Americans have long had a love-hate relationship with Napoleon Bonaparte. Thomas Jefferson famously praised Napoleon for giving Louisiana to the United States, while condemning the Corsican general-turned-emperor for his ruthlessness. General George Patton famously believed that he had served as an officer in Napoleon’s army. President Nixon has been compared to Napoleon as has General MacArthur. For the most part, Americans cannot make up their mind whether Napoleon was a genius worthy of emulation or a tyrant who squashed the hopes and dreams of the French Revolution.
Our contemporary milieu is no exception. Elon Musk is a Napoleon aficionado, and, to this day, former President Donald Trump has been compared to the Corsican general. There is even an up- and- coming Napoleon Bonaparte biopic directed by Ridley Scott and starring Joaquin Phoenix. Napoleon, despite his immense popularity, still remains an enigma and a man of contradictions. On one hand, Napoleon is seen as the great spirt of the Enlightenment and liberalism, terrorizing reactionary monarchies and spreading the French Revolution throughout Europe. On the other hand, there is Napoleon the imperialist who brought about a conservative, monarchic government in France and crushed the hopes of rule by and for the people. There is Napoleon the genius general, whose swift and daring actions enabled him to conquer an entire continent. But there is also the Napoleon who spilled the blood of his men en masse and recklessly challenged all the nations of Europe, only to meet his final defeat at Waterloo. In his recent work, Napoleon at Peace, Bristol University historian William Doyle, a scholar well known for his revisionist histories of France, presents a unique and revolutionary version of Napoleon Bonaparte: that of Napoleon as peacemaker.
As Doyle notes, Napoleon is best known for his military achievements; however, during a crucial time in his career (1799-1805), he only fought (and almost lost) only one battle. These were the years of Napoleon’s Consulate, the primary focus of Napoleon at Peace, which places an emphasis on Napoleon as the intellectually ambidextrous peacemaker. At the same time, Doyle’s Napoleon is a deeply ambitious individual who, as a child, idolized Pasquale Paoli, the Corsican hero who had led the 18th century Corsican war for independence from Genoa. Napoleon’s initial desire was to lead Corsica in rebellion against France, but after his family was exiled to France, he decided to make his fame on the European continent. As he began to taste success in battle—Doyle specifically notes the French victory at the Battle of Lodi—he envisioned himself as being superior to other men and viewed himself as the one person who could end the chaos of the French revolution. This Napoleon, the man who, at least temporarily, wanted to bring peace and order to France is the primary focus of Doyle’s book.
Doyle’s Napoleon is also a deeply flawed individual, incredibly prideful and quick to blame others for his losses. Napoleon led on the battlefield through strength and gained popularity through victory, but he also was a shrewd politician who desired to bring about a peaceful and ordered France. Despite his elitism, like Julius Caesar, he was, in this sense, a populist. Although what, on one level, was a “classical liberal,” Napoleon, at times, he seemed to view the revolution as principally a destructive action that needed to be tamed with order and justice. Napoleon was well aware that, as a general, his prestige was based upon his most recent victory, and his strength lay in his attachment to his army.
Doyle notes that Napoleon’s upbringing in Corsica gave him an unfavorable perception of lawlessness. When encountering violence during the French Revolution, Napoleon was disgusted and was ready to meet “political uprisings” with aggression. For Doyle, the French revolution was an upsurge of lawlessness and brigandry that Napoleon ultimately tamed. Lawlessness was so endemic in post-revolutionary France that Napoleon’s own baggage train from his conquest in Egypt was raided by brigands in Aix in October of 1799. Napoleon brought order to the military as well, which was in a state of disarray and mutiny at the cusp of the revolution. Doyle notes that they were influenced to do so by the Jacobin clubs that they joined. Military mutiny inspired the formation of citizen militias, which later formed the National Guard, which itself proved to be at times ineffective and mutinous. The clergy were likewise divided between those who supported the revolution and were willing to swear an oath of allegiance to the state and those who did not. The laity themselves were divided. Those clergy and laity who defied those who took the oath also became outlaws, justifying their actions with appeals to the authority of the pope.
After the French revolution, the country was racked by chaos and poverty. English, Prussian, Russian and other travelers came to see what a liberal Republic looked like. Under the rule of Napolean gens d’armes, or “men at arms” patrolled the roads of France. France at the same time was tremendously bureaucratic and even functioned as what could be called a “police state”, being especially suspicious of British visitors—some of them even wore tricolored cockades to blend in with the revolutionaries. Visitors also noted the state of disrepair and vandalism of the churches, not too different from the violence of ANTIFA and others in our own time. In areas known for religious devotion, such as Flanders, churches were packed with well-dressed Christians. Visitors to post-revolutionary France also noted that a 10-day work week and other radical “rationalist” innovations were largely ignored.
Napoleon at Peace is also the story of Napoleon’s rivals whom Napoleon admired. Sir Admiral Sidney Smith, whom Napoleon praised for his boldness but also condemned for being “half mad.” Napoleon had fought Smith at the Siege of Toulon in which a young Napoleon pushed the English and Spanish from a French naval base on the Mediterranean. The tables were turned, however, when six years later Smith captured a group of French siege artillery and thwarted Napoleon’s siege of Acre in Syria. There is also Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, a noble Catholic bishop turned radical who eventually became the foreign minister of France. We further hear of Thomas Paine, who was initially enchanted by the revolution but was repulsed by Napoleon’s autocratic imperial rule. Paine’s own efforts in support of republicanism were rewarded with French citizenship as well as election to the National Convention. He, however, ended his days in America. Doyle’s underlying message is that it required a great man, living amidst the time of other great men, to bring order to a revolution that threatened the foundations of Europe civilization.
Out own tumultuous age has been compared to the Napoleonic Era. Certainly, as during the French Revolution and its aftermath, new religions, new political movements, and even new holidays are created on a nearly daily basis. However, as during the aftermath of the French Revolution, there are many permanent things imbedded in the culture and the hearts of the people that revolutionary fervor cannot overturn. At the same time, our age is also the age of a new breed of larger- than -life figures. Elon Musk, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Mark Zuckerberg, Ron DeSantis, and many others carry with them “larger-than-life” personas and visions of grandeur. These figures nonetheless have been critiqued by many on both the left and the right as being agents of chaos who have done more harm than good. Napoleon Bonaparte’s life may have been marked by delusions of grandeur, but the greatness of Napoleon as Consul was found in his desire for peace and prosperity, and this sort of leader, who leads with strength, but who labors to bring about a peaceful and prosperous order, is what we need in America right now.
Napoleon at Peace: How to End a Revolution
By William Doyle
London: Reaktion Books, 2022; 248pp
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