Friday, August 15, 2008

Napoléon's 239th Birthday

Napoleon in His Study (1812) Jacques-Louis David (Oil on Canvas)
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

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 proclaimed great.
Napoléon I, 1 December 1804. (From R.M. Johnson, P.J.Haythornthwaite, eds, In the Words of Napoleon, Greenhill, 2002).

Today is the 239th anniversary of the birth of Napoléon I, Emperor of the French, King of Italy.

Born Napoleone (or Nabolione) diBuonaparte, in Ajaccio, Corsica, he just missed being Genoese, as Corsica was only transferred to France in 1768, the year before his birth. Child of a prominent, but retiring local lawyer (Carlo) and a strong-willed mother (Letizia Ramolino) – an amazing woman in her own right, she had the preponderant parental influence on him, Napoleone was sent away, alone, to boarding school at Brienne in France at the age of nine, eventually winning admission to the Ecole Militaire at Paris.
Despite his obvious talent and intelligence, Buonaparte was still a minor noble from a backwater province: he would have done well to have ended his life as an obscure field-grade officer in the Royal Army. But life had other plans. The nobody officer cadet from Ajaccio, poorer than his classmates, laughed at by his fellows for his Italian-accented French and the holes in his shoes, rose out of the chaos of the French Revolution and its wars all the way to the throne.
Today, the (fifth) French Republic has an uneasy official relationship with the memory of Napoléon, and prefers to remember General Bonaparte of the French Republic, and not Emperor Napoléon I, founder of the French Empire. For his own part, Napoléon was at the least ambivalent if not downright uneasy about aspects of the French Revolution, and his orderly mind saw the (first) French Republic as a chaotic madhouse.
The Emperor's extraordinary career would not have been possible without the Revolution, which swept away an entire political system and its ruling elite (which would have barred him from real power), and opened opportunities for achievement, position and power to new men with talent, such as himself. But Napoléon found (among other things) the mob-violence, social change and disorder that came with such wide-spread upheaval profoundly disturbing; and (even though Napoléon was very aware of his debt to the Revolution and to circumstances) as soon as he was able to do so, he set about terminating the Revolution.
As First Consul and then Emperor, Napoléon ended the corruption, chaos and brigandage of the French Revolution and restored order, financial sanity and religion. 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. The Pope himself came from Rome to preside at his coronation, at Notre Dame de Paris, 2 December 1804.
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.
Napoléon is mostly remembered for his wars. He made his reputation as a general in the wars of the French Revolution, and he inherited responsibility for the wars when he seized power from the corrupt French Republic in November of 1799. As soon as was diplomatically possible, he concluded a series of advantageous peace treaties, culminating in peace with Great Britain in March of 1802.
Peace was short-lived, however, and France and Britain, along with much of the rest of Europe, were soon at war again, on and off, from 1803 forward. Five great victories by Napoléon: Austerlitz (1805), over Austria; Jena (1806), over Prussia; Eylau and Friedland (1807), over Russia and Prussia; and Wagram (1809), over Austria again -- cemented French dominance of central and western Europe. Napoléon’s siblings were given thrones.
The Corsican gunner from Ajaccio took as a second wife a Habsburg Archduchess (Marie Louise), and their child was a King from the moment of his birth. “Roll up that map of Europe” said British Prime Minister William Pitt, after Austerlitz, “it will not be needed again in our time.”
But Napoléon was unable to consolidate his rule. Despite his victories in central Europe, his greatest enemy, Britain, remained, implacable and untouchable across the English Channel, always able to field good little armies, and provide financial support to his enemies. In the west, a guerrilla war in Spain bled Napoléon's armies; although he probably would have prevailed on this front had central Europe remained quiet. But on the east, Russia, although ostensibly an ally, more or less openly subverted Napoléon's attempts to shut British commerce out of the continent and otherwise generally intrigued with Napoléon's covert and overt enemies.
The Emperor overreached himself trying to resolve this latter problem, by invading Russia, in 1812. The space, logistical and communications problems were insoluble for Napoléon's pre-industrial military machine, and the French were beaten even before they reached Moscow. The retreat from Russia led eventually to defeat, the collapse of the Empire, exile and a lonely death on St. Helena in the South Atlantic. Still, after the fall of his regime in 1815, his successors in France found things in such good order that little actually changed, beyond the names on the office doors.
In today's more republican, egalitarian and pacifist times he is often blamed for the bloody wars of his era, but he did not start most of them (the Russian and Spanish wars being the great exceptions), although he certainly took advantage of the opportunities they presented for the aggrandizement of his empire. Greatest general of his age, and possibly ever, Napoléon's meteoric 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.


Anonymous said...

So, do you believe the arsenic-poisoning plot theory as the cause of his death?

El Jefe Maximo said...

On the whole, no. The French royalists certainly tried to kill him on several occasions, the most notorious occasion being the Rue Saint-Nicaise “infernal machine” bomb plot of Christmas Eve, 1800, which killed some bystanders, but just missed the First Consul’s passing coach.

But after Waterloo, and the exile to St. Helena, Napoléon was pretty effectively out of circulation: on an isolated island in the middle of nowhere (unlike Elba), guarded by the British Navy, two regiments of soldiers, representatives of all the major European powers and the French Royalist government, and a reasonably strict (for the time) security regime.

