‘La France Avant Tout’

Napoleon’s Continental System and His Ultimate Downfall


Introduction

Napoleon Bonaparte was inarguably the most influential world historical figure of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and much has been made of his rise, reign, and ultimate downfall. Of the debates over the Napoleonic regime, none is more heated, complex, or replete with disparate ideas as the argument about the proximate causes of Napoleon’s fall and the rapid collapse of his European Empire. Myriad opinions on the reasons that Napoleon’s regime collapsed exist and many of these have received popular acclaim or widespread agreement. Some have claimed that the end of the Grand Empire was due to the machinations of Napoleon’s Foreign Secretary, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, after Napoleon insulted his pride sometime between 1808 and 1809.[1] Under this theory, Talleyrand “passed information to the Russians and Austrians, among others,”[2] allowing Napoleon’s enemies to have an edge on the ‘Little Corporal’ and outmatch him strategically. Many observers focus more heavily on Napoleon’s personality flaws as contributing to his fall from power. Historian Adam Zamoyski states that “The number of complexes he suffered from, including class inferiority, money insecurity, intellectual envy, sexual anxiety, social awkwardness and, not surprisingly, a persistent hypersensitivity to criticism… drove his stark ambition, undermined his grandiose endeavors—and ultimately crippled his historic legacy.”[3]

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The Blessings of Liberty

Two-hundred and forty-four years ago today, fifty-six brave men took their lives in their own hands and signed their names to a document almost unprecedented in human history. The Declaration of Independence is a profound statement of Enlightenment principles and has guided the progress and development of human rights and liberal constitutionalism in this nation and across the world. Our nation, and the men who founded it, did not always live up to the lofty principles espoused in our founding documents; chattel slavery, forcible relocation of Native American tribes, Jim Crow, and Japanese internment all are examples of horrendous episodes in which we fell short of those ideals. But to abrogate them entirely because of past hypocrisy or failure is a fool’s errand. In 2020 America (despite all of its flaws), we can say what we wish without fear of government action, worship (or not worship) however we please, advocate for our favored policies without concern for our liberty, and defend ourselves to the fullest extent possible. No matter who resides in the White House, who controls the Congress, or who sits on the Supreme Court, our natural rights remain protected from the avarice or evil of those who would wish to deny us them. In no other society on earth does the individual have more control over his own choices in life, personally, politically, and professionally. We live in the most prosperous, liberal, diverse society that has ever existed in human history; it would do us well to remember that and to see ourselves as lottery winners in a broader world full of tyranny, slavery, and oppression. The United States of America has been a shining city on a hill not only because we have grand ideals of freedom and liberty, but because we have worked incredibly hard over myriad generations to fully embrace and fulfill the promises of the founding. Let us as Americans continue that worthy mission and move our great nation even closer to the full flowering of liberty. Happy Independence Day.

Book Review: White Fragility

Thankfully I didn’t pay for this book, and you shouldn’t either.

Those of you who know me personally may know that I am a voracious reader, especially when it comes to nonfiction. Usually I’m interested in books about history, political philosophy, military, or international affairs, but when I saw a book called White Fragility trending around the internet, sitting atop the New York Times bestseller list, and receiving mass praise, I felt it was important to read it to see what all the fuss is about. I can report back that this is easily one of the most racist, ahistorical, poorly argued, and absurd books I’ve ever read. I cannot believe that this was written in the 21st century given the paternalistic assumptions it makes about those who the author, Robin DiAngelo, considers ‘non-white’. I’ve delved deeply into the official reports and personal writings of British colonial officials in the 19th century for my academic research and I cannot understand how a modern, popular, purportedly ‘antiracist’ book mirrors and exceeds the frankly racist language of those dispatches. There is an incredible array of issues with the book (I could’ve spent ages reading this and pushing back line-by-line), but I’m going to skim the surface so as to touch on the major problems, factual errors, and faulty assumptions which underlay the author’s theory.

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“Rule, Britannia!”

