With the release of Ridley Scott's new film Napoleon, viewers encounter a cinematic version of Napoleon caught up in a tumultuous romance against the backdrop of the upheavals of the Napoleonic wars.
This has revived interest in the French military commander and left many wondering what they are to make of the real, historical Napoleon. For many Americans in the audience—who, unlike Europeans, devote virtually no time to Napoleon in school—this may be the first time they've thought much about Napoleon at all.
Overall, this question certainly isn't new. Napoleon does not have a reputation like Hitler, for example. Even people who have never read a history book in their lives know they're not supposed to like that guy. Nor are we routinely told that Napoleon is benign like, say, George Washington. Rather, Napoleon's legacy remains very much unsettled. Even in France, there is apparently no consensus, as noted in a relatively recent France24 article titeld "Napoléon: Tyrant or genius – or both?" His legacy is "complicated" the Washington Post tells us, and it's unclear in general if we are to regard Napoleon as a hero or a dictator or an agent of "enlightenment."
The question is an important one, of course, because one's views of major historical figures is often an important part of how one views historical questions overall. In America, for instance, someone who views Franklin Roosevelt with great admiration is likely to subscribe to different ideological views than someone who admires Richard Nixon. Similarly, one's ideological views are likely to color—or be colored by—one's views of figures like Lenin, Churchill, Cromwell, Louis XIV, or Bismarck.
Today, pundits and reviewers on both Left and Right still have many kind words to say in favor of Napoleon whenever his legacy is a topic of conversation in the media. Many tout his allegedly enlightened policies as a "modernizer." Conservatives, who are easily impressed by military pomp, often insist Napoleon provides us with a model of impressive masculinity as a general.
From the perspective of the ideology known as classical liberalism (i.e., libertarianism), however, Napoleon's legacy is less ambiguous. Napoleon was a military dictator who implemented a police state in France, and was a proponent of greater state power. War was his chief instrument, conscripting hundreds of thousands of men to carry out his conquests. If viewed from the perspective of freedom, peace, and opposition to state power, it is easy to conclude that Europe would have been better off without Napoleon.
Part of the reason that Napoleon's legacy remains ambiguous to so many is that, in spite of his warmongering and status as a dictator, Napoleon also appears to many as someone who "modernized" Europe by carrying on the "good parts" of the French Revolution. In politics, he centralized state power, opposed the papacy, and crushed many of the old medieval polities of Europe. For modern scholars who still cling to the idea that all things modern are better than all things "medieval," Napoleon's legacy contains much to praise.
For example, we can find a succinct summary of the center-right view in the words of historian Andrew Roberts. Roberts, a Thatcherite neo-conservative, writes that Napoleon should not be remembered for his wars, but for "the Code Napoleon, that brilliant distillation of 42 competing and often contradictory legal codes into a single, easily comprehensible body of French law." Roberts also tells us Napoleon was great because "He consolidated the administrative system based on departments and prefects. He initiated the Council of State, which still vets the laws of France, and the Court of Audit, which oversees its public accounts. He organized the Banque de France..." In other words, Napoleon was great because he expanded the role and power of the central state. The Napoleonic Code, for example, was key in a process that abolished local legal independence and customs in favor of a single centrally-controlled legal apparatus.
In his spree of conquest across Europe, Napoleon helped to centralize power both in France and in foreign polities. Napoleon's conquests in Germany and Italy helped to abolish or weaken decentralized resistance to national unity, paving the way for the German and Italian national states in later decades.
Roberts also tells us Napoleon was great because he was a patron of fine architecture. So, don't bother remembering those countless young men drafted by Napoleon and sent into the meat grinder. Remember, rather, than Napoleon heroically spent tax dollars on some pretty buildings.
A similar assessment comes from lifestyle-magazine magnate Bryan Goldberg who gives us a typical center-left view. For Goldberg, Napoleon ought to be remembered as someone who spent his time "advancing science, sponsoring artists, writing egalitarian codes of laws, and integrating marginalized people into a more enlightened society. "
If so, then Napoleon can perhaps be credited as an early pioneer in the idea of the egalitarian, enlightened police state. Historian Jacques Godechot, for example, labeled Napoleon's regime “perhaps the precursor of the modern police states” and historian Eugen Weber labels the regime a police state without qualification. Napoleon's regime was kind and gentle compared to twentieth-century police states, of course, but there is little reason to praise the regime, either. Michael Sibalis concludes "Napoleon's police nevertheless did exercise tight control over all public expressions of opinion, did pay a network of secret agents to keep the nation under surveillance, and did detain the regime's enemies in special state prisons without charge or trial. In short, they regularly ignored proper judicial procedures and systematically violated the civil rights that the French Revolution had proclaimed..."
Napoleon was an enemy of classical liberalism in other important aspects as well. Napoleon had little respect for free commerce and bourgeois values. Unsurprisingly, Napoleon squandered much of France's wealth on war and government property. As Steven Pinker has put it: "Napoleon, that exponent of martial glory, sniffed at England as 'a nation of shopkeepers.' But at the time Britons earned 83 percent more than Frenchmen and enjoyed a third more calories, and we all know what happened at Waterloo." (Napoleon's authorship of the quote may be apocryphal, but it is nonetheless in character.)
Napoleon had a devastating indirect effect on European liberalism. Since Napoleon marched under the banner of enlightened, egalitarian, "liberal" France, his conquering armies came to be associated with liberalism itself. The long term effect was to turn many against the ideology overall. Historian Ralph Raico notes that classical liberalism had been on the rise in German states during the eighteenth century. But this went into reverse in the nineteenth. Why? Raico contends that "There is no doubt that a major — perhaps the major — reason for the change lies in the political and military history of the period: basically, the attempt of revolutionary France to conquer and rule all of Europe."
By the mid 1790s, Raico writes, "The rights of man, popular sovereignty, the French Enlightenment with its hatred of the age-old traditions and religious beliefs of the European peoples would be imposed by military might. To this end, the victorious, irresistible French armies invaded, conquered, and occupied much of Europe." The end result was resistance to anything associated with the official ideology of the French regime—which, of course, wasn't actually liberal at all. As a result,
In the nature of things, these invading armies, bringing with them an alien ideology, produced hostility and resistance against that ideology, a militant nationalist reaction. That is what happened in Russia and in Spain. Most of all, that is what happened in Germany. Individualism, natural rights, the universalist ideals of the Enlightenment — these became identified with the hated invaders, who subjugated and humiliated the German people. This identification was a burden that liberalism in Germany had to carry from that time on.
As the Americans would repeatedly claim after 1945, Napoleon claimed foreign countries either welcomed invasion—or at least required invasion—in order to embrace enlightenment and equality. Napoleon insisted "the peoples of Germany, as of France, Italy and Spain, want equality and liberal ideas" thus justifying Napoleon's abolition (by conquest) of the old regimes. Not surprisingly, many foreigners didn't appreciate Napoleon's generosity.
Those who buy into the ideas behind America's modern wars for global democracy today might therefore find Napoleon's rationale convincing. For those of us, on the other hand, who actually value self-determination, free markets, peace, and freedom, Napoleon provides little to be admired. He was a despot, a warmonger, a centralist, and a hypocrite who claimed to spread freedom to justify his own lust for conquest and power.
Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is executive editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public policy and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities and Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.
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