Thursday, December 2, 2004

2 December 1804

I ascend the throne to which the . . . votes of the
Senate, the People and the Army have called me, my heart full of the destinies
of a Nation which I, from the midst of camps, first proclamed great.
Napoléon I, 1 December 1804. (From R.M. Johnson, P.J.
Haythornthwaite, eds, In the Words of Napoleon, Greenhill, 2002).
Today is the anniversary of the coronation of Napoléon I, Emperor of the French, King of Italy, in Paris. Born a Corsican, and derided as such always by his foes, the nobody officer cadet from Ajaccio, laughed at by his fellows for his Italian-accented French, rose out of the chaos of the French Revolution all the way to the throne, which he ascended 200 years ago today at a coronation in Notre Dame Cathedral officiated over by Pope Pius VII. The very next year, 1805, 199 years ago today, the Emperor won his greatest military victory, at Austerlitz, (in what is now the Czech Republic) defeating the combined armies of Russia and Austria.
The Emperor ended the corruption, chaos and brigandage of the French Revolution and restored order. Napoléon correctly divined that the French missed the monarchy destroyed by the Revolution, and restored it, to popular acclaim, in the person of himself. His choice of the title: "Emperor of the French" drew on both the legacy of the Holy Roman Empire, and the earlier Rome of the Caesars which Napoléon and many of his contemporaries so greatly admired.
Napoléon is justly famous as a soldier, but he was a far greater ruler than he was a general. The Emperor proved to be one of the greatest lawgivers in history, and the modern French state is his creation. Napoléon's laws and administrative system still govern France today, and have had worldwide influence, as far afield as the United States and Japan. Napoléon was a great builder, and filled the country with universities, libraries, roads and other useful public works. The French educational system, and those of several other European countries were his creations. After the fall of his regime in 1815, his successors found things in such good order that little actually changed, beyond the names on the office doors.
In today's more republican and pacifist times he is often blamed (wrongly, El Jefe believes) for the bloody wars of his era, but he did not start most of them, although he certainly took advantage of the opportuninties they presented for the aggrandizement of his empire.
Greatest general of his age, and possibly ever, the Emperor was finally defeated; outnumbered and crushed by a coalition which included all the great powers of Europe. Napoléon's metoric political and military career, and all of the monumental change which came in its train, was effectively finished by the time he was 45. Like Julius Caesar, the historical personality he most resembles, Napoléon transcended mere mortal existence and passed into legend.

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