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 NAPOLEON was born in the year 1769, the third son
of Carlo Maria Buonaparte, an honest notary public of
the city of Ajaccio in the island of Corsica, and his good
wife, Letizia Ramolino. He therefore was not a Frenchman,
but an Italian whose native island (an old Greek, Carthaginian
and Roman colony in the Mediterranean Sea) had
for years been struggling to regain its independence,
first of all from the Genoese, and after the middle of the
eighteenth century from the French, who had kindly offered
to help the Corsicans in their struggle for freedom and had
then occupied the island for their own benefit.
During the first twenty years of his life, young Napoleon
was a professional Corsican patriot—a Corsican Sinn Feiner,
who hoped to deliver his beloved country from the yoke of the
bitterly hated French enemy. But the French revolution had
unexpectedly recognised the claims of the Corsicans and gradually
Napoleon, who had received a good training at the military
school of Brienne, drifted into the service of his adopted country.
Although he never learned to spell French correctly or
to speak it without a broad Italian accent, he became a Frenchman.
In due time he came to stand as the highest expression
of all French virtues. At present he is regarded as the symbol
of the Gallic genius.
Napoleon was what is called a fast worker. His career
 does not cover more than twenty years. In that short span
of time he fought more wars and gained more victories and
marched more miles and conquered more square kilometers and
killed more people and brought about more reforms and generally
upset Europe to a greater extent than anybody (including
Alexander the Great and Jenghis Khan) had ever managed
He was a little fellow and during the first years of his life
his health was not very good. He never impressed anybody
by his good looks and he remained to the end of his days very
clumsy whenever he was obliged to appear at a social function.
He did not enjoy a single advantage of breeding or birth or
riches. For the greater part of his youth he was desperately
poor and often he had to go without a meal or was obliged
to make a few extra pennies in curious ways.
He gave little promise as a literary genius. When he competed
for a prize offered by the Academy of Lyons, his essay
was found to be next to the last and he was number 15 out of
16 candidates. But he overcame all these difficulties through
his absolute and unshakable belief in his own destiny, and in
his own glorious future. Ambition was the main-spring of his
life. The thought of self, the worship of that capital letter
"N" with which he signed all his letters, and which recurred
forever in the ornaments of his hastily constructed palaces, the
absolute will to make the name Napoleon the most important
thing in the world next to the name of God, these desires carried
Napoleon to a pinnacle of fame which no other man has
When he was a half-pay lieutenant, young Bonaparte was
very fond of the "Lives of Famous Men" which Plutarch, the
Roman historian, had written. But he never tried to live up
to the high standard of character set by these heroes of the
older days. Napoleon seems to have been devoid of all those
considerate and thoughtful sentiments which make men
different from the animals. It will be very difficult to decide
with any degree of accuracy whether he ever loved anyone
besides himself. He kept a civil tongue to his mother, but
 Letizia had the air and manners of a great lady and after the
fashion of Italian mothers, she knew how to rule her brood of
children and command their respect. For a few years he was
fond of Josephine, his pretty Creole wife, who was the daughter
of a French officer of Martinique and the widow of the
Vicomte de Beauharnais, who had been executed by Robespierre
when he lost a battle against the Prussians. But
the Emperor divorced her when she failed to give him a son
and heir and married the daughter of the Austrian Emperor,
because it seemed good policy.
During the siege of Toulon, where he gained great fame
as commander of a battery, Napoleon studied Macchiavelli
with industrious care. He followed the advice of the Florentine
statesman and never kept his word when it was to his
advantage to break it. The word "gratitude" did not occur in
his personal dictionary. Neither, to be quite fair, did he expect
it from others. He was totally indifferent to human suffering.
He executed prisoners of war (in Egypt in 1798) who had
been promised their lives, and he quietly allowed his wounded
in Syria to be chloroformed when he found it impossible to
transport them to his ships. He ordered the Duke of Enghien
to be condemned to death by a prejudiced court-martial and to
be shot contrary to all law on the sole ground that the
"Bourbons needed a warning." He decreed that those German
officers who were made prisoner while fighting for their
country's independence should be shot against the nearest wall,
and when Andreas Hofer, the Tyrolese hero, fell into his hands
after a most heroic resistance, he was executed like a common
In short, when we study the character of the Emperor, we
begin to understand those anxious British mothers who used
to drive their children to bed with the threat that "Bonaparte,
who ate little boys and girls for breakfast, would come and get
them if they were not very good." And yet, having said these
many unpleasant things about this strange tyrant, who looked
after every other department of his army with the utmost care,
but neglected the medical service, and who ruined his uniforms
 with Eau de Cologne because he could not stand the smell of
his poor sweating soldiers; having said all these unpleasant
things and being fully prepared to add many more, I must
confess to a certain lurking feeling of doubt.
