Napoleon Bonaparte was a person of extraordinary energy.
At the height of his career, he worked 12 or 14 hours at a stretch, every day, from 7 a.m. until evening. He read reports, sent orders, met with one department after another; he could rapidly sum up each topic, amazing his staff with his memory and grasp of issues, and then shift gears to a new delegation and topic. He spent no more than 15 minutes at meals, wolfing down his food, drinking little; but found time to keep up on backstage gossip with the servants. In the evening he spent several hours in the formalities of court and fashionable entertainment-- for him another kind of duty-- then went to bed for a few hours of sleep; got up again in the middle of the night for another couple of hours of work, back to bed again, and up at 7 for next day’s round. His tone, except sometimes during evening formalities, was generally upbeat; if he was a workaholic, it energized rather than exhausted him.
|Napoleon 1803 (age 34)|
When he was commanding an army in the field, he slept even less: 15 minute snatches here and there. Before battle, he was up all night, preparing battle plans and orders at 1 a.m. while the troops rested to move before dawn. Napoleon’s attention was everywhere, dispositions, artillery, logistics, coordinating far-flung troop movements; he made sure to praise or sanction officers’ performance and to encourage the ordinary soldiers. He never got battle fatigue or made bad decisions from tiredness; his soldiers got enough sleep to keep them fresh but Napoleon thrived on his own rhythm. His armies were famous for being faster than anyone else, his own energy transmitted outward in a network where he held all the threads.
|Napoleon 1796, General of the Army of Italy (age 27)|
How did he do it? To call it genius or talent is just a word, not an explanation. Napoleon had an extremely high level of emotional energy [EE]. It consists in confidence, enthusiasm, pro-activeness, and yes, sheer bodily and mental energy. In Interaction Ritual [IR] theory, successful interactions generate EE, by means of tightly focused mutual attention and a shared emotional mood, as the group becomes rhythmically entrained; Durkheimian collective effervescence becomes apportioned to participants, depending on how central they were in the micro-interactional flow, in the amount of EE that they take from the encounter. Failed IRs depress EE for hours or days thereafter. And even in successful IRs, some persons get more EE than others, since some are more in the center of the process and others are peripheral, excluded, or dominated by it. Thus stratification, as it happens in everyday life, especially at the peak of achievement, is stratification of emotional energy.
In Napoleon’s career, we can trace the rise and fall of EE, and thus its conditions.
Napoleon as a youth and young man was confident and energetic, but we don’t hear of feats of working 20 hours a day or over-aweing his companions. As his military and political career took shape, there were periods when he was down, shy and unconfident. Towards the latter part of his career, too, some of the extraordinary EE slipped, and we find him at times exasperated, bored and passive. At the very end, in exile from the center of action, he fell into a deep lethargy, and died at an early age. Napoleon’s was a career of emotional energy, and its ups and downs provide the comparisons we need to understand the micro-interactional conditions of extraordinary success, and the limits of living on sheer EE.
Napoleon was sent away to military schools in France when he was 9 years old. He didn’t return home to Corsica until he was a newly commissioned 16-year old Lieutenant in the French army. It would be anachronistic to regard this as a deprived childhood; in the 1700s people started working much earlier than in our credential-inflated times, and there was little sentimentality about children nor indeed any recognized status of “teenager” (which appeared only in the 1950s). Young Napoleon came under the usual pressures of a boarding school total institution; he was small, and spoke French with an Italian accent, thus was the butt of other boys who ragged him about his strange name. In retrospect, Napoleon said he avoided the others, concentrating on reading with pen in hand about the great generals of the past. The bully boys found his hideout on the school grounds and tried to attack it; Napoleon faced them down, apparently without coming to blows. It is, in fact, the effective way to deal with a violent threat: not to cower or turn one’s back, but to maintain a strong and determined presence, quite literally using one’s eyes and voice as one’s strongest weapons. Napoleon learned early that emotional dominance precedes physical violence and determines who will be its victim. We lack further details, but soon Napoleon’s schoolmates were making snowforts and engaging in snowball battles under his confident command. He was already finding that confronting opponents was a situation where he gained emotional energy.
Things were different when he reached the elite military academy in Paris. Sons of France’s wealthy aristocracy looked down on someone from a minor provincial Italian lineage; their snubs could not be so directly countered. Napoleon concentrated on military lessons, impressed his instructors, and graduated a year early. For years Napoleon would be awkward in high society; the experience also made him a ready advocate of the anti-feudal and egalitarian Revolution, which broke out when he was a low-ranking officer at provincial garrisons.
In the meantime, his father died; his older brother was training as a priest, so Napoleon as second son became de facto head of his family (there were six more younger brothers and sisters, all of whom played some part in the political maneuvers to come). He took long periods on leave in Corsica. Through his father’s politics, he was closely connected with the nationalist movement seeking Corsican independence from France; on the other hand his father had won favor from the French administration by supporting their rule, in fact Napoleon received his elite schooling as patronage for his father’s political switch. The Corsican sojourns allowed Napoleon get out of subordinate duties far from the action in Paris; Corsica was an arena where his family already constituted a political network, and he could jump into a leading role. *
* The pattern of building up in a backwater away from the center of competition is found also in business careers. Sam Walton, in the first phase of creating a fortune from a chain of discount stores, and thereby overturning the standard model of retailing in the US, did not begin by challenging the big department stores in the major cities; instead he began in rural Arkansas, where his competitors were mom-and-pop stores selling a limited assortment of goods at high prices. (Villette 2009)
As a school for practical politics, in Corsica Napoleon promoted the ideals of the Revolution, but now cast in his loyalty with France as the spearhead of modern reform. This put him in conflict with the independence movement. Napoleon organized a local patriotic militia, led some local shows of force, and successfully petitioned the National Assembly to make Corsicans free and equal French citizens. In early 1793, the nationalists took power in Corsica and Napoleon had to flee with his family to Marseille. It was a political defeat, but young Napoleon gained experience organizing and commanding troops on his own; and he quickly learned the winding stairs of political fortunes and the dangers of ideological fanatics. Henceforward he would be a political realist, using ideologies to muster support but not allowing them to sway his personal judgment.
In Marseille, Napoleon was temporarily in one of his down periods. He had stored up some experiences of how to generate EE, but he was out of his favorable arena now. Before examining how he revived his upward trajectory, let us consider the matter of luck.
