Did Mercantilism Cause the Napoleonic Wars?
A conversation with Andrew Roberts
On the CSPI podcast this week, I talk to Andrew Roberts about his Napoleon: A Life. This is following up on my review of the Ridley Scott movie, which I found out that Roberts also didn’t like for similar reasons. You can listen to the episode or read a transcript below.
I think one can make an argument for Napoleon having lived the most interesting life of any historical figure. From rising in the aftermath of the French Revolution, to putting down the rebellion in Paris, achieving victories in Italy, and conquering Egypt, all before he took power in 1799, to the remaking of the French legal system, the constant warfare against all other European powers of the day, and finally the two exiles. If you were writing a novel and wanted to put the return from Elba in there, it would be rejected as too absurd. The guy just gets on a boat, lands in France, dares the soldiers of the regime to shoot him, and walks to Paris? Come on!
I think that while Napoleon was obviously a great man in the Nietzschean sense, judging his moral worth is more difficult. Roberts says that Napoleon started only two of the wars he fought, but one has to consider the broader context. The UK “started” its war against Germany, but it was the invasion of Poland that was the provocation. It seems to me that many of the Napoleonic Wars can be thought of in a similar way.
That said, Roberts is right that Napoleon is not in the Stalin, Mao, or Hitler category. These tyrants were such malignant forces that it’s hard to have any real degree of appreciation for their unique talents and accomplishments, remarkable as they were. If Napoleon wasn’t good, he at least wasn’t so evil that we can’t appreciate his story, and that’s a relief, because it is one of the best that has ever been given to us.
The period between the French Revolution and the Congress of Vienna always forces the big questions in the study of history to the front of my mind. How much do outcomes depend on the wills of individuals, and to what extent are they the products of larger historical forces? In determining whether states are friendly or hostile towards one another, what are the relative importance of economic interests, ideology, realist great power concerns, and relationships between individual leaders? Was liberalism always going to win in the European context, with the Congress of Vienna and the reactionary turn in response to 1848 the last gasps of a dying reactionary order, or was there a different path that the West could have taken?
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One thing that I was surprised by in Roberts’ book is the degree to which Napoleon’s mercantilist ideas motivated his conduct abroad. I was glad I was able to get the author to explain a bit, and clarify that, yes, Napoleon fought wars because he did not appreciate the theories of Adam Smith. I mention in the interview that I couldn’t remember if Napoleon actually read The Wealth of Nations, and I checked back and Roberts in the book mentions that he apparently did in French translation in 1802, although he apparently didn’t take its lessons to heart. Unfortunately, anti-trade sentiment, based as it is on xenophobia and zero sum thinking, is still with us today, and it’s important to keep in mind just how intimately the free flow of goods and capital is tied to prosperity and peace. Economic interdependence doesn’t make war impossible — 1914 certainly taught us that — but the overall historical pattern is clear enough. In addition to the direct economic benefits, the case for free trade becomes even stronger when one considers the geopolitical implications of rejecting it.
Roberts is a member of the House of Lords, and I wish I had time to ask him about that, as from the American perspective it’s a very strange institution. Maybe next time, when I have him on to discuss Napoleon and His Marshals, which I look forward to reading when it’s published.
Below is the transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
Blame Napoleon for the Napoleonic Wars?
Richard: Hi everyone, welcome to the podcast. I’m here today with Andrew Roberts. He’s a historian, a member of the House of Lords and he’s the author of the wonderful Napoleon: A Life, which we’ll be discussing today. So when I look at Napoleon’s life, I can’t help but play counterfactuals and think about how he could have potentially stayed in power for longer, what could have happened at different points of time.
And my reading from his life is that the Treaty of Amiens of 1802 was really sort of a hinge point. If that could have held, Napoleon could have potentially stayed in power and been at peace with the rest of Europe. Do you see it the same way or would you look at some other moment in time as more important?
Andrew: Not just the Peace of Amiens, also I mean that was in 1802 to 1803 that peace lasted, but also at the time of Tilsit in 1807, if he hadn’t then invaded Portugal and Spain in 1808, if he hadn’t obviously gone to war with Russia in 1812, and if he had made peace with the allies in 1813.
