Was Napoleon good or bad?

Was Napoleon Bonaparte a good leader? Was he a hero or a tyrant? I often get asked questions that boil down to “was Napoleon good or bad?” It is not an easy question to answer. Like most of us, he was neither entirely good, nor entirely bad. Reasonable people can disagree about how Napoleon’s life and legacy should be regarded. The answer depends on what you value, and by what standards you are judging him. Below is a brief summary of arguments usually made in favour of, and against, Napoleon.

Napoleon good or bad?

Napoleon Crossing the Alps, by Jacques-Louis David

Napoleon the good

Napoleon was an excellent general.

Napoleon was an exceptional military commander (see, for example, “Napoleon was the Best General Ever, and the Math Proves it”). He fought over 70 battles, and was defeated in only eight. He transformed the way in which the French army operated and turned France into the greatest military power in Europe. His confidence and ambition inspired his troops, and their victories brought glory to France.

Napoleon saved France from the chaos of the French Revolution.

Napoleon brought stable government to France after years of violent political turmoil resulting from the French Revolution of 1789. He granted amnesty to most émigrés (royalists who had fled the country after the Revolution), and admitted a number of talented émigrés to government service.

Napoleon established the Napoleonic Code.

Under Napoleon’s guidance, a commission of jurists finished drafting a body of clearly written civil laws to replace the patchwork of customary feudal and religious laws that existed in France (the effort to come up with a rational, uniform set of laws actually started before Napoleon came to power). The code recognized the principles of civil liberty, the equality of men before the law, and the secular nature of the state. The Napoleonic Code influenced the development of legal systems around the world. It remains the basis of civil law in France, Belgium and many former French colonies.

Napoleon introduced beneficial reforms in France.

Napoleon brought a number of useful innovations to France that survive to this day. He centralized government administration and introduced the prefecture system. He facilitated the adoption of the metric system, built public roads and sewers, and instituted a system of state-supported secondary education, through the lycées. He established a stable, single currency and created the Bank of France. He introduced meritocracy to both the French government and the French army, in which people were promoted on the basis of their ability, rather than on the basis of their family background.

Napoleon reconciled the French state and the Catholic Church.

During the French Revolution, the French church was removed from papal authority, church lands and endowments were seized by the state, and most clergy fled the country. In 1801, Napoleon signed a concordat with the Pope. This agreement acknowledged Catholicism as the religion of the majority of French people. Priests were allowed to return to their churches and preside over worship, although the church’s confiscated property was not returned.

Napoleon the bad

Napoleon compromised the gains of the French Revolution.

The French Revolution ended monarchical rule in France. Napoleon brought it back. Instead of returning power to the people, he truncated the powers of the legislature, rewarded his supporters, had himself proclaimed Emperor, presided over an extravagant court, and showered his family with wealth, positions and privileges. He reduced the rights of women. He ended freedom of the press, constrained freedom of association, and created a new, greedy nobility.

Napoleon was responsible for a lot of death and destruction.

Napoleon kept Europe at war for 15 years. This resulted in an estimated 3.5 million to 6 million deaths, and millions wounded. Numerous cities, towns and villages were looted, bombarded, or burned. Thousands were left homeless. An unknown number of women and girls were raped. Institutions were shattered in the territories Napoleon conquered, and the economic life of Europe was severely disrupted. Napoleon’s proponents blame other European countries for the Napoleonic Wars, but in many cases Napoleon provoked the allies. He was the one who chose to invade Spain and Russia. He refused to take opportunities for peace when they were offered.

Napoleon was responsible for the massacre at Jaffa

During the Egyptian campaign in 1799, the French laid siege to the city of Jaffa, in what is today Israel and was then under Ottoman (Turkish) control. After capturing the city, Napoleon allowed his troops to spend at least two days looting the place and raping and slaughtering its inhabitants, including the elderly, women, and children. He also ordered the execution of up to 3,000 prisoners of war (mainly Albanians), even though they had been promised mercy when they surrendered to Napoleon’s stepson, Eugène de Beauharnais. The prisoners were marched to the beach and shot or bayoneted. Overall, an estimated 4,100 people were massacred by the French at Jaffa.

Napoleon left France diminished and bankrupt

Napoleon left France in a weaker position than when he started: exhausted by war; out of money; confined to borders that were smaller than when he came to power; shorn of most of her overseas colonies; and at the mercy of victorious allies.

