--he is Cadi, Mufti, Bey, Dey, Sultan, Grand Khan, Grand Lama, Great Mogul, Great Dragon, Cousin to the Sun, Commander of the Faithful, Shah, Czar, Sofi, and Caliph. Paris is no longer Paris, but Bagdad; with a Giaffar who is called Persigny, and a Scheherazade who is in danger of having her head chopped off every morning, and who is called Le Constitutionnel. M. Bonaparte may do whatever he likes with property, families, and persons. If French citizens wish to fathom the depth of the "government" into which they have fallen, they have only to ask themselves a few questions. Let us see: magistrate, he tears off your gown, and sends you to prison. What of it? Let us see: Senate, Council of State, Corps Législatif, he seizes a shovel, and flings you all in a heap in a corner. What of it? Landed proprietor, he confiscates your country house and your town house, with courtyards, stables, gardens, and appurtenances. What of it? Father, he takes your daughter; brother, he takes your sister; citizen, he takes your wife, by right of might. What of it? Wayfarer, your looks displease him, and he blows your brains out with a pistol, and goes home. What of it?

All these things being done, what would be the result? Nothing. "Monseigneur the Prince-President took his customary drive yesterday in the Champs Élysées, in a calèche à la Daumont, drawn by four horses, accompanied by a single aide-de-camp." This is what the newspapers will say.

He has effaced from the walls Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity; and he is right. Frenchmen, alas! you are no longer either free,--the strait-waistcoat is upon you; or equal,--the soldier is everything; or brothers,--for civil war is brewing under this melancholy peace of a state of siege.

Emperor? Why not? He has a Maury who is called Sibour; he has a Fontanes, or, if you prefer it, a Faciuntasinos, who is called Fortoul; he has a Laplace who answers to the name of Leverrier, although he did not produce the "Mécanique Céleste." He will easily find Esménards and Luce de Lancivals. His Pius VII is at Rome, in the cassock of Pius IX. His green uniform has been seen at Strasburg; his eagle has been seen at Boulogne; his grey riding-coat, did he not wear it at Ham? Cassock or riding-coat, 'tis all one. Madame de Staël comes out, of his house. She wrote "Lelia." He smiles on her pending the day when he will exile her. Do you insist on an archduchess? wait awhile and he will get one. Tu, felix Austria, nube. His Murat is called Saint-Arnaud; his Talleyrand is called Morny; his Duc d'Enghien is called Law.

What does he lack then? Nothing; a mere trifle; merely Austerlitz and Marengo.

Make the best of it; he is Emperor in petto; one of these mornings he will be so in the sun; nothing more is wanting than a trivial formality, the mere consecration and crowning of his false oath at Notre-Dame. After that we shall have fine doings. Expect an imperial spectacle. Expect caprices, surprises, stupefying, bewildering things, the most unexpected combinations of words, the most fearless cacophony? Expect Prince Troplong, Duc Maupas, Duc Mimerel, Marquis Leboeuf, Baron Baroche. Form in line, courtiers; hats off, senators; the stable-door opens, monseigneur the horse is consul. Gild the oats of his highness Incitatus.

Everything will be swallowed; the public hiatus will be prodigious. All the enormities will pass away. The old fly-catchers will disappear and make room for the swallowers of whales.

To our minds the Empire exists from this moment, and without waiting for the interlude of the senatus consultum and the comedy of the plebiscite, we despatch this bulletin to Europe:--

"The treason of the 2nd of December is delivered of the Empire.

"The mother and child are indisposed."

Victor Hugo