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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Paris II: The Sun King, Napoleon and the End of the French Monarchy

Later we visit the L’Hôtel des Invalides, Louis the XIV’s hospital for wounded veterans.  It was, if effect, the first Veteran’s Administration, and modern France still has some elements of its department of veteran’s affairs housed in this building, but extensive portions of the building now house military museums. Under its immense 18th century gold-trimmed dome lie the tombs of France’s greatest marshals, including the grand red porphyry tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte.

L'Hotel des Invalides

Invalides was only a small part of Louis building program.  The centerpiece of his efforts was Le Palais de Versailles which he deliberately built outside Paris for the purposes of isolating and controlling court life.  But all of Louis’s achievements were part of his larger plan for France, and to understand Louis, one must understand his early history, and the Great Chain of Being.

The Palace of Versailles was built outside of Paris to isolate the Aristocracy and concentrate power on the the monarch
L'Halle des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) where the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919

The Great Chain of Being was the cornerstone of religious and philosophical life throughout the Dark and Middle Ages.  It combined Biblical teaching and the thinking of the classical period, particularly Aristotle, into a cosmology based upon order.  God was at the top in his Heaven, Satan at the bottom in Hell, and all creatures and material were ordered in their rightful places, governed by the celestial music of the spheres and the properties of the humors.  When we refer to the four elements; earth air fire and water, and to astrology, we are referencing parts of that cosmology.  This was critical to medieval social life because it also specified invariant social ranks that comprised feudalism.  Kings were closest to God and ruled in his name, and under them were the clergy, the aristocracy, the landed peasantry and artisans and at the bottom, landless serfs.  Because it was believed that this was God’s law, and therefore invariant, Renaissance observations about gravity and celestial mechanics threatened to upset the entire cosmic applecart.  A good feudal life was governed by accepting one’s place in the cosmic scheme of things, rather than upon social advancement.  Technological changes were promoting a new middle class, and literacy was spreading.  Trade, ideas from the East, and the rediscovery of the classics themselves were threatening the rigidity of feudalism.  When Louis came to power in 1638, the Great Chain of Being was coming unraveled.
The Great Chain, the Humors and the Spheres:  The Aristotelian cosmology underlying feudalism.  Natal charts, anyone?
As a child, Louis had seen the violence against the monarchy during a peasant and aristocratic rebellion, the Fronde.  He particularly feared that he would be at the mercy of his own aristocracy.  He drew France out of feudalism by centralizing all power on himself.  Locking the aristocracy away in Versailles and setting them on a mad scramble to attend his levèe, and seeing to his own armies needs rather than having to negotiate with aristocrats to borrow theirs, Louis sought to secure his place in the Great Chain of Being.  He was the apotheosis of the Enlightenment ruler, an absolutist’s absolutist.  The ‘Sun King,’ and the French court were the envy of Europe.  
Hyacinthe Rigaud's 1701 portrait of Louis XIV (ruled 1628-1715).  Louis liked it so well he had two copies made.  One hangs in the the Louvre, the other in Versailles.  Nice gams for a man of 62!
But for all of his efforts, Louis could not prevent, and even sped up the unraveling of the Great Chain of Being.  He taxed both the aristocracy and the peasantry so that France had no reserves when famine struck after his reign and contributed to an erosion of faith in his successors.  His glory made them look weak by comparison.  He also revoked the treaty of Nantes which decreed religious tolerance in France and expelled the French Protestants, the Huguenots, who constituted a major portion of his commercial class, and he warred constantly, draining his own treasury.  While he succeeded in adding significantly to the territory of France to borders that approximate France today, he actually lost all of his wars with England.  Within 100 years of his 70 year reign, the longest of all the major European monarchs, France would be ruled by the commoner Napoleon Bonaparte, who would crown himself Emperor because no one else, certainly not the Pope, was qualified to do so!  Now that’s absolutism even Louis would never have dreamed of! 

But the Sun King’s singular achievement was that he invented the modern state, and his Hôtel des Invalides is the perfect symbol.  His most famous quote “L’Etat, c’est moi!” (“I am the state.”) was probably apocryphal, although he often lived and ruled so as to give that appearance.  Given his fear of rebellion, however, Louis conduct in retrospect appears driven to promote this view out of defensiveness, rather than entitlement.  Whatever his underlying motivation, Louis set the standards by which all monarchs were judged.

