The Napoleonic Touch

in History/Politics by

Some observers have smugly claimed that it is impossible to have a reactionary movement. They say it would be like piecing a ruined cobweb back together or trying to set Humpty Dumpty back on his wall. For them, it is one item on a long list of impossibilities. If one supposes that reactionaries want to return to some glittering past in every particular and detail, then the critics are right; it cannot be done. Fortunately, we are not focused on bringing back the poke bonnet or illuminated manuscripts; that is to say, nobody is trying to revive the little irrelevancies of bygone eras. The reactionary goal is to return to the spirit of an age, not its particulars. We only need to extract what worked from the past and juxtapose it onto the present. It is a process of adapting the present to the past, rather than trying to impose the past onto the future.

Perhaps the most compelling point against critics is that history provides examples of reactionary movements that have succeeded. There is one in particular that stands out like a star shining over a pitch-black sea.

If you want to engineer a Restoration—a Restoration in the purest sense of the word, as in a return to one’s point of origin—then you should scrutinize intensely the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon provides the reactionary with an intricate blueprint for how to topple the cracked and flaking idols of the liberal tradition.

Napoleon might seem to be an odd choice for analysis because, at first glance, he seems to be a liberal to those not well versed in Napoleonic history. He was a Corsican, a backwater bourgeois man, an artillery officer, and so he was a man with not one aristocratic credential to his name. He initially rose to fame by firing grapeshot into a crowd of royalists. Many might ask how this could possibly be Europe’s reactionary par excellence.

It is an issue that can only be solved by a crisp defining of terms. Napoleon was not a reactionary in the sense that he wanted to reseat a Bourbon king on the throne and fly the royal white colors again; he was quite content to fly the revolutionary tricolour, provided that he was the man directing things from the top, rather than another Louis the something-or-other.

Tradition means nothing if the tradition does not guard something dear, and in this case, the crown jewel was Napoleon himself.

This point is exemplified in a quote Napoleon made to the French Senate: “What is a throne? A bit of wood gilded and covered in velvet. I am the state. I alone am the representative of the people here.”

With the words, “I am the state,” Napoleon was intentionally referencing Louis XIV. His purpose was to rekindle the feelings his countrymen had for a firm leader who had, in their era, become the stuff of legends. All of the pomp and pageantry of monarchy means nothing if the monarch is a dunderhead and his marshals and ministers are dithering libertines. A state is only as good as its statesmen.

All of this points to the conclusion that Napoleon believed in natural hierarchies, the kind of hierarchies where the most capable men rise to the top and the dross is thrown out. Bonaparte realized that France did not need a liberal revolution to correct its problems; it needed a thorough cleansing at the top. The old order, which had grown stagnant and ineffectual, had to be reworked. It was not a failure of the royalist system that had led to France’s decline; it had been a failure of France’s royalty.

It is from this premise that Napoleon initiated reforms not to end the aristocracy, but to populate it with fresh faces. When he came to power in 1799, Napoleon found himself in a very unique position. The radical liberals had done most of the dirty work by beheading or frightening away the old aristocracy, and yet, the most outspoken radicals had suffered the same fate from an inevitable backlash. Napoleon inherited a blank slate, and it is from this curious position that reactionaries can glean plenty of knowledge: Napoleon had the unusual luxury of creating an aristocracy from scratch.

It is worthwhile, then, to examine how Bonaparte came to power, how he wielded his power, and how he cast out the demons of a revolution that nearly ruined France. Below, I have extracted what I feel are the four most crucial points relevant to reactionaries.

  1. Don’t be the wrecking-ball, be the builder.

It is unusual for revolutions to be led by the middle class, but if they are, the results are often catastrophic. The middle class provides the bulk of a nation’s skilled labor, so if the middle class routine is interrupted, the nation’s productivity plunges. Riots become widespread. Traditions are trampled by the march of often tried and soon abandoned fads. During a revolution, the old middle class heroes are forgotten and a new hero comes to the fore: the blunderbuss, the loudmouthed and garrulous malcontent. He is the kind of man who uses his sometimes legitimate grievances to push for wholly illegitimate abuses of power. He does not want reform. He wants scalps. But the Robespierre’s of the world can only bellow and shout for so long before their words lose the power to persuade.

The middle class resolve will crack eventually, and when it does, the people will want a return to order, efficiency, and everyday routine. The rabble-rousers will have no more sway over the people and very likely will be met with the same brutality they inflicted on others. From the ensuing power vacuum there will emerge one sweeping sentiment, a longing in the minds of the middle class that contradicts its most cherished virtues—they will want an autocrat. They will know, as if by instinct, that an unapologetic authority is the only way to restore order.

This was the role Napoleon played for France. In a world of wrecking balls and societal demolition, France desperately needed the one man it had spent the last decade hating: France needed a builder.

