Whately’s Historic Doubts on Napoleon Bonaparte Main Essay Part One



Long as the public attention has been occupied by the extraordinary personage from whose ambition we are supposed to have so narrowly escaped, the subject seems to have lost scarcely anything of its interest. We are still occupied in recounting the exploits, discussing the character, inquiring into the present situation, and even conjecturing as to the future prospects of Napoleon Buonaparte.

Nor is this at all to be wondered at, if we consider the very extraordinary nature of those exploits, and of that character; their greatness and extensive importance, as well as the unexampled strangeness of the events, and also that strong additional stimulant, the mysterious uncertainty that hangs over the character of the man. If it be doubtful whether any history (exclusive of such as is confessedly fabulous) ever attributed to its hero such a series of wonderful achievements compressed into so small a space of time, it is certain that to no one were ever assigned so many dissimilar characters.

It is true, indeed, that party-prejudices have drawn a favourable and an unfavourable portrait of almost every eminent man; but amidst all the diversities of colouring, something of the same general outline is always distinguishable. And even the virtues in the one description bear some resemblance to the vices of another: rashness, for instance, will be called courage, or courage, rashness; heroic firmness, and obstinate pride, will correspond in the two opposite descriptions; and in some leading features both will agree. Neither the friends nor the enemies of Philip of Macedon, or of Julius Cæsar, ever questioned their COURAGE, or their MILITARY SKILL.

With Buonaparte, however, it has been otherwise. This obscure Corsican adventurer, a man, according to some, of extraordinary talents and courage, according to others, of very moderate abilities, and a rank coward, advanced rapidly in the French army, obtained a high command, gained a series of important victories, and, elated by success, embarked in an expedition against Egypt; which was planned and conducted, according to some, with the most consummate skill, according to others, with the utmost wildness and folly: he was unsuccessful, however; and leaving the army in Egypt in a very distressed situation, he returned to France, and found the nation, or at least the army, so favourably disposed towards him, that he was enabled, with the utmost ease, to overthrow the existing government, and obtain for himself the supreme power; at first, under the modest appellation of Consul, but afterwards with the more sounding title of Emperor. While in possession of this power, he overthrew the most powerful coalitions of the other European States against him; and though driven from the sea by the British fleets, overran nearly the whole continent, triumphant; finishing a war, not unfrequently, in a single campaign, he entered the capitals of most of the hostile potentates, deposed and created Kings at his pleasure, and appeared the virtual sovereign of the chief part of the continent, from the frontiers of Spain to those of Russia. Even those countries we find him invading with prodigious armies, defeating their forces, penetrating to their capitals, and threatening their total subjugation. But at Moscow his progress is stopped: a winter of unusual severity, co-operating with the efforts of the Russians, totally destroys his enormous host: and the German sovereigns throw off the yoke, and combine to oppose him. He raises another vast army, which is also ruined at Leipsic; and again another, with which, like a second Antæus, he for some time maintains himself in France; but is finally defeated, deposed, and banished to the island of Elba, of which the sovereignty is conferred on him. Thence he returns, in about nine months, at the head of 600 men, to attempt the deposition of King Louis, who had been peaceably recalled; the French nation declare in his favour, and he is reinstated without a struggle. He raises another great army to oppose the allied powers, which is totally defeated at Waterloo; he is a second time deposed, surrenders to the British, and is placed in confinement at the island of St. Helena. Such is the outline of the eventful history presented to us; in the detail of which, however, there is almost every conceivable variety of statement; while the motives and conduct of the chief actor are involved in still greater doubt, and the subject of still more eager controversy.




In the midst of these controversies, the preliminary question, concerning the existence of this extraordinary personage, seems never to have occurred to any one as a matter of doubt; and to show even the smallest hesitation in admitting it, would probably be regarded as an excess of scepticism; on the ground that this point has always been taken for granted by the disputants on all sides, being indeed implied by the very nature of their disputes.

But is it in fact found that undisputed points are always such as have been the most carefully examined as to the evidence on which they rest? that facts or principles which are taken for granted, without controversy, as the common basis of opposite opinions, are always themselves established on sufficient grounds? On the contrary, is not any such fundamental point, from the very circumstance of its being taken for granted at once, and the attention drawn off to some other question, likely to be admitted on insufficient evidence, and the flaws in that evidence overlooked?

