Note: This is a two-part look at Pre-Confederation Canada and Napoleon Bonaparte. Part 1 will explore how public opinion regarding the French leader changed overtime. Part 2 will look at Napoleon’s impact on British North America.
Napoleon Bonaparte: Hero or Tyrant?
Left: Napoleon Crossing the Alps (c. 1801-1805) by Jacques-Louis David. Right: Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (1806) by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.
In the same way Pre-Confederation Canadians had many opinions about the chaos created by the French Revolution, they had a lot to say about the man that put an end to it. From the time Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in France in the 1799 coup d’état to his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, his escapades were closely followed and discussed in both English and French Canada. What did early 19th century Canadians think about Napoleon? Did these opinions change overtime and if so, why?
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), the French military and political leader who turned Europe on its head during the first fifteen years of the 19th century is as polarizing a figure today as he was back then. Opinions about the man range from one of the greatest/most bad ass military strategists of all time to a genocidal tyrant that was no better than Hitler. Most people fall somewhere in between those two extremes, however some historians have argued that, especially with regards to Quebec, he is almost a mythic-like figure. Senator Serge Joyal, author of Le Mythe de Napoléon Au Canada Français, claims that “Napoleon is in the cultural DNA of French Canadians,” because his battle against the British mirrors their own struggles. With all the fanfare, would you guess that Pre-Confederation Canadians, both English and French, absolutely loathed Napoleon?
In one of the most famous political cartoons of all time, The Plumb-Pudding in Danger-or-State Epicures Taking Un Petit Souper (1805) by James Gillray, depicts British Prime Minister William Pitt and Napoleon carving up the world into spheres of influence.
By the time 1799 came around, the French Revolution had been dragging on for ten years. After the execution of King Louis XVI back in 1793, public opinion across British North America turned completely sour. English colonists spent much of the Revolution terrified that the murder and mayhem would eventually make its way across the Atlantic and take hold here because of the large population of French colonists. Anti-French sentiments were fueled by the British colonial leaders into almost a hysteria. Officials severely limited French immigration, circulated false stories, and worst of all encouraged spying and witch hunts which ultimately led to a man’s wrongful execution. English colonists in British North America matched their European counterparts in their suspicion and hatred of the French so it is no surprise that when Napoleon came onto the scene, they held nothing but contempt for him.
Fun Fact: Napoleon and his exploits were a gift to cartoonists. British artists alone produced closed to a thousand satirical drawings, making him the most caricatured figure of his time. They are also the reason behind the lasting myth that Napoleon was super short. He was actually 5’6 ft, the average height of a Frenchman in the 1800s.
But what about French colonists? They had originally supported the Revolution because they thought it would clear the way for a constitutional monarchy and only changed their minds once the king was dead. After that they saw revolutionaries as the ultimate sinners; they had murdered the man ordained by God to rule. Moreover they abolished clergy’s privileges, confiscated clerical property, and murdered both priests and nuns. When Napoleon seized power, rather than seeing him as the one who put a stop to this, French colonists viewed him as the inheritor of the sinful Revolution. He was a “usurper” as colonial newspapers put it; as loyal Royalists they felt that he did not belong on the throne. So you can imagine how angry French colonists were when they heard about how Napoleon crowned himself and his wife Josephine in 1804 and not the Pope. The act symbolized how it was his own merits and not God that had made him Emperor.
French colonists were not exactly in search of a symbol of resistance to the British. Despite the growing anti-French sentiments among their English neighbours, to put it plainly the French didn’t really care. They made up the majority of the British North American population at the turn of the 19th century and the colonial government was not oppressing them. There was no need to rally behind the controversial French figure and instead they too were part of the loud anti-Napoleon rhetoric across the colony.
Maniac Ravings, or Little Boney in a Strong Fit (1803) by James Gillray. Napoleon particularly hated Gillray and his “Little Boney” cartoons. He reportedly said that Gillray “did more than all the armies of Europe to bring me down.” [Source]
Newspapers lambasted the French ruler; they published article after article denouncing him. Pamphlets and caricatures made fun of Napoleon. He was a power-hungry warmonger; a tyrant and a false King. His fights against the British were looked down upon. As British subjects, when England was at war so was the colony. As such, citizens saw Napoleon as a threat to the widespread peace in British North America. England and the British military were seen in the most positive light because they were the ones who were protecting the well-being of all colonists by fighting back against the ruthless tyrant. There were even anti-Napoleon songs in colonial newspapers. Here is part of one from La Gazette de Quebec:
Under a foreigner’s scepter
France lies low;
Under the chains she thought to break
I see her bow
Dupe of his ambition.
The media was not alone in their open hatred of Napoleon. Colonial priests, especially those who fled France during the Revolution, railed against him. Some went as far as to label Napoleon as the anti-Christ. Given that much of the population at the time was illiterate, most got their news from their local parish so their words were particularly influential in shaping public opinion on Napoleon.
Fun Fact: Not everyone hated Napoleon. There were a few French Canadians who hoped he would invade the colony and help them “shake off the English yoke.” (Murat, 175). A whopping total of 12 men signed a letter addressed to the the Emperor asking him to liberate them from the British. It went unanswered.
Both English and French colonists raised money to help support England’s battles and for commemorations of England’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. Nelson’s Column still stands today in Montreal. Part of the incentive to donate came from the fear that if Britain’s military fell, the colony would be open to invasion. So colonists would either have to deal with Napoleon as their leader, or more likely, he would sell the whole colony to the Americans just like he did with the Louisiana Purchase. Now, most historians agree that Napoleon would have never bothered with invading British North America. He believed that eventually the colony would be taken over by the United States. By selling off the massive Louisiana Territory, Napoleon showed that conquering North America was not on his list of things to do.
So where did the positive opinion of Napoleon come from? Well, it came after his death in 1821. As time went on, the demographics of British North America began to actually reflect the colony’s name. The growth of English Canada and eventually the domination of its presence in colonial and later national politics led to a reversal in French Canadian support for the British Empire. Feeling subjugated and that both their culture and heritage were at risk at being swept away, Napoleon’s image transformed into that of a nostalgic symbol.
Aside from the various battles he had with the British, Senator Joyal argues that for French Canadians, his escape from Elba and imprisonment on St. Helena took on additional importance. Napoleon became a symbol of resistance. “It wasn’t the military might that impressed people […] he became a martyr. The French also saw themselves as prisoners and martyrs of the English.” Transforming the image of Napoleon into that of a hero was a form of cultural preservation.
Thanks for reading! Next week I will looking at how Napoleon’s actions had a surprisingly significant impact British North America. In the meantime, what’s your personal take on Napoleon? Is he a hero? A tyrant? Somewhere in between? Sound off in the comments below!
Bryant, Mark, Napoleonic Wars in Cartoons. London: Grub Street Publishing, 2015.
Murat, Ines, Napoleon and the American Dream, Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1999.
Patriquin, Martin, “What would Napoleon do?” Maclean’s. June 3, 2010. Accessed from: http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/what-would-napoleon-do/
Selin, Shannon. “Napoleon in French Canada,” Shannon Selin: Imagining the Bounds of History. 2015. Accessed from: http://shannonselin.com/2015/01/napoleon-in-french-canada/