On the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death, French President Emmanuel Macron condemned the empreror’s reinstatement of slavery in 1802, saying it was a “a betrayal of the spirit of the Enlightenment.” It was the first time that any president had denounced Bonaparte’s overturning his country’s 1794 abolition law. In France and its colonies, slavery wasn’t outlawed for good until 1848.
But Macron didn’t shy away from praising the storied sovereign, claiming that “the destiny of France would not have been the same” without him: “Napoleon is the man who gave shape to our political and administrative organization, to the uncertain sovereignty that emerged from the Revolution.”
Let’s take stock of his legacy. What else did Napoleon achieve? For one, the wholesale reform not only of France’s most important and enduring institutions but all of Europe’s, from banks to universities to military academies. His overhauling of France’s education system established higher standards and greater meritocracy. And his Napoleonic Code endures as the blueprint for civil law across most of continental Europe and Latin America, not to mention Québec and even Louisiana.
What evils did he inflict? As imperial dictator he overwrote many democratic principles of the Revolution, installing himself, not the people, at France’s helm. He waged war with nearly all of Europe for over a dozen years, rearranging the face of the continent and dealing death to millions. And the expansion of his colonial empire saw him attempt to suppress the Haitian Revolution and re-enslave hundreds of thousands in the Carribean.
So, how does Napoleon deserve to be remembered? As statesman or enslaver, reformer or retrograde, national hero or genocidal maniac? In any honest account of history, he can’t be said to be one thing or another: he was both, or all the above, at the same time. This essential fact about Napoleon’s complicated inheritance is central not just to properly remembering the past but to fully understanding the present
This is the heart of our current dilemma. Are we doomed to think in good-or-evil absolutes? Or can we walk and chew gum at the same time? In a culture that constantly asks us to cancel or to commemorate, can we be bold enough not to do either — but instead both?