This is The Siècle, Episode 21: The Afterlife of Napoleon.
The Hundred Days ended in disaster for Napoleon Bonaparte, but in the public eye they transformed him from a general to a god.
That’s a bold statement, I know. And it is oversimplified, but it’s also far more literal than you might imagine.
Before 1815, Napoleon had been a leader: a general turned politician turned emperor, unquestionably brilliant and the singular figure of his age, but also quite human, at least by the elevated standards of monarchs.
But despite its ultimate failure, the Hundred Days proved transformative for Napoleon’s image, for two main reasons. One we have already discussed in Episode 20: the new, more liberal character of Napoleon’s 1815 regime helped make Bonapartism more palatable to liberals and republicans who had earlier blanched at Napoleon’s autocratic, personalistic rule.
The other was more subtle, and affected not just politically active elites but ordinary people. Napoleon’s sudden, lightning-quick return to the throne after having abdicated the year before helped give him an air of supernatural power that would linger long past the time his body was buried under a nameless grave on St. Helena. Gone and defeated, Napoleon had returned like a bolt from the blue, and overthrown the Bourbons with little more than a handful of men and force of will.
Rumors and magic
So perhaps it’s not surprising that Napoleon became a sort of mythological folk hero in the years after his fall, as historian Sudhir Hazareesingh has chronicled in his book, The Legend of Napoleon, to which significant portions of this episode are indebted. In one northeastern department, peasants described Napoleon as their “good father” whose next return would be a portent of good harvests. Other stories had Napoleon as a wandering healer, going from village to village and curing sick peasants. In southeastern France, stories spread that if you put your ear to the ground, you could hear “the subterranean army of Bonaparte, which would emerge to conquer the throne.”1
In the aftermath of Waterloo, though, the most common focus of folk stories about Napoleon was that he would return to France again, in an echo of the Hundred Days. As we saw in Episode 20, the highest echelons of European governments were terrified that Napoleon would escape from St. Helena. The French prime minister at the time, the Duc de Richelieu, feared that trans-Atlantic slave ships might free Napoleon. British officials gave particular credence to rumors that ships from ports in the United States or South America might attack St. Helena.2
That same rumor of Napoleon’s escape circulated widely in France, in various permutations. In one northern department, the story going around was that Napoleon had landed in France at the head of an army consisting of hundreds of thousands of Americans. In other areas there were stories that the former emperor had raised an army of Native Americans, or Latin American revolutionaries, or slaves from the American South. Many stories had an Orientalist flavor: Napoleon was rumored to have returned with the help of the Emperor of Algeria, or with an army of Turks, or even with a force from far-off India or China.3
Though the wild rumors that Napoleon was returning at the head of an unlikely international army are most commonly attributed to peasants, we shouldn’t dismiss this as merely a delusion of those not educated enough to know better. For one thing, when peasants did get swept up in rumors that Napoleon had returned, they often behaved in extremely practical ways if such a rumor had been true. In some areas peasants hid their money (in case Napoleon stole it) and paid fewer taxes (in case the Bourbon regime fell). In another area, there was a huge wave of peasant marriages in the wake of the Napoleonic rumor, on the expectation that Napoleon’s return would also mean the return of conscription. As Hazareesingh notes, this means that a number of children “came to owe their life (literally) to this Napoleonic rumor.”4
Additionally, wealthy and educated Frenchmen got caught up in these rumors, too. Consider, for example, the bourgeoisie of Lyons, who in March 1817 became obsessed with the fear the Napoleon was back again. Many of them fled to their country houses, while others hired masons to fortify the walls of their townhomes, or build 19th Century panic rooms. One Napoleonic tale that became popular in 1819 was an elaborate classical metaphor called “Ulysses and Telemachus,” about the story from The Odyssey where Odysseus’s kingdom is beset by boorish suitors while he was overseas and thought dead or missing.5
