The first Emperor of France who conquered much of Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) was one of the greatest military commanders in history. He was also a reformer whose progressive—for his time—code laid a foundation for civil law in France and beyond.
President of the International Napoleonic Society, J. David Markham is a historian and Napoleonic scholar who has written and lectured extensively about the Emperor’s life. In 2014, France appointed him Knight of the Order of the Academic Palms (Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes académiques)—the highest academic award given by the French government.
Simply Charly: Your website mentions that along with Napoleon, you’ve also studied Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar—all three famous leaders and conquerors. What sort of traits did these three men share? Was Napoleon in any way inspired by the two?
J. David Markham: All three men, and especially Napoleon and Caesar, were far more than the one-dimensional images we often have of them as simply great military leaders. All three were also masterful politicians who understood that one must attempt to win the “hearts and souls” of those from whom you expect loyalty. Alexander famously became more and more Persian, much to the dismay of his soldiers. Caesar granted citizenship to a wide range of conquered people in the Roman Empire and gave his soldiers generous retirement benefits and land grants. Caesar and Napoleon were also excellent public administrators who brought numerous reforms to their respective people. Indeed, that is one reason Caesar was murdered. Napoleon was a great student of history and was well aware of Alexander and Caesar and their legacy. When he, as a young general, went on campaign in Egypt and the Holy Land, he saw himself as something of a “New Alexander.” He brought many savants with him to learn more about this mysterious country, much like Alexander sent flora and fauna samples back to his tutor, Aristotle. He probably had some dreams of continuing his march to the east as well. And his administrative abilities and reforms, as well as his ability to relate to his soldiers and common people very much mirror Caesar.
SC: In addition to your scholarly work, you’re also very well-known for your collection of Napoleonic art. What were Napoleon’s artistic tastes, and how did his reign impact the neo-classical art scene?
JDM: Napoleon had relatively conservative, traditional artistic tastes, including in music, theater, and decorative arts. He deliberately set out to create a Consulate and then Empire Style that followed the style of the Roman Empire. Indeed, he hired two French architects and designers, Charles Percier, and Pierre Fontaine, to create the designs, and the two had success beyond what could have been expected. From furniture, chandeliers, lamps to other decorative arts, a very distinguishable style emerged, one that remains popular to this day (my own condo is filled with period Empire furniture and decorative arts, including my major collection of Napoleonic snuff boxes). In painting, he preferred neo-classical works of Jacques-Louis David and others who popularized the style while also drawing clear comparisons between Napoleon and Julius Caesar. In 1801, Percier and Fontaine published a folio size book, Recueil de décorations intérieures comprenant tout ce qui a rapport a l’ameublement, comme vases, trépieds, candelabres, cassolettes, lustres, girandoles, lampes, chandeliers, cheminées, feux, poêles, pendules, tables, secrétaires, lits, canapés, fauteuils, chaises, tabourets, miroirs, ecrans, &c., &c., &c. that contained countless engravings of their work. The 1812 edition, which was the first to include text, is in my personal library.
SC: Popular culture remembers Napoleon primarily for his height and as the namesake for the “Napoleon complex.” What would you say are some common misconceptions regarding Napoleon’s life and legacy? How did these come to develop?
JDM: Oh, where to begin!! Let’s start with some simple misconceptions. He is often seen with his hand in his jacket or shirt, and many assume he was always running around like that. He didn’t have a stomachache or cancer and, contrary to a Starbucks poster I once had, he wasn’t holding a demitasse under his coat. This was a popular pose that allowed painters to avoid painting hands and fingers! I’ve even seen a painting of George Washington in that pose. As to his height, the evidence is that he was around 5’6” or 5’7”—about average for French men of his day. Another common misconception is that he started all these awful “Napoleonic Wars.” In fact, there were seven coalitions against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, as the old regimes of Europe couldn’t stand to have anyone other than a Bourbon king running France. Was he a megalomaniac bent on ruling the world? Hardly. He sought peace at every turn and was generally generous to those whom he defeated (not that that ever kept them from joining yet another coalition against him). Was he a dictator, and absolute ruler who ruled with an iron hand? Well, no. Sure, in times of war he had very strong powers, but in running the country he had various executive and legislative bodies with which he had to contend, and he did not always get his way. And finally, he was not an egomaniac who arrogantly crowned himself Emperor, much to the surprise and dismay of the Pope. That was a deliberate action, planned with the full knowledge of the Pope, and was designed to show that he was emperor based on his own talents, not because of pontifical approval. This was meant to undo the damage done by Charlemagne in 800 when he allowed the Pope to crown him Holy Roman Emperor, thus suggesting that he served at the pleasure of the Pope.
