Friday, August 15, 2008

An Important Birthday

Napoleon Bonaparte, French general, Emperor and master military genius, was born on this day in 1867. Why is this important? Because it was Bonaparte's imperialist dreams that caused the French-English wars between the 1790s and the Waterloo campaign of 1815, led to Britain's Royal Navy becoming the world's premier fighting force and set up the beginnings of the European order that was finally overthrown in 1918.

Napoleon was born on the island of Corsica, but entered the French army at a young age and rose rapidly, becoming a general at age 20. When France was plunged into the darkness of the French Revolution, it was Bonaparte who, with the support of the Army, eventually took control of the French government, being named First Consul in 1799 in what can only be called a coup de etat. After consolidating his power, he declared himself Emperor.

As a side note, it was Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt in 1798 that resulted in the discovery of one of the most important artifacts of all time- the Rosetta Stone. A stone that has the same text written in hieroglyphs, Demotic script and Greek, it was this that finally provided the key for cracking the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system.

Once he had firm control of France, Bonaparte attacked and conquered virtually ever nation in Europe save for England alone (though Scotland and Ireland also remained unconquered it was mostly due to English naval power, not through any efforts of their own). English naval commanders, such as George Rodney, Sir John Jervis and of course Horatio Nelson created new tactics for the Royal Navy and the superior seamanship of the British, coupled with their new tactics, forced the French from the seas, thus effectively frustrating Napoleon's plans for invading his most resolute foe. The Royal Navy's need for men in their ships and their practice of impressing (forcibly taking men for use in their Navy from neutral ships) also led to the War of 1812 between the US and Great Britain- a war that while it led to some fantastic single-ship victories, was a disastrous one for the United States.

Unlike later tyrants such as Stalin, Mao and Hitler, Napoleon did make many positive contributions to French society, laying the seeds for the modern French nation in his policies. Although his foreign policy ended in disaster for France, his domestic achievements included centralizing the French government departments, setting up a system of higher education, creating a law code, a central ban and road and sewer systems. He also made some positive contributions to Europe as a whole. By reorganizing the old Holy Roman empire, he laid the foundations for the later emergence of the state of Germany, and his Napoleonic Code is part of many modern civil codes, including in the US state of Louisiana.

Historically, Napoleon is one of the few tyrants who probably could not have been stopped by an early response to his aggression, as his victories depended on his mastery of tactics and strategy- not on numbers or on technology. However, the sturdy resolve of the British Empire to oppose Napoleon did eventually lead to his ultimate defeat, as Britain kept resistance going for over twenty years, despite losing virtually every land engagement.

Napoleon was a man of mixed heritage- he was not entirely bad for the world, as he did have some positive effects. However, the balance of his reign led to death, destruction and a constant state of war for over twenty years, thus he must be placed in the same category as all other would-be conquerers. The moral is that when a State or a leader looks high, there is a long way to fall, if the objects of that desire have the will to protect themselves.

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