Memoirs of Napoleon— Volume 4

Author: Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne

Chapter XXVIII. 1800.

Great and common men—Portrait of Bonaparte—The varied expression
of his countenance—His convulsive shrug—Presentiment of his
corpulency—Partiality for bathing—His temperance—His alleged
capability of dispensing with sleep—Good and bad news—Shaving, and
reading the journals—Morning, business—Breakfast—Coffee and snuff
—Bonaparte’s idea of his own situation-His ill opinion of mankind
—His dislike of a ’tete-a-tete’—His hatred of the Revolutionists
—Ladies in white—Anecdotes—Bonaparte’s tokens of kindness, and
his droll compliments—His fits of ill humour—Sound of bells—
Gardens of Malmaison—His opinion of medicine—His memory—
His poetic insensibility—His want of gallantry—Cards and
conversation—The dress-coat and black cravat—Bonaparte’s payments
—His religious ideas—His obstinacy.

In perusing the history of the distinguished characters of past ages, how often do we regret that the historian should have portrayed the hero rather than the man! We wish to know even the most trivial habits of those whom great, talents and vast reputation have elevated above their fellow-creatures. Is this the effect of mere curiosity, or rather is it not an involuntary feeling of vanity which prompts us to console ourselves for the superiority of great men by reflecting on their faults, their weaknesses, their absurdities; in short, all the points of resemblance between them and common men? For the satisfaction of those who are curious in details of this sort, I will here endeavour to paint Bonaparte, as I saw him, in person and in mind, to describe what were his tastes and habits, and even his whims and caprices.

Bonaparte was now in the prime of life, and about thirty. The person of Bonaparte has served as a model for the most skilful painters and sculptors; many able French artists have successfully delineated his features, and yet it may be said that no perfectly faithful portrait of him exists. His finely-shaped head, his superb forehead, his pale countenance, and his usual meditative look, have been transferred to the canvas; but the versatility of his expression was beyond the reach of imitation: All the various workings of his mind were instantaneously depicted in his countenance; and his glance changed from mild to severe, and from angry to good-humoured, almost with the rapidity of lightning. It may truly be said that he had a particular look for every thought that arose in his mind.

Bonaparte had beautiful hands, and he was very proud of them; while conversing he would often look at them with an air of self-complacency. He also fancied he had fine teeth, but his pretension to that advantage was not so well founded as his vanity on the score of his hands.

When walking, either alone or in company with any one, in his apartments or in his gardens, he had the habit of stooping a little, and crossing his hands behind his back. He frequently gave an involuntary shrug of his right shoulder, which was accompanied by a movement of his mouth from left to right. This habit was always most remarkable when his mind was absorbed in the consideration of any profound subject. It was often while walking that he dictated to me his most important notes. He could endure great fatigue, not only on horseback but on foot; he would sometimes walk for five or six hours in succession without being aware of it.

When walking with any person whom he treated with familiarity he would link his arm into that of his companion, and lean on it.

He used often to say to me, "You see, Bourrienne, how temperate, and how thin I am; but, in spite of that, I cannot help thinking that at forty I shall become a great eater, and get very fat. I foresee that my constitution will undergo a change. I take a great deal of exercise; but yet I feel assured that my presentiment will be fulfilled." This idea gave him great uneasiness, and as I observed nothing which seemed to warrant his apprehensions, I omitted no opportunity of assuring him that they were groundless. But he would not listen to me, and all the time I was about him, he was haunted by this presentiment, which, in the end, was but too well verified.

His partiality for the bath he mistook for a necessity. He would usually remain in the bath two hours, during which time I used to read to him extracts from the journals and pamphlets of the day, for he was anxious to hear and know all that was going on. While in the bath he was continually turning on the warm water to raise the temperature, so that I was sometimes enveloped in such a dense vapour that I could not see to read, and was obliged to open the door.

