The following paper by David Flash was written for Dr. Judith Coffin’s History 353 French Revolution / Napoleon course at The University of Texas at Austin
In Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation, his classic critique of the emperor and authoritarianism, Benjamin Constant pronounces Napoleon “a thousand times more guilty than…barbarous conquerors” of pre-enlightenment ages like Genghis Khan and Attila. Bonaparte, Constant points out, is aware of Enlightenment ideals and nevertheless forsakes them. According to the polemic published in 1814, both the Emperor and his subjects bear blame for the bloody consequences of Napoleon’s Wars. The French nation, Constant accuses, “slandered herself, or let herself be slandered by unfaithful interpreters” in enabling the Emperor’s usurpation of France’s seat of power. Constant provides some absolution for the populace as Spirit comes full circle, crediting the wars themselves as providing the distraction he posits necessary to perpetuate Bonaparte’s usurpation, which “would not have long withstood the influence of truth” sans the distraction said “bellicose enterprises” fomented.
Spirit’s simplifications relating to Napoleon, the French populace, and the war, sent me seeking a well-articulated definition of propaganda, to affirm my instinctual assessment of the piece. “Propaganda … simplifies complex issues, is biased, geared to achieving a particular end, plays on emotion …,” a definition by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum states, “it can be true, partially true, or blatantly false.” Reality is often, if not always, more complex than propaganda. This is certainly true of Napoleon and the Napoleonic Wars. Surveying credible secondary research illuminates a Napoleon, a France, and a Europe far more complex than Constant’s claims suggest.
The one-sided nature of Constant’s screed against Bonaparte leads a discerning reader to suspect it as partially accurate at best, and almost certainly politically motivated. These suspicions appear confirmed upon review of respected sources on the subject including University of Stirling Professor Mike Rapport’s The Napoleonic Wars: A Very Short Introduction and Princeton History Professor David Bell’s authoritative Napoleon: A Concise Biography.
Napoleon the Barbarian?
Constant’s Spirit assails Bonaparte a despot more guilty than barbarous conquerors who ruled pre-enlightenment societies by force. “Unlike them, he has chosen barbarism; he has preferred it.” Napoleon, intelligent and well-versed in enlightenment ideals, deliberately forsook them to favor the path of a ruthless conqueror determined to “rob us of the heritage of all enlightened generations who have preceded us.” Several of Constant’s specific despot-flavored accusations in Spirit ring true; that he “banished discussion and proscribed the freedom of the press,” for instance. Bell confirms Napoleon introduced “censorship of a sort France had not seen since the old regime” (Bell, 51). However, Bell and Rapport’s histories of the Napoleonic era reveal Spirit’s monochromatic negative assessment of Napoleon’s regime unwarranted.
Napoleon, according to Bell, “valued the Revolution’s commitment to the rule of reason and to forms of civic equality that would allow men of talent to raise themselves in society” (Bell, 44). Rapport also counters the position Constant takes in Spirit, praising the First Consul and Emperor’s successful germination of Revolutionary ideas into working governmental structures. Rapport writes “The Napoleonic Code guaranteed civil equality wherever it was introduced.” Rapport lauds Napoleon’s positive impact, with the caveat that said “civil equality” was often far from perfect (Rapport, 121).
Without unduly lionizing or glossing over his regime’s many shortcomings, Bell and Rapport rightly credit Napoleon with successfully building out civil structures for which the plans had been made and foundations laid early in the Revolution. Neither Bell nor Rapport denounce Constant’s Spirit as propaganda in the works I surveyed. However, they reveal it to be just that, providing well-sourced historical context surrounding the parties and actions Spirit denounces and praises.
French populace a complicit, culpable party in Napoleon’s Pan-European Wars?
Spirit’s implication the French populace consented to Napoleon’s rule is confirmed by both Bell and Rapport. However, the rule they “solicited” was far from the despotic “enslavement” Constant paints it. In reality Napoleon’s contemporary in Russia, Tsar Alexander, was “the most feared and despotic ruler in Europe,” according to Bell. Alexander’s Russia, with “a system that kept to over half his people in virtual slavery as serfs,” (Bell, 94) held its multitudes in “enslavement.” Contrasting the manner in which Alexander and Napoleon’s regimes treated their native masses renders Constant’s word-picture of a France willingly accepting Napoleon as a deespotic slave-master is not quite accurate.
