Political Leadership: Napoleon
A study in political leadership: Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the most contentious and polarising figures in world history. Some historians such as J David Markham and David P Jordan believe him to be the epitome of the revolutionary struggles that preceded him and indeed the natural continuation of the French Revolution. Others such as Paul Johnson and Claude Ribbe see Napoleon as an autocratic ruler who not only used and abused the French Revolution but also proceeded to rule in a totalitarian manner. These contrasting views do, to some extent, illustrate how adept Napoleon was as a political leader. In changing and unsettled conditions that called for both a strong leader and paradoxically the lessons of the Revolution of representation by plebiscite and the throwing away of the ‘Ancien Regime’, Napoleon was in effect able to straddle both divides so successfully it is still difficult to get to the bottom of his leadership. I will show how through Napoleons skill, hard work, intelligence and even luck, he was not only able to straddle this divide but set and achieve his goals in every area of French society and government, and indeed Europe.
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Most people know Napoleon by the wars that bear his name in the early 19th century, the fatalities caused by these and the Empire he built. It is clear that Napoleon had aims which were military by design and goals which could only be carried out by military ends and though these are clearly an integral part of his leadership, it is important to note that his social and political tasks were as important, if not more significant, when looking at Napoleon as a political leader. It is the social and political aspects of his rule that I shall focus on.
Napoleon’s swift ascent to power, in 1799, on the back of the French Revolutions successes and ultimately it’s failures, found France in a weak position both internally and in Europe. The Revolution had introduced such massive change in social and political arenas from that of the ‘Ancien Regime’, that France did not have a workable position on every aspect of life in France from the economy, education and government to the church. There were hostile nations eyeing the French land in its moment of weakness, especially Austria and Prussia, which only served to hasten the need for internal workings. Napoleon therefore had two key tasks in front of him – which themselves incorporated multiple key goals – make France workable again and keep France and its territories secure from hostile states. As Markham declares, “France was looking for someone who could preserve the benefits of the Revolution while bringing credibility back to government”
Napoleon was very clever in his leadership in that he did not have an overbearing ideology, differing with both the revolutionaries and the ‘Ancien Regime’ and with this he had an exceptional understanding of where he needed to position himself to not only remain strong in his own position, but to build a strong France and Empire, as Dwyer states:
“Napoleon eliminated the factionalism that had torn the country apart… The introduction of a unified code of law… monetary and financial reforms and the Concordat with the Catholic Church… Were all designed to create the social, economic and political stability necessary to consolidate and maintain power.”
The results of this meant that the positions Napoleon took on the domestic issues at hand are remarkable in essence to that of Tony Blair and the ‘third way’ doctrine. As Norman Davies states, “The eventual offspring (of Napoleons legislative agenda) often consisted of strange hybrid creatures, neither ancien fish nor revolutionary fowl.”
For instance the Revolution dismantled all hereditary titles and classed every citizen as the same, Napoleon however created his own hierarchical system based on merit, thus at the same time creating the much-needed stability of the time without betraying everything that the Revolution stood for. Indeed the ‘Code Napoleon’, the grand law system Napoleon created was, as Davies says, “a middle path between the Roman law of the south and the customary law of the north, between egalitarian principles of 1789 and authoritarian, propertied reaction of the Directory.” Further pointing out Napoleons success is Emsley in ‘Napoleon’:
“Napoleon Brought internal stability to France after the upheaval of the revolution. He fostered reconciliation between old and new elites and restored the Catholic Church – on his own terms. The 15 years of Napoleons rule witnessed significant reorganisation within France.”
It is clear then that Napoleon did succeed in his goals of creating a stable and strong France capable of governing and maintaining its position – in fact expanding it’s position – on the world stage. However it is simply not enough to state what ideology – or lack thereof – Napoleon followed in determining what kind of political leader he was. It is important to state how he worked in creating his legislative agenda and how effective this was in his political leadership throughout his rule.
