Napoleon is a name that always rings a bell in everyone’s mind. Regardless of age, or time since hearing about the great emperor, one will always remember one of the greatest leaders of France and his accomplishments of becoming the hero of the French Revolution, and rightfully so. He commanded and worked hard to attain power. However, his grand reputation leads us to ask the question “Was Napoleon as good a leader as he wanted people to believe he was, or was he simply an excellent propagandist?”. In order to support the argument that claims Napoleon of being more of a propagandist rather than a true leader, it is important to understand how it was possible for such an idea to play such an important role in his journey to power. In this essay, three different methods for which propaganda was used will be examined. These methods include print media, art and paintings, and finally, Napoleon’s attitude towards his men.
The French Revolution saw the introduction of politics into the print media and gained a prominent place in French newspapers. Napoleon himself founded 6 newspapers, including Le Courrier de l'Armée d'Italie, La France vue de l'Armée d'Italie, Journal de Bonaparte et des hommes vertueux, Journal de Malte, Courier de l'Égypte, and La Décade Égyptienne. (Hanley Web.). These newspapers allowed an outlet for him to exaggerate his successes. During the first Italian campaign (March 1796-October 1797), through conscious manipulation of dispatches, correspondence, medallions, and, especially, of the press, Napoleon created for himself the image of the Revolutionary hero—a creation that enabled this once-unknown Corsican to become a household name, and, ultimately, a power to be reckoned with in France. While commanding the Army of Italy, for example, Bonaparte owned two minor newspapers, the Courrier de l'Armée d'Italie and La France vue de l'Armée d'Italie. Both were designed for something more than maintaining troop morale in a foreign land. As Owen Connelly notes in his Blundering to Glory, "without these newssheets, Napoleon might not have returned from Italy so overwhelmingly famous. He realized the value of propaganda early on." (Connelly p.30).
It is clearly seen how the tool of using newspapers played an important role in Napoleon’s propaganda. Looking into more detail on how this method was used, during his first Italian campaign, and to some extent during his Egyptian campaign, this expertise was particularly evident in Bonaparte's correspondence with the Executive Directory. In his bulletins, and in his relationship with the press of the Revolutionary era, Napoleon would be depicted as being audacious, a success in every aspect of his military campaigns, and a true inspiration to all his men. In the following extract of one of Bonaparte's dispatch to the Executive Directory, the young general recounted his army's quick first victory, announcing that "the rout of the enemy is complete" and that "[g]enerals, officers, and soldiers have all upheld on this memorable day the glory of France" (Hanley Web.). Not only was the content of the news important, but also the quantity of what was written about him mattered just as much. Nearly two-thirds of the front page of his newspapers were dominated by stories of his successes.
In addition to content and quantity, One of the first characteristics that distinguished Napoleon from his counterparts in the other French armies was his style of writing. Napoleon’s specific personal accounts that he dispatched to these newspapers displayed a boldness of style that differentiates them from the more mundane reports written by the commanders of the various other French armies. The dispatches of his potential rivals were rarely patriotic or active and at best neutral or passive. Another aspect of rivalry writing when France was attacked, was that they emphasize enemy attacks, not the French response to that attack. Not only do they emphasize the French in their defeat, but also that it is the enemy who initiates and controls the action and the French merely react passively to the events. Bonaparte's dispatches, on the other hand, were almost always patriotic and positive, written in the active voice. It was a prose style that appealed to and could be easily understood by the contemporary public, gaining much praise from contemporaries and near-contemporaries alike for its economy of language. Bonaparte's dispatches glorified the actions of his soldiers and himself as a controller of events rather than his counterparts in Germany or in Italy when the commanding French general and were always masters of the moment (Hanley Web.). Praising both himself and his soldiers were beneficial to his campaign twofold. By praising his soldiers, he gained their trust and support. He gave them spirit and encouraged them to get into their “fighting shape” (Wiecki Lecture). This was beneficial as he began to gain favor among his soldiers and commanding officers as well as those the French army as conquered. Also, Napoleon praised himself by continuously using the ever-present “I”, making himself the master of the moment and who takes decisive actions. “I was not surprised…” and “I ordered General Cervoni…”. This technique is used time and time again in Bonaparte’s correspondence with this Directory (Le Moniteur).
