At this point the working part of the day began. Napoleon's study was of modest, size, illuminated by a single large window overlooking the gardens. In the center was a large rectangular desk, with a sliding cover so that it could be closed without disturbing the papers on it. This was later replaced with one of the Emperor's own design, narrow in the center with wide wings, which were always covered with papers. Although a chair was provided, he usually worked standing up. His favorite small sofa stood to the right of the fireplace, with a small pedestal table on which lay the latest correspondence. Four large bookcases dominated the end of the room. Opposite the fireplace was a long cabinet with glass doors, containing boxes of papers and documents, neatly arranged in rows. The only purely decorative touch was an equestrian bronze of Frederick the Great, the only work of art Napoleon personally owned.
In the recess of the window was the desk of the Private Secretary. Several men held this key position: Bourrienne until 1802, Meneval from 1802 to 1813, and Fain from 1813 to the end of the Empire. Fain had served as Meneval’s assistant since 1806 with the position of Secrétaire-archiviste. These two men were the Emperor's closest assistants and discreet to the point of invisibility.
There were, to be sure, other secretarial organizations — including the equivalent of a modern typing pool and a very active translation unit for foreign documents — but these were housed elsewhere in the palace and their members were never admitted to the Emperor's study.
Just off the study was a small sitting room, which was decorated with distinctly feminine motifs, left over from its previous use as a boudoir. It was simply furnished with some chairs, a small desk and low bookshelves. It was here that Napoleon met privately with his ministers, and granted audiences other than those arising from the morning levée.
The adjoining topographical study was a work room, with great tables and pigeon holes in which the maps were arranged in perfect order. It was provided with an unusually large number of lamps so that maps could be easily located and examined at night. The Chief of the topographical office was Bacler d'Albe, upon whose services the emperor would call at all hours of the day and night. D'Albe was the indispensable aide, an artist of considerable ability and a topographical genius who could glance at the symbols on a map and unerringly sketch an accurate eye-level view of any ground on which the Emperor was considering giving battle. The pins on his maps plotted the movement of troops all over Europe, and were updated whenever fresh dispatches came in. When campaigns were imminent, the two men could be could be found late at the night crawling about on all fours on the giant table, plotting distances of march and occasionally bumping heads or hindquarters as they worked.
Napoleon had a mania for books, and kept a basic library of volumes in each of his palaces. The titles were arranged in the same order on the shelves at each location so Napoleon could quickly find the title he needed wherever he happened to be situated. He had a traveling library specially printed, with narrow margins on the pages to make the most efficient use of space. The books were in the care of the Emperor's librarian, who was expected not only to maintain the book collections but also to read incoming volumes and report to Napoleon what was happening in the world of arts and letters.
The Emperor kept detailed files on everything: military units, commanders, and administrative officials down to the lowest levels. These papers were organized in such a highly efficient manner that a modern computer hard drive would hold little advantage over the Emperor's document filing system, from which he could retrieve any paper he wanted in moments.
It was this talent for organizing information that allowed him to carry the nearly impossible workload that he assigned himself, and which permitted him to supervise and coordinate far more complex operations of army and state than he ever could have otherwise.
The Emperor's Correspondence
When the emperor returned to his study after the déjeuner, the firstorder of business was to sign the letters he had dictated the day before, after which he sat on the sofa for a moment to go through the letters that needed to be answered.
Then he stood up and began pacing back and forth across the room, dictating his replies. Although he might occasionally glance at the report or letter being replied to, he was often able to dictate the most complicated replies off the top of his head. As he got deeper into his subject, he would pace faster and speak more rapidly, never bothering to see if the furiously scribbling secretary was keeping pace with his dictation. He gave little thought to elegance of expression, setting forth his ideas as simply and forcefully as possible. Since it was impossible to take down the torrent of words completely, the secretary strove instead to capture the general tone, salient points and characteristic expressions. He would dress it up later.
In this way Napoleon's correspondence was actually a joint effort between himself and the secretary who wrote it. While the force of Napoleon's personality comes through very clearly in his letters, an experienced scholar can usually tell by the style in which it is written which of the secretaries happened to receive the dictation and penned the final draft.
Napoleon seems to have been able to compartmentalize his mind, keeping a dozen or more projects going at once without ever confusing one with the other. Upon receiving a piece of correspondence, he could open the relevant mental compartment, extract the information he needed, answer the letter with instructions to impel its progress, wrap everything up neatly and put it back in the compartment, closing the door until it was needed again.
A typical day's correspondence might include a letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs setting forth day by day and hour by hour the traveling schedule for an upcoming trip by Marie-Louise. Another might be a note for the Minister of the Treasury, itemizing a budget for one of the departments with an accuracy that would have satisfied an experienced accountant. Still another might detail the expenses for one of the army's divisions, while another set out the movements, brigade by brigade, for redeploying the army in Germany. A typical civil subject would be a letter to the Grand Master of a University, settling a dispute over precedence with a firm knowledge of the organization and traditions of that body.