Luck as Location in Structure and Change
Napoleon was lucky to be born when he was. He was a 20-year-old lieutenant in 1789 when the revolution broke out, too young to take any significant part in the rapid escalations of the years of attacking the king, the fear of emigré aristocrats, the paranoia of internal enemies and the resulting murderous purges. He wasn’t high enough in the aristocracy to have privileges to lose and wasn’t tempted to emigrate; and since two-thirds of the officers did emigrate, there were plenty of vacancies for young officers, especially after the army began to expand in 1793. Artillery was an unfashionable and low-ranking branch, but it was becoming the determining force on the battlefield, hence just the right location to make one’s reputation.
But an officer had to get a command in order to make one’s reputation, and in the situation of revolutionary upheaval, that took politics and network connections. Napoleon got the jump on other officers his age, because he could go back to Corsica and play the big fish in a small pond. He could have joined the local independence movement (its leader was his youthful hero), but once on the spot he found he made a bigger splash, and had more room for action, if he led the pro-French reformers. This brought him favorable notice from delegates of the central government as an energetic and reliable local follower. Playing on the periphery but with useful connections to the center, Napoleon was ready to try a bigger stage.
The danger was that 1793-4 was the period when paranoia and political killings were at their height. The royal family was executed January 1793; Marat assassinated in July; Hébertists and Dantonists fell to Robespierre in spring 1794. Top contenders for power were killing each other. Napoleon was far enough down not to be a target. By the time he made enough military reputation to become a political figure, public mood had shifted to weariness with the violent struggles of revolutionary factions. There was a structural opportunity to play the restorer of order; and it was in this role that Napoleon was initially welcomed.
Thus, a general theory of political luck: What appears fortuitous from the point of view of a particular person, is predictable when seen in terms of structural locations and structural change. It is a matter of reversing the gestalt.
Leading political actors in a period of violent struggle are going to knock each other off. In France, once the royalists were gone, the radicals turned against the moderates; and when they were gone, turned against each other. Eventually when most people are exhausted, there is room for an outsider detached from the ideologically polarized factions to act as peace-maker, establishing a more stable regime. If the structural bases for contending forces are still strong, this outside restorer of order will have opposition that tends to provoke an authoritarian solution; but the restorer will have support in public opinion, in the time-period when they are tired of seemingly endless ideological projects and violent strife. Such a detached outsider cannot be entirely without network connections, but they must be distant and flexible enough so that he is not brought down by old faction struggles. In other words, the situation will select someone like Napoleon in terms of age, peripheral sphere of activity, and multi-sided connections with the center. [See Appendix on the age and careers of other successful generals.]
At a more general level: the timing of major change in political structures affects what persons are selected for each of the periods of time-dynamics. After the struggle leaders, comes the demand for a stabilizer.
Big structural changes, and times of dramatic struggle, generate charismatic leaders; among them, the type of leader who is an energy center, an energy leader, someone who pulls all the strings in his or her hands. To tie everything together demands very hard work, great energy, going from one situation to another getting people energized and attuned to a collective project. Situations of major structural change, where the demand (or advantage) is to centralization and coordination, select persons who are high-energy in this way. But finding such persons is not a sheer lucky accident, for the micro-level operation of such a sequence of interactions-- think of Napoleon’s daily routine as Emperor-- generates the conditions for successful interaction rituals, that fills the person in that slot with extraordinary emotional energy. Extraordinary structural changes, especially centralizing changes, generate extraordinary EE.
Periods when structural change is most rapid generate the conditions to shape such a person. Consider the many things that are attributed to Napoleon: the legal code that replaced feudalism with egalitarian and rationalized procedures for litigation, property, criminal punishment and civil procedure; the destruction of feudalism in territories at least temporarily under French control; administrative centralization and uniformity of government; modern methods of government finance; government regulation of education and patronage of science. Now reverse the gestalt: the shift from patrimonial-feudal structures towards centralized bureaucracy had been going on in France, as well in Prussia and elsewhere, for a century or more; but contending structures were in gridlock, and the French Revolution, precisely because of its mobilized crowds and violent conflicts, destroyed many structures, opening the way for a more consistent system of organization. As Tocqueville recognized, the Revolution extended the trend towards bureaucratic rationalization that had been going on surreptitiously. Some of this bureaucratic rationalization was done by administrators of the Republic; but the period of stability in which it was carried through was Napoleon’s regime.
In hero-centric or person-centered historical narratives, too much credit-- too much causal force-- is attributed to one person. Nevertheless, when big structural momentum is swinging but is held up by struggles or chaotic distractions, a structural opening is available for a regime to consciously and deliberately carry through the trend so that the transition is clear. (I resist saying, “to its conclusion”, since history rarely has conclusions, but there are times when it becomes a palpably different organizational and social universe.) When this happens, the leader of the team who does the reorganizing gets a great reputation, not only among contemporaries but in historical downstream. * The days and years when this is going on are going to be times of intensely coordinated action; and those are the conditions where someone can play the role Napoleon played-- so much to do that is consequential and important; that involves many networks of people, all of them crossing at a center where the energizing leader meets them.
* The glory days of the 1930s New Deal had this same quality. Again, to attribute it to the hero-leader is inaccurate; Franklin D. Roosevelt and a dedicated team are at the center of the action, and they simultaneously generate structural changes-- regarded as long overdue-- emotional energy, and charisma. Great times make Great Men, and vice versa. I could say this in non-sexist language, but this is a swipe at the Great Man theory of history. Why it is men that so far in history have played this role is another question; the nearest to it played by a woman has been Margaret Thatcher, although the long-term significance of the structural changes she championed remains equivocal.
The energetic action of the leader, sometimes with clear articulation of a vision, are real. But this is the effect of being in a structural location, at the time when major changes are accelerating past a turning point. After that exciting time is passed, there is no longer a demand for that kind of person; it is no longer important that some one should hold all the networks together, thereby becoming a super-energized leader of a team on a mission. The mission is institutionalized, organizations are routinized, other kinds of daily considerations come to dominate. The day of the super-energized charismatic leader is over.
