A positive view of Napoleon

by J. David Markham


Few people have dominated their era as Napoleon Bonaparte dominated his. His meteoric rise is the stuff of legend, and countless books have been written about him (including, I'm happy to say, several by me). His life has been intensely studied, his accomplishments catalogued, his brilliance–and his mistakes–analyzed by any number of historians and others over the past two centuries.


And yet, for all of this, the image of Napoleon, at least in the English-speaking world, is largely at odds with the reality that actually existed. Napoleon is seen by many as a man obsessed with war, governed by an insatiable ambition, and determined to put all of Europe under his tyrannical yolk. If his popular image in the 21st century isn't as bad as ‘the ogre of Corsica' or ‘the great thief of Europe,' it is certainly less positive than it deserves to be.


The reason for this is really quite simple. Great Britain was always Napoleon's primary opponent, and the British government and media cranked out a veritable barrage of highly effective personal and political attacks against him. The ‘ogre' and ‘thief' images came from the British, whose use of words and caricatures was so effective that it still influences Napoleon's image today. Even the idea that he was short can be traced to such images. During his lifetime, and for the almost 200 years since his death, British historians have tended to emphasize the negative at the expense of the positive or even of the neutral. The image produced by these historians and others has widely influenced others, and produced the general image I described above, namely Napoleon as the warmonger.


The reality of Napoleon is actually quite different, and General Michel Franceschi and Ben Weider have written a book to help set the record straight. In a well-researched and very readable book, with excellent illustrations, they point out that the so-called ‘Napoleonic Wars' actually resulted from the French Revolution, and had thus begun before Napoleon ever gained power. They resulted largely from European monarchs' distrust and fear of the Revolution and its challenge to the religious and feudal basis that justified their position. When Napoleon took power, the Revolution ended, but not so the European desire to restore the Old Order to France , and their idea of ‘stability' to the rest of Europe . Thus, the wars must go on.


Franceschi and Weider also document Napoleon's desire to avoid wars. Far from being a warmonger, Napoleon recognized that it was in France's–and his–best interest to have peace. Napoleon was a brilliant military commander, but he was really more interested in promoting domestic reforms and bringing prosperity to France than conquering more territory. And as a great commander, he certainly understood that every war, every battle, is a throw of the dice, and that even he could not expect to win them all. Thus, he did what he could to generate the conditions for peace, and to seek accommodation with his enemies, both domestic and foreign. Sometimes he was successful, but in the end his enemies were simply not willing to allow him to rule France in peace.


This leads to the last part of the book, where the authors recount each campaign and show how Napoleon sought peace whenever possible but was constantly rebuffed in those efforts. While not having the detail that books or articles dedicated to a given battle or campaign would have, Franceschi and Weider give a good summary of events, placing them in the context of Napoleon's efforts to avoid confrontation, even to the point of being excessively generous to his defeated adversaries.


The Wars Against Napoleon does not pretend to be an unbiased account. Clearly, Franceschi and Weider take their mission seriously, to engage in ‘debunking the myth of the Napoleonic Wars.' But it is a debunking that needs doing if a realistic and accurate image of this great and complex man is to emerge. This book goes a long way toward setting the record straight by challenging the assumptions held by many, and opening the way for the real Napoleon to step forward.


J. David Markham