Napoleon is fabled for his long hours and incredible ability to not only dictate multiple memos and letters, legislation and law, at the same sitting for vast periods of time but for also using vast quantities of information accurately from the top of his head.
“He (Napoleon) was extremely hard working and able… When in Paris he was known regularly to work through much of the night, going to bed at 10pm, rising at 2am… His days in Paris were then filled with meetings, readings and correcting documents and receiving petitions, with food being eaten while he was standing or on the move. His insatiable thirst for, ability to absorb, knowledge enabled him to discuss science with scientists, and to debate, at high level and with experts, history, geography, literature… He expected regular reports… and he read them.”
Napoleons clear controlling nature and ambition does provide strength in his political leadership. A strength in so much as that it is this mans desire and drive which not only got him to his goals but enabled him to ensure that things were being run the way he envisioned them, the right way. This way of dealing with leadership could be down to the good fortune that Napoleon undoubtedly seemed to gain during his career both on the way up and while in power, as Markham puts it, “Some… have suggested that he (Napoleon) simply had incredible luck and was always at the right place at the right time. The latter was certainly often true… The trip to Egypt come(s) to mind.” But this sense of good fortune and wanting to make the most of it may not be the reason for Napoleons controlling way in power. Before he gained power his ambition and jealousy of those in power at the time is widely quoted, “I wish to undermine the Republican party, but only for my own profit and not that of the ancient dynasty… As for me… I have tasted authority and I will not give it up. I have decided that if I cannot be the master I will leave France.” It would seem then that the seeds for his controlling and overbearing nature as a political leader were sewn before he even encountered power.
This leads on to both his clear weakness and ultimately his failure as a political leader. Not only the insistence on controlling and influencing all aspects of the legislative agenda but then the tight grip he held those implementing the agendas in, meant that as Johnson states, “He (Napoleon) could not rule on a long-term basis. No one has ever been faster than he was at overturning existing governments, setting up new administrations, and imposing constitutions to fit them. None lasted more than a few years, some only a few months… It always bore hallmarks of his impatience and his lack of tenacity in sustaining the long haul.” It would seem paradoxical that though his great task and success was bringing stability and competence in the management of French affairs at home, as the Empire grew, so did the inability in controlling it all. This is probably understandable when you look at some occasions where this controlling nature is highlighted such as, “In one week, shortly after becoming Viceroy of Italy, Eugene de Beauharnais received 21 letters providing advice and instructions, some of them running to several pages (from Napoleon).” It is precisely this level of detail and control that helped make France so strong and stable, which ultimately made the control of the empire so uncontrollable and unstable.
The lack of heirs to manipulate and have ready to follow him in power may well have been part of this weakness in his leadership. It is hard to imagine he would have pressed so hard, so long for an empire as big as he did if he understood that he had someone he could mould into his place and watch continue his work, this too might have compounded his controlling nature. The fact that the siblings he had, after he put them into power in differing nations, his brother Joseph in Spain for instance, let him down so miserably in the majority of cases, could have contributed in this regard as well. All this leads to his political and military overstretching which would eventually lead to his downfall.
Part of the legacy of Napoleon, as much as a tool for his control over both the people of France and the empire, and a continuation of his character as a political leader, was his great ability in propaganda. “Nothing lies like a Napoleonic bulletin.” Is a common understanding of the power Napoleon had in the art of getting the masses and the elite to understand and support what he wanted them to understand and support, a lot of what we would call ‘spin’ nowadays, just as much as propaganda. Markham explains the role Napoleon used propaganda in effectively:
“In media-centred times… we take for granted advertising and propaganda… In Napoleon’s lifetime, such self-promotion was not nearly so widespread… Napoleon, however, realised the value of such activities and was quick to use them to promote his rise to power. His proclamations, bulletins and letters to the government were all written with his own interests in mind… His Italian and Egyptian campaigns became, in the eyes of the public, crusades of good against evil, those of an enlightened hero against the barbarians.”
