Friday, December 2, 2011

Emperor Napoleon I, Some Thoughts

It was on this day in 1804 that Napoleon Bonaparte, formerly First Consul of France, was formally crowned Emperor of the French in a lavish ceremony at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, in the sight of Pope Pius VII. The coronation itself was a grand spectacle, meant to invoke memories of Imperial Rome as well as the Frankish Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne. No expense was spared and the scene represented the height of glory for the new Emperor Napoleon I. Desiring the classical and medieval trappings, Napoleon was still egocentric enough to grab the imperial crown (which they named the Crown of Charlemagne, though of course it wasn’t) from the hands of the Pope and place it on his head himself. Some say this was a surprise, others maintain that the Pope had to have known this was the plan all along. In any event, even with the sumptuous paintings left to us, it would be hard to imagine what a magnificent sight this was. Napoleon intended the occasion to be the cornerstone of a new Napoleonic national mythology. That it certainly was as his nephew, Louis Napoleon III, later used the same date for his own adoption of the imperial title in 1852. One cannot help but wonder, if on that day in 1804, as Pope Pius VII solemnly called out in Latin, “May the Emperor live forever” (using the traditional Roman phrase) if Napoleon thought for a moment about how far he had come from his obscure, middle class origins on the island of Corsica.

Dealing with the legacy of Napoleon can be difficult even today and most people familiar with the subject, be they French or foreign, have very strong opinions on the subject of the “Little Corporal”. Was he a usurper or a deliverer? Yes. Was he a warmonger or a man of vision? Yes. Was he a cruel tyrant or a devoted patriot? Again, the answer is “yes”. Napoleon is one of those figures I have a hard time with because I am able to offend both his most ardent admirers and his most bitter enemies. However, I have found that I have been able to learn a lot about people by their reaction to the subject. For example, even though I am certainly not a Bonapartist, those who are Bonapartists are usually less upset with me than those who despise the man. This is just my own experience of course, but from what I have seen the difference is this: most supporters of Napoleon I have come across are willing to concede that the man had his faults whereas the enemies of Napoleon I have come across, more often than not, are unwilling to concede that he had any redeeming qualities at all. In other words, most of his enemies hate him far more than his supporters admire him. Supporters will admit that he made mistakes while detractors refuse to acknowledge any benefits at all to his rule of France.

That is all I can deduce from the fact that there is less anger between myself and Bonapartists even though I am a royalist than there is between myself and other royalists even though I count myself among them when you get right down to it. Perhaps I will be given some new feedback this time as I address the subject (a subject I plan to address further in the future; both empires) but so far I have only been confirmed in most of my observances of how predictable certain groups can be. There are certain subjects I can address, even in the most bland, vague and impartial way possible and yet will always elicit the predicted response. As a pan-monarchist, I consider it a pity that whether the subject is English monarchs post-1688, Spanish monarchs post-1833, Popes post-1958, any of the Italian monarchs or any of the French monarchist camps and so on and so forth, not only will there be opposition voiced but strident, adamant and unalterable opposition. Of course, the one big common denominator in all of these touchy subjects is the issue of Catholicism. [content edited out concerning squabbling Catholics as your humble blogger struggles to learn patience]

Catholicism is, of course, a major source of the opposition many have to Napoleon, so we might as well start there. For Catholics, the old Kingdom of France was a sacred thing, the “Eldest Daughter of the Church”, the cornerstone of Christendom and the Kings of France, fallibly human as all are bound to be, occupied an almost semi-divine office. Napoleon, and there is no getting around this fact, was a usurper. He denied the accusation himself of course; the Revolution had brought down the monarchy long before he appeared on the scene in the halls of power, yet he was occupying a position which he had no ancient, hereditary right to. Royalists looked at Napoleon and his relatively humble Corsican origins and saw simply an upstart, a poseur, an uncivilized provincial exalting himself well above his proper station in life. All of which, again, is perfectly true. And, because France is so special, his takeover of France was not just politically incorrect but downright blasphemous. Nor did Napoleon help his cause by taking the Pope prisoner at one point, invading Italy, annexing the Papal States and occupying Rome. Although not as vicious as the revolutionaries, he also suppressed Catholic royalists who rose up against him. All of this is true and all reasons why I could never be a Bonapartist. Outside of France he upset the balance of power, played havoc with the politics of Europe and instigated devastating wars that had far-reaching consequences long after they were over.

