Reaping the Harvest of Bonapartism
by Milton Batiste
Napoleon. Empire. War. The
three go together. Could there be a lesson for our modern times
here? Historian Paul Johnson certainly thinks so:
"At the beginning of
the twenty-first century, anxious as we are to avoid the tragic mistakes
of the twentieth, we must learn from Bonaparte’s life what to fear
and what to avoid."
Indeed. And what better
place to start, than the slim Johnson biography called
Napoleon Bonaparte seems
to have been the opportunist incarnate. No one ever saw him drunk. Power
was the only drug he was interested in. Revolutionary France of the 1790s
provided the perfect background for this ambitious Corsican soldier.
America fought a revolutionary
war of independence against the British empire.With independence came the
desire for peace, trade and prosperity in an American republic. The revolution
took a different course in France. The slogan of the French Revolutionaries
soon became: "War with all kings and peace with all peoples." In practice
this translated into simply "war with all". In the spring of 1792
the Girondin Ministry forced king Louis to declare war on Austria and Sardinia.
And in February-March 1793 Revolutionary France declared war on Britain, Holland
and Spain. To make things even worse, civil war broke out in France itself.
War meant fast promotion
for a young artillery commander like Napoleon Bonaparte:
"He blew himself into
the stratosphere of power from the brazen mouth of his own guns."
Bonaparte was associated
with the Jacobins and first attracted notice by his distinguished part in
dislodging the British from Toulon (1793). In October 1795, there was a
royalist uprising in Paris. Paul Barras persuaded the Convention to place
Bonaparte in command of the troops. Napoleon dispersed the mob with what
he called "a whiff of grapeshot", killing about 100 insurgents. He was given
command of the army of the interior. After drawing up a plan for an Italian
campaign, Napoleon Bonaparte was made commander in chief of the army of Italy.
"He had already, in effect, ended the Revolution itself.
His assumption of the new command marked another historical turning point:
the moment when the republican regime moved from the defensive to the largescale
offensive and became an expansionist force, determined to roll up the old
map of Europe and transform it on principles formed by its own ideology."
Yes, the French liked to think of themselvs as liberators
as they marched to war, and for a while many European intellectuals were
inclined to agree. Keats and Shelley recognized in Bonaparte the romantic
hero. So did Bonaparte himself:
"He saw himself as the Enlightenment embodied, bringing
rationality and justice to peoples hitherto ruled in the interests of privileged
His benevolence did not last forever, or even for long:
"Bonaparte was always forced in the end, and usually
sooner rather than later, by financial and military necessity to impose
burdens that made his rule even more unpopular than the old regimes."
Early on in his
new career, during the Italian campaign, Bonaparte ceased to be a mere general.
He became an imperial proconsul, in fact if not yet in name. He became First
Consul a few years later, after the military coup in 1799. And after that
-- Emperor, in 1804. That move cost him most of the remaining support of
of Revolutionary France -- a police state at war not only with foreign kingdoms
but also with its own people -- made it relatively easy for Bonaparte to
consolidate his power. The dictatorship of Bonaparte was a disaster for the
French people, and for the victims of his wars. The imperial adventure ended
in military ruin:
and 1813 Bonaparte had lost, in killed wounded, prisoners, and simply
disappeared, about one million men. About half were Frenchmen.
Yet all had been in vain, as germans and Russians were now pouring
across the frontiers into France, often led by marauding squadrons
of Cossacks. All looted, raped, and murdered, as the French
had once looted, raped, and murdered in their homelands."
It was not the
first empire to fall. It will not be the last one. Could the disaster
have been avoided? Not with someone like Napoleon in charge. "It
does not seem to have occurred to him, " Johnson writes, "to study
the example of his older contemporary George Washington, who translated
victory inte civil progress and renounced the rule of force in favor
of the rule of law."
was not a role model in the France of Napoleon
Bonaparte. How about in the America of George W. Bush?
No, Washington's wisdom is not greatly valued in his country
of birth today.
is eager to impose democracy on countries whose government
he disapproves of. His administration is geared up for
global war for world wide democracy. America may, therefore,
one day find itself reaping the harvest of Bonapartism. I hope not.