Your RDA of Irony

Father of the Bribe

If you had looked at Napoleon’s resume in early 1796, you would wonder why he had command of an army–even a third-rate one guarding the Italian border. The 26 year-old really did not have much of a war record. In 1794, as an artillery captain, he had distinguished himself in recapturing the French port of Toulon from French royalists and the British. France was so desperate for capable officers that he was subsequently promoted to brigadier general. Then, in 1795, as the security chief for the French government he did quell a riot in Paris. But what had he done to merit the command of L’Armee d’Italie? To be blunt, he had married the right woman.

Josephine was Napoleon’s first great conquest. She was lovely, charming, aristocratic, a leading figure in high society, and the mistress of the most important man in France. No, not Napoleon; That distinction–both political and venereal–belonged to Paul Barras. The leading politician in the fading days of France’s first republic, Barras (1755-1829) was a remarkable renegade. Born an aristocrat, he was a Jacobin when was it was popular, and Conservative when it was prudent. A lesser man–or a more ethical one–would have been guillotined by one faction or another. But not Barras, he survived and thrived. Now, he was the leader of the Directory, the five-man executive board that governed France. The position came with obvious perks–bribes and mistresses–but even venality has its responsibilities.

A glamourous–but aging–mistress like Josephine could not be just debauched and abandoned like a chambermaid. Dumping her required French finesse. But Barras had a retirement package for her: marriage to an ambitious little (literally) social-climber. He encouraged the match, telling Josephine that the brusque Corsican had a promising future (he did) and telling Napoleon that the lovely widow had a fortune (she didn’t). Even if Josephine’s wealth was a fable, she did have a glamour and a bearing that would elevate the social standing of any grasping upstart.

And there was a nice wedding present from Barras: the command of an army. As you know, Napoleon made good use of it. At this point, his resume became very impressive: the very definition of an over-achiever. In a few years, the new ruler of France would present Barras with a very thoughtful retirement present. Barras would be under house arrest but, having amassed a number of mansions, he could vary his confinement from one palace to another.

When Napoleon fell, the still versatile Barras was a royalist again. For some reason, the restored Bourbons did not trust Barras. He would never regain political power, but he was also spared any retaliation for his past duplicity and corruption. During his five years in power (1794-1799) he must have stolen a fortune; two decades later, he was still loaded. When it came to bribery, Barras was as much an overachiever as Napoleon ever was.

  1. Tosh says:

    Nice to hear a hard worker making good. All of them.

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