In praise of Boney

11 March 2015

 gillray james friend B20089 74

I learned recently, in the sleevenotes to The Moral of The Elephant by Martin and Eliza Carthy, that there are some 200 English folksongs still surviving from the Napoleonic War that – broadly – express the hope that Napoleon will successfully invade Britain and sweep away the British aristocracy.

This discovery came hard on the heels of reading a review by Edward Luttwak in the London Review of Books of Roger Knight’s book on Britain’s strategy to contain and then defeat Napoleon, in which the British-educated Luttwak writes of his argument with his Armenian father about Napoleon’s defeat:

[M]y father burst out with a vehement attack on ‘the English’ for having selfishly destroyed Napoleon’s empire. Wherever it had advanced in Europe, modernity had advanced with it, sweeping away myriad expressions of obscurantism and hereditary privilege, emancipating the Jews and all manner of serfs, allowing freedom of, and from, religion, and offering opportunities for advancement for the talented regardless of their origins. … Great Britain was already on its way to liberty and did not need Napoleon, but Europe did, and Britain took him away.

Of course in the UK, with our Wellington Arches and Boots, our Waterloo Stations, and even our Sharpes and Patrick O’Brian novels, it is easy to forget how radical Napoleon was. We’re much more likely to repeat the story of Beethoven angrily scrubbing out the dedication to Napoleon from the front of the the Eroica Symphony when he heard that Bonaparte had crowned himself Emperor.

The reason for Luttwak’s father’s regret was indeed deeply radical. The Code Napoleon was founded on three simple and egalitarian principles:

  • “clarity, so that all could know their rights if they could read, without the recondite expertise of jurists steeped in customary law”
  • “secularism … thereby introducing civil marriage, part of an entirely new form of individual and civic existence”
  • “the right to individual ownership of property … and employment free from servile obligations.”

It is still the basis of the law in every country it was introduced into by Napoleon.

The song by the Carthys on *The Moral of the Elephant* is the often-covered “Grand Conversation”. The singer John Howson, who has performed it, observed,

many working people in England thought that if Napoleon beat Nelson they would have a better life, and songs about Napoleon were certainly popular in Sussex.

Similarly, in “Napoleon’s Dream,” the lyrics are clear:

On the plains of Marengo I tyranny hurled
And wherever my banners the eagle unfurled
‘Twas the standard of freedom all over the world
And a signal of fame,” cried Napoleon.

And the one book that’s studied British attitudes to Napoleon found that attitudes were more mixed than our history books suggest. Stuart Semmel writes,

“To a much greater degree than has been recognized, many British radicals continued to have kind words to say about Napoleon, and continued to use him as a cudgel with which to chastise their own rulers. There was a continuous, if at times attenuated, tradition of British radical admiration of Napoleon, stretching from the earliest days of his military career through his consulate and empire and on into the period of his exile.”

And some had more practical reasons for disliking their rulers. Taxes were high because of the war, and food prices higher, and unemployment had increased both because of the war and because of the introduction of new machinery. Even those who joined the army out of desperation couldn’t always support their families on a soldier’s pay, because of army wage structures. In Ireland (then part of Britain), they also had religious and political reasons to dislike the government, and there seems to be some evidence that some of these pro-Bonaparte songs emerged through Ireland.
Some of the songs were written later. One of the curiosities of Napoleon is that after the war was over and he was exiled on St Helena, the idea of what he’d stood for – “liberties” – seemed to give strength to Britain’s new radical movements. Ruth Mather of the British Library:
In 1819, the Female Reform Society of Manchester denounced the ‘unjust, unnecessary, and destructive war, against the liberties of France’, stating that it had ‘tended to raise landed property threefold above its value, and to load our beloved country with an insurmountable burden of Taxation’. Although the war had begun with the ostensible aim of protecting the liberties of the British people, many of those people queried whether the corrupt aristocracy were the only ones to benefit.
The songs, perhaps, are part of a thread that connects the radicalism of the French revolution to Peterloo and to the successes of the Chartists in the 1830s.
*The image at the top of the post is a cartoon by James Gillray, “The Friend of the People; & his Petty New Tax Gatherer paying John Bull a visit,” from the British Library’s collection.*
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