Napoleon commanding his Marshals on the battlefield of Eylau, 1807.  This battle was a costly draw, the first check in an otherwise unbroken string of victories.  It is estimated about 4-6 million died in the Napoleonic Wars (1798-1815).  Four months later Napoleon crushed the Russians at Friedland, humiliated Prussia and forced the Russians into the Continental System.
I am a great admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte, although it is hard to get comfortable with the self-aggrandizing rhetoric extolling his virtues as a statesman, economic development specialist and educator engraved on the walls surrounding his tomb under the Èglise du Dome. He chose a very different route to absolute power, one tailored to a very different age.  His greatest feat was molding the raw material of the world’s first conscript army into an instrument for defending a revolution the ideals of which he had already personally usurped.  He replaced the state army of Louis, based on privilege, servility, and social climbing, with one that was thoroughly professional and advancement was based upon merit.  Some of this was done out of pure necessity; all the monarchies of Europe allied to put down a revolution that each recognized might consume them all, so France was in a state of almost constant warfare from 1792 until 1815. Some came from Napoleon’s own overweening ambition, he seemed impelled to seize more power until stopped.   

For Britain, World War II history was a repeat of the Napoleonic period.  Napoleon, like Hitler, came to dominate the continent but lacked the means to conquer Britain until she found allies that eventually brought him down.  But unlike Adolf Hitler, Napoleon lasted 17 years and left positive changes like the Napoleonic Code as his legacy.  When faced with the inevitability of defeat, Napoleon opted to abdicate rather than punish his own people with Gotterdammerung.

For Britain, the Continent looked very much the same in 1809 as it would in 1941.  She used the same grand strategy--hide behind the Royal Navy and seek allies.  French allies are in light blue.  Prussia, Austria, Russian and Sweden would all eventually fight France in British-backed coalitions.

To become great, Napoleon had to navigate a very different world than Louis had faced.  If Louis had made France a modern state, rather than a confederation of fiefs, the French Revolution had created nationalism.  The French people were willing to fight for ideals, rather than out of professionalism or at a king’s whim.  The French Revolution invented conscription, vastly expanding the manpower pool of potential soldiers, but also requiring massive training and meritocracy to manage them.  And constant warfare honed better leadership.  A military genius could more easily arise under these conditions, and did not need to start out as monarch to become a brilliant leader.  And this Napoleon did.  He was able to control more troops, concentrate them, and apply military force effectively at the correct place and time better than any general of his age.

Part of my hero worship for Napoleon is an American thing.  As American’s we have taken a great deal from Napoleon.  Fresh in our gratitude for France’s role in our independence (of the 7 major wars France fought with England between Louis XIV and the fall of Napoleon, the only one the French ever won was the one that resulted in 13 colonies gaining their independence!) Americans have always had a special interest in things French.  American attention was riveted on the continent starting in 1789.  Was this the spread of American ideals fought for in our revolution taking hold in Europe?  

We even fought the War of 1812 against his principal foe, Britain.  While our national sensibilities reflect this as a victory for heroic American arms, the British never wanted to fight us and regarded the whole affair as a punitive expedition.  We invaded Canada several times to no good effect and the British blockaded coastal cities at will, and burned cities in Chesapeake Bay (The Star-Spangled Banner was written at one place the British were stopped--Fort McHenry prevented a landing, but still endured a heavy shelling by the Royal Navy.  The brand new capital of Washington was not so lucky!) We had gone to war to stop the British from stopping American ships on the high sees and sizing American sailors to man their ships, a practiced called "impressment.".  The War of 1812 ended in 1814 not because of Andrew Jackson's shellacking of a British raid on New Orleans--this occurred after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed in which the British agreed to stop the practice, but before the news could be rushed to North America.  In 1814, with 5 different armies closing in on the borders of France, the Royal Navy's manpower crisis was much less acute and hardly worth the threat to commerce of continued war with us.  Still in the period of 1800 to 1815 and after, hundreds of towns sprung up in the the Western Reserve honoring Napoleon himself (Napoleon Ohio and Michigan; Bonaparte, Iowa) and his battles (Jena, Louisiana; Austerlitz, New York; Marengo, 6 different places, even Waterloo, his final defeat).  The list goes on and on! 

The Bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814.  Fighting the British, but not allied with France.

We took a great deal more than place names, however.  Not the least of which were the writings of Antoine-Henri Jomini, a Swiss national who took service with Napoleon and wrote extensively on military strategy after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars.  His The Art of War was the principle text at the US Military Academy at West Point in the period before the US Civil War.  All of the prominent commanders of that conflict studied Napoleon through Jomini.  Napoleon was so influential that even today, 195 years after Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, military strategy as taught at West Point has two official atlases, one devoted to the American Wars, and the other exclusively devoted to the campaigns of Napoleon as taught originally to us by Jomini.  

Jomini's book.  Required reading for Robert E Lee and Ulysses S GrantNot so much anymore.

