Reviews: Biographical Books

Napoleon: A Political Life

Englund, Stephen. Napoleon: A Political Life. N.Y.: Scribner, 2004. 575 pages. ISBN# 0684871424. Hardcover. $35.00.

The ever increasing mountain of biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte has grown one bigger with the publication of Napoleon: A Political Life by Steven Englund. The author is an American scholar who lives in Paris and has taught courses on French history and Napoleon for many years; this however is his first work on the Napoleonic era.

As the title implies, Napoleon: A Political Life focuses mainly on the man's political career, starting from his early years in Corsica until his death on St. Helena. The book is in a hardback format with an illustrated dust-jacket and is separated into four main sections, each named after a line from La Marseillaise and includes fifteen chapters. There is also a short introduction and an epilogue in which the author describes how he discovered Napoleon and how and why he wrote this biography. The work is fully notated with a notes section at the end, as well as a bibliographical comment on his sources. It is of medium-length, at 575 pages including notes and index, and is well-written, generally flowing smoothly from one section to the next. The language becomes a little heavy and needlessly complex and rambling at times, but the prose is usually good and easy to read. There is a small section of black and white copies of artworks and sculptures of Napoleon and other key figures of the era.

Napoleon is extremely well researched - Englund has clearly spent a long time carefully going through a wide-range of sources and information, including a host of French documents and memoirs. Despite this, he sometimes uses only a small number of them for some of his key quotations and arguments. The book mentions a wide range of political figures of the time and makes reference to numerous historical events of the time, in particular the French Revolution, without properly explaining them – so some knowledge of the history of the era is useful in being able to fully appreciate Napoleon, but by no means necessary. It basically follows the life of Napoleon in chronological order, but sections on certain areas will cover it over a whole range of time, looking both forward and backwards.

The work is strongest when looking at Napoleon's domestic politics and the nature of his government. However his consideration of Napoleon's international affairs, policies and diplomacy is average and somewhat stereotyped – he fails to understand or highlight the delicate intrigues and reasonings of a number of key political figures and treaties. Englund considers the reasons and policies of each nation that led to the ruptures of 1803 and 1805 and then in both cases places the blame firmly on Napoleon in a complete contradiction of his own previous arguments which suggest that the blame should at least be shared around. Time and again he blames Napoleon for poor treaties and the beginnings of wars without full consideration of the situations. At one point (p. 262) he writes that "Bonaparte didn't have to drive England to war, but in view of what he did, England had to declare it" – to say that someone had to declare war in such circumstances is sheer fantasy.

He curiously makes common use of the works of Paul Schroeder— a man so vehemently anti-Napoleon that I believe that his hatred clouds his judgment— and makes free use of memoirs without properly considering the biases and positions of their authors, such as Metternich and Talleyrand. However, while somewhat flawed, Napoleon goes some way towards examining and explaining the international relations of the time, but it is a poor cousin to Jacques Bainville's Napoleon in this area. Despite that work's own few flaws, it beautifully analyses and describes Napoleon's international policies and concerns as well as those of the Allies in clear, extremely insightful fashion. Indeed the two works at times blatantly contradict each other, but in such cases it is Bainville's arguments that usually ring true. Bainville has seen past the facades and complexities of both sides while Englund is still trying to peep through the cracks in the wall and is more often than not quite happy to follow the official lines of the governments.

That said, Englund's writing on Napoleon's domestic affairs is highly insightful and detailed. He looks at his parliamentary bodies, distribution of powers, creation of laws, policing, religious policies, economics (including the all-important Continental System), industry, agriculture, education and a range of other areas. He focuses particularly on the Consulate and early-Empire years when considering these aspects, but also tracks their changes and progress into the late-Empire, particularly in the areas of governing bodies and economics. He explains how Napoleon laid the great blocks and foundations of the modern French state in his time as First Consul in a wonderful, concise section that should be read by all interested in the emergence of modern France.

He writes that "the granite blocks, then, were the means by which a property-owning society of the eighteenth century, led by an Enlightenment general, strove to make a good exit from the most extravagant political ordeal of modern times (the Revolution) – an ordeal that the General and his supporters regarded as greatly admirable and greatly pernicious" – a fascinating statement.

Englund takes an even-handed approach to these issues, looking at both the positives and negatives of Napoleon's domestic government. Overall he paints a vivid, considerate view of political Napoleonic France and, to some extent, Europe, which is sympathetic to the Emperor while also pointing out his mistakes and less-successful areas of leadership, comparable with Alistair Horne's excellent work The Age of Napoleon. He often makes comparisons between Napoleon and other similar historical figures, such as Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, which shows how Napoleon learnt from his broad knowledge of history and identifies the common traits which are associated with such great leaders.

The reader is also given an interesting insight into Napoleon's early political career and views, including his turbulent time in Corsica in the late 1780's-early 1790's. Napoleon looks at the man's political reasonings and theories. Englund looks at the sources from which he developed his political outlook, such as the great Voltaire and Rousseau and the Jacobin Robespierre and considers the experiences that shaped this outlook as he charts the Corsican's political rise. He discusses the political environment into which the young Napoleon entered, including the turbulent Revolution, the strong idealism and the position of the army, as well as a description of a few (but not really enough) of the key figures of the time.