A long debate

The debate over whether Napoleon did more good or harm has been going on ever since he died. When news of Napoleon’s death reached London in 1821, The Times commented: “Upon the whole, Buonaparte will go down to posterity as a man who, having more good at his disposal than any other potentate of any former age, had actually applied his immense means to the production of a greater share of mischief and misery to his fellow-creatures.” (1) In contrast, a liberal paper in Paris observed: “History, an impartial judge, will confess that Napoleon has rendered eminent services to the social order…. The truth must sit upon his tomb; and let us not be diffident in saying that the prisoner of St. Helena will be counted among the great men.” (2)

Over a century later, French President Charles de Gaulle wrote:

Napoleon left France crushed, invaded, drained of blood and courage, smaller than when he had taken control of her destinies, condemned to ill-drawn frontiers, the evils of which still persist, and exposed to the distrust of Europe which has weighed upon her to this day. But it is impossible to dismiss as of no account the matchless lustre which he imparted to our armies.… (3)

More recently, Andrew Roberts and Adam Zamoyski debated whether Napoleon should be regarded as great (watch here and here).

Regardless of one’s view of Napoleon, he has long captured the popular imagination. With his iconic hat, his image is recognized around the world. He has inspired artists, musicians and writers for over 200 years. He has been used to sell everything from antacid to wine. Napoleon was a man of huge ambition and ability who rose to the pinnacle of success and then wound up like Prometheus, chained to a rock. In the words of late 19th-century British Prime Minister Lord Rosebery:

No name represents so completely and conspicuously dominion, splendor, and catastrophe. He raised himself by the use, and ruined himself by the abuse, of superhuman faculties. He was wrecked by the extravagance of his own genius. No less powers than those which had effected his rise could have achieved his fall. (4)

You might also enjoy:

Was Napoleon religious?

What did Napoleon think of women?

Napoleon’s View of Slavery & Slavery in New Orleans

10 Interesting Facts About Napoleon Bonaparte

The Coronation of Napoleon

Etiquette in Napoleon’s Court

Napoleon’s Looted Art

How were Napoleonic battlefields cleaned up?

  1. The Times, London, July 5, 1821.
  2. Le Constitutionnel, Paris, July 11, 1821.
  3. Charles de Gaulle, France and Her Army (London, 1945), p. 60.
  4. Lord Rosebery, Napoleon: The Last Phase (London, 1900), p. 252.

30 commments on “Was Napoleon good or bad?”

  • John Adan says:

    Wars begin with greed for plunder. They are bad for everybody, because every action brings a reaction and the price is very high. Napoleon started as a guerrilla fighter in Corsica who had to run for his life. He then became a military scholar and a ruthless pragmatic genius. Politics and warfare can be very dirty, no matter how much glitter covers it. The Napoleonic French Empire had risen from the ashes of the bloody French Revolution, a very deep and dirty gutter, followed in due course by more carnage in the Franco-Prussian War, WW1, WW2 and so on and on. The death toll keeps mounting, with new and ever more efficient technology. Yet the World population keeps growing and changing. The birth rate falls in the industrial countries and grows in the developing ones. There is no telling where this will go.

  • Jim Cooke says:

    On YouTube I recently saw a Dick Cavett interview with Sir Lawrence Olivier. Olivier spoke of Marlon Brando’s performance as Napoleon; he said it was the best of all interpretation of Napoleon. Who do you consider the “best” characterization?

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks for asking, Jim. That’s a hard one, as there are several good interpretations of Napoleon, including Brando’s. I’m partial to Rod Steiger’s depiction in the film “Waterloo” (1970).

  • David Massicot says:

    Napoleon did not have the morality and honor that we see in some great military leaders. He was a ambitious with no scruples. Power was definitely his drug. But he was a pragmatist and did not seem to have the vindictiveness one sees in great conquerors or dictators. Cruelty is not an adjective that comes to mind when describing Napoleon.
    War was declared on him more often than he declared war on others. He played the game the rest of the continent played he just played it more brilliantly at least for a decade. His life was great and inspiring for the activity and accomplishments.
    He was no Belisarius or Gustavus Adolphus, but he was clearly no Ghenhis Khan or Hitler either.