Jomini was somewhat of a martinet, and his didactic style was very rigid.  He was an interesting foil for the far more creative and pragmatic Bonaparte.  Jomini did have a special cachet as a teacher having actually served under Napoleon, however he never rose very far having alienated Napoleon’s powerful chief of staff, Louis Alexandre Berthier.  His battlefield experience was minimal and his theories were overly mathematical.  But Art of War was widely translated and very popular for 50 years after the Napoleonic Wars. 

Jomini was the academic opponent of an even more distinguished military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz.  As a post-Napoleonic military theorist, von Clauswitz suffered the disadvantage of serving in the Russian and Prussian armies.  He was captured by the French in 1808, on the losing side of the Battle of Borodino in 1812, and lost badly at the battle of Ligny just days before Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815.  However, von Clausewitz had the final victory in his war of ideas with Jomini.  Von Clauswitz’s classic On War is still widely read and hardly anyone today has heard of Jomini’s writings.

The Louisiana Purchase almost doubled the size of the US in 1803

American interest in Napoleon was no doubt further piqued by his sale of French Louisiana to The Untied States, another historical event ripe with ironies.  Jefferson was an eloquent advocate of limited government, but needed to create powers never mentioned in the Constitution he helped to frame for the US to make the purchase!  Talk about big government, the feds suddenly owned well over half the land in the newly expanded country!  Lewis and Clark had to be sent to map and survey the new acquisition.  With typical American restraint, they rambled all the way to Oregon, which was not actually in the purchase!  Napoleon’s sale was not just an act of generosity and breathtaking shortsightedness; it was a gesture of expedience.  Napoleon was a motivated seller of all this immensely valuable real estate because he was broke as well as excessively focused on the continent of Europe. 

He was also bitter.  His one serious foray in the New World sent his brother-in-law General Le Clerc and 30,000 French soldiers to Santo Domingo to put down a slave rebellion led by Toussaint L’Ouverture.  Decimated by yellow fever, the entire force was lost, and Le Clerc died of the disease.  Having lost his most profitable colony in the New World, the cash-strapped Napoleon threw up his hands on his undeveloped North American holdings and sold them off.  In a mere 50 years, New Orleans would be a thriving port worth many times the value of Santo Domingo.

Napoleon’s military genius did keep the ideals of the French revolution alive past his death.  But the economic advantages Louis XIV squandered in turning out the French Protestant commercial class doomed France in its long struggle with Britain.  Napoleon may have dismissed Britain as “a nation of shopkeepers”, but the British understood that war with Napoleon in economic terms and out bargained and out produced him.  His failure to understand economics led to the unenforceable Continental System (essentially a boycott of British goods everywhere Napoleon had influence) that was eventually his undoing when he invaded Russia to enforce it.   The peace following the Napoleonic Wars would be called the Pax Britanica and last 99 years.  

The cast on the barricades of Les Mis, a reprise off...

Liberty Leading the People Eugene Delacroix (1830) Louvre
After the defeat at Waterloo, Louis XIV’s descendants in the House of Bourbon were restored to the French throne, but proved indifferent rulers.  In 1848, the French monarchy was abolished for good.  Sort off.  How dead was the Great Chain of Being?  Karl Marx and Frederick Engels published The Communist Manifesto in the same year as workers took to the streets all over Europe in events depicted in Les Miserables, the same ones that left Napoleon III with a hankering for wider streets!  In the modern world, power was derived from the masses, and a common artilleryman who was not even French could upset the divine order and crown himself emperor.  And get a tomb in The Chapel of Louis XIV’s Eglise du Dome (modeled on St. Peters, of course!)  His honors are that of France’s greatest soldier.  He was not, however, buried in The Cathedral of St. Denis, the burial site of many the French monarchs.  

The Coronation of Napoleon I (detail), by Jacques-Louis David (1807)  The ceremony was held in Notre Dame de Paris December 2, 1804, but it took David a little while to execute.  The painting is more than 20x30 feet; larger than my living room!  Is it the first time in history when a man with no first names was painted by someone with three?  More significantly, the Pope looks on as Napoleon anoints himself!  Vive la Revolution!
Napoleon's Tomb:  Napoleon died in British custody on the tiny South Atlantic Island of St Helena in 1821.  After he escaped from Elba in 1815 and returned for the Hundred Days Campaign that ended with the Battle of Waterloo, they weren't taking any chances.  His remains were not repatriated until 1840; a moving event for France called Le Retour des Cendres (Return of the Ashes).  He was placed here in 1861.  As for resting in peace, if there is an afterlife, he is probably conquering it!

