Research Subjects: Napoleon Himself

The Man of Destiny and the Cross Current

By Captain Ramaswamy Mahapatra
Senior Lecturer in History
Sonepur College, Sonepur India

The glorious pasts of people are often forgotten, the recent past is faintly remembered and the recent is blown out of proportion. And the remotest past is lost in the darkness, even not traceable. Such is the vicious circle of history, where though the past makes the present, the present surprisingly laughs at the past. Something ironical and paradoxical for the future is determined by the past. If we fail to appreciate Napoleon as a ruler, then we deny him justice as France without his tenure would not have been what it is today. The ‘Legion of Honour’, the highest civilian award of France today is the legacy of the Napoleonic regime. The continental status of France during Napoleon is the prelude to the present super-power status of France. France today owes a lot to France yesterday.

Napoleon Bonaparte, a rare creation, has been denied a just place in history, often more condemned then appreciated, very often condemned as an imperialist than as pro-revolutionary. People do come and go leaving behind them a memory long cherished and adorned. Good or bad, we all remember their doings and undoings. At times we fail to draw a line between the good and the bad and fail miserably to take stock of things. The historians, the biographers, the critics- all belong to this category of people. E.H. Carr, in his book What is History has doubts on the impartiality of the historians. A historian is also under serious constraints due to lack of information as well as due to his lack of in-depth study and above all due to his being an ordinary human being. All these factors make us superficial in our assessment of people thereby preventing the genius and the genuine to have a worthy imprint on the canvas of history.

The authoritativeness and decisiveness of Napoleon has been misunderstood and misinterpreted by the historian in general. Let us be impartial and find out the truth. Rulers of different types with variety of means have achieved success either instant or delayed. Their success is remembered and their method condemned. Their method has to be analyzed, assessed and endorsed. May be it is arbitrary, dictatorial, but it benefited the people, justifying their claims as “Benevolent Rulers”.

Napoleon Bonaparte, Oliver Cromwell and many more were arbitrary and dictatorial and still their works were pro-people and pro-welfare. Whatever they did, needless to speak their methods, it benefited the people. People could know of democracy and nationalism even in their ignorance, a concept which was quite modern then, when the world was hardly in its infancy of modern age. When we think of good and evil of an individual, we often get titled toward the evil and highlight the same. The historians, biographers, critics of Napoleon were ordinary human beings and they are bound to suffer from this terrible trait of human nature beyond their control. Hence to condemn a Napoleon, or a Cromwell, or an Allauddin is definitely unscientific as all of them benefited the society in some way or the other, without harping at their methods. Napoleon did play his part enlivening and enriching the French. He made history, history did not make him.

Napoleon loved power. He was ambitious. Glory was his ideal. If his love for power meant the welfare of the people, if his ambitions encouraged the intelligentsia and if his glory enhanced the status of the kingdom to an empire, then it was quite good to have these traits in one’s character even though it sounds medieval in concept. The concern for people is more important than the form of Government people have. If democracy moves contrary to the wishes of the people and monarchy becomes benevolent, people-friendly, one opts for the later not the former. Whatever may be the form and nature of the Government, if it gives the basics of living, it is acceptable. Political freedom becomes secondary in a Government, when it lacks discipline, where lawlessness becomes the order the day. Political freedom can be ensured only when the Government is safe, both within and without. France was not safe during and immediately after the revolution as violence followed every stage of the revolution, preventing the acceptance of democracy and nationalism by the people. They denounced the violent revolution and clamoured for peaceful transition, where there would be the minimum basics of living without any fear and apprehension. Even Europe experienced the post revolutionary violence and assembled at Vienna in 1815 to prevent the occurrence. What Napoleon did in France during the revolution, Europe was trying to do so at Vienna after Napoleon.

However, Napoleon was a rare creation. Whatever decisions he undertook, he implemented with authority. His authoritativeness, though pro-people was misunderstood. The French wanted him to be assertive to put back the revolution on track. Had he not been a dictator in the guise of the ‘Consulate’. France would not have been what it is today . The Code-Napoleon, his secularism, his anti-privilege outcry, nationalization of church property and subsequent distribution among the poor, status of women enhanced through education and over all developmental works which gave France a modern look just in line with the revolutionary philosophy- all these would never have been achieved without his decisiveness and authoritative stinct. If people are benefited either in dictatorship or monarchy, lead a life worth living sans any internal as well as external threat, with assured justice and equality, it hardly matters whether it is a Napoleon or any one else is the ruler. What they appreciate is their living with basic provisions of life. Though liberty was denied, people had still more freedom in living, as political freedom was least understood.

But Napoleon’s obsession for liberty is known beyond any doubt. The childhood, the adulthood and the manhood, if understood and assessed, clearly speak volumes of his respect and regard for the struggle of the people of Corsica and France against the evils of monarchy. How can such a man go against the wishes of the people? How can he conceive of being the enemy of the revolution? How can he compromise the welfare of the people? It really pains when the historians, both pro and anti-Napoleon, painted the individual more as anti-revolution and pro-imperialist. Probably historians and biographer failed to judge the moment and time with their hero at the background. Time was not ripe for any success for the revolution as most people only saw the destructive part instead of the constructive part due to their ignorance and lack of education. Moment, not conducive at all, made things more complicated as he became over-ambitious to ensure the success of the revolution without realizing that the continent was long subjected to monarchical slavery.

