Whately’s Historic Doubts on Napoleon Main Essay Part Three


There is one more circumstance which I cannot forbear mentioning, because it so much adds to the air of fiction which pervades every part of this marvellous tale; and that is, the nationality of it.[1]

Buonaparte prevailed over all the hostile States in turn, except England; in the zenith of his power, his fleets were swept from the sea, by England; his troops always defeat an equal, and frequently even a superior number of those of any other nation, except the English; and with them it is just the reverse; twice, and twice only, he is personally engaged against an English commander, and both times he is totally defeated; at Acre, and at Waterloo; and to crown all, England finally crushes this tremendous power, which had so long kept the continent in subjection or in alarm; and to the English he surrenders himself prisoner! Thoroughly national, to be sure! It may be all very true; but I would only ask, if a story had been fabricated for the express purpose of amusing the English nation, could it have been contrived more ingeniously? It would do admirably for an epic poem; and indeed bears a considerable resemblance to the Iliad and the Æneid; in which Achilles and the Greeks, Æneas and the Trojans, (the ancestors of the Romans) are so studiously held up to admiration. Buonaparte’s exploits seem magnified in order to enhance the glory of his conquerors; just as Hector is allowed to triumph during the absence of Achilles, merely to give additional splendour to his overthrow by the arm of that invincible hero. Would not this circumstance alone render a history rather suspicious in the eyes of an acute critic, even if it were not filled with such gross improbabilities; and induce him to suspend his judgment, till very satisfactory evidence (far stronger than can be found in this case) should be produced?

Is it then too much to demand of the wary academic[2] a suspension of judgment as to the “life and adventures of Napoleon Buonaparte?” I do not pretend to decide positively that there is not, nor ever was, any such person; but merely to propose it as a doubtful point, and one the more deserving of careful investigation, from the very circumstance of its having hitherto been admitted without inquiry. Far less would I undertake to decide what is or has been the real state of affairs. He who points out the improbability of the current story, is not bound to suggest an hypothesis of his own;[3] though it may safely be affirmed, that it would be hard to invent any one more improbable than the received one. One may surely be allowed to hesitate in admitting the stories which the ancient poets tell, of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions being caused by imprisoned giants, without being called upon satisfactorily to account for those phenomena.

Amidst the defect of valid evidence under which, as I have already shown, we labour in the present instance, it is hardly possible to offer more than here and there a probable conjecture; or to pronounce how much may be true, and how much fictitious, in the accounts presented to us. For, it is to be observed that this case is much more open to sceptical doubts even than some miraculous histories; since some of them are of such a nature that you cannot consistently admit a part and reject the rest; but are bound, if you are satisfied as to the reality of any one miracle, to embrace the whole system; so that it is necessary for the sceptic to impeach the evidence of all of them, separately, and collectively: whereas, here, each single point requires to be established separately, since no one of them authenticates the rest. Supposing there be a state-prisoner at St. Helena, (which, by the way, it is acknowledged many of the French disbelieve,) how do we know who he is, or why he is confined there? There have been state-prisoners before now, who were never guilty of subjugating half Europe, and whose offences have been very imperfectly ascertained. Admitting that there have been bloody wars going on for several years past, which is highly probable, it does not follow that the events of those wars were such as we have been told;—that Buonaparte was the author and conductor of them;—or that such a person ever existed. What disturbances may have taken place in the government of the French people, we, and even nineteen-twentieths of them, have no means of learning but from imperfect hearsay evidence; and how much credit they themselves attach to that evidence is very doubtful. This at least is certain: that a M. Berryer, a French advocate, has published memoirs, professing to record many of the events of the recent history of France, in which, among other things, he states his conviction that Buonaparte’s escape from Elba was designed and contrived by the English Government.[4] And we are assured by many travellers that this was, and is, commonly reported in France.

Now that the French should believe the whole story about Buonaparte according to this version of it, does seem utterly incredible. Let any one suppose them seriously believing that we maintained for many years a desperate struggle against this formidable emperor of theirs, in the course of which we expended such an enormous amount of blood and treasure as is reported;—that we finally, after encountering enormous risks, succeeded in subduing him, and secured him in a place of safe exile;—and that, in less than a year after, we turned him out again, like a bag-fox,—or rather, a bag-lion,—for the sake of amusing ourselves by again staking all that was dear to us on the event of a doubtful and bloody battle, in which defeat must be ruinous, and victory, if obtained at all, must cost us many thousands of our best soldiers. Let any one force himself for a moment to conceive the French seriously believing such a mass of absurdity; and the inference must be that such a people must be prepared to believe anything. They might fancy their own country to abound not only with Napoleons, but with dragons and centaurs, and “men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders,” or anything else that any lunatic ever dreamt of. If we could suppose the French capable of such monstrous credulity as the above supposition would imply, it is plain their testimony must be altogether worthless.

But, on the other hand, suppose them to be aware that the British Government have been all along imposing on us, and it is quite natural that they should deride our credulity, and try whether there is anything too extravagant for us to swallow. And indeed, if Buonaparte was in fact altogether a phantom conjured up by the British Ministers, then it is true that his escape from Elba really was, as well as the rest of his exploits, a contrivance of theirs.