How did these misconceptions develop? Well, largely due to British propaganda of the time and since. Caricature artists made him out to be all of those things and more, and British historians have kept up the drumbeat ever since, aided and abetted by modern writers such as Alan Schom. Napoleon was not perfect, and not every decision was made with the purest of intentions, but he was nowhere near the ogre from Corsica that some would have you believe!
SC: There has been a considerable amount of academic controversy surrounding Napoleon’s death. Do you believe the original autopsy report, that Napoleon died of stomach cancer, or do you believe he was poisoned?
JDM: While there may never be any absolute proof of the cause of death, I believe that there is very compelling evidence that suggests he was poisoned.
SC: What was the state of France around the time that Napoleon came to power? How did the French Revolution influence Napoleon’s ideals and political plans?
JDM: France had just come through a very chaotic period of history. The aftermath of the French Revolution had been a disaster, and the Directoire that followed was corrupt, unstable, and totally incapable of solving the country’s many economic and other problems. Inflation was destroying their currency, their infrastructure was in sharp decline, there was political unrest throughout the country, public safety was dubious at best, and the overall economy was becoming a basket case. France needed a stable leader capable of turning things around, and Napoleon was just the man to do that.
The French Revolution influenced Napoleon in a number of ways, some positive, some not so much. Napoleon witnessed some of the mob actions and grew to fear and distrust such public disturbances. But he was a strong supporter of the Revolution. He especially liked the idea of equality that was promoted by the Revolution and used his power to promote equality for all Frenchmen, famously saying, “in every soldier’s knapsack is a marshal’s baton.” He practiced what he preached, granting religious freedom wherever he went, especially to Jews, and reforming the educational and legal systems with equality in mind as well. And within a year he had solved France’s economic woes.
SC: One of the fascinating aspects of Napoleon was absolute persistence in the face of adversity. Even after his first defeat and exile, Napoleon escaped the island of Elba and rose to power a second time. What motivated Napoleon’s escape from his first exile? How did he do so?
JDM: Ah, another misconception! By treaty, Napoleon was Emperor of Elba, a reigning sovereign who had the right to travel. True, the British kept an eye on him through the English commissioner, Sir Neil Campbell, but Napoleon was still in charge of the island.
Napoleon was motivated by several factors. For starters, he was getting bored. It is a small island, and the Coalition had refused to reunite him with his wife, Marie-Louise, or even to let her live in Italy where he could have easily visited her. Napoleon also had reason to believe that he was not safe on the island. He had been allowed a personal guard of some 1,000 men, but that hardly constituted an army. Continental Europe and England still feared him, and there were rumors of assassination or perhaps imprisonment, even on one of the feared British hulks used as prisons. Exile to St. Helena or Fort George in northern Scotland was also being talked about at the Congress of Vienna, where his old “friend” Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand was representing France.
Finally, he was starting to go broke. By treaty, Louis XVIII of France was to pay him a pension of two million francs a year, as well as large sums to the rest of his family. But against the express wishes of the Duke of Wellington and other leaders, he refused to pay so much as a single franc.
Ultimately, Napoleon had several choices. He could make a run for the US, he could have moved to Italy (where he had allies and was still popular), or he could try to regain power in France, where he was as popular as the government was becoming unpopular, especially with the army. Napoleon chose the latter option and on February 25, 1815, left Elba, landing in France on March 1. Thus began the “100 Days”—the period between his escape from exile and the return of King Louis XVIII to Paris—and his march to Waterloo and destiny.
SC: Napoleon’s highest claim to fame was his brilliant use of military strategy, which he used to great effect in such battles as Austerlitz and Jena. What were some definitive characteristics of Napoleon’s strategy? In other words, why did he succeed where others might have failed?
JDM: For starters, Napoleon completely reorganized the structure of the French army, based in large part on the Roman legions, each of which was a self-contained fighting unit. Each of Napoleon’s corps had a complete set of artillery, including Napoleon’s specialty, the mobile horse artillery, cavalry, infantry, logistical and support units, an appropriate command staff, and a marshal to command it all. When on a campaign, he tried to have no corps more than a day’s march from another, allowing them to render support fairly quickly.
Napoleon was a consummate reader of maps and made it his business to fully understand all aspects of the terrain on which he would be fighting. He knew his enemy’s strength and every detail of his own, and could move his units like you and I would move chess pieces.
Napoleon was also a great man of action who believed in taking the fight to the enemy rather than playing defense. His army moved rapidly and would often overwhelm an unsuspecting enemy. Napoleon was also very good at massing forces against an enemy’s center, and then turning on one flank and completely destroying it.