Networks that Made Napoleon
If we flip the gestalt again, we see Napoleon thrown upward by lucky connections. Political defeat in Corsica was a down moment, but exile to Marseille brought orders to rejoin his regiment in Nice. Having tasted revolutionary politics, Napoleon tries his hand at writing a political pamphlet. It was rather clichéd compared to his incisive utterances when he had made it to the top; he is not yet sure of himself, his pathway gives him little more to think with than the rhetoric of the day. But it draws the attention of his political connections, the Jacobins then moving towards dictatorial power in the Committee of Public Safety, and their influential local agent, who happened to be Robespierre's younger brother. It is a time of military crisis; there are enemy armies on several fronts, and the English fleet has taken the French naval base on the Mediterranean, at Toulon. There are royalist revolts in Marseille, Lyon, and Toulon.
More luck: the commander of the French artillery besieging Toulon is wounded, and Napoleon is appointed to replace him. He is already the secretary to the council of war at Toulon, and he makes up a plan for the assault, training artillery on the weak point between the inner and outer harbors, to drive out the enemy fleet. The plan is approved by officials in Paris; after several months delay in preparation, the assault is carried out; the higher officers know of Napoleon through previous connections in the army and give him a free hand; Napoleon places the guns himself and leads the assault. The fort is taken and the English are driven out. It is a rare and welcome victory for the Jacobin regime. Napoleon is celebrated and promoted to Brigadier General at age 24, and made planner for the Army of Italy.
Flipping the outline of the gestalt: networks favor appointing an officer on a crucial front, who is favorably known to army superiors and politically connected with the civilian authorities on hand; they are sophisticated enough to recognize a problem for an artillery officer. The wounding of the previous artillery commander is sheer chance, more of less equivalent to how professional athletes get their chance in the lineup when some previous starter gets injured. This is a mechanism by which individuals get selected for action that will change their careers if they succeed. The system is selecting for someone like Napoleon. If not him, would it have made an equivalent?
But although victory over the English is welcome news in Paris, it is far from being the center of attention in a period when the Reign of Terror is raging. Robespierre purges his main rivals in spring 1794, then himself is overthrown in the Thermidorian reaction of July; both Robespierre brothers are guillotined. Now Napoleon’s connections count against him; he is arrested but released in a few weeks. More luck: he is too far from Paris to be quickly guillotined; his local political connections from Corsica and in the army give him support; his skills as artillery officer are scarce and valued; above all, he is not important enough to be a serious target. *
* A similar pattern of luck launched Michael Collins into leadership of the Irish Revolution. In 1916, at the time of the Dublin Easter uprising, Collins was 25 years old, active as a middle-ranking organizer, but not old and prominent enough to be among the leaders executed by the British when the uprising failed. He was imprisoned but released after 8 months. Virtually all the older leaders were dead, the rest still in prison, so Collins was one of those who stepped into the vacuum. He became the center of the remaining network by collecting and distributing funds for families of dead or imprisoned rebels; then, as the person who knew everyone in the underground, and who had money to buy guns, he became the logistics hub as the movement expanded on a wave of public sympathy. Collins became the ultra-energetic, perpetually busy leader that Napoleon became in his years of success, simultaneously more at the center of things than anyone else, more sociable and popular, and more politically astute. When the underground operation in Ireland was threatened by British undercover agents, Collins recruited his own armed force-- essentially counter-espionage assassins-- and this gave him a leading military reputation in the small-scale operations of the guerrilla war against British occupying forces. It was only a step from here to becoming chief negotiator, head of the army, and head of state-- until internal splits within the revolution got him assassinated at age 31.
But the following 12 months are a downer in Napoleon's political career. He is assigned an unfavorable post-- away from his Mediterranean network, sent to an infantry command against the peasant rebellion in the Vendée, military dirty work with no possible glory. He lingers in Paris, seeking other appointments. He makes himself better known to the top rulers, then in political struggles over a new constitution, led by a Directory of Five with two legislative councils. Napoleon stays clear of political maneuvers, but gets a choice military appointment: one of the five Directors, Barras, had seen him in action at Toulon, and since Barras headed the Army of the Interior (i.e. the security forces, which he had used to overthrow Robespierre), he made Napoleon his second-in-command. In October 1795, there is a royalist uprising: like so many successful demonstrations before it, a crowd descending upon the seat of government at the Tuileries, aiming to overawe the assembly. Napoleon had seen an attack in this very place, in August 1792, when a mob invaded the Tuileries and carried off the king and royal family to prison. Years later, Napoleon recalled thinking that a failure of nerve led to the fall of the monarchy, while a resolute defense would have saved it. This time he was ready with artillery.
He recalled the occasion: “I made the troops fire ball at first because to a mob who are ignorant of firearms, it is the worst possible policy to start out by firing blanks. For the populace, hearing a great noise, are a little frightened after the first discharge but, looking around them and seeing nobody killed or wounded, they pluck up their spirits, begin immediately to despise you, and rush on fearlessly, and it becomes necessary to kill ten times the number that would have been killed if ball had been used in the first place.” He was a cool-headed observer of people’s behavior, above all in moments of violent threat. He did not try to defend the government building with infantry lines, who so often waver when civilian crowds press up close to them, that they are unable to fire. Artillery is a more distant and therefore psychologically easier weapon to operate; Napoleon coolly dispersed the attacking crowd, killing 100. The whole thing was publicized as the failure of royalist enemies of the revolution, and Napoleon was promoted to Major General. Barras wanted to keep him as commander of the Army of the Interior, but Napoleon wanted something more than head of the palace guard. In January 1796, he got the Army of Italy. So far, it was largely his political connections that got him his military posts. Now it would be the other way around.
Napoleon’s military style
When he arrived, French forces were bogged down in the northwest corner of Italy, facing two armies: the state of Piedmont, and an Austrian force sent to aid them. French troops lacked supplies and were behind in their pay. Within weeks Napoleon put them on the offensive. In front of you is the richest part of the world, he told them; conquer it and we will have everything we want! Style trait number one: always active, never passive; for an organization (in this case 40,000 men) this meant galvanizing everybody, pulling the organizational threads together. The soldiers immediately liked him; officers quickly respected him, and soon it was clear that many other young officers-- and rankers too-- would win promotions.
There were two enemy armies, together outnumbering the French, but spaced apart. Just the configuration Napoleon typically would try to achieve. Style trait number two: move faster than anyone else. In effect, this meant a high degree of energetic cooperation and hands-on leadership since it was an organization that had to move. He cut off first the Piedmontese, winning a series of rapid-fire battles over a period of two weeks and forced them out of the war, taking Milan as his new seat of operations. Then he turned on the Austrians. They sent a succession of armies to drive him back; Napoleon marched rapidly to hit each one separately. This trait was an extension of French military doctrine; since large armies clogged roads and ate up local provisions (especially fodder for horses), they had to move in separate columns. The key was to converge rapidly when they met the enemy. The doctrine was standard; Napoleon was just better than anyone else at executing it rapidly.
