DID NAPOLEON MERIT THE REPUTATION  THAT
SURROUNDS HIS NAME?

 

by Jean-Claude Damamme
Representative for France of the International Napoleonic Society

 

 

This is a question posed frequently with the traditional hostility of hindsight that visitors to this site know well.

To this question, I answer:

Yes, and without the shadow of a doubt.

When Bonaparte came to power, France was a wrecked country economically, politically, morally, and socially.

He reestablished the economy, brought religious and social peace to society, structured and consolidated the gains of the Revolution, established promotion by merit and talent (which was an incredible innovation at that time), and gave France its modern institutions—Civil Code, prefectures, high schools, commercial banks, councils of wise men, Court of Accounts, Bank of France, Legion of Honor—all without neglecting public works: roads, ports, canals, bridges, etc.—which made France a modern state, strong and prosperous, which survives even today.

He held at arms length the problems of France that, since the revolution, had involved war with virtually all the monarchs of Europe. These governments wanted to prevent the explosive idea of the Rights of Man from spreading throughout the continent, taking with it the entire system of monarchs who ruled by divine right.

At the start of his reign, Napoleon made an offer of peace—in writing—to the King of Great Britain. He received no response. Instead, while he was First Consul, royalist killers paid by Britain attempted to assassinate him. Britain also hired Russia, Austria, Prussia, Sweden, Spain, and Portugal as mercenaries to destroy France and its leader. This cost London 66 million pounds sterling in the currency of that period.

There followed ten years of coalitions known today as “the Napoleonic Wars.” This label is a shameful manipulation deliberately intended to deceive the general public into believing that the man who gave his name to this series of wars was responsible for causing them, while leaving the true culprits hidden in the shadows.

After each victory, Napoleon offered peace. His opponents only pretended to agree so as to gain time to rebuild their forces and prepare a new coalition.

Too often, mediocre individuals have used Napoleon as a target to increase their own self-worth by trying to destroy him. A handful of ignorant fools, disdaining the historical record, have actually compared him to Hitler, even though Napoleon gave the Jews, who previously had no rights, the status of citizens both in France and in the other states of the Empire.

His power was undoubtedly authoritarian. Yet, one could not govern a country that was recovering from the atrocities of the Terror and the anarchy of the Directory, a country surrounded by enemies and in a semi-permanent state of latent war, in the same manner that one would govern the principality in an operetta.

Did he make mistakes? Of course, but who, invested with such gigantic responsibilities and surrounded by so many adversaries, would have been able to avoid errors?

I cannot conclude this evaluation of Napoleon without citing one of his own maxims. Here, to my mind, is the most beautiful one, which summarized him perfectly:

After victory, there are no longer enemies, but only men.”