Experience will teach us that such instances often occur: witness the well-known anecdote of the Royal Society; to whom King Charles II. proposed as a question, whence it is that a vessel of water receives no addition of weight from a live fish being put into it, though it does, if the fish be dead. Various solutions, of great ingenuity, were proposed, discussed, objected to, and defended; nor was it till they had been long bewildered in the inquiry, that it occurred to them to try the experiment; by which they at once ascertained that the phenomenon which they were striving to account for,—which was the acknowledged basis and substratum, as it were, of their debates,—had no existence but in the invention of the witty monarch.[1]

Another instance of the same kind is so very remarkable that I cannot forbear mentioning it. It was objected to the system of Copernicus when first brought forward, that if the earth turned on its axis, as he represented, a stone dropped from the summit of a tower would not fall at the foot of it, but at a great distance to the west; in the same manner as a stone dropped from the mast-head of a ship in full sail, does not fall at the foot of the mast, but towards the stern. To this it was answered, that a stone being a part of the earth obeys the same laws, and moves with it; whereas, it is no part of the ship; of which, consequently, its motion is independent. This solution was admitted by some, but opposed by others; and the controversy went on with spirit; nor was it till one hundred years after the death of Copernicus, that the experiment being tried, it was ascertained that the stone thus dropped from the head of the mast does fall at the foot of it![2]

Let it be observed that I am not now impugning any one particular narrative; but merely showing generally, that what is unquestioned is not necessarily unquestionable; since men will often, at the very moment when they are accurately sifting the evidence of some disputed point, admit hastily, and on the most insufficient grounds, what they have been accustomed to see taken for granted.

The celebrated Hume[3] has pointed out, also, the readiness with which men believe, on very slight evidence, any story that pleases their imagination by its admirable and marvellous character. Such hasty credulity, however, as he well remarks, is utterly unworthy of a philosophical mind; which should rather suspend its judgment the more, in proportion to the strangeness of the account, and yield to none but the most decisive and unimpeachable proofs.

Let it, then, be allowed us, as is surely reasonable, just to inquire, with respect to the extraordinary story I have been speaking of, on what evidence we believe it. We shall be told that it is notorious; i.e., in plain English, it is very much talked about. But as the generality of those who talk about Buonaparte do not even pretend to speak from their own authority, but merely to repeat what they have casually heard, we cannot reckon them as, in any degree, witnesses; but must allow ninety-nine hundredths of what we are told to be mere hearsay, which would not be at all the more worthy of credit even if it were repeated by ten times as many more. As for those who profess to have personally known Napoleon Buonaparte, and to have themselves witnessed his transactions, I write not for them. If any such there be, who are inwardly conscious of the truth of all they relate, I have nothing to say to them, but to beg that they will be tolerant and charitable towards their neighbours, who have not the same means of ascertaining the truth, and who may well be excused for remaining doubtful about such extraordinary events, till most unanswerable proofs shall be adduced. “I would not have believed such a thing, if I had not seen it,” is a common preface or appendix to a narrative of marvels; and usually calls forth from an intelligent hearer the appropriate answer, “no more will I.”

Let us, however, endeavour to trace up some of this hearsay evidence as far towards its source as we are able. Most persons would refer to the newspapers as the authority from which their knowledge on the subject was derived; so that, generally speaking, we may say it is on the testimony of the newspapers that men believe in the existence and exploits of Napoleon Buonaparte.

It is rather a remarkable circumstance, that it is common to hear Englishmen speak of the impudent fabrications of foreign newspapers, and express wonder that any one can be found to credit them; while they conceive that, in this favoured land, the liberty of the press is a sufficient security for veracity. It is true they often speak contemptuously of such “newspaper-stories” as last but a short time; indeed they continually see them contradicted within a day or two in the same paper, or their falsity detected by some journal of an opposite party; but still whatever is long adhered to and often repeated, especially if it also appear in several different papers (and this, though they notoriously copy from one another), is almost sure to be generally believed. Whence this high respect which is practically paid to newspaper authority? Do men think, that because a witness has been perpetually detected in falsehood, he may therefore be the more safely believed whenever he is not detected? or does adherence to a story, and frequent repetition of it, render it the more credible? On the contrary, is it not a common remark in other cases, that a liar will generally stand to and reiterate what he has once said, merely because he has said it?

Let us, if possible, divest ourselves of this superstitious veneration for everything that appears “in print,” and examine a little more systematically the evidence which is adduced.




I suppose it will not be denied that the three following are among the most important points to be ascertained, in deciding on the credibility of witnesses; first, whether they have the means of gaining correct information; secondly, whether they have any interest in concealing truth, or propagating falsehood; and, thirdly, whether they agree in their testimony. Let us examine the present witnesses upon all these points.

First, what means have the editors of newspapers for giving correct information? We know not, except from their own statements. Besides what is copied from other journals, foreign or British, (which is usually more than three-fourths of the news published,)[4] they profess to refer to the authority of certain “private correspondents” abroad; who these correspondents are, what means they have of obtaining information, or whether they exist at all, we have no way of ascertaining. We find ourselves in the condition of the Hindoos, who are told by their priests that the earth stands on an elephant, and the elephant on a tortoise; but are left to find out for themselves what the tortoise stands on, or whether it stands on anything at all.