So, Napoleon=bad guy, simple enough; right? Not so fast devoted royalist! Napoleon may not have been the legitimate authority for France but he was a far better authority than what went before him. It was Napoleon who finally ended the French Revolution and all the horrors that went with that. He did, after so many years of nightmarish suffering, restore law and order, peace and stability and some sense of normalcy to the life of France. For me, the revolutionary republic was an absolute evil and it was Napoleon, with his elevation to the status of Emperor of the French, who finally did away with that monstrosity. His regime may not have been what I would consider ideal, but I certainly consider it preferable to the republic. Napoleon, for all his antagonism with the Papacy, also restored normalcy to the Church-State relationship in France so that the Church was once again able to carry out its duty which was not (sadly to some of us) promoting royalist government but administering the sacraments and preaching the gospel of Christ. Again, it was certainly not an ideal position from my point of view, but the Church was just as certainly better off under Emperor Napoleon than it had been under the republic. And, despite all the problems, even the Pope did finally make his peace with him.

Napoleon was a force to be reckoned with and he became a fact of life that all the powers had to either defeat or accept and defeating him was no small chore. His brother Louis was an admirable King of Holland, one of his marshals was elected King of Sweden (founding a dynasty that continues to this day) and even his greatest continental rival, the Empire of Austria, agreed to a marriage alliance with him. Tsar Paul I of Russia (who I have a bit of a soft spot for) who was as ardent a monarchist as anyone could be, and a stickler for legitimacy, ultimately went from being the most avowed enemy of Napoleonic France to being rather friendly toward them as Napoleon put the revolution behind him and began taking France in a more traditional, monarchist direction. I can never forgive Napoleon for his spreading of republicanism early in his career, yet it is also true that he became just as much an advocate of monarchy, albeit a new kind of monarchy. Today it is not much thought of but, across Europe and even into Latin America, the legacy of that Napoleonic style of monarchy was also to become quite popular for a time and that cannot be ignored.

None of this, to reiterate, is quite enough to make me a Bonapartist. Like many, my attachment to the ancien regime is too strong for that. Yet, it is still enough to anger many that I can understand why Napoleon was so popular in his time and why his memory evokes a sense of nostalgia for many in France even to this day. This is hard for some people (very much a minority I think) to understand who are so anti-nationalist that they have no sense at all of the tug on ones heart for their home and native land, regardless of the politics of the time. Those who feel no attachment at all to their native soil will never understand this argument, but I am certainly not one of them and even before I gave much thought to the political issues, religious issues or the issues of legitimacy I could understand why Napoleon would be an attractive figure to a great many people in France. The draw was, to put it in a single word, “gloire”.

Napoleon, for all else he did, made France great. From the horror and chaos of the French Revolution, he galvanized the public, built the Grande Armee and after an era which had known many French defeats, he crushed the armies of the enemies of France, expanded French rule and dominated Europe for a considerable period of time. He made France, for the first time since probably the long reign of King Louis XIV, the most powerful nation on the continent and, to a degree, perhaps the preeminent world power of the time. Naturally, for that very reason one could not expect the British, Spanish, Dutch or Austrians to have an impartial view of the man but also for that very reason I can understand how it would be rather difficult for a proud Frenchman, regardless of politics, not to look back on the Napoleonic era without just a little bit of pride at what France accomplished under his rule. In the end, his ambition and overreaching got the better of him, but for quite some time he changed the perception of France in the world. Even if that perception was not always one of admiration, he had at least changed it from one of horror and disgust to one of fear or even a little healthy respect.

As for myself, Napoleon occupies a position similar to a few other “strongmen” of history; not the ideal but an improvement and certainly better than the only other alternative at the time. I have a real problem with self-promoted “royalty” but, unlike many others, Napoleon managed to achieve a record of great success for a fair amount of time before being overwhelmed by the enemies surrounding him. In this, he was no mere victim; by his own actions he made it almost impossible for any of the great powers to ever trust him. However, he did end the revolution, he ended the republican era and he did, for a time, make things in France better. I oppose him for his efforts to destroy other nations near and dear to my heart but I also acknowledge that he brought to France an almost unprecedented level of greatness and I could not hold anger on any Frenchman for being rather proud of that fact. Although it can never be known for sure, I am also willing to entertain the possibility that his rule might have been necessary. Given the rather short life of the subsequent restorations of the Kingdom of France (and the short-lived Kingdom of the French as well) it may have been that the Revolution had simply produced an atmosphere in which the traditional monarchy simply could not function and only a regime like the Empire of Napoleon could have kept the country on an even keel after so many bridges had been burned. I would hate to think that was a certainty, but I must regard it as a possibility. And so, as it stands today, I look back on the good and the bad of Napoleonic France and while realizing I could never be a full blown Bonapartist, when looking at the fractured monarchist camp, legitimist, Orleanist and Bonapartist (although I have my own preference of course) my policy remains one of “ABR” - Anything But the Republic.


