The Long View: Napoleon: A Political Life

Napoleon crossing the Alps

Napoleon crossing the Alps

Napoleon was one of the great figures of European history. This is a fine summary of his life.

Napoleon: A Political Life
By Steven Englund
Scribner, 2004
592 Pages, $35.00
ISBN 0-684-87142-4


Several biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) have been published over the years. This one, by an American historian who has taught at the University of Paris, merits special attention. Napoleon did the damnedest things. When he was around, history did not work as it usually did. At his best, Napoleon practiced political architecture in a way that one sometimes encounters in American jurisprudence, but almost never in practicing politicians. This biography by an outsider helps us distinguish what was French (and durable) in Napoleon's achievements from what was merely Napoleonic.

There is a tradition of aphoristic writing about Napoleon, and the book does not disappoint on that score, either. Englund remarks of Napoleon's choice as Second Consul, after the coup that made Napoleon head of state: “The gesture to Sieyès was essentially an expensive floral arrangement sent to the man's political funeral.” Englund also favors indictable puns, such as “the unbearable tightness of Napoleon's being” with regard to the autocrat's fiscal habits, and “Paris was worth a mess.” If you try to take notes on this book, you will take too many.

“Napoleon: A Political Life” is a biography, not a big block of political theory. We get some insight into Napoleon the man, but Napoleon remains histrionically inscrutable. According to Englund, we probably would not have liked Napoleon if we had known him personally: “Napoleon was a self-made man, and he worshipped his creator.” Still, there was nothing much wrong with him. He had no dark traumas in his past, and no debilitating pathologies. He did not arrest people arbitrarily or condemn categories of people to death. His paranoia, such as it was, expressed itself as exasperating bureaucratic oversight.

Some points about Napoleon's background do help us understand, however.

Napoleon came from the lowest level of the provincial aristocracy. That meant that he was just aristocratic enough to attend respectable military schools, but not so grand as to be a class enemy when the Revolution came. How did Napoleon get promoted to brigadier general at age 24? Well, he besieged and captured Toulon, for one thing. However, he was able to do that only because France's senior officers, who belonged to the higher aristocracy, had deserted.

Most famously, Napoleon was Corsican. He was born “Napoleone Buonaparte,” a form he used even after he had become a national figure in revolutionary France. In the 18th century, Corsica had been a possession of the crumbling Republic of Genoa, which traded it to France. Force had to be used to make the Corsicans accept the deal, but in the meantime the island was briefly an independent commonwealth under the enlightened leadership of Pasquale Paoli. Paolisti republicanism was moderately patriotic, economically progressive, keen on education, and not in the least anti-clerical: its spirit was that of Montesquieu, not that of Rousseau. This was what “republic” meant in the Buonaparte household. Sometimes, it seemed to be what Citizen First Consul Bonaparte meant by “Republic,” and, more rarely, what Emperor Napoleon I meant by “Empire.”

Englund characterizes Napoleon as a “realist.” If that's true, he was a realist in the way that some untrained autistic people can draw photographically realistic images; they record exactly what the eye sees. Napoleon's gift as a military commander was of this nature. His constant criticism of his commanders was that they “made a picture” of what the enemy ought to do, rather than seeing the possibilities offered by the terrain and what the enemy was actually doing. Napoleon's ability to grasp the situation long bewildered his enemies, who thought in terms of the refined tactics of the Baroque. As a political leader, Napoleon similarly bewilders with the barrage of titles and constitutional forms he deployed throughout his career: Director; First Consul (Provisional, Decennial, and Life Tenure); not to mention his occasional status as King, President, or Mediator of various vassal states. Finally, he was Emperor, an office that also underwent constitutional mutation, even during the final Hundred Days. In the 20th century, change like this usually meant chaos and collapse for the state in which it occurred. In Napoleonic France, things were quite otherwise: the foundation was laid on which France rests to this day.

The key to understanding the political Napoleon is the distinction the French make between “le politique,” meaning important matters of public policy, and “la politique,” which is retail politics, particularly the politics of electoral democracy. In American terms, “le politique” would most definitely include federal, but not state, constitutional law. American high politics is also rather impersonal: the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence are discovered; they are not the gift of a Rousseauean Law Giver. The French, at least since the Revolution, categorize things differently. They clearly distinguish between the state, the maintenance of which is the purpose of high politics, and the constitutional forms of the state that might be convenient from time to time. They are also willing to allow a DeGaulle (or, dare one say it, a Petain) exercise leadership on fundamental issues. The result is generally more conservative than not.

