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Book Review: Profiles In
Power: Napoleon

Profiles in Power: Napoleon, by Geoffrey Ellis
1997, Pearson Education Limited

This is one of a series of text books which examine the nature and mechanics of power. To quote the author:

    My binding theme is the nature of Napoleonic power: how it was pursued and won; how it was first elaborated in the extended frontiers of France and then expanded well beyond them; how its initial impact through military conquest was followed up by political subjugation and economic exploitation; how it was resisted; how it was finally lost; and how perceptions of it lived on in both the heroic and black legends of Napoleon well into the twentieth century (p.1).

Considering the paperback version runs just 237 pages, that is a pretty tall order! I, for one, was impressed.

The book is divided into topical chapters, each dealing with one aspect of Napoleonic power. The first covers Napoleon’s education and background (from 1769-1799) in shaping Napoleon’s conception of power as well as outlining his pursuit of it. The second chapter discusses governmental power within France, the next governmental power in the conquered states. There follows a chapter on the social accretions of power - the honors and rewards dispensed to the faithful, and how they created and supported Napoleon’s power structure. After that Ellis provides a very interesting look at how Napoleon used the arts and the press and, finally, Ellis ends with a chapter on how Napoleon has himself been perceived over time.

Let me first say that I am by no means an expert on Napoleon or his times. I have been reading pretty steadily over the past four years (starting in about mid-2000) but already I have a bedrock of basic information which I see repeated in many works. I have reached the point where it is possible to not be surprised. This book surprised me time and again. For example, in looking at the workings of the French government, I was surprised at how much of the country was run by ostensive opponents of the regime. Opponents Napoleon had to court because he simply had no way to replace their expertise. Likewise, the reach of his state into the arts as tools of propaganda was new to me and quite enlightening.

This book was a refreshing break from the more traditional chronological studies of Napoleon that have crossed my desk. The depth of analysis, especially in looking at governmental power both inside France and out, yielded quite a few raised eyebrows. To quote just a few examples that caught my attention:

    Napoleon believed that military ‘talent’ was to be found predominantly ‘among the higher ranks of society - those who, thanks to their birth or their fortune, were fit to give or receive schooling.’ (p.93)

    ...the Grand Army suffered from a chronic problem of desertion and draft evasion, which is itself an interesting comment on the heroic ethic under the Eagle standards. (p. 97)

    In short, to siphon off his ‘spoils’ there, he made compromise with the feudal system. There were of course huge regional variations in the impact of his rule; but in the long term its social effects were conservative rather than radical. (p. 141)

This book will not be for everyone. Those with a more strictly “military history” interest in the period should probably save their money for another title. But for those with interests that are more social, or anthropological, this will doubtless be a thought provoking trip through the Empire.

Review Posted May, 2004

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