Bonaparte was exceedingly temperate, and averse to all excess. He knew the absurd stories that were circulated about him, and he was sometimes vexed at theme It has been repeated, over and over again, that he was subject to attacks of epilepsy; but during the eleven years that I was almost constantly with him I never observed any symptom which in the least degree denoted that malady. His health was good and his constitution sound. If his enemies, by way of reproach, have attributed to him a serious periodical disease, his flatterers, probably under the idea that sleep is incompatible with greatness, have evinced an equal disregard of truth in speaking of his night-watching. Bonaparte made others watch, but he himself slept, and slept well. His orders were that I should call him every morning at seven. I was therefore the first to enter his chamber; but very frequently when I awoke him he would turn himself, and say, "Ah, Bourrienne! let me lie a little longer." When there was no very pressing business I did not disturb him again till eight o’clock. He in general slept seven hours out of the twenty-four, besides taking a short nap in the afternoon.

Among the private instructions which Bonaparte gave me, one was very curious. "During the night," said he, "enter my chamber as seldom as possible. Do not awake me when you have any good news to communicate: with that there is no hurry. But when you bring bad news, rouse me instantly; for then there is not a moment to be lost."

This was a wise regulation, and Bonaparte found his advantage in it.

As soon as he rose his ’valet de chambre’ shaved him and dressed his hair. While he was being shaved I read to him the newspapers, beginning always with the ’Moniteur.’ He paid little attention to any but the German and English papers. "Pass over all that," he would say, while I was perusing the French papers; "I know it already. They say only what they think will please me." I was often surprised that his valet did not cut him while I was reading; for whenever ha heard anything interesting he turned quickly round towards me.

When Bonaparte had finished: his toilet, which he did with great attention, for he was scrupulously neat in his person, we went down to his cabinet. There he signed the orders on important petitions which had been analysed by me on the preceding evening. On reception and parade days he was particularly exact in signing these orders, because I used to remind him that he would be, likely to see most of the petitioners, and that they would ask him for answers. To spare him this annoyance I used often to acquaint them beforehand of what had been granted or refused, and what had been the decision of the First Consul. He next perused the letters which I had opened and laid on his table, ranging them according to their importance. He directed me to answer them in his name; he occasionally wrote the answers himself, but not often.

At ten o’clock the ’maitre d’hotel’ entered, and announced breakfast, saying, ’The General is served." We went to breakfast, and the repast was exceedingly simple. He ate almost every morning some chicken, dressed with oil and onions. This dish was then, I believe, called ’poulet a la Provencale’; but our restaurateurs have since conferred upon it the more ambitious name of ’poulet a la Marengo.’

Bonaparte drank little wine, always either claret or Burgundy, and the latter by preference. After breakfast, as well as after dinner, he took a cup of strong coffee.

—[M. Brillat de Savarin, whose memory is dear to all gourmands, had
established, as a gastronomic principle, that "he who does not take
coffee after each meal is assuredly not a men of taste."—

I never saw him take any between his meals, and I cannot imagine what could have given rise to the assertion of his being particularly fond of coffee. When he worked late at night he never ordered coffee, but chocolate, of which he made me take a cup with him. But this only happened when our business was prolonged till two or three in the morning.

All that has been said about Bonaparte’s immoderate use of snuff has no more foundation in truth than his pretended partiality for coffee. It is true that at an early period of his life he began to take snuff, but it was very sparingly, and always out of a box; and if he bore any resemblance to Frederick the Great, it was not by filling his waistcoatpockets with snuff, for I must again observe he carried his notions of personal neatness to a fastidious degree.

Bonaparte had two ruling passions, glory and war. He was never more gay than in the camp, and never more morose than in the inactivity of peace. Plans for the construction of public monuments also pleased his imagination, and filled up the void caused by the want of active occupation. He was aware that monuments form part of the history of nations, of whose civilisation they bear evidence for ages after those who created them have disappeared from the earth, and that they likewise often bear false-witness to remote posterity of the reality of merely fabulous conquests. Bonaparte was, however, mistaken as to the mode of accomplishing the object he had in view. His ciphers, his trophies, and subsequently his eagles, splendidly adorned the monuments of his reign. But why did he wish to stamp false initials on things with which neither he nor his reign had any connection; as, for example the old Louvre? Did he imagine that the letter, "N" which everywhere obtruded itself on the eye, had in it a charm to controvert the records of history, or alter the course of time?

