10 Things Napoleon Never Said

Napoleon didn't say an army travels on its stomach, and he didn't cross the Alps on a horse.

Napoleon didn’t say an army travels on its stomach, and he didn’t cross the Alps on a horse.

Napoleon is one of the most quoted people in history, and thus also one of the most misquoted. Here are 10 supposed Napoleon Bonaparte quotes that did not originate with him.

1. God always favours the big battalions.

In 1673 (well before Napoleon’s birth in 1769), French aristocrat and letter writer Madame de Sévigné told a correspondent that Viscount Turenne used to say fortune was for the big battalions. Four years later her cousin, the memoirist Roger de Rabutin wrote, “As a rule God is on the side of the big squadrons against the small ones.” Voltaire and Frederick the Great also repeated this line. Ralph Keyes, in his book The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where and When, concludes that this alleged Napoleon Bonaparte quote is actually an old saying, especially favoured by the French. (1)

2. An army travels on its stomach.

The closest comment made by Napoleon was, “The basic principle that we must follow in directing the armies of the Republic is this: that they must feed themselves on war at the expense of the enemy territory.” (2)

3. No plan survives contact with the enemy.

This saying originated with Prussian field marshal Helmuth von Moltke in the mid-19th century. What von Moltke actually wrote was, “[N]o plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.” (3)

4. Able was I ere I saw Elba.

This well-known palindrome first appeared in an American periodical called The Gazette of the Union, Golden Rule and Odd-Fellows’ Family Companion on July 8, 1848, 27 years after Napoleon’s death. According to the article, the editor’s friend, one “J.T.R.” was trying to outdo the palindromes of a “water poet” named Taylor, and came up with the above, as well as “Snug & raw was I ere I saw war & guns.” The paper went on to challenge its readers to “produce lines of equal ingenuity of arrangement with the same amount of sense.” (4) For details of how this quote became attributed to Napoleon, see The Quote Investigator.

5. I gave them a whiff of grapeshot.

Napoleon supposedly said this regarding his dispersal of the mob marching on the National Assembly in Paris on October 5, 1795. The term was actually first used by Thomas Carlyle in The French Revolution (originally published in 1837) describing the use of cannon salvo against crowds. (5)

6. Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in The Sorrows of Young Werther, first published in 1774, writes “misunderstandings and neglect occasion more mischief in the world than even malice and wickedness. At all events, the two latter are of less frequent occurrence.” (6) Jane West, in her novel The Loyalists (published in 1812), condenses the sentiment to, “Let us not attribute to malice and cruelty what may be referred to less criminal motives.” (7)

7. A constitution should be short and obscure.

French politician and historian Pierre Louis Roederer wrote that he drew up two plans of a constitution for the Cisalpine Republic in Italy in 1802: one very short, leaving much to the President’s discretion; the other long and detailed. He told French Foreign Minister Talleyrand to advise Napoleon to adopt the former, as it was “short and–”; Talleyrand cut him off with, “Yes, short and obscure.” (8)

8. An army of sheep, led by a lion, is better than an army of lions, led by a sheep.

This quote is attributed to many people, going as far back as Alexander the Great.

9. England is a nation of shopkeepers.

Napoleon did say this, but he wasn’t the first to do so. Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations (1776), wrote: “To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers, may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.” (9) Napoleon was familiar with Smith’s work. Even earlier, in 1766, Josiah Tucker, Dean of Gloucester, wrote in A Letter from a Merchant in London to his Nephew in North America, “And what is true of a shop-keeper is true of a shop-keeping nation.” (10)

Did Napoleon tell Josephine “Not tonight”? We’ll never know.

Did Napoleon tell Josephine “Not tonight”? We’ll never know.

10. Not tonight, Josephine.

Not being privy to all of his bedroom utterances, we’ll never know whether Napoleon actually said this to his wife. There is, however, no evidence that he did. The phrase originated in the early 20th century. See The Phrase Finder.

For phrases that did originate with Napoleon, see my post about 10 Napoleon Bonaparte quotes in context. Napoleon’s dialogue in Napoleon in America is a mix of adapted quotations and invention.

You might also enjoy:

10 Myths about Napoleon Bonaparte

10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte

10 More Interesting Napoleon Facts

What did Napoleon like to read?

What were Napoleon’s last words?

What did Napoleon like to eat and drink?

What did Napoleon (really) look like?

Weird pictures of Napoleon

Napoleon in Alternate History

Napoleon in Historical Fiction

  1. Ralph Keyes, The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where and When (New York, 2006), p. 79.
  2. Ibid., p. 5.
  3. Ibid., p. xi.
  4. The Gazette of the Union, Golden Rule and Odd-Fellows’ Family Companion, Vol. IX (New York, 1848), p. 30.
  5. Thomas Carlyle, The Works of Thomas Carlyle, Vol. IV (London, 1903), p. 314.
  6. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther (London and Boston, 1891), p. 1.
  7. Jane West, The Loyalists: An Historical Novel, Vol. 2 (Boston, 1813), p. 134.
  8. Pierre Louis Roederer, Oeuvres, Vol. III (Paris, 1854), p. 428.
  9. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Vol. 2 (London, 1778), p. 223.
  10. Josiah Tucker, A Letter from a Merchant in London to his Nephew in North America (London, 1766), p. 46.