Since the Austrians did not easily give up, this part of the war took longer; in all, he won 8 major battles in 10 months. His troops were exhilarated by the victory string. One regiment created, as a standing joke, the story that Napoleon was a little corporal who got a promotion after each battle. Style trait number three: morale outweighs material by a factor of three to one, as Napoleon said, and he knew how to generate morale. Wellington later said that Napoleon’s presence on the battlefield was worth 40,000 men. It was a conscious effort. Napoleon started two newspapers during this period; one to spread the news of his victories back home; the other for the soldiers. This was a new kind of army, not just discipline and obeying orders; the soldiers were to be informed and motivated by the same ideals as the highest officers.
Military style point number four: concentrate the artillery. This too was doctrine, but Napoleon pushed it as hard as he could. He favored light, rapidly moveable field artillery over heavier guns; the effort was not so much a massive shelling of fortresses (the older style of artillery), but substituting cannon fire for infantry firing; mixed arms, the artillery moving around the battlefield in close connection with infantry movements. His favorite kind of gun became known, in armies throughout the world, as the Napoleon 12-pounder.
There is a deeper point here in theory of violent conflict. As the French officer Charles Ardent du Picq was to document for the Crimean War, infantry have a strong tendency to misfire, or fail to fire entirely, in the stress of closely confronting an enemy. Since most muskets were inaccurate except within 40 yards (wait ‘til you see the whites of their eyes), a battle charge was a war of nerves; if the defenders could not get off their volley at the right time and with sufficient coordination, the oncoming attackers with their bayonets would usually panic defenders into a retreat. * Napoleon, who was an excellent observer of such things, recognized that artillery was more accurate and easier to keep under emotional control than infantry. This was the finding later elaborated by a military sociologist, S.L.A. Marshall, after World War II, showing that only a minority of front-line infantry fired their guns steadily at the enemy; and also that crew-operated weapons had a better performance, because there was more social support.
This meant artillery officers had to be out there on the front line, placing the guns, in tune with local conditions. Napoleon and his counterpart officers were visible heroes to their troops.
* This was shown already in the battle of Valmy September 1792, when what remained of the French army turned back an restorationist invasion, by breaking their attack with a concentrated cannonade. It would take a few years-- and Napoleon’s example-- to make it clear that artillery trumped infantry. Napoleon himself summed up the change: “It is with artillery that war is made... Missile weapons are now become the principal one; it is by fire and not by shock that battles are decided today.” Shock meant the battle charge, which as noted was primarily a matter of emotional domination.
Activeness; speed; morale; dispersed movement and rapid concentration to achieve local superiority; mobile artillery in infantry battles: these were a package, each one reinforcing the other. The whole army got on a positive spiral; they believed they were invincible. Eventually they were.
On a Roll
Napoleon fought 9 military campaigns over the period of 20 years from 1796 to 1815: 2 in Italy, 1 in Egypt, 1 in Spain, 3 in Germany and Austria, 1 in Russia; plus 1 defensive campaign during the comeback of the Hundred Days, the only campaign Napoleon fought on French territory. Of his first 6 campaigns he forced the enemy to yield a favorable peace treaty in 5 of them, resulting in a huge aggrandizement of French hegemony. The list of capital cities he triumphantly marched into includes Milan, Cairo, Rome, Vienna (twice), Berlin, Madrid, and Moscow. At one point, he had won 22 major battles in a row without a defeat; he was reputed so unbeatable that it created a stir when two battles against Austria and Prussia merely ended in draws. Through 1809, when he was 40 years old, he was like the greatest baseball pitcher of all time, a record of 22-0 in 24 starts.* One campaign he didn’t win was Spain, where he wasn’t present most of the time, but when he was he beat the English troops (the most dangerous opponent) and almost annihilated them.
* This was a better record than Julius Caesar; the only comparables I can find are Alexander the Great, who never lost a battle although there were setbacks during sieges and some campaigns aborted; and Stonewall Jackson, 7-1 when personally in command, and overall 14-1 including subordinate (but generally independent) roles. Altogether, Napoleon said he fought 60 battles, including minor ones.
The French army, particularly at first, was superior, for reasons Napoleon hadn’t invented. The Revolution brought mass conscription combined with patriotic and ideological appeal, generating armies as big or bigger than those of enemy states, and better-motivated ones. French officers had developed better tactics, command structures in larger divisions, more use of massed artillery and especially mobile artillery, more systematic organization of recruitment, training, and logistics. Napoleon was a well-trained French officer of the new model. But other French generals were only intermittently successful, a backdrop against which Napoleon stood out as a marvel.
How explain his success, against the time when things didn’t go so well? Compare the last three campaigns: Russia; the holding war that followed as Germany went into revolt; and the Hundred Days. Even then Napoleon continued to win most of the battles; there were some costly retreats where rearguards and garrisons became cut off; in the total sum of battles, there was only 1 real defeat, Waterloo. Why Napoleon started to lose, campaigns if not head-on battles, is part of the general question of what made him win. Later on, opponents got better by adopting French methods: organization into divisions, use of artillery, and especially in Germany, recruiting and motivating mass armies by patriotic appeal. By the time they had been fighting for 15 years, English troops could recognize French tactics and withstand them by strongly disciplined and carefully timed mass infantry volleys. In other words, opponents learn from each other, and the losers catch up if they haven’t disappeared. Parceling out the element that Napoleon personally added, we still have the fact that during the time when French armies were superior, he did far better with the instrument that other generals; and during the catching-up period, when his armies further suffered the consequences of being overstretched, Napoleon still dominated on the battlefield almost always.
Napoleon got himself into three major binds.