The author takes the time to explain and consider the nature of French and European politics at the time, including the distinction and yet connection between la politique – the realm of politicians, campaigns and parliaments; and le politique – that vague, undefined concept of the collective nation or society that has become so important in our modern world. Englund proceeds to take an interesting and informed look at how this environment shaped Napoleon's and other statesmen's politics, and how they in turn, especially the young general, manipulated and changed the nature of the two in their time. Englund has carefully analysed the somewhat scant sources on this time in Bonaparte's life and gives us a good view of the man's political views and objectives at this time. This is a highly contested and uncertain area in Napoleon's life, and while some are sure to disagree with him, I feel that in most cases the author is accurate in his descriptions of the motives of the 'little corporal'. 

Englund also looks at the nature of Napoleon's grip on power, and looks in-depth at his position as head of the government and the transition from Consul to Consul-for-Life and finally Emperor, with a revealing look at the reasons and methods of these changes. Englund traces the connections between events and ideals and the resultant changes in Napoleon's government with excellent clarity. He tackles the massive spectre of the revolution, the fear of royalists, the radical ideas prevalent in the young nation and the actions of the other European states and plotters and admirably outlines how Napoleon managed all these issues and how they in turn shaped his own leadership and the feelings of the French people. Englund also looks at Napoleon's relationship with Pope Pius VII and the conflict between the two which led to the Pope's arrest in 1809 and removal from Rome and political power. Englund gives us a clear view of the awkward problems that separated the two, and highlights the separation between the political and personal feelings they exchanged in an accurate, insightful fashion.

The book is clearly aimed at being a political work and admits as much, but even so, when it strays into the military side, which is almost impossible to avoid in a biography of the Emperor, it is poor and, while seemingly well-researched, he only makes any significant use of one or two sources. There are a number of small errors that pepper this aspect of the book, which while small in themselves, combine to undermine the credibility of this part of the book. For example he called Marshall Lannes a 'gruff old Jacobin' when he was neither old nor a Jacobin and he claims that even if Bonaparte had lost Marengo then the French still would have definitely won the war – a  ludicrous claim. His consideration of Napoleon's method of war comes almost entirely from Clausewitz's On War, which is of course a very fine military work but on its own is not sufficient to properly consider Napoleon's operations, even in brief.

Englund looks rather briefly at Napoleon's downfall in 1813-1814, failing to give us a detailed, accurate description of the actions and motives of either Napoleon or the Allies, and racing through the Emperor's abdication and exile on Elba. Englund turns to the flight of the eagle and the short-lived 'liberal empire', looking at the intermittent rule of the Bourbons and the rallying of France to the Emperor. He looks at the actions of Napoleon in the hundred days and the nature of his new government, outlining its initial highly liberal nature and leaving it up to the reader to decide whether or not Napoleon was sincere in his intentions which were curtailed by Waterloo.

The author skips through the second abdication, removal to St Helena and Napoleon's dictation of his memoirs – the four 'gospels' – and his eventual death in 1821, before looking at the Emperor's legacy and legend – the Napoleonic tradition(s). Englund looks at the rise of Bonapartism and the expansion of the Napoleonic cult, and gives us a fascinating insight into how the French state, politicians, academics and people have treated Napoleon and his legacy up to the present day. He also looks at how the building blocks and policies begun by Bonaparte continued and changed in the French state after his fall and looks at the problems and confusion that have plagued the French over how to treat the Emperor. He closes by defending Napoleon against comparison with Hitler, Stalin and other 20th Century dictators and highlights his leniency, decency and intellectual superiority to these figures, comparing him rather to a Renaissance prince and closing with Lord Roseberry's great words "Mankind will always delight to scrutinize something that indefinitely raises its conception of its own powers and possibilities." 

Overall, Napoleon: A Political Life is a worthy edition to the long list of Napoleon biographies. It is tentatively pro-Napoleon, which is a contrast to a number of other recent works, as the author identifies, yet the author has done his best to present a neutral, even-handed view of the man and his contemporaries, a task at which he usually admirably succeeds.  Those who want to know Napoleon the man (morals, personality, habits, family life, etc.) or general should look elsewhere (we get glimpses of both but nothing definitive), but people interested in his political career and motives and the European politics of the time in general should find this book most informative. As regards Napoleon's own domestic politics and the politics of his government and the tasks that it accomplished I find Napoleon to be one of the best works published to date on this area, perhaps not as detailed as individual studies but very well summarised and analysed in the biographical setting. For international policy and consequences it gives the reader an introduction, but fails to properly analyse this area.

The work is often quite personal, and one can often see Englund himself in it, especially in his attempts to explain and justify the reasons for and method of his writing. The author, like so many Napoleonic historians and interested individuals, is conflicted over Napoleon and the various views that he has on him, and this is very clear in the biography. Whether one sees this as a positive, in that it makes the work real and honest and human, or a negative because it prevents a proper 'cold' study of Napoleon and his actions, I think is up to the individual reader.

Reviewed by Christopher Gibbs
February 2005


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