THE NAPOLEON MYTH: WILL IT LAST FOREVER?
Victoria here. In 2010, when Kristine and I visited the battlefield at Waterloo for the 195th anniversary, we were struck by how little observance at the site there was for the victorious Duke of Wellington. Indeed in the gift shop, for example, there were busts of Napoleon, books, key chains, pictures, etc. etc. and nothing about Wellington.
The one exception was a restaurant near the panorama building, and the advertisement for the beer. The logo for the beer is a reproduction of Lady Butler's famous painting of the cavalry charge of the Scots Greys, "Scotland Forever."
Scotland Forever! by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler (1846-1933)
painted 1881, Leeds Art Gallery
Even the text panels here and there on the Waterloo battlefield seemed almost apologetic that after the magnificent charges and maneuvers of the French troops, the British squares held and the Allies won. Friends attending the recent 2015 commemorations in Belgium reported that nothing had changed at the battleground or among the souvenirs. Such is the enduring myth -- for just one or two minor points Napoleon would have won, and even that he deserved to win.
Well, from my point of view that is all hogwash. You can add up all the IFS and UNLESSES, and the result is still the same Napoleon and the French lost the battle and were unable in the next few weeks to re-group their forces effectively to counteract the inevitable arrival of the Allies in Paris and the re-exile of Napoleon.
Rowlandson and the Battle of Waterloo's Aftermath
Thousands of casualties resulted from Napoleon's attempt to re-establish his empire. Though some writers have suggested he might have returned to Paris content to rule only France after his escape from Elba -- if only the Allies had not declared him an outlaw -- I think they are being incredibly naive. Once need only look at Napoleon's previous record to realize that was an ephemeral wish on the part of his apologists even two hundred years later.
Holland House, London; center of Whig Politicians (1841)
At the time of the battle and shortly there after, Napoleon had his rabid fans, even in England.
Many Whigs admired Napoleon, though some later changed their minds. Many members of the Whig Party in Great Britain had
a pro-French position from the time of the 1789 Revolution right up to the
re-burial of Napoleon. The Holland House Circle always seemed to find apologies
for the excesses of the Revolution, and when it was clear that Napoleon
was no longer advocating the republican ideals of he is early days and had
become a dictator as Emperor, many Whigs were still on his side. Part of that, of course was opposition to the
government of Tory-leaning Lord Liverpool.
Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool (1770-1828)
Prime Minister 1812-1827
by Sir Thomas Lawrence, c. 1828
The first Whigs advocated the elimination of the
Catholic Monarch James II and supported the Glorious Revolution that brought
William II and Mary II to the throne. Throughout the monarchies of Anne and the
first two Georges, the Whigs held governmental power. George III was more
attuned to the Tory point of view which evolved under Prime Minister William
Pitt the Younger. Whigs supported free trade, Catholic Emancipation, abolition
of slavery, and some expansion of suffrage, though far from complete voting
rights for all. Most Whigs believed that ownership of property should be
required for voters.
Charles James Fox (1749-1806)
by Karl Anton Nickel, 1794, NPG, London
The Whig opposition to Pitt combined under Charles
James Fox, son (then uncle) of two Lord Hollands. Though both parties were led
by very rich landowners, the Whigs tended to support more aristocratic policies
and the Tories, the gentry and emerging middle class, if one is allowed a
sweeping generalization. The Tories
favored strong central government control and the Whigs, in general, favored
less reliance on governmental authority.
Samuel Whitbread II (1764-1815) by John Opie
(1764-1815), son of the wealthy brewer, and a Whig member of Parliament,
was an advocate of Napoleon’s reforms in France. He was so depressed by the
defeat of the emperor that he slit his throat in July 1815 and died. He had
many companions in this admiration for Napoleon, though no one else was quite
William Hazlitt (1778-1830) admired Napoleon for his
“common” touch and found himself deeply depressed by the defeat at Waterloo.