He tied up hundreds of thousands of troops in Spain, in a war that lasted five years and eventually was lost. He started by pushing an ally whose naval power he coveted as a weapon against England; then got involved in squabbles inside the Spanish royal family, tried to set up a puppet, and finally put his own brother on the throne; this provoked a nativist resistance by introducing the usual French revolution policies, which were anti-clerical and anti-feudal. Spanish guerrillas were largely ineffectual but they were dispersed all over the peninsula, tying up multiple French armies and disunifying military command. On the whole, the French were winning but an English force, securely supplied by sea, landed in Portugal and kept making forays into Spain, intermittent and then increasingly successful under Wellington’s command. When Napoleon commanded personally in Spain, his armies won; the trouble was he was fighting in Germany and then Russia, and in his absence the French generals often lost battles or got bogged down, and the dispersed commanders were jealous and quarreled among themselves. Napoleon had the energy and prestige to coordinate his subordinates when he was present; in his absence, other French commanders weren’t as good (this also happened in Italy; the main exception were some of the French armies fighting independently in Germany). Why not? This is a structural weakness of relying on a charismatic leader who centralizes everything by having much more energy than everyone else; Napoleon’s success in controlling things fed his energy but diminished the emotional energy of the next level of commanders when he wasn’t there.
A second mistake or bind was the strategy to beat England by economic warfare, an embargo on trade with the European continent. It was a reasonable policy in the abstract, since France could not beat England’s naval superiority nor transport an army to the island; and for a while the English were hurt economically. (In reverse, this was the policy of England against Germany in World War I, responsible for the naval escalation that brought the US into the war; in the end, the policy worked.) But in practice embargo meant closing every port to English goods; this provoked local resistance, and required sending in French troops or coercing allies into agreeing to enforce the embargo on their coasts. This was a slippery slope. Napoleon did not start the policy, having inherited it from the revolutionary regime; but as his military successes grew, he was tempted to annex more territories to enforce control directly (eventually including Belgium, Holland, northern coastal Germany, and parts of Italy). From being greeted as liberator and revolutionary modernizer, the French became regarded as old-fashioned empire-builders. Even his Russian campaign-- the glaring mistake recognized by everyone after his invading army was destroyed not by defeat in battle but by overextension and attrition-- was motivated in the first place by Napoleon’s attempt to force the Russians into joining the embargo.
Why didn’t Napoleon recognize it as a losing policy and change course? He did just that when he decided the Revolution’s anti-clericalism prolonged social strife in France; he successfully resolved the situation by making a Concordat with the Pope bringing Catholicism back into France, under terms favoring government control and without giving back confiscated church property. On religion, Napoleon was a typical radical secularist, but the issue didn’t matter that much to him, and political peace was more important. With the embargo, it had become too tied up with his military successes. Most enemy diplomatic coalitions against him had been provoked by the embargo policy; but each time, Napoleon won more battles and extended the reach of French power; it was the issue that had made him master of Europe. Even if he saw its strategic down-side, it had been a winning trajectory overall. And since the thing that Napoleon was better at than everyone was battlefield command, the policy was bringing him indirectly a series of just the kinds of situations that most pumped up his emotional energy. His grand strategy became a EE trap, where the external realities eventually were going to overstretch French capabilities. * But while it lasted, Napoleon was on a roll.
* Micro-details of how Napoleon's mind and emotions worked: When speaking with his advisors he listened at length to unwelcome news and contrary opinions, expressing his own views spontaneously and posing sharp questions. His ambassador to Russia describes a discussion in 1811 on whether to go to war (with all due warnings about the Russian plan to retreat into the depths of the country and let winter defeat the French): "After listening to me attentively, the Emperor began enumerating the troops and resources at his disposal. When he reverted to this theme I realized that all hope of peace was at an end, since it was enumerations of this kind which, more than anything, intoxicated him..." After making up his mind, Napoleon cheered up, and left his critic with jokes and good humor. [Caulaincourt]
Above all: what got Napoleon "intoxicated"-- pumping himself up with his own self-dialogue-- was thinking over the array of troops in his army; in other instances, we hear him doing the same with the units of the enemy's forces. It was the topic that entrained him; it was at the core of his professional competence; in effect, a Durkheimian sacred object, a monk chanting his mantra. In this vein, what most infuriated Napoleon was anyone disparaging his troops.
The third mistake-- dilemma or slippery slope as it may be-- was gradually doing away with the forms of Revolutionary equality and democracy and substituting the aristocratic ranks and protocol of the old regime. At first, Napoleon’s personal rule was popular because he ended the bloody faction-fighting that had roiled France from 1789 to 1800. Too much democracy was unstable, when factionalism was so intense and ideologically aggressive; and Napoleon was successful in getting France to calm down, by a mixture of repression and concessions. He put through policy changes that the divisive national assembly would have killed each other about: placating the Catholics and their peasant uprisings; reconciling emigré aristocrats and luring many back to France, sometimes giving them positions in government where they were rewarded for efficiency, putting by-gones in the past by working alongside their former enemies. Napoleon regarded his policy as the career open to achievement, like himself making his way up through the French artillery; he endorsed the Revolution abolishing hereditary aristocracy, but now set up a new elite that everyone could aspire to by proving themselves effective military officers or civilian administrators. Since his regime was heavily involved in war, reorganizing conquered territories, and changing the legal and governmental structure of France and elsewhere, there was a lot to be done and clear criteria of success and failure. Napoleon wanted to reward that success. He was a skilful organizer, and recognized the importance of having a good team, especially in the middle ranks.
Because it seemed the easiest thing to do abroad, he created new Kings, Grand Dukes and other titled entities, using them to reward his best generals and political allies. The same system expanded at home, after Napoleon made himself Emperor and surrounded himself with a court made up of aristocratic ranks, again rewarding his allies. Personally, Napoleon did not enjoy the stiff protocol he had introduced (or re-introduced), which shows it was a matter of deliberate policy: he wanted to calm down domestic politics, even to stifle it under rigid forms; formality was designed to eliminate court intrigues, and succeeded by enforcing boredom in his immediate entourage. The Emperor’s court contrasted sharply with Napoleon’s way of acting in other circumstances-- when he wanted to negotiate with foreign leaders, he could be charming, lively, humorous. In his informal mode, people liked Napoleon; his soldiers loved him. He even liked to sneak out at night and walk through the streets of Paris incognito, with only a single companion. Napoleon at the height of his power, however, had decided to rule through forms, and the forms he found were traditional ones. He rewarded his special favorites with hereditary titles, estates, even regimes, contradicting the other strand of his policy, the abolition of hereditary privilege so that all careers were open to talent. Political struggles bring compromises; but Napoleon’s compromises over time choked off emotional energy, both his own and in the people around him.
