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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > General Interest Books


The Legend of Napoleon

Hazareesingh, Sudhir. The Legend of Napoleon. London: Granta, 2005. 336 pages. ISBN# 1862077894. Softcover. 10.99.

What Bonapartism actually is is a slippery animal. Sudhir Hazareesingh in his recent book The Legend of Napoleon defines it as a popular national leader confirmed by popular election, above party politics, promoting equality, progress and social change, with a belief in religion as an adjunct to the State, a belief that the central authority can transform society and a belief in the 'nation' and its glory and a fundamental belief in national unity. It was a pragmatic mixture of conservative and liberal views, with the principle of authority and order as the basis of society. All of this is placed within a paternalistic, hierarchical structure with all power flowing directly from the Emperor. Louis Bonaparte's 1839 book, Des Ides Napoloniennes, saw Bonapartism as "democratic and progressive but not republican... [rather] authoritarian." Imperial France would be democratic in the sense "that its institutions would be legitimized by mass suffrage. A Bonapartist regime would rest not on divine but popular will. In the Emperor Louis Napoleon's words, Bonapartism was "order, authority, religion, popular welfare....national dignity."

Hazareesingh admits that the elements of post-1815 Bonapartist 'ideology''liberal institutions,' elections, government ruling with popular sovereignty, political libertieswere "all very much in line with the demands of the liberal opposition at he time." When all was said and done, many (even his grudging enemies) saw Napoleon as "a legitimate heir to the central values of 1789." Under the Restoration Bonapartist rhetoric was individualistic and collective, liberating and vengeful. Bonapartist rhetoric undermined the Bourbons' legitimacy by describing the Royals as "a degenerate family better suited to serve the English than to reign on the throne of France." Bonapartist opposition ranged from informal small groups of like-minded individuals to "highly structured organizations" like the Carbonari. Bonapartists joined with Republicans and liberals to oppose the Restoration. Though their ultimate goals might differ, all three could work together to overthrow the hated Bourbons. Military associations were born, some outgrowths of Bonapartist partisan bands that had fought in 1815, others made up of veterans and half-pay officers. Bonapartism flourished, Hazareesingh says, with the Freemasons, including the dissident Parisian Les Amis de la Vrit lodge.

Taken individually Bonapartist rhetoric and actions were ineffective, but in Hazareesingh's view collectively they ultimately helped to bring about the collapse of the Bourbons. While another Bonaparte was to ultimately sit on the throne, the Bourbons were swept into the dustbin of history. Bonapartist rhetoric kept the longing for the return to the 'glory days' of the Empire alive and made it difficult for the Bourbons to gain traction in establishing their regime and forced many Royalists into the camp of the 'ultras.' By calling Napoleon a "Robespierre on horseback" was counterproductive, Napoleon's enemies only fed the popular belief linking the return of Napoleon to 'Liberty' and a "return to the Republic,' and emphasized the link between the Bonapartists and the Jacobins which were re-established during the Hundred Days.

Napoleon in the popular mind represented the bringer of order who guaranteed the basic principles of the Revolution. Hazareesingh sees "Napoleonic freedom [as] ... aspirational, representing the varied desires of a range of social groups for greater liberty..." Napoleon became an "icon of individualism"Napoleon having succeeded by flouting the ruleseven fate could not dim his destiny. As Lamartine wrote, even "[t]he death of Napoleon, though it delivered the House of Bourbon from a competition for the throne, always to be dreaded with an opponent so popular with the army, did not, however, extinguish Bonapartism, but rather revived it under another form, fanaticism being always nourished by recitals of martyrdom." After death Napoleon continued to inspire those seeking to overthrow the "despotic and tyrannical rule of the Bourbons." The Carbonari, a political secret society that mixed liberal republicanism and Bonapartism, often centered their politics around the symbols of the former imperial regime. A police report from Paris dated 1825 stated "an occult and admirably organized force is able to move heaven and earth in his department."

