I am 2/3 of the way through Wellington: The Iron Duke, and I am afraid that I am perverse enough to prefer Napoleon to the Duke of Wellington. I cannot say the human race would have been better off if Napoleon had beaten Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, but I couldn’t help preferring the honest rogue passionately in love with or passionately cheating on his Josephine to Wellington’s love affair with his “duty.” Although like Napoleon Wellington had extramarital affairs, he seemed less affectionate with his spouse Kitty and even his poor soldiers. At least Napoleon as the “Little Corporal” could evoke something like love from people, especially but not exclusively his soldiers.
And Napoleon was hapless rather than chilly towards his wives: his first adulteries with both wives occurred after they had been equally unfaithful to him. Before then he treated them both with devotion. His falling out with Josephine was over a huge theft combined with a huge extramarital affair. Not, like Wellington’s Kitty, she gave money to her alcoholic brother with good intentions but then needed more money from him to pay her bills. And Napoleon forgave Josephine even if it was never the same again. Andrew Roberts’ biography pretty much gives the details of times when other close friends made mistakes or even really did betray Napoleon when he forgave them and kept them on as friends. He refused to admit that his second wife had left him for another man when he was at St. Helena, where he lived banished at the end of his life.
Wellington never forgave Kitty for even the slightest things she did wrong–and this when before her fall from grace he had already had extramarital sex with another woman. About Wellington you can only say: what a cold hearted louse! About Napoleon one says, “He sinned big at times, and yet he was a human being who felt such emotions as filial and romantic love. He might not be better for Europe or France, yet of him like Brutus in Julius Cesar one might say,
This was the noblest Roman of them all.
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar.
He only in a general honest thought
And common good to all made one of them.
His life was gentle and the elements
So mixed in him that nature might stand up
And say to all the world “This was a man.”
Besides, Napoleon was so much more interesting than Wellington. In his youth he wrote novellas and essays, however badly written they were. And he was a voracious reader of more than just military matters. It was in studying from Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul to the works of Voltaire. That is why when traveling he wrote new law codes for the countries he conquered: and these law codes were more liberal than what the native stock had produced, allowing rights for Jews, for instance.
Wellington had no new ideas. He was simply talented as a general. In fact, his beliefs about society were all conservative. Wellington even as a general did not promote people without titles, and Napoleon did. His only decent quality was his rigid devotion to duty and the military virtues. Neither man was really motivated by humane considerations in his career, but the one who at least in person was more than an ice cube was Napoleon. Wellington’s own biographer says that Wellington’s relationship with his sons was “cold,” but so was the man. Napoleon, in a moment of introspection, admitted to his brother Louis that Louis was one of the few people he was able to love. Another similar person was his son. Napoleon was able to be a tender man to his son. Yet when Napoleon admits his cool temperament, it is sad, as though he wishes he did have more fellow feeling for other human beings. Did anyone ever get Wellington’s frozen heart to thaw?
Yes, for all that it is “un-American” to side with dictators, I prefer Napoleon the Conqueror to Wellington the “Lover of Duty.”