...having much pride and boundless ambition, this young man deserves to be encouraged.
—Pierre-Simon Laplace, writing about the student Napoleon Buonaparte, 1785
We know what Laplace, mathematician extraordinaire, thought of the young Napoleon Buonaparte, because Laplace conducted Napoleon's examinations at the École Militaire in the fall of 1785. While Laplace found in Napoleon a young man of boundless ambition, neither could have known that in 14 years Laplace would be (briefly) the minister of the interior and Napoleon would be First Consul, the most powerful man in France.
Laplace did not succeed as a minister of France; Napoleon I's career is more complex.
Any one facet of Napoleon's legend is too much to cover in a few paragraphs. I'm not obsessed with Napoleon, but I do find him — and the history surrounding him — fascinating.
There's a beautiful set published by Oxford University Press in our Rare Book Room: The Armies of the First French Republic and the Rise of the Marshals of Napoleon I. Here are five volumes of facts, dates, names, and maps. I read through them a bit the other afternoon and found them rather boring. I wanted to be drawn in by the history; I wanted to be entertained and informed at the same time. This set is best left for the serious Napoleon scholars and enthusiasts.
Just as the very complex French Revolution of 1789 is often portrayed as a simple event, Napoleon's rise from citizen to consul to emperor seems a fait accompli when viewed from this side of history. But it was in fact a fascinating mixture of politics, ambition, and sexual attraction.
Author Sandra Gulland scores a hit where Ramsay Weston Phipps's five-volume history of Napoleon's Marshals falls rather flat — in the bedroom. Gulland's historical fiction is based solidly in fact, and she guides her readers through the confusion of history by using footnotes. The popularity of these novels is undeniable, and other astute authors are mining the love lives of historical figures in books that both entertain and inform.
While Napoleon can't take credit for the birth of the fabulous Alexandre Dumas, we can thank him for employing the father of Dumas père, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, as a general in both the Italian and Egyptian campaigns. (General Dumas dared to criticize the ill-fated Egyptian campaign and was sacked.)
All intelligent, sensible people know that one should never get involved in a land war in Asia. Had Napoleon been a sensible person, we would not have War and Peace, or the brilliant Love and Death. Had the "boundless ambition" of Napoleon not taken the road to Moscow, Tolstoy would have had to rely on a woman for his own everlasting fame.