De Staël was the daughter of Jacques Necker, Louis XVI’s Swiss Protestant finance minister. She published novels, literary tracts, and memoirs and became one of the best-known writers of the early nineteenth century. Napoleon exiled her in 1803. In the following excerpts, she describes her first meetings with him in 1797 and her judgment of the man.
He foresaw that peace would be popular in France, because the passions were subsiding into tranquility, and the people were becoming weary of sacrifices; he therefore signed the treaty of Campo-Formio with Austria. But this treaty contained the surrender of the Venetian Republic; and it is not easy to conceive how he succeeded in prevailing upon the Directory, which yet was in some respects republican, to commit what, according to its own principles, was the greatest possible enormity. From the date of this proceeding, no less arbitrary than the partition of Poland, there no longer existed in the government of France the slightest respect for any political doctrine, and the reign of one man began when the dominion of principle was at an end.
It was with this sentiment, at least, that I saw him for the first time at Paris. I could not find words to reply to him, when he came to me to say, that he had sought my father at Coppet, and that he regretted having passed into Switzerland without seeing him. But, when I was a little recovered from the confusion of admiration, a strongly marked sentiment of fear succeeded. Bonaparte, at that time, had no power; he was even believed to be not a little threatened by the captious suspicions of the Directory; so that the fear which he inspired was caused only by the singular effect of his person upon nearly all who approached him. I had seen men highly worthy of esteem; I had likewise seen monsters of ferocity: there was nothing in the effect which Bonaparte produced on me that could bring back to my recollection either the one or the other. I soon perceived, in the different opportunities which I had of meeting him during his stay in Paris, that his character could not be defined by the words which we commonly use; he was neither good, nor violent, nor gentle, nor cruel, after the manner of individuals of whom we have any knowledge. Such a being had no fellow, and therefore could neither feel nor excite sympathy: he was more or less than man. His cast of character, his understanding, his language, were stamped with the impress of an unknown nature;—an additional advantage, as we have elsewhere observed, for the subjugation of Frenchmen.
Far from recovering my confidence by seeing Bonaparte more frequently, he constantly intimidated me more and more. I had a confused feeling that no emotion of the heart could act upon him. He regards a human being as an action or a thing, not as a fellow creature. He does not hate more than he loves; for him nothing exists but himself; all other creatures are cyphers. The force of his will consists in the impossibility of disturbing the calculations of his egotism; he is an able chess-player, and the human race is the opponent to whom he proposes to give check mate. His successes depend as much on the qualities in which he is deficient as on the talents which he possesses. Neither pity, nor allurement, nor religion, nor attachment to any idea whatsoever, could turn him aside from his principal direction. He is for his self-interest what the just man should be for virtue; if the end were good, his perseverance would be noble.
Every time that I heard him speak, I was struck with his superiority; yet it had no similitude to that of men instructed and cultivated by study or society, such as those of whom France and England can furnish examples. But his discourse indicated a fine perception of circumstances, such as the sportsman has of the game which he pursues. Sometimes he related the political and military events of his life in a very interesting manner; he had even somewhat of Italian imagination in narratives which allowed of gaiety. Yet nothing could triumph over my invincible aversion for what I perceived in him. I felt in his soul a cold sharp-edged sword, which froze the wound that it inflicted; I perceived in his understanding a profound irony, from which nothing great or beautiful, not even his own glory could escape; for he despised the nation whose suffrages he wished, and no spark of enthusiasm was mingled with his desire of astonishing the human race.
It was in the interval between the return of Bonaparte and his departure for Egypt, that is to say, about the end of 1797, that I saw him several times at Paris; and never could I dissipate the difficulty of breathing which I experienced in his presence. I was one day at table between him and the Abbé Sieyès;—a singular situation, if I had been able to foresee what afterwards happened. I examined the figure of Bonaparte with attention; but whenever he discovered that my looks were fixed upon him, he had the art of taking away all expression from his eyes, as if they had been turned into marble. His countenance was then immovable, except a vague smile which his lip assumed at random, to mislead anyone who might wish to observe the external signs of what was passing within.
The Abbé Sieyès conversed during dinner unaffectedly and fluently, as suited a mind of his degree of strength. He expressed himself concerning my father with a sincere esteem. “He is the only man,” said he, “who has ever united the most perfect precision in the calculations of a great financier to the imagination of a poet.” This eulogium pleased me, because it characterized him. Bonaparte, who heard it, also said some obliging things concerning my father and me, but like a man who takes no interest in individuals whom he cannot make use of in the accomplishment of his own ends.
His figure, at that time thin and pale, was rather agreeable; he has since grown fat, which does not become him; for we can scarcely tolerate a character which inflicts so many sufferings on others, if we do not believe it to be a torment to the person himself. As his stature is short, and his waist very long, he appeared to much more advantage on horseback than on foot. In every respect it is war, and only war, which suits him. His manners in society are constrained, without timidity; he has an air of vulgarity when he is at his ease, and of disdain when he is not: disdain suits him best, and accordingly he indulges in it without scruple.
By a natural vocation to the regal office, he already addressed trifling questions to all who were presented to him. Are you married? was his question to one of the guests. How many children have you? he said to another. How long is it since you arrived? When do you set out? and other interrogations of a similar kind, which establish the superiority of him who puts them over those who submit to be thus questioned. He already took delight in the art of embarrassing, by saying disagreeable things; an art which he has since reduced into a system, as he has every other mode of subjugating men by degrading them. At this epoch, however, he had a desire to please, for he confined to his own thoughts the project of overturning the Directory, and substituting himself in its stead; but in spite of this desire, one would have said that, unlike the prophet, he cursed involuntarily, though he intended to bless.
Source: [Anne-Louise-Germaine], Baroness de Sta‘l, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, ed. Duke de Broglie and Baron de Sta‘l, 3 vols. (London: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1818), II: pp. 196-201; III: 159-162.