Napoleon Bonaparte, to me, is a mysterious, mesmerizing, intoxicating, overblown character. He, like all overblown persons, “over-blew” himself. Carl Jung said of such types that they are egocentric and there is a term for a personality such as Napoleon’s— “inflated.” “An inflated consciousness is always egocentric and inevitably doomed to calamities that must strike them dead.” Napoleon at last shot himself in the foot when he failed to conquer Russia in 1812, which set him on the path toward his downfall.
On the upside, I have to give it to Napoleon. He was eloquent and grand in his rhetoric. It appears he had a great power of persuasion with rousing speeches to his armies. He even turned his eloquence on himself. Jules Bertaut attributes this to Napoleon: “I am the instrument of providence. She will use me as long as I accomplish her designs, then she will break me like a glass.” (Napoleon: In His Own Words (1916) edited by Jules Bertaut, as translated by Herbert Edward Law and Charles Lincoln Rhodes)
Yes, Napoleon “boasted of throwing down to anchor French society—the much-admired legal code, the administrative centralization, the Court of Auditors, the lycées, the public works survive to this day.” (Ferdinand Mount, The New York Review of Books, April 4, 2019, p. 38-40)
He should get credit for expanding the French revolution release of Jews from the ghettos in the lands he took over. He lifted laws that limited Jews’ rights to property, worship, and certain occupations. (Wikipedia Napoleon and the Jews)
Ah, but on the downside, Napoleon, insensitive about slavery, sent his military to the Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue in 1802-1803 to restore slavery and impose French rule. But yellow fever destroyed his army and his plans evaporated. But this did lead to Haitian independence and ultimately the Louisiana Purchase. (Frank M. Snowden. Epidemics and Society, Yale University Press, 2019, p.6.)
And what of the sending off “of droves of cannon fodder on each campaign despite huge casualties and widespread desertions and evasion of the draft?” (Ferdinand Mount)
“…military deaths are invariably put at between 2.5 million and 3.5 million, civilian death tolls vary from 750,000 to 3 million. Thus, estimates of total dead, both military and civilian, range from 3,250,000 to 6,500,000.” (Source: Napoleonic War Casualties, Wikipedia)
Ferdinand Mount sums up Napoleon (if that is possible): “One suddenly perceives a strange emptiness at Napoleon’s core, a lack of any real purpose beyond gaining and retaining power. What exactly are his armies plowing through the sands of Syria and the snows of Russia for? Never has the term ‘ego trip’ seemed more fitting.”
What could the French elite and King Louis-Philippe been thinking when in 1840, Napoleon’s remains, buried on Saint Helena Island since 1821, were carted to Les Invalides in Paris.
In the end, the deflated ego got his grand imperial sarcophagus. Of course, he had had a moment of glory once upon a time in Notre Dame Cathedral. Pope Pius VII had handed the emperor’s crown to Napoleon I, who then placed it on his own head– the 35-year-old conqueror of Europe, the first Frenchman to hold the title of emperor in a thousand years. Ridiculous!