Whately’s Historic Doubts on Napoleon Bonapart Main Essay Part Two



Another circumstance which throws additional suspicion on these tales is, that the whig-party, as they are called—the warm advocates for liberty, and opposers of the encroachments of monarchical power—have for some time past strenuously espoused the cause and vindicated the character of Buonaparte, who is represented by all as having been, if not a tyrant, at least an absolute despot. One of the most forward in this cause is a gentleman, who once stood foremost in holding up this very man to public execration—who first published, and long maintained against popular incredulity, the accounts of his atrocities in Egypt. Now that such a course should be adopted for party-purposes; by those who are aware that the whole story is a fiction, and the hero of it imaginary, seems not very incredible; but if they believed in the real existence of this despot, I cannot conceive how they could so forsake their principles as to advocate his cause, and eulogize his character.

Besides the many strange and improbable circumstances in the history of Buonaparte that have been already noticed, there are many others, two of which it may be worth while to advert to.

One of the most incredible is the received account of the persons known as the “Détenus.” It is well known that a great number of English gentlemen passed many years, in the early part of the present century, abroad;—by their own account, in France. Their statement was, that while travelling in that country for their amusement, as peaceable tourists, they were, on the sudden breaking out of a war, seized by this terrible Buonaparte, and kept prisoners for about twelve years, contrary to all the usages of civilized nations—to all principles of justice, of humanity, of enlightened policy; many of them thus wasting in captivity the most important portion of their lives, and having all their prospects blighted.

Now whether these persons were in reality exiles by choice, for the sake of keeping out of the way of creditors, or of enjoying the society of those they preferred to their own domestic circle, I do not venture to conjecture. But let the reader consider whether any conjecture can be more improbable than the statement actually made.

It is, indeed, credible that ambition may prompt an unscrupulous man to make the most enormous sacrifices of human life, and to perpetrate the most atrocious crimes, for the advancement of his views of conquest. But that this great man—as he is usually reckoned even by adversaries—this hero according to some—this illustrious warrior, and mighty sovereign—should have stooped to be guilty of an act of mean and petty malice worthy of a spiteful old woman,—a piece of paltry cruelty which could not at all conduce to his success in the war, or produce any effect except to degrade his country, and exasperate ours;—this, surely, is quite incredible. “Pizarro,” says Elvira in Kotzebue’s play, “if not always justly, at least act always greatly.”

But a still more wonderful circumstance connected with this transaction remains behind. A large portion of the English nation, and among these the whole of the Whig party, are said to have expressed the most vehement indignation, mingled with compassion, at the banishment from Europe, and confinement in St. Helena, of this great man. No considerations of regard for the peace and security of our own country, no dread of the power of so able and indefatigable a warrior, and so inveterate an enemy, should have induced us, they thought, to subject this formidable personage to a confinement, which was far less severe than that to which he was said to have subjected such numbers of our countrymen, the harmless non-belligerent travellers, whom (according to the story) he kidnapped in France, with no object but to gratify the basest and most unmanly spite.

But that there is no truth in that story, and that it was not believed by those who manifested so much sympathy and indignation on this great man’s account, is sufficiently proved by that very sympathy and indignation.

There are again other striking improbabilities connected with the Polish nation in the history before us. Buonaparte is represented as having always expressed the strongest sympathy with that ill-used people; and they, as being devotedly attached to him, and fighting with the utmost fidelity and bravery in his armies, in which some of them attained high commands. Now he had it manifestly in his power at one period (according to the received accounts), with a stroke of his pen, to re-establish Poland as an independent state. For, in his last Russian war, he had complete occupation of the country (of which the population was perfectly friendly); the Russian portion of it was his by right of conquest; and Austria and Prussia, then his allies, and almost his subjects, would gladly have resigned their portions in exchange for some of the provinces they had ceded to France, and which were, to him, of little value, but, to them, important. And, indeed, Prussia was (as we are told) so thoroughly humbled and weakened that he might easily have enforced the cession of Prussian-Poland, even without any compensation. And the re-establishment of the Polish kingdom would have been as evidently politic as it was reasonable. The independence of a faithful and devoted ally, at enmity with the surrounding nations—the very nations that were the most likely to combine (as they often had done) against him,—this would have given him, at no cost, a kind of strong garrison to maintain his power, and keep his enemies in check.

