Gemma Betros asks what kind of person Napoleon really was.
These questions can be difficult to answer, not least because of the challenge of separating Napoleon’s personality from his public functions and their requirements. Behavioural patterns can be observed, but the thoughts, feelings, and motivations that also make up a personality are essentially internal, and are sometimes unclear even to the individual concerned. Napoleon himself admitted that he would have found it difficult at times to articulate his true intentions. For French historian Jean Tulard, Napoleon’s correspondence comes closest to showing the ‘real’ Napoleon, exposing his ideas, likes and dislikes, and deceptions. Memoirs can also offer insight, although they can be unreliable and must be employed with care. The effort is complicated by Napoleon’s attempt to rewrite his career through the memoirs he dictated during his exile at St Helena. Yet such material offers at least an impression of Napoleon’s personality and the ways it changed – or remained the same – throughout his 51 years.
A Contradictory Character
For many who encountered him, Napoleon’s personality escaped the usual boundaries of definition. The writer Germaine de Staël, whose opposition to Napoleon saw her exiled from Paris, thought that unlike most people, he seemed ‘neither good nor violent, neither gentle nor cruel’. ‘Such a being,’ she continued, ‘having no equivalent, could neither feel nor arouse the slightest sympathy.’ For the French author Stendhal, writing to contest Madame de Staël’s ‘slander’, Napoleon was ‘a man endowed with amazing abilities and a dangerous ambition’. He could face adversity ‘with firmness and majesty’ but could also be ‘carried away to the point of frenzy when his passions met with opposition.’ Despite their different motives, each found Napoleon to be a man whose character was difficult to define – and who was perhaps all the more powerful because of it.
Historian Harold T. Parker argued that because Napoleon was ‘an important variable in the European situation, the enduring predispositions of his personality counted’. Yet historians, like Napoleon’s contemporaries, have sometimes struggled to capture this personality, resorting to comparisons with Caesar, Alexander the Great, or even Hitler. John Holland Rose’s 1912 study on Napoleon’s personality concluded that it ‘abound[ed] in contradictions’: Napoleon could be mild and stern, kind and unforgiving, generous and egotistical, far-seeing and short-sighted. French historian Georges Lefebvre, who detected ‘several personalities’ beneath the soldier’s uniform of the young Napoleon, thought that it was this diversity that ‘ma[de] him so fascinating.’ For recent historians, these very contradictions have helped explain Napoleon’s hold on power. Geoffrey Ellis saw in Napoleon’s ‘changeable and contradictory character’ and ‘mercurial moods’ the ability to adjust to and exploit any situation, while for R. S. Alexander, Napoleon was a ‘chameleon’, able to change appearance at will to adapt to his surroundings and allow others to see in him what they wanted. Philip Dwyer found that Napoleon could be ‘talented, intelligent, and passionate’, and ‘capable of inspiring others’, but also ‘petty’, ‘vindictive’, and callous concerning the lives of others. Yet this callousness, Dwyer pointed out, was not unusual for someone in a position of power in this period, an observation that might apply to many of Napoleon’s supposedly distinctive traits. While these contradictions help us understand the man’s dexterity in manipulating situations for both his personal benefit and that of France, they do not in themselves fully explain his motivations.
Psychological perspectives have offered additional assistance in unlocking Napoleon’s personality. Sigmund Freud famously traced Napoleon’s aggressive ambition to his youthful hostility towards his older brother Joseph and his urge to take his place as first son in the family. While it may be tempting to attribute Napoleon’s personality to a single, identifiable circumstance, Harold T. Parker explored this angle further by examining Napoleon’s childhood, values, self-image, and even conscience to create a picture of ‘a hard-working, contriving dreamer whose patterns of behaviour and underlying dispositions had been set before he came to power.’ Parker’s work, which has influenced many of Napoleon’s biographers, therefore leads us to Napoleon’s formative years and the insight that his Corsican upbringing provides into his later conduct and tendencies.
From Corsica to Consul
The Mediterranean island of Corsica had come under French jurisdiction shortly before Napoleon’s birth in 1769. Its dramatic landscape and distinctive culture, characterised by strong family ties and volatile feuds, are often held to have shaped Napoleon’s nature and values. Sent to school in France at the age of eight on a scholarship for the sons of impoverished noble families, he was teased for his Corsican accent and poor grasp of French, and seems to have gained a reputation as brusque and aloof. Although in later life he would insist that he considered himself French rather than Corsican, the young Napoleone Buonaparte, as he spelled his name until 1796, clung to his roots: he continued to see himself as Corsican, was hostile to French rule in Corsica, and sought involvement in Corsican politics. It was, however, Corsican politics that forced Napoleon and his family to flee to France in 1793. The culture that had shaped his youth and marked him as an outsider in France now cast him off, throwing into question his identity and his place in the world. That he found one is due at least partly to his zeal for knowledge.