Here I am sitting at a comfortable table loaded heavily
with books, with one eye on my typewriter and the other on
Licorice the cat, who has a great fondness for carbon paper,
and I am telling you that the Emperor Napoleon was a most
contemptible person. But should I happen to look out of
the window, down upon Seventh Avenue, and should the endless
procession of trucks and carts come to a sudden halt, and
should I hear the sound of the heavy drums and see the little
man on his white horse in his old and much-worn green uniform,
then I don't know, but I am afraid that I would leave
my books and the kitten and my home and everything else to
follow him wherever he cared to lead. My own grandfather
did this and Heaven knows he was not born to be a hero.
Millions of other people's grandfathers did it. They received
no reward, but they expected none. They cheerfully
gave legs and arms and lives to serve this foreigner, who took
them a thousand miles away from their homes and marched
them into a barrage of Russian or English or Spanish or
Italian or Austrian cannon and stared quietly into space while
they were rolling in the agony of death.
If you ask me for an explanation, I must answer that I
have none. I can only guess at one of the reasons. Napoleon
was the greatest of actors and the whole European continent
was his stage. At all times and under all circumstances
he knew the precise attitude that would impress the spectators
most and he understood what words would make the deepest
impression. Whether he spoke in the Egyptian desert, before
the backdrop of the Sphinx and the pyramids, or addressed
his shivering men on the dew-soaked plains of Italy, made no
difference. At all times he was master of the situation. Even
at the end, an exile on a little rock in the middle of the Atlantic,
a sick man at the mercy of a dull and intolerable British governor,
he held the centre of the stage.
 After the defeat of Waterloo, no one outside of a few
trusted friends ever saw the great Emperor. The people of
Europe knew that he was living on the island of St. Helena—
they knew that a British garrison guarded him day and night
—they knew that the British fleet guarded the garrison which
guarded the Emperor on his farm at Longwood. But he was
never out of the mind of either friend or enemy. When illness
and despair had at last taken him away, his silent eyes continued
to haunt the world. Even to-day he is as much of a force
in the life of France as a hundred years ago when people
fainted at the mere sight of this sallow-faced man who stabled
his horses in the holiest temples of the Russian Kremlin, and
who treated the Pope and the mighty ones of this earth as if
they were his lackeys.
To give you a mere outline of his life would demand
couple of volumes. To tell you of his great political reform
of the French state, of his new codes of laws which were
adopted in most European countries, of his activities in every
field of public activity, would take thousands of pages. But
I can explain in a few words why he was so successful during
the first part of his career and why he failed during the last
ten years. From the year 1789 until the year 1804, Napoleon
was the great leader of the French revolution. He was not
merely fighting for the glory of his own name. He defeated
Austria and Italy and England and Russia because he, himself,
and his soldiers were the apostles of the new creed of
"Liberty, Fraternity and Equality" and were the enemies of
the courts while they were the friends of the people.
But in the year 1804, Napoleon made himself Hereditary
Emperor of the French and sent for Pope Pius VII to come
and crown him, even as Leo III, in the year 800 had crowned
that other great King of the Franks, Charlemagne, whose example
was constantly before Napoleon's eyes.
Once upon the throne, the old revolutionary chieftain became
an unsuccessful imitation of a Habsburg monarch. He
forgot his spiritual Mother, the Political Club of the Jacobins.
He ceased to be the defender of the oppressed. He became the
 chief of all the oppressors and kept his shooting squads ready
to execute those who dared to oppose his imperial will. No
one had shed a tear when in the year 1806 the sad remains of
the Holy Roman Empire were carted to the historical dustbin
and when the last relic of ancient Roman glory was destroyed
by the grandson of an Italian peasant. But when the Napoleonic
armies had invaded Spain, had forced the Spaniards to
recognise a king whom they detested, had massacred the poor
Madrilenes who remained faithful to their old rulers, then
public opinion turned against the former hero of Marengo and
Austerlitz and a hundred other revolutionary battles. Then
and only then, when Napoleon was no longer the hero of the
revolution but the personification of all the bad traits of the
Old Régime, was it possible for England to give direction to
the fast-spreading sentiment of hatred which was turning all
honest men into enemies of the French Emperor.
