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The French Trials in London[524]

Karl Marx

Paris, April 4, 1858

When Victor Hugo marked the nephew as Napoleon the Little, he acknowledged the uncle as Napoleon the Great. The title of his celebrated pamphlet[a] meant an antithesis, and, to some degree, did homage to that very Napoleon-worship on which the son of Hortense Beauharnais contrived to raise the bloody fabric of his fortune. What is more useful to impress on the present generation is that Napoleon the Little represents in fact the littleness of Napoleon the Great. The plainest illustration of this fact is afforded by the recent "painful misconceptions" between England and France, and the criminal proceedings against refugees and printers which they have led to on the part of the English Government. A short historical review will prove that during the whole of this miserable melo-drama Napoleon the Little has only re-enacted with anxious minuteness the shabby part invented and played before by Napoleon the Great.

It was only during the short interval separating the peace of Amiens[525] (March 25, 1802) from the new declaration of war on the part of Great Britain (May 18, 1803) that Napoleon could indulge his desire for interference with the internal state of Great Britain. He lost no time. Even while the peace negotiations were still pending, the Moniteur emitted his venom on all the London papers venturing to question "the moderation and sincerity of Bonaparte's views," and gave no very unintelligible hint that "such disbelief might ere long be followed with chastisement."[b] Nor did the Consul confine himself to a censorship over the language and sentiments of the British press. The Moniteur abused Lord Grenville and Mr. Windham for the part they took in the discussions on peace[c]. Mr. Elliot, a Member of Parliament, was called to account in the House of Commons by Perceval, the Attorney-General, for expressing his doubts as to Bonaparte's intentions[d]. Lord Castlereagh and Pitt himself pitched the key of submission, by inculcating, what had never been done on any former occasions, forbearance of language in debate as respecting the Consul of France[e]. About six weeks had passed from the conclusion of the peace, when Talleyrand, on June 3, 1802, informed Mr. Merry, the British Plenipotentiary at Paris, that Bonaparte, out of consideration for England, had resolved to replace Mr. Otto, the French Plenipotentiary at London, by a real Embassador in the person of Gen. Andréossy; but that before the arrival of that exalted personage at London, it was the First Consul's sincere wish

"to see such obstacles removed which stood very much in the way of the perfect reconciliation between the two countries and their Governments."

What he demanded, was simply the removal out of the British dominions of

"all the French princes and their adherents, together with the French bishops and other French individuals whose political principles and conduct must necessarily occasion great jealousy of the French Government.... The protection and favor which all the persons in question continued to meet with, in a country so close a neighbor to France, must alone be always considered as an encouragement to the disaffected here, even without those persons themselves being guilty of any acts leading to foment fresh disturbances in this country; but that the Government here possessed proofs of the abuse which they were now making of the protection which they enjoyed in England, and of the advantage they were taking of their vicinity to France, by being really guilty of such acts, since several printed papers had lately been intercepted, which it was known they had sent, and caused to be circulated in France, and which had for their object to create an opposition to the Government."[f]

There existed at that time an alien law[526] in England, which, however, was framed strictly with a view to the protection of the British Government. In answer to Talleyrand's demand, Lord Hawkesbury, the then Foreign Minister, replied that

"His Majesty the King[g]. certainly expected that all foreigners who might reside within his dominions, should not only hold a conduct conformable to the laws of the country, but abstain from all acts hostile to the Government of any country with which his Majesty might be at peace. As long, however, as they conduct themselves according to these principles, his Majesty would feel it inconsistent with his dignity, with his honor, and with the common laws of hospitality, to deprive them of that protection which individuals resident in his dominions can only forfeit by their own misconduct. The greater part of the persons to whom allusion has been made in Mr. Talleyrand's conversation, are living in retirement."[h]

In delivering Lord Hawkesbury's dispatch to Talleyrand, Mr. Merry was by no means sparing of assurances calculated to "soothe, tranquilize and satisfy the First Consul."[i] Talleyrand, however, insisted upon his pound of flesh[j], stating that the First Consul had solicited no more than the British Government itself had demanded of Louis XIV., when the Pretender[k] was in France, that he could not see any humiliation in the measure intimated, and that he must repeat

"that the adoption of it would be in the highest degree agreeable and satisfactory to the First Consul," and be considered by him as "the most convincing proof of his Majesty's disposition to see a cordial good understanding established between the two countries."[l]

On July 25, 1802, Mr. Otto, from his residence at Portman Square, addressed a letter to Lord Hawkesbury, requesting, in a very categorical way, nothing less than the suppression of the liberty of the English press, as far as Bonaparte and his Government were concerned.

