On the Birthday of Napoleon
“There is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte
Today celebrates the birthday of Napoleon, who was born this day in 1769. Napoleon, of all the modern tyrants, seems to me to be in some ways the most sympathetic. Napoleon was a great legal reformer. Not since times Byzantine had a ruling sovereign so systematically endeavored to return society and government to heel under the rule of law. And by reviving Roman law, which had in so many respects lapsed during the age of absolute monarchy, Napoleon helped to rebuild for France and for Europe a solid foundation from which individuals, and indeed civilization could thrive. That reform continues to bear his name: “The Napoleonic Code.” On the other hand, much of this is owed to Napoleon’s march of conquest across the Continent, where he sowed his legal seed along the way. But then I suppose in a cosmic sense nothing comes without a price.
Napoleon’s rise to power was directly related to the chaos and lawlessness facilitated by a string of corrupt and uncontrollable governments during and following the French Revolution. Anyone who has studied this era of European history understands that two of the primary forces driving the French Revolution were taxes and forced prohibition against social mobility. In other words, the people were tired of getting fleeced, and were unwilling to accept a situation where they could not hope and work for a better lot in life. Only governments can impose such restrictions, and we should remember that they do so at the point of the bayonet.
Engaging in speculative history is futile at best. But I imagine that had ole’ Louis cut certain taxes and removed the exclusion of ordinary people from achieving wealth and rank, (i.e. he allowed the people to rise or fall socially under their own private labors) not only would the French Revolution never have happened, but the monarchy would likely have survived in some form even to today. Of course, then we would have no reason to celebrate the birthday of Napoleon, who today would have turned 235.
(1769 – 1821)