—[When Louis XVIII. returned to the Tuileries in 1814 he found that
Bonaparte had been an excellent tenant, and that he had left
everything in very good condition.]—

Be this as it may, Bonaparte well knew that the fine arts entail lasting glory on great actions, and consecrate the memory of princes who protect and encourage them. He oftener than once said to me, "A great reputation is a great poise; the more there is made, the farther off it is heard. Laws, institutions, monuments, nations, all fall; but the noise continues and resounds in after ages." This was one of his favourite ideas. "My power," he would say at other times, "depends on my glory, and my glory on my victories. My power would fall were I not to support it by new glory and new victories. Conquest has made me what I am, and conquest alone can maintain me." This was then, and probably always continued to be, his predominant idea, and that which prompted him continually to scatter the seeds of war through Europe. He thought that if he remained stationary ha would fall, and he was tormented with the desire of continually advancing. Not to do something great and decided was, in his opinion, to do nothing. "A newly-born Government," said he to me, "must dazzle and astonish. When it ceases to do that it falls." It was vain to look for rest from a man who was restlessness itself.

His sentiments towards France now differed widely from what I had known them to be in his youth. He long indignantly cherished the recollection of the conquest of Corsica, which he was once content to regard as his country. But that recollection was effaced, and it might be said that he now ardently loved France. His imagination was fired by the very thought of seeing her great, happy, and powerful, and, as the first nation in the world, dictating laws to the rest. He fancied his name inseparably connected with France, and resounding in, the ears of posterity. In all his actions he lost sight of the present moment, and thought only of futurity; so, in all places where he led the way to glory, the opinion of France was ever present in his thoughts. As Alexander at Arbela pleased himself less in having conquered Darius than in having gained the suffrage of the Athenians, so Bonaparte at Marengo was haunted by the idea of what would be said in France. Before he fought a battle Bonaparte thought little about what he should do in case of success, but a great deal about what he should do in case of a reverse of fortune. I mention this as a fact of which I have often been a witness, and leave to his brothers in arms to decide whether his calculations were always correct. He had it in his power to do much, for he risked everything and spared nothing. His inordinate ambition goaded him on to the attainment of power; and power when possessed served only to augment his ambition. Bonaparte was thoroughly convinced of the truth that trifles often decide the greatest events; therefore he watched rather than provoked opportunity, and when the right moment approached, he suddenly took advantage of it. It is curious that, amidst all the anxieties of war and government, the fear of the Bourbons incessantly pursued him, and the Faubourg St. Germain was to him always a threatening phantom.

He did not esteem mankind, whom, indeed, he despised more and more in proportion as he became acquainted with them. In him this unfavourable opinion of human nature was justified by many glaring examples of baseness, and he used frequently to repeat, "There are two levers for moving men,—interest and fear." What respect, indeed, could Bonaparte entertain for the applicants to the treasury of the opera? Into this treasury the gaming-houses paid a considerable sum, part of which went to cover the expenses of that magnificent theatre. The rest was distributed in secret gratuities, which were paid on orders signed by Duroc. Individuals of very different characters were often seen catching the little door in the Rue Rameau. The lady who was for a while the favourite of the General-in-Chief in Egypt, and whose husband was maliciously sent back-by the English, was a frequent visitor to the treasury. On an occasion would be seen assembled there a distinguished scholar and an actor, a celebrated orator and a musician; on another, the treasurer would have payments to make to a priest, a courtesan, and a cardinal.

One of Bonaparte’s greatest misfortunes was, that he neither believed in friendship not felt the necessity of loving. How often have I heard him say, "Friendship is but a name; I love nobody. I do not even love my brothers. Perhaps Joseph, a little, from habit and because he is my elder; and Duroc, I love him too. But why? Because his character pleases me. He is stern and resolute; and I really believe the fellow never shed a tear. For my part, I know very well that I have no true friends. As long as I continue what I am, I may have as many pretended friends as I please. Leave sensibility to women; it is their business. But men should be firm in heart and in purpose, or they should have nothing to do with war or government."