  • Marty S says:

    Reading Roberts’ book now. I find myself toggling back & forth on this issue as I read. One moment I’m in awe of his leadership or progressive reforms, the next I’m appalled at his arrogance & war-mongering. Great book though!

  • Edward E. Bennett says:

    Napoleon was a brilliant military tactician and strategists; however, he was careless of the high death toll of French troops, and his blunder of the Russian winter of 1812.

    A master of Logistics and mass troop formations. On the downside, he leaves his troops under the command of General Kleber and leaves Egypt.

  • Jen Yates says:

    Thanks for a great article, Shannon. I have long wondered what the French people themselves feel about Napoleon. We who are of British heritage, have of course been inculcated with the view he was a monster etc while begrudgingly agreeing he was a great General. I imagined the French people saw him differently. But perhaps they are just as conflicted. For he did do a lot of good though it was unfortunately counterbalanced by his drive for power and the huge loss of life and peace for so many over such a long period of time. Impressed by him or not, we have to admit he has made an indelible mark on history.

  • Marieno says:

    It is difficult to answer Jen Yates question.
    Many French admire Napoleon, many dislike him, most of them are totally indifferent and/or ignorant. Even the French Republic doesn’t know what to do with him: for example, in Paris, there are many streets or avenues or boulevards named after Napoleon’s battles or marshals but not a single one named after him; there is just a little street called “rue Bonaparte” without any precision (Napoléon Bonaparte, Joseph, Lucien, Jérôme, Marie?).
    In 2005, the government sent the only French aircraft carrier The Charles de Gaulle to celebrate the bicentenary of the battle of Trafalgar !?! But nothing official for the bicentenary of the battle of Austerlitz!
    As for History teaching, Napoleon’s period is almost totally wiped from the French History school books even if in the new History program, he should make a come back. But Napoleon is not the only one affected by this “cleaning”. In fact, in France, we don’t teach to our children the “glories” of our country, so exit Napoleon, Jeanne d’Arc, Louis XIV… We prefer to bash ourselves with our guilt over slavery, colonialism…no need of French bashing, we are doing it very well by ourselves, but it is another problem…
    But even if they acknowledge it or not, French people are still living in a very Napoleonic France. For example, a few days ago, the results of the baccalaureate, the exam that young people pass at the end of the lycée (high school), were given. So, in one sentence, there are two of Napoleon’s creations or important reforms which are still valid in France…
    For most of the “non French” who are not very interested in the subject, Napoleon is firstly a man of war, hero or not.
    But for me, he is firstly a great statesman and administrator as you showed in your post. With his “granite masses” (prefets, bank of France, lycées, Legion of Honour, Civil Code), he put the bases of a modern France.
    He made very great things in a minimum of time.
    As for the bad things he made, I think most of them could be nuanced. But I am too lazy to do it now…
    As for the Brits, it is funny they learned to see Napoleon as a monster, especially when you think about their own responsibilities in the coalitions against the Revolution and Napoleon. But, fortunately, today, some British historians are able to treat this period in a more objective view (French historians are usually very balanced).

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks for your very helpful comments, Marieno. It’s great to have a French perspective on Napoleon.

  • Krish says:

    is this a primary source or secodary

  • I. TENEV says:

    The more I read about the wars of Napoleon the more I admire and adore the people of Spain and Russia, who stood up against his invincible armies and sacrificed everything for the sake of their countries. Both bold stands were crucial for the visionary general, who following his ambitions achieved a lot, but unfortunately became a tyrant. I would compare him with Hannibal, Tamerlan and Hitler. Every one of them had a justification for his invasions and destructions. Somehow Napoleon with his final end brings a pity, for some he is tragic hero even. I would like to believe that he realised at the end that all he had done was wrong. But hardly, like any sinner human being he would justify his actions….it is human nature. Thank you Shannon for this wonderful journey through history.

  • Hisanel says:

    “He refused to take opportunities for peace when they were offered.”

    This is simply untrue. Napoleon wanted nothing more than to end the destructive French Revolutionary Wars that were waged by the Coalitions. If he was so against peace, why was he the one who initially offered a truce to the British and began the discussions for the Treaty of Amiens that eventually ended the War of the Second Coalition? It was the British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger that rejected Napoleon’s cries for peace out of distrust for him and it took three years for the Treaty of Amiens to be ratified because of this distrust. And this peace only lasted a year because the British broke the treaty and declared war on France again, marking the third time since 1792 that Britain and all the powers of Europe declared war on France.

