A convenient pretext: the death of General Duphot

August 24, 2016                                                                                                                                     The Feast of Saint Bartholomew, Apostle

As the autumn of 1797 progressed the revolutionary movement that had taken over France continued to fan the flames of revolt in the Papal States through its own agents and the diplomatic missions of the French Republic.  Jacques Crétineau-Joly reports that on October 10, 1797 the French Directory in Paris sent the following instructions to Joseph Bonaparte, brother of the future First Consul and Emperor of France, its ambassador to the Court of Rome (translation mine):

You have two things to do: 1) To prevent the king of Naples from coming to Rome; 2) to help to encourage the good dispositions of those who would think that it is time that the reign of the Popes came to an end; in one word to encourage the fervor that the people of Rome seem to take toward liberty.

The first instruction is obvious.  No foreign help for the Pope to help stabilize the situation.  Given the dire position of the temporal authority of the Pope in 1797 rumors were flying that he would give his temporal authority to the King of Naples in order to better retain his personal liberty.  The second instruction was to foment a revolutionary and chaotic mood in the city of Rome.  This seems rather commonplace, even prosaic, to us who live in the twenty first century.  We merely have to look back to the Comintern, to the Nazi campaign of intimidation prior to its conquest of certain countries, to all of the shenanigans of the Cold War, and even very recently to 2011 to what was called by the curious name the ‘Arab Spring’ to see embassies and other diplomatic missions used either as quiet or rather open bases for the subversion and overthrow of foreign governments.  In the eighteenth century and even into the nineteenth though this tactic was a shock.  Crétineau-Joly expresses a good deal of surprise that men who had been of such a “sacred character” as an ambassador would allow themselves to be turned into “agents of riots.”

So events proceeded and a state of permanent riot evolved in Rome throughout the next months.  On December 28, 1797 another of these manufactured riots occurred and the pretext arrived with the death of a twenty-eight year old French General Léonard-Mathurin Duphot.  A letter penned by Joseph Bonaparte to the French Foreign Minister published in Bell’s Weekly Messenger in London on January 21, 1798 describes a scene where a mob was fleeing Papal fusiliers and burst into the French embassy for protection.  Duphot supposedly charged the bayonets of the Papal soldiers with a drawn sword and fell protecting the mob.  That is not what happened.

Here I will use the description of events given by Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, a minister of Pius VI who would later go on to be a famous diplomat in the coming decades, in his memoir (translation mine):

This young man, an ardent and great republican, attempted to provoke a revolt in Rome to overthrow the pontifical government.  Around five hundred people had gathered under the windows of the French ambassador (who was named Joseph and was brother to General Bonaparte) crying: Liberty, long live the French Republic, down with the Pope!  Duphot didn’t hesitate to come down to put himself at their head and lead them to assault the closest post of soldiers: that of Ponte-Sisto.


Picture of the Tiber River and Saint Peter’s Basilica taken from the Ponte-Sisto by me in May, 2013

The soldiers there at first held back; but seeing themselves insulted and attacked and not finding safety they advanced against the mob.  They did not give way, the soldiers felt themselves in an unfortunate position; one of them got off a shot.  Fate, or rather Providence in its hidden designs, wanted this sole shot to reach General Duphot in the middle of this multitude, placed in front, and struck him dead.  The frightened people disbanded, and the body was buried the following day.

And just in case you think that Cardinal Consalvi’s report was biased, here is the report on the incident that Joseph Bonaparte’s successor as French ambassador to the Holy See, François Cacault, wrote to then First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte in May, 1801 (translation mine):

You know, as well as I, the details of this deplorable event.  No one in Rome gave an order to shoot and kill anyone:  the general was foolish, let’s cut to the chase: he was guilty.

But it didn’t matter.  The French government declared that the general was murdered, assassinated, and that war was on.  Even today on the extremely rare occasions when this event is spoken of in historical circles it is referred to as the “murder of General Duphot”; even the current very short French Wikipedia article on General Duphot states that he died assassiné le 28 décembre 1797 à Rome.  But he wasn’t murdered.  He was leading an assault on armed soldiers of the legitimate government of a place who merely tried to protect themselves and was killed in the process.  This man provoked his own death.  He was not assassinated .  But like I said it didn’t matter.  They had their pretext and war was on.

Joseph Bonaparte left Rome the next day despite being offered every protection by the Papal government.  He arrived back in Paris on January 24 according to the London Morning Post And Gazeteer of February 1, 1798.  On January 22 the French Council of the Five Hundred took the oath of hatred to Royalty in commemoration of the anniversary of the guillotining of King Louis XVI, and General Berthier’s army in Italy marched on Rome to unseat the Pope.

Please go to Confession and pray three Hail Marys in honor of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

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