Napoleon versus Toussaint

napoleon crossing the alps david

Odd, the way that some modern liberals and right wingers have come to mourn the fall of Napoleon and sympathise with those who saw him as a great bulwark against reaction. I’m not inclined to agree. Despite Byron, Hazlitt and Godwin’s quite sensible abhorrence of the post 1815 reaction the truth is that Napoleon himself was a ruthless despot. Yes, some of the advances of the Revolution survived through him but let’s not sympathise with an Emperor who sent many hundreds of thousands of soldiers to their doom – and caused the deaths of many more civilians. The fact that some good things flowed from him (e.g.  the Code Napoleon etc) doesn’t alter that. Millions died, thanks to his activity at the slaughterbench of history.

Some people, like Martin Kettle, may like him because, as right of centre liberals, they see him as a bridge from the ancien regime to modernity, a modern market economy. He’s apparently OK in a way that Robespierre isn’t, although he eradicated democracy, tried to re-enslave Haitians, eliminated opponents and launched wars of conquest. Still, he didn’t guillotine aristocrats, so that’s OK then.

nap throned

napleon in full regalia

As for conservatives like Andrew Roberts, they may have some of the same reasons as types like Kettle (since so much modern Toryism is really just neoliberalism). The other motive though, I’d suggest, is simple power worship. ‘Strong leaders’ who win a lot are aphrodisiacal to such types. Napoleon was certainly in a class of his own when it came to winning battles, whether as a general of the Directory, as First Consul or Emperor. However, all the battles he won didn’t  bring the peace he kept promising his people, and this was in no small part due to his hubris: he didn’t know when to stop, and in the end others put a stop to him.

He had ugly, reactionary enemies but he also killed democrats and genuine revolutionaries. My enemy’s enemy isn’t my friend.



If we must have heroes, let me propose an alternative: Toussaint l’Ouverture, hero of the Haitian revolution, whose betrayal and imprisonment by Napoleon couldn’t reverse the victory of the first great, successful slave rebellion – or rather revolution -in history. He fought not for his own self aggrandisement, but for the freedom of his people. Thanks to people like him, history is more than a mere catalogue of folly and crime.


About Chris Horner

teaches, studies and writes about philosophy and many other things. He is the co-uthor (with Emrys Westacott) of the CUP book 'Thinking Through Philosophy'. He has studied at the University of Sheffield, UEA, Goldsmiths and Roehampton University and has a PhD, the subject of which was Hannah Arendt and Kant's theory of reflective judgment. He has a strong interest in politics, history, literature, the visual arts and music.
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