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So not only was he a political leader of great ambition, confidence, intelligence, hard work, luck and control but also a leader who knew how to use new techniques and harness them for his and the nations own ends. Like many leaders however it was many of these same qualities that brought so much glory, which also brought the end. The overt confidence and control, pushing the hard working man to pursue too much, too soon without doubting, or allowing those around him to question enough, the merits of certain decisions.
Why I mention propaganda as a part of Napoleons legacy is because Napoleon used it as such throughout his time in power, via portraits, sculptures and even after he left power through the written word in his autobiography. “Napoleon had always been conscious of how to best portray himself and his achievements… Napoleon manipulated the arts and the media towards his personal glory… Artists were commissioned and prizes were offered for works celebrating key moments of his career. Historical accuracy was less important than the image presented in both paintings and sculptures.” To a large extent this clever way of trying to secure a legacy has worked. When looking at Napoleon we undoubtedly think of pictures and paintings we have seen. For some people seeing Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ portrait of Napoleon on the imperial throne or the famous image of Napoleon crossing the Alps by Jacques Louis David, is all they have to go on, Napoleon from these images looks very much how he wanted to be remembered, a successful, dashing, Emperor.
There are other aspects of course to his legacy, one major part being that he brought Europe, especially what we now call Germany and central Europe, not only up to date in terms of the political and social institutions inside the nations, but also economically as well. On top of this before Napoleon controlled mainland Europe with his Empire, Europe was made up of many, often splintered, states. After Napoleon left power for good in 1815, the face of Europe looked completely different. The state structure, divided up by the Allies, was completely different and much of the current state system is therefore part of Napoleon’s legacy. For instance “Thomas Nipperdey began his acclaimed history of nineteenth-century Germany with the words ‘In the beginning was Napoleon.’”
The other significant legacy Napoleon left was the ‘Code Napoleon’, the sets of laws, governing system and administration. As Emsley states, “The administrative system and structures that were to govern France for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were essentially those that emerged during the Consulate.” And you can see exactly why the ‘Code Napoleon’ did survive, “The universal rights of citizenship, and of equality before the law, were confirmed. In family law, civil marriage and divorce were retained… This Code has profoundly influenced the social development of at least thirty countries.”
It is clear that Napoleon Bonaparte was a very astute and complex political leader and also one of great importance. Napoleons determination and ambition to succeed may well have been the reason behind both his rise and fall. “Few individuals have had more impact on history than Napoleon Bonaparte. He is the grandest possible refutation of those determinists who hold that events are governed by forces, classes, economics, and geography rather than by the power of wills of men and women… Few persons of ambition have failed to see Bonaparte as an exemplar or a spur.” Though I do not agree with all the sentiments in the last quote, I agree with the latter. The sheer brilliance of the man, who, however you look at it has come from a background of mediocrity and middle class, to rule France in a way which benefited both himself, his nation and Europe as a whole, is an inspiring example certainly to me. His genius is of course exceptional, but the attention to detail, the hard working mentality and the ability to successfully negotiate a tough balancing act, is equally as inspiring. He clearly had some flaws both personally and politically but I take my inspiration not so much from every policy he passed but what attitude he held, and that is nothing but inspiring.
Davies, Norman (1997) Europe – A History. Pimlico.
Dwyer, Philip G. – edited by – (2001) Napoleon and Europe. Pearson Education.
Dwyer, Philip G. and Forrest, Alan – edited by – (2007) Napoleon and his Empire – Europe, 1804-1814. Palgrave Macmillan.
Emsley, Clive (2003) Napoleon – Conquest, Reform and Reorganisation. Pearson Education.
Johnson, Paul (2002) Napoleon. Phoenix.
Markham, J. David (2003) Napoleon’s Road to Glory – Triumphs, Defeats and Immortality. Brassey’s.
McLynn, Frank (1997) Napoleon – A Biography. Pimlico.
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