Napoleon spent eleven months in uneasy retirement on Elba (1814 - 1815), watching with close interest the course of events in France. As he foresaw, the shrinkage of the great Empire into the realm of old France caused infinite disgust, a feeling fed every day by stories of the tactless way in which the Bourbon princes treated veterans of the Grand Army. Equally threatening was the general situation in Europe. The demands of the tsar Alexander I of Russia were for a time so exorbitant as to bring the powerss at the Congress of Vienna to the verge of war. Thus everything portended a renewal of Napoleon's activity. The return of French prisoners from Russia, Germany, England and Spain would furnish him with an army far larger than that which had won renown in 1814. So threatening were the symptoms that the royalists at Paris and the plenipotentiaries at Vienna talked of deporting him to the Azores, while others more than hinted at assassination.
Napoleon solved the problem in characteristic fashion. On 26 February 1815, when the English and French guardships were absent, he slipped away from Porto Ferrajo with some 1000 men and landed near Antibes on 1 March 1815. Except in royalist Provence he received everywhere a welcome which attested the attractive power of his personality and the nullity of the Bourbons. Firing no shot in his defence, his little troop swelled until it became an army. Ney, who had said that Napoleon ought to be brought to Paris in an iron cage, joined him with 6000 men on 14 March; and five days later the emperor entered the capital, whence Louis XVIII had recently fled.
An old anecdote serves as a illustration of both Napoleon's charisma and popularity, and if not true, serves to illustrate the propaganda industry that operated in his lifetime and ever since:. His army was onfronted by troops sent by the king to stop him; the men on each side formed into lines and prepared to fire. Before fighting began, Napoleon walked into the ground between the two forces, faced the king's men, ripped open his coat and said "If any of you will shoot your Emperor, shoot him now." The men all joined his cause. It is however now established that Napoleon knew the weapons held only powder (no bullets).
Napoleon was not misled by the enthusiasm of the provinces and Paris. He knew that love of novelty and contempt for the gouty old king and his greedy courtiers had brought about this bloodless triumph; and he felt instinctively that he had to deal with a new France, which would not tolerate despotism. On his way to Paris he had been profuse in promises of reform and constitutional rule. It remained to make good those promises and to disarm the fear and jealousy of the great powers.
This was the work which he set before himself in the Hundred Days. One may doubt whether his powers, physical as well as mental, could equal the task. Certainly the evidence as to his health is somewhat conflicting. Some persons (as, for instance, Carnot, Pasquier, Lavalette and Thiéhault) thought him prematurely aged and enfeebled. Others again saw no marked change in him; while Mollien, who knew the emperor well, attributed the lassitude which now and then came over him to a feeling of perplexity caused by his changed circumstances. This explanation seems to furnish a correct clue. The autocrat felt cramped and chafed on all sides by the necessity of posing as a constitutional sovereign; and, while losing something of the old rigidity, he lost very much of the old energy, both in thought and action. His was a mind that worked wonders in well-worn grooves and on facts that were well understood. The necessity of devising compromises with men who had formerly been his tools fretted him both in mind and body. But when he left parliamentary affairs behind, and took the field, he showed nearly all the power both of initiative and of endurance which marked his masterpiece, the campaign of 1814.
To date his decline, as Chaptal does, from the cold of the Moscow campaign is clearly incorrect. The time of lethargy at Elba seems to have been more unfavourable to his powers than the cold of Russia. At Elba, as Sir Neil Campbell noted, he became inactive and proportionately corpulent. There, too, as sometimes in 1815, he began to suffer intermittently from retention of urine, but to no serious extent. On the whole it seems safe to assert that it was the change in France far more than the change in his health which brought about the manifest constraint of the emperor in the Hundred Days. His words to Benjamin Constant "I am growing old. The repose of a constitutional king may suit me. It will more surely suit my son" show that his mind seized the salient facts of the situation; but his instincts struggled against them. Hence the malaise both of mind and body.
