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              ONE IS A CROWD             No. 2, November 15, 2002

The Harvest of Bonapartism

By Milton Batiste

"In our recent crusade to make the world safe for democracy," wrote Irving Babbitt in 1924, "it was currently assumed that democracy is the same as liberty and the opposite of imperialism. The teachings of history are strangely different." 
Yes, democracy, in its crusading mood, clearly has imperialistic tendencies. The period of the Pelopponesian War in Greace, for example, was a period of imperialistic expansion, and this was accompanied, especially in Athens, by a trend toward an  increasingly egalitarian democracy. Or think of the history of the French revolution. It started with the sentimental democratism  of Jean-Jaques Rousseau and ended with Napoleon Bonaparte who set Europe ablaze under the pretext of fighting feudalism and the Old Order.                
Napoleon. Empire. War. The three go together. Could there even be a lesson for our modern times here? Historian Paul Johnson certainly thinks so: "At the beginning of the twenty-first  century, anxiuous 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, simply, Napoleon?                                            

Napoleon Bonaparte comes across as the opportunist incarnate. No one, apparently, ever saw him drunk. Power was the only stimulant he was interested in imbibing. Revolutionary France of the1790s provided the perfect background för this ambitious Corsican soldier.

America fought a revolutionary war of independence with 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 was: "War with all kings and peace with all peoples." This meant, in practice, "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 straosphere of power from the brazen mouth of his own guns." Bonaparte wasNapoleon associated with the Jacobins and first attracted notice by his distinguished part in dislodging the British from Toulon (1793). He was promoted to brigadier general. 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, he was made commander in chief of the army of Italy.

During his Italian campaign Bonaparte ceased to be merely a general and became also an imperial proconsul, in fact if not yet in name. He became First Consul a few years later, after a military coup in 1799. In 1804 Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor.

The map of Europe was permanently changed by Napoleon’s wars. The Holy Roman Empire was destroyed. The republics of Genoa and Venice and the free cities in Germany disappeared. But the dicatorship of  Bonaparte was also a disaster for the French people. The institutions 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. This brutal empire ended  in military ruin:

"In 1812 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."

Many nations have tried to impose their leadership upon the world. In every case the result has been the same. Napoleon's empire was not the first one to fall. It will not be the last one. There exists, of course, quite a different way to strive for greatness, but Napoleon did not even consider it. "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 favour of the rule of law." 


     Also recommended  Irving Babbitt: Democracy and Leadership