The Populists and Napoléon
By Pierre Lemieux
One of the many fascinating observations in Charles Postel’s The Populist Vision (Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 164) is the sweet spot that American populists of the late 19th century generally had for emperor Napoléon Bonaparte, the French dictator at the beginning of the century:
In the 1890s, a Napoleon revival spread in the United States, as many Americans hoped for a strong man to deliver the nation from its multiple ills. Reporting on the so-called “Napoleon craze,” Century magazine reported that “the interest in Napoleon has recently had a revival that is phenomenal in its extent and intensity.” Muckraking journalist Ida M. Tarbell and Princeton Professor William Milligan Sloane contributed serialized Napoleon biographies in the Century and McClure’s Magazine. Politicians preened themselves in Napoleon’s image. Harper’s Weekly reported that then Ohio governor William McKinley, known as “the Napoleon of Protection,” also “looks like Napoleon and knows it.” The fascination with the French emperor corresponded to a broad discontent with corrupt and impotent political institutions, as well as strong currents of militarism and nationalism in American public life. The Populists were not immune to these currents. Tom Watson [a politician and writer of the times] and the Populists, however, were drawn less to military valor and patriotic glory than to the example of Napoleon’s administrative systems and energized state power. … In Watson’s treatment, Napoleon towers as “the peerless developer, organizer, [and] administrator,” who had applied the science of government to build a centralized and rational system of law and education, the Bank of France, and a strong state. … The general, Watson noted, was a “master builder” with “modern tone.”
Contrary to today’s populists in America and in other countries, the American populists of the late 19th century believed in science and experts as Enlightenment people did in the previous century. Yet, both kinds of populism–the old one and the new one–are similar in favoring state intervention. In the old American populism, authoritarian experts and science represented rationality, hence the reverence for Napoleon; today’s populists prefer authoritarian politicians and their intuitions.
In its military version, the American infatuation with Napoleon appears to go back at least to the Civil War as illustrated above by the picture of General George B. McClellan in a typical Napoleonic pose. The Library of Congress says that McClellan was popularly known as the “little Napoleon.” General Ulysses S. Grant stroke the same pose. Craig Walenta, a frequent commenter on this blog, brought these pictures and others to my attention.
A Napoleonic infatuation is not surprising. Since the “will of the people” does not exist and is unknowable, populists have to find a dear leader to incarnate it. (See “What Is Populism? The People V. the People,” Econlog, September 11, 2020.)
PS: I owe the Postel book reference to Jeff Hummel who, besides being a scholarly economist, is a walking encyclopedia on American history.