    People talk of Napoleon’s Continental System as if it was some sort of refusal to make peace with Britain when in reality it was done in hopes of bringing Britain to the negotiating table. People ignore the fact that it hurt France and her allies more than it did Britain. Napoleon, unable to defeat Britain due to the Royal Navy’s superiority, was desperate to find other ways of making peace with them and this was one.

    And then there’s Austria, Napoleon’s greatest enemy. Time and again Napoleon was lenient towards Austria after defeating them in wars and time and again the Austrians joined a Coalition against them. He hoped that marrying into the Habsburg family would finally win Austria’s friendship and what happens? Austria turned against him again anyway. Several times Napoleon captured Vienna and was well within his right as a conqueror to sack the city, kill or imprison the Holy Roman Emperor and burn Vienna to the ground. Instead, he sought repeatedly to win their friendship and avoid further wars with them but it was Austria that was constantly the aggressor.

    Spain. One of the TWO wars out of the nine he fought in that Napoleon actually started. Napoleon wrote William Pitt the Younger to offer peace and offered him his terms. These terms included recognizing his brother Joseph as King of Spain. That was something that nobody was ever going to agree to and he was rebuffed by Britain again.

    And then there’s Russia. Napoleon tried everything in his power to prevent that war from happening in the first place. He reassured Tsar Alexander that he was NOT planning on restoring the Kingdom of Poland and his attitude of indifference towards the plight of the Polish people was reflected several times in his letters. This was Russia’s primary grievance with Napoleon, the suspicion that he was going to restore the Kingdom of Poland and thus meddle in Russia’s sphere of influence. Then there was Russia’s violations of his Continental System which Napoleon could not ignore while at the same time threatening other nations with retaliation for doing so. He begged Tsar Alexander to continue upholding the Continental System as he felt Britain was about to break and be forced to negotiate. All whilst assuring him that he had no plans for Poland. Napoleon was ignored.

    He was not a warmonger. He was an incredibly capable military man who’s hand was repeatedly forced by all the great nations of Europe. Upon seizing power after his return from Elba, he immediately assured the great powers that he did not want further wars and after he was declared an enemy and disturber of the tranquility of the world by the Seventh Coalition, he again sought peace and was again rebuffed.

    I ask you, what was Napoleon to do? Sit idly by while foreign powers sought to destroy France? Was he to ignore his gift for military genius and lie down to the will of his enemies? Seven times Europe declared war on Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Only twice did Napoleon become the aggressor. And, ironically perhaps, the two times that Napoleon started a war, they had catastrophic consequences for him and his administration. In Spain, he turned on his main ally in the whole of Europe. In Russia, he overplayed his hand, overextended himself and weakened his position so significantly that Europe once again pounced on him and was finally able to beat him.

    All throughout the so called Napoleonic Wars, you’ll find letters he wrote to both statesmen and friends expressing his desire for peace and tranquility in Europe. Hardly the man that “Refused to take opportunities for peace when they were offered.”

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thank you for your detailed comments on this point. As noted in the article, my aim was to briefly summarize the arguments that are typically made when discussing the pros and cons of Napoleon. Regarding Napoleon as a man of peace (which is how he liked to portray himself), a counter-argument can be made that Napoleon benefitted from keeping France at war and he seldom followed his battles with a diplomatic settlement that was satisfactory to both parties. Napoleon’s peace was, in effect, based on conquest and occupation. Both sides were at fault when it comes to the rupture of the Peace of Amiens. It can be argued that Napoleon provoked Britain into declaring war, and that his later actions provoked Russia and Austria into doing the same. In 1813 and 1814, Napoleon was several times offered generous peace terms that he refused to take.

