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Among the numerous conventional images concerning Napoleon, that of the megalomaniac conqueror drunk on glory is fixed in the collective imagination. Indefatigable warrior, Napoleon supposedly sacrificed world peace to his insatiable personal ambition. A bloodthirsty ogre, he bled France white to achieve his ends.
But is this historically accurate? We do not believe it is.
The oversimplification of this widely-held opinion, to which even sophisticated people succumb, is explained by the excessive attention focused on the uncommon man who was Napoleon, overlooking the convulsed situation in which he was forced to act for self-defense.
It is anti-historical to overlook the basic fact that Napoleon arose as the heir to the French Revolution of 1789, an unprecedented sociological and ideological upheaval. The adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the abolition of privileges, the substitution of merit for hierarchy, the replacement of absolute monarchy by the democratic idea—all these appear today to be natural human values. At the time, however, they appeared to the defenders of the established order as dangerously subversive ideas. Such ideas threatened too many established situations and compromised too many private interests. The man who became the champion of these ideas would by the same token become public enemy number one for monarchical Europe.
This situation inevitably involved the entire continent, indeed the entire world. Yet, an application of intellectual rigor in analyzing the facts reveals that in fact Napoleon was the person least responsible for the situation. This assumes one takes two precautions: First, not confusing causes with effects, and second, not observing those facts through the distorted lense of today. It is to this simple yet powerful exercise that we will proceed.
Part One presents the intractable belligerent situation toward which the First Consul found himself inexorably forced upon his arrival in power, and from which he was never able to escape.
Part Two brings to light the fundamentally pacifist character of Napoleon’s politics, founded on his intangible principle of avoiding conflicts.
Finally, validating the first two sections, Part Three demonstrates that wars that he never sought or declared constantly intruded on him (and thus the history of Napoleon).
The focus of our study is on the period of the Consulate and the Empire, after Napoleon had acceded to his responsibilities. The rich earlier period of General Bonaparte will be considered only as opportunity presents itself.