Yet this most obvious step, the history tells us, he did not take; but made flattering speeches to the Poles, used their services, and did nothing for them!

This is, alone, sufficiently improbable. But we are required moreover to believe that the Poles,—instead of execrating this man, who had done them the unpardonable wrong of wantonly disappointing the expectations he had, for his own purposes, excited, thus adding treachery to ingratitude—instead of this, continued to the last as much devoted to him as ever, and even now idolize his memory! We are to believe, in short, that this Buonaparte, not only in his own conduct and adventures violated all the established rules of probability, but also caused all other persons, as many as came in contact with him, to act as no mortals ever did act before: may we not add, as no mortals ever did act at all?

Many other improbabilities might be added to the list, and will be found in the complete edition of that history, from which some extracts will be presently given, and which has been published (under the title of “Historic Certainties”) by Aristarchus Newlight, with a learned commentary (not, indeed, adopting the views contained in these pages, but) quite equal in ingenuity to a late work on the “Hebrew Monarchy.”

After all, it may be expected that many who perceive the force of these objections, will yet be loth to think it possible that they and the public at large can have been so long and so greatly imposed upon. And thus it is that the magnitude and boldness of a fraud becomes its best support. The millions who for so many ages have believed in Mahomet or Brahma, lean as it were on each other for support; and not having vigour of mind enough boldly to throw off vulgar prejudices, and dare be wiser than the multitude, persuade themselves that what so many have acknowledged must be true. But I call on those who boast their philosophical freedom of thought, and would fain tread in the steps of Hume and other inquirers of the like exalted and speculative genius, to follow up fairly and fully their own principles, and, throwing off the shackles of authority, to examine carefully the evidence of whatever is proposed to them, before they admit its truth.

That even in this enlightened age, as it is called, a whole nation may be egregiously imposed upon, even in matters which intimately concern them, may be proved (if it has not been already proved) by the following instance: it was stated in the newspapers, that, a month after the battle of Trafalgar, an English officer, who had been a prisoner of war, and was exchanged, returned to this country from France, and beginning to condole with his countrymen on the terrible defeat they had sustained, was infinitely astonished to learn that the battle of Trafalgar was a splendid victory. He had been assured, he said, that in that battle the English had been totally defeated; and the French were fully and universally persuaded that such was the fact. Now if this report of the belief of the French nation was not true, the British Public were completely imposed upon; if it were true, then both nations were, at the same time, rejoicing in the event of the same battle, as a signal victory to themselves; and consequently one or other, at least, of these nations must have been the dupes of their government: for if the battle was never fought at all, or was not decisive on either side, in that case both parties were deceived. This instance, I conceive, is absolutely demonstrative of the point in question.

“But what shall we say to the testimony of those many respectable persons who went to Plymouth on purpose, and saw Buonaparte with their own eyes? must they not trust their senses?” I would not disparage either the eyesight or the veracity of these gentlemen. I am ready to allow that they went to Plymouth for the purpose of seeing Buonaparte; nay, more, that they actually rowed out into the harbour in a boat, and came alongside of a man-of-war, on whose deck they saw a man in a cocked hat, who, they were told, was Buonaparte. This is the utmost point to which their testimony goes; how they ascertained that this man in the cocked hat had gone through all the marvellous and romantic adventures with which we have so long been amused, we are not told. Did they perceive in his physiognomy, his true name, and authentic history? Truly this evidence is such as country people give one for a story of apparitions; if you discover any signs of incredulity, they triumphantly show the very house which the ghost haunted, the identical dark corner where it used to vanish, and perhaps even the tombstone of the person whose death it foretold. Jack Cade’s nobility was supported by the same irresistible kind of evidence: having asserted that the eldest son of Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, was stolen by a beggar-woman, “became a bricklayer when he came to age,” and was the father of the supposed Jack Cade; one of his companions confirms the story, by saying, “Sir, he made a chimney in my father’s house, and the bricks are alive at this day to testify it; therefore, deny it not.”

