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Napoleon’s Blunders: Militarily and Domestically

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Napoleon’s Blunders: Militarily and Domestically

Luke Countryman


        Throughout history there have been many different types of blunders. According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, a blunder is defined as “a gross error or mistake resulting usually from stupidity, ignorance, or carelessness.”[1] Blunders are constantly made by people each day. The most significant of these are made by people who are of high importance, such as world leaders. For example, people remember the blunders of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton during their American presidency because they were in a unique position. There are countless examples of similar blunders made by significant people throughout history.

        One example of a significant person in history who blundered was Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon Bonaparte was born on August 15, 1769 at Ajaccio on the island of Corsica. He grew up in a family that was not noble, but was considered respectable. He was admitted into a military school at the age of seven, where he started studying books and maps that cultivated his brilliant mind.[2] Because of the many revolutionary ideas circling throughout France, it provided the perfect background for a leader such as Bonaparte to step up and make his way to the top.[3] After becoming a general and having much success, he declares himself Emperor of France in 1804.[4]

        Napoleon Bonaparte was a military and political leader in France who made a significant impact on history. Paul Johnson states, “Bonaparte has had more books written about him than any other individual, with the sole exception of Jesus Christ.”[5] Bonaparte was a very successful war general who rose through the ranks rapidly during the French Revolution. He is most known for conquering most of Europe in the early 19th century. He is also well known for all the political changes he made while in power. One example of this would be the Napoleonic Code, which first introduced France to the ideas of liberty and equality. However, even with all these great achievements, he made mistakes. Napoleon Bonaparte did have blunders, militarily and domestically, that ultimately overshadow all his great achievements.

        When looking at the blunders of Napoleon Bonaparte, his foreign and domestic policy must be considered. In a way, Bonaparte was politics. His ambition had no bounds as he pursued and acquired more and more power.[6] He instituted many different reforms in France and was motivated by the age of Enlightenment. Bonaparte had a strong lust for power. Napoleon said ambition was “like the blood that flows in my veins, the air that I breathe.”[7] He also later states in 1809:

I love power, I do; but it is like an artist that I love it, . . . I love it like a musician loves his violin, . . .  I love to draw out the sounds, . . . the harmony.[8]

This power-driven mindset is a key reason for a majority of the blunders made by Bonaparte.

        Bonaparte’s foreign policy was questioned by many older writers such as Bignon, Armand Lefebvre, Adolphe Thiers, and Lanfrey. In Napoleon, For and Against, Pieter Geyl recalls what these writers thought about Bonaparte’s foreign policy. Before Austerlitz, Thiers and Bignon approved of Bonaparte and considered him “peace-loving.”[9] However, Geyl states:

I will merely remark that Thiers takes leave of the Napoleonic presentation, when he sees the effect of intoxication induced by success, after Austerlitz, in the overthrow of Prussia and the construction of a Germany under French hegemony or worse. From that point, according to his view – and we have found Bignon making the same contrast – Napoleon no longer followed the good French policy but an exaggerated and untenable one of his own.[10]

Lefebvre had a different opinion in the fact that he believed Bonaparte’s foreign policy became untenable after the peace of Lunéville in 1801. The most critical in their judgement of Bonaparte was Lanfrey. Lanfrey believed that Napoleon “never sincerely wanted peace” and that he had always lived solely to obtain more power.[11] There were many wars that were solely because of Napoleon’s greed for more power.

        The first domestic blunder of Bonaparte was The Napoleonic Code, or also called Code Napoleon. The overall purpose of this document was to unite France, specifically opposing groups. “The Code compromised between the ideas of the ancient régime and the Revolution on the matter of the family, which the drafters treated as the basic institution of civilized society.”[12] Ultimately what this code did was give equal justice under the law. It made the same punishment for the same crime uniform throughout France. Marital fidelity is something that is stressed; the first offense results in a fine, the second offense results in life in prison.[13] The Napoleonic Code was very successful and was accepted by France. In this case, Napoleon’s blunder does not come from the Code itself but from his hypocrisy. He enforced this Code, however he did not follow it himself. Napoleon married a woman named Josephine on March 9, 1796, right before he took control of the army in Italy.[14] However, he was known to cheat on her with many different women. Paul Johnson states in Napoleon:

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