Napoleon as an Ambitious Young General in 1796–97

In his memoirs, André François Miot de Melito, a special minister from the French government to Piedmont, tells of his first impressions of the young Napoleon Bonaparte, who was only twenty-seven but already an important general because of his victories in the Italian campaign. Bonaparte held court in Italy like a ruler. According to Miot, Bonaparte had already formed a plan to take absolute power for himself.


The 17th Prairial (5 June 1796) Bonaparte arrived at Brescia . . . I found myself in his presence a few moments after he had alighted. I was strangely surprised at his appearance. Nothing could be farther from the picture which I had formed of him. I saw, in the midst of a numerous staff, a man below the medium height and extremely thin. His powdered hair, which was cut in a peculiar, square fashion below the ears, fell down to his shoulders. he had on a straight coat, closely buttoned up, decorated with a very narrow gold embroidery, and wore a tri-colored plume in his hat. At first glance the face did not seem to me a fine one, but the striking features, a quick and searching eye, and abrupt, animated gestures, proclaimed an ardent soul, while the broad, serious forehead showed a deep thinker. He had me sit down by him and we talked about Italy. Hs speech was quick and at this time very incorrect. On the 13th of Prairial (June 1st), I found Bonaparte at the magnificent residence of Montebello, in the midst of a brilliant court rather than the headquarters of an army. Severe etiquette was already maintained in his presence. His aides-de-camp and officers were no longer received at his table and he exercised great care in the choice of those whom he did admit, so that to sit down with him was considered a rare honor, to be obtained only with difficulty. He dined so to speak in public, and during the meal the inhabitants of the country were admitted to the dining room and allowed to feast their eyes upon him. He showed himself, however, in no way embarrassed or confused by this exhibition of esteem, and received them as if he had always been accustomed to such tributes. His salons and a great canopy which he had had raised in front of the palace toward the gardens, were constantly filled with a throng of generals, officials, and purveyors, as well as the highest nobility and the most distinguished men of Italy who came to solicit the favor of a glance or a moment's conversation. . . . Bonaparte took us for a walk in the extensive gardens of his beautiful residence. The promenade lasted toward two hours, during which the general talked almost continuously. . . . “What I have done so far is nothing,” he said to us; “I am but at the opening of the career I am to run. Do you suppose that I have gained my victories in Italy in order to advance the lawyers of the Directory, the Carnots and the Barras? Do you think, either, that my object is to establish a Republic? What a notion! A Republic of thirty million people, with our morals and vices! How could that ever be? It is a chimera with which the French are infatuated but which will pass away in time like all the others. What they want is glory and the gratification of their vanity; as for liberty, of that they have no conception. Look at the army! The victories which we have just gained have given the French soldier his true character. I am everything to him. Let the Directory attempt to deprive me of my command and they will see who is master. The nation must have a head, a head rendered illustrious by glory and not by theories of government, fine phrases, or the talk of idealists, of which the French understand not a whit. Let them have their toys and they will be satisfied. They will amuse themselves and allow themselves to be led, provided the goal is cleverly disguised.”

Source: James H. Robinson, ed., Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, vol II, no. 2: The Napoleonic Period (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1902), pp. 1-3.