Much of the same kind is the testimony of our brave countrymen, who are ready to produce the scars they received in fighting against this terrible Buonaparte. That they fought and were wounded, they may safely testify; and probably they no less firmly believe what they were told respecting the cause in which they fought: it would have been a high breach of discipline to doubt it; and they, I conceive, are men better skilled in handling a musket, than in sifting evidence, and detecting imposture. But I defy any one of them to come forward and declare, on his own knowledge, what was the cause in which he fought,—under whose commands the opposed generals acted,—and whether the person who issued those commands did really perform the mighty achievements we are told of.

Let those, then, who pretend to philosophical freedom of inquiry,—who scorn to rest their opinions on popular belief, and to shelter themselves under the example of the unthinking multitude, consider carefully, each one for himself, what is the evidence proposed to himself in particular, for the existence of such a person as Napoleon Buonaparte:—I do not mean, whether there ever was a person bearing that name, for that is a question of no consequence; but whether any such person ever performed all the wonderful things attributed to him;—let him then weigh well the objections to that evidence, (of which I have given but a hasty and imperfect sketch,) and if he then finds it amount to anything more than a probability, I have only to congratulate him on his easy faith.




But the same testimony which would have great weight in establishing a thing intrinsically probable, will lose part of this weight in proportion as the matter attested is improbable; and if adduced in support of anything that is at variance with uniform experience,[1] will be rejected at once by all sound reasoners. Let us then consider what sort of a story it is that is proposed to our acceptance. How grossly contradictory are the reports of the different authorities, I have already remarked: but consider, by itself, the story told by any one of them; it carries an air of fiction and romance on the very face of it. All the events are great, and splendid, and marvellous;[2] great armies,—great victories,—great frosts,—great reverses,—”hair-breadth ‘scapes,”—empires subverted in a few days; everything happened in defiance of political calculations, and in opposition to the experience of past times; everything upon that grand scale, so common in Epic Poetry, so rare in real life; and thus calculated to strike the imagination of the vulgar, and to remind the sober-thinking few of the Arabian Nights. Every event, too, has that roundness and completeness which is so characteristic of fiction; nothing is done by halves; we have complete victories,—total overthrows, entire subversion of empires,—perfect re-establishments of them,—crowded upon us in rapid succession. To enumerate the improbabilities of each of the several parts of this history, would fill volumes; but they are so fresh in every one’s memory, that there is no need of such a detail: let any judicious man, not ignorant of history and of human nature, revolve them in his mind, and consider how far they are conformable to Experience,[3] our best and only sure guide. In vain will he seek in history for something similar to this wonderful Buonaparte; “nought but himself can be his parallel.”

Will the conquests of Alexander be compared with his? They were effected over a rabble of effeminate, undisciplined barbarians; else his progress would hardly have been so rapid: witness his father Philip, who was much longer occupied in subduing the comparatively insignificant territory of the warlike and civilized Greeks, notwithstanding their being divided into numerous petty States, whose mutual jealousy enabled him to contend with them separately. But the Greeks had never made such progress in arts and arms as the great and powerful States of Europe, which Buonaparte is represented as so speedily overpowering. His empire has been compared to the Roman: mark the contrast; he gains in a few years, that dominion, or at least control, over Germany, wealthy, civilized, and powerful, which the Romans in the plenitude of their power, could not obtain, during a struggle of as many centuries, against the ignorant half-savages who then possessed it; of whom Tacitus remarks, that, up to his own time they had been “triumphed over rather than conquered.”