There was just too much downside for the French royalists (the faction with the most obvious motive) to try to kill him at that point. Their regime in France was none too stable (it would be overthrown by a largely Bonapartist Paris street insurrection in 1830), and the consequences for the king, his brother (the necessary prime mover in covert activity) and the royalists if such a plot were discovered really didn’t bear thinking about. The British government (which found the position of jailer of Napoléon profoundly embarrassing), would have been even more embarrassed had it been discovered that the Emperor (or “General Bonaparte” as they called him) had been murdered on their watch.

Even if the plot worked, there was always a chance that the reasons for the Emperor’s untimely death could be discovered (the British did not have complete control of the autopsy), thus making Napoléon even more of a political martyr (at the time) than he wound up being.

Finally, there would have been the problem of the assassin. General the Marquis de Montholon, usually pointed to as the “assassin,” was certainly interesting, but (despite an arguable personal motive – his wife was probably Napoléon’s last mistress) he seems an unlikely assassin. The Marquis lived a long life after Napoléon’s death (passing in 1853). If he really was working for the royalists to kill Napoléon, his life expectancy would have been pretty short after the mission was executed (to say nothing of what his chances would have been had foul play in Napoléon’s demise even been hinted at). At any rate, he sure didn’t act like somebody with an anti-Napoléon ax to grind: he spent most of his remaining life as a Bonapartist rebel (he even did jail time) and parliamentarian.

louielouie said...

i don't usually soil EJM I timely/educational essays but the notable cases paragraph caught my eye sometime ago.
and no, i'm not going to say why i was at that particular page.
i would ask, i think have before and you answered and i have forgotten. the multiple titles that at least napoleon had, is that common for royalty of europe during this time? why was he king of italy also? i think you said it had something to do with the borders or the posessions of the contries at that time. there is a question in there i promise. why did the royalty have dual titles? also, just curious, does EJM I have a dual title, other than excellency?
you know, something like first subjugant of SWMBO or something to that effect.
just curious.

El Jefe Maximo said...

Multiple crowns are usually known as "personal unions" -- two states united by shared crowns.

At the time, pretty much all of Italy (divided into several states), was a French satellite. Italy acquired that status because of the wars of the French Revolution -- getting French domination in exchange for Austrian domination.

Napoleon's assumption of the Italian crown in early 1805 (the state called the "Kingdom of Italy" consisted of northern Italian states formerly under Austrian control) was a casus belli between Austria and France. Austria swallowed (unhappily) the previous arrangement of Napoleon as President of a Republican state, but letting the upstart have yet another crown was too much for the Habsburgs, particularly when the new Kingdom was a former Austrian possession.

The battle of Austerlitz forced the Austrians to adopt some better manners for a time. Napoleon was reasonably popular in Italy (being pretty much Italian himself), and some of his best troops were in the Royal Italian Army. Their light infantry was pretty good.

Napoleon's brother Joseph, and then his brother in law Joachim Murat were Kings of Naples (another French Satellite making up southern Italy). The Neopolitan army was at best so-so.

Napoleon had some other titles, but France and Italy were the biggies. He wasn't the only monarch of the time to have multiple titles. Post 1806, the Holy Roman Emperor (just don't ask) took the title instead "Emperor of Austria" but he was also "Apostolic King of Hungary" and :King of Bohemia." That set of titles lasted till 1918. The German Kaiser, from 1870, was "German Emperor and "King of Prussia." Constitutionally, though you can argue that both the Austrian and German Empires were unitary states -- but it's not real clear.

The British monarch, from 1876-1947, also carried the title of "Emperor [Empress]of India." That's Victoria, Edward VII, George V and George VI.

Then there are kind of traditional titles that don't mean much. Until 1803, for example, the King of Great Britain had the title "King of France" even though there was no real pretention to rule France or even claim to.

Gee, First Subjgant to SWMBO? That's pretty personal. Still she might like it.

Yeah, Napoleon may have had dysuria and a bunch of other ailments. But you can never be sure because medicine was so primitive, and because (as was common with politicos) his enemies liked to put out rumors he was sick even when he wasn't. No surprise if he did -- he didn't exactly take good care of himself physically. From reading, he seems slower sometimes in his later campaigns -- sleeping in, less mobile, or impaired by seemingly minor illnesses. At Borodino (his big battle in front of Moscow) he was known to have a really severe cold which may possibly have affected his decision-making.

Catherine Delors said...

Part of Bonaparte's program of restoration of law and order was his reinstatement of slavery, which had been abolished during the Revolution in 1994.

Slavery was recently declared a crime against humanity in France, hence the current uneasiness there about the commemorations of Napoleonic anniversaries.

El Jefe Maximo said...

Quite true, at least in the Indies, but Napoleon wanted to keep the west Indies for France and he thought this was the best way. He didn't want the planters who controlled the islands revolting in favor of Spain and Great Britain, who didn't much care about slavery one way or another.

Napoleon was ahead of his time in some ways, but not in others.

Candidly Caroline said...

Not to detract from the excellent historical perspective, but I am really glad men don't wear pants like that anymore!

El Jefe Maximo said...


The painting is in the National Gallery of Art. I was there a year ago, and I had seen it once, years before, touring the museum. But I had an opportunity last year to look for awhile.

It was a slow day, and the guard noticed my interest in that painting, and some others in the same gallery. We started talking, and the picture came up. And after a second, the guard said, "you notice, he wasn't a very snappy dresser." When I asked him to elaborate, the guard pointed out that the Emperor's left cuff-button. . .is undone.

The uniform the Emperor is wearing is that of a colonel of Foot Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard. The fashion of military tailoring at the time was to wear the pants tight -- they got a little roomier from the 1820's on.