After that actually there wasn’t much hope for the Napoleonic Empire but otherwise yes absolutely there doesn’t seem to be any reason. Of course, he dies in 1821 from cancer, which can’t be altered, but there seems to be no reason why you couldn’t have a Napoleonic dynasty on the throne of France really until it is actually overthrown in 1870 in the Franco-Prussian war.
Richard: Well, the reason I go back to Amiens is because in all those other cases, Britain was hostile. So my reading from the situation was that Great Britain was always going to try to find a way to harm France, to get Napoleon to restrict his empire. And that was really the only period of time where there was peace with Britain. Was peace with Britain sort of the key here or could Napoleon just have been hostile to Britain and stayed in power?
Andrew: Yeah, no, he could have. I mean, it was really the Berlin Decree in 1806 and the attempt to create a continental system, which was a sort of protectionist measure that was designed to destroy British trade, that meant that Britain could no longer live with a Napoleonic France. But in 1802 and 1803, it clearly could, because it made peace with France.
Plenty of people in Britain and indeed in France thought of it solely as a truce and they rather felt that it was inevitable that they would go to war again but nothing in history is inevitable, that’s one of the fascinating things about history.
Richard: Yeah. So how do you apportion blame for these various conflicts? Were the Napoleonic wars Napoleon’s fault? We he more of the aggressor here or more aggressed against?
Andrew: He’s certainly to blame for the Peninsular War, the war in the Iberian Peninsula from 1808 until, well, until the French were flung out of the peninsula in 1814. That six-year war, particularly nasty, brutal, vicious guerrilla campaign essentially, was his fault because he didn’t have any right to the Spanish throne. The Spanish Bourbons had the right to that.
And yet he imposed his own brother King Joseph as king of Spain, so he’s guilty there. And then of course the invasion of Russia in 1812 didn’t need to cross the Niemen with that vast army, that was another war that he had started, but they’re the only two, and there are seven wars of the coalition in the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. The other five, which as you say was in each case financed by Britain. But overall actually it’s the Austrians and Prussians and Russians who take the field against him, or at least against France, Revolutionary France as well, five times and he’s responsible for two wars and yet they’re all called the Napoleonic Wars.
Richard: Yeah, well, Napoleon was at the center of them, right? I mean, is it just too hard? You don’t compare him to Hitler, you take issue in the book with comparisons to Hitler. And that’s a case where there was sort of an aggressive actor and you could look at everyone sort of reacting to him, right? And you don’t see it…
Forget about the human rights violations and the mass killings of Hitler and all that. But you just see Napoleon was in this place and it was just the international system that sort of forced these countries into it?
Andrew: Well, you could remember, I mean, you’re quite right, of course, he was nothing like Hitler at all, although he did invade Russia and he was a dictator, but it stops there. But much more importantly, it’s the Allies, the coalitions that want to stop him and destroy him, partly because of course what he was doing is supporting the concepts of meritocracy that were unleashed by the French Revolution. Now he wasn’t in power at the time of the French Revolution, he only came to power 10 years after it had broken out. But nonetheless he was a great supporter of the ideas of liberty and fraternity and meritocracy and so on, which were anathema to most of the autocratic European monarchies and indeed to an extent also to the British. So you have this sense that it’s the ideas that he represents, which is so revolutionary that they need to kill off. It’s really a sort of ideological struggle as well as one that’s just purely geographical and dynastic and sort of old fashioned in that regard.
Richard: Yeah, it’s funny you say, you know, he had this belief in these revolutionary principles, including meritocracy. Well, we were just talking about how he put his brother on the throne of Spain and how that was a major cause of war. How much of this meritocracy and this liberty stuff, I mean, was sort of instrumental and how much did he believe in it because of how he acted with his family?
Andrew: Well, he had to work within the overall constructs of politics of the day, so you did insert somebody on a throne in those days. And of course the person he thought he could trust, not always true actually, with his family, but nonetheless the people he thought he could trust were of course his own family. So yes, I mean, King Joseph of Spain wasn’t elected by a meritocratic upswing in the opinion polls, it was very much imposed on the Spanish by French bayonets, but you had to factor in the way in which politics had always been done and that was to insert your family onto thrones.