Different strains of Bonapartismpopular, liberal, conservativeexisted which were not always entirely congruent. Popular Bonapartism, in Hazareesingh's view was "democratic, middle-of-the-road, progressive, and non-partisan." Louis Napoleon noted in 1831 that it was only Bonapartism which could unite both the people and the army. David Thomson (Democracy in France: The Third Republic. Oxford: Oxford Univ., 1949. p. 32) observes how "[t]he divorce of the movement of Liberalism from a spirit of liberality weakened it in the battle with its chief enemy, Bonapartism. The traditions and achievements of the First Empire, redecorated by the myth of St. Helena, had from the first stolen much of their thunder, It was Napoleon who had opened up la carrire ouverte aux talents, who had whetted and appeased the appetite of the peasants for land and hope and glory, who had debased the spirit of freedom in the name of greater equality. The mystique of Bonaparte throve equally under restored Bourbons and Liberal Orleanists, amidst the hesitations of Louis Blanc and of Lamartine."

After Waterloo Napoleonic propaganda circulated widely in France, from busts manufactured in small numbers in backyard manufactories, to mass produced images distributed by colporteurs roaming the countryside. In Nov. 1819 a street-seller sold 8,000 busts of Napoleon in four days. In 1823, officials found that 12,000 busts of the Emperor were secretly ordered from a factory in Wurtemberg. In 1819 a cache of Napoleonic portraits were discovered by the police, reputed smuggled into France by English travelers. In 1830 a factory owner was arrested for making 'Napoleon knives.' Reportedly he had sold 48,000 knives in the previous four years. Tens of thousands of tobacco boxes bearing Napoleon's image were sold every year. Coins, medals, plates, utensils, jewelry, ribbons, crosses, candies, poems, songs, prints, books, leaflets, broadsides, clothing, kerchiefs, canes, colognes, buttons and knives were produced in Paris, Lyons, Grenoble, and elsewhere and distributed throughout France.

In the popular mind Napoleon was a "patriot, protector, avenger, provider." Peasants groaning under economic hardships could identify with the Emperor, groaning under the arbitrary persecution of 'perfidious Albion." Napoleon took on the aspects of a saint. Infants reportedly emerged from their mother's wombs crying "Vive le Empereur!" A hen laid an egg bearing the likeness of Napoleon, Stendhal reported. The hen was arrested and imprisoned by the authorities. Napoleon, "our good father," would return bringing bread and jobs. Napoleon was digging a tunnel (presumably from St. Helena!) and would spring from underground to seize the throne. "The only source of agitation," the police commissioner of Lyons reported, "is the imagination."

In the words of Hazareesingh, "millions of French men and women across the country after 1815" shared a common hope and anticipation of the return of the Emperor. The days of the Bourbons were numbered, popular belief held, and Napoleon, savior and hero, would drive them from France. After all hadn't Napoleon returned from exile once before, and "the very impossibility of the circumstances of his return," Hazareesingh observes, "made subsequent predictions...credible." Comparisons were made with the legend of Ulysses and Telemachus.

Natalie Petiteau has recently written that there was little "evidence of a real Napoleonic legend among the popular classes" and that Bonapartism was rather a project of the elite classes. Yet in 1815 a royalist living in the village of Alet (Aude) wrote departmental officials complaining that Bonapartists were on the rise and that "many inhabitants of the countryside ... were repeating every day that King Louis is not the rightful ruler of France." Hazareesingh proposes that the transmitters of the Napoleon legend, especially in the early years of the Restoration, were not France's elites, but "ordinary workers and peasants, from towns and villages; former soldiers and officers; local intellectuals and pamphleteers; doctors [the real-life models of Balzac's country doctor] and lawyers; schoolteachers and Freemasons."

Reports of Napoleon's escape from St. Helena swept the country. Napoleon's escape from captivity, according to the rumors, was aided by the Emperor of Morocco or South American revolutionaries. The returning Emperor's army consisted of Turks, Chinese or freed American slaves and Africans. It was reported that "two million Indians [were] marching across the Ganges" in support of the returning Emperor. Somewhat less preposterous rumors had Napoleon returning backed by a coalition of Austria, Saxony, Bavaria and Wrttemberg; or with an army of Rhenish Germans led by Prince Eugne. The spread of these rumors might be accompanied by the re-appearance of the tricoleur, placards, and cries of "Vive le Empereur!" The Restoration authorities were embarrassingly forced to publicly deny these rumors, the clergy called for prayers for the restored Monarchy (further fuelling the rumors), and gendarmes were sent out to search for Bonapartist agents, real or imagined. Even after Napoleon's death in 1821, rumors of his return at the head of 40,000 veterans, or 400,000 Americans, or 3,000 Spanish clergymen, or in command of an Austrian or Turkish army, continued to sweep across sections of the country.

