The Napoleonic Experience

Contemporary Views of Napoleon

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Contemporary Views of Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte was a legend even before he died, and his death did nothing to diminish his stature in history. Those around him in his final days almost immediately published their version of his story, including his British physician Edward O'Meara, who complained of the petty persecutions directed by his own government against his patient. Although Napoleon did not himself write memoirs, he provided ample material for those close to him to do so.

In part, the memory of Napoleon was also shaped by his adoption of many liberal principles during the brief Hundred Days interlude. The prime example was the Constitution of 1815, written by Benjamin Constant. Although most doubt the sincerity of Napoleon's commitment to liberalism, his ideas did inspire some to take the gamble of giving him their support, and it left the image of a "Napoleon of the people" in some minds. The peasantry of northern France, in particular, who liked the pageantry of the regime and the high wages for rural labor caused by the wars, would remember the Napoleonic epoch fondly as a time of glory and prosperity.

Among the most perceptive commentators on Napoleon were those in the liberal opposition. Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant both sought to understand Napoleon's appeal and his effects on revolutionary and republican France. They disliked many aspects of his personality and rule but also recognized that his charismatic style of government had fundamentally changed the rules of politics. Even his most determined enemies, such as the English, could not suppress a sneaking admiration for his accomplishments. And for some in the lower classes, he seemed a welcome change from boring run-of-the-mill monarchs.

Although many, both within and outside France, opposed Napoleon's repressive government and imperialist ambitions, they would nonetheless find it difficult to deny that he cut an extraordinary figure. Anyone born before 1830 or even 1840, especially in France, would have grown up with the legend of Napoleon all about them, in stories, in songs, and in widely reprinted popular engravings. Leading politicians and artists of the nineteenth century worked in his shadow. Even the most convinced republicans could not help feeling nostalgic about some aspect of the Napoleonic experience.

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