"I transmitted," he says, "some time ago, to Mr. Hammond, a number of Peltier, containing the most gross calumnies against the French Government, and against the whole nation; and I observed, that I should probably receive an order to demand a punishment of such an abuse of the press. That order is actually arrived, and I -cannot conceal from you, my Lord, that the reiterated insults of a small number of foreigners, assembled in London to conspire against the French Government, have produced the most unfavorable effects on the good understanding between the two nations.... It is not to Peltier alone, but to the editor of the Courrier Francois de Londres (Reynaud), to Cobbett, and to other writers who resemble them, that I have to direct the attention of his Majesty's Government.... The want of positive laws against these sorts of offenses cannot palliate the violation of the laws of nations, according to which peace should put a stop to all species of hostilities; and doubtless those which wound the honor and reputation of a Government, and which tend to create a revolt of the people whose interests are confided to that Government, are the most apt to lessen the advantages of peace and to keep up national resentments."[m]

Instead of meeting these first reproaches of Bonaparte's interference on the subject of the press with a firm and dignified reply, Lord Hawkesbury, in a letter to M. Otto on July 28, made a paltry apology for the existence of the liberty of the press. He says that it is

"impossible his Majesty's Government could peruse Peltier's article without the greatest displeasure, and without an anxious desire that a person who published it should suffer the punishment he so justly deserves."

Then, after lamenting the "inconveniences" of prosecutions for libel, and the "difficulty" of obtaining judgment against the offenders, he concludes by stating that he has referred the matter to the King's Attorney-General[n] "for his opinion whether it is or is not a libel."[o]

While the British Government was thus preparing a crusade against the liberty of the press, in order to soothe the susceptibility of its great and new ally, there appeared suddenly, on August 9, a menacing article in the Moniteur, in which England was not only accused of receiving French robbers and assassins, of harboring them at Jersey, and of sending them to make predatory excursions on the coasts of France, but in which the English King himself was represented as a rewarder and instigator of assassination:

"The Times, which is said to he under Ministerial inspection, is filled with perpetual invectives against France. Two of its four pages are every day employed in giving currency to the grossest calumnies. All that imagination can depict, that is low, vile and base, is by that miserable paper attributed to the French Government. What is its end? Who pays it? What does it effect? A french journal[p], edited by some miserable emigrants, the remnant of the most impure, a vile refuse, without country, without honor, sullied with crimes which it is not in the power of any amnesty to wash away, outdoes even the Times." "Eleven Bishops, presided over by the atrocious Bishop of Arras, rebels to their country and to the Church, have assembled in London. They print libels against the Bishops and the French clergy." "The Isle. of Jersey is full of brigands, condemned to death by the tribunals, committed subsequent to the peace for assassination, robberies, and the practices of an incendiary. Georges[q] wears openly at London his red ribbon, as a recompense for the infernal machine which destroyed a part of Paris, and killed thirty women and children, or peaceable citizens[r]. This special protection authorizes a belief that if he had succeeded, he would have been honored with the Order of the Garter." "Either the English Government authorizes and tolerates those public and private crimes, in which case it cannot be said that such conduct is consistent with .British generosity, civilization and honor; or it cannot prevent them, in which case it does not deserve the name of a Government, above all, if it does not possess the means of repressing assassination and calumny and protecting social order."[s]

When the menacing Moniteur arrived late at night in London, it produced such an irritation that The True Briton, the Ministerial paper, was compelled to declare,

"That article could not have been inserted in the Moniteur with the knowledge or consent of the French Government."[t]

In the House of Commons Dr. Laurence called upon Mr. Addington (afterward Lord Sidmouth) as to the French libels on his Majesty[u]. The Minister replied that

"he wished he could show to the learned gentleman the satisfactory explanations which had taken place on that head."[v]

It was replied that while the British Government made a public matter of a jest on Bonaparte and his wife, and Mr. Peltier was. for his jokes upon those people, to be brought into the Court of King's Bench[527] and to be arraigned as a criminal; in the other case, when the British nation was libeled and its royal master, in the official gazette of France, styled the rewarder of assassins, the matter was to be settled by an "explanation", and that explanation so secret, too, as not to admit of being communicated to Parliament. Encouraged by the apparent vacillation of the English Ministry, Otto, on Aug. 17, 1802, came out with a most impudent note to Lord Hawkesbury, in which the demand is formally put to adopt effectual measures for putting down all the unbecoming and seditious publications of the English prints, to send out of Jersey certain individuals, to expel the French bishops, to transport Georges and his adherents to Canada, and to send the French princes to Warsaw. With reference to the alien law M. Otto insists that the Ministry must possess