Napoleonic rumors were sometimes spread deliberately by France’s many Bonapartist sympathizers. In Grenoble, for example, clandestine printers would produce fake proclamations and newspaper clippings ostensibly proclaiming that Napoleon was back. In a department near Paris a woman spread rumors that Napoleon was coming, in an attempt to interrupt preparations for an actual visit by the Duchesse d’Angoulême. And throughout the whole country there was a veritable outbreak of traveling salesmen, who seemed to be distributing rumors about Napoleon as often as they did their physical wares. Other rumormongering culprits identified by authorities included peasants, school-teachers, barrel-makers, policemen and well-spoken bourgeoisie, along a range of women. Perhaps the most notable of the latter is a woman named Madame Baudinot, who worked as a clairvoyant predicting the future with cards and crystal balls; the fortunes she told always seemed to involve the imminent return of Napoleon. Perhaps fortunately for Madame Baudinot’s reputation, she was arrested before time could prove her predictions wrong.6
Other times, the rumors seemed spontaneous, a product of the cultural fascination with the biggest celebrity-politician of the age, or of anger over the pillaging by the allied armies that occupied France in 1815, as I described in Episode 5. Even supporters of the Bourbon regime sometimes inadvertently sparked rumors of Napoleon’s return, such as Catholic priests who implored their parishioners to pray that “the ogre from Saint-Helena would remain in his cage” — which of course, as Hazareesingh notes, only made the parishioners think about the possibility of Napoleon’s escape. Perhaps the most surprising source of these rumors of Napoleon’s return, however, were the soldiers of the international armies occupying France for the express purpose of preventing a Bonapartist revival. Soldiers in the Russian, Austrian and especially British armies were frequently the source of stories that, for example, there had been a revolt against Louis XVIII in favor of Napoleon.7
The overall picture from all these rumors is of a Napoleon of mythic proportions, “slipping away from his English jailers with devastating ease, galloping across continents while recruiting military support from all nations, races and tribes, and effortlessly propelling himself back to power in France.”8 The fact that none of this ever happened never stopped these stories from spreading, whether among illiterate peasants, prosperous townsfolk, or paranoid government officials.
Death and resurrection
After 1821, there was something else that should have stopped these rumors in their tracks: Napoleon died. That was a rather inconvenient fact for stories that Napoleon was about to reclaim his throne. But remarkably, not even death could stop Napoleon’s growing legend. Many French people simply refused to believe the stories. As one worker from Versailles said in 1825, “Bonaparte will be here in two months. I do not believe in his death.”9 An army veteran in southwestern France cried, “They say he is dead, but I do not believe it. I pray for him every day.”10
More educated Bonapartists, who knew very well that Napoleon was dead, were happy to use this popular belief in the emperor’s apparent immortality to their own benefit; one politician, the orator and former general Maximilien Foy, said, “The lower classes do not believe, and this only serves to switch their attention on to this extraordinary man.”11 The popular Bonapartist songwriter, Pierre-Jean de Béranger, wrote a song with the blunt title, “He Is Not Dead,” with the following loosely translated lyrics:
They tell the soldier he is dead
They tell the peasant he’s no more;
The Emperor, his shipwreck made upon an isle…
Oh God, who made his foes to quail,
… Thou know’st ‘tis false. He is not dead!12
Albrecht Adam, “Apotheosis of Napoleon,” 1824. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The wild stories about Napoleon’s return to France continued unabated, after at most a brief pause in 1821, in much the same manner as before. I’ll just highlight the wildest of them all, a pamphlet seized in Alsace with the following title that I swear to you is real:
“Yusuf Pacha, or history of the Escape of Napoleon from Saint-Helena on the day of his alleged death, of the secret admission of the ex-Emperor into the Court of Constantinople, of his conversion to Islam and of his adventures on land and sea, accompanied by characteristic anecdotes on the present war between Russia and Turkey and important prophecies of Napoleon which will be accomplished.”13
It’s no wonder, with all of that, that men — and at least one woman — struggling with mental health would routinely be committed to insane asylums with the delusions that they were Napoleon.14 Or that aspiring con men who happened to be short, plump and dark-haired regularly popped up in villages and towns around France, claiming to be Napoleon escaped from St. Helena and demanding support from credulous locals.15
The meaning of silence
Against all this, we need to consider the widespread reports that the death of Napoleon barely made a ripple in France when news arrived in July 1821. Talleyrand quipped that the ex-emperor’s death was “just a piece of news,” and initial reports seemed to bear the wily diplomat out.