Royalist officials of the Restoration exacerbated popular feelings by their heavy-handed actions again Bonapartism. In March 1816, Joseph Emery, surgeon of the Imperial Guard and Napoleonic agent during the Hundred Days, was exiled to Grand Lemps (Isre). Despite Emery's good behavior the prefect determined to further exile the surgeon to the Nord. When the gendarmes arrived the village rebelled. Arrests were made and a force of a hundred were domiciled on the community, in imitation of the policies Napoleon employed to enforce conscription, as collective punishment for their actions in protesting the doctor's removal.

The Bonapartist movement was aided after 1830 by a flood of "Napoleonic wallpaper, clocks, watches, lamps, pottery, biscuits, cider bottles, glasses, fans, writing paper and envelopes, calendars, inkwells, and much else" that was produced to feed popular demand for souvenirs of the "martyr of St. Helena." Even Napoleon's enemies were swept along with the tide, adapting the legend of the former Emperor to their needs or adapting their needs to the legend of the former Emperor. Even Chateaubriand, who had made a pilgrimage to the inn where Napoleon slept after his landing at Golfe-Juan, by 1832, was writing Louis Bonaparte saying that, if the Bourbon pretender were to die the next day, "the glory of France" should fall on Napoleon's heir. The following year Lafayette made a similar acknowledgement.

Hazareesingh sees in Las Cases's Mmorial de Sainte-Hlne the three voices of Napoleon that alternatively reflect the three strains of Bonapartismthe authoritarian Napoleon, the Napoleon as 'arbiter' above politics and ideology, and the Napoleon as the liberal heir of the Revolution. Was this all just Napoleon being a poseur? Perhaps not. All three strains always existed in Napoleon.

Heinrich Heine after a visit to Paris in 1831 wrote "'Napoleon' is for the French a magical word which electrifies and dazzles them ... his image is everywhere, in drawing, in plaster, in metal, in wooden shapes and in all situations. On the boulevards and on the crossroads stand a large number of speakers who celebrate the memory of 'the man,' and popular singers ... recall his exploits." The prints of Epinal, the songs of Beranger, the memoirs of Las Cases, the history of Thiers all played a role in creating and strengthening the Napoleonic legend. When Napoleon's remains were returned to France during the reign of the Orleanist king, Louis-Philippe, more than a million spectators paid homage to the former Emperor. Towns throughout France with Napoleonic associations erected monuments. Plays, poems and songs about the Emperor were produced.

The July Monarchy, having overthrown the Bourbons, looked to the Empire for legitimacy. "The memory of the Empire was evoked to throw into shade republican ideas and the hopes of the Legitimists; Bonapartism was expedient against these two," as one contemporary commented (Louis-Dsir Vron. Mmoires d'un Bourgeois de Paris. 1853-1855). "French liberal traditions," Hazareesingh notes, "effectively incorporated key elements of their nation's Napoleonic past into their own political mythology." A legitimacy that ironically Napoleon had sought throughout his own reign. The liberal elites of France, however, were more ambivalent about the Napoleonic legacywanting to bask in the reflected glory of the emperor, without the being darkened by the shadows of the Napoleonic heritage.

In opposition to the Restoration Bonapartism, with its profound ambiguities, could co-exist with Republicanism, as long as both were out of power. After 1851 the two were forever divided, though at times the Republic and its leaders still found uses for the Emperor. Louis Napoleon's coup d'tat in 1815, his twenty-year reign and his fall in 1871 forever changed the nature of Bonapartism. Popular Bonapartism became simply nostalgia, political Bonapartism became more conservative, more authoritarian, more militaristic.