The Role of Economic Theory
Richard: You mentioned the continental system and the hostilities with Britain. You talk a lot about sort of Napoleon’s mercantilism, Colbertism, how much of a factor was sort of these wrongheaded economic ideas in creating hostilities between France and England in particular?
Andrew: He stuck to the views of Colbert, which was that essentially protectionist blocks are the way forward. Actually you could argue today when you look at the European Union and all the various other protectionist blocs that we’ve got in the world that Colbert was probably just as just as foresighted as Adam Smith. But Napoleon did believe that the way to bring Britain, he thought that the British were not heroic actors, that in fact instead all they were interested in was making money, famously called them the shopkeepers, nation of shopkeepers. And so he thought that if he could strangle British trade, he would be able to essentially win the Napoleonic Wars.
But what he didn’t factor in really was the concept of free trade, especially smuggling. The way in which all over Europe, unless you actually had a sort of French gendarme watching you at the time, people were willing to exchange goods and services for money with Britain. And so the sort of inherent instinctive desire to trade actually defeated Napoleon’s belief in a protectionist system.
Richard: So if he had been a free trader, if he read Adam Smith, and I think you might mention in your book, I read somewhere that he at least owned a copy of Adam Smith at some point in his life. If he’d read it, then you know, been convinced of it. And he just said, okay, we’re going to, I believe in free trade, I’m going to open up Europe, they can trade with whoever, trade whatever they want. Would that have potentially avoided the wars? Would that have reduced hostility?
Andrew: Yeah, well, it would have meant that he didn’t invade Lisbon, take on the Portuguese and try to crush the Portuguese in 1807, which led on to the Spanish imbroglio, what he called the Spanish ulcer, the following year. And also, of course, it would have meant that he needn’t to have invaded Russia, because it was the Tsar’s decision in 1811 to open up trade with Britain that led to the invasion of 1812 and the retreat from Moscow. So yes, the two great campaigns that essentially brought Napoleon down were both driven by a desire to follow Colbertianism rather than Adam Smith.
Imagine if he’d taken it to heart and gone right, we’re going to have a French industrial revolution. I mean, he did in a sense do an awful lot for French industry. He set up prizes for technical innovation and so on. But if he had cared more about trying to produce goods at cheaper prices than the British could, and of course he was 20 years behind the British Industrial Revolution, but instead if he tried to catch up, and eventually overcome, rather than just invade countries whenever they wanted to trade with Britain, as I say the Napoleonic regime would have lasted an awful lot longer.
Richard: Yeah, we talked about parallels with Hitler. I mean, do you see the parallel there? Because he’s talking about living space, lebensraum. He’s talking about, we need, you look at Mein Kampf and it’s all about, we don’t have enough food. We have this many people. It’s very Malthusian. If Hitler had understood trade too, would he have, he’s got other things going on, but do you see a parallel there?
Andrew: Not really, no, because unlike Napoleon, he has got this profound racial sense. Napoleon wasn’t racist, he didn’t hate Jews. In fact, he liberated Jews whenever his armies entered the cities, where they were confined to ghettos. He let them all out and gave them civil and religious freedom. I mean obviously Hitler did believe in economic autarky but I don’t think that was the driving force for his desire for conquest.
Richard: Yeah. And so this idea of protectionism, mercantilism, how much is it ideology, like we’ve been talking about, Adam Smith versus Colbertism? And how much is it public choice theory? It’s that governments want to protect jobs. People have sort of a status quo bias. Industries are concentrated, and they don’t want to lose out. Because it seems like there was political pressure from below, too, to have these kinds of policies, right?
Andrew: Well, he did. He was very switched on with regard to things like employment, of course, and trying to create the correct economic climate for French producers. You see this particularly when he’s First Consul after the Brumaire coup of 1799. He starts dressing in very luxurious costumes wearing French silk and velvet. He has Josephine put out a rule really in the court that only French silk is to be worn, not foreign silk, in order to try to revive the industry, the luxury goods industry essentially, that had been devastated for obvious reasons by the French Revolution. And so yes, he was highly attuned to the importance of making sure that there weren’t too many unemployed in France because politically that was always a very dangerous position for anybody and look what had happened to the Bourbons.
