Napoleon rose to power on the destructive wave of the French Revolution. His own synopsis of his remarkable career is succinct—“Corsican by birth, French by adoption and emperor by achievement.” The Age Of Napoleon, by Alistair Horne, seeks to encompass a broader range of the emperor’s achievements in a short volume of 218 pages.
Napollion Buonoparte was born on the island of Corsica in 1769. His father, an impoverished nobleman, secured a place for his son (funded by the king’s charity) at a military school in Brienne, France, in 1778. The nine-year-old Corsican had a poor command of the French language, and the other students made fun of him because of his Italian accent. Yet this outsider would one day command them, their country, and half of Europe’s population. After graduating in 1784, Napoleon was admitted to the Ecole Militaire, an officers’ school in Paris. At 16, he became a second lieutenant of artillery. A teacher described him as “knowing mathematics and geography extremely well . . . taciturn, loves solitude, very egotistical, ambitious and aspires toward everything.” The young man once wrote in his geography notebook: “St. Helena, small island.” He could not have foreseen his prison exile on that desolate rock.
Napoleon had an outstanding intelligence combined with practical ability, and he was unalterably determined to succeed. The French Revolution of 1789 provided the means. Many aristocrats fled France to save their lives, including two thirds of the army’s artillery officers. This situation enabled Bona-parte to rise quickly. At the siege of Toulon in 1793, he demonstrated his expertise at artillery, resulting in a promotion to general. In 1795, he saved the Directory, the revolutionary government of the day, from an uprising, and the appreciative directors made the 26-year-old general supreme commander of the army of Italy.
Napoleon’s conquest of Italy made him internationally famous. He now changed the spelling of his name to sound French. Artists painted him. Patriots cheered him.
But politicians feared him, so the hero was sent on a campaign to Egypt. As Horne points out, “His strategic intent was to sever at a stroke England’s lifeline to her empire in India, and then like Alexander the Great move on to regain French possessions and conquer India itself.” In Egypt, Napoleon saw and conquered, but with the destruction of the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile by Nelson, the whole enterprise had to be abandoned. However, the expedition was a scientific success: One of Napoleon’s soldiers uncovered the Rosetta Stone.
On his return to France in 1799, Napoleon was invited to join a coup to topple the Directory. Many in France were weary of perpetual revolution and instability. They looked for the corrective to Napoleon, who subsequently became consul for life, stabilized France’s economy, and reformed her legal structure. (The Napoleonic legal code is still in effect.) Next, he turned to religious reform and, in what Hilaire Belloc called a tremendously Christian act, restored the Roman Catholic Church in a concordat with the Pope. In 1804, he crowned himself emperor, saying, “I found the crown of France in the gutter and I picked it up.”
Napoleon secured France from revolution, but his power, in large part, depended on military conquests. And every time he left France to gain them, conspiracies took place at home to depose him. To his credit, Alistair Horne repeatedly points out that Napoleon was neither a Stalin or a Hitler, citing as proof of this judgment that, though Napoleon’s foreign minister Talleyrand and his minister of police conspired against him, neither man was “eliminated.” Napoleon was fortunate to win most of his battles, but he could not win forever. A guerilla war in Spain, funded by England, bled his resources, and his Continental system barring trade with England led to a fallout with his Russian ally. He was defeated by England and her allies in 1814 and given a Lilliputian kingdom on the isle of Elba, off the coast of Italy. He was not, however, a man to be pinned down like Gulliver. After less than a year, he left Elba and took over France again. This episode, known as the Hundred Days, was one of the most epic events in history, leading to Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. This time, the allies sentenced him to exile on St. Helena in the South Atlantic, thousands of miles from any continent. He died there in 1821. As John Adams put it, “a whirlwind raised him and a whirlwind blowed him away to St. Helena.” Napoleon himself recognized the truth of this saying: “Hundreds of years will elapse before circumstances will arise similar to those which concentrated such a mass of power to me.”
Horne’s book is a good shorthand account of Napoleon’s life and career, but it is too crammed to cover truly “the age.” The author does justice to Napoleon’s great achievements—the Code Napoleon, the establishment of a national bank to put the country on a sound financial footing, and the vast building projects and improvements made in Paris. Horne, however, is somewhat dismissive of the Concordat Napoleon signed with the Pope, which remained in force until 1905, when the Roman Catholic Church was disestablished in France. (Horne says that Napoleon’s attitude toward the Church and religion itself was merely “pragmatic, if not decidedly cynical” and claims that, on his deathbed, Napoleon “sent away priests come to administer the last rights.”)
Yet Napoleon was pragmatic toward all things. He would not have maintained power otherwise. Certainly, he appreciated religion as social cement, but his religious belief was far deeper than Alistair Horne supposes. Napoleon had a strongly mystical nature. Perhaps Horne overlooks this because of the oppressive secularism of our time.
In any event, Napoleon was administered extreme unction on May 2, 1821, by Father Vignali, one of the two priests sent to St. Helena by Napoleon’s uncle, Cardinal Fesch. Moreover, Mass was celebrated for him in his residence every Sunday and on holy days. Napoleon said, on St. Helena: “[O]nly a fool says he will die without a confessor. There is so much that one does not know, that one cannot explain.” Finally, Bonaparte, as much as Edmund Burke, loathed the atheistic metaphysicians of revolution and their chirping sectaries. (He invented the word ideologue, which delighted John Adams.) It is among his greatest accomplishments to have curbed the excesses of revolution.
The great 19th-century Roman Catholic poet Baudelaire wrote in his Journals, “I hate Paris chiefly because everyone is like Voltaire.” To him, Voltaire was the antipoet. Napoleon also had a poetic nature and would have been in perfect agreement with Baudelaire, as he, too, was bored by the gross materialism of the Enlightenment. Indeed, Thibaue, in his Memoires sur le Consulat, describes a kind of mystical experience Bona-parte had, before the Concordat of 1804. Napoleon told him,
Last Sunday, in the midst of the silence of Nature, I was walking in these gardens (at Malmaison); the sound of the bell of Ruel suddenly struck my ear and renewed all the impressions of my youth; I was moved, so strong in the force of early habit, and said to myself: “If this can happen to me, what effect must similar memories not produce on ordinary credulous men?” Let your philosophers find an answer to that!
To Antomarchi, a doctor attending him on his deathbed, Napoleon said:
I believe in God; I am of my father’s religion. We cannot all be atheists . . . How can you not believe in God? For all, everything proclaims His existence, and the greatest geniuses have believed in it . . . But then, you are a doctor . . . You people deal with nothing but matter: You never believe anything.
Dying with a silver cross on his breast, the emperor had the last laugh on the scoffers of religion. In his otherwise generous will, he left the materialist Dr. Antomarchi a small sum of money to “buy a rope to hang himself with.” Napoleon’s will is explicit regarding his belief. It reads: “I DIE IN THE APOSTOLIC AND ROMAN RELIGION, IN THE BOSOM OF WHICH I WAS BORN OVER FIFTY YEARS AGO.”
Napoleon was a builder, not a destroyer, of our Western patrimony. Horne’s book recognizes this: “[H]ad [Napoleon] never fought a single battle he would still have to be rated one of history’s great leaders for the system of administration and the civil reforms he left behind him in France.” What Horne fails to recognize, and what Napoleon only glimpsed, is the Christian inheritance that is Europe.
[The Age of Napoleon, by Alistair Horne (New York: Modern Library) 218 pp., $21.95]