The day May 5th, 2021 marked the two-hundredth anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death at the remote island of St Helena. The icon remains controversial as ever and leaders in France hassle over his depictions. The usual public is ready to attach general labels of ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ over his bust. But in a time when trivial things are assigned the same labels, should we be judging a 19th century commander by the same lens?
Visionary or tyrant?
An appropriate answer would be something in between. Instead of picking on a few things we must look at the bigger influence of Napoleon across the world. The Napoleonic Code of Laws which were established in France after pacifying the Revolution gave stability to the country. These were actually feared by neighboring countries of Britain, Austria and Prussia as they believed that ideas of equality before the law, religious tolerance, meritocracy and an efficient rational government — as opposed to one dictated by religious sayings. These ideals are now commonplace among developed and developing countries. Also, the military tactics developed with a high decentralization has influenced every military tactic ever since. These ideas have changed the world for better, but there has been much on the downside as well.
Napoleon read many books, and Machiavelli might have been a favorite. Many quotes of Napoleon and indeed his deeds depict a ruthless succession to power. Napoleon knew how to use fear, deceit and chaos to pave his way through. Despite of advocating for equality before the law, he reinstated slavery and snubbed many rights from women. One also has to look at the timeline as this was during 1802, countries like the UK and USA abolished slavery in 1833 and 1865 respectively and America’s Founding Father in 1802, Thomas Jefferson, himself was a slave owner.
On the other side: building new canal systems and encouraging industrialization in France changed it for the better. “The ends justify the means” had been a constant philosophy in much of his regime. The Louvre in Paris which is the world’s largest museum owes many of its Italian and Spanish works from his exploits. From an external point of view, Napoleon could be regarded as a tyrant causing chaos in the European region. But from an internal look, the leader was loved by Frenchmen for bringing stable economy, governance and a regain of previously lost territories.
One can think of him as someone with a lust for power. Without the grim steps, he might not have been an emperor at the first place. And just like every human, he was shaped mostly by the events surrounding him which explain the underlying behind most of his actions. Instead of viewing old leaders from the modern lens, one can see them as humans from a different era with different beliefs who most importantly laid foundations on which much of thinking henceforth has been constructed upon.
“Kiss the feet of Popes provided their hands are tied.”Napoleon Bonaparte