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Vol.26, No. 17 Mar. 10, 2001

Historian Isser Woloch Explores Role of Napoleonís Collaborators in Franceís Post-Revolutionary Period

By James DeVitt

Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting of Napoleon shows the diminutive general on horseback: a portrait of a courageous man, single-handedly steering an army across the Alps.

While the image of Napoleon as France’s leader is a powerful and lasting one, it runs counter to the reality of his regime’s origins.

In fact, Napoleon’s emergence in post-revolutionary France, culminating in his crowning as emperor in 1804, was a “joint venture,” said Isser Woloch, CC ‘59, Moore Collegiate Professor of History.

“Napoleon’s ascendancy over France began as a joint venture with disillusioned revolutionaries who reached out to the general in 1799 when they overthrew the Directory, the group of five men who held executive power beginning in 1795,” said Woloch.

Woloch’s observations are included in his most recent book, Napoleon and His Collaborators: The Making of a Dictatorship (W.W. Norton, 2001), which explores the forces behind Napoleon’s rise to power, the motivations of former revolutionaries who became his servitors, what they brought to his regime and what they received in return.

“After Napoleon emerged as first consul of France following the coup of 1799, he relied on the cooperation and talent of his collaborators to make his regime work,” Woloch said.

However, Napoleon’s rule served as a rude awakening to these allies. It was marked by suspension of civil liberties held dear by his collaborators, most of whom were jurists.

“Napoleon had no sympathy for civil liberties,” said Woloch, who also served as the principal American advisor for the 2000 PBS documentary, “Napoleon.” “He considered freedom of the press to be meaningless and due process a threat to order. Napoleon also succeeded in dominating other institutions designed to check his authority, reducing them to a rubber stamp.”

Why, then, did Napoleon’s collaborators cast their lot with him? Woloch offered several reasons.

“They became disillusioned with the republican institutions that preceded Napoleon because these institutions were exacerbating factionalism,” said Woloch. “They also seemed to think that the government was a failure both internationally and domestically and that it promoted chronic instability in France. In effect, they wanted to start all over again to create a strong executive that would be contained by countervailing institutions but would act effectively without constantly being challenged by elections or other elements of a democratic political culture. “

In fact, Woloch added, “a strong government was needed to prevent a return of the Bourbon monarchy and privilege and to ensure equality.”

Napoleon’s rule did result in legal reform, such as the Napoleonic Code, and a commitment to equality among French citizens. However, the general’s ambition, such as crowning himself emperor, aroused misgivings among some of his collaborators.

“They went along with the erosion of liberty far more than they would have liked to,” Woloch said. “While many of them were quite comfortable with what Napoleon did, there were periodic crises for the more principled among them. Yet, they would go along with Napoleon’s actions. With one possible exception-Lazare Carnot, who opposed Napoleon’s elevation to emperor-I found not one member of Napoleon’s government who protested through resignation.

“Given the kind of leverage Napoleon’s allies had, it seems to me public resignation could have helped to curb his power,” Woloch added. “The decade-long experience of democratic politics that preceded Napoleon’s reign was a flawed but noble undertaking. It didn’t deserve to be obliterated for the sake of stability and order.”

Woloch will discuss his work in a talk entitled “Napoleon: Biography, History and Myth” at the Maison Francaise (Buell Hall) on Thurs., April 5, beginning at 7 p.m.