Why Youth Could Rise Then and Not Now

Friday, January 17th, 2014

Napoleon and his generals all rose to positions of power while still quite young:

What makes them seem so young for their rank is our own career structures: a bureaucratic education system extended by credential inflation to take up most of the young years; and the bureaucratic organizations (including the military) where large numbers compete for promotion through an elaborate series of ranks. Ironically, our age of meritocracy is more of a gerontocracy that the pre-bureaucratic era. The exception is young business entrepreneurs in Information Technology (because they don’t wait for credentials), although not in finance and management.


  1. L. C. Rees says:

    What makes the commanders of Buonapartist France seem so young for their rank is that the an exceptional event, the Revolution, freed the French army of many of its older ranks, many of whom were killed, fired, or driven into exile. A few of the Austrian generals Buonaparte faced in his 1796 Italian campaign were in their late 60s or 70s. Most were 50+.

    But even age does not correlate with exceptional energy. Marshal Suvorov, whose matchup with Buonaparte is something military history fans still wish would have happened, led Russian troops across the Alps, won all his battles (including one at the Trebbia) and then led his troops back over the Alps in mid-winter because the Austrians stabbed him in the back. He was 69-70. While Arthur Wellesely, one of the two allied leaders who destroyed Buonaparte forever at Waterloo, was born in the same year as Buonaparte (and died a grand old man in 1852), his collegue Gephard “Marshal Forwards” von Blucher was 72. And what did Blucher do at his age, an age Buonaparte would never see:

    In the campaign of 1815, the Prussians sustained a serious defeat at the outset at Ligny (June 16), in the course of which the old field marshal was repeatedly ridden over by cavalry and lay trapped under his dead horse for several hours, his life saved only by the devotion of his aide-de-camp, Count Nostitz. He was unable to resume command for some hours, and Gneisenau drew off the defeated army and rallied it. After bathing his wounds in brandy, and fortified by liberal internal application of the same, Blücher rejoined his army.[citation needed] Gneisenau feared that the British had reneged on their earlier agreements and favored a withdrawal, but Blücher convinced him to send two Corps to join Wellington at Waterloo. He then led his army on a tortuous march along muddy paths, arriving on the field of Waterloo in the late afternoon. With the battle hanging in the balance Blücher’s army intervened with decisive and crushing effect, his vanguard drawing off Napoleon’s badly needed reserves, and his main body being instrumental in crushing French resistance. This victory led the way to a decisive victory through the relentless pursuit of the French by the Prussians.”

    Buonaparte’s “early” death (51 was still above the median age of death in 1821) is best explained by heredity: the stomach cancer that killed the Corsican Ogre was probably the same cancer that killed his father Carlo Buonaparte at age 38 in 1785.

    Perhaps he should have relaxed more: his lazy older brother, the notoriously lazy Giusseppi, died at 76 in 1844. Or maybe Buonaparte was just weak: his mother, the indomitable Madame Mere, who birched the 16-year old Nabulione for making faces at his grandmother, died in 1836 at 85.

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