The lesson Napoleon leaves for us here is that no matter how fashionable it is to seem mad, no matter how hysterical the mob becomes, the reactionary must stand like a rock in the tide. He must be the cogent one, the visionary, the law bringer. When their failures come to light, the middle class will look to the reactionary for guidance for the same reason they looked to Napoleon: he will be saner than the alternatives.

In truth, the essence of Napoleon’s rule was simple. It required no complicated theology or tortuous explanations to help people understand it. It was a principle as timeless as the rivers and the trees. To quote one of Napoleon’s prefects, Boniface de Castellane-Novejean, the purpose of Napoleon’s government was to “make sure that the taxes are paid, that the conscription is carried out, and that law and order are preserved.”

  1. Say one thing, do another.

Historians have had a hard time figuring out where Napoleon fits on the political spectrum. When viewed in the rosy afterlight of our era, Napoleon seems more like a shadow than an emperor. No matter what policies he endorses or opposes, no matter what his suggestions or promises, we can never see Napoleon in full color. A part of the man always defies analysis.

This, then, is the lesson for reactionaries. The reactionary does himself no favors by standing on principle and spelling out his intentions with perfect clarity. Rhetoric must be gently tempered with the reality of a nation’s political situation.

You are not going to convince a newly-formed mob republic to become an empire any more than you are going to convince a bunch of farmers to buy a whaling ship. In order to make such a broad leap, the political situation must be very gently and subtly changed. The people will have to be nudged into it. Napoleon was shrewd enough to realize this fact, and so he spoke according to the conditions at hand. If the people wanted comfort, he was their tender mother. If they wanted fire and brimstone, he was their avenging angel. But whatever words came out of Napoleon’s mouth, his actions were those of a reactionary.

If we examine Napoleon’s words and set aside his actions, we are met with a slew of contradictions. Here I have provided a brief selection of Napoleon’s quotes illustrating my point. Some are liberal in character, some are reactionary, and none provide a full view of this shadowy figure.

Liberal: “More glorious to merit a scepter than to possess one.”

Reactionary: “A form of government that is not the result of a long sequence of shared experiences, efforts, and endeavors can never take root.”

Liberal: “Hereditary succession to the magistracy is absurd… it is incompatible with the sovereignty of the people.”

Reactionary: “I am a monarch of God’s creation, and you reptiles of the earth dare not oppose me.”

Liberal: “Conscience is the most sacred thing among men.”

Reactionary: “The life of a citizen is the property of his country.”

These quotes should make it clear that if we examine his words in isolation, Napoleon was a political enigma. His actions, however, blot out the bulk of his words. He rebuilt France’s aristocracy, affirmed traditional marriage and religious life, strengthened the military, reformed banking, and from the sunlit hills of Provence to the dirty alleys of Paris, brought an unyielding order to France.

While Napoleon spoke highly of liberty and the rights of man–and certainly some part of his soul was fond of these ideas–he was an unflappable autocrat in his deeds. Perhaps these two extremes were not contradictory in Bonaparte’s mind. He had seen firsthand the cruelties of the revolution and perhaps he felt, with some justification, that liberties can only be upheld by a strong authority.

In a similar vein, I feel that if we were to pull off a reactionary movement in America, it would have to look and sound curiously like Napoleonic France. Liberty would be extolled and cherished in our rhetoric while power would be consolidated into an authoritarian state that guarded those liberties.

  1. Women lead homes, men lead nations.

This is one of the surest laws of nature; so sure that you might as well set it in neon lights and place it at the doorway of every legislative building in the world. Women lead homes, men lead nations.

Violate this maxim and your society will be well on its way to fire and ashes. By taking women, humanity’s nurturers, and placing them in the thick of battle or in the push and pull of politics, a society is toying with death. Yin and Yang are primordial forces that must remain in balance for there to be harmony. By taking women out of the home, divorce rates rise, birth rates flatten, and the state becomes a tool to serve their nurturing instinct. Thankless welfare policies, finger-wagging taxes and regulations, and a revolving door of arbitrary justice; it becomes, in essence, a rule of schoolmarms. The virtues of women remain virtues only if women rule the home and stay out of the state.

Napoleon was wise to this truth. In the civil code that would eventually bear his name, Napoleon and his legal experts stipulated severe restrictions on women in an effort to restore the natural balance between the sexes.

In Article 213, for instance, we find the statement that “A husband owes protection to his wife who owes obedience to her husband.” This helps to keep men and women in alignment with their respective virtues: protection and provisioning for men, loyalty for women. That is how strong families are forged.

Elsewhere, the code contained laws that worked toward similar goals. Wives could be imprisoned for adultery. Men were shielded from having to support illegitimate children. Women could not sign contracts, file lawsuits, or be called into court as witnesses. They could take their goods to market only with their husbands’ permission, and buying or selling land required formal, written consent.