There were other aspects of Napoleon’s military genius as well, including logistics, medical care, and even the forerunner to modern canning. But perhaps the X factor was Napoleon’s ability to inspire his soldiers. They knew he had risen to the top based on his talent and very much felt he was one of them. He would remember names, offer snuff, even tweak an ear or two, all of which endeared him to his soldiers and made them more willing to fight for him. Like great Roman generals, including Julius Caesar, he had soldiers fighting for him as much as fighting for France.
SC: Several of your publications focus on Napoleon’s personality: for example, To Befriend An Emperor, for which you wrote the introduction, is a memoir written by Betsy Balcombe, a 14-year-old who befriended Napoleon during his final exile. By your account, what was Napoleon like in his personal life? How did his personality affect his career?
JDM: Napoleon certainly had a complex personality. Outside of work he could be very charming and enjoyed carrying on intellectual conversations, especially with scientists, mathematicians, etc. He enjoyed evenings of amateur theater, the opera, and chess. His charm was mentioned by numerous folks who met him and then wrote about it. He had grey eyes that apparently could be hypnotic. His personality and the way he carried himself allowed him to dominate a room completely. For example, if he entered a ballroom when he was a mere general, all eyes would be on him. And there is the story of when he entered the tent of his generals in the first Italian campaign. They were not happy with his appointment and were determined to keep their hats on, a major violation of protocol. When he entered the tent, they immediately took off their hats. This was the power of his self-confidence. Of course, on St. Helena he showed his playful side with Betsy.
When at work, he was a workaholic. He paid great attention to details. He was very demanding and did not suffer fools gladly. He spent very little time eating, slept relatively little (though he did take naps from time to time). He was loyal to his family and had a sincere desire to improve people’s lives.
SC: Napoleon’s legacy is not only that of a conqueror, but also of a ruler. Of the various legal and political reforms that Napoleon instituted, which do you think had been the most important in the long run?
JDM: I would say that there are several lasting reforms instituted by Napoleon. The most important such reform was undoubtedly the rewriting of the Civil Code, later named the Code Napoleon. There was no consistency in civil law when Napoleon came to power, and he very quickly changed all of that, working with his administrative and legislative councils. It was not perfect, and he didn’t get everything he wanted, but it remains the basis of civil law in France and many other nations, as well as the US state of Louisiana. He also reformed the criminal code.
I’d probably put his educational reforms in second place. He understood that education should serve to unify a country and prepare students to take their place in the middle class, be they civilian, civil servants or military. If, as he said, “in every soldier’s knapsack is a soldier’s baton,” then it would be up to the educational system to give everyone what Napoleon most fundamentally wanted for all French people: equality of opportunity. There are still major aspects of Napoleon’s educational reforms in today’s French educational system.
In third place, I’d suggest Napoleon’s economic reforms. He not only completely turned France’s economy around, but he also established policies that continued far beyond his time in office. The most important of these was establishing the Bank of France, which centralized French monetary and fiscal policy. I believe it was the first such national bank, and in any event, that institution is key to the economic success of many nations.
I’d give honorable mention to his dedication to religious liberty. He insisted that the Catholic Church not be allowed to become the only “official” religion of France once again, but insisted that all religions be allowed to be freely practiced. Even his often misunderstood act of crowning himself emperor was an effort to symbolize that he, and all future French rulers, would rule based on their talents, not a Papal endorsement. And while it cannot be argued that his efforts to liberate Jews from the onerous restrictions eliminated anti-Semitism in Europe, he certainly set an example of an enlightened approach to that topic.
SC: Napoleon’s enemies in France, particularly Republicans and royalists, feared and reviled him as a primarily self-interested tyrant. In your own opinion, was Napoleon a dictator?
JDM: No, of course, he was not a dictator. For one thing, he never really had absolute power in France as he had to deal with a legislature and various administrative counsels. Of course, he was not a modern liberal democrat elected in regular elections, either. But he was exactly what France needed at the time, following years of political, social, and economic instability, made worse by various military coalitions against the French.
Interestingly, the Republicans were not nearly as opposed to Napoleon as one might believe. They recognized the need for stability, and many of his reforms were in keeping with their goals as well. And when Napoleon returned for the 100 Days, Republicans rallied to his cause, wanting nothing to do with the Bourbon Restoration. It was the Bourbon Royalists and their European supporters who were the problem. The Bourbons felt they had a God-given right to rule and would not rest until they were restored to the throne. The old regimes of Europe would not rest until that happened. They were horrified at the French Revolution, as they feared similar uprisings in their own countries (as, in fact, eventually happened). So they, largely bankrolled by England, formed coalition after coalition to defeat first the Revolutionary government and then Napoleon. And when they finally defeated Napoleon, did they offer France a chance to elect a new Republican government? Nope, it was back to the Bourbons, thank you very much.