Thomas Jefferson on Napoleon

The beginning of May reminds those who are conscious of history of the deposing and exiling of the monster Napoleon Bonaparte (1769—1821). It was in fact 190 years ago that he was exiled to the island of Elba.

The alliance of Great Britain, Sweden, Russia, Prussia, and Austria (the Sixth Coalition [1812—1814]) against Napoleon led to the occupation of Paris at the end of March of 1814. This was followed by Napoleon’s abdication on April 6 in favor of his son. But because the Allies demanded unconditional surrender, Napoleon abdicated again, unconditionally, on April 11.

By the treaty signed at Fontainebleau (in the same palace where Louis XIV signed the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685), Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba, Italy’s third largest, lying just off the coast of Tuscany. He landed on the island on May 4, 1814, and remained there until his escape on February 26, 1815. And then, as most people remember about Napoleon, he suffered his final defeat at Waterloo, in present-day Belgium, on June 18, 1815.

For some strange reason, Napoleon is admired by many who would be quick to denounce Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Tito, and Mao Tse-Tung as dictators. But surely the man who said that he would gladly sacrifice a million men to secure his paramountcy belongs in the pantheon of monsters we call dictators?

The Napoleonic wars that plagued Europe from 1803—1815 did not escape the notice of our third president, Thomas Jefferson (1743—1826).

As everyone learns at some point in an American history class, one of Jefferson’s first acts as president was the purchase of the Louisiana territory west of the Mississippi that was controlled by France. What most people don’t remember, however, is that Jefferson purchased the Louisiana territory from Napoleon.

The French explorer La Salle (1643—1687) reached the mouth of the Mississippi on April 9, 1682, and claimed all the country drained by it and its tributaries in the name of Louis XIV (1638—1715), the king of France (hence the name Louisiana). In 1762 all of the Louisiana territory west of the Mississippi (including New Orleans) was ceded to Spain. In 1763 all of the Louisiana territory east of the Mississippi territory was ceded to Great Britain. After the Revolutionary war, all the British possessions east of the Mississippi and south of Canada became the territory of the United States. However, by the secret treaty of St. Ildefonso between the French Republic and the king of Spain, dated October 1, 1800, the portion of the original province of Louisiana to the west of the Mississippi was ceded back to France.

The Louisiana Purchase in 1803, encompassing 828,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River, began as just an attempt by President Jefferson to purchase the land around New Orleans to secure for American commerce an outlet through the Mississippi River. Instead, it resulted in the United States nearly doubling in size. Napoleon had reportedly said to two of his ministers: “I renounce Louisiana. It is not only New Orleans that I will cede; it is the whole colony, without reservation. I renounce it with the greatest regret. To attempt obstinately to retain it would be folly. I direct you to negotiate this affair with the envoys of the United States.” The treaty of cession contained two conventions, one authorizing the payment of 60 million francs ($11,250,000) for the land and the other authorizing the payment of 20 million francs ($3,750,000) for claims American citizens had made against France for the payment of debts.

Any favor that Jefferson had toward Napoleon after the Louisiana Purchase soon withered away. Napoleon and Jefferson were contemporaries in time, but not companions in thought.

Perhaps the most famous quote from Jefferson is that oft-repeated one from his first inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1801: “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none.” That this is the exact opposite of Napoleon can be seen in the statements made by Jefferson about him.

Jefferson recognized the undue admiration that many accorded to Napoleon while he was yet alive:

I have grieved to see even good republicans so infatuated as to this man, as to consider his downfall as calamitous to the cause of liberty. In their indignation against England which is just, they seem to consider all her enemies as our friends, when it is well known there was not a being on earth who bore us so deadly a hatred. To whine after this exorcised demon is a disgrace to republicans, and must have arisen either from want of reflection, or the indulgence of passion against principle. Robespierre met the fate, and his memory the execration, he so justly merited. The rich were his victims, and perished by thousands. It is by millions that Bonaparte destroys the poor, and he is eulogized and deified by the sycophants even of science. These merit more than the mere oblivion to which they will be consigned: and the day will come when a just posterity will give to their hero the only preeminence he has earned, that of having been the greatest of the destroyers of the human race. What year of his military life has not consigned a million of human beings to death, to poverty and wretchedness! What field in Europe may not raise a monument of the murders, the burnings, the desolations, the famines, and miseries it has witnessed from him?