So much for our clear knowledge of the means of information possessed by these witnesses; next, for the grounds on which we are to calculate on their veracity.

Have they not a manifest interest in circulating the wonderful accounts of Napoleon Buonaparte and his achievements, whether true or false? Few would read newspapers if they did not sometimes find wonderful or important news in them; and we may safely say that no subject was ever found so inexhaustibly interesting as the present.

It may be urged, however, that there are several adverse political parties, of which the various public prints are respectively the organs, and who would not fail to expose each other’s fabrications.[5] Doubtless they would, if they could do so without at the same time exposing their own; but identity of interests may induce a community of operations up to a certain point. And let it be observed that the object of contention between these rival parties is, who shall have the administration of public affairs, the control of public expenditure, and the disposal of places: the question, I say, is, not whether the people shall be governed or not, but, by which party they shall be governed;—not whether the taxes shall be paid or not, but who shall receive them. Now, it must be admitted that Buonaparte is a political bugbear, most convenient to any administration: “if you do not adopt our measures and reject those of our opponents, Buonaparte will be sure to prevail over you; if you do not submit to the Government, at least under our administration, this formidable enemy will take advantage of your insubordination, to conquer and enslave you: pay your taxes cheerfully, or the tremendous Buonaparte will take all from you.” Buonaparte, in short, was the burden of every song; his redoubted name was the charm which always succeeded in unloosing the purse-strings of the nation. And let us not be too sure,[6] safe as we now think ourselves, that some occasion may not occur for again producing on the stage so useful a personage: it is not merely to children in the nursery that the threat of being “given to Buonaparte” has proved effectual.

It is surely probable, therefore, that, with an object substantially the same, all parties may have availed themselves of one common instrument. It is not necessary to suppose that for this purpose they secretly entered into a formal agreement; though, by the way, there are reports afloat, that the editors of the Courier and Morning Chronicle hold amicable consultations as to the conduct of their public warfare: I will not take upon me to say that this is incredible; but at any rate it is not necessary for the establishment of the probability I contend for. Neither again would I imply that all newspaper editors are utterers of forged stories, “knowing them to be forged;” most likely the great majority of them publish what they find in other papers with the same simplicity that their readers peruse it; and therefore, it must be observed, are not at all more proper than their readers to be cited as authorities.

Still it will be said, that unless we suppose a regularly preconcerted plan, we must at least expect to find great discrepancies in the accounts published. Though they might adopt the general outline of facts from one another, they would have to fill up the detail for themselves; and in this, therefore, we should meet with infinite and irreconcilable variety.

Now this is precisely the point I am tending to; for the fact exactly accords with the above supposition; the discordance and mutual contradictions of these witnesses being such as would alone throw a considerable shade of doubt over their testimony. It is not in minute circumstances alone that the discrepancy appears, such as might be expected to appear in a narrative substantially true; but in very great and leading transactions, and such as are very intimately connected with the supposed hero. For instance, it is by no means agreed whether Buonaparte led in person the celebrated charge over the bridge of Lodi, (for celebrated it certainly is, as well as the siege of Troy, whether either event ever really took place or no,) or was safe in the rear, while Augereau performed the exploit. The same doubt hangs over the charge of the French cavalry at Waterloo. The peasant Lacoste, who professed to have been Buonaparte’s guide on the day of battle, and who earned a fortune by detailing over and over again to visitors all the particulars of what the great man said and did up to the moment of flight,—this same Lacoste has been suspected by others, besides me, of having never even been near the great man, and having fabricated the whole story for the sake of making a gain of the credulity of travellers. In the accounts that are the extant of the battle itself, published by persons professing to have been present, the reader will find that there is a discrepancy of three or four hours as to the time when the battle began!—a battle, be it remembered, not fought with javelins and arrows, like those of the ancients, in which one part of a large army might be engaged, whilst a distant portion of the same army knew nothing of it; but a battle commencing (if indeed it were ever fought at all) with the firing of cannon, which, would have announced pretty loudly what was going on.

It is no less uncertain whether or no this strange personage poisoned in Egypt an hospital—full of his own soldiers, and butchered in cold blood a garrison that had surrendered. But not to multiply instances; the battle of Borodino, which is represented as one of the greatest ever fought, was unequivocally claimed as a victory by both parties; nor is the question decided at this day. We have official accounts on both sides, circumstantially detailed, in the names of supposed respectable persons, professing to have been present on the spot; yet totally irreconcilable. Both these accounts may be false; but since one of them must be false, that one (it is no matter which we suppose) proves incontrovertibly this important maxim: that it is possible for a narrative—however circumstantial—however steadily maintained—however public, and however important, the events it relates—however grave the authority on which it is published—to be nevertheless an entire fabrication!

