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The Napoleon Series > Biographies > Biographies

The Lost Voices of Napoleonic Historians

By Thomas J. Vance
Kalamazoo, Michigan

"His record is a long one and there are many blots, falsifications and obscure passages," wrote George Gordon Andrews, "but as long as mighty deeds of arms stir the imagination of men and names of heroes are engraved in halls of fame, as long as great works of administration and statesmanship ease the burdens of humanity, as long as genius that grandly dares — and fails — has power to lift the mind of man to high endeavor, so long will Napoleon be worthy of his page in the records of history."

This passage from Napoleon in Review (1939) is just one example of the lost voices of historians who spent much of their lives pouring over Napoleonic research, but whose books are now out-of-print and often inaccessible. The availability of books on Napoleon Bonaparte has never been a problem; however, many interesting works are becoming extinct.

Avoiding the large collection of Napoleonic memoirs and those authors who fall into either the hero-worship or anti-Napoleon categories, a review of the handful of the thousands of out-of-print biographies is useful, especially when focusing on those historians who freely shared their opinions about Napoleon. This essay concentrates on their opinions of one of the most fundamental of Napoleonic debates: his place in history. (I have omitted one of my favorite out-of-print Napoleonic authors, Emil Ludwig, since his 1926 biography is easily accessible.)

Andrews, who taught at the University of Iowa, did not live to see his book published; his friend and mentor, Cornell historian Carl L. Becker wrote the introduction of his late friend's book. Andrews goal was to review certain aspects and characteristics of his subject. "Napoleon was so inconsistent in many of his actions, so untrustworthy in much that he said of himself, and so all-inclusive in his ambitious designs that differing interpretations of the man are inevitable," wrote Andrews. "Doubtless this very fact is in no small degree responsible for the continued interest in his career."

In his 1885 book, The First Napoleon: A Sketch, Political and Military, Boston's John C. Ropes wrote, "While we do not hesitate to speak with proper severity of Napoleon's reckless course in 1813 and 1814, of his obstinate adherence to a military solution of the difficulties which encompassed his Empire, of his indifference as a soldier to the evils of war, of his forgetfulness as soldier of his duties as a sovereign, -- while we recognize these defects and faults, let us be equally frank in acknowledging his great qualities, -- his untiring industry, his devotion to the public service, his enlightened views of government and legislation, his humanity."

Marjorie Johnston, in Domination: Some Napoleonic Episodes (1930), speaking of the Napoleonic Era, said it was only possible while Napoleon "remained capable of dominating it, as a god dominates his creation...It was a thing so hurriedly and imperfectly conceived that it failed to justify its existence in time to save itself from destruction, but as a creation it had in it some very splendid elements." Johnston believed that 1803 was the beginning of the end for Napoleon saying it was the first time revolutionary France had deliberately sought a pretext for war.

"Had Bonaparte died in that year," wrote Johnston, "the world would have been left with a totally different impression of him." Napoleon would have been "regarded in the light of something heroic, and remembered as something peculiarly, though perhaps dangerously, fine," according to Johnston. "A great soldier, a great liberator, a great reformer and a great lawgiver....As, however, it was given to him to live for 18 years after this, and to work actively for 12, he has been denounced -- and, it must be confessed, with a certain degree of truth -- as a usurper, a tyrant, and a greedy, egotistical and ambitious ruler, it has also been found impossible to deny that his work, such as it was, was accomplished with an exquisite efficiency almost amounting to perfection."

British author Norwood Young (The Growth of Napoleon: A Study in Environment, 1910) wrote that Napoleon's command of the Army of Italy in 1796 was the key event which assured his place in history. In discussing the combination of luck and genius, Young said that Bonaparte's good fortune "gave him command when he was unknown; it provided circumstances connected with that command which assisted him to display his ability, and it continued to offer similar favorable opportunities in subsequent campaigns."

Napoleon's peculiar combination of military genius, civilian disinterestedness and domineering will, were just what France wanted, wrote Young. "These qualities happened to be singularly appropriate to the time and place, and he had the remarkable fortune to be given the opportunity to display them on a great stage." His genius was military, according to Young. "Of his civil reforms the most to be said is that they may be on the whole, be described as making for progress."

The Headley brothers from New England each wrote about Napoleon during the nineteenth century. J.T. (Joel Tyler) Headley was a writer of historical and biographical works. His 1847 Napoleon and His Marshals included this comment: "Napoleon's moral character was indifferent enough; yet as a friend of human liberty, and eager to promote the advancement of the race, by opening the field to talent and genius, however low their birth, he was infinitely superior to all the sovereigns who endeavored to crush him."