At school, Napoleon gained a reputation as intelligent and determined, with a good memory and a flair for mathematics that directed him towards a career in the artillery via the royal military school in Paris, where he started in 1784. Despite the school’s demanding routine, which included rising at 5.30am and four hours of mathematics a day, he threw himself into his study and graduated after one year instead of two. He was also a voracious reader, a pastime that offered an escape from loneliness throughout his schooldays and, following the death of his father in 1785, from worries about his family’s financial difficulties. His favourite subject was history which, he would later recall, made him feel as though he too was capable of achievements like those of the ‘illustrious men’ he encountered in books.
Yet how to realise this potential posed a problem. After leaving school in 1785, he entered an artillery regiment and was stationed in the town of Valence. Writings from 1786 reveal a homesick Napoleon feeling ‘always alone in the midst of men’. Despondent about the cause of Corsican independence, he wondered why he should continue living when life was a burden that offered him no pleasure. The French Revolution offered several opportunities to prove his skills, notably during the 1793 siege of Toulon, but an oft-cited letter of 1795 to his brother Joseph again reveals that he felt ‘little attached to life’, finding himself as though ‘constantly on the eve of battle.’ He despaired that he would end up ‘by not moving aside when a carriage goes by’. Fate – a force in which Napoleon often placed his trust – finally took action when Napoleon’s involvement in the suppression of the 1795 Vendémiaire uprising in Paris brought him to national attention. Relentless pestering, combined with the Directory government’s insidious brand of politics, saw the young general given command of the Army of Italy and the chance to show his as yet unproven skill on the battlefield.
Fate also intervened in the form of Josephine, a widow six years his senior, whom Napoleon married on 9 March 1796, just before his departure for Italy. Napoleon’s letters to his new wife, packed with declarations of love, show an undisguised passion that was unfortunately unreturned. Several historians have suggested that Napoleon’s determination to impress Josephine contributed to his astounding victories during the Italian campaign. Victory, however, could not always block his concern that Josephine did not return his affections. As Napoleon’s military reputation and associated duties grew, he seemed to invest less in their relationship, but confirmation of his wife’s infidelity during the Egyptian campaign of 1798 left him desolate. In a well-known letter to Joseph of July 1798, he professed, ‘I am tired of human nature! I need solitude and isolation. Greatness has damaged me, [my] feelings have hardened. Glory is dull at twenty-nine; I have exhausted everything. There is nothing left for me than to really become truly egotistical!’ This resolution now led him to conceive of a different kind of glory. Conversations recorded at the time show Napoleon’s growing sense that destiny promised something greater than military success. Although the coup that delivered him to political power in 1799 showed that he was more at home on the battlefield than in front of a political assembly, Napoleon, as First Consul of France, had found his place.
Napoleon’s mother Letizia reportedly recalled that, from an early age, her son exhibited a disposition to reign. While hindsight may have been at work here, Napoleon certainly took naturally to political rule, putting into practice ideas inspired by years of reading and reflection. He had already shown his abilities as an administrator in Italy and Egypt, but it was during the Consulate (1799- 1804) that his talent for state administration and reform on a large scale became apparent. Determined to restore order to France, he neutered factions on the political left and right, reduced the number of newspapers, repaired relations with the Catholic Church, and, through institutional innovation that ranged from creating a central bank to reorganising France’s police, returned stability to French society and safeguarded it for the future. Claiming to have preserved the achievements of 1789 – a claim most apparent in the Civil Code later rebaptised with his name – further helped him to construct what Jean Tulard identified as ‘the myth of the saviour’. This compelling image of Napoleon as France’s saviour facilitated both his self-promotion to Emperor and the hereditary regime intended to protect the shaky grounds of his rule.