The second method of propaganda used by napoleon was art and portraits created of himself. As with his masterful manipulation of the print media, Bonaparte also realized the potential propagandistic value of the visual arts and of associating himself with the intellectual elites. Early in his career, for example, he was encouraged to maintain relationships with several leading scholars and with artists who promoted his reputation, not only as a victorious general but also as a man of culture and intellect. This image-making process proved to be rather important in Bonaparte's political successes and was particularly important in his ability to win over the leading intellectuals and influential political thinkers of France known as the Idéologues (Hanley Web.).
Napoleon was very aware of the effect images and appearances had on the people’s opinion as well. There are two famously known depiction of Napoleon crossing the Alps. In the more famously known painting, done by Jacques- Louis David, the gesture of Napoleon raising his hands and pointing upwards leaves no doubt as to the will of the commander to arrive to his goal. It does not indicate the summit, but rather shows the observer the inevitability of victory and at the same time orders his soldiers to follow. The bare rather than gloved hand may indicate Napoleon desiring to appear as a peacemaker rather than a conqueror. Also, the names Hannibal and Karolus Mangus are inscribed into rocks in the foreground. Through this painting, Napoleon is putting himself on the same plane as these powerful leaders of empires yet at the same time, showing how his men are truly his followers and that he describes himself not as a conqueror, rather as a peacemaker.
On the other hand, other paintings show a more realistic image of how events took place during the Napoleonic campaigns. Paul Delaroche’s painting Bonaparte Crossing the Alps depicts Bonaparte leading his army through the Alps on a mule, rather than a glorious horse. This journey was made by Napoleon and his army of soldiers made in the spring of 1800, in an attempt to surprise the Austrian army in Italy. The work was inspired by Jacques-Louis David's series of five Napoleon Crossing the Alps paintings. In Delaroche's version, Napoleon is cold and downcast, whereas in David's, he wears a pristine uniform, and is idealized as a hero. While the painting largely represented—and was one of the pioneers of—an emerging style, the work was criticized by several authorities on the subject. The reasons for this varied from Delaroche's depiction of the scene to a general disapproval of Delaroche himself. Many of those who were in the latter state of mind felt that Delaroche was trying to match the genius of Napoleon in some way, and had failed miserably in doing so (liverpoolmuseum.org). By not having a strictly realistic painting be the image the public saw of this event, Napoleon proved his skills as a propagandist who was able to carefully craft people’s perceptions of him. While the exaggerated glory seen in this painting does not in itself mean Napoleon lacked actual leadership ability, it is simply evidence that he was willing to over promote himself.
Other types of propaganda taken advantage of by Napoleon were speeches. This was formed mostly through direct contact with his army men, by forming a relationship with them, and the way he addresses the people he conquers. Napoleon has the skill to successfully convince those he conquered to take favor in him and his campaign. He convinces the conquered that the purpose of French presence in their country is to help. This results in them willing to give the French the necessary resources they need in a short amount of time. This also benefits Napoleon twofold. Rather than obtaining what the French army desires by force, this allows the army to resupply quickly, move to the next task, all with minimal harm to the new colonies and their citizens (Wiecki Lecture). Another crucial aspect of how he gained support form his troops was the way he interacted and formed relationships with his men. During the French march towards Cairo from Alexandria in the North African heat, the army made the march with minimal provisions. However, “napoleon himself shared the discomforts [his men were experiencing] and sometimes himself went a whole day without food… and the army remained intact” (Bell p.208). By doing so, he leveled himself down to that of his soldiers. This in return gave the soldiers a sense of pride and honor in which not many leaders were able to create in their men before.
Napoleon was not only a great general, but also a master of propaganda and devoted considerable attention to creating a favorable public opinion. From theater to newspapers, from his famous bulletins to his patronage of the arts, from his censorship of the press to his own writing of newspaper articles, napoleon proved to be a consummate mast of public relations. The notion that Napoleon Bonaparte actively promoted the creation of his public image can hardly be doubted. From the manipulation of the French press through his carefully crafted dispatches, to the founding of newspapers that promoted his public image, to the innovative use of medals and medallions, he thoroughly mastered virtually every public medium of his day. Although other figures in history had manipulated these various media-Louis XIV, for example, employed painters, medal-makers, and journalists to promote his regal glory. Bonaparte was the first private citizen in modern history to realize the limitless possibilities open to a master propagandist, took full advantage of that, and centuries later, is still viewed as one of the world’s greatest leaders to ever walk the earth.
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