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Napoleon: A Life Paperback – May 2, 2006
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Praise for Napoleon by Paul Johnson:
“Paul Johnson . . . is a historian at the top his game. His judgments are sure. His historical range is sweeping. His storytelling is crisp and his writing elegant.”
—The Baltimore Sun
“The selection of the venerable British historian . . . Paul Johnson to write on Napoleon . . . has turned out to be a wise one: Johnson is succinct, critical, and deeply skeptical of the Napoleonic legend.”
—The Atlantic Monthly
“This is a jewel of a book; comprehensive, brief, and passionate.”
“Johnson provides an excellent overview . . . [He] presents a concise appraisal of Napoleon’s career and a precise understanding of his enigmatic character.”
“[A] succinct yet lively biography . . . very readable and entertaining.”
—The Washington Post
About the Author
Paul Johnson’s many books, including A History of Christianity, A History of the Jews, Modern Times, Churchill, and Napoleon: A Penguin Life, have been hailed as masterpieces of historical analysis. He is a regular columnist for Forbes and The Spectator, and his work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many others publications. He lives in London.
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But he never had an overarching philosophy that would unite his country and other parts of the Empire in the manner that the Roman Empire did.. In the end his tremendous ego and determination to conquer (in some way) the British Empire thru the Continental System was his downfall. He made great contributions to French society in the way of buildings, monuments, and the Napoleonic Code (For example, the code forbade privileges based on birth, allowed freedom of religion, and specified that government jobs should go to the most qualified), but in the end he ended up a lonely man on a tiny island far from any civilization, his home country and much of Europe thoroughly devastated by 20 years of constant warfare.
Johnson clearly does not like Napoleon and this cheapens the writing a bit. He even gives us an image of his small genitalia from the autopsy performed by a British surgeon which I think was a bit gratuitous. Johnson repeatedly makes the point - valid in my opinion - that Napoleon's ambition led to the deaths of millions and the suffering of many more, but this point does not need the sniping comments of Napoleon's pathetic final days to make valid.
The other difficulty with Napoleon is that English language histories, I have noticed, tend to have an Anglo-Saxon bias as he is seen through the spy glass of Wellington at Waterloo. French ones are more nuanced and emphasize his legal and administrative exploits (which although less remembered, displayed remarkable genius).
Napoleon was a strange mix of revolutionary and latent monarch. Here was a man who began his career as a Jacobin but was deeply appalled at the excesses of an unrestrained mob as he witnessed them butcher the Swiss guards protecting Louis XVI. He would not forget that day as he opened up with artillery at point blank range on a Paris crowd when he next had the opportunity, ending the power of the sans culottes once and for all. Here was a man who approved of regicide who declared himself emperor, then, when that was not enough, married a teenage princess in an unsuccessful attempt to join the club of blue bloods. Johnson covers all this ground, all the complexity of the man, but yields to the temptation to resolve the complexity by explaining it too much.
Napoleon was Napoleon. He was a unique man in history, and yes, if history had been a bit different one way or the other, if Napoleon had been born in a different time or place, we might not have heard of him, but he was more than the label we put on a historical wave as Tolstoy argued in War and Peace or a stage setter for Hitler and Stalin as Johnson seems to argue. I think we should let him be just who he was, a brilliant, troubling, and troubled man, who managed to lead a country - and Europe - kicking and screaming into the modern era. France would have a restoration, and his own behavior seems to undermine his republican values, but Napoleon not only rescued the revolution, but exported it, for better or worse, to the rest of Europe. All monarchs would be fighting a rear guard action for the next 100 years. Most would disappear. Those who survived would be constitutionally limited, in most cases titular. Napoleon did that.
And he gave us Louisiana.
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He uses terms in French without translating.