Napoleon: Not So Bad After All

Let’s take a break from COVID-19 and talk books. Last year I read Andrew Roberts’ biography of Winston Churchill, and enjoyed it. I didn’t realize that he also wrote a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte in 2014 until one of my daughters gave it to me for Christmas. It is a terrific book–long, at 800 pages, but so absorbing that it could easily have been longer. I actually enjoyed Napoleon more than Churchill: Walking With Destiny, in part because its material was less familiar to me.

Reading Napoleon made me realize the extent to which my knowledge of the Napoleonic Wars came from a British point of view and was, in fact, based in part on British propaganda–still effective after all these years. I read a biography of Napoleon years ago, which left me with the impression that he had been crazy from a young age. And I have always considered the French Revolution an almost unalloyed evil.

Napoleon, while by no means hagiographic, conveys a more balanced view of the great general and even of the revolution itself, as partially preserved by Bonaparte. He took from the revolution basic concepts of meritocracy and the rule of law and brought them to many corners of Europe. Napoleon also reminded me that his wars were largely defensive, against the various coalitions of legitimate monarchs determined to stamp out the legacy of the revolution.

On a personal level, Napoleon comes across as a pretty good guy. He could be ruthless at times, but he was not cruel–a fact that distinguishes him from many of the great conquerors and rulers of history. To take just one example, he learned while campaigning in Italy that his first wife Josephine was being flagrantly unfaithful to him in Paris with a minor French officer named Hippolyte Charles. When he returned to France, he hurried to see Josephine and reconciled with her. He could easily have had Charles killed, but he did nothing to him at all, and Charles faded from history’s pages.

Everyone knows, or thinks he knows, that Napoleon was a raging egomaniac. In that context, I think this account, in a footnote, is remarkable:

Adele Duchatel [one of Napoleon’s mistresses]…was unimpressed by his sexual performance and said so. “The Empress [Josephine] said you were useless,” she said, laughing at (or possibly with) him. “That it was like pissing about.”…Astonishingly for a man so proud in other areas of life, Napoleon doesn’t seem to have minded.

That is certainly more forbearance than most men could muster.

Napoleon must have been one of the hardest-working men ever born. His sheer energy is hard to comprehend. Again, just one example among countless others: when Napoleon was in Malta in 1798 he “replaced the island’s medieval administration with a governing council; dissolved the monasteries; introduced street lighting and paving; freed all political prisoners; installed fountains and reformed the hospitals, postal service and university, which was now to teach science as well as the humanities.” He “wrote fourteen dispatches covering the island’s future military, naval, administrative, judicial, taxation rental and policing arrangements. In them he abolished slavery, liveries, feudalism, titles of nobility and the arms of the Order of the Knights. He allowed the Jews to build a hitherto banned synagogue and even denoted how much each professor in the university should be paid….”

Napoleon was in Malta for six days. The secret police of one of his enemies used a code name for him: “The Torrent.”

I once saw Napoleon described as “the most competent man who ever lived,” and Roberts’ biography supports that assessment. He seems to have declined in his later years (i.e., 1812 and thereafter), perhaps worn out by years of superhuman effort. It didn’t help that his enemies adopted a number of his military innovations.

A great deal more could be said, but I will leave it at that. Read this book!