Another peculiar circumstance in the history of this extraordinary personage is, that when it Is found convenient to represent him as defeated, though he is by no means defeated by halves, but involved in much more sudden and total ruin than the personages of real history usually meet with; yet, if it is thought fit he should be restored, it is done as quickly and completely as if Merlin’s rod had been employed. He enters Russia with a prodigious army, which is totally ruined by an unprecedented hard winter; (everything relating to this man is prodigious and unprecedented😉 yet in a few months we find him intrusted with another great army in Germany, which is also totally ruined at Leipsic; making, inclusive of the Egyptian, the third great army thus totally lost: yet the French are so good-natured as to furnish him with another sufficient to make a formidable stand in France; he is, however, conquered, and presented with the sovereignty of Elba; (surely, by the bye, some more probable way might have been found of disposing of him, till again wanted, than to place him thus on the very verge of his ancient dominions;) thence he returns to France, where he is received with open arms, and enabled to lose a fifth great army at Waterloo; yet so eager were these people to be a sixth time led to destruction, that it was found necessary to confine him in an island some thousand miles off, and to quarter foreign troops upon them, lest they should make an insurrection in his favour?[4] Does any one believe all this, and yet refuse to believe a miracle? Or rather, what is this but a miracle? Is it not a violation of the laws of nature? for surely there are moral laws of nature as well as physical; which though more liable to exceptions in this or that particular case, are no less true as general rules than the laws of matter, and therefore cannot be violated and contradicted beyond a certain point, without a miracle.[5]

Nay, there is this additional circumstance which renders the contradiction of Experience more glaring in this case than in that of the miraculous histories which ingenious sceptics have held up to contempt: all the advocates of miracles admit that they are rare exceptions to the general course of nature; but contend that they must needs be so, on account of the rarity of those extraordinary occasions which are the reason of their being performed: a Miracle, they say, does not happen every day, because a Revelation is not given every day. It would be foreign to the present purpose to seek for arguments against this answer; I leave it to those who are engaged in the controversy, to find a reply to it; but my present object is, to point out that this solution does not at all apply in the present case. Where is the peculiarity of the occasion? What sufficient reason is there for a series of events occurring in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which never took place before? Was Europe at that period peculiarly weak, and in a state of barbarism, that one man could achieve such conquests, and acquire such a vast empire? On the contrary, she was flourishing in the height of strength and civilization. Can the persevering attachment and blind devotedness of the French to this man, be accounted for by his being the descendant of a long line of kings, whose race was hallowed by hereditary veneration? No; we are told he was a low-born usurper, and not even a Frenchman! Is it that he was a good and kind sovereign? He is represented not only as an imperious and merciless despot, but as most wantonly careless of the lives of his soldiers. Could the French army and people have failed to hear from the wretched survivors of his supposed Russian expedition, how they had left the corpses of above 100,000 of their comrades bleaching on the snow-drifts of that dismal country, whither his mad ambition had conducted him, and where his selfish cowardice had deserted them? Wherever we turn to seek for circumstances that may help to account for the events of this incredible story, we only meet with such as aggravate its improbability.[6] Had it been told of some distant country, at a remote period, we could not have told what peculiar circumstances there might have been to render probable what seems to us most strange; and yet in that case every philosophical sceptic, every free-thinking speculator, would instantly have rejected such a history, as utterly unworthy of credit. What, for instance, would the great Hume, or any of the philosophers of his school, have said, if they had found in the antique records of any nation, such a passage as this? “There was a certain man of Corsica, whose name was Napoleon, and he was one of the chief captains of the host of the French; and he gathered together an army, and went and fought against Egypt: but when the king of Britain heard thereof, he sent ships of war and valiant men to fight against the French in Egypt. So they warred against them, and prevailed, and strengthened the hands of the rulers of the land against the French, and drave away Napoleon from before the city of Acre. Then Napoleon left the captains and the army that were in Egypt, and fled, and returned back to France. So the French people, took Napoleon, and made him ruler over them, and he became exceeding great, insomuch that there was none like him of all that had ruled over France before.”

What, I say, would Hume have thought of this, especially if he had been told that it was at this day generally credited? Would he not have confessed that he had been mistaken in supposing there was a peculiarly blind credulity and prejudice in favour of everything that is accounted sacred;[7] for that, since even professed sceptics swallow implicitly such a story as this, it appears there must be a still blinder prejudice in favour of everything that is not accounted sacred?