Richard: Yeah, so when we play as counterfactual that he could have just been a free trader, maybe he couldn’t have and kept power.
Andrew: No, because the glory of free trade is that if there is something that goes wrong in one industry, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s not going to be good for some other industry somewhere else.
Richard: Well, maybe, but the concentrated interest, the people who lost their jobs might be angrier than the other people are happy, right?
Andrew: Well, that’s the story of history, isn’t it?
Napoleon as an Ideological Actor
Richard: Yeah. So the ideology thing, and I’m fascinated by this, Napoleon, how much was he an ideological actor? How much was it he was, you know, he came to power on the wave of the French Revolution. All these ideas were in the air and he always had to consider the old revolutionaries, how he interacts with the church is fascinating throughout.
Was there a lot of times in his life that you found that he acted against his own interest for purposes of ideology? Was ideology instrumental to him or was it something real that really influenced his behavior? How do you see that?
Andrew: Yes, it was important, specifically this idea of meritocracy. Up until the French Revolution, the place that you had in society, the rank and status that you had in society, was essentially that of your parents and grandparents. Suddenly for the first time in history, over a thousand years, you could be judged and get to a position in life entirely on your own merits and you would be rewarded. He made sure that people were rewarded for that. That’s the idea when he was saying that every soldier has a marshal’s baton in his knapsack, that means essentially that you can get to the very top and boy did they, you know, these were the sons of innkeepers and barrel makers and domestic servants and so on, peasants, and they got to the very top and two of his marshals became kings and lots of them became princes, they had these magnificent estates and so on, and they did it on the basis of how good they were on the battlefield essentially.
This is a really exciting moment for people of talent and hard work and risk-taking and so on. And so of course he’d unleashed a huge amount of capacity for hard work and innovation and so on, which helped France enormously. So yeah, he was a real believer in that and in a sense he was himself one of those kind although he was an aristocrat by name essentially in Corsica. Corsica didn’t really have aristocrats. They didn’t have very much money, disposable income, the Bonaparte family on Corsica. So it really was through his own genius that he got to where he was. So yes, I think ideology was important.
With regard to religion, he recognized the power of religion on people, especially obviously on the Catholic peasantry of France. But he wasn’t much of a believer himself. Whether or not he even believed in the Almighty full stop is questionable. His father was a Voltairian freethinker. The way he treated the Pope, who of course he imprisoned for several years between 1809 and 1814, was obviously not the kind of thing that a good Catholic boy should do.
Richard: Yeah. What do you make of him on his deathbed taking… what do they call it? The Catholics thing when they die? Unction?
Andrew: Extreme Unction. Extreme Unction. Well, who was it who, when asked why he was taking Extreme Unction, replied, this is no time to make enemies? You’re sort of slightly covering your bases, aren’t you? He also, of course, he was dying of cancer in immense pain for a lot of the time. So whether or not he was wholly working out the philosophy behind taking Extreme Unction or not is highly questionable I think.
Richard: Well, I mean, it’s interesting because there could be a Pascal’s Wager kind of thing going on here. At the same time, we know that Napoleon was very interested in how history saw him. And so he makes even a statement, I die in the faith of Rome, like my father’s, or something like that. And so he must have known, I mean, he had time, he knew he was going to die. He must have known that history would remember that to some extent.
Andrew: Oh, he was very interested in history, of course, absolutely. I mean, that’s why he wrote his Memorial of St Helena, his autobiography, which turned into the bestselling book, along with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, of the of the whole of the 19th century. And so it’s a book that’s great deal of self-justification, as you can imagine. He was trying to do the equivalent of what Julius Caesar had done with his commentaries and tell the story of his life very much from his own perspective. Of course everybody does that in autobiography. Some of it is useful to historians, quite a lot of it is just simply self-justification. He comes up with some 50 different reasons for why he lost the Battle of Waterloo, for example, history is something that matters to him hugely but again it’s not terribly different from an awful lot of politicians and when they’re writing their memoirs frankly.