He was assisted by his military victories and the prestige, territory, and resources they acquired for France. Clisson et Eugénie, a short piece of fiction Napoleon wrote in 1785, opens with the probably autobiographical declaration that ‘From birth, Clisson was strongly attracted to war.’ Napoleon seemed to thrive on the mental and physical challenges of war, able to survive on little sleep, go for eight days without changing his shirt (as he reported to Joseph after Austerlitz), or work on a problem late into the night. He was practical, taking as much care over the organization of his troops as the type of soup they were fed, and he was fanatical about planning, deliberately exaggerating possible dangers in an attempt to leave nothing to chance. Napoleon’s thoughts about strategy and tactics, including his preference for offensive engagement, again came mostly from his reading, but his capacity to change his plans in the midst of battle, whether provoked by ingenuity or necessity, was all his own. Yet strategy and tactics formed only part of his personal military ideology. In a letter of 1804, he advised one of his generals to remember three things: ‘concentration of strength, activity, and a firm resolve to die with glory. These are the three great principles of military art which have always turned fortune favourable to me in all my operations. Death is nothing; but to live defeated and without glory is to die every day.’
Such rousing advice reflects Napoleon’s legendary ability to inspire his men. Napoleon was known for his temper – more than one contemporary would compare him to a volcano – but he could also be affectionate towards others, as revealed in the Italian-inflected nicknames bestowed on his aides or his fondness for family members. In war, however, human life was clearly a commodity. Episodes during the Egyptian campaign, such as the massacre at Jaffa, or the abandonment of soldiers fallen victim to plague, had already shown that Napoleon could be as ruthless with the lives of his own men as those of the enemy. A throwaway comment to the Council of State reinforces this impression: attacking the celibacy of monks, he added that ‘military fanaticism’ was the only type of fanaticism of use to him ‘as it makes men indifferent to death.’ Sentiments like this endorse Madame de Staël’s observation that Napoleon was ‘a skilful chess-player for whom the human race is the opposite party that he intends to checkmate’. The promise of glory may have been useful for inspiring his troops, but the memory of glory was to be associated with Napoleon alone.
Napoleon’s pursuit of glory naturally had its critics. The strain of ongoing war created hostility in France, as did the imposition of taxes, conscription, and new policies in the broader Empire. Napoleon himself maintained that it was not a question of whether there were groups in France and Europe hostile to him, but of finding something that made each group respond to his rule, whether through laws or military action. Such claims again show Napoleon’s awareness of how his public personality, as saviour, lawmaker, or warrior, could be used to reinforce his power. As historians such as Annie Jourdan have shown, Napoleon had an incisive understanding of how to promote his rule through image, objects, and the written word. From carefully falsified army bulletins, to paintings and engravings, to the jewelled snuffboxes adorned with his portrait and distributed to the bishops who officiated at his coronation as Emperor, Napoleon knew how to create a cult of personality that maximised his popularity and sought to win the loyalty of those who might oppose him. Where this was unsuccessful, censorship and repression saw that his public image remained untarnished and the illusion of widespread support unharmed.
If the myth came apart, it was perhaps in his attempts to construct an image of himself as a peacemaker while so obviously pursuing confrontation. Historian Paul Schroeder notoriously branded Napoleon’s foreign policy ‘a criminal enterprise’, believing him unable even to conceive of making peace. Duplicity carried Napoleon a certain distance: the Austrian statesman Metternich observed that while ostensibly occupied with one activity, he was always planning another. Even Napoleon’s advisors came to disapprove of his enthusiasm for war. In June 1813, Napoleon complained about the efforts of his Minister of Police to encourage him to negotiate peace. ‘This hurts me,’ he wrote, ‘because it supposes that I’m not pacific.’ He wanted peace, he insisted, but not Above: Napoleon surrounded by his adoring troops. How did he manage to generate loyalty among his men? an unstable peace that would dishonour France or return it to war within three months. ‘I do not make a profession of war,’ he contended, ‘and no one is more peaceful [than I].’ Justifying the continuation of hostilities in this manner permitted his plans for confrontation to be extended indefinitely. By insisting on his pacific nature, however, a gap opened between myth and reality that damaged his credibility and, ultimately, his support. #
‘Power is my mistress,’ Napoleon once said to the politician Pierre-Louis Roederer; ‘I’ve done too much for her conquest to let anyone abduct or even covet her.’ Yet it was this possessive attitude that led to her loss. Historians differ on the precise moment this occurred: some date it to 1805, after victory at Austerlitz, or the peace of Tilsit in 1807, others to the advent of the Peninsular War in 1808, the success of the Austrian campaign in 1809, or the disastrous Russian campaign in 1812. Some also factor in his second marriage in 1811 to the young Austrian princess Marie- Louise, a distraction for Napoleon and a royal reminder of the ancien régime, be it welcome or worrying, for everyone else. Most agree though that there was a moment, whether carried away by the success of Tilsit or intoxicated by the possibilities of Russia, when Napoleon’s ambition and imagination ceased to be tempered by sound judgement and reason. Where the eager young officer would energetically mine others for advice, and the self-assured First Consul could openly admit to being wrong, as Emperor Napoleon became increasingly reluctant to hear the opinions of advisors, gradually preferring to work long hours in a solitude that suggested not so much ambition as quiet desperation as he led France to defeat. This nevertheless alternated with defiant bluster of the sort that saw him declare to Joseph, just before his downfall in March 1814, that ‘I am the master today every bit as much as I was at Austerlitz.’ In the lead-up to his abdication in April 1814 he kept conceiving plans to seize back power, postponed only by his exile to the Mediterranean island of Elba.