In his social relations Bonaparte’s temper was bad; but his fits of illhumour passed away like a cloud, and spent themselves in words. His violent language and bitter imprecations were frequently premeditated. When he was going to reprimand any one he liked to have a witness present. He would then say the harshest things, and level blows against which few could bear up. But he never gave way to those violent ebullitions of rage until be acquired undoubted proofs of the misconduct of those against whom they were directed. In scenes of this sort I have frequently observed that the presence of a third person seemed to give him confidence. Consequently, in a ’tete-a-tete’ interview, any one who knew his character, and who could maintain sufficient coolness and firmness, was sure to get the better of him. He told his friends at St. Helena that he admitted a third person on such occasions only that the blow might resound the farther. That was not his real motive, or the better way would have been to perform the scene in public. He had other reasons. I observed that he did not like a ’tete-a-tete’; and when he expected any one, he would say to me beforehand, "Bourrienne, you may remain;" and when any one was announced whom he did not expect, as a minister or a general; if I rose to retire he would say in a halfwhisper, "Stay where you are." Certainly this was not done with the design of getting what he said reported abroad; for it belonged neither to my character nor my duty to gossip about what I had heard. Besides, it may be presumed, that the few who were admitted as witnesses to the conferences of Napoleon were aware of the consequences attending indiscreet disclosures under a Government which was made acquainted with all that was said and done.

Bonaparte entertained a profound dislike of the sanguinary men of the Revolution, and especially of the regicides. He felt, as a painful burden, the obligation of dissembling towards them. He spoke to me in terms of horror of those whole he celled the assassins of Louis XVI, and he was annoyed at the necessity of employing them and treating them with apparent respect. How many times has he not said to Cambaceres, pinching him by the ear, to soften, by that habitual familiarity, the bitterness of the remark, "My dear fellow, your case is clear; if ever the Bourbons come back you will be hanged!" A forced smile would then relax the livid countenance of Cambaceres, and was usually the only reply of the Second Consul, who, however, on one occasion said in my hearing, "Come, come, have done with this joking."

One thing which gave Bonaparte great pleasure when in the country was to see a tall, slender woman, dressed in white, walking beneath an alley of shaded trees. He detested coloured dresses, and especially dark ones. To fat women he had an invincible antipathy, and he could not endure the sight of a pregnant woman; it therefore rarely happened that a female in that situation was invited to his parties. He possessed every requisite for being what is called in society an agreeable man, except the will to be so. His manner was imposing rather than pleasing, and those who did not know him well experienced in his presence an involuntary feeling of awe. In the drawing-room, where Josephine did the honours with so much grace and affability, all was gaiety and ease, and no one felt the presence of a superior; but on Bonaparte’s entrance all was changed, and every eye was directed towards him, to read his humour in his countenance, whether he intended to be silent or talkative, dull or cheerful.

He often talked a great deal, and sometimes a little too much; but no one could tell a story in a more agreeable and interesting way. His conversation rarely turned on gay or humorous subjects, and never on trivial matters. He was so fond of argument that in the warmth of discussion it was easy to draw from him secrets which he was most anxious to conceal. Sometimes, in a small circle, he would amuse himself by relating stories of presentiments and apparitions. For this he always chose the twilight of evening, and he would prepare his hearers for what was coming by some solemn remark. On one occasion of this kind he said, in a very grave tone of voice, "When death strikes a person whom we love, and who is distant from us, a foreboding almost always denotes the event, and the dying person appears to us at the moment of his dissolution." He then immediately related the following anecdote: "A gentleman of the Court of Louis XIV. was in the gallery of Versailles at the time that the King was reading to his courtiers the bulletin of the battle of Friedlingen gained by Villars. Suddenly the gentleman saw, at the farther end of the gallery, the ghost of his son, who served under Villars. He exclaimed, ’My son is no more!’ and next moment the King named him among the dead."

When travelling Bonaparte was particularly talkative. In the warmth of his conversation, which was always characterised by original and interesting idea, he sometimes dropped hints of his future views, or, at least, he said things which were calculated to disclose what he wished to conceal. I took the liberty of mentioning to him this indiscretion, and far from being offended, he acknowledged his mistake, adding that he was not aware he had gone so far. He frankly avowed this want of caution when at St. Helena.

When in good humour his usual tokens of kindness consisted in a little rap on the head or a slight pinch of the ear. In his most friendly conversations with those whom he admitted into his intimacy he would say, "You are a fool"—"a simpleton"—"a ninny"—"a blockhead." These, and a few other words of like import, enabled him to vary his catalogue of compliments; but he never employed them angrily, and the tone in which they were uttered sufficiently indicated that they were meant in kindness.