Louis XVIII’s police were on high alert for any kind of seditious reaction to Napoleon’s death, but they reported back a general shrug. At the Paris stock exchange, the news “has not produced a great sensation,” one police report noted. In the streets one observer, a moderate royalist, observed hawkers spreading the news of Napoleon’s death with little more impact than “if the announcement of a lost dog had been made.” Even in parts of eastern France where support for Napoleon had been strongest, there was surprisingly little reaction. Some former Napoleonic soldiers were agitated, to be sure, but by and large police reports there concluded, as one said, that Napoleon “had been dead to the public for a long time.”16 This hardly seems to square against the Napoleon of myth and legend that we heard about earlier!
Of course, we must remember that the news of Napoleon’s death reached France in July 1821, one year after the enactment of the so-called Exceptional Laws, as we discussed in Episode 15. One of those laws, which suspended the right of habeas corpus for anyone suspected of plotting against the king or state, had recently expired, but extensive press censorship had been extended that spring. Older laws criminalizing support for Napoleon remained on the books, and the people of France had long since learned that they expressed support for Napoleon at their own peril.
So we should not take the relative quiet of France on the news of Napoleon’s death for a sign that Napoleon was truly forgotten. Indeed, events both before and after July 1821 make clear that Napoleon, whether dead or alive in exile, continued to exercise a singular hold on the French popular imagination.
For starters, the lack of visible protest doesn’t necessarily mean anything, given that supporters of Napoleon had adopted less blatant ways to declare their allegiance. Displaying the tricolor flag or the imperial eagle might be forbidden, so in Bonapartist areas of France people took to sporting lilacs, violets, or red carnations in their buttonholes. As the whole point was to be noticed, this didn’t remain a secret to the authorities for long, and soon enough we have numerous reports of people being arrested for walking around with Bonapartist flowers. In the city of Lyons, young men of means and Bonapartist sympathies responded to news of Napoleon’s death not by demonstrating in the streets, but by going to their tailors and ordering black silk jackets with weeping willows imprinted on them — going into mourning for Napoleon with so-called “jackets of grief,” which continued to be manufactured in the silk-making center of Lyons for years.17
Less affluent Frenchmen had plenty of ways to show their devotion without dropping coin on a new silk mourning jacket. Millions of copies of Napoleonic paraphernalia were manufactured and distributed around France during the Restoration, despite all this being quite illegal. There were coins and medals, busts and statues, portraits and engravings, and a host of more creative souvenirs bearing Napoleonic pictures, emblems and scenes: a tobacco box painted with the Battle of Waterloo, shirt buttons with imperial eagles, a bottle of liquor labeled “Elixir of Saint Helena,” and truly impressive works of tribute such as a knife described in a government report as follows:
On both sides of the handle are full-length representations of Napoleon, each surmounted by a crown of stars, in the midst of which there is a bee; there is also an eagle lying at the foot of the Emperor.18
Of course, one of the reasons we know so much about these Bonapartist items is because Restoration police and government officials confiscated them, arrested their owners, and then described their haul in reports to their superiors. That so many people were willing to manufacture, transport and sell these items, and even display them publicly, despite the very real consequences, shows the depth of the fondness for Napoleon that existed in France during the Restoration — not to mention how much money an entrepreneur could make by slapping some eagles on otherwise mundane products, as long as he kept his head down.
On the other hand, the fact that the police kept finding these items over and over again also suggests, as historian Sheryl Kroen notes, that for all their zeal, “police of the Restoration” weren’t “very effective at stopping or punishing people for their seditious activities.”19 The people who got caught were the exception, not the rule.
Part of this incompetence is due to the favorite tactic of using undercover police spies as agents provocateur, who would approach Napoleonic veterans in the street, claim to be fellow admirers of Napoleon, incite their dupe into making seditious statements, and then arrest him for it.