"a legal and sufficient power to restrain foreigners, without having recourse to the courts of law;"

and he adds,

"The French Government, which offers on this point a perfect reciprocity, thinks it gives a new proof of its pacific intentions, by demanding that those persons should be sent away whose machinations uniformly tend to sow discord between the two nations."[w]

Lord Hawkesbury's answer, dated Aug. 28, sent in the form of a dispatch to the English Plenipotentiary at Paris, has during the late quarrel with Bonaparte III. been quoted by the London press as a model of statesmanlike dignity; but it must be confessed that in spite of the terms of virtuous indignation in which it is couched, promises are held out of sacrificing the French emigrants to the jealous fears of the First Consul.[x]

In the beginning of the year 1803 Napoleon took upon himself to regulate the proceedings of Parliament and to restrain the liberty of speech among its members. With respect to the ex-Ministers, Mr. Windham, Lord Grenville, and Lord Minto, he intimated literally in his Moniteur,

"It would be a patriotic and wise law which should ordain that displaced Ministers should not, for the first seven years after their dismissal, be competent to sit in the English Parliament. Another law, not less wise, would be that every member who should insult a friendly people and power should be condemned to silence for two years. When the tongue offends, the tongue must suffer punishment."[y]

At the same time Gen. Andréossy, who had meanwhile arrived at London, complained in a note to Lord Hawkesbury that the despicable pamphleteers and libelers of the British press

"have found themselves invariably supported in their insolent observations by particular phrases, taken from the speeches of some leading Members of Parliament."

Of these speeches it is said that

"every reasonable Englishman must be humiliated by such unheard-of licentiousness."

In the name of the First Consul he expresses the wish

"that means should be adopted to prevent in future any mention being made of what is passing in France, either in the official discussions or in the polemical writings in England, as in like manner, in the French official discussions and polemical writings, no mention should be made of what is passing in England."[z]

While Bonaparte in this tone of mingled hypocrisy and arrogance privately addressed the British Government, the Moniteur teemed with insults against the British people, and also published an official report of Col. Sebastiani, containing the most injurious charges against the British army in Egypt[za]. On Feb. 5, 1803, the French Commissaire de Relation Commerciale at Jersey, though acknowledged in no public capacity, had the insolence to prefer a complaint against some printers for inserting paragraphs from the London papers offensive to Bonaparte, and to threaten that if the practice was not punished, Bonaparte would certainly revenge himself upon Jersey. This threat had the desired effect. Two of the printers were brought before the Royal Court, and the positive injunction was laid on them not to publish in future anything offensive to France, even from the London papers[zb]. On Feb. 20, 1803, one day before Peltier's trial, Lord Whitworth, the English Embassador at Paris, was summoned into the presence of the great man himself. Being received in his cabinet, Whitworth was desired to sit down after Bonaparte had sat down himself on the other side of the table. He enumerated the several provocations which he pretended to have received from England.

"He adverted to the abuse thrown out about him in the English prints, but this he said he did not so much regard as that which appeared in the French papers published in London. This he considered as much more mischievous, since it was meant to excite his country against him and his Government. He complained of the protection given to Georges and others of his description; [...] he acknowledged that the irritation he felt against England increased daily, because every wind which blew from England brought nothing but enmity and hatred against him.... As a proof of his desire to maintain peace, he wished to know what he had to gain by going to war with England. A descent was the only means of offense he had, and that he was determined to attempt, by putting himself at the head of the expedition. He acknowledged that there were one hundred chances to one against him, but still he was determined to attempt it if war should be the consequence of the present discussion; and that such was the disposition of the troops that army after army would be found for the enterprise.... To preserve peace the treaty of Amiens must be fulfilled, the abuse in the public prints, if not totally suppressed, at least kept within bounds and confined to the English papers, and the protection so openly given to his bitterest enemies must be withdrawn."[zc]

On Feb. 21, Peltier was tried before Lord Ellenborough and a special Jury, for libeling Bonaparte and "intending to excite the people of France to assassinate their ruler."[zd] Lord Ellenborough had the meanness to terminate his address to the Jury with the following words:

"Gentlemen, I trust your verdict will strengthen the relations by which the interests of this country are connected with those of France, and that it will illustrate and justify in every quarter of the world the conviction that has been long and universally entertained of the unsullied purity of British judicature."[ze]

The Jury, without retiring from their box, immediately returned the verdict of Guilty. In consequence of the subsequent rupture between the two countries, Mr. Peltier was, however, not called upon to receive judgment, and the prosecution thus stopped. Having goaded the British Ministry into these persecutions of the press, and wrung from them Peltier's condemnation, the truthful and heroic Moniteur, March 2, 1803, published the following commentary:

"A person of the name of Peltier has been found guilty, before a court of justice at London, of printing and publishing some wretched libels against the First Consul. It is not easy to imagine why the English Ministry should affect to make this a matter of so much eclat. As it has been said in the English newspapers that the trial was instituted at the demand of the French Government, and that the French Embassador was even in the Court when the Jury gave in their verdict, we have authority to deny that any such things did ever take place. The First Consul was even ignorant of the existence of Peltier's libels till they came to his knowledge in the public accounts of the proceedings at his trial.... Yet it is to be acknowledged that these proceedings, however useless in other respects, have afforded an occasion to the Judges who presided at the trial to evince, by their wisdom and impartiality, that they are truly worthy to administer justice in a nation so enlightened, and estimable in so many respects."[zf]

While the Moniteur in the same article insisted that the duty weighed on all "civilized nations in Europe" reciprocally to put down the barbarians of the press, M. Reinhard, the French Plenipotentiary at Hamburg, summoned together the Hamburg Senate, in order to consider a requisition from the First Consul to insert in the Hamburger Correspondent an article most offensive to the British Government. It was the wish of the Senate at least to be allowed to omit or qualify the most offensive passages; but M. Reinhard said his orders were positive for the full and exact insertion of the whole. The article appeared consequently in its original coarseness. The French Minister desired that the same should be published in the papers at Altona; but the Danish magistrates said that they could not possibly permit it without an express order from their Government. In consequence of this refusal, M. D'Aguesseau, the French Minister at Copenhagen, received from his colleague at Hamburg a copy of the article, with the request that he would solicit permission for its publication in the Danish papers. When called upon with respect to this libel by Lord Whitworth, M. Talleyrand declared that

"the British Ministers could not be more surprised than the First Consul had been at seeing such an article inserted by authority; that an immediate explanation had been required of M. Reinhard, etc."[zg]

Such was Napoleon the Great.

Written on April 4, 1858
First published unsigned in the-New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5309, April 27, 1858


[a] V. Hugo, Napoléon le petit. (Originally this epithet was used by the author of the pamphlet in his speech in the Legislative Assembly in 1851.).—Ed.

[b] "Paris, le 22 ventôse", "Paris, le 25 ventôse", Gazette nationale, ou Le Moniteur universel, Nos. 173, 176, 23, 26 ventôse an 10 de la République française.—Ed.

[c] "Paris, le 10 nivôse an 11", Gazette nationale, ou Le Moniteur universel, No. 101, 11 nivôse an 11 de la République française.—Ed.

[d] W. Elliot's speech in the House of Commons on November 4, 1801, Cobbett's Annual Register, Vol. II, col. 1187.—Ed.

[e] R. St. Castlereagh's and W. Pitt's speeches in the House of Commons on November 3, 1801, Cobbett's Annual Register, Vol. II, col. 1133-34, 1144.—Ed.

[f] Ch. M, Talleyrand's conversation with A. Merry on the 3rd of June 1802, Cobbett's Annual Register, Vol. III, col. 998.—Ed.

[g] George M.—Ed.

[h] R. Hawkesbury's dispatch to A. Merry, dated June 10, 1802, Cobbett's Annual Register, Vol. III, col. 999-1000.—Ed.

[i] A. Merry's dispatch to R. Hawkesbury, dated Paris, June 17, 1802, Cobbett's Annual Register, Vol. III, col. 1000-02.—Ed.

[j] Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene 3.—Ed.

[k] James II.—Ed.

[l] Ch. M. Talleyrand's conversation with A. Merry, Cobbett's Annual Register, Vol. III, col. 1000-01.—Ed.

[m] L. G. Otto's letter to R. Hawkesbury dated July 25, 1802, Cobbett's Annual Register, Vol. III, col. 1002.—Ed.

[n] Spencer Perceval.—Ed.

