Despite hating mobs and technically being a nobleman, Napoleon welcomed the Revolution

Saturday, February 24th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsDespite hating mobs and technically being a nobleman, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), Napoleon welcomed the Revolution:

At least in its early stages it accorded well with the Enlightenment ideals he had ingested from his reading of Rousseau and Voltaire. He embraced its anti-clericalism and did not mind the weakening of a monarchy for which he had no particular respect. Beyond that, it seemed to offer Corsica prospects of greater independence, and far better career opportunities for an ambitious young outsider without money or connections. Napoleon believed that the new social order it promised to usher in would destroy both of these disadvantages and would be built on logic and reason, which the Enlightenment philosophes saw as the only true foundations for authority.


Although Napoleon faithfully carried out his military duties, putting down food riots in Valence and Auxonne — where some men from his own regiment mutinied and joined the rioters — he was an early adherent of the local branch of the revolutionary Society of the Friends of the Constitution.


Napoleon was unimpressed by what he found in Paris. ‘The men at the head of the Revolution are a poor lot,’ he wrote to Joseph. ‘Everyone pursues his own interest, and searches to gain his own ends by dint of all sorts of crimes; people intrigue as basely as ever. All this destroys ambition. One pities those who have the misfortune to play a part in public affairs.’


Napoleon was in Paris on June 20, 1792 when the mob invaded the Tuileries, captured Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and forced the king to wear a red cap of liberty on the palace balcony. Bourrienne had met him at a restaurant on the rue Saint-Honoré, and when they saw a heavily armed crowd marching towards the palace, he claims that Napoleon said, ‘Let’s follow the rabble.’ Taking their place on the riverside terrace, they then watched with (presumably well-disguised) ‘surprise and indignation’ the historic scenes that followed.


Bourrienne later reported that Napoleon remarked: ‘What madness! How could they allow that rabble to enter? Why do they not sweep away four or five hundred of them with cannon? Then the rest would take themselves off very quickly.’ The humiliation of the royal family on that occasion further lowered the monarchy in Napoleon’s estimation. He supported the toppling of the king but could not understand why Louis XVI had meekly allowed himself to be humiliated. As it was, the royal couple had less than two months of this hazardous liberty left to them.


Napoleon’s contempt for the pusillanimity of the Bourbons was again made clear on August 10, when the mob returned to arrest the king and queen and massacred their Swiss Guards.


Che coglione!’ (‘What asses!’) he exclaimed in Italian when, from an upstairs window, he saw the Swiss Guards refrain from firing on the mob, at what turned out to be the cost of their lives.


Napoleon didn’t deny his own Jacobin past when he ruled France, saying, ‘At one time every man of spirit was bound to be one’, and he gave two of Robespierre’s female relatives annual pensions of 7,200 francs and 1,800 francs respectively.


By mid-October Napoleon was back in Ajaccio promoting the Jacobin cause, returning to his lieutenant-colonelcy of the Corsican National Guard rather than taking up the captaincy of the 4th Regiment of Artillery in France’s regular army. He found the island far more anti-French than it had been when he left, especially after the September Massacres and the declaration of the Republic. Yet he remained, as he put it, ‘persuaded that the best thing Corsica could do was to become a province of France’.


‘Had the French been more moderate and not put Louis to death,’ he later opined, ‘all Europe would have been revolutionized: the war saved England.


  1. Jim says:

    The French Revolution throws into sharp relief just how virtuous the American Founding Fathers really were.

  2. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    Benjamin Franklin’s best and final argument for popular governance at the convention was ‘lets just try it tho. you wont know what happens for sure unless we try it. yeah we dont really have any rational basis for expecting it to work, but lets just see what happens anyways. cmon bro dont be scare’.

    The American revolution is basically what would happen if the thermidoreans had taken power in the first place, instead of after the jacobins. In other words, they were still leftists at heart, but of the Cromwellian/Stalinist pragmatic type, who made of end of unprincipled exceptions in concession to reality.

    But of course, having no principled basis for such exceptions, they have all been steadily rolled back down to the last jot and tittle, culminating in the world we know and love today.

    If there ever was a genuine Liberal faith anywhere in the world, it existed in America. But in the end conflict was inevitable, and something would need to resolve the internal contradictions; and between liberte, egalite, and fraternite, exponents of the former and later were toothless against the power of the middle child.

  3. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    I should say, ‘many of them were still…’, since there would have been no need to Franklin to engage in such debate if there were not a significant number of such prominent men of different mind.

  4. Jim says:

    Your entire worldview is fucked.

  5. Phileas Frogg says:

    Jim, I couldn’t agree more.

    The American Revolution was, despite our mythological retelling and understanding of it as something new and innovative, very much in the mold of classical antiquity. Even the Founding generation liked to think of it as something new, but no, it was almost like the last page in history ripped from the sorts of ideals and behaviors of the Greek or Romans.