P.C. (Phineas Camp) Headley, a clergyman and author of biographies, wrote The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1903: "Napoleon was great -- intellectually towering above the princes and monarchs of many generations....He had no rival in the tactics of war....His imagination was under the guidance of reason, whose intuitions were clear as morning light, and as rapid in their comprehensive action."

But, wrote Headley, Napoleon was a "moral dwarf" who even in his "magnanimous deeds, always advanced his fame. He aspired after unquestioned preeminence among the thrones of Europe, but he had not the higher qualities of heart and the pure philanthropy which would have made it safe to hold the power that seemed at times within his grasp."

Walter Geer included a reflective chapter on Bonaparte's career at the end of his 1921 Napoleon the First: An Intimate Biography and, like many Napoleonic writers, used the word "domination" in describing Napoleon's impact. "It was not, however, until towards the end of his career that Napoleon gave way entirely to this spirit of domination. Then, seeing nations submit, and sovereigns bow before him, he no longer takes account either of men or of nature, and dares all, undertakes all."

According to Geer, Napoleon gradually developed the feeling that failure was impossible: "When he ceased to tolerate dissent, discussion fell into disuse and everyone obeyed his orders, even though they knew that the Emperor was not sustained by facts." Geer believes this was illustrated during the campaign of 1813, "the poorest he ever conducted." Geer also noted that as brilliant as Napoleon's military renown, Bonaparte "realized that he lacked the greatest of all props to political power -- legitimacy -- and that only continued success could assure the stability of his throne."

Although William Milligan Sloane's four volume biography is a classic reference, it still may not be widely available. Sloane, then a history professor at Princeton and an editor of the American Historical Review, wrote this biography for serialization in Century Magazine in 1894 - 1895 and it was later published as a book in 1912. The former secretary to historian George Bancroft wrote, "Generally there is no mystery in the power of domination: he rules who is indispensable. The Jacobins needed a man, they found him in the unscrupulous Bonaparte; the Directory needed a man, they found him in the expert artillerist; France needed a man, she found him in the conqueror of Italy."

Sloane, who believed "there exists no record of human activity more complete" than Bonaparte's, also summed up Napoleon's failure in one word -- exhaustion. It was not until his opponents learned the lessons "which he taught his generals by a series of object demonstrations lasting 20 years, that the teacher began to diminish in success and splendor. Judged either historically or theoretically, the strategy of Napoleon is "original, unique and unexcelled." Sloane noted that this was Napoleon's greatest achievement, because it was "his most creative."

Ida M. Tarbell was not an established authority on Napoleon, but had followed the current literature on Napoleon while writing in France for McClure's Magazine. In 1894, the 37-year-old writer was asked by her editors to write a piece on Bonaparte to accompany a collection of Napoleonic illustrations to run in eight installments; it was published as a book two years later. Her thoughts on Bonaparte are included because her piece reflects the growing Napoleon movement in America at that time.

"He was the greatest genius of his time," she wrote, adding, "perhaps of all time, yet he lacked the crown of greatness -- that high wisdom born of reflection and introspection which knows its own powers and limitations, and never abuses them; that fine sense of proportion which holds the rights of others in the same solemn reverence which it demands for its own."

She, like the other authors represented here, showed a balance to the record Bonaparte left: "One may be convinced that the fundamental principles of his life were despotic; that he used the noble ideas of personal liberty, of equality, and of fraternity, as a tyrant; that the whole tendency of his civil and military system was to concentrate power in a single pair of hands, never to distribute it where it belonged, among the people; one may feel that he frequently sacrificed personal dignity to a theatrical desire to impose on the crowd as a hero of classic proportions, a god from Olympus; one may groan over the blood he spilt.

"But he cannot refuse to acknowledge," continued Tarbell, "that no man ever comprehended more clearly the splendid science of war; he cannot fail to bow to the genius which conceived and executed the Italian campaign, which fought the classic battles of Austerlitz, Jena and Wagram. These deeds are great epics. They move in noble, measured lines, and stir us by their might and perfection. It is only a genius of the most magnificent order which could handle men and materials as Napoleon did."

New books on Napoleon are certainly welcome, such as Alan Schom's (1997), but while current authors rely on the accounts that came before them, it is impossible to completely capture the spirit of their predecessors. For those voices, we must continue to rely on those volumes long out-of-print found in well-stocked public and college libraries and the musty corridors of our favorite used bookshop.