Napoleon’s Down Moments
Spring and summer, 1795. Napoleon had been stricken off the rolls of army generals for failing to take up his command in the Vendée. A lady recalled what he looked like while living in his parents’ house is Marseille:
“He entered with awkward, uncertain steps, with a shabby round hat pulled down deep over his face, his disorderly hair falling on the collar of his gray coat; without gloves, which he regarded as a superfluous expense; in badly made, badly heeled boots-- In short, when I call up in memory his whole miserable appearance and compare it with his later picture, I can hardly recognize him.”
|Napoleon 1796 (age 27)|
Taking allowance for the fact that Napoleon was one of the first to take up the new fashion of wearing his hair natural instead of the old style of wearing a wig, it is the picture of a man down on his luck as well as down on his finances. He took himself to Paris to work on his political connections. The city seemed to him in a mad dream, pursuing luxury and pleasure; an atmosphere that made him uncomfortable. The danger of a royalist plot perked things up. Napoleon got himself taken on by Barras, a corrupt politician, and by October he was placing the artillery to defend the Tuileries against an overthrow. A whiff of grapeshot was what Napoleon, the action-seeker, needed too. Soon he was frequenting Barras’ salon, and even getting ready to marry Josephine Beauharnais, Barras’ former mistress, an accomplished society lady 6 years older than himself.
18th Brumaire, Year Eight of the Revolutionary calendar (November 9-10, 1799). Napoleon has hurried back from Egypt, having gotten wind of another government crisis. Besides a crisis of government revenues due to weak central control over regional authorities, armies were not being paid, debt and inflation mounted. Another purge was being contemplated on the Directory and the Councils, between the ex-Jacobins who wanted to return to the dictatorship and reign of terror of 1793 to crush the danger of traitorous emigrés, and the moderates who wanted to strengthen central authority by purging the radicals. Napoleon was enlisted by Sieyés, the anti-Jacobin leader, to provide the force to coerce the Council. Napoleon held a strong hand; he was greeted enthusiastically by crowds on his return from Egypt. Both sides made feelers to him; the Jacobins and their favorite generals (Bernadotte, Augereau) suggested a military dictatorship to get him on their side, but Napoleon had no desire to represent an unpopular faction. Napoleon made a deal with Sieyés; the new constitution must take the form of a triumvirate of Consuls, and he would be one of them.
|Napoleon 1799 (age 30)|
Distrusting the politicians on all sides, but assured of military support and the people of Paris, Napoleon became impatient while the two Councils debated receiving the resignation of the Directors and the new arrangement of Consuls. He finally barged into the Council of Elders, and made a long and badly delivered speech. Opponents interrupted him-- an unaccustomed event for a military officer, amid politicians whose favorite tactic was shouting each other down. He turned to his aides and loudly called for protection if he were declared “hors de loi”-- outlawed, the cry that had brought down Robespierre. His companions pulled him out of the room to the hoots of the politicians. In the Council of Five Hundred, Napoleon was surrounded by angry deputies who beat him with their fists, and had to be rescued by his soldiers. Napoleon was overwhelmed by a different kind of crowd he could not face down. For once in his life, he lost emotional domination.
His brother Lucian, who was President of the Council of Five Hundred, took charge of the situation. On a legal maneuver, he kept the councilors from taking a vote on hors de loi, and went with Napoleon to address the Council guards-- the military force sworn to protect the politicians. Lucien dramatically reported the Councils were being infiltrated by agents of the English, armed with daggers, an appeal in the paranoid language of the time. Napoleon echoed his brother, and showed blood on his face. The rumour spread there had been an attempt in the Council to assassinate Napoleon. The mood turned; there was no resistance from the guards as Napoleon’s soldiers dispersed the Council with bayonets, some even climbing out the windows. Napoleon had made it through, preserving the semblance of legal proceeding, although personally he was badly shaken. Henceforward, he would face no further divisive assemblies. His nerve was specific to the battlefield; it did not work in this alien environment.
The Emperor’s court assembly, January 1809. Napoleon has just made a hurried return from Spain, where he had beaten an English expedition and propped up his brother on the throne. The source of his haste: a rumour that Talleyrand, his Foreign Minister, and Fouché, the Chief of Police, had made a secret agreement to name a successor in case something happened to Napoleon in Spain. “Thief! You are nothing but a thief!” Napoleon shouted at him. “You would sell your own father. You are nothing but shit in a silk stocking.”
Talleyrand, the imperturbable diplomat, waited until the fit of rage was over. After the Emperor left the room, he remarked: “Too bad, that such a great man is so badly brought up.” He had judged it correctly; Napoleon’s threat was too overwrought to be serious. Napoleon was showing signs of weakness. Why? The Spanish situation was an irritant; his own family as puppet kings were not doing well. There was a continuing rumble of plots and assassination threats at home. And he didn’t like these formal levées anyway; for several years, when he got bored, his was known to make cutting remarks at the expense of the ladies present. Fortunately for Napoleon’s equilibrium, another enemy coalition gave him a challenge he could handle. By April he was off campaigning against Austria, on his way to his most grandiose battle victory at Wagram.
|Napoleon 1812 (age 43)|
Moscow, September-October 1812. It had been the most difficult of all Napoleon’s campaigns, but he had reached the goal. The enemy’s capital city was taken. Of the invading army of 600,000 only 100,000 remained, most of them having fallen off along the way (especially the non-French contingents raised from his unwilling allies), another 30,000 lost at the battle of Borodino where the Russian army was smashed. He had pushed forward the offensive in August, after two months on the march: “In a month we’ll be in Moscow; in six weeks we’ll have peace.” The city was deserted, every door and window shut, the streets deserted-- not the welcoming or at least curious crowds Napoleon was used to. Two days after the French arrived, fires burned most of the city, set by the Russians themselves. Napoleon occupied the Kremlin and awaited the Czar’s messengers to discuss terms of a peace treaty. It was early September, weather was still good; to avoid spending the winter in Moscow, this would be the time to leave.
Napoleon was uncharacteristically indecisive. For five weeks he waited for the ambassadors who never came. His meals, usually so short, grew longer. He seemed stunned, lolling about in deadly boredom with a novel in his hand. He had never appeared so low in emotional energy.