  1. Vivat, Vivat, Vivat in Aeternum!
    Happy Consecration Day to all, from your resident Bonapartist. Or, as it was called in earlier days, Saint-Napoleon Day (interesting story there).

    Pretty much what I expected of you, Mad Monarchist. A well considered approach from a forgiving angle. A few things though, one could hardly pass up this opportunity to spread the cause around!

    The consecration (and not coronation) actually involved no snatching. If you look behind Empress Josephine on David's painting, you see Murat holding a cushion, on which the crown would have rested. It is popular myth to say the Emperor snatched his crown (though it is certainly an apt metaphor and a poetic image - I am not one to spoil people's fun with legend).

    I have in my time come up with some (to me) debatable arguments for the "legitimacy" of the Napoleonic French Empire, and I'll note that many other monarchies owe their existence to Napoleon. The Austrian Empire, the Kingdom of Bavaria, the Kingdom of Wurttemberg, and more indirectly the popular monarchies of Europe and Latin America of later years, that you did mention. Also, the Kingdom of Sweden would not have its current dynasty without him. It's an interesting matter, that I've often thought about.

    You are quite right in saying that the greatest appeal that Napoleon had was "la Gloire". Very few people can stir up that sort of greatness, and I count France lucky to have had more than one.

    As for Napoleon's Catholicism, he tended to be a little inconsistent with it, but I have read enough to conclude that he was, at heart and at the end, a true Catholic. His relationship with the Church was no more strenuous than previous Holy Roman Emperors or Kings of France.

    There is simply so much to cover, and I was waiting for you to get to Napoleon to call your attention to my blog, which you can find by looking at my profile. Yours is the inspiration of course, and there are only so many options for alliterative titles. I had some posts on it at an earlier time, but I've been waiting for this anniversary to start afresh, so if anyone here is interested in a Bonapartist monarchist perspective on things, it's the only blog I know of.

    But I won't waste time and space self-advertising. Thanks at last, Mad Monarchist, for covering the Emperor.

  2. Let me know when you start posting and I'll put a link up.

  3. This is exactly how I feel about the highly esteemed Napoléon; I don't despise him but at the same time I would prefer the Bourbon dynasty over his, but his military conquests were some things France would definitely be proud of. Asides from that he ended the whole bloody mess of a revolution that preceded France before, although when there is enough chaos, there has to be a leader that emerges, and Napoléon was the one. I read someplace about one of his brothers Lucien actually helping him get to that position or something, though I do not know enough and will be reading more on that. Pride comes before the fall, and Napoléon just went too far, and then failed in Russia. Whoops. But I remember a particular episode, when after his first exile he sneaks back to France, confronting a whole army. He bares his shirt and tells the army "Whoever wants to shoot his Emperor shoot him now!", to which all the men went "Vive l'Empereur!". That period was the Hundred Days... until the infamous Waterloo and his permanent exile to St. Helena, MUCH too distant from France.

    Overall I always saw the Bonaparte house as people riddled with secular moral values (like marital infidelity) but each with their own distinctive characteristics. Napoléon rose due to his skillful military skills but none of his siblings nor his nephew could emulate his example, but Louis Napoléon would gain popular support by using his uncle's name and appealing to the glorious memories of him. They all thought he would bring back the glory his uncle did to France, but Louis Napoléon certainly was not his uncle; he was too tender-hearted and did not have enough military experience. I suppose he was better off as a crafty politician, but his poor diplomacy skills, flip-flopping and ultimately the "Liberal Empire" stage all led to his undoing. Speaking of which, are you covering Napoléon III anytime soon? He played an important role in a lot of the politics that took place in the mid 19th century, such as Italian unification, American Civil War, etc... and I just realised you covered Empress Eugénie someplace and I'll be reading that. She definitely broke the whole stereotype of "worldly Bonapartes", and I do respect her intense piety, even if I am not Catholic.

    I wonder how Napoléon IV would have been as an emperor... he seemed like a good guy. What a shame he had to fall from the Zulus and cause his mother so much grief afterwards. But now that begs the question; who should claim the throne of France? There were a lot of opportunities for the monarchy to be restored, but it just never happened due to infighting and other factors. I still don't understand why the whole Tricolore issue was even an issue that prevented the Comte d'Chamford to be restored... it bugs me to this day :/

  4. I will cover Napoleon III at some point. I have talked about him in relation to Italy and Mexico (and will on Vietnam) and there are two profiles on Eugenie -she's one of my favorites. As to who should be monarch of France, of course I have my preference but any would be better than the republic and I would consider the Duke of Anjou, Count of Paris or even a new Emperor as a vast improvement.

