Feature of the Month: Napoleon Bonaparte and the 100 Days

The History of the Northern War
John Hampdon
Newcastle upon Tyne: Moreland & Anderson, 1815
[M.S. Anderson] 1815 – Hampdon

As we continue to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the Great War, it is easy to forget the protracted European power struggle that took place one hundred years earlier again, with France under Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) as the aggressor and temporary conqueror. In March we enter the anniversary of the 100 Days (Napoleon’s last stand), commemorated by events, a conference and a virtual exhibition at the European History Research Centre at the University of Warwick.

John Hampdon’s History of the Northern War is a contemporary account covering the period from 1812 until the Vienna Congress of 1815. Napoleon had intended to invade Britain until he was defeated by the British naval forces at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), and the present account leaves no room for ambiguity about its author’s view of him. “He was nothing; became Emperor; conquered nations; disturbed the world; oppressed liberty; distracted the church; wished to be everything, and became nothing”, is the summary on the title page. The opening pages speak of his desire to destroy Great Britain. “A great general” might be one summary of Napoleon; “the tyrant of Europe” (p. 2) is the phrase used here. The penultimate chapter discusses Napoleon’s character. It is not entirely negative, but retains the general tenor, and explains the fascination that Napoleon has continued to exert:

A mind bold, independent, and decisive; a will despotic in its dictates; an energy that distanced expedition; and a conscience pliable to every touch of interest, marked the outline of this extraordinary character – the most extraordinary, perhaps, that in the annals of this world, ever rose, or reigned, or fell. … He knew no motive but interest – he acknowledged no criterion but success – he worshipped no god but ambition, and, with an eastern devotion, he knelt at the shrine of his idolatry. (p. 580);

Cradled in the camp, he was, to the last hour, the darling of his army. Of his soldiers, not one forsook him till affection was useless … . Such a medley of contradictions, and, at the same time, such an individual consistency, were never united in the same character. (p. 582).

This book must have been intended for publication in 1814. A chronology of the principal events in Napoleon’s life (p. 594) ends with his arrival at Elba on 8 May 1814; the island is then described. But the final chapter, entitled “Congress at Vienna”, notes delay in publication occasioned by the desire to print notification of the termination of the congress drawn up by its secretary, Friedrich von Gentz. It cites a speech given in the House of Commons on 20 March 1815 by Lord Castlereagh, who had until February 1815 been Britain’s representative at the Congress, conveying its import. The Hundred Days marking the time between Napoleon’s escape from Elba on 1 March 1815 and his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June are alluded to obliquely: “our fears lest the recent events on the continent should stop any further intelligence …”. The final paragraph reveals contemporary concern about the outcome, a short way in to the period:

If Bonaparte succeeded in re-establishing his authority in France, peace must be despaired of; at least such a peace as now we were in the hope of enjoying. The question now was, whether … Europe was again to become a series of armed nations, and whether Great Britain among them was to abandon that wholesome state into which she was now settling … again to struggle for the independence of the world? These were questions of no small magnitude, depending upon events now in issue, depending upon a new and unexpected contest, in which the liberties of mankind were once more assaulted and endangered. It was not merely a question whether the family of Bourbon … should continue to reign in France, but, whether tyranny and despotism should again reign over the now independent nations of the continent? Whether, as applied to this country, we should enjoy the happy state that we had bought with our blood after a long struggle, or whether we should once more revert to that artificial system which, during that struggle, we were compelled to maintain? Upon these points there could exist only one feeling, and his lordship trusted that Providence would ordain only one result. (p. 608).

The book, from the M.S. Anderson Collection of Writings on Russia Printed Between 1525 and 1917, is obscure. We know nothing about the author except that he also wrote about the French Revolution (stated on the title page). It was printed and published provincially. One of the publishers, Kenneth Anderson, went bankrupt the following year; the other is not recorded in the British Book Trade Index. Only two other copies of the work are currently recorded on Copac, at Oxford and at Manchester.

 

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