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Napoleonic Memory in Nineteenth-Century France: The Making of a Liberal Legend

From: MLN
Volume 120, Number 4, September 2005 (French Issue)
pp. 747-773 | 10.1353/mln.2005.0119

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MLN 120.4 (2005) 747-773

The Making of a Liberal Legend

Sudhir Hazareesingh

Balliol College, Oxford

After his departure into exile in 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte became the object of a veritable popular cult, in which his memory as a warrior, ruler, and upholder of the values of the French Revolution was celebrated—first by Bonapartist and Jacobin republican groups under the Restoration, then (after 1830) by the official institutions of the July Monarchy and the Second Empire. The Napoleon cult also flourished in literature, notably in the works of Balzac, Stendhal and Hugo.

The political and intellectual significance of this cult has generally been downplayed. French historians have tended to argue that the Napoleon cult was an ideologically heterogeneous phenomenon, and that while its public and popular manifestations were impressive (especially between 1815 and 1848), its impact on French political culture was not significant. There is also growing controversy about the depth and density of the cult, both among social groups and in the intellectual realm; a recent study has thus cast doubt on the real extent of the imperial cult among former soldiers of the Grande Armée. French liberals are another group generally thought to have remained aloof from the cult. There is, it is true, much evidence of liberal hostility to the memory and legacy of Napoleon. Here, for example, is how the Doctrinaire thinker (and future statesman) François Guizot wrote about the Emperor towards the end of the First Empire:

Corrupt, he corrupted others; despotic, he subdued minds and debased consciences; all-powerful, he constantly made a bad use of his power. His glorious and bloodstained traces remained soiled not only by faults but by crimes.

Individualist liberals were no less scathing: echoing the condemnation of imperial rule by early liberals such as Germaine de Staël. Alexis de Tocqueville condemned Napoleon for creating a "rational and scientific" system of political domination unparalleled in modern history. A generation later, Prévost-Paradol was even more scathing about the years of Napoleon's rule: "good sense, reason, and even philosophy remain speechless before his reign."

Yet this was by no means the whole story. Indeed, the retrospective reflections of French liberals concerning the years of Napoleonic rule were much more complex and ambivalent. Confronting the issue of Napoleon's memory after 1815, many French liberals came to terms with and even embraced the Emperor's legacy: a story which began as a tale of conflict and separation thus developed into one of increasing fascination, and ended in reconciliation. A number of factors can help explain why so little emphasis has been placed on this phenomenon in the historiography of nineteenth-century France. For a long time, the history of liberalism tended to focus on a small number of canonic figures such as Germaine de Staël, Benjamin Constant, François Guizot, and Alexis de Tocqueville, all of whom were known for their hostility to Napoleon; in the case of Constant, there has also been a tendency to privilege his early anti-Napoleonic works, and to disregard (not to say dismiss) his later writings which took a more open and sympathetic view of the Emperor.

The analysis of French liberalism, furthermore, has tended to dwell on substantive texts rather than the realm of commemorations and symbols—and it is in the latter respects (in the sphere of memory rather than history) that much pro-Napoleonic liberal sentiment is to be found. Most fundamentally, there has been a consistent tendency to regard the Napoleonic legend as a romantic, backward-looking phenomenon, divorced from politics and lacking in specific ideological content. This view has led to an underestimation of the political and ideological underpinnings of the Napoleonic legend.

The confrontation between liberalism and France's Napoleonic past went much beyond the question—important though it was—of the "historical" status of the Emperor. Facing up to the imperial legacy, liberals agonized over the principal dilemma faced by their tradition across the nineteenth century: could a just and moderate political order be created only through the destruction of the institutions created by the First Empire, or through their adaptation and liberalization? It was the latter answer which eventually emerged...



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