Finally, in mid-October, he gave the order to retreat. The French troops had lost their discipline and spent their time looting the city; now they were weighed down with spoils. The oncoming winter, lack of food along the route, lack of horses, harassing attacks by the Russians took their toll. The dramatic story Napoleon was to tell blamed it all on the weather; in fact most of the losses of the invading army had happened on the way to Moscow, not the way back, but this is what impressed people. His image as the unbeatable conqueror was gone. The Russian army, when it had finally harried the French out of their land, was down to no bigger numbers than Napoleon’s remaining troops, and in no position to make an offensive. But the Germans and Austrians were suddenly emboldened to throw off their enforced alliances, their treaties with France; the initiative had swung. This was an emotional energy shift, a tidal wave of emotions on the macro-level, spreading among popular militias in Prussia and elsewhere, sweeping the German rulers along however hesitant they had been to unleash the kind of enthusiasm they associated with Jacobin class upheavals. For Napoleon, it was a geopolitical disaster, above all in what Weber called power prestige.
Nevertheless, on the march, Napoleon was more upbeat than he had been in Moscow. In the coldest weather, he made a point of marching along with his Imperial Guards, on foot and in a fur coat, for several hours a day. In early December he decided to hurry back to Paris; one of the generals had attempted a coup, acting on the rumour that Napoleon was dead; it was imperative to show himself and rebuild another army. They were finally out of Russia, but had to cross now-hostile Prussian territory. Napoleon traveled by coach with his ambassador Caulaincourt, disguised as his secretary. On the way he ragged this dignified gentleman about what would happen if they were captured: the Prussians would turn them over to his arch-enemy, the English. “Can you picture to yourself, Caulaincourt, the figure you would cut in an iron cage, in the main square of London?” The ambassador recalled: "And there he was for a quarter of an hour, laughing at this foolish notion... Never had I seen the Emperor laugh so heartily, and his gaiety was so infectious that it was some time before we could speak a word without finding some new source of amusement."
He handled defeat fairly well, when it came. During the end game in 1813-1814, he kept parrying the oncoming Prussian, Austrian and Russian armies advancing on France, but could do little about Wellington crossing the Pyrenees from the south. A French marshal who went over to the Russians advised: “Expect a defeat whenever the Emperor attacks in person. Attack and fight his lieutenants whenever you can." He could not be everywhere at once. When an enemy column took Paris, Napoleon still had an army in the field; but his other generals saw the situation was hopeless, and made a truce that forced Napoleon to abdicate. He salvaged a tiny principality, the island of Elbe near his Corsican home, and retired there to wait the outcome of events. The Bourbon monarchy, recalled to power in France, quickly proved unpopular; the victorious powers fell out at the conference to redistribute territories. Ten months later, Napoleon landed in France, roused his army veterans, and fought the showdown again. As in 1814, he was outnumbered by enemy armies; his attempt to beat them separately by fast maneuver before they combined failed at Waterloo.
He ordered a fast frigate to take him to America, but the British blocked the Atlantic port. Napoleon decided to take asylum in England, perhaps a romantic memory of other Continental exiles who had gone there is the past. Though their nations had been bitter enemies, on board ship he got along extremely well. It helped that he was treated like royalty, the English Admiral even taking off his hat to him. In England crowds came out to see the celebrity; he bowed and men generally took off their hats. It was a bitter blow when the government, putting aside personal sympathies and as a matter of policy, sent him into the furthest possible exile at St. Helena in the south Atlantic. For a moment Napoleon’s valet was afraid he would commit suicide. He soon recovered; on the voyage he chatted and played cards with the Admiral. When his entourage (a full complement of servants and companions) arrived at St. Helena, he was lionized by the British settlers; everyone wanted to meet him, and he was the life of the party, on occasion putting aside personal dignity to banter with children and adults alike.
Eventually the situation began to wear on him; the novelty of his adventure among the English was gone; quarrels with the martinet British governor, fading hopes that he would be recalled to Europe. He grew fat and lethargic. This man of supreme energy, deposed at age 45 with nothing to do, grew idle, sickened, and died. He was 51.
Napoleon in exile at St. Helena, 1819 (age 49)
Napoleon on his death bed, 1821 (age 51)
Ability, What is it?
Napoleon was a man of highest ability, if we want to use that term. He was a better general than anyone; an administrator who got things done and left permanent effects. He chose his officers and civilian officials for their abilities. What does it mean? A tautology; ability, capability, such words all imply a subjunctive mode, it could well happen, we have every reason to expect that this person will make it happen-- but only because of what they have done in the past. Capability is a false noun; it can only be judged in action.
On the whole, the action we call ability is emotional energy, compounded with good judgment, realistic observation, and the techniques of human interaction that bring other people to join in a collective project and thus make big things happen.
To say that someone has ability but doesn’t use it, means they sometimes show what they can do, but most of the time they don’t. Why not? It is the obverse case of Napoleon. Having traced his ups and downs, we can see even someone at the supreme level is riding in and out of networks and situations where they can generate EE. It is rare that someone can be at the center of networks of networks, hold the connections together, and make big things happen that have been hanging on the cusp of previous developments.
Such positions in historical time and social space are rare, and so supremely energized persons are rare. Their moments come, raise them up, as they focus and raise up the people around them, and who in turn ripple the focused energy outwards among thousands or millions of people. The networks stutter and hitch; the actor at the center loses grip, regains it, goes on again. The network configuration changes, the moment is past. The circle of rippling focus narrows. The energy dims. The Great Man dies... or rather, the circuits no longer flow, the lights go out.
Volker Ullrich. 2004. Napoleon.
Felix Markham. 1963. Napoleon.
Marquis Armand de Caulaincourt. With Napoleon in Russia.
Edward Coss. 2010. All For the King’s Shilling: The British Soldier Under Wellington.
Chambers Biographical Dictionary. 1984.
Randall Collins. 2004. Interaction Ritual Chains.
Peter Hart. 2005. The Real Michael Collins.
Michel Villette et al. 2009. From Predators to Icons: Exposing the Myth of the Business Hero.
Donald Black. 2011. Moral Time. A general theory that inequalities do not produce conflict, but only changes in social distance do so; the more rapid the changes in social distance, the greater the conflict. This gives a wider context to my point that “Great Men” arise when a long-deadlocked social change suddenly happens; for such persons are experts at winning social conflicts.
