by Andrew Roberts, published 2015
I’ve long been fascinated by political revolutions, where they come from, how the unfold, whether they’re effective in actually changing the social organization of the society which experiences them. But I have not spent as much time studying reactions to political revolutions. Having read several books about the French Revolution, I decided it was time to study the life and times of Napoleon Bonaparte. Going into my reading, the primary questions I had in mind were:
- What social conditions existed in revolutionary France that permitted Napoleon’s rise?
- Was he actually a reformer and, to the extent he was, were his laws innovative or “useful”?
- Was he truly a great leader and military commander and, if so, what personal characteristics did he possess which might have contributed to his success?
- Do “Great Men” exist and if so, was he one of them?
As I read Roberts’s lengthy and overall balanced biography of Napoleon — it’s clear he believes in the Great Man theory of history and would put Napoleon in that category, but he rarely engaged in hagiography and was ready to admit his foibles, though also quick to wave them away as typical of the time or typical of humanity in general — I also developed a few more questions:
- Why wasn’t Napoleon’s regime stable?
- Why did Napoleon promote so many family members to positions of power (especially outside France)?
- Could he have enjoyed a durable peace with neighboring countries, particularly Great Britain?
Setting aside Napoleon’s personal energy, intelligence and social talents, a large part of his rise appears to be attributable to timing and luck.
Rarely in military history has there been so high a turnover of generals as in France in the 1790s. It meant that capable young men could advance through the ranks at unprecedented speed… having been on leave for fifty-eight of his ninety-nine months of service — with and without permission — and after spending less than four years on active duty, Napoleon was made, at twenty-four, a general.
Surely it takes exceptional talent to even be considered for such a promotion at such a young age. But just as surely, Napoleon would not have been in a position to see and do the things he saw and did, when he saw them and when he did them, had this condition not existed by which he could achieve such a promotion at such a young age. The text doesn’t state whether any other generals were appointed at such an age around the time Napoleon was but it doesn’t matter– it is not to say that a “Napoleon” was bound to arise in such conditions, but only that it’s hard to imagine the Napoleon arising without such conditions.
And this luck or timing factor is a double-edged sword which can also help to explain his rapid political decline:
Many of the phenomena of Napoleonic warfare that had been characteristic of his earlier campaigns — elderly opponents lacking energy, a nationally and linguistically diverse enemy against the homogenous French, a vulnerable spot onto which Napoleon could latch and not let go, a capacity for significantly faster movement than the enemy, and to concentrate forces to achieve numerical advantage for just long enough to be decisive — were not present or were simply impossible in the vast reaches of European Russia. The Russian generals tended to be much younger than the general Napoleon had faced in Italy — averaging forty-six years old against the French generals’ forty-three — and the Russian army was more homogenous than Napoleon’s. This was to be a campaign utterly unlike any he had fought before, indeed unlike any in history.
Whereas in his early political and military career all of Napoleon’s strengths proved to be an uncannily perfect fit for the weaknesses of his opponents, the environmental factors shifted such that Napoleon faced a political-evolutionary dead end. Having mistook his earlier luck for fate, he mismeasured (or was simply unaware of) the enormous risks he was taking in this new, hostile environment and committed himself in such a way that he was doomed to be defeated.
Napoleon’s record as a social reformer is similarly mixed and confused. Although he rose to power supported by the burgeoning middle classes of France by vowing to defend the redistribution of Church and aristocratic property confiscated during the Revolution, Napoleon put in place a confusing and economically regressive system of managed trade (internal and external) known as his “Continental System” which was an intellectual continuation of the mercantilist Colbertism of the French monarchy, which was aimed at disrupting the trade economy of Great Britain and thus its willingness and ability to fight but which ended up proving more aggravating and ruinous to those same middle classes, as well as the economies of various French political allies.
France had reached only the level of industrialization that Britain had enjoyed in 1780, an indictment of revolutionary, Directory and Napoleonic economic policy and the Colbertism they all followed. ‘I never saw him reject a proposition that was aimed at encouraging or supporting industry,’ recalled Chaptal.
The Continental System was truly byzantine, an irony given that the multitude of taxes and trade regulations put in place by the French crown prior to the Revolution bred a nation of smugglers and tax evaders which sowed social instability and a lack of respect for the crown’s authority:
Different types of licenses costing different amounts authorized different companies from different departments to trade in different prescribed commodities with different foreign ports. The rules were constantly changing, seemingly capriciously, with endless clauses and sub-clauses covering every likely combination and permutation.
How could Napoleon’s regime achieve stability under such economic conditions induced by this policy? In fact, Napoleon specifically “rejected the idea of competition and free exchange as positive phenomena”, a formula almost guaranteed to produce conflict at home and war abroad. A zero-sum world is inhabited by predators and prey alone. Combined with Napoleon’s reckless and nearly constant warfighting, the French economy was very nearly wrecked, as evidenced by the fact that “at his best, he was forced to borrow at higher rates than Britain at its worst.” The upkeep of the military and the logistics of fighting far from home had a devastating effect on the finances of Napoleon’s state.
