Napoleon’s political genius lay in oscillating between presenting himself as heir to the revolution and the man who ended its upheaval. “The Revolution is over. I am the Revolution,” he said, a statement that embodied his rule and self-perception. But after escaping Elba in 1815, any chance he had of regaining the French crown had to come from more democratic methods than he had hitherto appealed to. In addition to passing a host of liberal measures from reinstating Le Tricolore to expanding press freedom, Napoleon portrayed himself in his later writings after being defeated as more left-wing than he was for all but the last hundred days. Everything he did, he had done for France; everything his opponents did, they had done to France. The Memorial of Saint Helena “presents Napoleon not just as the aloof mighty Emperor, but as somebody who, for all his incomparable cleverness, greatness, and luck is nevertheless accessible, one of ourselves,” wrote historian Christopher Hibbert. To some extent, the gambit worked: the book was released in 1822 and became among the century’s literary sensations, inspiring Stendhal, Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo to write tributes to the man they had previously castigated. Thinks one of Stendhal’s characters, overhearing two workingmen recall the days of L’Empereur: “The only king remembered by the people.” No politician could ask for more.
Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon and the Christian Science Monitor.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse.