Was he a Frenchman? Only by the accident of time; otherwise he was French neither in body nor in mind nor in character. He was short, and later stout; his features were stern Roman rather than brightly Gallic; he lacked the gaiety and grace, the humor and wit, the refinement and manners of a cultured Frenchman; he was bent on dominating the world rather than enjoying it. He had some difficulty in speaking French; he retained a foreign accent till 1807;168 he spoke Italian readily, and seemed more at home in Milan than in Paris. On several occasions he expressed dislike of the French character. “The Emperor,” reported Las Cases, “dilated upon our volatile, fickle, and changeable disposition. ‘All the French,’ he said, ‘are turbulent, and inclined to rail. … France loves change too much for any government to endure there.’ “169
He spoke often—with the emphasis of one not sure—of his love for France. He resented being called “the Corsican”; “I wanted to be absolutely French”;170 “the noblest title in the world is that of having been born a Frenchman.”171 But in 1809 he revealed to Roederer what he meant by his love of France: “I have but one passion, one mistress, and that is France. I sleep with her. She has never been false to me. She lavishes her blood and treasure on me. If I need 500,000 men she gives them to me.”172 He loved her as a violinist can love his violin, as an instrument of immediate response to his stroke and will. He drew the strings of this instrument taut until they snapped, nearly all of them at once.
Was he the “Son of the Revolution”? So the Allies sometimes called him; but by this they meant that he had inherited the guilt of the Revolution’s crimes, and had continued its repudiation of the Bourbons. He himself repeatedly said that he had brought the Revolution to an end—not only its chaos and violence but its pretenses to democracy. He was the Son of the Revolution insofar as he retained peasant emancipation, free enterprise, equality before the law, career open to talent, and the will to defend the natural frontiers. But when he made himself consul for life, then emperor, when he ended freedom of speech and the press, made the Catholic Church a partner in the government, used new Bastilles, and favored aristocracy old and new—then, surely, he ceased to be the Son of the Revolution. In many ways he remained so in the conquered lands; there he ended feudalism, the Inquisition, and priestly control of life; there he brought in his Code and some rays of the Enlightenment. But, having so dowered these states, he gave them kings.
Was he rightly, despite his will, called “the Corsican”? Only in his family loyalty, his flair for combat, his passionate defense of France against its foes; but he lacked the Corsican spirit of feud, and his reading of the philosophes far removed him from the medieval Catholicism of his native isle. He was Corsican in blood, French in education, and Italian in almost everything else.
Yes, after all attempts to answer them, we must go back to Stendhal and Taine, and say that Napoleon was a condottiere of the Italian Renaissance, preserved in mold and type by the isolation, feuds, and wars of Corsica. He was Cesare Borgia with twice the brains, and Machiavelli with half the caution and a hundred times the will. He was an Italian made skeptical by Voltaire, subtle by the ruses of survival in the Revolution, sharp by the daily duel of French intellects. All the qualities of Renaissance Italy appeared in him: artist and warrior, philosopher and despot; unified in instincts and purposes, quick and penetrating in thought, direct and overwhelming in action, but unable to stop. Barring that vital fault, he was the finest master of controlled complexity and coordinated energy in history. Tocqueville put it well: he was as great as a man can be without virtue, and he was as wise as a man can be without modesty. Nevertheless he remained within the bounds of probability when he predicted that the world would not see the likes of him for many centuries.