Happy Birthday to Napoleon Bonaparte, the Corsican Who Transformed the Modern World

Napoleon Bonaparte, the future Emperor of the French and one of the greatest military leaders Western civilization has ever known, was born on 15 August 1769 in Ajaccio, the capital of the island of Corsica, to Carlo Maria di Buonaparte and Maria Letizia Ramolino. He was the fourth child the stork brought to Casa Buonaparte, and he was named for a deceased uncle and elder brother. No one knew that the newborn would rearranged the political geography of Europe before he was 30 years old.

Jacques_Louis_David_-_Bonaparte_franchissant_le_Grand_Saint-Bernard,_20_mai_1800

A lot of legends have sprung up about his birth, hoping to imbue greatness to the event with 20/20 hindsight, but it was a normal birth in a normal bed. What wasn’t mythical was the appearance of a new star appearing in the heavens to augur his birth:

comet C/1769 P1, first observed by astronomer Charles Messierat the Naval Observatory in Paris on the evening of August 8, 1769. According to observers, the comet became brighter through the month of August, with a lengthening tail. It made its closest approach to earth on September 10. Messier himself later sought to associate his comet with Napoleon’s birth, hoping to receive the Emperor’s attention and monetary support. This was, perhaps, Napoleon’s original “lucky star,”for which he searches the sky in Napoleon in America [a well-written alternative history I enjoyed that was authored by Shannon Selin]. As the comet has an estimated orbital period of around 2090 years, it has not been seen since 1769.

 

Napoleon really was a monumental game-changer, vis-à-vis Western politics, law, history, and warfare. 

Napoleon instituted various reforms, such as higher education, a tax code, road and sewer systems, and established the Banque de France, the first central bank in French history,” and created a “set of civil laws, the Code Civil—now often known as the Napoleonic Code … which spurred the development of bourgeois society in Germany by the extension of the right to own property and an acceleration towards the end of feudalism.” Napoleon also turned the former Holy Roman Empire “into a more streamlined forty-state Confederation of the Rhine; this provided the basis for the German Confederation and the unification of Germany in 1871. The movement toward national unification in Italy was similarly precipitated by Napoleonic rule.” British historian Andrew Roberts argues that Napoleon’s reforms are the source of the:

ideas that underpin our modern world–meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on–were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them he added a rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire.

Napoleon also “liberalised property laws, ended seigneurial dues, abolished the guild of merchants and craftsmen to facilitate entrepreneurship, legalised divorce, closed the Jewish ghettos and made Jews equal to everyone else.” He also abolished the Inquisition and placed the laws of the state ahead of church law, and did his best to enforce the radical idea of equality under the law for beggars as well as barons. He also instituted the metric system and enacted educational reforms that “laid the foundation of a modern system of education in France and throughout much of Europe”. Under Napoleon’s auspices, students were routinely taught science and the scientific method for the first time, rather than only classical languages and religion.

Jean_Auguste_Dominique_Ingres,_Portrait_de_Napoléon_Bonaparte_en_premier_consul

There is also no way to overstate his effects on modern warfare. He reorginized his troops so that “corps replaced divisions as the largest army units, mobile artillery was integrated into reserve batteries, the staff system became more fluid and cavalry [the most mobile military unit] returned as an important formation.” Other generals in other countries were quick to adopt Napoleon’s tactics, and Antoine-Henri Jomini’s discourse on Napoleonic warfare became a “widely used textbook that influenced all European and American armies Napoleon.” Renown military theorist Carl von Clausewitz laudes Napoleon “as a genius in the operational art of war”. When the Duke of Wellington was asked to name the greatest general of his era, he decisively exclaimed, “In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon”. Napoleon led his troops into 60 battles, and he won 52 of them, which meant he was successful approximately 87% of the time regardless of terrain, weather, or opposition stratagems.

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Oddly enough, Napoleon also had an incredible effect on British literature and arts. From the groundswell of Romanticism to the anti-French wit of Jane Austen, the influence of Napoleon and the Napoleonic Wars was embedded in English writings, and changed how art was produced and conceptualized in Anglophone countries. 

 

Not a bad legacy for an average-sized man born to a middle-class family on a small island.

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