Changes are always liked and appreciated but a changes at a faster rate as desired by Napoleon was quite undesirable. Napoleon would have achieved success, had he confined his area of operation to France alone for the time being. A resettled territory at home for sometime, would have automatically influenced others to follow suit. What he did for the people of France then, is still prevalent, which speaks of his attachment to the people. What he failed to judge, is the continental mood averse to his policies and methods as it affected the personal interest of the then Governments. One loves to be in power, come what may even compromising the interest of the people. Hence Europe fought against the man of destiny, not as the enemy of the revolution but as the safeguard of their continental rulers. Had it not been so, Europe and subsequently the rest of the world would never have accepted the principles of the revolution, democracy and nationalism.

Be that as it may, God has created all human beings with good and bad qualities, likes and dislikes, positive and negative thinking. Man is always a prey to his own destiny. The success and failure is predetermined and predestined. And this makes man helpless in the midst of adversities. Like Oliver Cromwell of England, the military ruler, who, despite his noble intentions failed miserably, when he desired to rule instead reign. A man with a vision, committed to the cause of the welfare of the British, failed only because people failed to appreciate his method. Through his “Instrument of Government”, a code of conduct for administration, he wanted to relieve the people from the medieval monarchical attitude but misunderstood. Napoleon’s consulate, ‘built upon granite’ as accepted by all historians, was definitely beneficial and was misunderstood as well. Complaints of centralization of power, not separation of power, were the bone of contention. But prodigal anarchy, lawlessness, chaos only prevented Napoleon to share the power immediately, which would have been definitely exploited by the people for their own interest. The consulate was made a ‘sluice gate’ only allowing measured flow of water lest it may cause havoc by an artificial flood. Immediate transfer of power to an otherwise unruly and chaotic people would have been disastrous as has been observed in the preceding organs of the revolutionary Government under Robespierre and company. The guillotine beheaded thousands in the name of revolution. This was enough for any sensible man to think twice to share power with people, still having fear of the repetition of the revolutionary violence. Peace at any cost was the universal desire even at the hands of a General and nothing else.

Hence Napoleon’s acceptance by the French in the hours of crisis was definitely a prelude to an era of good governance. Good Governance needs the rule of law and adherence to it by the governed. Traditional opposition, not keeping in view the welfare of the people, always prevents the progress. A lie total repeatedly becomes a truth. Historians, who are not always judicious and impartial, get enough materials to pen against Government. Various rulers, generals turned administrators try their best to reform but failed due to their methods. Napoleon, Oliver Cromwell and even Allauddin Khiliji-all suffered the brutal attack of the historians even though their sincere effort at welfare was misunderstood and methods cruel. You can not call a king kind and at the same time want to him to succeed. A ruler has to be authoritative and assertive, not kind, for kindness makes one submissive, a virtue definitely detrimental in a human being for success.

We only think of the problems to overcome them without any initiative to solve it.  We only allow the problem to grow and just wait and watch. When some one does the work, we, instead of appreciating, simply condemn the method one follows to solve the problem, thereby encouraging the problem to grow and discouraging the initiator to shrink under pressure.  This has become a very common approach with all of us, which we all need to forgo and face things as and when it comes. Napoleon did exactly what any one in his place would have done in France to rid the French of the revolutionary violence.

Few individuals have had more impact on history than Napoleon Bonaparte. He proved it wrong that events are governed by time, situation and forces rather than by the powerful wills of men and women, Though Napoleon exercised power only for a decade and half, his impact on future lasted until nearly the end of the twentieth century, almost two hundred years after his death.  Indeed, his influence may not yet be spent.  At the beginning of the 21st century, anxious as we are to avoid the tragic mistakes of the 20th century, we must learn from Bonaparte’s life what to fear and what to avoid.  In some from or the other the “Man of Destiny” seems to be a Utopian synthesis of Rousseau’s democratic philosophy and Hegel’s militant spirit-both upheld the cause of the nation though contrary to each other.


Paul Johanson, Napoleon,   pp. 1-35

C.D. Hazen, Modern Europe upto 1945, pp. 189-214

David Thomson, Europe since Napoleon, pp.  35-57

Louis Gottschalk and Donald Lach, The Rise of Modern Europe, pp.  689-735

H.A.L. Fisher, A History of Europe Vol-II, pp. 948-959

Louis R.Gottschalk, The Era of the French Revolution, pp. 307-309

Joseph S.C.Abbott, The Life of Napoleon Banaparte, pp. 1-3

Vincent Cronin, Napoleon, pp. 25  FF

Emil Ludwig, Napoleon, pp. 15 FF


Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2008


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