Bonaparte had many singular habits and tastes. Whenever he experienced any vexation, or when any unpleasant thought occupied his mind, he would hum something which was far from resembling a tune, for his voice was very unmusical. He would, at the same time, seat himself before the writing-table, and swing back in his chair so far that I have often been fearful of his falling.

He would then vent his ill-humour on the right arm of his chair, mutilating it with his penknife, which he seemed to keep for no other purpose. I always took care to keep good pens ready for him; for, as it was my business to decipher his writing, I had a strong interest in doing what I could to make it legible.

The sound of bells always produced in Bonaparte pleasurable sensations, which I could never account for. When we were at Malmaison, and walking in the alley leading to the plain of Ruel, how many times has the bell of the village church interrupted our most serious conversations!

He would stop, lest the noise of our footsteps should drown any portion of the delightful sound: He was almost angry with me because I did not experience the impressions he did. So powerful was the effect produced upon him by the sound of these bells that his voice would falter as he said, "Ah! that reminds me of the first years I spent at Brienne! I was then happy!" When the bells ceased he would resume the course of his speculations, carry himself into futurity, place a crown on his head; and dethrone kings.

Nowhere, except on the field of battle, did I ever see Bonaparte more happy than in the gardens of Malmaison. At the commencement of the Consulate we used to go there every Saturday evening, and stay the whole of Sunday, and sometimes Monday. Bonaparte used to spend a considerable part of his time in walking and superintending the improvements which he had ordered. At first he used to make excursions about the neighbourhood, but the reports of the police disturbed his natural confidence, and gave him reason to fear the attempts of concealed royalist partisans.

During the first four or five days that Bonaparte spent at Malmaison he amused himself after breakfast with calculating the revenue of that domain. According to his estimates it amounted to 8000 francs. "That is not bad!" said he; "but to live here would require au income of 30,000 livres!" I could not help smiling to see him seriously engaged in such a calculation.

Bonaparte had no faith in medicine. He spoke of it as an art entirely conjectural, and his opinion on this subject was fired and incontrovertible. His vigorous mind rejected all but demonstrative proofs.

He had little memory for proper name, words, or dates, but he had a wonderful recollection of facts and places. I recollect that, on going from Paris to Toulon, he pointed out to me ten places calculated for great battles, and he never forgot them. They were memoranda of his first youthful journeys.

Bonaparte was insensible to the charms of poetic harmony. He had not even sufficient ear to feel the rhythm, of poetry, and he never could recite a verse without violating the metre; yet the grand ideas of poetry charmed him. He absolutely worshipped Corneille; and, one day, after having witnessed a performance of ’Cinna’, he said to me, "If a man like Corneille were living in my time I would make him my Prime Minister. It is not his poetry that I most admire; it is his powerful understanding, his vast knowledge of the human heart, and his profound policy!" At St. Helena he said that h® would have made Corneille a prince; but at the time he spoke to me of Corneille he had no thought of making either princes or kings.

Gallantry to women was by no means a trait in Bonaparte’s character. He seldom said anything agreeable to females, and he frequently addressed to them the rudest and most extraordinary remarks. To one he would say, "Heavens, how red your elbows are!" To another, " What an ugly headdress you have got!" At another time he would say, "Your dress is none of the cleanest..... Do you ever change your gown? I have seen you in that twenty times!" He showed no mercy to any who displeased him on these points. He often gave Josephine directions about her toilet, and the exquisite taste for which she was distinguished might have helped to make him fastidious about the costume of other ladies. At first he looked to elegance above all things: at a later period he admired luxury and splendour, but he always required modesty. He frequently expressed his disapproval of the low-necked dresses which were so much in fashion at the beginning of the Consulate.

Bonaparte did not love cards, and this was very fortunate for those who were invited to his parties; for when he was seated at a card-table, as he sometimes thought himself obliged to be, nothing could exceed the dulness of the drawing-room either at the Luxembourg or the Tuileries. When, on the contrary, he walked about among the company, all were pleased, for he usually spoke to everybody, though he preferred the conversation of men of science, especially those who had been with him in in Egypt; as for example, Monge and Berthollet. He also liked to talk with Chaptal and Lacphede, and with Lemercier, the author of ’Agamemnon’.