Napoleon enjoyed meddling in the private lives of his constituents, particularly in the matter of arranging suitable marriages, and occasional correspondence was devoted to this. He was delighted when such a union took place and was exceptionally generous in his wedding gifts and bequests.
Napoleon's handwriting was bad, and grew worse as time went on. His hand could simply never keep up with his racing mind. He could write legibly when he had to and could focus his full attention on it, but his handwritten notes are usually very difficult to decipher. In an era before dictionaries became prevalent, he could be a creative speller, especially when it came to people's names.
The secretary's job was not an easy one. Preparing the letters after two hours of dictation generally occupied the rest of his day. Two copies were generally made: one on gold-edged vellum paper to be sent, and a record copy on plain paper. There was often not time to make the record copy, which explains the many gaps in the official records today. Moreover, there were no record books, tables or inventories of the correspondence. This would have required a staff of clerks, which the Emperor preferred to avoid. Bureaucracy and secrecy, he claimed, were incompatible.
Napoleon's Prodigious Memory
The letters were in fact only part of the work to be dealt with each day. Sheaves of reports from the ministers were examined, and usually initialed to show that the Emperor had read them. Instructions for action were frequently scribbled in the margins. Napoleon could pass from one area of government to the next, dealing with a broad range of subjects in astonishing detail without pausing to refresh his memory.
He had an intuitive understanding of numbers. He could look at a table of expenses, focus immediately on several items that were excessive, refigure the totals in the margins (sometimes incorrectly, but always in his favor) and reduce expenditures significantly. This was done not once but dozens of times each day.
The sheer volume of the work was staggering, and the speed, confidence and accuracy with which it was handled was nothing short of miraculous. Everything was sorted and registered in his memory, a memory so totally controlled that it could always produce, at the moment it was needed, just the information that was required.
The Council of State
Napoleon disliked meeting with his ministers in formal session, preferring instead to confer with them in private audiences, during which he could make his intentions clear to each of them individually, both in general direction and in detail.
The Council of State, on the other hand, was composed of his closest advisors and staff and met nearly every day in the early afternoon, and the Emperor made every effort to attend.
Discussions here were free-wheeling, and Napoleon went out of his way to hear a variety of opinions. Junior officials were often invited to attend and give reports. On at least one occasion an auditor who gave a particularly perceptive presentation on a difficult subject was told that "when a novice of my Council of State tells me what I have been unable to extract from three of my ministers, he deserves to be kept in sight." Within a year this promising young man was successively named a Prefect, a member of the Legion of Honor and a Baron of the Empire.
Council meetings usually occupied the whole afternoon and often lasted into the evening. Napoleon never seemed to tire or feel hungry, which was more than could be said of the other participants. He would doodle pensively, whittle notches in the arm of his chair with his penknife if he was bored, and take prodigious amounts of snuff, which he passed under his nose and discarded on the floor by his chair. The Chamberlain was at hand with a fresh box when needed, which was often. The Emperor was not above borrowing the snuff box of a Councilor who was unwise enough to attempt to use it during the Council. Since these items usually failed to find their way back to the owner, Councilors soon learned to bring only cheap cardboard snuff boxes to Council meetings.
Napoleon hated to be interrupted in his work, and the highest compliment he could give a member of his family was to say that if they asked to see him, he would leave a Council meeting to do so.
Napoleon worked his ministers, secretaries and aides as hard as he drove himself, but if they were sometimes driven to distraction, they managed to survive the ordeal, and emerged the stronger for it. Turnover in these positions was low, and many functionaries remained on the job for years.
But there were times when even Napoleon's energy would suddenly run out. When this happened, he would turn his mind off like a light, and abruptly fall asleep where he sat, or he would suddenly start babbling at the secretary about trivial things. Other times he would break suddenly into song, usually fairly loudly and very much off-key. After the birth of the King of Rome, he took more time off than he ever had before, often sitting quietly by the cradle for an hour or more. Less frequently he would take time off to go hunting (which he did more for the exercise than the chase) or go for long walks or excursions around the city. The stated goal of these expeditions might be to inspect some new construction or public works, but the real purpose was get some fresh air and exercise; the destination was unimportant.
Dinner with the Empress was set for six o'clock. The Empress, who often had little to do during the day but prepare for this occasion, was always ready, but the Emperor was often not. He would sometimes forget that he had not dined, and no one would dare remind him. Needless to say, nothing started until he arrived, even if he was hours late, and once she was ready all the Empress could do was wait. There was no formal dining room, and the Emperor would give instructions as to where the table was to be set, either in his apartments or the Empress's.<
Dinner was not a social occasion. The two dined alone, although visitors often came and went as the meal progressed. As with the déjeuner, the food was once again rather plain by French regal standards. In this period it was customary for the entire meal except the dessert to be laid out at once. There was usually a choice of soups, appetizers, entrées and side dishes, and Napoleon, as was his custom, would absentmindedly dip from one dish to the next, without thought as to which ought to accompany or follow which. Although the cooking often showed signs of the delay in its serving, Napoleon never complained if the food was bad; he never noticed it. On one day when dinner was not served until eleven, twenty-three birds had been put on the spit in succession before the meal was finally served.
