Feet of Clay
An Examination of Napoleon Bonaparte
By Max Sewell
Napoleon Bonaparte stirs the emotions. Some find him heroic and regard his opponents as reactionary and unimaginative. Others think him mad with ambition and responsible for many of the sins of his era. Between these extremes there are those who find some aspects of the man admirable and others regrettable. This is an examination of Napoleon to determine how his actions and achievements measure up against the opinion of his detractors.
Traitor to the Revolution?
One of the accusations often leveled against Napoleon is that he "betrayed" the higher ideals of the French Revolution, retarding democratic progress in both France and Europe. People making this argument apparently forget that the revolution had its truly dark side and fell a good deal short of being an ideal society. Life was not more secure nor more prosperous. France was not friendlier to Europe under the Committee of Public Safety or the Directory than it proved to be under the Consulate or Empire. Napoleon's initial achievements are a remarkable compromise with revolutionary ideals and the requirements of a country bled white by the excesses of failed governments. He signed the Peace of Amiens, which brought an end to years of war. His enthusiastic participation in and endorsement of the codification of law embodied and certified the social revolution. He negotiated the Concordat and made peace with the Catholic Church, but on revolutionary terms, making it subordinate to the state, and the dominant faith of the French once again became a steadying and unifying influence on daily life.
Yet given his singular opportunities, it is often said that he might have gone further and established a truly democratic state, a goal one could argue went against political trends both within France and on the continent. Democracies were more conceptual than actual in the era, with the American experiment still in its infancy, and it might be argued that the violence of the previous decade had made the French population indifferent to the virtues of democracy.
Outside France, it might also be argued that whether France was a totalitarian state or a democracy made little difference to her enemies. If there was a perceived difference, perhaps a democracy might have caused more fear among the reactionary states than the civil monarchy that actually came into being. If this was the case, perhaps Bonaparte acted more out of pragmatism than idealism, attempting to solve foreign and domestic problems by establishing a stable government that was theoretically more acceptable to everyone. He might have reasonably imagined that any man who could achieve that successful transition deserved the reins of power.
Bonaparte is also frequently held responsible for the "Napoleonic" wars and seen as a prime cause of them. It is argued that he should have prevented those wars with better statecraft and convinced the rest of Europe that France's new and ideologically threatening government was not an enemy. Whenever that policy failed, he should have won wars he could not avoid and negotiated generous treaties, making friends of former enemies, showing the world that diplomacy and not warfare was the proper tool of statesmen.
Yet could any one man, acting unilaterally, defy centuries of rivalry and aggression to end the state of recurrent war in Europe? Hardly a decade seemed to pass without one conflict or another in the previous two centuries. Would any leader of the day have even considered a durable peace to be a real possibility, or is this more of a modern-day concept?
Bonaparte's use of war to defend and enrich the state of France was anything but unique, excepting that it was consistently successful, something the Bourbons might have envied him. If waging war is now considered strictly a policy of last resort and inherently wasteful, there doesn't seem to be a major player of Napoleon's day who was above employing it to achieve their aims. It may be fair to accuse Bonaparte of failing to create a durable peace, but a study of his contemporaries and their policies would likely prove there were other guilty parties.
Napoleon Bonaparte is often described by his detractors as a corrupt individual, bereft of morality, one who could not see that his actions were dangerous, damaging, and the cause of great anguish. His successes in war made him rely on war as an instrument of policy, and he was insensitive to its human cost. The execution of d'Enghien was criminal, the imprisonment of the Pope immoral, and Napoleon's quest for total dominance a reflection of his warped psyche. Lord Acton's adage "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" has come to be permanently identified with Bonaparte as its foremost example of veracity.
But was Bonaparte's theoretical depravity a thing apart from his contemporaries? The assumption seems to be that it must have been, or else we would not make so much of it, yet how does this assertion hold up when Bonaparte is compared to other monarchs or society as a whole? Bonaparte shouldn't be judged on a moral scale comparing him to a theoretical ideal, but against his contemporaries, people born in his day and living in his world. Comparisons of corruption are not hard to find. Britain financed and facilitated an assassination attempt on the First Consul. Tsar Alexander was implicated in the murder of his father. In America, Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, and Jefferson used ethnic cleansing to facilitate territorial expansion. Some of these incidents were natural enough in their day, although we now find them indefensible. If Bonaparte was corrupt, he certainly had some notable company.
Napoleon is often described as being ruled by a gigantic ego. His lust for power, the coup d'etat Brumaire, his dismissal of democracy and the establishment of Empire, are all seen as benchmarks of rampant ambition. Comparisons with contemporary leaders are regarded as irrelevant or even futile, presumably because Bonaparte is assumed to have been greater than they, and presented with unique opportunities, all squandered on a quest for personal aggrandizement.
But if Bonaparte was indeed unique, and expected to accomplish deeds other men could only dream of, would he not need an ego as large as his ambitions? Achieving democracy in France and peace for Europe is not a task for a modest man, so was Napoleon's ambition simply a sin because it pursued goals we disapprove of, or that it pursued those goals using methods we disapprove of?
As the leader of a totalitarian state, Napoleon made his own ambitions synonymous with those of France. With few abridgements to power, he was able to act as he saw fit, and is judged accordingly. Yet almost all the European states reflected the egos of their monarchs, and few of them were intent on fostering democracy, limiting their borders, or improving civil rights. Rather, each used their position to satisfy their ambitions, expand their borders, and increase their control over the nobility and populace. There was little respect for minor states like those in Italy or Poland and the borders were redrawn after each conflict. Bonaparte, in this company, seems to be regarded as megalomaniacal largely because he did not inherit his position, but achieved it by aggressively pursuing the same agenda as those born to power and doing so more effectively. It seems that absolutists may be forgiven their sins for being born to them, but parvenus are guilty for having freely chosen them.
Of course, Bonaparte was anything but pure, anything but modest, anything but democratic, and anything but a peacemaker. But in the end, who else that sat on a throne in Europe could claim to be? Should he be assailed for sins that were so sadly common? What is it about Napoleon Bonaparte that makes him the object of such unique criticism? Is it because he holds a special place in our imaginations, a place that we hope would be an example of our better selves? Was his genius, good fortune, and opportunity enough to condemn him, not so much for what he did, but what he failed to do? In the end is our greatest disappointment in Bonaparte simply that he was merely human?
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