Review Essay on Napoleon

Author felix Markham in his biography “Napoleon”, states he finds it a “bold undertaking for an historian””to embark on writing a new biography of Napoleon.”(p.1) He attempts to present an authentic profile of this important historical figure but readily admits it is difficult to keep from merely echoing past historians in writing about his achievements both on and off the battlefield. A professor of modern history, Markham has studied historical persons like Napoleon his whole life and set out to write this book based on newly discovered evidence, hoping to offer new insights into Napoleon’s thoughts and ambitions. With this new evidence, Markham takes the position that Napoleon consistently flexed his military muscle, which was embodied with fear and the authority of force, to achieve his political ambitions.

Markham presents vivid recollections of Napoleon’s life, providing an in depth biography of his character. He begins with a brief note of his Corsican background to describe the roots of his subject and follows the course of his life through to his downfall on the island of St. Helena. However, he devotes most of his attention to the intervening years, years that he contends made Napoleon great. He was “born on a small island, dying in another, and, in between, such a fantastic career.”(p.254) Markham relies on two primary sources most often. The first is Napoleon’s own writings and dictations which he readily quotes to provide insights as to his mindset. Second, he draws on the memoirs of those close to and in contact with him. From these two sources, the author notes that from the beginning, Napoleon is shown as devoting all his thought to military matters. Markham shows his advancement in career from Lieutenant to his ultimate reigning title as Emperor, spanning the years 1785-1815 when he abdicated for the second and final time. He attributes Napoleon’s military genius to his unbridled success and his his political achievements.

Markham used primary sources for his conclusion, drawing heavily on letters and correspondence from Napoleon, his family and compatriots, but much of this documentation was recorded long after the events occurred and is subject to memory lapses and personal prejudices. His writing is intelligible and clearly ordered in a chronological fashion, describing events from the perspectives of those involved or of impartial observers. But Markham is not entirely unbiased himself and occasionally inserts his own views in his writing. He states that Napoleon “would have done better with an army of half the size and higher quality.”(p.178) Markham also makes constant reference to these sources to back up his contention that Napoleon used military tactics to secure a palatable situation to effect change in procedures, laws and structures. He portrays him as a feared man but respected as a leader. For instance, when retreating from the catastrophic defeat in Russia “not one murmur was heard against the Emperor”(p.185) according to Markham.

Markham uses historic inference to great effect. He makes it well known in his book of Napoleon’s “decided theories about the art of ruling” with his employment of “absolute power, constant supervision and fear.”(p.124) He supports his arguments by indicating which source he received it from following it’s inclusion. He devotes a chapter to the implementation and failure of the continental system which was a blockade of English exports to the continent. Napoleon used his miltary strength to impose this political policy on all conquored territories and used fear to control the neutral countries in following suit. Markham notes how it hurt England and France to provide a balanced view.

Markham makes continual reference that Napoleon well understood the power he could wield by being the dominating figure in the military. As in the Continental System, he shows how it affected every quadrant of Europe, so through his victories on the field he could impose his political will on others around him. In France he gained such favour in battles that eventually he had himself appointed Emperor, the ultimate promotion in the political field. “By 1802 Napoleon had proved himself to be a great stateman … as well as a General.”(p.84) Markham argues that after attaining such distinction on the battlefield, he turned his thoughts to diplomatic themes. With this power and on his own innitiative, he had drafts drawn up for a criminal, commercial and rural code along with a code of Civil procedure. Another chapter is devoted to Spain where Napoleon installed his brother Joseph as ruler. Again, this was a political structure imposed singularly by military might. Without military backing, the regime in Spain would have been subverted. Napoleon also tried to encourage the enlightenment in the country as had been done in France. Napoleon aspiring to bring political change in a foreign nation by use of armed force. But his lasting legacy to Europe was his adoption of the Code Napoleon. This was a principle based on the absolute rights of property and the legal right of equality of all citizens. Like a proud politician, Napoleon decreed that serfdom was abolished. This code was applied to all within Napoleon’s reach and through his strength in men and arms he was able to make this a reality.

Because this book is a biography, it is difficult to pick up any specific point the author is trying to make. In the bibliography, some 100 books are cited to create a vivid description of Napoleon and 38 portraits are included, generally of military stature, which give the reader a visual picture of the dictator. These show him as taking a military route in life followed by an embarkation onto a political path. He also assumes that the reader has prior knowledge of Napoleon’s background as he often explains the significance of an event but not recounting the actions of it until further chapters.

As mentioned, newly discovered insight in the form of letters, official records and diaries, provide further insight into the regime and the man who led it. “Napoleon”, published in 1962, incoperates these findings of a decade earlier after caferful examination of the material. Markham analyzes the documentation in order to see the direction he wanted for France, both as a dominating power in the world and in how he hoped to takes the country’s newfound views of equality to all parts of the globe. This biography differes from other previous volumes of work about Napoleon because of this. Markham attempts to present Napoleon as a magnanimous miltary and political ruler respected even by his enemies. His detested foe on St. Helena, the govenor Sir Hudson Lowe, wrote upon Napoleon’s death that he had “been England’s greatest enemy, and mine also, but I forgive him everything.”(p.241)

Markham readily discusses Napoleon’s military shrewdness and how it was the governing factor in his life. While most books on him deal solely with his military prowess, Markham follows up on these heroic exploits with his desire for political change. In the end, he backs up Napoleon’s perceived destiny for France with reference to one of his own boasts that “with the help of my soldiers and my auditeurs I could conquer and rule the whole world.”(p.85)

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