Andrew Walder. 2009. Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement. The upheaval of the Chinese Cultural Revolution 1966-68, with an aftermath until 1976, reveals dynamics similar to the volatile purges in the French Revolution during 1792-99, “the revolution devouring its children.” The Red Guards factions did not differ in their class backgrounds or social bases, but by an ongoing factionalization between radicals and moderates. Each attack by Red Guards on a government institution gave rise to another faction attacking them for going too far, or not far enough. The dynamic was internally unstable because it had no stopping point. (If we model it as a closed system of feedback loops, it is self-perpetuating.) Both the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the French Revolution ended with an authoritarian solution. To end the chaos, Mao sent the Red Guards into exile in the countryside; its instigators (including Mao’s wife) were executed, and the Deng Xiaoping regime that followed reversed much of the Communist path, as Napoleon did with the Jacobin program in France. Walder’s analysis points up what it means for a period of political infighting to be internally unstable. See my comments above about the Reign of Terror, and the struggles in the Directory that Napoleon finally brought to an end at the 18th Brumaire.
Appendix: an Era of Youthful Success
Napleon’s success at an early age seems remarkable to us. But he was not without experience; when he got his first army to command at age 26, he had been an officer for 10 years.
Most of the important French generals during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars were about his age. Of 13 Marshals and other Generals, their ages and first general commands were as follows:
Napoleon / loyalists:
Napoleon 1769-1821; first general command age 26.
Soult 1769-1851; first command age 25 under Massena; w. N in German campaigns; mixed victories in Spain. Supported N in 1815.
Lannes 1769-1809; first command age 27; rose through ranks under N in Italy; active in Brumaire coup.
Davout 1770-1823; first command 28; military schoolmate of N; in Egypt and later campaigns; War Minister during Hundred Days.
Junot 1771-1813; first command 27; with N in Italy, Egypt.
Marmont 1774-1852; 5 years younger than N. first command 24; w. N in Italy, Egypt. Made truce 1814, compelled N to abdicate.
older than Napoleon:
Bessières 1768-1813; first command 31; rose from private (1792) to captain 1794; w. N in Italy, Egypt.
Murat 1767-1815; first command 32; rose through ranks; w. N in Italy, Egypt; led forces to disperse Council of Five Hundred in Brumaire coup. Supported N in 100 Days.
Augereau 1757-1836; 12 years older than N. Rose through ranks; under N in Italy. Opposed N in 1815.
independent of Napoleon:
Bernadotte 1763-1844; 6 years older than N. first command age 31. rose from private (1780); victories in Germany 1796; under N 1805-8. Distrusted by N, in 1810 elected heir to Swedish throne, joined opposing Coalition.
Moreau 1761-1813; 8 years older than N. first command 33. Led volunteers 1789; under Dumouriez at Valmy; victories in Holland and Germany; defeated Austrians 1801. Assisted N in Brumaire coup 1799; suspected of treacherous dealings, exiled after 1804 assassination attempt on N; switched to Russian side 1813.
Massena 1758-1817; 11 years older than N. Officer in Sardinian army; first French command 1793 (age 35); independent of N in Italy campaigns, Spain. Refused to follow N in 1815.
Dumouriez 1739-1823; older generation career officer; supported Girondist moderates for constitutional monarchy; first command age 53, 1792 Valmy victory saved Paris. After Jacobin purge went over to Austrians.
In summary: Napoleon's generals were mostly younger than himself, at most years 2 older (with 1 exception). The young ones got their first command at ages 24-8 -- some even younger than Napoleon at 26. Generals independent of him were a good deal older, and got their first command in their 30s. Many of both kinds came up through the ranks; it was not just a saying that every private carried a marshal's baton in his pack. On the whole, the amount of warfare during this period speeded up military careers quite a lot; compare the old regime's Demouriez, who got his command at 53-- not unlike American generals of the 20th and 21st centuries. The young generals stayed loyal to Napoleon throughout; the older ones eventually went over to the enemy.
Why Youth Could Rise Then and Not Now
What makes them seem so young for their rank is our own career structures: a bureaucratic education system extended by credential inflation to take up most of the young years; and the bureaucratic organizations (including the military) where large numbers compete for promotion through an elaborate series of ranks. Ironically, our age of meritocracy is more of a gerontocracy that the pre-bureaucratic era. The exception is young business entrepreneurs in Information Technology (because they don't wait for credentials), although not in finance and management.
Another Great Man, Rising Young
Napoleon was not the only young leader of a state in his time. William Pitt (the Younger) 1759-1806, was Prime Minister of England during most of the years between 1784 and 1805, and thus was France’s, and Napoleon’s, chief opponent. He entered Parliament at age 22 and became PM at 25. How did he manage it so young? His father was a former PM, who did not send the boy to school but reared him to be an orator and politician. Pitt entered Parliament when the Tory ministry in power was disgraced by defeats in America; and the opposition Whigs were split between Old Whigs and a Young Whig faction that Pitt’s father had led. Pitt joined neither, but began by fighting loudly for parliamentary reform, refusing office until the King gave him carte blanche. He carried through a series of government reforms, raising the House of Commons above the House of Lords, making the head of the Treasury supreme in government, and sharply reducing electoral corruption; government sinecures were abolished, revenue was rationalized by reforms in taxation and trade duties, finances were put in order, thereby enabling the huge military effort against France. In many respects Pitt paralleled what the French Revolution and Napoleon accomplished organizationally. Here again the “Great Man” emerges when large structural changes, long-proposed, are finally brought about by a super-energetic and impressive leader.
Pitt could impose his will, just as Napoleon could, because he had a clear goal and a sense that his quarreling compatriots could not carry it. Their micro-interactional skills were different; Pitt the master of swaying parliamentary factions by oratory; Napoleon the master of command in war and of holding together all the threads of organization. Both rose rapidly to the top in a political arena riven by multiple conflicts, which they resolved by a strong course of action that pulled others along with them. And both were workaholics, Pitt if anything even more so; he never married, apparently had no sexual interests, and avoided society. He was worn out and died as soon as he left office, aged 47; almost exactly the age that Napoleon was overthrown.
Finally, we should note:
Lucien Bonaparte 1775-1840: N’s younger brother; age 23 member of Council of Five Hundred, elected its President just before N’s Brumaire coup. Became Minister of Interior and ambassador. At age 18, a young hothead, denouncing the Corsican independence party, precipitated N’s break and exile from Corsica. Ablest of N’s brothers, he refused the crowns of Italy and Spain under condition of divorcing his wife for dynastic marriages. Estranged from N.
Napoleon was not the only strong-willed person in his family. The two cooperated uneasily, then butted heads. Two such energy centers could not coexist in close proximity.