The American civil calendar is not alone in being festooned with holidays celebrating political factions and the central state. Most famously, perhaps, the chief French holiday is today, le quatorze juillet: July 14, Bastille Day.
By chance I read a celebratory squib last July 14. I objected that Bastille Day merits no celebration, that it symbolizes a series of events that bathed Europe and much of the rest of the world in blood. According to family lore, my four-greats-grandfather died in his early 20s at a north Prussian site in 1806. It seems likely to me that Murat’s invading French horsemen had something to do with that poor fellow’s untimely death.
The standard patriotic account of the French Revolution and the associated wars (and I include the Napoleonic Wars among them, as I’ll explain momentarily) holds that they overthrew a corrupt old regime. That regime deserved its fate, the story goes, because the king and nobles, along with the bishops, abbots, priests, monks, and nuns, were soaking the common people dry. The burden of this iniquitous social structure had to be thrown off, and finally it was.
Polls in France show that only some percentage of the population in the low teens considers itself monarchist. Such people generally favor restoration of the Bourbon dynasty, still the ruling dynasty in Spain and long the ruling dynasty in France. The government, whether led by socialists or Gaullists, propagandizes on behalf of the Revolution’s egalitarianism and enforces its anti-clericalism. Guillotines, aggressive wars, official atheism, and Napoleon I? Ah, if you want to make an omelet, you must first break a few eggs.
Historians commonly distinguish between the Revolution and the First Empire, the Age of Napoleon, which supposedly followed immediately. Their attitude is that of the attendant who asked the ex-emperor in his end-of-life exile why he had betrayed republicanism and made himself a monarch. (Napoleon’s answer, interestingly, was that, “We can’t all be George Washington.” How right he was.) Surely this was a great turning point.
I tend to accept instead the judgment offered by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his fascinating essay “Napoleon; or, The Man of the World” (1850). Napoleon made himself emperor, yes, but he was a new kind of emperor. In fact, the emperor of the French (note: not “emperor of France”) scoffed at old-fashioned, hereditary monarchs such as the Habsburgs. He intentionally insulted the Hohenzollerns.
As Emerson puts it, Napoleon was a representative not of the conservative, but of the democratic class. He stood not for the inherited, the traditional, or the timid, but for “the class of business men in America, in England, in France and throughout Europe; the class of industry and skill.” One might have thought this a self-evidently ignorant judgment. Was it not Napoleon who contemptuously (or impotently) referred to the English as a race of shopkeepers? What useful insight might Emerson have had in referring to Napoleon as a man of the democratic rather than of the conservative class?
Seemingly, he had in mind Napoleon’s solvent effect on everything he touched, his feeling that he must replace whatever he encountered with something new and more sensible. Not 300 German states, but a few. Not separate courts in Italy for commoners and nobles, but one set of courts. Not a hodge-podge of law in France, but the Code Napoléon. David as court painter, scientists on his Egyptian campaign who discovered the Rosetta Stone, everything worthy of inquiry.
The soldiers in Napoleon’s armies were told that there was “a baton in every knapsack.” Emerson has Napoleon boasting that he made his generals from mud, and, with a few exceptions, it was true: merit, not descent, was his chief criterion of preferment.
Soon enough, other European countries felt compelled to follow. So, for example, after the disastrous war in which my ancestor seemingly was killed, Scharnhorst pushed through reforms in Prussia theoretically opening all military ranks to commoners. The German states were never again disaggregated, and soon enough, “Italy” and “Germany” would no longer be merely geographic designations.
To Emerson, this all amounted to a kind of triumph of the common man. He seems to accept Napoleon’s argument that he had been the emperor of the Revolution. So do I. As Emerson put it:
His grand weapon, namely the millions whom he directed, he owed to the representative character which clothed him. He interests us as he stands for France and for Europe; and he exists as captain and king only as far as the Revolution, or the interest of the industrious masses, found an organ and a leader in him.
In the field, then, Napoleon commanded as an autocrat, but a particular kind of autocrat: a popular autocrat.
As the armies of the First Republic became those of the French Empire, and as their brilliant chieftain and his able lieutenants (Davout, Suchet, Berthier, Lannes, Murat, and the rest) subjected Europe to French rule, one saw playing itself out the authentic spirit of the Revolution. Political imperatives had become interchangeable with morality, and the soldiers of the grande nation represented those imperatives. If some Gutzmann had to die in a remote part of northern Prussia, so what? It was glorious! And the French deserved what they could take from the denizens of benighted monarchies, anyway.
What does Bastille Day represent? Ultimately, it represents the elevation to power of the classic man on horseback, a representative in his tastes, aspirations, and (Emerson again) “intellect without conscience” of the democracy. It represents ideology as license. Napoleon took what he wanted in power, things, people … everything. For him, fame was virtue. This was the principle of the French Revolution writ large, of the new class whose ascendancy was aborning, in France and elsewhere.
What is there to celebrate in that?
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