Constant is much more accurate asserting the French “crowd was pleased to show its love for servitude.” According to Bell, around 1.5 million of 5 million eligible French voters voted in the first popular plebiscite affirming, “show[ing] love,” for Napoleon’s rule. The vast majority of those who voted, did so in Napoleon’s favor. So, it can be said that around a third of eligible French voters (Bell, 51) assented to Napoleon’s regime. While the regime is “authoritarian, illiberal, and undemocratic” (Bell, 52), it is far tantamount to mass-enslavement or even quasi-enslavement of the Russian variety.
While The French people were not willingly enslaved then forced to bloodlet Europe to satisfy Napoleon’s villainous thirst for conquest, Constant’s accusation that the French populace was participatory in empowering Napoleon has some merit. The French people may rightly bear blame for the consequences of the Napoleonic Wars, not as slaves, but as willing parties. Rapport quotes Prussian General Clausewitz’s 1812 assessment which appears more apt than Constant’s: “…it is not the king who wages war on the king, not army against another army, but a people against another people” (Rapport, 102).
Napoleonic Wars a concoction of the Emperor to maintain power?
Napoleon “clearly believed that his rule depended on continual military success,” according to Bell. He backs this assertion with the following remark attributed to the emperor in 1803: “A First Consul is not like kings…who see their states as an inheritance. He needs brilliant deeds, and therefore war” (Bell, 58). Bell and Napoleon himself seem to lend credence to Constant’s assertion that “had France remained at peace, her peaceful citizens… would have judged [Napoleon]… Usurpation would not have withstood the influence of truth. Thus Bonaparte was compelled to distract public attention by bellicose enterprises.”
However, like much of Constant’s rhetoric, complexity is eschewed for simplistic, anti-Napoleon propaganda. Constant ignores a simple and obvious truth to his contemporaries and the modern reader alike: France “remain[ing] at peace” as posited in Constant’s hypothetical history sans the Napoleonic Wars, was never an option. France was at war under the King, the assembly, and the Directory prior to the wars fought under Napoleon. As Bell points out, “France’s adversaries bore their own share of the blame.” (Bell, 59) France and the rest of Europe had seen centuries of war prior to Napoleon’s regime.
France’s pre-revolutionary Hexagon itself was forged from disparate kingdoms in battles of centuries past, a history similar to the parallel stories of her neighbors on the Continent. In reality, General Bonaparte would likely never have risen to power sans the “bellicose enterprises” of both his predecessors and contemporaries inside and outside of the Hexagon.
Conclusion: Context clarifies Constant’s propagandistic claims.
Princeton’s Bell succinctly sums up the career of one of history’s most complex and colorful characters: “For all his crimes and errors, his life also incarnated a sheer sense of human possibility that quite rightly fascinated onlookers and has continued to do so ever since” (Bell, 113). This summation does not comport with Constant’s assertion that Napoleon was bent on “robbing us of the heritage of all enlightened generations who have preceded us on this earth.” In fact, Constant fancied himself a keeper of the “heritage of all enlightened generations,” and Napoleon did not rob us of Constant as Monarchs of previous generations or even neighboring regimes likely would have if scourged with similar screeds.
“Leading French authors of the day–Benjamin Constant, Germaine de Stael, Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand,” according to Bell, “ferociously attack Napoleon…without losing their lives or liberty.” Constant’s continued existence, along with Napoleon actually employing his talents in drafting a more liberal constitution during his 100-day return to France, prove Spirit propaganda. Reading Spirit with the broader understanding of the contextual events and forces that researchers like Bell and Rapport provide, a student of history gains awareness that varying intellectually honest perspectives, along with patently disingenuous propaganda, can and do exist relating to complex issues like the causes and consequences of the Napoleonic Wars.
Constant, Benjamin. Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation. Political Writings, ed. and trans., Biancamaria Fontana. Cambridge University Press, 1988. 161-163.
Bell, David. Napoleon: A Concise Biography. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Rapport, M. The Napoleonic Wars: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press, 2013.