    Despite it’s saturation in Enlightenment vernacular, the American Revolution and it’s motives were thoroughly within the Western Tradition. Unfortunate that the nominal Enlightenment vocabulary has totally eclipsed the classical concepts.

    The French Revolution however certainly broke with that tradition, in almost every way.

    Pseudo-Chrysostom, the entirety of the American colonies, as well as the Continental Congress which had conducted the war, were already operating on a nearly sovereign Democratic basis due to salutary neglect from Britain, and had been for over a century in some cases at the time of the convention. Popular government wasn’t a hairbrained innovation, it was the reality. The question was whether it could be extrapolated onto a national scale successfully.

  6. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    Have you seen the architecture of Washington D.C.’s old symbols of state? Most founders very much styled themselves as creating a new Roman republic. Which of course brought those of such mind like Adams into conflict with the more populist radicals like Jefferson and Payne.

    The fact that the colonies were already de facto sovereign entities handling their own affairs, more than any other more personally flattering factor, explicates the relatively ‘painless transformation’. From a certain point of view, you might even say it was not a revolution at all, but an all but inevitable formal reification of a state of affairs that was already the case.

    A group of men casting lots to select a fuhrer from amongst themselves is a common ‘all else fails’ method of establishing coordination in a situation of chaos. Which in itself should be understood as a failure state; the ontologically stable equilibrium of piles of rubble rolling down hill and settling in the gully, rather than the contingency of a statue standing on a summit. It’s acceptance as a method coming from its ability to more broadly palliate meaner instincts of envy, invidiousness, and spite of the men involved, who may be liable to sabotage the efforts of any other men’s attempts to establish order, than any particular virtue arising out of the process to recommend it.

    Parliamentarian incompetence left the Americas in chaos; and so of course, unfortunately, further limbo was the result.

  7. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    “The question was whether it could be extrapolated onto a national scale successfully.”

    That question was emphatically answered ‘no’ in the event. Not even a decade hence did calamity follow in the wake of the wake of the first articles. And all else since has been patchjobs on the same underlaying edifice slowly becoming unglued again.

    There is not a single issue where civilized Americans ever prevailed over gnostic parasites in the end. It took less than a century for creatures of the later kind to assume power over the former, and then start spreading their works on an international scale around the world at large, using the former.

    There have been detours and byways along the road, the occasional swerve and reversal, but always temporary, always in service of advancing another aspect in another area instead, before returning to the other issues yet again, the overall cardinality in the direction leftist singularity being unbroken in any case.

    An American mainline protestant may have thought his quaker/socinian/unitarian/marxist/wokist neighbors to be misguided or impractical; but in his heart of hearts, he also felt that they were purer, holier, more faithful christians/citizens/’decent fucking human beings’ than he was.

    The state religion of America was the religion of the 16th century modernists; and this religion gave Americans no sword to fight with against their murderers; gave them no armour against the stones slung by those who conquered them and rule over them today; for in many ways, it was the same religion that their enemies were themselves also animated by – or perhaps better said, making use of.

    In time these too were of course discarded, once they’ve served their purpose, and new pretexts for further advantage are needed. First they were holier than their neighbors, then holier than Jesus, and even lipservice to the old forms terribly out-modded. The discourse of today is one of post-modernism; which would not be possible without the discourse of modernism laying the groundwork for its transformation. Leftisms are naturally always particular to the milieu they are used in. The policies, planks, and proposals are always changing – contradicting even – but the kinds of behaviors, the kinds of targets, the kinds of ends, to be arranged thereby, is always the same.

    There never were any good intentions. What has happened in the past, what has happened up to day, what is happen today, none of it are perversions or regrettable missteps; this was always the plan. Go back 500 years to the brownists, diggers, levelers, ranters, and you will see the exact same dynamics. Go back 3000 years to the cults of ishtar or moloch, and you will see the exact same dynamics.

  8. Harry Jones says:

    As good a place as any to mention Craine Brinton’s Anatomy of Revolution.

    He compares and contrasts the American Revolution to French and Russian revolutions, and makes the case that middle class merchant dominance made all the difference.

    I think the Atlantic also made a difference. Long supply line for the Brits.

    Also, it helps to have the beginnings of substitute institutions in place before you overthrow the monarchy.

  9. Phileas Frogg says:


    I don’t know that we disagree on too much with regard to the details, though it seems we have come to some rather different understandings of them in some particular instances. For example, I struggle to see how you could conclude, “There never were any good intentions.” That degree of oracular certainty is the purview of the Divine alone, especially with the fog of time between us and the object of our considerations, along with no glaringly obvious suggestions to the contrary beyond what is normally observed of a group of men’s words and actions.

    My original point was simply to suggest that to reduce the advent of American Democracy to that paraphrase of Franklin was simply unfair, even as an illustrative joke; we seem to actually agree on this, perhaps underlining the humor.

  10. Jim says:

    So true, Phileas Frogg.

Leave a Reply