Late in Hazlitt’s life, he finally published a four-volume biography of the
French man, meant to be his life’s crowning achievement. But it was a financial failure and he died
before the final volume was published. Many other politicians and writers praised Napoleon
and were sorry to see the Bourbons back on the throne of France. For a good concise account of the Whigs and
Napoleon from Blogger John Tyrrell, click here.
Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand (1768-1848)
French politician and historian
by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roiussy Trioson
In his concise volume The Napoleonic Wars: A Very Short Introduction published by Oxford
University Press, Mike Rapport quotes Francois-René de Chateaubriand’s memoirs
from 1839, expressing his frustration with his contemporaries for ignoring – or
forgetting the destruction and thinking only of the Gloire:
“It is fashionable today to magnify Bonaparte’s
victories: those who suffered by them disappeared; we no longer hear the curses
of the victims and their cries of pain and distress; we no longer see France
exhausted, with only women to till her soil…we no longer see the conscription
notices pasted up at street corners, and
the passer-by gathering in a crowd in front of those huge lists of the dead,
looking in consternation for the names of their children, their brothers, their
friends, their neighbors.”
Napoleon in Russia 1812
Napoleon’s memoirs as told to his secretary on St.
Helena, Emmanuel de Las Cases, published shortly after the Emperor’s death in
1821, presented his version of his life story, emphasizing his victories and
his goal to spread the values – Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, French for "Freedom, equality, brotherhood",
the French Revolution – ignoring the fact he ruled as a tyrant and
dictator. And caused the death of
millions, from battle casualties, from the spread of disease, and from
displacement and starvation.
Nevertheless, there is no shortage of apologists for Napoleon: Victor Hugo devoted a large section of Les Miserables to a recreation of his fanatsy victory at Waterloo. And Hugo has a monument at Waterloo!
Victor Hugo Monument, Waterloo 2010
But to be fair, Napoleon’s reign brought many reforms
and institutions which have endured for centuries. He put a final period to
feudalism, and advocated the ideal of equality of all men (and later, women) which prevails in
Western societies and has spread through much of the world. Equality and other
concepts growing out of the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment – toleration,
reason, the scientific process – were essential to the American and French
Revolutions, and to the more evolutionary British philosophy of government.
Napoleon created bodies to put such concepts into
practice in France. The Napoleonic Code made all men equal before
the law, a gendarmerie enforced the law, and he promoted religious toleration.
At first, Napoleon was eager to abolish aristocratic privilege, but in the end,
he named himself emperor and ruled autocratically. However, he did uphold the idea of promotion
by individual achievement, not family or wealth. Some of his generals came from
the lowest rungs of society; others came from old families.
Napoleon Bonaparte by David, 1812
National Gallery of Art, Washington D,.C.
Many of us have lodged in our mind's eye, the images of Napoleon created by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), the great French painter of the Revolution and years of Napoleon. After the restoration of the Bourbons, David exiled himself to Brussels where he spent the rest of his life.
Saint Bernard Pass, 1801
Coronation of Napoleon at Notre Dame, 1806
Though David's body is buried in Brussels, his heart is buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Death of Napoleon, 1821, by Charles de Steuben
Napoleon was buried on St. Helena. In 1840, the British, the Whig government of Charles Grey being in power, allowed King Louis-Philippe of France to return Napoleon’s body to Paris where a grand state funeral was held. Twenty years later, his tomb was finished in Les Invalides.
Hotel National Les Invalides, Paris
To read more about Napoleon's tomb and the museum, click here.
Napoleon scorned the re-reestablishment of the ancien regime in France and elsewhere,
as decided by the Congress of Vienna. The Hapsburg Empire in Austrian eventually collapsed under its own
weight, but the German-Prussian and Russian situations led to bloody war and
excessive revolution,though not until many decades later.
Some observers try to link Napoleon with the 20th-21st
Century movement for European integration, but I personally find that a bit of
a stretch. The kind of integration he wanted was domination by France, by HIM,
not a voluntary and gradual union of independent states.
Assessing Napoleon is complex and requires that old
fallback: tolerance of ambiguity, as well as some cognitive dissonance. In other
words, don’t forget a dash of skepticism when reading about Napoleon – or any
of the other players in this 200-year-old saga.