Posts Tagged ‘August 15th’

Happy Birthday to History’s Most Aggressive Liberal

Posted in On This Day on August 15th, 2011 by Eugene Finerman – 8 Comments

Napoleon_returnedOn August 15, 1769 Letizia Buonaparte gave birth to her second son.  The nationality of the Corsican infant had been determined by the vagaries of diplomacy.  His older brother Guiseppe had been born in 1768 a citizen of Genoa.  But Corsica had changed masters and Napoleone was a French subject.  Corsicans, however, always regarded themselves as a law unto themselves.  Indeed, Corsica’s chief industry seemed to be banditry; and perhaps Napoleone would become its greatest practitioner–ransacking all of Europe.  He may have been born French, but he did not learn that language until he was 10 and never lost his Corsican accent.  (At the time, Corsican would have sounded like abysmal Italian and worse French; today it is just the opposite.)

His father Paolo had proved an accommodating collaborator to the French authorities, and the government rewarded Papa Buonoparte with steady employment and a scholarship for young Napoleone.  (Of course, the boy would have to adopt a more Gallic spelling for his name.)  The boy was sent to the military academy at Brienne, France.  His education there was determined by his social standing.  A scholarship boy lacked the aristocratic pedigree required of an officer in the infantry or cavalry.  Artillery was considered more menial, so Napoleon was trained for that and received his lieutenant’s commission in 1785.

But the caste system that fettered Napoleon’s early career was about to be overthrown.  France was an 18th-century society constrained by a 14th-century monarchy.  Decades of frustration and misrule finally led to a revolution in 1789.  The fumbling, obtuse Louis XVI refused the popular demand for a constitutional monarchy.  At the urgings of his queen Marie Antoinette, Louis appealed to his fellow monarchs to rescue him from his own people.  In response, a coalition of German states invaded France in 1792.  Learning of Louis’ support for the invasion, France saw no further need for a constitutional monarchy or a breathing monarch.  Then the rest of Europe declared war on this regicidal France.

It would seem an uneven fight, and it was–because France had a young officer named Bonaparte.  He was a brigadier general at 24, conqueror of Italy at 26, dictator of France at 30, Emperor by 35, master of Europe at 37; and his descent proved even faster.  Russia, Elba, Waterloo, St. Helena’s, death at 51.

Two centuries later, he remains a legend.  To most of Europe, he is a tyrant–the Bogeyman of Britain and the Anti-Christ in Spain.  Yet, Italy and Poland remember him as a liberator.  And he is France’s most contentious hero.  The liberals cannot decide whether he championed the French Revolution or betrayed it.  The conservatives deplore him personally but love the glory he bestowed on France.  And none would deny his charisma.

The poet Alfred de Musset described the mesmerizing hold of Napoleon on France and history:

The life of Europe was centered in one man; all were trying to fill their lungs with the air which he had breathed. Every year France presented that man with three hundred thousand of her youth; it was the tax paid to Caesar, and, without that troop behind him, he could not follow his fortune. It was the escort he needed that he might traverse the world, and then perish in a little valley in a deserted island, under the weeping willow.

Never had there been so many sleepless nights as in the time of that man; never had there been seen, hanging over the ramparts of the cities, such a nation of desolate mothers; never was there such a silence about those who spoke of death. And yet there was never such joy, such life, such fanfares of war, in all hearts. Never was there such pure sunlight as that which dried all this blood. God made the sun for this man, they said, and they called it the Sun of Austerlitz. But he made this sunlight himself with his ever-thundering cannons which dispelled all clouds but those which succeed the day of battle.

It was this air of the spotless sky, where shone so much glory, where glistened so many swords, that the youth of the time breathed. They well knew that they were destined to the hecatomb; but they regarded Murat as invulnerable, and the emperor had been seen to cross a bridge where so many bullets whistled that they wondered if he could die.

And even if one must die, what did it matter? Death itself was so beautiful, so noble, so illustrious, in his battle-scarred purple! It borrowed the color of hope, it reaped so many ripening harvests that it became young, and there was no more old age. All the cradles of France, as all its tombs, were armed with shield and buckler; there were no more old men, there were corpses or demi-gods.