Richard: Yeah, so you haven’t seen Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, have you?
Andrew: Yes, yes, of course. I’ve written about it quite extensively. I’ve written a review in The Sunday Times and a review in Commentary Magazine of it. So yes, it’s been something that’s been very, very helpful for my book sales. They jumped hugely over Christmas. I mean, obviously all book sales go up over Christmas, but with the film as well, it was very helpful. Indeed, it sold nearly another 30,000 copies for me. So I feel rather embarrassed and guilty pointing out what a terrible film it was historically.
Richard: Yeah, what was your issue with it? I saw it that they were making Josephine the center of the story and my impression is that the love for Josephine was genuine, but they have him coming back from Elba to see Josephine and all these other things that obviously weren’t historically accurate. What was your main problem with it?
Andrew: Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with putting Josephine at the center. But you can’t argue that she was central to any decision, a political military decision that he took, and yet that’s what this movie tries to do. It also just invents things that are ridiculous, like leading cavalry charges at the Battle of Waterloo, firing cannonballs at the pyramids. The screenplay is just a hilarious absurdity from beginning to end.
So there are some lovely things about that film. There are lots of great scenes and wonderful uniforms and Joaquin Phoenix and the lady Vanessa Kirby who plays Josephine, obviously very good actors. And you see all these wonderful dresses and so on. But as far as the history is concerned, it’s completely ridiculous, from beginning to end.
Richard: Yeah, and the Joaquin Phoenix character, my impression from reading your book is that Napoleon was jovial, he had charisma, he was charming to his men. You see him in this film, he’s almost, he’s sort of just sort of autistic. I mean, he doesn’t really show much personality except with Josephine.
Andrew: He’s brooding all the time, isn’t he? Brooding and bad tempered and so on. You could never understand for a moment why millions of people would follow him, why hundreds of thousands of soldiers were willing to fight and die for him. You just wouldn’t do that for the Joaquin Phoenix character presented in this movie. There’s no humor, whereas Napoleon was an extremely funny man. There are about 80 Napoleon jokes in my book that he said which are witty and amusing whereas Joaquin Phoenix instead just seems to be in a perpetual bad temper and frankly there are scenes like the one where he has sex under the table with Josephine while the servants are in the room, the one where he goes up to the British ambassador and says “so you think you’re so great because you’ve got ships.”
Richard: Yeah. He said “boats,” which is funnier because it just sounds like a little kid.
Andrew: Ah, boats. Yeah, true, true. And then, the scene where Josephine says, look between my legs and you’ll find something you’ve never seen before or something dreadful. And this was, he’d seen plenty of them things that are between women’s legs. So all in all, it was a great shame because you have three or four hundred million dollars to spend on a Napoleon movie. You could have made one of the great movies of all time because it’s such an extraordinary story. And all he’d have needed really would be a historian or two to help him along and to check some of these exploding cannonballs at the Battle of Waterloo, for example.
You don’t get exploding cannonballs in that battle in 1815. It’s just, you know, it would be very, very easy to have got that kind of thing right. But he decided not to. And of course, not only did Ridley Scott get everything wrong, but he also turned on historians in general and said, and I think I quote directly, “effing historians, what do they know? They weren’t there.”
Richard: Yeah. <laughter>
Andrew: Which is true, we weren’t there, but we have read the accounts of hundreds of people who were there and who wrote them down.
Richard: Is there any Napoleon movie or movies that you particularly like?
Andrew: Well, I love the Abel Gance one, but you do need a sort of 100-piece orchestra to watch it too. I mean, it was made in 1927. It’s still an absolutely fantastic thing. The movie Waterloo, which I saw when it came out in 1970, is a wonderful thing. I was taken by my father when I was seven years old. And that really was a complete delight. You can still watch it again now, it’s a fantastic thing. But his life is so enormous and so storied of course and so epic that it is difficult to even get on the silver screen.