Suppose, again, we found in this history such passages as the following: “And it came to pass after these things that Napoleon strengthened himself, and gathered together another host instead of that which he had lost, and went and warred against the Prussians, and the Russians, and the Austrians, and all the rulers of the north country, which were confederate against him. And the ruler of Sweden, also, which was a Frenchman, warred against Napoleon. So they went forth, and fought against the French in the plain of Leipsic. And the French were discomfited before their enemies, and fled, and came to the rivers which are behind Leipsic, and essayed to pass over, that they might escape out of the hand of their enemies; but they could not, for Napoleon had broken down the bridges: so the people of the north countries came upon them, and smote them with a very grievous slaughter.” …

“Then the ruler of Austria and all the rulers of the north countries sent messengers unto Napoleon to speak peaceably unto him, saying, Why should there be war between us any more? Now Napoleon had put away his wife, and taken the daughter of the ruler of Austria to wife. So all the counsellors of Napoleon came and stood before him, and said, Behold now these kings are merciful kings; do even as they say unto thee; knowest thou not yet that France is destroyed? But he spake roughly unto his counsellors, and drave them, out from his presence, neither would he hearken unto their voice. And when all the kings saw that, they warred against France, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and came near to Paris, which is the royal city, to take it: so the men of Paris went out, and delivered up the city to them. Then those kings spake kindly unto the men of Paris, saying, Be of good cheer, there shall no harm happen unto you. Then were the men of Paris glad, and said, Napoleon is a tyrant; he shall no more rule over us. Also all the princes, the judges, the counsellors, and the captains whom Napoleon had raised up even from the lowest of the people, sent unto Lewis the brother of King Lewis, whom they had slain, and made him king over France.” …


“And when Napoleon saw that the kingdom was departed from him, he said unto the rulers which came against him, Let me, I pray you, give the kingdom unto my son: but they would not hearken unto him. Then he spake yet again, saying, Let me, I pray you, go and live in the island of Elba, which is over against Italy, nigh unto the coast of France; and ye shall give me an allowance for me and my household, and the land of Elba also for a possession. So they made him ruler of Elba.”…


“In those days the Pope returned unto his own land. Now the French, and divers other nations of Europe, are servants of the Pope, and hold him in reverence; but he is an abomination unto the Britons, and to the Prussians, and to the Russians, and to the Swedes. Howbeit the French had taken away all his lands, and robbed him of all that he had, and carried him away captive into France. But when the Britons, and the Prussians, and the Russians, and the Swedes, and the rest of the nations that were confederate against France, came thither, they caused the French to set the Pope at liberty, and to restore all his goods that they had taken; likewise they gave him back all his possessions; and he went home in peace, and ruled over his own city as in times past.”…


“And it came to pass when Napoleon had not yet been a full year at Elba, that he said unto his men of war that clave unto him, Go to, let us go back to France, and fight against King Lewis, and thrust him out from being king. So he departed, he and six hundred men with him that drew the sword, and warred against King Lewis. Then all the men of Belial gathered themselves together, and said, God save Napoleon. And when Lewis saw that, he fled, and gat him into the land of Batavia: and Napoleon ruled over France,” etc. etc. etc.[8]

Now if a free-thinking philosopher—one of those who advocate the cause of unbiassed reason, and despise pretended revelations—were to meet with such a tissue of absurdities as this in an old Jewish record, would he not reject it at once as too palpable an imposture[9] to deserve even any inquiry into its evidence? Is that credible then of the civilized Europeans now, which could not, if reported of the semi-barbarous Jews 3000 years ago, be established by any testimony? Will it be answered, that “there is nothing supernatural in all this?” Why is it, then, that you object to what is supernatural—that you reject every account of miracles—if not because they are improbable? Surely then a story equally or still more improbable, is not to be implicitly received, merely on the ground that it is not miraculous: though in fact, as I have already (in note, p. 39,) shown from Hume’s authority, it is really miraculous. The opposition to Experience has been proved to be as complete in this case, as in what are commonly called miracles; and the reasons assigned for that contrariety by the defenders of them, cannot be pleaded in the present instance. If then philosophers, who reject every wonderful story that is maintained by priests, are yet found ready to believe everything else, however improbable, they will surely lay themselves open to the accusation brought against them of being unduly prejudiced against whatever relates to religion.

[1] “That testimony itself derives all its force from experience, seems very certain…. The first author, we believe, who stated fairly the connexion between the evidence of testimony and the evidence of experience, was Hume, in his Essay on Miracles, a work … abounding in maxims of great use in the conduct of life.”—Edin. Review, Sept. 1814, p. 328.

