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Napoleon Died Today

On this day, May 5, the great French statesman and ruler Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile on the remote Atlantic island of St. Helena in 1821. Napoleon, a successful French general who had defeated the Austrians in Italy and conquered Egypt from the Ottomans, seized power in 1799 in the wake of the French Revolution. Subsequently, Europe quaked in both admiration and fear of Bonaparte, who crowned himself Emperor in 1804, going on to win major battles against the Austrians, Prussians, and Russians.

While Napoleon was a brilliant battlefield commander, he was ultimately unable to control Europe, despite initial successes. His invasion of Russia, his failure to neutralize Britain, and a guerrilla war in Spain weakened his forces and ultimately lead to his first exile in 1814 on the island of Elba, near Italy. After his brilliant escape, the “100 days” of Napoleon’s restored rule commenced until his famous defeat at Waterloo and his second exile, where he remained until his death.

Napoleon’s impact on the course of world history cannot be overstated. His military tactics were studied and replicated throughout the next hundred years, promoted by figures such as Jomini, whose works influenced the U.S. military during the Civil War.

Bonapartism, or the political ideology associated with Napoleon, represented a middle way for many Europeans. While Napoleon spread enlightened political practices, promoting meritocracy and a rational law code (the Code Napoleon), he also realized the limits of liberalism and democratic practices, having witnessed the excesses of the French Revolution, and so promoted a strong central government and an enlightened aristocracy. In the realm of culture, Napoleon’s expeditions led in particular to the imitation of Egyptian architecture in the West.

Editor’s note: A typo in the first paragraph has been corrected.

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6 Comments To "Napoleon Died Today"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On May 6, 2017 @ 3:23 am

As Raskolnikov observed in Crime and Punishment, a single murder makes of its perpetrator a criminal; to become heroic, it must be committed on a grand scale.

#2 Comment By Mark Thomason On May 6, 2017 @ 12:22 pm

Napoleon gave events his personal twist, but something very like it would have happened without him.

The Directors might well have chosen some other “man on a horse” since there were several available.

Any one of them would have been atop the army created by the Revolution, and the energy of France unleashed by that Revolution, and the population and economic dominance of the Continent that France still had.

Napoleon’s own person, unique contributions were real, but they were very far from the whole of what is labelled with his name. Some of his generals were extraordinary too, and his Code of Laws was him supervising a team with those ideas.

Perhaps without him France and its Revolution would have been EVEN MORE influential, since another man might have made peace when Talleyrand said “enough” but Napoleon would not listen. It is the what-if of Tilsit lasting, and no 1812 invasion of Russia. Perhaps even no Emperor, and instead a leader like George Washington who would have built a more lasting institution.

In some ways, Napoleon’s weaknesses and ultimate failure shaped Europe as much as his strengths and success.

#3 Comment By Richard M On May 8, 2017 @ 9:16 am

Any one of them would have been atop the army created by the Revolution, and the energy of France unleashed by that Revolution, and the population and economic dominance of the Continent that France still had.

Quite possibly.

And some were capable generals, too. But none of them was Napoleon. Not just on the battlefield: it is hard to identify one who could have held sway politically in the way that Napoleon did, and thus consolidated power and ruled as he did. More likely, one would see a succession of Men on Horseback, one after the other, and continued instability – and war.

Perhaps without him France and its Revolution would have been EVEN MORE influential, since another man might have made peace when Talleyrand said “enough” but Napoleon would not listen.

Certainly none would have pressed the round of conquest as far as Napoleon did (or could have done so).

But say that Sieyes had allied with, say, Moreau, Bonaparte being removed from the picture. On and off again wars might have continued, but on a more limited scale. France would likely have settled down to a new frontier on the Rhine, with northwestern Italy reduced to client states. Continued political instability might have brought back a moderate Royalist government; but it is hard to say. This would have made for a politically and economically more powerful France; but without the moderating Code Napoleon and Bonaparte to impose it everywhere (and a more compact H.R. Empire consolidated within the Habsburg grip), the actual ideological penetration of Revolutionary ideals could have been more limited.

#4 Comment By Fabian On May 8, 2017 @ 10:40 am

916,000 French men died, 38% of the conscription class 1790-1795. And he is still considered a great man. Those who write history usually don’t see combat.

#5 Comment By Ross On May 8, 2017 @ 1:25 pm

The impression I’ve received of Napoleonic history is that the other powers simply wouldn’t stand for a revolutionary regime in France, especially in the hands of a man as obviously gifted as Bonaparte. Considering the hostility he faced from Britain especially, but also the continental powers, it seems unlikely his reign could have ever lasted, and it’s really a tremendous credit to the man’s military and political talents that he remained in power as long as he did.

#6 Comment By GM On May 9, 2017 @ 6:39 pm

Napoleon butchered honorably surrendered men and abandoned his own men during his Egyptian expedition. Read the book: Beware of heroes: Admiral Sir Sidney Smith’s War against Napoleon. Written by Peter Shankland. Napoleon may have been a very intelligent ruler, but he was still a murdering sociopath.