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Which Napoleon?

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Which Napoleon?

Those commemorating the bicentennial of the French emperor’s death must choose among his many legacies. May 14, 2021
Arts and Culture

Last week, French president Emmanuel Macron commemorated the bicentennial of Napoleon’s death. But which Napoleon to memorialize? Of all his avatars, I prefer the least well known: Napoleon the American.

Defeated at Waterloo, shunned by his ministers, abandoned by his generals, and booed in Paris where he had sought refuge, Napoleon arrived at Rochefort, a port city on the Atlantic, on July 2, 1815. From there he hoped to take a ship to the United States, become an American, and start a new life. He was only 45 and imagined himself a clearer of land at the head of a large agricultural enterprise. His older brother, Joseph, who had been king of Spain and of Naples, made it to America (and lived for about 15 years in New Jersey). The Bonapartes had always dreamed of America as a land of conquest. Napoleon agreed to sell the Louisiana Territory to Thomas Jefferson in 1803 only bitterly and under duress; at the time, he possessed neither the troops nor the funds necessary to retain this French possession.

But Napoleon never became an American. The British fleet blocked the port of Rochefort, and the former emperor had no choice but to surrender, as he later wrote, “to the most constant of his enemies.” He proposed to the British government that he be allowed to become a farmer in England or a pioneer in the United States. In the end, he was sent to the Island of St. Helena, were he died on May 4, 1821—two centuries ago.

Macron chose to commemorate this date no doubt for the same reason that persuaded King Louis-Philippe to bring Napoleon’s ashes back to Paris in 1840: the hope that some bit of the emperor’s glory would shine on him, Macron being hardly more popular today than was Louis-Philippe in his time. Though the return of Napoleon’s ashes helped Louis-Philippe very little, it did seem to elicit the enthusiasm of Parisians. But were the French of that day truly energized by their past glory, or did they rather count their dead? Napoleon had cost them millions of victims in 15 years of military campaigning from Egypt to Russia, without counting those disabled and widowed.

The worship of Napoleon has always been a French mystery. Is it spontaneous, reflecting nostalgia for empire, or something organized by the state, which has inherited from that period a matchless taste for authority? French schoolchildren are taught only the benefits of the emperor’s reign. According to our textbooks, Napoleon is supposed to have endowed France with a perfect legal system that still governs us today and to have caused the winds of freedom to blow across Europe. Each year, a dozen more books are published in France touting Napoleon’s glory. He has been represented more often than Christ on film, always as a positive hero.

Other Europeans see him very differently. While French historians amplify the myth that Napoleon himself created by dictating his idealized Memoires on St. Helena, English, German, Russian and Spanish authors count up the massacres and the destruction of their cities and their civilization.

Napoleon began shaping his reputation while he was still alive. He commonly wrote reports of his victories before the battles had even begun, which makes him the founding father of fake news. Certain disasters, such as the Battle of Eylau (now in Poland) against the Russians and Prussians, for example, are still inscribed in the walls of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris as if they were victories, since that is how they were first announced.

Since France is now part of Europe—rather than Europe becoming part of France, as Napoleon wished—what should we commemorate? French victories, such as Austerlitz, were defeats for the Russians and Austrians. Waterloo, a day of mourning for the French, is a symbol of liberation for the British, Germans, and Dutch. In any case, since the return of Napoleon’s ashes, our view of history has changed; the fate of people concerns us more than the fate of armies. Napoleon’s stature does not benefit from this change of perspective. To finance his wars, he ruined Europe, banning international commerce (only smugglers got rich), conscripting peasants, ravaging harvests, and confiscating horses. How should we commemorate the Russian and German campaigns of 1812 and 1813, when the Grand Army left in its wake not the liberation of peoples, but famine and epidemic? Worst still, how should we commemorate the restoration of slavery in the French Antilles, Guadeloupe, and Santo Domingo (Haiti), where the deputies of France’s Revolutionary Convention had abolished it in 1794?

Napoleon cannot be excused by his historical context, since the British had abolished slavery in Guadeloupe when they occupied it, and in Santo Domingo, a French and Spanish colony, a black republican general, Toussaint Louverture, had proclaimed the first black republic of the New World, with its own constitution proclaiming the ideals of the French Revolution. Napoleon sent a military expedition to Santo Domingo and captured Louverture, who died in a French prison. The only ones who welcomed this restoration of slavery by the law of May 20, 1802, were the white planters from the Antilles and from the southern United States, who were worried about the spread of revolution. The same year, Napoleon excluded officers “of color” from the army and, in 1803, banned “mixed” marriages on French territory. Napoleon, who liked to present himself as an heir of the Enlightenment, was quite simply racist, while the French Revolution was not. Nor was Napoleon republican, since he did away with the Republic by military coup in 1799, before proclaiming himself emperor—already an anachronistic designation by the nineteenth century.

The historians who Macron put in charge of organizing the festivities claimed that the commemoration was not a celebration. What this distinction means is not clear—short of restoring a truth that would disorient the French people and logically require removing the emperor from his mausoleum at Les Invalides and returning the body (as was done with Franco) to his descendants, some of whom still live in the U.S. To bury Napoleon in America would fulfill his final dream.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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