In the Annual Register for the year 1800 we find on the opening page of its preface a remarkable prophecy. "The Temple of Janus," says the preface, "is shut; it is not unreasonable to hope that it will be long before it be again opened. A dreadful but salutary experiment in the course of the last ten years has been made by the nations. The rulers of states and kingdoms have been taught the danger of tyranny; the people that of anarchy; the financier that even commercial advantages may be too dearly purchased; the politician and statesman that durable power consists not so much in extended territory as in compacted dominion, flourishing population, and above all in justice - justice in the conduct of governments external as well as internal. We are henceforth, we hope and doubt not, for many years, to be called from the horrors and miseries of war to progressive improvement in all the arts of peace; a nobler as well as a more pleasing and profitable career of ambition among civilised nations than that of conquest. The energy of our ingenious and lively neighbours will return to the arts and sciences with an elastic force proportioned to the misguided ardour that has too long propelled them to the ensanguined field of battle. Their improvements will be our gain, as ours also will be theirs".
This prophecy had not long been delivered before it became only too evident that it was to be miserably falsified by the events of the times. The settlement on which the Annual Register so confidently relied proved to be no settlement at all, and England and France were soon at war again. The fiercest days of all that long struggle were to come between 1800 and 1815. England had as her chief enemy then the greatest military figure that had appeared in the world's history since the days of Julius Caesar. Napoleon Bonaparte hurried home from Egypt and obtained such powers as made him practically the dictator of France. We have had, of late years, a whole new literature devoted to the character and career of Napoleon Bonaparte. The secret cabinets of statesmen, the archives of ambassadorial offices, have poured out new masses of correspondence and manuscript of all kinds to throw fresh light on Napoleon's chapters of history. Yet, after all, the man remains much as he must have seemed in the eyes of impartial observers - if there were then any such observers - in his own days. We have long outgrown the age of the "Corsican ogre" theory. Caricature is itself caricatured by the grotesque and ridiculous illustration which found such favour with Englishmen in the days of George III. - the sketch which represented George as holding the Lilliputian Bonaparte on the palm of his hand, and trying to "size him up" - as the American phrase might put it - by the help of a field-glass. We know all that can be told us of Napoleon's defects, some monstrous, some ignoble, but we recognise the genius of the man, and we can hardly be surprised if there were English statesmen who firmly believed that there never could be peace in Europe while Napoleon was the ruler of France. Perhaps the illustration used at a much later period by Prevost-Paradol to describe the antagonism between France and Prussia thirty years ago might apply well enough to the antagonism between England under her government at the opening of the nineteenth century and France under the dictation of Napoleon Bonaparte.
It was a case of the two express trains started from opposite extremes of the same line of railway; the collision and the crash must come. To do Napoleon justice it must be said that he did make overtures to England for the establishment of an honourable and a lasting peace. The English Government of the day did not believe that his word could be trusted, or his oath, and they rejected his approaches, or at least they stipulated for impossible preliminary conditions, such as a restoration of the Bourbons by the permission, and we may say the patronage, of Napoleon. The result was that the war broke out again with something like redoubled passion, and until the fall of Napoleon at Waterloo it knew no check or stay. It was altogether a question of opposing tendencies rather than opposing forces. Our Government were striving, unconsciously no doubt, to fight not merely against Napoleon, but against the whole impulses, principles, and tendencies of the French Revolution. Napoleon himself could no more have secured a throne in France to a Bourbon sovereign, to the principles of Bourbon sovereignty, than George III. could. It is idle now to speculate on what might have happened if George III. and his advisers had given full and fair consideration to the overtures of Napoleon. Undoubtedly they were wrong in not doing so, but being the men they were they could not have done so. The war had to go on. Happily for England she had at the head of her armies the one man in the world who was best qualified to stand out against Napoleon's passion of conquest. The Duke of Wellington had nothing like the creative or, we may call it if we like the aggressive, military genius of Napoleon. But he was the embodied genius of resistance. He had absolutely no military ambition whatever.
His strong guiding force was simply a sense of duty to his King and to his country. In military as in civil affairs he was dominated by that same sense of duty. He had a patience which, as Macaulay says of a like quality in Warren Hastings, might sometimes be mistaken for the patience of stupidity; but those who counted on its being an evidence of stupidity were sure to be confounded in the end by the ever-watchful, sleepless intellect that was always on the alert to find a weak point in the plans, the policy, the strategy, and even the tactics of an opponent. The fates had brought the destructive and the conservative forces of command into direct antagonism in the persons of Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington. Wellington was nicknamed "the Iron Duke," and the nickname was a terse and admirable description of his character. England's Continental allies, as we all know now, were at many momentous periods divided and distracted in council, and they had hardly amongst them any general who could really be said to belong to the first order of military command. England was no doubt divided somewhat in opinion as regards the prosecution of the war, and many of the noblest Englishmen were strongly of opinion that the overtures made by Napoleon for peace should be taken seriously and declared the subject of grave international consultation. But in what may be called the executive of the councils of England there was no division of opinion, and when "the Iron Duke" was told that the war must go on he asked no further questions, but entered the field and held his own position. So the war went on and on, until Wellington won the battle of Waterloo, and then all was over. Napoleon had suffered terrible losses and disasters by his ill-fated Russian campaign and by the defeat which the Continental allies were able to inflict upon him at Leipsic. Wellington's stroke at Waterloo was but as the "dagger of mercy" in the Middle Ages which brought about at one touch the doom that could not by any possibility be much longer averted. A great French writer declares that the main difference between Caesar and Napoleon was, that Caesar always knew what he could not do as well as what he could do, and that Napoleon believed himself capable of every triumph which he wished to accomplish. Napoleon had attempted the impossible, and he failed accordingly.