The longing that defined Napoleon, man of action

Adam Zamoyski in Weekly Standard:

Men of action present a problem for decent modern democrats. For the very term “men of action” is a euphemism for men accomplished in war, and no public figure is more suspect these days than the warlike man. When Winston Churchill called Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) “the greatest man of action born in Europe since Julius Caesar,” he meant to praise Napoleon in the highest terms, but for many, such praise is fraught with peril. After all, Julius Caesar, named dictator in perpetuity, placed the Roman Republic in mortal danger and died a tyrant’s death; the most famous of his assassins, Marcus Junius Brutus, is remembered as a paragon of republican virtue, though it proved impossible to restore the Republic after Caesar’s day.

Napoleon for his part extinguished all hope of a French republic by prudently measured gradations. Having won public adulation by heroic feats of generalship in Italy and Egypt, he knocked over the ruling Directory in the bloodless coup of 18 Brumaire in 1799 and as First Consul commanded power greater than that wielded by Louis XIV; he did what dictators often do and designated himself consul for life in 1802; then he took the obvious next step for a hero-worshipper of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great and crowned himself emperor in 1804. And like Caesar and Alexander he ended badly, abdicating the throne in 1814 after disastrous military defeats, forced into exile on the Mediterranean islet of Elba, reclaiming imperial power a year later, only to meet decisive calamity at Waterloo and be condemned to the South Atlantic island fastness of Saint Helena, from which the sole escape was death, a mercy when at last it came, in 1821.

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