Regarding commerce, Jefferson stated about Napoleon:

Of the principles and advantages of commerce, Bonaparte appears to be ignorant. Bonaparte’s hatred of us is only a little less than that he bears to England, and England to us. Our form of government is odious to him, as a standing contrast between republican and despotic rule; and as much from that hatred, as from ignorance in political economy, he had excluded intercourse between us and his people, by prohibiting the only articles they wanted from us, cotton and tobacco.

Jefferson considered Napoleon to be a tyrant:

We neither expected, nor wished any act of friendship from Bonaparte, and always detested him as a tyrant. That Bonaparte is an unprincipled tyrant, who is deluging the continent of Europe with blood, there is not a human being, not even the wife of his bosom who does not see. No man on earth has stronger detestation than myself of the unprincipled tyrant who is deluging the continent of Europe with blood. No one was more gratified by his disasters of the last campaign. A ruthless tyrant, drenching Europe in blood to obtain through future time the character of the destroyer of mankind.

On the destruction wrought by Napoleon, Jefferson said:

A conqueror roaming over the earth with havoc and destruction. I grieve for France; although it cannot be denied that by the afflictions with which she wantonly and wickedly overwhelmed other nations, she has merited severe reprisals. For it is no excuse to lay the enormities to the wretch who led them, and who has been the author of more miserly and suffering to the world, than any being who ever lived before him. After destroying the liberties of his country, he has exhausted all its resources, physical and moral, to indulge his own maniac ambition, his own tyrannical and overbearing spirit. His sufferings cannot be too great. I view Bonaparte as a political engine only, and a very wicked one; you, I believe, as both political and religious, and obeying, as an instrument, an Unseen Hand. I still deprecate his becoming sole lord of the continent of Europe, which he would have been, had he reached in triumph the gates of St. Petersburg. The establishment in our day of another Roman Empire, spreading vassalage and depravity over the face of the globe, is not, I hope, within the purposes of Heaven.

On Napoleon personally, Jefferson stated:

Bonaparte saw nothing in this world but himself, and looked on the people under him as his cattle, beasts for burthen and slaughter. Bonaparte was a lion in the field only. In civil life, a cold-blooded, calculating, unprincipled usurper, without a virtue; no statesman, knowing nothing of commerce, political economy, or civil government, and supplying ignorance by bold presumption. As to Bonaparte, I should not doubt the revocation of his edicts, were he governed by reason. But his policy is so crooked that it eludes conjecture.

Upon the exile of Napoleon, Jefferson remarked:

The Attila of the age dethroned, the ruthless destroyer of ten millions of the human race, whose thirst for blood appeared unquenchable, the great oppressor of the rights and liberties of the world, shut up within the circle of a little island of the Mediterranean, and dwindled to the condition of an humble and degraded pensioner on the bounty of those he had most injured. How miserably, how meanly, has he closed his inflated career! What a sample of the bathos will his history present! He should have perished on the swords of his enemies, under the walls of Paris.

Jefferson’s conclusion is that Napoleon was indeed a monster:

If he could seriously and repeatedly affirm that he had raised himself to power without ever having committed a crime, it proves that he wanted totally the sense of right and wrong. If he could consider the millions of human lives which he had destroyed, or caused to be destroyed, the desolations of countries by plunderings, burnings and famine, the destitutions of lawful rulers of the world without the consent of their constituents, to place his brothers and sisters on their thrones, the cutting up of established societies of men and jumbling them discordantly together again at his caprice, the demolition of the fairest hopes of mankind for the recovery of their rights and amelioration of their condition, and all the numberless train of his other enormities; the man I say, who could consider all these as no crimes, must have been a moral monster, against whom every hand should have been lifted to slay him.

So, on this 190th anniversary of Napoleon’s exile to Elba, let us follow the example of Jefferson and elevate Napoleon to the pantheon of monsters where he belongs.

For a modern appraisal of Napoleon that parallels that of Jefferson, see Paul Johnson’s Napoleon.

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