I once asked Martin Scorsese actually, whether he would do a movie about Napoleon. And he recollected that several great directors have thought about it and some have come very close to doing it, but actually it was just such an enormous thing. And I think that sadly Ridley Scott has failed to pull it off, but that doesn’t mean that somebody else can’t, you know, it’s a wonderful story. The one who came closest to it, one of the great directors of all time, Stanley Kubrick, put an enormous amount of thought and effort and money and then we do have that script and that script’s an awful lot better. I think that Ridley Scott should have just got hold of that script and made that movie.
Richard: Yeah. I feel the same way, that the life is so awesome that you’re going to have major omissions. And I feel even reading a large biography, I feel like there’s so much more that’s interesting that I want to dive into. I mean, it’s…
Andrew: Well, I had to cut 60,000 words from that book in order to make it, and it’s pretty long as it is, but it could have been a whole lot longer, but the editor quite rightly sliced back an awful lot of it because he thought that, you know, people, we had to think about what people’s wrists would be able to stand in a hardback version.
Richard: Yeah, well, I mean, I read it on the Kindle version, so you could have made it much longer and I would have enjoyed it with technology now. You can put it all online. Are you going to do anything with those 60,000 words? Write another book or just...
Andrew: Yeah, I’ve given lectures using them at the New York Historical Society. So they don’t go to waste. We history writers absolutely hate ever having to write something and then it go entirely to waste.
Richard: I think all writers probably don’t like wasting their work. Yeah. You talked about the Joaquin Phoenix character, how he was unappealing. The brooding Napoleon, I sort of get that maybe this was true in the 1790s. He seems to be like a different person from before he came to power and then after. I don’t see as much of that sort of humor, that sort of charm. Maybe it was there a little bit. It must have been there to some extent because it doesn’t come out of nowhere. But do you see a big difference in his personality from before he came to power and after?
Andrew: No, I think he’s just as funny after 1799 as before. He was comfortable with power. He felt very sort of naturally able to follow his ambition and his ideas about changing France. So no, actually he was very sort of comfortable in his own skin when it came to wielding power. Where he becomes a different person of course is in defeat in years 1813, 1814 and ultimately of course on St Helena once he’s been defeated in 1815. But that’s just a factor of everyone’s personality, you know of course you’re a different person when you’re losing and being humiliated and defeated than you are when you’re master of Europe.
Richard: Okay, so maybe I got that impression because he did have like a year or two of what we’d call depression, right? Like in the 1790s?
Andrew: No, I don’t think so. His depression came in 1817 to 21 once he’d been diagnosed with cancer.
Richard: Okay, I might have read that in another history. That might have been another book I read on that.
Andrew: Well, there’s no need to read any other books on Napoleon now that mine’s been published. That’s the point. It’s a comprehensive biography.
Richard: Uh-huh. Are there any biographies that helped you, which if somebody wanted just more Napoleon, I mean, what would you point them to?
Andrew: The actually dangerous thing is that because there have been as many books written about Napoleon as days since his death, if you want to, when you’re given, I think I wrote that book in six years, if you wanted to, you could spend the rest of your life reading biographies of Napoleon. And so there is a point where you’ve got to, you know, very much stop and concentrate on doing your own primary research and coming up with your own views on things. It’s not very sensible for a biographer of people who’ve been written about a lot before, and I found this obviously with my biography of Churchill, to read everything ever written before on the subject because frankly it would, as I say, take you the rest of your life.
Richard: Yeah, and in the case of Napoleon specifically, you talk about, first of all, I want to actually go back to that statistic that there’s more books with Napoleon in the title than days since he died. Could that, I mean, could that possibly, maybe with AI, well, who’s the source for that? How do they calculate that? That’s just incredible to me.
Andrew: Oh well, that also has Napoleon in the subtitle as well, so it’s not just Napoleon in the title, but there have been more, he died 200 years ago, and there are more than 200 times 365 books on Napoleon.
Richard: Absolutely amazing. So it would count like Napoleon Dynamite, but still, I mean, most of them, we assume, are the original Napoleon, right? <laughter>
That’s amazing. So you talk a little bit about this, the historiography of Napoleon. There’s been sort of more letters that have come out that were originally suppressed by Napoleon III, right? What has changed, and this I guess is a good case for reading a more recent biography if you’re only going to read one, not that yours isn’t the best anyway, but that’s just another reason why the more recent ones are probably more useful. What do you see has sort of changed the most from the new information that’s come out?
