Headquarters, Passariano, 7th October 1797
I ENCLOSE the confidential proposals submitted to me by Count Cobenzl. I have expressed to him all the indignation that you will feel when you read them. I enclose my answer. It will all be settled-war or peace-in three or four days. I need hardly tell you that I shall do all I can to secure peace, considering how late in the year it is, and how little hope there is of our doing anything big now.
You don't know the Italians. They are not worth the lives of 40,000 Frenchmen. Your letters show that all your ideas are based on a false assumption. You imagine that liberty can make heroes out of people as soft as they are superstitious, and as cowardly as they are contemptible. You expect me to work miracles, and I can't. I haven't a single Italian in my army, unless you count some 1,500 degenerates, raked out of the gutter in various Italian towns, and good for nothing but looting. Don't be imposed upon by a handful of Italian adventurers at Paris, and perhaps a minister or two, if they tell you there are 80,000 Italians under arms. For all I can hear, and from what I see in the papers, public opinion in France has gone sadly astray, for some time past, about the Italians. It needs some dexterity and tact, all my prestige, and a severe lesson now and again, to make these people respect us, and to give them the slightest interest in the cause for which we are fighting.
I should like you to send for the various Cisalpine ministers who are in Paris, and to ask them, pretty brusquely, to let you have there and then in writing the number of soldiers of the Cisalpine Republic serving with the army in Italy. If they tell you that I have more than 1,500 with the army, and perhaps another 2,000 at Milan, policing that district, they are imposing on you, and will deserve anything you like to say to them. Misstatements of that kind are good enough for coffee-house talk, or tub-thumping, but not for Government use. They give people wrong ideas, and may lead to the adoption of an unsuitable policy, productive of incalculable ills.
I have the honour to repeat it: the Cisalpine republicans will gradually become keen for liberty: gradually they will organize themselves: perhaps in four or five years-especially if they recruit among the Swiss-they will have 30,000 passable soldiers: I say 'perhaps,' because it needs a clever statesman to teach them a taste for arms: as a nation they are thoroughly enervated, and very cowardly.
If the negotiations don't take a turn for the better, France will always be sorry for the tone it has adopted towards the King of Sardinia. That prince, with one of his infantry battalions, and one of his squadrons of cavalry, could beat the whole Cisalpine army. If I have never told the Government this in so many words, it is because I never imagined you would form such an opinion about the Italians as I find in your letters. I do all I can to kindle a warlike spirit in them, but I barely succeed in keeping them well-disposed. Never once, since I arrived in Italy, have I been able to count, except in the feeblest degree, on a national love of liberty and equality. The good discipline of our army; the great respect we have all shown for religions respect carried, in the case of the priests, to the point of flattery; our justice; and above all the activity and promptness with which we have suppressed those who were ill-disposed, and punished those who declared against us these have been the real auxiliaries of our army. Such are the plain facts: all that it is worth saying in proclamations, or in reported speeches, is romantic fiction.
As I am hoping for a satisfactory end to the negotiations, I won't go into more detail, much as I should like to clear up a number of points that seem to be little understood. It needs prudence, wisdom, and a fair share of dexterity, to surmount every obstacle, and to achieve great ends. There is no other road to success. It is only a step from victory to disaster. My experience is that, in a crisis, some detail always decides the issue.
If we had followed the same foreign policy as in '93, we should have failed as completely as we have succeeded under the present contrary system: and remember that the resources of man-power, the methods of recruiting, and the outburst of enthusiasm upon which we then relied will never occur again, It is a French characteristic to take prosperity much too lightly. Could we but base all our operations on a sound policy -by which I mean simply calculating what is likely to happen, and when-we might remain for a long time the greatest nation, and the arbiter of Europe. Nay more; we already hold the scales of power, and can incline them which way we will: indeed, I see nothing to prevent our reaching, in a few years' time, if fate wills it so, results which only burning enthusiasm can envisage, and only a man of cool and reasoned constancy can attain.
I beg you to read nothing into this letter, except my desire to contribute every talent I have to the success of my country. I write as I think: I cannot better express my high regard for you.
[CORRESP., iii. 2292. Count Ludwig Cobenzl was an Austrian diplomatist employed by Thugut in the final negotiations at Udine (26 September) that issued in the Peace of Campo Formio on 17 October.j