Englund, like Napoleon, is less interested in the various French constitutions than in the “granite blocks” that Napoleon laid, particularly during the Consulate (1799-1804), when post-revolutionary France was still a republic and Napoleon was a sort of president. The civil code that was drawn up under his auspices, and which bears his name, still governs the law of everyday life in France. In fact, its clarity and logical structure helped ensure that it would become the model code for much of the world. He gave France a sound currency and the beginnings of a workable financial system. His administrative and educational establishments survived into the 20th century. He also created the Legion of Honor, a distinction that grated on revolutionary scruples against titles of nobility, but which few have ever refused. These creations were of such lasting benefit to France that, despite more than a decade of ruinous war, one can still argue that Napoleon did more good than harm.

At least from an Anglo-Saxon point of view, there was something terribly wrong-headed about even the good that Napoleon accomplished. Napoleon wanted as little unregulated politics as possible, just as he wanted a financial system that did not generate much independent finance. (He got his wish: there was no French counterpart of the British financial market for Napoleon's government to borrow from.) Important matters were for the bureaucracy to decide, not parliament. When Napoleon acted in what he considered everyday politics, however, he was often irresponsible.

The general tendency of Napoleon's rule was away from the Republic, a mere constitutional form, and toward the Nation. Increasingly as First Consul, and then as Emperor, Napoleon claimed to speak for the nation. This gave him a status far beyond mere divine right, at least in his own estimation. In fact, “Bonapartism” came to mean a claim to represent the nation in a way more profound than that of the representatives who were merely elected. Napoleon once snarled at one of his legislatures:

“Do these phrase-makers and ideologues imagine they can attack me like I was Louis XVI? I won't stand for it. I am a child of the revolution, sprung from the loins of the people, and I won't suffer being insulted like I was a king.”

One should note, though, that Napoleon's legislatures were not merely decorative. The upper house was often a serious consultative body, and anyone in the national government was there because Napoleon had a use for him. Even the imperial court, when Napoleon created one, was peopled by officials with ridiculous titles (what's an Arch-Chancellor?) who also had real jobs. They scarcely had time for the complicated ceremonial.

Neither did Napoleon object to elections. Far from it: whenever he did anything important, he held a plebiscite. He always won. There was no secret ballot, so people tended to express opposition by not voting rather than by voting “no.” However, the plebiscites drained legitimacy away from the organs of ordinary politics.

Before 1804, Napoleon was the Father of Nations, though the new states he created from the old multinational empires found French exactions burdensome. He had both domesticated and made peace with the Church, though he never quite lived up to his side of the Concordat. The French economy flourished, though it did so with the aid of subsidies, and the Napoleonic Code did not allow for joint-stock companies. Most important: he had saved the Revolution by suppressing the extremists, though the list of his powers grew ever longer. Then, after five years as First Consul, he decided he should be emperor, and he turned into a pure nuisance.

The problem with the Empire was that its operatic invocations of tradition, including the presence of the pope at the coronation, had nothing to do with its sources of legitimacy. Like the Consulate, it was a plebiscitary regime. It was dependent on Napoleon's personal charisma. Until the name of the state was tactfully changed to “Empire,” Napoleon was sometimes styled “Emperor of the French Republic.” That was a confused thing to be.

Englund sides against those historians who say that aggression was a systemic feature of the Empire. Napoleon's advisors were almost all doves. The Peace of Amiens (1802-1803) between France and Britain might have had a long run. It was Napoleon himself, with his opportunistic conversion of Holland and Switzerland to vassal states, who renewed the war with Britain. Domestically, Napoleon was a conciliator. At the international level, however, he was without patience or tolerance:

“In short, the French emperor's distaste for politics now embraced the foreign as well as the domestic arena; he looked on other rulers as if they were heads of factions and parties who bridled and schemed against 'rightful' government, vexing its plans and troubling the peace of its head, the emperor of the French.”

Napoleon never tried to create a peace that Europe could live with. Even his “Continental System,” which might have reconciled Europe to French hegemony, was used shortsightedly. “Le politique” did not extend to the structure of the international system. Indeed, if you look at French behavior in the European Union and the United Nations, it still doesn't.

Meanwhile, Napoleon's enemies learned his tricks: Napoleonic military tactics, national conscription, even appeals to nationalism, though Englund thinks that later German historians overestimated the effectiveness of those appeals. The enemies of Napoleon, quite against their will, were compelled by him to become his peers. He was quite capable of defeating his peers, but not all the time.

History is full of revolutionary and chaotic eras, when a genius can rise into world-history on pure ability. Few generations were quite as revolutionary as the gateway between Old Europe and modernity. Nationalism, secularism, in a sense politics itself, all first materialized in that gateway where we meet Napoleon. He did not create these things. They did not create him, either.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Napoleon: A Political Life
By Steven Englund