[o] R. Hawkesbury's letter to L. G. Otto, dated July 28, 1802, Cobbett's Annual Register, Vol. III, col. 1003.—Ed.

[p] L'Ambigu, variétés atroces et amusantes.—Ed.

[q] Georges Cadoudal.—Ed.

[r] The reference is to the attempt on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte on December 24, 1800 in the rue Saint-Nicaise.—Ed.

[s] "Paris, le 19 thermidor", Gazette nationale, ou Le Moniteur universel, No. 320, 20 thermidor an 10 de la République française. The last sentence of this passage was quoted by. Marx in his letter to Engels of February 14, 1858. See present edition, Vol. 40, p. 266.).—Ed.

[t] The True Briton's declaration, Cobbett's Annual Register, Vol. II, col. 130.—Ed.

[u] Fr. Laurence's speech in the House of Commons on December 9, 1802, Cobbett's Annual Register, Vol. II, col. 1774-76.—Ed.

[v] H. Addington's speech in the House of Commons on December 9, 1802, Cobbett 's Annual Register, Vol. II, col. 1776-77.—Ed.

[w] L. G. Otto's note to R. Hawkesbury, dated August 17, 1802, Cobbett's Annual Register, Vol. III, col. 1103.—Ed.

[x] R. Hawkesbury's dispatch -to A. Merry, dated August 28, 1802, Cobbett's Annual Register, Vol. III, col. 1007-13.—Ed.

[y] "Paris, le 10 nivôse an 11", Gazette nationale, ou Le Moniteur universel, No. 101, 11 nivôse an 11 de la République française.—Ed.

[z] A. Fr. Andréossy's note to R. Hawkesbury, dated March 29, 1803, Cobbett's Annual Register, Vol. III, col. 1053-57.—Ed.

[za] H. Sebastiani, "Rapport fait an Premier Consul", Gazette rationale, ou Le Moniteur universel, No. 130, 10 pluviôse an 11 de la Republique française.—Ed.

[zb] "Summary of Politics", Cobbett's Annual Register, Vol. III, col. 315.—Ed.

[zc] Napoleon I's conversation with Lord Whitworth, dated February 20, 1803, Cobbett's Annual Register, Vol. III, col. 1034.—Ed.

[zd] Cited according to "Trial of Mr. Peltier", Cobbett's Annual Register, Vol. III, col. 276-83.—Ed.

[ze] E. L. Ellenborough's speech at the trial of J. G. Peltier on February 21, 1803, Cobbett's Annual Register, Supplement to Vol. III, col. 1232.—Ed.

[zf] "Paris, le 11 ventôse", Gazette nationale, ou Le Moniteur universel, No. 162, 12 ventôse an 11 de la Rèpublique française.—Ed.

[zg] Ch. M. Talleyrand's conversation with Lord Whitworth, Cobbett's Annual Register, Vol. III, col. 1066.—Ed.

[524] Marx's main source for this article were Papers relating to the Negotiations carried on between Great Britain and France, between the conclusion of the Treaty of Amiens, 25th March, 1802, and the recall of Lord Whitworth from Paris, 12th of May, 1803, including divers Papers from the English Ministers at the Hague, Berlin, Vienna, St. Petersburgh, Copenhagen, and Hamburgh; to which is added an Appendix, containing offensive Papers, published by France. Laid before the Parliament by His Majesty's Command on the 18th of May, 1803. This material was published in Cobbett's Annual Register, Vol. III, from January to June 1803 and Marx informed Engels about this in his letter of February 14, 1858 (see present edition, Vol. 40, pp. 265-66).

[525] The Peace of Amiens signed by France on March 25 and by Britain on March 27, 1802 ended the war between France and the second European coalition. But peace did not last long. Napoleon I soon resumed the war under the pretext of Britain's failure to fulfil one of the conditions of the Amiens peace, namely to evacuate Malta, which she had occupied in 1800, and return it to the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.

[526] The Alien Bill was passed by the British Parliament in 1793 and renewed in 1802, 1803, 1816, 1818 and, finally, in 1848. The Bill authorised the Government to expel any foreigner from the Realm at any moment. It remained in force for one year. Subsequently conservative circles repeatedly urged its renewal.

[527] The Court of King's (Queen's) Bench is one of the oldest courts in England; in the nineteenth century (up to 1873) it was an independent supreme court for criminal and civil cases competent to review the decisions of lower judicial bodies.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 15 (pp.490-498), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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