Napoleon rose to prominence during the French Revolution and because of his numerous and successful military campaigns he dominated Europe for over a decade. In fact, his military prowess helped him became Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1814, and then again in 1815. Although Napoleon may have ended lawlessness and disorder in post-Revolutionary France, opponents considered him a tyrant and usurper. Today, some historians claim he had grandiose ambitions and was overly aggressive in building his empire. Because of his reputation — both good and bad — people who met or knew him always had something to say to him or about him. Here are their words:
Mon devoir à moi, c’est de conserver.
“My duty is to preserve [life].”
On 7 March 1799, the ancient port city in Israel named Jaffa was captured and violently sacked by the French army. This victory was rapidly followed by an outbreak of the Bubonic plague, which decimated Napoleon’s soldiers. The French military doctor, René-Nicolas Dufriche, baron Desgenettes, who was tending to the sick, said the above to Napoleon when Napoleon supposedly advised him to use opium to put an end to the sufferings of the plague-stricken soldiers.
Un jour vous regretterez de ne pas mourir comme moi au champ des braves.
“One day you will regret not having died like me on the battlefield.”
Napoleon defeated Seid Mustafa Pasha’s Ottoman army on 25 July 1799 in what became known as the Battle of Aboukir. The above phrase was said to Napoleon by Colonel Fugières, as he was dying on 27 July 1799.
On ne s’appuie que sur ce qui résiste.
“We only lean only on that which resists.”
This reply was made by the playwright François Andrieux to Napoleon after Napoleon complained of the Tribunat’s resistance. (The Tribunat was one of the four assemblies set up in France by the Constitution of Year VIII and was officially declared as such on 1 January 1800).
Messieurs, nous avons un maître; ce jeune homme fait tout, peut tout, et veut tout.
“Gentlemen, we have a master, this young man does everything, is capable of anything, and desires everything.”
Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, most commonly called Abbé Sieyès, was a French Roman Catholic abbé, clergyman, and political writer. He supposedly said the above phrase when describing Napoleon. However, the Abbé denied ever having said it.
Eh! qui nous fera grâce à nous?
“Who will pardon us, eh?”
This phrase references the trial of Jean Victor Marie Moreau, a French general who helped Napoleon Bonaparte gain power but later became his rival. The phrase is attributed to a magistrate named E. Clavier who said this in reply to Napoleon after Napoleon expressed his desire for Moreau to be condemned but promised to pardon him afterwards.
Au nom de Dieu, Sire, faites la paix pour la France, moi je meurs.
“In the name of God, Sire, make peace for France, I am dying.”
These are claimed to be the dying words of Jean Lannes, 1st Duc de Montebello, better known as Marshal Lannes. He supposedly said this to Napoleon after he was wounded on the 22nd of May. Lannes was hit in the legs by a ricocheting bullet, had one leg amputated and later the other one. Unfortunately, his wounds were overwhelming and he died about nine days later on 31 May 1809.
Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.
“I had no need of that hypothesis.”
Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace, was an influential French scholar who developed a close relationship with Napoleon and whom Napoleon appointed Minister of the Interior in November of 1799. Laplace also wrote a book that Napoleon read. As Napoleon liked to put people on the spot, Napoleon mentioned Laplace’s book and said to Laplace that he had said nothing about the world’s creator. Laplace gave Napoleon blunt reply above. However, the only eyewitness to this account, Sir William Herschel, a British astronomer, does not mention Laplace using these words, but rather, according to one of Laplace’s colleagues, this was the implied meaning.
“Oh, que non! on craint peu celui qu’on n’estime pas.
Oh no! we little fear him whom we do not esteem.”
Charlotte Bonaparte was the eldest daughter of Napoleon’s older brother, Lucien Bonaparte. Charlotte said the above when she was asked whether she was afraid of the consequences of irritating her uncle Napoleon by refusing to marry Ferdinand VII of Spain. The marriage fell through anyway, and, later, she married her first cousin, Napoleon Louis, the second son of Louis Bonaparte.
André Ernest Modeste Grétry was a composer whom Napoleon gave the Légion d’honneur (Legion of Honor) medal and a pension. This was his reply to Napoleon after being tired and irriated of Napoleon asking him his name week after week.
Napoléon! Ella! Marie-Louise!
“Napoleon! Ella! Marie-Louise!”
These words were spoken by Joséphine de Beauharnais’s on her deathbed on 29 May 1814. She was referring to Napoleon’s second wife, Marie-Louise of Austria, whom Napoleon had married after divorcing her. Napoleon’s learned about his first wife’s death when reading a French journal while exiled in Elba. After receiving the news he remained locked in his room for two days and refused to see anyone.
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- Baedeker, Karl, Northern France, 1889
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- L’esprit dans l’histoire, 1867
- Larousse, Pierre Athanase, Fleurs historiques des dames et des gens du monde, 1862
- Matthews, Henry, The Diary of an Invalid, 1835
- Revue des Deux Mondes, 1879
- The Electric Journal of Medicine, Vol. 1, 1837
- The Percy Anecdotes, Vol. 20, 1826
- Ward, Lester F., Dynamic Sociology or Applied Social Science, 1898