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Thomas Jefferson on Napoleon – On the Rights of Nations to His Tyranny

By Tom Holmberg


Bonaparte (N.), Rights of Nations and.

The new treaty of the allied powers declares that the French nation shall not have Bonaparte, and shall have Louis XVIII. for their ruler. They are all then as great rascals as Bonaparte himself. While he was in the wrong, I wished him exactly as much success as would answer our purposes, and no more. Now that they are in the wrong and he in the right, he shall have all my prayers for success, and that he may dethrone every man of them.—To Thomas Leiper. vi, 467. Ford ed., ix, 522. (M., June 1815.)

Bonaparte (N.), Rights of Nations and.

As far as we can judge from appearances, Bonaparte, from being a mere military usurper, seems to have become the choice of his nation; and the allies in their turn, the usurpers and spoliators of the European world. The rights of nations to self-government being my polar star, my partialities are steered by it, without asking whether it is a Bonaparte or an Alexander towards whom the helm is directed.—To M. Correa. vi, 480. (M., June 1815.)

Bonaparte (N.), Rights of Nations and.

No man more severely condemned Bonaparte than myself during his former career, for his unprincipled enterprises on the liberty of his own country, and the independence of others. But the allies having now taken up his pursuits, and he arrayed himself on the legitimate side, I also am changed as to him. He is now fighting for the independence of nations, of which his whole life hitherto had been a continued violation, and he has now my prayers as sincerely for success as he had before for his overthrow. He has promised a free government to his own country, and to respect the rights of others; and although his former conduct does not inspire entire faith in his promises; yet we had better take the chance of his word for doing right than the certainty of the wrong which his adversaries avow.—To Phillip Mazzei. Ford ed., ix, 525. (M., Aug. 1815.)

Bonaparte (N.), Rights of Nations and.

At length Bonaparte has got on the right side of a question. From the time of his entering the legislative hall to his retreat to Elba, no man has execrated him more than myself. I will not except even the members of the Essex Junto; although for very different reasons; I, because he was warring against the liberty of his own country, and independence of others; they, because he was the enemy of England, the Pope and the Inquisition. But at length, and as far as we can judge, he seems to have become the choice of his nation. At least, he is defending the cause of his nation, and that of all mankind, the rights of every people to independence and self-government. He and the allies have now changed sides. They are parcelling out among themselves, Poland, Belgium, Saxony, Italy, dictating a ruler and government to France, and looking askance at our republic, the splendid libel on their governments, and he is fighting for the principles of national independence of which his whole life hitherto has been a continued violation. He has promised a free government to his own country, and to respect the rights of others; and although his former conduct inspires little confidence in his promises, yet we had better take the chance of his word for doing right, than the certainty of the wrong which his adversaries are doing and avowing. If they succeed ours is only the boon of the Cyclops to Ulysses, of being the last devoured.*—To John Adams. vi, 490. Ford ed., ix, 529. (M., Aug. 1815.)

*To the letter from which this extract is taken Jefferson appended a postscript as follows: “I had finished my letter yesterday and this morning (Aug. 11), received the news of Bonaparte’s second abdication.  Very well.  For him, personally, I have no feeling but reprobation.  The representatives of the nations have deposed him.  They have taken the allies at their word, that they had no object in the war but his removal.  The nation is now free to give itself a good government, either with or without a Bourbon; and France, unsubdued, will still be a bridle on the enterprises of the combined powers, and a bulwark to others.” –Editor. [John P. Foley]

Bonaparte (N.), Robespierre and.

Robespierre met the fate, and his memory the execration, he so justly merited. The rich were his victims, and perished by thousands. It is by millions that Bonaparte destroys the poor, and he is eulogized and deified by the sycophants even of science. These merit more than the mere oblivion to which they will be consigned: and the day will come when a just posterity will give to their hero the only preeminence he has earned, that of having been the greatest of the destroyers of the human race. What year of his military life has not consigned a million of human beings to death, to poverty and wretchedness! What field in Europe may not raise a monument of the murders, the burnings, the desolations, the famines, and miseries it has witnessed from him? And all this to acquire a reputation, which Cartouche attained with less injury to mankind, of being fearless of God or man.—To Madame de Stael. vi, 114. (M., May 1813.)

Bonaparte (N.), Self-government and.

I see in Bonaparte’s expulsion of the Bourbons, a valuable lesson to the world, as showing that its ancient dynasties may be changed for their misrule. Should the allied powers presume to dictate a ruler and government to France, and follow the example he had set of parceling and usurping to themselves their neighbor nations, I hope he will give them another lesson in vindication of the rights of independence and self-government, which himself had hitherto so much abused, and that in this contest he will wear down the maritime power of England to limitable and safe dimensions. So far, good. It cannot be denied, on the other hand, that his successful perversion of the force (committed to him for vindicating the rights and liberties of his country) to usurp its government, and to enchain it under an hereditary despotism, is of baneful effect in encouraging future usurpations, and deterring those under oppression from rising to redress themselves.—To Thomas Leiper. vi, 464. Ford ed., ix, 519. (M., 1815.)

Bonaparte (N.), Self-government and.

If adversity should have taught him wisdom, of which I have little expectation, he may yet render some service to mankind, by teaching the ancient dynasties that they can be changed for misrule, and by wearing down the maritime power of England to limitable and safe dimensions.—To John Adams. vi, 458. (M., June 1815.)

Bonaparte (N.), Selfishness of.

Bonaparte saw nothing in this world but himself, and looked on the people under him as his cattle, beasts for burthen and slaughter.—To Benjamin Austin. vi, 553. Ford ed., x, 11.
(M., 1816.)

Bonaparte (N.), Statesmanship of.

I have just finished reading O’Meara’s Bonaparte. It places him in a higher scale of understanding than I had allotted him. I had thought him the greatest of all military captains, but an indifferent statesman, and misled by unworthy passions. The flashes, however, which escaped from him in these conversations with O’Meara, prove a mind of great expansion, although not of distinct development and reasoning. He seizes results with rapidity and penetration, but never explains logically the processes of reasoning by which he arrives at them.—To John Adams. vii, 275. (M., 1823.)

Bonaparte (N.), Sufferings of.

O’Meara’s Bonaparte makes us forget his atrocities for a moment, in commiseration of his sufferings. I will not say that the authorities of the world, charged with the care of their country and people, had not a right to confine him for life, as a lion or a tiger, on the principle of self-preservation. There was no safety to nations while he was permitted to roam at large. But the putting him to death in cold blood, by lingering tortures of mind, by vexations, insults, and deprivations, was a degree of inhumanity to which the poisonings and assassinations of the school of Borgia and the den of Marat never attained.—To John Adams. vii, 275. (M., 1823.)

Bonaparte (N.), Temper of.

Bonaparte’s domineering temper deafens him to the dictates of interest, of honor, and of morality.—To Joel Barlow. v, 601. (M., 1811.)

Bonaparte (N.), Tyranny of. 

A ruthless tyrant, drenching Europe in blood to obtain through future time the character of the destroyer of mankind.—To Henry Middleton. vi, 91. (M., Jan. 1813.)

Bonaparte (N.), Tyranny of. 

That Bonaparte is an unprincipled tyrant, who is deluging the continent of Europe with blood, there is not a human being, not even the wife of his bosom who does not see.—To Thomas Leiper. vi, 283. Ford ed., ix, 445. (M., Jan. 1814.)