While this sometimes swept up low-level figures, it was usually ineffective at stopping actual sedition, which was evident not only in hindsight, but at the time. In 1818, after Bonapartists hung seditious posters, a prefect was lectured that “it was time that the prefect’s law officers actually caught someone — and preferably a real culprit, as the police seemed to have the kack of arresting the wrong person.” In 1822, after a group of people chanted “Long Live the Emperor” in public, the Minister of the Interior wrote an acid letter to the local prefect: “I am informed that in the capital of your department the police force is entirely without authority, and that its surveillance is completely hopeless.” 20
At its worst, this vast political surveillance system went past incompetence into farce, as in the case of a former Napoleonic general who had been suborned into being a police agent. This general, following the standard playbook, approached a former official who Napoleon had made a baron, and made provocative statements, with which the baron readily agreed, then suggested they meet to plan a Bonapartist coup. In the words of historian Adam Zamoyski:
The next morning a proud inspector handed his chief a lengthy report from the general incriminating the baron, only to [be handed] the baron’s report incriminating the general. Both were agents provocateur.21
If this surveillance wasn’t effective at suppressing dissent, it was effective at alienating people from the regime. Most people doing seditious activities weren’t caught — but those that were often got draconian punishments, such as a worker who got 15 months in jail for possessing a tobacco box with Napoleon’s picture, or the man sentenced to five years in prison for shouting “Long Live the Emperor.” These kind of disproportionate punishments made the regime look cruel, without being effective — people convicted of these kind of seditious crimes were quite likely to reoffend after getting out of jail.22
But what exactly were these carnation-sporting, knife-wielding, tobacco-smoking French people supporting with their risky merchandise? What did Napoleon mean to the French, especially after his death on the far side of the world in 1821? That, it turns out, is a much more complicated question.
During his life, Napoleon had presented multiple faces to the world, often contradictory: the republican and the emperor, the conquerer and the peacemaker, the lawgiver and the autocrat, the champion of the people and the enemy of the rabble. So it’s not surprising he continued to mean different things to different people after he left the stage and receded into memory.
“A drop of Napoleon II”
The most obvious answer for why a subject of the Restoration might want to flaunt their loyalty to the country’s deposed emperor is because they wanted Napoleon to be their emperor again. Napoleon’s reign had ended in military defeat and national humiliation — twice — but before then, he had achieved success on both the civil and military fronts, and plenty of people who didn’t like the way Louis XVIII was running France thought Napoleon would do a better job.
This should make perfect sense to anyone who’s ever seen how people act today when government changes hands between political parties. While some people shrug their shoulders, or find a way to work with the new ruling party, lots of other people either work actively to bring about a change of government, or gripe endlessly about how terrible the new leaders are compared to the old. Restoration France was much less democratic than most countries today, but the process was basically the same.
But preferring Napoleon over Louis XVIII meant something different after the summer of 1821, when France found out its former emperor had died. Setting aside those who didn’t believe it, hard-core Bonapartists responded to the setback of 1821 by transferring their loyalty to a lesser-known figure: Napoleon’s 10-year-old son, Napoléon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte, who Bonapartists called Emperor Napoleon II.
Young Napoleon II was not, of course, actually emperor-ing over anything. He was the child of Napoleon with his second wife, the Austrian archduchess Marie Louise, and after Napoleon’s fall in 1814 had been spirited away to Vienna. In 1818 he was given the Austrian title Duke of Reichstadt, by which he was formally known. When Bonapartists weren’t calling him Napoleon II, they called him the King of Rome, after a title that Napoleon had given him at birth.