Napoleon put in place a system of mulcting conquered territories via “contributions” which were to help offset the costs of the wars. He also forced occupied territories to pay for the provisioning and billeting of troops. Despite these policies, Napoleon had to raise taxes and customs duties at home and engage in egregious borrowings. Rather than being a profit center, the wars were a weight around the neck of French society:
The war did not pay for the war, but only for 60 per cent of it, with the remaining 40 per cent being picked up by the French people in various other ways.
This problem was exacerbated still further by deploying this capital to fight wars of conquest in economically backward locales, such as Egypt:
the country had no watermills and only one windmill… [Napoleon and his savants spent time pondering questions such as] could Nile water be made drinkable; were watermills or windmills better for Cairo; [could they] teach Egyptians the benefits of wheelbarrows and handsaws?
And despite this incredible expense, nearly every one of his campaigns finds Napoleon writing letters to his quartermaster demanding basic provisions for his troops such as shoes (and terrible necessity given the thousands of kilometers his troops would travel on foot), adequate food and medicine. If the Napoleonic state couldn’t adequately provision its soldiery, the political backbone of the regime, how could it ever hope to innovate and reform its domestic economy?
Clearly, Great Britain got the better of the bargain in pursuing a policy of subsidizing proxy combatants:
In 1794 payments to allies amounted to 14 per cent of British government revenues… Although the grand total of GBP65,830,228 paid to France’s enemies between 1793 and 1815 was astronomical, it was markedly less than the cost of maintaining, and then fielding, a huge standing army… In 1815 alone, Britain subsidized no fewer than thirty European Powers.
The cost of war on French society, on any society, is not just financial. It is primarily physical, and it is truly horrible to behold as the nuances of warfighting are catalogued throughout the book in excruciating detail:
‘Everyone was scratching [due to the scabies mite],’ recalled a veteran, and one report to the Committee of Public Health stated that there were no fewer than 400,000 scabetics in the army. Napoleon later set up special hospitals for them during his campaigns [which he himself contracted earlier in his career].
Meanwhile, the battles and sieges, far from being conducted with a gentlemanly honor, routinely inflicted mass casualties on civilian populations caught up in the mix:
Genoa surrendered on June 4, by which time around 30,000 of its 160,000 inhabitants [almost 25%!] had died of starvation and of diseases associated with malnutrition, as had 4,000 French soldiers…”If one thinks always of humanity — only of humanity — one should give up going to war. I don’t know how war is to be conducted on the rosewater plan” [Napoleon later said].
The failed march on Russia in 1812 is later described as an “equinocide” in which literally tens of thousands of horses, almost the entire stock of France and the German States at that point in time, die of exposure, starvation, disease and battle. The waste of capital and life even before the dawn of mass warfare is staggering to behold for a person who loves civilization and peaceful trade.
While his early campaigns seem driven by ambition and his middle campaigns seem driven by a strategic belief in attacking as defense, his latter campaigns seem defensive and desperate. At a certain point, Napoleon realized his chance of a long reign was diminished the more he exhorted his state to fight. Unfortunately, his political status as an usurper and an upstart meant he had little realistic chance of a durable peace– his neighbors were committed politically to removing him from power and reinstating a monarchy. He antagonized them still further by placing his relatives on the thrones of various satellite states, but this was a further blunder in that many proved to be unreliable allies whose own search for power and permanence led them to follow policies contrary to Napoleon’s own desires. It’s hard to imagine a strategic environment where he would’ve been allowed to reign until his peaceful passing, at least so long as he pursued a disruptive domestic economic policy combined with an aggressive international trade paradigm that severely restricted the free flow of goods and services.
Far from a Great Man, then, we see Napoleon for what he mostly was– extremely intelligent and talented, yes, but subject to the same flaws and cognitive biases of all of us which led to numerous “unforced errors” which accumulated to the point of his downfall. Irrational loyalty to his spendthrift, cuckolding wife; doctoring public records to allow political prestige that was illegal; making up the results of democratic elections; being motivated deep down by a desire from childhood to be thought of as a historical figure. All the personal charm and the biggest library of wisdom and human experience in the world (Napoleon was a notorious bibliophile) couldn’t stop a person so hell bent at times on being their own worst enemy.
This “Life” was interesting to read in many ways and I found myself highlighting and underlining all manner of passages. It did get me to think more deeply about some of the questions I came to it with, as well as others that were raised along the way, but it didn’t succeed at getting me to fundamentally rethink any of my existing principles. And ultimately, although it demonstrated a great amount of research and personal expertise on behalf of the author and was pleasurable as a narrative at times, I found myself less inspired and moulded by this study of Napoleon than I had hoped to be and I doubt I’ll refer back to this title again in the future.