    As for the flag, it was really a symbolic question about a deeper issue. Was France to reject the Revolution and be a traditional Catholic kingdom or make some compromise with the Revolution and be a more modern sort of limited monarchy. That was the real issue -what the flags represented and that is an issue which French monarchists have still not fully resolved, nor do I expect them to any time soon given current attitudes.

  5. Interestingly, 1956 was the last time France almost became a monarchy when Mollet proposed a union with UK.

  6. If you want to go ahead and link, you can, I've got a post up and another two planned for the near future - a week or so. It won't be daily, as I had originally intended, but more frequent than once a month. Possibly once or twice a week.

  7. Alright, the link is up now and I've added another pic/link to the sidebar for those interested in Napoleonic-related posts I've done here.

  8. Very fair, balanced and informative write-up

    Any sensible person would have to agree with the viewpoint expressed.

    The ABR is perfect. The Republic has been a
    nitemare from the start and only sunk to new

    I think a poll said that only 3 % of French Catholics attend Mass now ?
    It's not by accident. It's because of the Masonic and other secular principles being
    forced on people for 140 years, since 1870.

    Morals are terrible ; there is no common goal, no vision for society ; Zionist leaders like Sarkozcy are "elected".
    Closely interlinked with suspicious international financial circles, he represents the bankers' interests not the French peoples.
    This would NOT have happened under ANY monarchy
    with teeth.

    Myself, I lean toward the Bonapartists and good examples of Bourbons but dislike
    the "progressive" Orleanists intensely! -

    As I have said before, I much admire Charles X,
    who was important enough to Heaven to have an entire
    vision of his sad overthrow given to St Catherine Laboure. Then, too, Our Lady predicted to the novice nun the end of the
    French Second Empire in so many words.
    So Heaven clearly was watching out for the fortunes of Royal and Imperial France !
    How often has this happened in European history?

    A sidenote was that when given a chance to ask Sister Lucia of Fatima about what the Queen of Heaven had said to her in 1917, an American priest
    eagerly pressed to know :
    "Did she say anything about the United States?"
    -- showing the usual egocentric attitude here ! --

    Sister Lucia couldn't stop from laughing a little, as it was such a naive question.
    "No," she said, "Our Lady never mentioned the
    United States of America" --

    Anyway, I will look at this new blog mentioned,
    thanks for link provided.
    As well as attempt to catch up over the vacation on many posts here.
    This site is really a gold mine.


  9. In on this very late, but I agree with A. Nicot, and enjoyed your post.

    Napoléon I is often taxed with upsetting the balance of power in Europe, but there were certainly other powers which contributed.

    Oddly enough, I think the Emperor's greatest error was in trying to do something many would consider good -- namely resurrection of the Polish state in the form of the Duchy of Warsaw. This embroiled the French in eastern Europe forever, and ensured that none of the three other continental great powers (Prussia, Russia, Austria) would ever accept the French Empire, or the status quo that Napoleon I constructed in western Europe (France on the left bank of the Rhine, the Kingdom of Italy and the Confederation of the Rhine).

    Had the Emperor stayed out of Poland (and let the three other powers stew over it) and west of the Elbe, and tried for a serious alliance with Austria rather than Russia (I've always thought the Illyrian Provinces were tradeable for that) he'd have probably died on the throne. It was always in the Hapsburg interest to keep Prussia and Poland down, if they were thinking straight. Napoleon should have tried harder there.

    Russia had no incentive whatever to stick to its alliance with him, (it depended too much on British trade), and Prussia was probably irreconcilable also -- if giving them Hanover in 1803 couldn't bribe them, nothing could.

  10. Here is where you and I will always differ, I am at most, a constitutional monarchist. I think, for example, Saudi Arabia is a great example of what monarchy should not be. I think Norway, Belgium, or even Britain is the best example. I'm a leftist, yes, so I think the common man should be able to serve as Prime Minister. Hate me.

    If I had to restore a monarchical lineage in France, I'd say Bonaparte. The Bourbons rule in Spain, they should be contempt there. As for other European states, sure, restore their old lineages, but keep them constitutional. I don't want a monarch to be in complete charge of anything. Let them a symbol of unity, national strength, and hope. Also, keep the kingdoms a democracy. As for the Pope, (going to give my opinions once). He should stay where he is. In my opinion, the Vatican should be liquidated, and the Pope and Italy should negotiate a little power in the current Vatican for him. Bad grammar I guess. :P

  11. Hi Mad Monarchist! I really love your excellent write ups but forgive me for asking this. You seem very reasonable and intelligent so I just can't fathom why a person such as yourself would align with the outdated ideals of monarchism. No offense of course, I'm just really curious.


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