Napoleon always ate embarrassingly fast. The food was consumed in less than fifteen minutes, and the remainder of his brief time at table was devoted to informal interviews with his librarian, or other court officials.
When the meal was done, he and the Empress would retire to his salon, where they would take coffee. The Chamberlain would pass his cup to the Empress who would sweeten it before handing it to the Emperor. She knew that if she didn't do this, he would forget. After coffee the two would retire to the Empress's apartment for some quiet time together, or the Emperor would return to his study to work.
Napoleon hated state dinners and avoided them whenever he could. Still, they had to be held and he was content to let the Grand Marshal of the Palace, Duroc, preside over most of them. For this purpose Duroc was provided with a lavish set of apartments at the Tuileries, ones far beyond his station and quite literally fit for a king.
The Evening Assemblée
In the evening several times a week there was an assemblée, a formal gathering that might feature an entertainment or performance of some sort. Regular attendance at these affairs was limited to the members of the Imperial family, and the Princes and Dukes of the Empire. Generals and government officials and their wives were occasionally invited. Even with these restrictions, the crowd could number a hundred or more.
During an assemblée the Emperor and Empress generally presided from the Empress's apartments on the ground floor. As she was wont to do on ordinary evenings, Josephine would play whist or backgammon, at which she was particularly skilled. Napoleon would sometimes play too, if necessary summoning one of his sisters or one of the ladies of the court to serve as his partner.
Real conversation on these occasions was rare. Small talk and amiable pleasantries were the common coin, and the purpose of attending was to see and be seen. Many people soon became bored, and the Emperor was no exception. Unless there was a play or concert scheduled, he often made a polite pass or two around the room and retired to his study to work.
No pleasure, no gratification was allowed to distract him from his work, but when he did take time to amuse himself, he threw himself into it whole-heartedly. He danced, but only country dances. In 1810, to please his new Viennese bride, he learned to waltz, but the swirling movement made him dizzy and he gave it up quickly. At balls, he tended to reserve his appearance on the dance floor to the end, when he would take part in the traditional last dance, the Grand Père, which he genuinely enjoyed. He took pleasure in plays, but the late curtain time often compelled him to leave after the first act.
The End of the Day
The final event on the daily schedule, at ten o'clock, was the coucher, the evening equivalent of the levée, but on a smaller scale. With the reception and brief audiences concluded, Napoleon would retire to his private suite and undress for bed, throwing his clothes carelessly aside as he did so. He would sometimes ask the Empress to read to him in bed, or invite one of his most trusted friends or ministers in for a chat. Tallyrand once spent an entire night on a sofa when the Emperor dozed off in the middle of a conversation.
He would sleep, but often for only three hours. If he woke, he would be wide awake in an instant, and call for his valet de chambre. Throwing on his dressing gown over his overalls with feet, he would head for his study. If dictation was needed, he would call for his secretary. Otherwise he would sit down with his reports, military unit returns, and financial statements. It was at this late hour, in the eerie quiet of the Palace, that he absorbed into his memory each of the units which formed his armies; battalion by battalion, squadron by squadron, battery by battery, he tallied up his soldiers. He knew where they were stationed, where they were marching, where they would stop to rest, and how long it would take to get to their destination. He knew many of his officers and not a few of his soldiers by name.
As he worked, he would sometimes have chocolate or ices brought in, but never coffee, which he drank only at meals. Occasionally he would order a light meal, some roast fowl with side dishes and dessert, and a half bottle of chambertin. If the secretary was there he would be invited to share the meal, during which Napoleon would talk candidly and informally about whatever happened to be on his mind at the time.
After two or three hours of work he would return to bed, sometimes calling for a bath first. By the end of the day, he would have spent six hours sleeping, three hours dining or at leisure, and the remaining fifteen working. If this hard schedule seemed grueling to some, it was second nature to him; with his hyperactive personality he could not have lived otherwise.
King Louis XIV was famous for saying, "L'état, c'est moi." — "I am the state." For Louis this may have been arrogance, but for Napoleon it would have been a simple statement of fact. As Emperor, Napoleon was the beating heart of his Empire. All the blood that flowed to its extremities to energize its limbs circulated and recirculated through that miraculous brain.
Rarely has a ruler exercised such detailed control over the affairs of so many people over such great distances. While there were scores of ministers and functionaries at every level to carry out his wishes, there was never a doubt in the mind of anyone involved as to where the initiatives originated.
The other monarchs of Europe reigned. Napoleon governed, to a depth of detail and with a breadth of vision that has been equaled by no world leader before or since.
Sources Napoleon at Home, Frederic Masson, tr. James E. Matthew, Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1894 Napoleon: How He Did It (The Memoirs of Baron Fain), Proctor Jones Publishing Co., San Francisco, 1998. Napoleon: An Intimate Account of the Years of Supremacy, Proctor Jones, Random House, 1992.
Sheperd Paine is a director of the Napoleonic Historical Society.