Andrew: Well, the big difference is Napoleon’s eroticism. What Napoleon III tried to do was to censor, essentially, the erotic letters that Napoleon wrote. And he wasn’t very successful in doing that, obviously. And the wonderful Fondation Napoléon, the Napoleonic Foundation in Paris, has published the 33,000 letters of Napoleon. And so we have what he actually really wrote.
And also it’s got rid of some of the letters that were forgeries and so on, which found their way into, some of them at least, found their way into Napoleon III’s collection of letters. And so we now have a scholastically proven group of this huge treasure trove, 33,000 letters. So, yeah, you want to read a more modern biography which will use all of these. He wrote a lot of very sexually explicit letters to his wife and they’re another aspect of Napoleon, you know, which is rather wonderful in fact but is not one that you’d have got from the 19th century version of him.
Cucked while at War
Richard: Yeah, I mean, the sexual infidelity of Josephine… We talked about the Ridley Scott movie, how it didn’t influence his major geopolitical decisions, but you do talk a little bit about how in Egypt it really became a political issue. It seems to me that in a lot of other times and places, a man wouldn’t have been able to sort of come back from this sort of public cuckolding. Were the French just at that time, particularly, sort of just open and understanding and liberal on these things? Because if it was like Britain at the time or Germany, could you imagine somebody surviving politically after something like that?
Andrew: Yes, the 18th century was a much more sexually understanding time than the 19th century and he immediately took a mistress, Pauline Fourès.
And so, yes, although his wife had been unfaithful to him, he just responded by being unfaithful to her. And so the French did that Gallic shrug of theirs and didn’t take it personally. He then went on to have 27 mistresses, or at least 26 plus Pauline Fourès. So it’s not as though he didn’t get his own back.
Richard: Yeah. So this is more a time thing rather than a French thing? Or it’s a little bit of both?
Andrew: Yeah, yeah, I mean, look at British politics in the period, you know, there are Prime Minister after Prime Minister is having affairs, Lord Palmerston in the 1860s, which is well into the Victorian era, he had mistresses, I think he fathered a child in his 80s, as Prime Minister.
And so all in all, people were a lot more, shall we say, broad-minded. Well, you never know. I mean, at the moment, looking at Mr Trump’s private life, maybe people are becoming broad-minded again in your country, at least.
Richard: Yeah, he’s a force for progress, I guess. <laughter> Yeah, I was thinking more along the lines of, you know, sexual double standards. Like, I understand, a male affair would be something I would have thought, I’m not an expert in the time, but that a man being cheated on would have been a little bit different. So I don’t know, are there a lot of sort of examples of that happening?
Andrew: No, that comes in the Victorian era. Georgians recognize that women had sex drives too.
Richard: Yeah, yeah. OK. So one thing I want to ask you about is when they burnt down Moscow in 1812, that to me is fascinating. And then a little bit later, when the Russians come into Paris, there is a lack of popular resistance. You would have thought, I think you might have guessed if you were just guessing like before this happened that maybe France would have resisted more against an outsider because they had the ideology of sort of nationalism while Russia was just this land ruled by this czar. I think they were probably behind in historical development. It’s very interesting that Moscow, they burned the city down and in Paris, they just sort of accept the new rulers. Do you think that would have been surprising beforehand? How do you think about that?
Andrew: Well, of course the Russians claimed to have burnt the city down themselves and denied that it was the French that did it. And I think historians actually backed them up. What really happened was that a city in wartime does catch fire and it was going to be much better for Paris to do what it did, which was essentially to capitulate, not for the last time in its history, of course, and as a result we have the glorious architecture of Paris today. So it was also of course very different in that the Russians had only been invaded for less than six months, whereas the 1814 campaign was long in the offing, the French were exhausted after 20 years of war, over 20 years of war. And frankly, there wasn’t very much appetite for a full-scale national opposition to the Russian troops who were actually domiciled not badly in Paris. They behaved fairly well. They were placed in their big, tented camps in the Bois de Boulogne and so on, and they didn’t ravage the city in the way they have throughout history.