Republican antipathy to the First Empire intensified under the Second Empire and the fall of "Napolon le Petit" marked the end of liberal Bonapartism. But even so thirty Bonapartist representatives were elected to the National Assembly and in 1875 in some constituencies the Bonapartist candidate could attract as many as 42,000 votes. The Chamber of Deputies in 1876 saw seventy-five Bonapartists returned, but the nature of Bonapartism had been fatally changed by the failure of the Liberal Empire. In the twentieth century the legend of de Gaulle, modeled in part after that of Bonaparte, has largely replaced Napoleon in popular memory.

Hazareesingh sees Bonapartism as more ideological than I wouldthough I might tend to define ideology as a more coherent political system than Hazareesingh would. Hazareesingh would agree more with Mme. De Stal description of Napoleon as "a system as much as he was an individual." But Hazareesingh never really articulates what a uniquely Bonapartist ideology is beyond nostalgia for the lost empire, glorification of Napoleon, celebration of France's glory and Napoleon's own mix of liberal and conservative policies.

Hazareesingh says, "Far from being all things to all people, Napoleon's image was remarkably coherent." This view must be somewhat leavened by the long-lived dichotomy between the image of 'Napoleon' versus that of 'Bonaparte.' A republican from Lyons observed, according to the police, that "Bonaparte as General and Consul did too much for France not to forgive the emperor." One even sees a contrast between the pre- and post-Elban Napoleon. The three strains of Bonapartismpopular Bonapartism, more nostalgic and centered among veterans, peasants and workers; liberal Bonapartism, which overlaid Napoleon over moderate liberalism and republicanism; and right-wing Bonapartism, more militarist and authoritarian. There even existed a strain of Bonapartist socialism. Left Bonapartism was more relevant before 1850 while right Bonapartism flourished after 1871.

Hazareesingh does distinguish between Napoleoniststhose with a sentimental attachment to the Emperor, and Bonapartistsa political doctrine aimed at restoring the French Empire. He also distinguishes between the Napoleonic myth, which Hazareesingh sees as self-created by Napoleon, and the Napoleon legend, whose origins are popular. For the author, furthermore, the legend is fundamentally political in nature"the politics and the mythology [are] indistinguishable." On occasion Hazareesingh seems to equate anti-Bourbon feelings with pro-Bonaparte feelings, and lumps together Bonapartism, republicanism and liberalism in ways that may exaggerate the role of Bonapartism. Lamartine, with no love of Napoleon, observed that "The liberal, or republican party, which dreaded the living Napoleon, affected to deify him after his death..."

Sudhir Hazareesingh, born on the French island of Mauritius, was an admirer of Napoleon as a young boy. A fellow at Oxford, Hazareesingh has written a number of books on nineteenth century France, including a history of the Saint-Napoleon celebrations. The Legend of Napoleon was researched in the Paris archives and regional archives of Isre, Yonne and Rhne, employing police reports, prefectoral reports, trials, etc. to break new ground. The book is not a biography of the Napoleon of the bridge at Arcole, nor of the sun of Austerlitz, nor the Napoleon of Waterloo, nor the Napoleon of St. Helena. This is a biography of the Napoleon of the imagination, the Napoleon of whom Lamartine says "became a sort of popular and military divinity, to which nothing was wanted but a form of public worship [which the Saint-Napoleon day anti-fte, in Hazareesingh's terminology, went some way towards providing]. Contrary to real and material things, which apparently diminish in proportion as we recede from them, distance and death magnified him, as they magnify all imaginary objects." The author follows the political, not artistic or literary threads of Bonapartism. Hazareesingh shows how Napoleon "came to be remembered, celebrated and idealized after he lost power." Chateaubriand had commented that the world had slipped from Napoleon's grasp while he had lived but, after his death, he had seized it anew.

Using police reports can be a dicey proposition in the hands of some. Police informers by their nature need to report something, anything, to justify their pay. Informing on one's fellow citizens often involves motives beyond patriotismrevenge and a need for self-aggrandizement often motivates the mouchard. Plus, while the police might tend to report all instances of people shouting "Long live the Emperor!" while drunk, for instance, they don't report all instances of support for the regime or the general populace's reaction to Bonapartist agitation. Overall Hazareesingh does a good job organizing and presenting this information.


Reviewed by Tom Holmberg.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2006