Even as a small child, Napoleon II featured in many of the rumors and stories I mentioned earlier. A common variant on the Napoleonic legend involved Austrians invading France to impose Napoleon II, grandson of the Austrian emperor, as France’s ruler. These were spread not only by Bonapartists, but even by Austrian soldiers in France as part of the international post-Waterloo occupation force, some of whom appeared to believe it to be true. As late as 1828, a prefect in eastern France wrote, “For some time now it is being said among the people that the son of Napoleon would soon enter France and that he was supported by Austria, which had already deployed troops in [Italy] for this purpose.”23
Among the various Napoleonic memorabilia, coins and medals bearing the image of the young imperial heir were surreptitiously distributed in many parts of the country, sometimes bearing captions like “The Hope of France.” Similarly, along the lines of the “Elixir of Saint Helena,” in the 1820s a brand of booze was quietly distributed under the name “Elixir du Duc de Reichstadt,” which became popular despite being seized whenever authorities could get their hands on it. A Paris police report noted:
In this area the name of the Duc de Reichstadt is too difficult to pronounce for the workers of the lowest class; so instead, when ordering their drinks, they ask for a little drop of Napoleon II, or a smidgeon of the King of Rome. And this is precisely what the faction which wishes to perpetuate our political divisions is seeking.
As Hazareesingh noted, this was a clever tactic by Bonapartists, turning the very act of drinking into a subversive political gesture.24
Because the Duke of Reichstadt was born on March 20, 1811, the same month in which Napoleon would return from Elba four years later, the month of March soon became a focus for Bonapartist commemoration as well as Napoleonic rumors. I mentioned earlier that violets became a flower with Bonapartist connotations; this was primarily because violets bloom in March.25 Every March from 1816 to 1825, we have specific reports of surges in Napoleonic songs, rumors and sightings. In 1817, one police official lamented that March “is always chosen by subversive elements who seek to take advantage of the credulous dispositions of the populace.”26
Napoleon II wasn’t the only lesser Bonaparte to feature in Napoleonic rumors. Napoleon’s brothers were all still alive, as was his son-in-law Eugène de Beauharnais; all of them were periodically rumored to have invaded France at the head of various improbable international armies.27 Napoleon also had nephews, the children of his brother Louis, confusingly named Napoleon-Louis and Louis-Napoleon. But as young children several steps down the line of Bonapartist succession, I’m sure neither of them will play a significant role in the future of this podcast.
Napoleonism and Bonapartism
Do not, however, let all these stories about secret loyalty to Napoleon and his heir mislead you into thinking that France was largely Bonapartist, that the common people of France were drinking secret toasts to Napoleon while Louis XVIII and his police tried futilely to suppress them. To be sure, some literally did drink secret toasts to Napoleon. Many others more loathed his memory. But especially after Napoleon’s death, plenty of French people admired Napoleon as a person without transforming that admiration into any sort of political program.
Some scholars draw an interesting distinction between “Napoleonism” — “a form of sentimental admiration for the person of Napoleon” — and “Bonapartism” — “a political doctrine and movement that sought to restore the Empire.” The degree to which those two can be separated is hotly contested among scholars, but a significant number of French people definitely admired Napoleon without supporting a restoration of the French Empire under the rule of a Bonaparte. 28
It appears to be true, for example, that only a minority of French people who had at least in theory supported another return by Napoleon transferred that allegiance after 1821 to Napoleon II. As Hazareesingh, who otherwise argues for the essentially political nature of most admiration for Napoleon, writes,
“For some, this [‘Napoleonic’ political activity] was an expression of loyalty to the person of the Emperor. For others, it was a commitment to specific values (patriotism, military glory, etc.) And for others still, Napoleon was ‘reinvented’ to symbolize new social and political ideals.”29
I think that’s exactly right.
Historian Adam Zamoyski argues that after Napoleon’s death, “most active Bonapartists realized that their cause was dead, and transferred their support to the mainstream liberal opposition.”30 It is certainly the case that in the 1820s, Bonapartists often found common ground with opposition politicians like the Marquis de Lafayette, Benjamin Constant, and Jacques Lafitte, who were liberal but definitely not Bonapartist. Lafayette, for example, formed close political ties with leading Bonapartists in the early 1820s — unaware that Napoleon had trashed him in his yet-to-be-published memoirs. Historian Sylvia Neely notes that Napoleon’s death made “liberals like Lafayette less worried about working with Bonapartists” than when such an alliance meant the possibility of a return of Napoleon himself.31
But that just highlights the tricky question of assigning everyone in Restoration France a neat political allegiance. Yes, lots of Bonapartists decided to work with liberal republicans with whom they shared some but not all political principles. Does that mean those Bonapartists were no longer Bonapartists because they weren’t holding out hope for Napoleon II, in his Austrian gilded cage? One can argue either way.
