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Research Subjects: Napoleon Himself




Translated by: Greg Gorsuch

Editor's Note: "Popular History of Napoleon" was originally published in 1857 in French. This is the first translation of the work into English. Its author isÉmile Marco de Saint-Hilaire, who is best known for his The History of the Imperial Guard, which was also translated into English by Greg Gorsuch.

APOLEON was one of those exceptional beings which posterity seizes as soon as they disappear from this earth where they had left ineffaceable prints.  Death shortened for them the work of time, and their memory meets an impartial jury among their own contemporaries.  In front of so much of grandeur and genius, small hatreds die down, divisions expire, prejudices disappear, and there is nothing left but one voice to pay homage to the great man for whom the tomb has closed.

Though he belongs to our age and almost to our generation, Napoleon appears to us today like a hero of Plutarch.  There is already something ancient in this great figure of yesterday.  One studies him like a religious meditation, like that of Alexander, of Caesar, of Charlemagne; like that of all these extraordinary men that Providence caused through the centuries, to stir up the world and to renew its destinies.  For this reason his genius which is the object of this worship does not awaken more homage. The triumphal column that he raised is not widowed of its statue; he is a king who had honor place him there, into the same time that another king, formerly his relentless enemy, who at one time controlled Prussia, piously placed in his palace the bust of the victor of Wagram and Jena beside that of the Frederick the Great.

It is in effect, one of the peculiarities of these powerful individuals that they do not to belong exclusively to any place, any time, and any populace.  Their genius seems to belong to the general domain of nations, and all of humanity asserts their glory.  The Orient, for example, took part in the worship of Greece for Alexander, and the Gauls competed with the Romans, in their admiration for the conqueror of Gaul.  In our day, the same phenomenon is reproduced in the favor of Napoleon: his memory is honored in the same nations he overcame, and perhaps only among some barbarian tribe, not having ever known our European regions would some intrepid travelers, find someone who has not heard of his name or his grandeur.

France, however, bears the burden to initiate payments of admiration for the man who shone so much of brightness on its history; the monuments of which he embellished, the victories by which he enriched its record, the high rank where he had raised it, plans that he meditated on to make it great again, so that nothing could erase our memory; and from this he left a memory forever popular and national.

Napoleon was so complete a genius besides, that if that aspect alone is considered, one can only admire him. Thus, while one prefers the Emperor the young Republican general and the consular host of Malmaison, he is different to the one who saw him as a new Caesar, or who, cherishing old and faithful memories, enjoyed finding strong and glorious similarities between his government and that of the grand king of the ancient monarchy.

Graced with the many documents, which over a few years were published on this incomparable man incomparable, there are few French, few even foreigners, who do not know the whole of his beautiful life.  In the cities, in the countryside, there is hardly a family where a saber is not preserved in honor, an epaulette, a cross won on the battlefield.  In the chateau as in the thatched cottages, congregating around
the veteran of the Grand Army they listen to what he knows of the Emperor, to learn how, in his time, leaving a soldier, one returned a captain, a general, a king!

And however a popular history, anecdotal and picturesque of Napoleon and Grand Army was still to be made. It is this history which we undertake today, in a purely national opinion, without another part taken towards scrupulous impartiality, without another goal but to create in our readers all the interest that there can be in the so many and various events, which signaled the last ten years of the previous century, and first fifteen of this one.  It is not only of the legislator and of conqueror that we want to preserve for them, it is also of the child of Ajaccio, the pupil of Brienne, of the young officer of Toulon; it is not only of the general in chief of the Army of Italy, conqueror, of the consul, the Emperor, the dominator Europe, it is also of the private man of Malmaison, Saint-Cloud, the Tuileries and of Saint-Helena.  One is curious to see his rising from childhood, growing and developing, those powerful faculties, which later will astonish the world.  The future oak is in the acorn; and to know a great river well, it is necessary to go up to its source.

We will thus follow the various phases of fortune of Napoleon, and, around the general facts, we will group these secondary facts, these characteristic anecdotes which are often used to explain the most important events, which highly color a time, which brings its manners to light, and which add, to the serious and grave interest of the principal fact, with all the charm, all the attraction of the novel.

This history is accompanied by a great number of drawings representing the monuments, the battles, the scenes and the most remarkable men of this time.  These illustrations can only increase the interest, which the basis of this account is comprised. We address ourselves thus to the attention of our readers through the eyes at the same time as through the intellect.  We will endeavor to be for them that old storyteller by the fireside; that veteran about which we spoke a few moments ago.  It will be a test of enthusiasm to listen as well to this history that our fathers put into making it!



Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2007 - January 2010


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