The English people from the very beginning had felt
deeply disgusted when their newspapers told them the gruesome
details of the Terror. They had staged their own great
revolution (during the reign of Charles I) a century before.
It had been a very simple affair compared to the upheaval of
Paris. In the eyes of the average Englishman a Jacobin was
a monster to be shot at sight and Napoleon was the Chief Devil.
The British fleet had blockaded France ever since the year
1798. It had spoiled Napoleon's plan to invade India by way
of Egypt and had forced him to beat an ignominious retreat,
after his victories along the banks of the Nile. And finally,
in the year 1805, England got the chance it had waited for so
Near Cape Trafalgar on the southwestern coast of Spain,
Nelson annihilated the Napoleonic fleet, beyond a possible
chance of recovery. From that moment on, the Emperor was
landlocked. Even so, he would have been able to maintain
himself as the recognised ruler of the continent had he understood
the signs of the times and accepted the honourable peace
which the powers offered him. But Napoleon had been blinded
by the blaze of his own glory. He would recognise no equals.
 He could tolerate no rivals. And his hatred turned against
Russia, the mysterious land of the endless plains with its
inexhaustible supply of cannon-fodder.
As long as Russia was ruled by Paul I, the half-witted son
of Catherine the Great, Napoleon had known how to deal with
the situation. But Paul grew more and more irresponsible
until his exasperated subjects were obliged to murder him
(lest they all be sent to the Siberian lead-mines) and the son of
Paul, the Emperor Alexander, did not share his father's affection
for the usurper whom he regarded as the enemy of mankind,
the eternal disturber of the peace. He was a pious man
who believed that he had been chosen by God to deliver the
world from the Corsican curse. He joined Prussia and England
and Austria and he was defeated. He tried five times
and five times he failed. In the year 1812 he once more taunted
Napoleon until the French Emperor, in a blind rage, vowed
that he would dictate peace in Moscow. Then, from far and
wide, from Spain and Germany and Holland and Italy and
Portugal, unwilling regiments were driven northward, that the
 wounded pride of the great Emperor might be duly avenged.
The rest of the story is common knowledge. After a march
of two months, Napoleon reached the Russian capital and
established his headquarters in the holy Kremlin. On the night
of September 15 of the year 1812, Moscow caught fire. The
town burned four days. When the evening of the fifth day
came, Napoleon gave the order for the retreat. Two weeks
later it began to snow. The army trudged through mud and
sleet until November the 26th when the river Berezina was
reached. Then the Russian attacks began in all seriousness.
The Cossacks swarmed around the "Grande Armée" which
was no longer an army but a mob. In the middle of December
the first of the survivors began to be seen in the German cities
of the East.
THE RETREAT FROM MOSCOW
Then there were many rumours of an impending revolt.
"The time has come," the people of Europe said, "to free ourselves
from this insufferable yoke." And they began to look
for old shotguns which had escaped the eye of the ever-present
French spies. But ere they knew what had happened, Napoleon
was back with a new army. He had left his defeated soldiers
and in his little sleigh had rushed ahead to Paris, making
a final appeal for more troops that he might defend the sacred
soil of France against foreign invasion.
Children of sixteen and seventeen followed him when he
moved eastward to meet the allied powers. On October 16,
18, and 19 of the year 1813, the terrible battle of Leipzig took
place where for three days boys in green and boys in blue
fought each other until the Elster ran red with blood. On the
afternoon of the 17th of October, the massed reserves of Russian
infantry broke through the French lines and Napoleon
Back to Paris he went. He abdicated in favour of his small
son, but the allied powers insisted that Louis XVIII, the
brother of the late king Louis XVI, should occupy the French
throne, and surrounded by Cossacks and Uhlans, the dull-eyed
Bourbon prince made his triumphal entry into Paris.
As for Napoleon he was made the sovereign ruler of the
 little island of Elba in the Mediterranean where he organised
his stable boys into a miniature army and fought battles on a
But no sooner had he left France than the people began
to realise what they had lost. The last twenty years, however
costly, had been a period of great glory. Paris had been the
capital of the world. The fat Bourbon king who had learned
nothing and had forgotten nothing during the days of his
exile disgusted everybody by his indolence.