Many of the events which have been recorded were probably believed much the more readily and firmly, from the apparent caution and hesitation with which they were at first published—the vehement contradiction in our papers of many pretended French accounts—and the abuse lavished upon them for falsehood, exaggeration, and gasconade. But is it not possible—is it not, indeed, perfectly natural—that the publishers even of known falsehood should assume this cautious demeanour, and this abhorrence of exaggeration, in order the more easily to gain credit? Is it not also very possible, that those who actually believed what they published, may have suspected mere exaggeration in stories which were entire fictions? Many men have that sort of simplicity, that they think themselves quite secure against being deceived, provided they believe only part of the story they hear; when perhaps the whole is equally false. So that perhaps these simple-hearted editors, who were so vehement against lying bulletins, and so wary in announcing their great news, were in the condition of a clown, who thinks he has bought a great bargain of a Jew because he has beat down the price perhaps from a guinea to a crown, for some article that is not really worth a groat.

With respect to the character of Buonaparte, the dissonance is, if possible, still greater. According to some, he was a wise, humane, magnanimous hero; others paint him as a monster of cruelty, meanness, and perfidy: some, even of those who are most inveterate against him, speak very highly of his political and military ability: others place him on the very verge of insanity. But allowing that all this may be the colouring of party-prejudice, (which surely is allowing a great deal,) there is one point to which such a solution will hardly apply: if there be anything that can be clearly ascertained in history, one would think it must be the personal courage of a military man; yet here we are as much at a loss as ever; at the very same times, and on the same occasions, he is described by different writers as a man of undaunted intrepidity, and as an absolute poltroon.

What, then, are we to believe? If we are disposed to credit all that is told us, we must believe in the existence not only of one, but of two or three Buonapartes; if we admit nothing but what is well authenticated, we shall be compelled to doubt of the existence of any.[7]

It appears, then, that those on whose testimony the existence and actions of Buonaparte are generally believed, fail in ALL the most essential points on which the credibility of witnesses depends: first, we have no assurance that they have access to correct information; secondly, they have an apparent interest in propagating falsehood; and, thirdly, they palpably contradict each other in the most important points.

[1] “A report is spread, (says Voltaire in one of his works,) that there is, in some country or other, a giant as big as a mountain; and men presently fall to hot disputing concerning the precise length of his nose, the breadth of his thumb, and other particulars, and anathematize each other for heterodoxy of belief concerning them. In the midst of all, if some bold sceptic ventures to hint a doubt as to the existence of this giant, all are ready to join against him, and tear him to pieces.” This looks almost like a prophetic allegory relating to the gigantic Napoleon.

[2] ????? ??????????? ???? ??????? ? ??????? ??? ????????, ??? ??? ?? ?????? ?????? ?????????. Thucyd. b.i.c. 20.

[3] “With what greediness are the miraculous accounts of travellers received, their descriptions of sea and land monsters, their relations of wonderful adventures, strange men, and uncouth manners!”—Hume‘s Essay on Miracles, p. 179, 12mo; p. 185, 8vo, 1767; p. 117, 8vo, 1817.

N.B.—In order to give every possible facility of reference, three editions of Hume’s Essays have been generally employed: a 12mo, London, 1756, and two 8vo editions.

[4] “Suppose a fact to be transmitted through twenty persons; the first communicating it to the second, the second to the third, etc., and let the probability of each testimony be expressed by nine-tenths, (that is, suppose that of ten reports made by each witness, nine only are true,) then, at every time the story passes from one witness to another, the evidence is reduced to nine-tenths of what it was before. Thus, after it has passed through the whole twenty, the evidence will be found to be less than one-eighth.”—La Place, Essai Philosophique sur les Probabilités.

That is, the chances for the fact thus attested being true, will be, according to this distinguished calculator, less than one in eight. Very few of the common newspaper-stories, however, relating to foreign countries, could be traced, if the matter were carefully investigated, up to an actual eye-witness, even through twenty intermediate witnesses; and many of the steps of our ladder, would, I fear, prove but rotten; few of the reporters would deserve to have one in ten fixed as the proportion of their false accounts.


[5] “I did not mention the difficulty of detecting a falsehood in any private or even public history, at the time and place where it is said to happen; much more where the scene is removed to ever so small a distance…. But the matter never comes to any issue, if trusted to the common method of altercation and debate and flying rumours.”—Hume‘s Essay on Miracles, p. 195, 12mo; pp. 200, 201, 8vo, 1767; p. 127, 8vo, 1817.

[6] See the third Postscript appended to this edition.

[7] “We entertain a suspicion concerning any matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict each other; when they are of a suspicious character; when they have an interest in what they affirm.”—Hume‘s Essay on Miracles, p. 172, 12mo; p. 176, 8vo, 1767; p. 113, 8vo. 1817.

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