The Union of Foreign and Domestic Politics in Mid-Eighteenth Century Britain

Introduction

“Rule, Britannia, rule the waves; Britons never will be slaves.”[1] This verse, from the poem “Rule, Britannia” by the Scot James Thomson, has had immense resonance for Britons throughout the past two and a half centuries, yet the poem was never more relevant than when it was initially written and popularized in the mid-eighteenth century. With the help of music composed by Englishman Thomas Arne, this new patriotic song promoting British maritime destiny became widely beloved almost immediately after its public debut in 1745 (it premiered to a royal audience five years earlier). What about this tune so instantly enthralled the British public? More than any other jingoistic anthem, “Rule, Britannia” captured the zeitgeist of this turbulent time; feelings of British exceptionalism in the areas of personal liberties, political freedom, and mercantile economics, as well as antagonism towards the absolutist monarchies of the Continent, were running high within the populace. The lyrics of this song depict, with accuracy and rhetorical flourish, the feelings of the era from 1740 through 1760, particularly the intimate connection between foreign and domestic affairs.

Thomson’s word choice is critical, especially in the chorus of the song, which was quoted above. In said chorus, Thomson exhorts Britannia to “rule the waves”, as well as mentioning that “Britons never will be slaves”[2]; this wording depicts the tenuous nature of the times, as the eventual British dominance of the seas and the security of her people were not guaranteed in 1740. The author has a clear concept of the connection between naval supremacy and political and economic liberty, setting Britain in contrast with the absolutist powers, namely France, who would deny her both. These themes of interconnectedness and the special role of Britain and her people are echoed in many of the poem’s later stanzas. In the second verse, Thomson writes: “The nations, not so blest as thee, Must in their turns to tyrants fall; While thou shalt flourish great and free, The dread and envy of them all.”[3] This describes contemporary British attitudes with respect to the importance of their political liberty and constitutional monarchy. By comparing other nations with their absolute monarchies to the freedom of Britain after the Glorious Revolution, Thomson shows how distinct the island is; all other nations, mainly on the Continent, are “not so blest as thee” and thus “dread and envy”[4] the British system. In the fifth stanza, Thomson pens the words: “To thee belongs the rural reign; Thy cities shall with commerce shine; All thine shall be the subject main, And every shore it circles thine.”[5] This set of lyrics brings up the economic power of Britain and its quest for colonial possessions to expand its mercantile empire. This power is based both in rural and urban settings, but chiefly in the joint operation of the two, as rural and colonial products supplied and were exported from the cities. The economic power of the island nation is tied back to naval ascendancy in the second half of the verse, “All thine shall be the subject main, And every shore it circles thine.”[6]; the ‘main’ in this case was the oceanic realm, which would be controlled by the British, along with all of the coasts bordering thereon. These aspirations of colonial and economic hegemony would resound throughout the mid-eighteenth century.

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“The Highest Enterprise Ever Undertaken”: The Venetian Side of the Fourth Crusade

Introduction

              The Republic of Venice – also known as the Republic of St. Mark or La Serenissima – was a medieval city-state centered around the Adriatic city of the same name and governed by a merchant oligarchy. That governing group of elites met in the Grand Council chamber, or Sala del Maggior Consiglio, of the Palace of the Doges to make critical decisions on war, peace, and commerce. The walls of the room are bedecked with beautiful paintings by Renaissance masters like Tintoretto and Vicentino, depicting famous scenes of glory from the history of the Republic, including the 1177 Peace of Venice.[1] A large portion of the chamber, however, is taken up by a series of works related to the infamous Fourth Crusade. That fateful conflict has historically been seen as an utter disaster for Christendom, both at the time of its occurrence and centuries later; observers and commentators from Pope Innocent III – who declared the crusade initially – to Voltaire lambasted the crusaders, especially the Venetians.[2] Given this widespread condemnation, why would the Venetians, who had the opportunity to renovate the Grand Council chamber after a devastating fire in 1577[3], choose to celebrate their participation in the Fourth Crusade? Are the tales “of the Venetians who had no religion but profit and the state, and of the devious Dandolo who spun a web to entrap the naïve northerners to achieve his ends”[4] true? Could the Venetians not be the greedy, rapacious villains of this story?

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