We have the illustrative example from an 1820s Bonapartist uprising, in which a rebel asked the rebellion’s leader whether their battle cry should be “Long live Napoleon II.” The officer replied, “Shout whatever you like!”32 Many Bonapartists during the Restoration didn’t get too bogged down in details.
So we are left with an uncertain muddle, in which significant portions of France admired Napoleon — though plenty of Frenchmen certainly still saw him as a tyrant, or a brute, or otherwise as a bad ruler. But of those people who admired Napoleon, some were wholly committed to the Bonapartist cause, including the transfer of legitimacy to Napoleon’s young son. Some preferred Napoleon to the Bourbons but weren’t so certain about the unknown quantity of his son. Some just fixated on Napoleon as the natural end point of their antipathy for the Bourbon Restoration. Some thought it would be a terrible idea to bring back Napoleon as emperor, but still thought his military and political accomplishments were worthy of praise.
Ultimately, Talleyrand’s famous quip about Napoleon’s death not being newsworthy may have been more right than he realized — not because Napoleon had been forgotten, but because his death didn’t make much of a difference for his image in France. Whether people believed he had died or not, Napoleon would continue to be a factor in the French political imagination for quite some time.
But in a broader sense, it wasn’t so much that Napoleon’s death meant nothing, as that his death enabled the emperor to reach his final form, protected by the gauze of historical memory from whatever the flesh-and-blood Napoleon did or thought. I remain struck by the reaction of Chateaubriand, on hearing of the emperor’s death:
After the despotism of his person, we will yet have to suffer the despotism of his memory. This despotism is more domineering than the first, for if we fought Napoleon on the throne, there is a universal acceptance of the irons that, dead, he has cast on us.33
I’ve spent two episodes now focused on Napoleon, a character who is largely part of the backstory for The Siècle, rather than the main plot. We’re now going to move on to other topics, but hopefully these two episodes have made it clear that Napoleon’s influence will continue to echo long after his death, and have highlighted some of the interesting ways in which his memory will continue to affect events. Bonapartism is a current that has not yet played itself out in Restoration France, however peaceful the streets were in the summer of 1821.
My thanks again for listening and supporting the show. Next time, we’ll be moving onto a completely different topic — though Napoleon, you may not be surprised to learn, will be with us right from the get-go. Our topic: newspapers in Restoration France. Check your feeds hopefully very soon for Episode 22: French Press.
Sudhir Hazareesingh, The Legend of Napoleon (London: Granta Books, 2004), 66, 70. The Napoleon-as-healer stories are only slightly undercut by the fact that in them, his instrument of healing was arsenic, then seen as having medicinal properties. ↩
Adam Zamoyski, Phantom Terror: Political Paranoia and the Creation of the Modern State, 1789-1848 (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 133. Philip Dwyer, Napoleon: Passion, Death and Resurrection, 1815-1840 (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018), 76-7. ↩
John Thomas Rowland, Lecture on Beranger, the French Lyric Poet” (Drogheda: A. McDougall, 1858), 30. A more literal translation of the song, whose French lyrics can be read here, would run something like this: “To my soldier, to my villager, after eight years they say: ‘Your emperor on an island has finished sinking… Oh God Almighty who made him so strong, … Is it not true, my God, that he is not dead?” ↩
Sheryl Kroen, Politics and Theater: The Crisis of Legitimacy in Restoration France, 1815-1830 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 162. ↩
Zamoyski, Phantom Terror, 129. Another component of the association between Napoleon and violets was as a story that villagers brought bouquets of just-bloomed violets to Napoleon’s troops as they passed. Hazareesingh, The Legend of Napoleon, 19. ↩
Sylvia Neely, Lafayette and the Liberal Ideal, 1814-1824: Politics and Conspiracy in an Age of Reaction (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), 194. ↩