[2] “Suppose, for instance, that the fact which the testimony endeavours to establish partakes of the extraordinary and the marvellous; in that case, the evidence resulting from the testimony receives a diminution, greater or less in proportion as the fact is more or less unusual.”—Hume‘s Essay on Miracles, p. 173, 12mo; p. 176, 8vo, 1767; p. 113, 8vo, 1817.

[3] “The ultimate standard by which we determine all disputes that may arise is always derived from experience and observation.”—Hume‘s Essay on Miracles, p. 172, 12mo; p. 175, 8vo, 1767; p. 112, 8vo, 1817.

[4] ? ??????? ?????.

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?????????? ?????.Pind. Olymp. 1


[5] This doctrine, though hardly needing confirmation from authority, is supported by that of Hume; his eighth essay is, throughout, an argument for the doctrine of “Philosophical necessity,” drawn entirely from the general uniformity, observable in the course of nature with respect to the principles of human conduct, as well as those of the material universe; from which uniformity, he observes, it is that we are enabled in both cases, to form our judgment by means of Experience: “and if,” says he, “we would explode any forgery in history, we cannot make use of a more convincing argument, than to prove that the actions ascribed to any person, are directly contrary to the course of nature….

“… The Veracity of Quintus Curtius is as suspicious when he describes the supernatural courage of Alexander, by which he was hurried on singly to attack multitudes, as when he describes his supernatural force and activity, by which he was able to resist them. So readily and universally do we acknowledge a uniformity in human motives and actions, as well as in the operations of body.”—Eighth Essay, p. 131, 12mo; p. 85, 8vo, 1817.

Accordingly, in the tenth essay, his use of the term “miracle,” after having called it “a transgression of a law of nature,” plainly shows that he meant to include human nature: “no testimony,” says he, “is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a nature that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.” The term “prodigy” also (which he all along employs as synonymous with “miracle”) is applied to testimony, in the same manner, immediately after; “In the foregoing reasoning we have supposed … that the falsehood of that testimony would be a kind of prodigy.” Now had he meant to confine the meaning of “miracle,” and “prodigy,” to a violation of the laws of matter, the epithet “miraculous,” applied even thus hypothetically, to false testimony, would be as unmeaning as the epithets “green” or “square;” the only possible sense in which we can apply to it, even in imagination, the term “miraculous,” is that of “highly improbable,”—”contrary to those laws of nature which respect human conduct:” and in this sense he accordingly uses the word in the very next sentence: “When any one tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself whether it be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact which he relates should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other.”—Hume‘s Essay on Miracles, pp. 176, 177, 12mo; p. 182, 8vo, 1767; p. 115, 8vo, 1817.

See also a passage above quoted from the same essay, where he speaks of “the miraculous accounts of travellers;” evidently using the word in this sense.

Perhaps it was superfluous to cite authority for applying the term “miracle” to whatever is “highly improbable;” but it is important to the students of Hume, to be fully aware that he uses those two expressions as synonymous; since otherwise they would mistake the meaning of that passage which he justly calls “a general maxim worthy of your attention.”

[6] “Events may be so extraordinary that they can hardly be established by testimony. We would not give credit to a man who would affirm that he saw a hundred dice thrown in the air, and that they all fell on the same faces.”—Edin. Review, Sept. 1814, p. 327. Let it be observed, that the instance here given is miraculous in no other sense but that of being highly improbable.

[7] “If the spirit of religion join itself to the love of wonder, there is an end of common sense; and human testimony in these circumstances loses all pretensions to authority.”—Hume‘s Essay on Miracles, p. 179, 12mo; p. 185, 8vo, 1767; p. 117, 8vo, 1817.

[8] The supposed history from which the above extracts are given, is published entire in the work called Historic Certainties.

[9] “I desire any one to lay his hand upon his heart, and after serious consideration declare whether he thinks that the falsehood of such a book, supported by such testimony, would be more extraordinary and miraculous than all the miracles it relates.”—Hume‘s Essay on Miracles, p. 200, 12mo; p. 206, 8vo, 1767; p. 131, 8vo, 1817.

Let it be borne in mind that Hume (as I have above remarked) continually employs the term “miracle” and “prodigy” to signify anything that is highly improbable and extraordinary.

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