Bonaparte was seen to less advantage in a drawing-room than at the head of his troops. His military uniform became him much better than the handsomest dress of any other kind. His first trials of dress-coats were unfortunate. I have been informed that the first time he wore one he kept on his black cravat. This incongruity was remarked to him, and he replied, "So much the better; it leaves me something of a military air, and there is no harm in that." For my own part, I neither saw the black cravat nor heard this reply.

The First Consul paid his own private bills very punctually; but he was always tardy in settling the accounts of the contractors who bargained with Ministers for supplies for the public service. He put off these payments by all sorts of excuses and shufflings. Hence arose immense arrears in the expenditure, and the necessity of appointing a committee of liquidation. In his opinion the terms contractor and rogue were synonymous. All that he avoided paying them he regarded as a just restitution to himself; and all the sums which were struck off from their accounts he regarded as so much deducted from a theft. The less a Minister paid out of his budget the more Bonaparte was pleased with him; and this ruinous system of economy can alone explain the credit which Decres so long enjoyed at the expense of the French navy.

On the subject of religion Bonaparte’s ideas were very vague. "My reason," said he, "makes me incredulous respecting many things; but the impressions of my childhood and early youth throw me into uncertainty." He was very fond of talking of religion. In Italy, in Egypt, and on board the ’Orient’ and the ’Muiron’, I have known him to take part in very animated conversations on this subject.

He readily yielded up all that was proved against religion as the work of men and time: but he would not hear of materialism. I recollect that one fine night, when he was on deck with some persons who were arguing in favour of materialism, Bonaparte raised his hand to heaven and, pointing to the stars, said, "You may talk as long as you please, gentlemen, but who made all that?" The perpetuity of a name in the memory of man was to him the immortality of the soul. He was perfectly tolerant towards every variety of religious faith.

Among Bonaparte’s singular habits was that of seating himself on any table which happened to be of a suitable height for him. He would often sit on mine, resting his left arm on my right shoulder, and swinging his left leg, which did not reach the ground; and while he dictated to me he would jolt the table so that I could scarcely write.

Bonaparte had a great dislike to reconsider any decision, even when it was acknowledged to be unjust. In little as well as in great things he evinced his repugnance to retrograde. An instance of this occurred in the affair of General Latour-Foissac. The First Consul felt how much he had wronged that general; but he wished some time to elapse before he repaired his error. His heart and his conduct were at variance; but his feelings were overcome by what he conceived to be political necessity. Bonaparte was never known to say, "I have done wrong:" his usual observation was, "I begin to think there is something wrong."

In spite of this sort of feeling, which was more worthy of an illhumoured philosopher than the head of a government, Bonaparte was neither malignant nor vindictive. I cannot certainly defend him against all the reproaches which he incurred through the imperious law of war and cruel necessity; but I may say that he has often been unjustly accused. None but those who are blinded by fury will call him a Nero or a Caligula. I think I have avowed his faults with sufficient candour to entitle me to credit when I speak in his commendation; and I declare that, out of the field of battle, Bonaparte had a kind and feeling heart. He was very fond of children, a trait which seldom distinguishes a bad man. In the relations of private life to call him amiable would not be using too strong a word, and he was very indulgent to the weakness of human nature. The contrary opinion is too firmly fixed in some minds for me to hope to root it out. I shall, I fear, have contradictors, but I address myself to those who look for truth. To judge impartially we must take into account the influence which time and circumstances exercise on men; and distinguish between the different characters of the Collegian, the General, the Consul, and the Emperor.


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Chicago: Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, "Chapter XXVIII. 1800.," Memoirs of Napoleon— Volume 4 in Memoirs of Napoleon—Volume 4 Original Sources, accessed February 9, 2023,

MLA: Fauvelet de Bourrienne, Louis Antoine. "Chapter XXVIII. 1800." Memoirs of Napoleon— Volume 4, in Memoirs of Napoleon—Volume 4, Original Sources. 9 Feb. 2023.

Harvard: Fauvelet de Bourrienne, LA, 'Chapter XXVIII. 1800.' in Memoirs of Napoleon— Volume 4. cited in , Memoirs of Napoleon—Volume 4. Original Sources, retrieved 9 February 2023, from