Napoleon’s Unlikely Career

Sociologist Randall Collins has published another fascinating essay-length post, this time on the illustrious career of Napoleon Bonaparte and the old question of talent versus luck. The single worst thing about the article is the title, Napoleon as CEO: A Career of Emotional Energy, which sounds like something written by robots to fill the space between advertising on Huffington Post. But don’t worry – the article itself barely mentions CEOs, and the fluffy-sounding term “emotional energy” denotes real and important phenomena such as one’s level of activity, confidence, and enthusiasm. Below I’ve summarized some core passages. You should read the whole thing, and also Collins’ earlier articles on revolutions which provide some relevant background.

The Accidental Hero

Napoleon hailed from Corsica but could attend French elite military schools, as his father was both politically important and a French loyalist. This combination and the time of his birth proved the lucky cornerstones of his career. Napoleon had the requisite education and connections, yet was too young and too distant from the centers of power to be drawn into the vicious fights surrounding the revolution. Instead, he learned political organization in Corsica, “the big fish in a small pond,” and enjoyed career opportunities provided by the mass emigration of aristocratic officers. When the warring factions on the mainland had exhausted themselves, he was the ideal outside candidate to restore order.

Leading political actors in a period of violent struggle are going to knock each other off. In France, once the royalists were gone, the radicals turned against the moderates; and when they were gone, turned against each other. Eventually when most people are exhausted, there is room for an outsider detached from the ideologically polarized factions to act as peace-maker, establishing a more stable regime. If the structural bases for contending forces are still strong, this outside restorer of order will have opposition that tends to provoke an authoritarian solution; but the restorer will have support in public opinion, in the time-period when they are tired of seemingly endless ideological projects and violent strife. Such a detached outsider cannot be entirely without network connections, but they must be distant and flexible enough so that he is not brought down by old faction struggles. In other words, the situation will select someone like Napoleon in terms of age, peripheral sphere of activity, and multi-sided connections with the center

Once in power, Napoleon was certainly an exceptionally capable organizer. However, his new legal code and centralized bureaucracy merely accelerated a course that had long been set by the French kings, against the resistance of the old estates; and the role of master coordinator naturally manifests in times of revolutionary change.

In hero-centric or person-centered historical narratives, too much credit – too much causal force – is attributed to one person. Nevertheless, when big structural momentum is swinging but is held up by struggles or chaotic distractions, a structural opening is available for a regime to consciously and deliberately carry through the trend so that the transition is clear. […] When this happens, the leader of the team who does the reorganizing gets a great reputation, not only among contemporaries but in historical downstream. The days and years when this is going on are going to be times of intensely coordinated action; and those are the conditions where someone can play the role Napoleon played – so much to do that is consequential and important; that involves many networks of people, all of them crossing at a center where the energizing leader meets them.

The Military Genius

Napoleon was trained as an artillery officer, and his first successes include the siege of Toulon in 1794 and the suppression of the royalist uprising at the Tuileries in 1795. The latter is remarkable for its brutal but clear-headed efficiency, foregoing the usual practice of starting with warning shots. Napoleon recalled:

I made the troops fire ball at first because to a mob who are ignorant of firearms, it is the worst possible policy to start out by firing blanks. For the populace, hearing a great noise, are a little frightened after the first discharge but, looking around them and seeing nobody killed or wounded, they pluck up their spirits, begin immediately to despise you, and rush on fearlessly, and it becomes necessary to kill ten times the number that would have been killed if ball had been used in the first place.

In the field, Napoleon almost always succeeded thanks to his excellent organization that allowed him to concentrate forces faster than the enemy, and also due to his innovative use of massed light artillery alongside or instead of infantry lines.

As the French officer Charles Ardent du Picq was to document for the Crimean War, infantry have a strong tendency to misfire, or fail to fire entirely, in the stress of closely confronting an enemy. Since most muskets were inaccurate except within 40 yards (wait ‘til you see the whites of their eyes), a battle charge was a war of nerves; if the defenders could not get off their volley at the right time and with sufficient coordination, the oncoming attackers with their bayonets would usually panic defenders into a retreat. Napoleon, who was an excellent observer of such things, recognized that artillery was more accurate and easier to keep under emotional control than infantry.

Finally, the revolution had supplied a huge conscript army which adored Napoleon for his exceedingly fair, competent, and tireless leadership. Napoleon kept winning, but his military successes ultimately trapped him in a self-image of invincibility.

His ambassador to Russia describes a discussion in 1811 on whether to go to war (with all due warnings about the Russian plan to retreat into the depths of the country and let winter defeat the French): “After listening to me attentively, the Emperor began enumerating the troops and resources at his disposal. When he reverted to this theme I realized that all hope of peace was at an end, since it was enumerations of this kind which, more than anything, intoxicated him…” After making up his mind, Napoleon cheered up, and left his critic with jokes and good humor. [Caulaincourt]

Attacking everyone who wouldn’t join the embargo against England eventually drove Napoleon to Russia, where he lost both his army and his prestige. This itself increased the number of his enemies who were also catching up with French tactics and organization. Napoleon ceased working miracles on the battlefield and was deposed.

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