On the first of March of the year 1815, when the representatives
of the allies were ready to begin the work of unscrambling
the map of Europe, Napoleon suddenly landed near
Cannes. In less than a week the French army had deserted
the Bourbons and had rushed southward to offer their swords
and bayonets to the "little Corporal." Napoleon marched
straight to Paris where he arrived on the twentieth of March.
This time he was more cautious. He offered peace, but the
allies insisted upon war. The whole of Europe arose against
the "perfidious Corsican." Rapidly the Emperor marched
northward that he might crush his enemies before they should
be able to unite their forces. But Napoleon was no longer his
old self. He felt sick. He got tired easily. He slept when he
ought to have been up directing the attack of his advance-
guard. Besides, he missed many of his faithful old generals.
They were dead.
Early in June his armies entered Belgium. On the 16th
of that month he defeated the Prussians under Blücher. But
a subordinate commander failed to destroy the retreating army
as he had been ordered to do.
Two days later, Napoleon met Wellington near Waterloo.
It was the 18th of June, a Sunday. At two o'clock of the
afternoon, the battle seemed won for the French. At three a
speck of dust appeared upon the eastern horizon. Napoleon
believed that this meant the approach of his own cavalry who
would now turn the English defeat into a rout. At four o'clock
he knew better. Cursing and swearing, old Blücher drove
his deathly tired troops into the heart of the fray. The shock
 broke the ranks of the guards. Napoleon had no further reserves.
He told his men to save themselves as best they could,
and he fled.
THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO
For a second time, he abdicated in favor of his son. Just
one hundred days after his escape from Elba, he was making
for the coast. He intended to go to America. In the year
1803, for a mere song, he had sold the French colony of
Louisiana (which was in great danger of being captured by
the English) to the young American Republic. "The Americans,"
so he said, "will be grateful and will give me a little bit
of land and a house where I may spend the last days of my life
in peace and quiet." But the English fleet was watching all
French harbours. Caught between the armies of the Allies
and the ships of the British, Napoleon had no choice. The
Prussians intended to shoot him. The English might be more
 generous. At Rochefort he waited in the hope that something
might turn up. One month after Waterloo, he received orders
from the new French government to leave French soil inside
of twenty-four hours. Always the tragedian, he wrote a letter
to the Prince Regent of England (George IV, the king, was
in an insane asylum) informing His Royal Highness of his
intention to "throw himself upon the mercy of his enemies and
like Themistocles, to look for a welcome at the fireside of his
foes . . ."
NAPOLEON GOES INTO EXILE
On the 15th of July he went on board the "Bellerophon,"
and surrendered his sword to Admiral Hotham. At Plymouth
he was transferred to the "Northumberland" which carried him
to St. Helena. There he spent the last seven years of his
life. He tried to write his memoirs, he quarrelled with his
keepers and he dreamed of past times. Curiously enough he
returned (at least in his imagination) to his original point of
departure. He remembered the days when he had fought the
battles of the Revolution. He tried to convince himself that
he had always been the true friend of those great principles of
"Liberty, Fraternity and Equality" which the ragged soldiers
of the convention had carried to the ends of the earth. He
liked to dwell upon his career as Commander-in-Chief and
Consul. He rarely spoke of the Empire. Sometimes he
 thought of his son, the Duke of Reichstadt, the little eagle,
who lived in Vienna, where he was treated as a "poor relation"
by his young Habsburg cousins, whose fathers had trembled at
the very mention of the name of Him. When the end came,
he was leading his troops to victory. He ordered Ney to attack
with the guards. Then he died.
But if you want an explanation of this strange career, if
you really wish to know how one man could possibly rule so
many people for so many years by the sheer force of his will,
do not read the books that have been written about him. Their
authors either hated the Emperor or loved him. You will
learn many facts, but it is more important to "feel history"
than to know it. Don't read, but wait until you have a chance
to hear a good artist sing the song called "The Two Grenadiers."
The words were written by Heine, the great German
poet who lived through the Napoleonic era. The music was
composed by Schumann, a German who saw the Emperor,
the enemy of his country, whenever he came to visit his imperial
father-in-law. The song therefore is the work of two
men who had every reason to hate the tyrant.
Go and hear it. Then you will understand what a thousand
volumes could not possibly tell you.