The attempts of the royalists gave him little concern: the duc d'Angoulême raised a small force for Louis XVIII in the south, but at Valence it melted away in front of Grouchy's command; and the duke, on 9 April 1815, signed a convention whereby they received a free pardon from the emperor. The royalists of la Vendée moved later and caused more trouble. But the chief problem centred in the constitution. At Lyons, on 13 March 1815, Napoleon had issued an edict dissolving the existing chambers and ordering the convocation of a national mass meeting, or Champ de Mai, for the purpose of modifying the constitution of the Napoleonic empire. That work was carried out by Benjamin Constant in concert with the emperor. The resulting Acte additionel (supplementary to the constitutions of the empire) bestowed on France an hereditary chamber of peers and a chamber of representatives elected by the "electoral colleges" of the empire, which comprised scarcely one hundredth part of the citizens of France. As Châteaubriand remarked, in reference to Louis XVIII's constitutional charter, the new constitution - La Benjamine, it was dubbed - was merely a slightly improved charter. Its incompleteness displeased the liberals; it garnered only 1,532,527 votes in the plebiscite, a total less than half of those of the plebiscites of the Consulate.
Not all the gorgeous display of the Champ de Mai (held on 1 June 1815) could hide the discontent at the meagre fulfilment of the promises given at Lyons. Napoleon ended his speech with the words: "My will is that of the people: my rights are its rights." The words rang hollow, as was seen when, on 3 June, the deputies chose, as president of their chamber, Lanjuinais, the staunch liberal who had so often opposed the emperor. The latter was with difficulty dissuaded from quashing the election.
Other causes of offence arose, and Napoleon in his last communication to them warned them not to imitate the Greeks of the later Empire, who engaged in subtle discussions when the ram was battering at their gates. On the next day (12 June 1815) he set out for the northern frontier. His spirits rose at the prospect of rejoining the army. At St Helena he told Gourgaud that he intended in 1815 to dissolve the chambers as soon as he had won a great victory.
In point of fact, the sword alone could decide his fate, both in internal and international affairs. Neither France nor Europe took seriously his rather vague declaration of his contentment with the role of constitutional monarch of the France of 1815. No one believed that he would be content with the "ancient limits". So often had he declared that the Rhine and the Netherlands were necessary to France that everyone looked on his present assertions as a mere device to gain time. So far back as 13 March, six days before he reached Paris, the powers at Vienna declared him an outlaw; and four days later the United Kingdom, Russia, Austria and Prussia bound themselves to put 150,000 men into the field to end his rule. Their recollection of his conduct during the congress of Châtillon was the determining fact at this crisis; his professions at Lyons or Paris had not the slightest effect; his efforts to detach Austria from the coalition, as also the feelers put forth tentatively by Fouché at Vienna, were fruitless. The coalitions, once so brittle as to break at the first strain, had now been hammered into solidity by his blows. If ever a man was condemned by his past, Napoleon was so in 1815.
On arriving at Paris three days after Waterloo he still clung to the hope of concerting national resistance; but the temper of the chambers and of the public generally forbade any such attempt. The autocrat and Lucien Bonaparte were almost alone in believing that by dissolving the chambers and declaring himself dictator, he could save France from the armies of the powers now converging on Paris. Even Davout, minister of war, advised him that the destinies of France rested solely with the chambers. That was true.
The career of Napoleon, which had lured France far away from the principles of 1789, now brought her back to that starting-point; just as, in the physical sphere, his campaigns from 1796 - 1814 had at first enormously swollen her bulk and then subjected her to a shrinkage still more portentous. Clearly it was time to safeguard what remained; and that could best be done under Talleyrand's shield of legitimacy. Napoleon himself at last divined that truth. When Lucien pressed him to "dare", he replied "Alas, I have dared only too much already." On 22 June 1815 he abdicated in favour of his son, well knowing that that was a mere form, as his son was in Austria. On 25 June he received from Fouché, the president of the newly appointed provisional government, an intimation that he must leave Paris. He retired to Malmaison, the home of Josephine, where she had died shortly after his first abdication. On 29 June the near approach of the Prussians (who had orders to seize him, dead or alive), caused him to retire westwards towards Rochefort, whence he hoped to reach the United States. The full restoration of Louis XVIII followed the emperor's departure.