Jacques-Louis David, “Bonaparte franchissant le Grand Saint-Bernard”

This essay, on the need to acknowledge the complexities of historical figures, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on what ancient burials tell us about being human.) It was published on 10 May 2021, under the headline “Let’s be honest – every national hero is tainted by the values of our time”.

With distance can come greater perspective. We often better appreciate a physical object, whether a mountain or a monument and its relationship to its surroundings, at some distance than from close up. The same is true of historical figures.

Last week marked the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, a man who divides opinion in France. President Emmanuel Macron, in laying a wreath at Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides in Paris, walked a delicate line, insisting that it was an act of commemoration, not of celebration. It was an ambivalence that many British commentators understood. Yet, when it comes to figures closer to home, such as Winston Churchill, that understanding of historical complexity often vanishes. Instead, we are faced with a “culture war”. It’s a contrast that helps illuminate the often confused ways in which we comprehend the tangled relationship of the past to the present.

In France, mixed emotions about Napoleon are rooted in a fraught history. Having made his name as a military leader and strategist in post-revolutionary France, he took power as first consul in a coup d’etat in 1799, crowning himself emperor five years later. 

Those who laud his legacy claim that he projected France on to the world stage and laid the foundations of a strong state. TheNapoleonic Code, a sweeping array of laws covering citizenship, individual rights, property, the family and colonial affairs, established a new legal framework for France and influenced law-making from Europe to South America.

Stacked against this are shockingly reactionary policies. Napoleon reintroduced slavery into French colonies in 1802, eight years after the National Assembly had abolished it, imposed new burdens on Jews, reversing rights they had gained after the revolution, strengthened the authority of men over their families, depriving women of individual rights and crushed republican government.

To the far right in France, Napoleon is an unalloyed hero. To many others, his is a troubling legacy. To be wrapped in a complex legacy is not, however, unique to Napoleon. It is the fate of most historical figures, whether Churchill or Wilberforce, Jefferson or Roosevelt, Atatürk or Nkrumah, all of whose actions and beliefs remain contested. Biographies rarely cleave neatly into “good” or “bad”.

Many, though, feel the need to see history in such moral terms, to paint heroes and villains in black and white, to simplify the past as a means of feeding the needs of the present. National and imperial histories have long been whitewashed, the darker aspects obscured. How many people in Britain know of the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica or of the “Black War” in Tasmania? We want to preserve our national heroes untainted, none more so than Churchill, the man who saved “the nation… and the entire world”. Attempts to reassess his legacy can be dismissed as “profoundly offensive” or as “rewriting history”.

At the same time, those who seek to address many of these questions often themselves impose a cartoonish view of the past and its relationship to the present, from the call to take down Churchill’s statues to the mania for renaming buildings. The complexities of history fall foul of the political and moral needs of the present.

In 1876, Frederick Douglass, the great American former slave and staunch abolitionist, gave a speech at the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington DC. He was critical of the statue, which depicted Abraham Lincoln as upright, but the freed slave as “still on his knees and nude”, as Douglass put it in an unpublished letter. He was critical of Lincoln, too, who was not, he told the crowd at the unveiling, “in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model”. Lincoln had been willing “to protect, defend and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed” and “to pursue, recapture and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty”. And yet, through the civil war, Lincoln had helped “deliver us from a bondage”. The memorial, he believed, was “a compliment and a credit to American civilisation, and a prophecy of still greater national enlightenment and progress in the future”.

In the raw aftermath of the civil war, Douglass, who more than most understood the degradations imposed on black Americans, could be both brutally honest and insightfully nuanced, in a fashion that seems to evade so many today.

Understanding the reasons why so many in France are ambivalent about Napoleon’s legacy is useful. Would that we could be equally perceptive about figures and events closer to home.

One comment

  1. Agreed. It’s horrifying that facile opinions are valorised in place of the attempt to understand the nuances of events and characters, so long as the proponent stakes a claim to fashionable virtue. Shallow moralising can’t replace rationality, an understanding of the complexities of history, and the awareness that both sides of an argument have some merit.

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