19 commments on “10 Things Napoleon Never Said”

  • Susan Abernethy says:

    Thanks for setting the record straight Shannon. Very interesting.

  • Capt. W. S. Cochrane, R.N. says:

    If memory serves, it was Lord Nelson who originally was quoted as having said of his command, “The Fleet sails upon it’s stomach”. This was, I believe, just before he ordered his squadron to Aboukir to pursue rumours of the presence of the French fleet. Sadly, however, he first had to deal with the immediate problem of revictualling on a coast where virtually no ports were open to British ships, and those that were refused to support the war effort for fear that Bonaparte, who up until this point was adding one knotch after another to his Imperial Conquest cudgel, might come and knock them over the head as well. Ultimately, Nelson found support in the Three Kingdoms Of Sicily (Naples), and ergo made the acquaintance of the ambassador and his wife as well, Sir William & Lady Hamilton.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Interesting. Thanks. I wonder how this remark (or its variant) wound up being attributed to Napoleon if Nelson was the one who actually said it.

  • michael crumplin says:

    Actually, as far as an army marching on its stomach is concerned, never were truer words said and, ironically, it was Napoleon’s ultimate challenger the First Duke of Wellington, that, like the victualing convoys of the Royal Navy, performed near miracles (most of the time), in keeping enough food in the stomachs of soldiers, to prevent starvation, diseases and to enhance performance in the field. Bonaparte was not so efficient. This and his neglect of La Marine were two issues that ultimately, badly let him down.

  • John Adan says:

    Austrian army built “Magazines” for food storage at strategic points, accepting the demands of permanent warfare. Empress Marie Therese declared: “If we want to shear the sheep, we have to feed it.” Napoleon must have known this. His first campaigns were in Northern Italy, the proverbial horn of plenty. Not so in Russia.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Wonderful quote, John. I hadn’t heard that one. Egypt was another place where Napoleon badly miscalculated the food and water situation.

  • Brian Boak says:

    ‘England is a nation of shopkeepers.’ Though as you say the term may have originated with Adam Smith, I think it was Paoli, the Corsican leader and Napoleon’s mentor in the early years, who first directed it against the English, and perhaps unsurprisingly Napoleon was quite fond of repeating his quote.

  • Brian Boak says:

    As regards ‘An army marches on its stomach,’ I think you and Michael Crumplin do Napoleon somewhat of a disservice; he would often eat only a soldier’s rations on campaign so that he knew what his men were capable of; and I certainly don’t think you can say he didn’t understand logistics. Unlike the Allies, he expected his army to live off the land. The scorched earth policy made this impossible in Russia. but supply depots were set up en route to Russia; unfortunately when the ragged army came back, it found the garrisons had broken into the depots and these supplies were much depleted, adding much to the general woe. That said, stories of bravery and sacrifice still emerged, which given their situation, seem quite astonishing.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks, Brian. Excellent point about the mismatch between Napoleon’s plan for logistics and the reality in Russia. There are a couple of articles about that here: http://www.napoleon-series.org/faq/c_russia.html and here: http://www.indiana.edu/~psource/PDF/Archive%20Articles/Spring2011/LynchBennettArticle.pdf.

  • Geoffrey says:

    I have read that the French policy of living off the land, that is, pillaging, made them very unpopular in the Peninsula, and so contributed to their defeat; whereas Wellington victualled his troops from allied resources and so retained the goodwill of the population. I don’t know how true this is.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    I believe that’s correct, Geoffrey. In February 1812 Marshal Marmont complained: “The Emperor seems to ignore the food question…. [T]he English army is always concentrated and can always be moved, because it has an adequate supply of money and transport. Seven or eight thousand pack mules bring up its daily food … His Majesty may judge from this fact the comparison between their means and ours -we have not four day’s food in any of our magazines, we have no transport, we cannot draw requisitions from the most wretched village without sending thither a foraging party of 200 strong; to live from day to day, we have to scatter detachments to vast distances, and always to be on the move.” (David Gates, The Spanish Ulcer: A History of the Peninsular War, De Capo Press, 1986, p. 32)

    • Brian Boak says:

      Mention the name ‘Marmont’ and you won’t get much sympathy from Bonapartists – and I would hope you know why. That doesn’t invalidate his complaint however or Geoffrey’s point. Yet, Napoleon’s policy of having his armies live off the land for the most part in the rest of Europe worked, didn’t it? No doubt it was unpopular elsewhere – and I would not think kindly of it myself were I on the receiving end – and one understands why it didn’t work in Russia. The reason why Spain was different as well though was because the British were there. So while this will have contributed as Geoffrey rightly says, it wasn’t I don’t think a major factor in creating the Spanish Ulcer.

      • Shannon Selin says:

        Indeed, by reducing the baggage train, Napoleon’s “live off the land” policy enabled the French army to march faster, thus contributing to many successes. And you’re right, there were other factors adding to the Spanish ulcer.

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Able was I ere I saw Elba.

J.T.R. (not Napoleon Bonaparte)