We spent an afternoon looking at the French Musee d’Armee, with a rather balanced, but abbreviated exhibit on World War II.  Like the Battle of France itself, the museum’s explanation of the rapid French defeat in 1940 is terse and short on explanation for the rapid collapse.   Following Napoleon’s loss at Waterloo, the fearsome French reputation in battle was lost as well.  The French will lose wars precipitously in 1870 and 1940, before being rescued by allies in 1914 and 1944.  But for all of these defeats, France still has the roughly the borders established by Louis XIV.  In the interim, however, they conquered and lost a huge colonial empire.  Perhaps his spirit could look out across the lovely greensward of his hospital, see the 18th century canon there defending it, and enjoy a peace he did not know in his long and glorious reign as the superstar monarch of his age.

The Museum of the Army has an amazing collection of miniature soldiers detailing their uniforms and equipment through the ages.  These are French soldiers from the time of Louis XIV.  At that time, muskets were very inaccurate.  You loaded and shot in a process that took skilled musketeers minutes to do in drill.  When guns became genuinely accurate, fancy head wear for officers quickly became unfashionable!  By the time of the American Revolution, officers became the targets of sharpshooters.
18th century cannons guard the dry moat in front of L'Hotel des Invalides.  Photo by the author. 


  1. Excellent reading once again. Thank you for the article.

    I found it fascinating to see how you illustrated the parallels that exist in the formation of both the American and French governments. It is also incredibly interesting to see the evolution of public sentiment towards these "origins" countries in the context of historical events. Because our nation is one composed of immigrants, our ties and allegiances are as conflicted as they are myriad!

    The Great Chain of Being sounds like the Western variant of the cosmology used by monarchs and rulers of the East as well. In fact, the idea that Japanese rulers were descendants of Amaterasu, the sun goddess, would not be denied until 1946, when Emperor Showa made the Humanity Declaration at the request of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur.

    Which, when you look at the motivations of a tyrant for allying him or her self closely with the concept of divinity and God, it makes perfect sense. By doing so, he or she attempts to reinforce the legitimacy of his or her rule with divine favor, while relying on the unspoken statement that any opposition is going against the natural order and God itself. Thus, you have autocratic systems with the decor and trim of theocracy.

    As for the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, I found that to be incredibly fascinating as well. I was unaware of the huge impact that the Napoleonic Wars had on the development of Western Civilization.

    Isn't it amazing how those ideas that were initially voiced in Plato's The Republic became the cornerstones of democratic forms of government centuries later? It makes one wonder at the possibilities of what would have happened if the Royal Library of Alexandria had survived and if the suppression of non-canon knowledge by the early Church had never occurred. There is no small amount of irony that the Great Chain of Being (scala naturae),was composed of Classical ideas that reinforced ideas of hierarchy, while completely ignoring those treatises written by those extraordinary Classical philosophers that involve the empowerment and self-determination of the individual, regardless of social strata.

  2. Empowerment of the individual was not the hallmark of feudal thinking. While the Great Chain of Being is pretty much dead as a foundation of modern political thought, the world has a long way to go before the ideals of Enlightenment liberalism (which is actually pretty politically conservative in the Western world) becomes the general model. Seems like there are still quite a few governmental systems that have no love for individual power.

    As for immigration, we will get to that in due course. It is a huge issue for the French, as you can see from the Sarkozy government's fight with the EU to deport thousands of Roma (gypsies). The French are very conservative about their culture, so they have big immigration problems.

  3. Now, with Lous XIV and Napoleon, I am more up to date. I love the way you connected Napoleon and French history with American history of the times. Many historical accounts love to stay inside "national" confines, and, therefore, one rarely gets a global picture. "Comparative" history is not very popular.

    As always it is fun to read your entries and see the pictures you selected. I am waiting anxiously for the river portions of your trip.


  4. It is always a pleasure to see you here. Napoleon had a huge impact on American culture, and the way the Civil War was fought is second only to the Louisiana Purchase. America is lucky his aspirations were mainly restricted to the continent. When the War of 1812 came along, we had a trivial army, nothing that could have stood up to Napoleon's most junior Marshal! We were also the ungrateful beneficiaries of the Royal Navy, the same villains who provoked the War of 1812 with us because of their ill-managed manpower needs. Napoleon never had any realistic hope of projecting his armies into North America against Royal Navy opposition.

    The fight between the Royal Navy and the American Navy should have been a walk over for the British. They had 175 ships of the line, effectively the battleships of their day. The Americans built frigates, which are roughly equivalent to modern cruisers. Because the Royal Navy's primary mission was blockading all French ships in their ports, America only faced a tiny fraction of British sea power. But we out-fought the British in most engagements and even forced them to redesign their ships! It turns out, entirely free crews fighting for their freedom fought better than sailors serving under coersion in His Majesty's ships!

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