  • Tom says:

    It is simply not the case that Napoleon was a great general, Napoleon was a terrible general with….an overwhelming military. The French gave Napoleon an overwhelming, well-oiled fighting machine, and he destroyed it through sheer incompetence. Most of Napoleon’s battles were slugfest bloodbaths or overwhelming French superiority in number of soldiers, cannons, and horses like in the Ulm Campaign where Napoleon had 235,000 soldiers to fight 70,000 Austrians. France was giving Napoleon superiority with overwhelming numbers and resources. Napoleon was not brilliant, he just had more pieces than his opponent on the chessboard. Once he started losing pieces through his own ineffective strategy of aggressive frontal assaults that was draining manpower and reckless warmongering that was draining France’s vast military resources, Napoleon’s lack of brilliance became evident. On the battlefield, Napoleon made plenty of mistakes that the overwhelmingly powerful French army hid for him. Many times Napoleon deployed his troops ineffectively which led to extremely high casualties of French troops, even in victories. On multiple occasions, Napoleon thought he was fighting the enemies’ rear guard instead of the main force like at Aspern. Many times Napoleon had French cannons cut down their own troops with friendly fire like at Eylau. On multiple occasions Napoleon sent suicidal frontal assaults when his opponents out maneuvered him, like the suicidal cavalry charge at Wagram. Many times Napoleon was fighting on ground of enemies’ choosing, like at Waterloo, that affected the entire battle. Many times Napoleon ignored his scouting intelligence only to be surprised that it was true because he would rather believe what he wished was happening rather than what was actually happening. On campaigns there were even more mistakes by Napoleon. The Leipzig campaign showed Napoleon at his worst, even worse than Russia, as he was completely outsmarted and outmaneuvered. In the Leipzig campaign, the Coalition controlled Napoleon’s movements. They made Napoleon criss-cross Germany, changed his course several times, wearing down his troops, frustrating Napoleon, and choosing when and where they will fight. If Napoleon concentrated at Leipzig, it’s because the Coalition WANTED him to concentrate at Leipzig. They knew that Leipzig would be a death trap for the French, and that is exactly what it was. Napoleon was manipulated and trapped. Even Napoleon’s subordinates were imploring him to fall back, but he would not listen. Furthermore, withdrawing troops from Spain and the National guard for the Leipzig campaign completely exposed Southern France to attack. While Napoleon was being schooled in Germany, enemy troops invaded Southern French turf, bringing the war to an already war-weary country’s soil. Napoleon at his worst, the only reason Russia is considered a worse blunder is because there were way more men lost. And his next campaign was also terrible, the 1814 France campaign where Napoleon lost Paris rather easily by going on the offensive and winning meaningless battles in the Six Day Campaign, when he should have been on the defensive and fortifying Paris. It is probably true that Paris would have fallen anyways, but Napoleon did not believe that as he rushed to Paris to keep on fighting but he was too late (but it just goes to show you how he had no clear plan of defense and how out of position he was by going on the offensive).Terrible planning, terrible map reading skills, terrible logistics like Egypt and Russia, grossly negligent, underestimating several opponents, severely overconfident in his own forces, never adapted, failure to properly perceive military situations, rushed to war unprepared, turned solid allies like Spain into relentless enemies, predictable and wasteful frontal assaults like Wagram and Borodino, which worked early on when France had such an overwhelming force, all at the cost of an entire generation of Frenchmen wiped out, and even fraudulent casualty numbers as he tried to portray a false image of resourceful victories. Which ended in France defeated, occupied and Napoleon dying a prisoner of war.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks for making a strong case as to why Napoleon should not be regarded as a great general, Tom.

  • Ollie says:

    I’m very confused with the article, I just needed to know what his mindset on people of the world was for a project but I couldn’t understand the text very well. I’m wondering if someone could simplify his outlooks on life? I would really appreciate it.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      I’m sorry you found the article confusing, Ollie. It is hard to summarize Napoleon’s mindset, as he wrote and said so many different things, but perhaps someone else will leave a comment that might help you.

  • Eleonora Rosa says:

    I can say that Napoleon is like those leaders like Mussoloni and Hitler, there are pros and cons or calls as I call them, factions

  • Annie says:

    Thank you Shannon, but could you please add weather YOU think that Napolean is good or bad?
    Thanks, Annie

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks for the question, Annie. While a good case can be made on either side of the debate, I think the arguments against Napoleon outweigh those in his favour.

  • Anshul Agrawal says:

    I think you can go both ways on this to be honest. It is impossible to be a good leader without destruction sometimes, as that is what war brings. On the other hand, the deaths were unacceptable. This one is up in the air for me.

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No name represents so completely and conspicuously dominion, splendor, and catastrophe.

Lord Rosebery