Before leaving for Elba, Napoleon had announced that ‘I will write what we have done.’ In the event, this project was not started until after the Hundred Days, the period of Napoleon’s reign following his escape from Elba until defeat at Waterloo. During this time, he abandoned the more authoritarian measures of his rule and instituted new ones that signalled a more liberal and peaceful era. Although short-lived, it provided the foundation of the Napoleonic legend and, through it, the ideological basis for Bonapartism. This work was consolidated during his second exile on the remote South Atlantic island of St Helena through the dictation of his memoirs, the most celebrated of which were published by Emmanuel de Las Cases as the Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène. Here Italian historian Luigi Mascilli Migliorini identified ‘one last battle’, fought over how Napoleon would be remembered. The enemy was the ‘Black Legend’, an opponent of British origins that combined liberal condemnation of Napoleon’s reign with an exaggerated portrayal of the horrific crimes of the ‘Corsican ogre’. The Mémorial took care to dispel such notions, encapsulated in Napoleon’s claim that, having never committed ‘a single crime’, he did not fear God’s judgement. ‘He will never glimpse in me the thought of murder, of poisoning, of unjust or premeditated death, so common in those careers that resemble mine,’ he explained. ‘I only ever wanted glory, power and prestige for France: all my faculties, all my efforts, all my time were [directed] there. This cannot be a crime, I see there only virtue!’
St Helena made for a bleak and uncomfortable exile, offering little beyond the satisfaction of renovating the historical record. The possibility of suicide, contemplated in his youth, now returned. Increasingly troubled by illhealth, Napoleon wondered ‘Has a man the right to kill himself?’ He thought perhaps the answer was yes if life offered only pain and suffering, although he again renounced the idea. Despite his disdain for the Catholic Church, Napoleon was not an atheist and on St Helena his thoughts turned more often to religion. But destiny, which had proved a crucial element of the Napoleonic myth, still taunted him. A young English girl, Betsy Balcombe, whose father was stationed on the island, recalled Napoleon being asked if, as reported, he believed in predestination. Despite his casual invocation of fate throughout his life, Napoleon told Las Cases that he thought fatalism ‘an absurdity’, an assertion unsurprising in someone so frequently adept at creating his own destiny. But on this occasion Napoleon replied that, ‘I believe that whatever a man’s destiny calls upon him to do, that he must fulfil.’ With destiny now out of his hands, it was perhaps an easier thought to live with.
‘Napoleon was more than anything else a temperament,’ decided historian Georges Lefebvre. The impressions of his temperament gleaned here – disciplined and passionate, practical and unrestrained, self-justificatory and despondent – still diverge considerably, but we see in these contradictions how Napoleon’s career was powered by his ability to respond to different situations and people as required. Despite certain enduring features, Napoleon’s personality, as with most people, also changed over the course of his life: we see his transformation from a young man trying to make a place for himself in a rapidly changing world, to a ruler who covered a lack of legitimacy with a veneer of selfpromotion and glory-seeking ambition, to an exile who tried too late to replace a record of self-serving dishonesty and aggression with one of consistency and principle. Yet throughout, we find a man whose temperament was not so much extraordinary as stretched by a period that opened the way for a new type of society while being unable to abandon the old. In Napoleon, it found a personality able – for some fifteen years – to negotiate the two.
Issues to Debate
- In what ways did Napoleon’s childhood shape his personality?
- Why were notions like ‘glory’ and ‘destiny’ so important to Napoleon?
- What do Napoleon’s relations with others tell us about his personality?
- How have perceptions of Napoleon’s personality changed over time, and why?
- R.S. Alexander, Napoleon (Arnold, 2001)
- Philip Dwyer, Napoleon: the path to power, 1769-1799 (Bloomsbury, 2007)
- Steven Englund, Napoleon: a political life (Simon & Schuster, 2004)
- Alan Forrest, Napoleon (Quercus, 2011)
- Georges Lefebvre, Napoleon (Routledge Classics, 2011)