Richard: Yeah, yeah, it’s interesting because it’s sort of, we can say that they were tired of war by that time, but who knows? It seems sort of like a post hoc explanation. It’s just some of these things that seem sort of mysterious to me why people would resist in some circumstances but not others.
Andrew: Napoleon hoped that they would resist of course and he thought that it would be possible to have a sort of a defensive action that would go down to the Vosges. But what happened by that stage was that there was a national revulsion against any further conscription of young people and young men. And of course, you also had the attack coming up from the south, Wellington crossing the Pyrenees, taking on Soult in southern France. And so even if Napoleon had tried to carry on fighting after leaving Fontainebleau in 1814 and after Paris had fallen, or at least it had been surrendered by his best friend Marmont, you would still have been caught between these two invading forces.
The Greatest General of All Time?
Richard: Was Napoleon, we talked about meritocracy, was Napoleon objectively the best general of his time, or history? Because it seems that people of the time, I was highlighting quotes of yours in the book of people like the Duke of Wellington and others who knew something about war. Was he just seen as like sort of Michael Jordan or LeBron James would be seen at their time just cut above everyone else?
Andrew: <laughs> Yeah, that’s a very good analogy actually. And not just of their times, you know, he’s still thought of as one of the great seven captains of history along with Julius Caesar and Hannibal and Marlborough and so on. So, yes, he was. And that’s why Wellington said that his presence, that Napoleon’s presence on the battlefield was worth 40,000 men and why it was so popular for his men, for him to be there. You know, he would ride across the battlefield to show himself, show that he was there, this great tactical commander and strategic commander. And as a result, he was recognized as being a great general.
He fought 60 battles. I’ve actually visited 53 of his battlefields. And of those 60 battles, he won 47 and drew seven. So it really was, if you had a football team or a basketball team to continue your analogy, that played 60, won 47, drew seven, I think it would be considered to be a pretty damn good basketball team.
Richard: Yeah, especially given, I mean, for a general, it’s different because there’s so many factors. I mean, there’s so many unknowns and sort of different morale, the terrain. I mean, everything…
Andrew: Well, this was the thing, you’re quite right. I mean, these are battles that he wins when he has more men or fewer men, when he has more cannons and fewer cannons, whether he’s being attacked or whether he’s on the offensive himself, whether he’s attacking on the right flank, the left flank. You know, there’s a just statistically, it’s a very sort of broad market sample frankly, which does... I mean Wellington didn’t lose any battles, so in a sense Napoleon was unlucky to be up against the soldier who, yes, he was forced to retreat from a siege, but he was not defeated.
Richard: Yeah, yeah. So, I’m conscious of your time, Andrew. What are you working on now and where can people find you? Do they follow you on Twitter or where can people keep up?
Andrew: I’m on, I’ve got my own website and yes I’ve got a Twitter handle but I can’t remember it offhand. I’m no shrinking violet when it comes to publicizing my books but I suppose the best way to get hold of me is to go to an independent bookshop and buy Napoleon: A Life. That’s the thing to do. It’s still, I think, it won lots and lots of prizes. It’s got some wonderful reviews. It’s still selling a thousand copies a week in the United States. Helped, of course, by Ridley Scott, but even before that it was selling a lot. So yeah, I hope people will be interested enough by this podcast to go out and get the book.
Richard: And what are you working on now? Any biographies in the works?
Andrew: I’ve written two books since then, two or three, or maybe four since then, but I’m now writing Napoleon and His Marshals, a book about how the marshals got on with each other, or in fact didn’t get on with each other, and the effect that had on the Napoleonic Wars.
Richard: Excellent. You know what, after I read your book, I searched for a good book on Napoleon and his generals because that’s something I wanted to learn more about. So, you know, I look forward to it.
Andrew: Well, just don’t bother getting one. Wait, wait for another couple of years and mine will come out.
Richard, thank you very much indeed for having me on your show. It’s a delight to have met you. And maybe how about if I come back in two years time and talk about Napoleon and his marshals?
Richard: Yeah, it’ll be my pleasure. Thank you very much, Andrew.
Andrew: Thank you. Bye-bye.