At first glance, this code might seem hopelessly unfair. We must consider, however, what Napoleon knew and why this code worked to make France a bolt of lightning among lightning bugs. The reactionary understands that fairness has nothing to do with nature. The natural order has prescribed certain roles for men and women, and when those roles are knocked out of alignment, all of society wobbles and tilts.

There are some women who undoubtedly flourish outside of the home and who are quite comfortable examining politics from a logical perspective rather than a maternal one. But we cannot disturb the whole balance of nature, and we cannot compromise our whole living heritage for the occasional Margaret Thatcher. The risk is just not worth the reward.

A woman’s foremost virtue is to make a home and be loyal to it. The Napoleonic Code takes that law of life and extends it into a coherent policy: women should not be having sex before marriage, they should not be having sex with anyone but their husbands, and they should not trouble themselves too much with legal and political matters. Their children, their husbands, and their communities should take precedence over any distraction. This is not done to “oppress” women because the natural order exists beyond concepts like oppression and freedom. It is done for the sake of order itself, which in turn provides women with a proper space to let their virtues shine.

  1. Elites make states, but the masses sustain them.

Every Restorationist faces a conundrum. On the one hand, he requires support from the elites, or better yet, collaboration with them, if Restoration is to succeed; on the other hand, his primary targets to work against are these very same elites who, for obvious reasons, are not inclined to follow along with his schemes. If you are going to rob Peter to pay Paul, it is best not to talk too long with Peter.

Most of the time, regime change can only succeed if there is a split among the elites. There are situations where religious and ethnic struggles or even greed can lead to vast chasms of difference opening up between the elites. If these chasms cannot be bridged, if the factions cannot be reconciled, a civil war will be inevitable. This leads us to the first half of our axiom: elites make or break nations. The stability or instability of a nation rests mostly on the shoulders of its elites. That point is self-evident and requires no elaboration.

The second part of our axiom, however, is not quite as evident and does require some elaboration. The masses, despite having a secondary role to the elites, are nonetheless crucial to political life. To put the point in Napoleon’s words, “What is government? Nothing, unless supported by opinion.”

Napoleon was neither making a case for democracy with that quote, nor was he stating that every Jacques and Antoine on the street should be consulted for his ill-informed opinions. Napoleon was instead speaking in a way that Machiavelli would approve of; he was giving his listeners a glimpse into what politics really is. What he was truly saying is that power is founded on appearances.

Napoleon figured out that if the masses revered him, the machinations of his ministers and aids will be no more dangerous than an elephant in the ocean. Bonaparte had found the golden mean of politics. If the masses supported him, the elites could not touch him. Since the elites could not substantially defy him, it was in their best interest to maintain the status quo by keeping the masses in check. It was a self-reinforcing system that had turned France into the most polished and powerful state of Europe.

One of the ways Napoleon was able to maintain this balance between the elites and the masses was with his clever use of promotions. He distributed hereditary titles and honors to those whom he felt deserved to be among the elite: mostly to his ablest military men. These were called “notables” and they comprised the upper-crust of Napoleonic France.

He did not, however, shun the masses. In 1802, Bonaparte formed the Legion of Honor as a means to give the most talented and capable men in France a chair at the aristocratic table. It was open to all men, of all classes, and it was based solely on a man’s merits. It was the first of its type in Europe. The old notables were incensed but the Legion proved too popular to quash. By 1808, there were over twenty-thousand men among the Legion’s ranks and they were very proud to be there. “You call these baubles,” Napoleon said to his critics, “Well, it is by baubles that men are led.”

In the end, the reward proved to be a clever way to redirect the tensions that arise from class conflict: the masses were given a means to advance in life by either bravery or brilliance, while the surge of upstarts among the aristocracy kept the upper-crust honest by reminding them that they were not irreplaceable.

To bring this essay to its end, I must say it is a shame that Bonaparte is so often overlooked by reactionaries. He demands more diligent care and attention. Perhaps it is because of his manipulative cynicism that religious reactionaries shun him. Or perhaps it is because his rhetoric so often carried with it the vague taint of liberalism that it makes others queasy. Whatever the case, I feel that Napoleon has been too carelessly consigned to the back ends and dusty crevices of the reactionary library. This essay provides four points for study but many more might be taken from Napoleon’s life. It is all there; ripe and waiting for serious scholars. Napoleonic history exists not just as a stirring story, and make no mistake, it is one of history’s most stirring, but as a blueprint of what could be. It shows us that the future is dark but that it still has a silver lining, if we are willing to act with the cleverness and conviction of Napoleon.

Article originally published at Social Matter Magazine.

Fritz Pendleton is a reactionary and lover of tried and proven traditions. You can find him on Twitter using the name @fritz_pen.

  • Things didn’t end well for Napoleon. They won’t end well for Trump either.

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