Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Was Napoleon a Conservative?

Commander K. exposed!
Taken on Corsica, 2012

Was Napoleon a Conservative?

A case can be made that Napoleon had strongly conservative instincts.  He initiated the Concordat which made peace with the Roman Catholic church (while a conservative need not be religious, it does not hurt to believe) ending the secular excesses of the French Revolution.  He also brought a halt to the terror of the Revolution that had sent so many to the guillotine.  He was clearly opposed to the chaos that was unleashed by the Revolution; the French people craved  a re-establishment of order after the turmoil of the revolution.  He reformed and modernised the French state with his Code Napoleon.  This guaranteed that France would be a meritocracy very much unlike the patronage system prevalent across the channel in Great Britain.  He commanded the respect and loyalty of his soldiers who he showered with baubles such as La Legion d'Honeur.  All of these elements a Conservative would applaud.

On the other side of the ledger, however, Napoleon displayed a ruthless disregard for the value of human and, for that matter, equine life.  Well over 3 1/2 million Europeans perished as a result of the Napoleonic wars along with countless horses  After the battle of Jaffa in the Egyptian campaign General Napoleon ordered the slaughter of 1,400 prisoners on the beach by bayonet or drowning.  During the same campaign he ordered the poisoning of some of his own soldiers who were afflicted with plague in order to speed the retreat from Acre.

In 1804 Emperor Napoleon ordered the execution of the Duke D'Enghien (son of Louis Henri de Bourbon and a Prince du Sang) on trumped up charges in the moat of the Chateau of Vincennes.  Napoleon's minister of police, Fouche, said of the judicial murder, "It was worse than a crime; it was a blunder!"

Napoleon was certainly no great champion of individual human rights.  He plotted to reintroduce slavery into Haiti (see earlier post, Toussaint L'Ouverture Champion of Freedom and...Conservative, http://americanconservativeinlondon.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/toussaint-louverture-champion-of.html).  He was a pioneer in the art of political propaganda and would never have tolerated a free press in the Empire.  He oversaw a police state full of informers and rogues supervised by Fouche.

He divorced Josephine -- the only woman that he ever truly loved and who loved him as well -- for reasons of state.  He needed an heir and she could not provide him one.  The subordination of the personal family life to the requirements of the state is hardly a conservative trait.

Napoleon's greatest political crime was, however, the annihilation of the Venetian Republic.  The longest representative democracy in Europe was snuffed out with all the grace and dignity of a wheel chair-bound senior citizen being shoved into a Venetian canal!

After Nelson's decisive victory over the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar, Napoleon's dream of a cross channel invasion of Britain vanished.  The only way to prosecute the war against England seemed to be launching a trade war with Britain.  Napoleon introduced the Continental system which embargoed all trade with Britain.  The price of commodities such as sugar skyrocketed.  Smugglers continued, however, to evade the Continental system and trade with Britain and her empire.  Frustrations with the flouting of the Continental system by Tsarist Russia (who sold critical ship-building timber to England, for example) led Napoleon to proceed with his disastrous invasion of Russia two hundred years ago.  Napoleon's Continental system was, in fact, the ultimate reductio ad absurdum of protectionist economic policies and was diametrically opposed to the free trade policies endorsed by Conservative/libertarian economists such as Adam Smith.

Beethoven famously lionized Napoleon early on dedicating his 3rd Eroica symphony to him, but then later grew totally disillusioned by him.  He then dedicated a work (Wellington's Victory or The Battle of Vitoria) to Napoleon's nemesis, the Duke of Wellington.  He raised nationalistic hopes in Germany, Italy and Poland though endless war prevented these from coming to fruition.

Napoleon famously and ironically declared that "La Revolution, c'est moi."  He was the revolution's consummation and its terminus.

At the end of the day, Napoleon was a dictator who recklessly spent the lives of his citizens as if they were counterfeit coins and bankrupted his country in the process.  A dictator seeks to centralise all the powers of the state towards his own will.  A dictator, even when highly gifted and well-intended, cannot truly be a conservative.

Beethoven's Eroica 

Wellington's Victory

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