But whatever may be believed by the French relative to the recent occurrences, in their own country, and whatever may be the real character of these occurrences, of this at least we are well assured, that there have been numerous bloody wars with France under the dominion of the Bourbons: and we are now told that France is governed by a Bourbon king, of the name of Lewis, who professes to be in the twenty-third year of his reign. Let every one conjecture for himself. I am far from pretending to decide who may have been the governor or governors of the French nation, and the leaders of their armies, for several years past. Certain it is, that when men are indulging their inclination for the marvellous, they always show a strong propensity to accumulate upon one individual (real or imaginary) the exploits of many; besides multiplying and exaggerating these exploits a thousandfold. Thus, the expounders of the ancient mythology tell us there were several persons of the name of Hercules, (either originally bearing that appellation, or having it applied to them as an honour,) whose collective feats, after being dressed up in a sufficiently marvellous garb, were attributed to a single hero. Is it not just possible, that during the rage for words of Greek derivation, the title of “Napoleon,” (????????,) which signifies “Lion of the forest,” may have been conferred by the popular voice on more than one favorite general, distinguished for irresistible valour? Is it not also possible that “BUONA PARTE” may have been originally a sort of cant term applied to the “good (i.e., the bravest or most patriotic) part” of the French army, collectively; and have been afterwards mistaken for the proper name of an individual?[5] I do not profess to support this conjecture; but it is certain that such mistakes may and do occur. Some critics have supposed that the Athenians imagined Anastasis (“Resurrection”) to be a new goddess, in whose cause Paul was preaching. Would it have been thought anything incredible if we had been told that the ancient Persians, who had no idea of any but a monarchical government, had supposed Aristocratia to be a queen of Sparta? But we need not confine ourselves to hypothetical cases; it is positively stated that the Hindoos at this day believe “the honourable East India Company” to be a venerable old lady of high dignity, residing in this country. The Germans, again, of the present day derive their name from a similar mistake: the first tribe of them who invaded Gaul[6] assumed the honourable title of “Ger-man” which signifies “warriors,” (the words “war” and “guerre,” as well as “man,” which remains in our language unaltered, are evidently derived from the Teutonic,) and the Gauls applied this as a name to the whole race.

However, I merely throw out these conjectures without by any means contending that more plausible ones might not be suggested. But whatever supposition we adopt, or whether we adopt any, the objections to the commonly received accounts will remain in their full force, and imperiously demand the attention of the candid sceptic.

I call upon those, therefore, who profess themselves advocates of free inquiry—who disdain to be carried along with the stream of popular opinion, and who will listen to no testimony that runs counter to experience,—to follow up their own principles fairly and consistently. Let the same mode of argument be adopted in all cases alike; and then it can no longer be attributed to hostile prejudice, but to enlarged and philosophical views. If they have already rejected some histories, on the ground of their being strange and marvellous,—of their relating facts, unprecedented, and at variance with the established course of nature,—let them not give credit to another history which lies open to the very same objections,—the extraordinary and romantic tale we have been just considering. If they have discredited the testimony of witnesses, who are said at least to have been disinterested, and to have braved persecutions and death in support of their assertions,—can these philosophers consistently listen to and believe the testimony of those who avowedly get money by the tales they publish, and who do not even pretend that they incur any serious risk in case of being detected in a falsehood? If, in other cases, they have refused to listen to an account which has passed through many intermediate hands before it reaches them, and which is defended by those who have an interest in maintaining it; let them consider through how many, and what very suspicious hands, this story has arrived to them, without the possibility, as I have shown, of tracing it back to any decidedly authentic source, after all;—to any better authority, according to their own showing, than that of an unnamed and unknown foreign correspondent;—and likewise how strong an interest, in every way, those who have hitherto imposed on them, have in keeping up the imposture. Let them, in short, show themselves as ready to detect the cheats, and despise the fables of politicians as of priests.

But if they are still wedded to the popular belief in this point, let them be consistent enough to admit the same evidence in other cases which they yield to in this. If, after all that has been said, they cannot bring themselves to doubt of the existence of Napoleon Buonaparte, they must at least acknowledge that they do not apply to that question the same plan of reasoning which they have made use of in others; and they are consequently bound in reason and in honesty to renounce it altogether.

[1] “The wise lend a very academic faith to every report which favours the passion of the reporter, whether it magnifies his country, his family, or himself.”—Hume‘s Essay on Miracles, p. 144, 12mo; p. 200, 8vo, 1767; p. 126, 8vo, 1817.

[2] “Nothing can be more contrary than such a philosophy (the academic or sceptical) to the supine indolence of the mind, its rash arrogance, its lofty pretensions, and its superstitious credulity.”—Fifth Essay, p. 68, 12mo; p. 41, 8vo, 1817.

[3] See Hume‘s Essay on Miracles, pp. 189, 191, 195, 12mo; pp. 193, 197, 201, 202, 8vo, 1767; pp. 124, 125, 126, 8vo, 1817.

[4] See Edinburgh Review for October, 1842, p. 162.

[5] It is well know with how much learning and ingenuity the Rationalists of the German school have laboured to throw discredit on the literal interpretation of the narratives, both of the Old and the New Testaments; representing them as MYTHS, i.e., fables allegorically describing some physical or moral phænomena—philosophical principles—systems, etc.—under the figure of actions performed by certain ideal personages; these allegories having been, afterwards, through the mistake of the vulgar, believed as history. Thus, the real historical existence of such a person as the supposed founder of the Christian religion, and the acts attributed to him, are denied in the literal sense, and the whole of the evangelical history is explained on the “mythical” theory.

Now it is a remarkable circumstance in reference to the point at present before us, that an eminent authoress of this century has distinctly declared that Napoleon Buonaparte was not a man, but a system.

[6] Germaniæ vocabulum recens et nuper additum; quoniam qui primi Rhenum transgressi Gallos expulerint, ac nunc Tungri, tunc Germani vocati sint: ita nationis nomen in nomen gentis evaluisse paullatim, ut omnes, primum a victore ob metum, mox a seipsis invento nomine, Germani vocarentur.—Tacitus, de Mor. Germ.

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