Napoleon I of France

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The true character of man ever displays itself in great events.

Napoléon Bonaparte (15 August 17695 May 1821) was a Corsican-born military officer who rose to prominence in the French Revolution, becoming the ruler of France as First Consul of the French Republic (11 November 1799 - 18 May 1804), and then Emperor of the French and King of Italy under the name Napoleon I (18 May 1804 - 6 April 1814, and again briefly from 20 March - 22 June 1815).

Everything tells me I shall succeed.

Sourced

My waking thoughts are all of thee...
  • Send me 300 francs; that sum will enable me to go to Paris. There, at least, one can cut a figure and surmount obstacles. Everything tells me I shall succeed. Will you prevent me from doing so for the want of 100 crowns?
  • I am the instrument of providence, she will use me as long as I accomplish her designs, then she will break me like a glass.'
    • Said after he crowned Josephine Empress of the French
  • My waking thoughts are all of thee. Your portrait and the remembrance of last night's delirium have robbed my senses of repose. Sweet and incomparable Josephine, what an extraordinary influence you have over my heart. Are you vexed? do I see you sad? are you ill at ease? My soul is broken with grief, and there is no rest for your lover.
    • Letter to Joséphine de Beauharnais (February 1796), as translated in Napoleon's Letters to Josephine 1796-1812 (1901) edited by Henry Foljambe Hall
What is a throne? — a bit of wood gilded and covered in velvet. I am the state...
From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.
France is invaded; I am leaving to take command of my troops, and, with God's help and their valor, I hope soon to drive the enemy beyond the frontier.
  • From the heights of these pyramids, forty centuries look down on us.
    • Speech to his troops in Egypt (21 July 1798) Variant translation: "Soldiers, from the summit of yonder pyramids forty centuries look down upon you...". Published in the autobiography of French general Eugène de Beauharnais.
  • "I was full of dreams," He said of his time spent in Egypt" I saw myself founding a new Religion, Marching into Asia, Riding an Elephant, a Turban on my head and in my hand, the new Qu'ran."
  • "What I have done up to now is nothing, I am only at the begining of the course I must run, I can no longer obey, I have tasted command, and I cannot give it up."
  • I hope the time is not far off when I shall be able to unite all the wise and educated men of all the countries and establish a uniform regime based on the principles of the Quran which alone are true and which alone can lead men to happiness.
    • Letter to Sheikh El-Messiri, (28 August 1798); published in Correspondance Napoleon edited by Henri Plon (1861), t.4, N° 3148, p. 420
  • A form of government that is not the result of a long sequence of shared experiences, efforts, and endeavors can never take root.
    • Statement (1803) as quoted in The Mind of Napoleon (1955) by J. Christopher Herold
  • From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.
    • Writing about the retreat from Moscow, in a letter to Abbé du Pradt. (1812)
    • Variant translations:
      There is but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous.
      There is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous.
  • 'Impossible' n'est pas français.
    • 'Impossible' is not [in the] French [language].
    • Letter to General Lemarois (9 July 1813) Variant translation: You write to me that it is impossible; the word is not French.
    • Variant attribution : Impossible is a word found only in the dictionary of fools.
  • What is a throne? — a bit of wood gilded and covered in velvet. I am the state— I alone am here the representative of the people. Even if I had done wrong you should not have reproached me in public—people wash their dirty linen at home. France has more need of me than I of France.
    • Statement to the Senate (1814) He echoes here the remark attributed to Louis XIV L'état c'est moi ( "The State is I" or more commonly: "I am the State.")
    • Variant translation: A throne is only a bench covered with velvet...
  • France is invaded; I am leaving to take command of my troops, and, with God's help and their valor, I hope soon to drive the enemy beyond the frontier.
    • Statement at Paris (23 January 1814)
I generally had to give in.
I never was truly my own master but was always ruled by circumstances.
  • The bullet that will kill me is not yet cast.
    • Statement at Montereau (17 February 1814)
  • The Allied Powers having proclaimed that the Emperor Napoleon is the sole obstacle to the re-establishment of peace in Europe, he, faithful to his oath, declares that he is ready to descend from the throne, to quit France, and even to relinquish life, for the good of his country.
    • Act of Abdication (4 April 1814)
  • Unite for the public safety, if you would remain an independent nation.
    • Proclamation to the French People (22 June 1815)
  • Wherever wood can swim, there I am sure to find this flag of England.
    • Statement at Rochefort (July 1815)
  • Whatever shall we do in that remote spot? Well, we will write our memoirs. Work is the scythe of time.
    • On board H.M.S. Bellerophon (August 1815)
  • I generally had to give in.
    • Statement on his relations with the Empress Josephine (19 May 1816)
Morality has nothing to do with such a man as I am.
  • I may have had many projects, but I never was free to carry out any of them. It did me little good to be holding the helm; no matter how strong my hands, the sudden and numerous waves were stronger still, and I was wise enough to yield to them rather than resist them obstinately and make the ship founder. Thus I never was truly my own master but was always ruled by circumstances.
    • Conversation with comte de Las Cases (11 November 1816)
  • Women are nothing but machines for producing children.
    • The St. Helena Journal of General Baron Gourgaud (9 January 1817); as quoted in The St. Helena Journal of General Baron Gourgaud, 1815-1818 : Being a Diary written at St. Helena during a part of Napoleon's Captivity (1932) as translated by Norman Edwards, a translation of Journal de Sainte-Hélène 1815-1818 by General Gaspard Gourgaud
  • My maxim was, la carrière est ouverte aux talents, without distinction of birth or fortune.
    • Statement while on St. Helena (3 March 1817)
  • Religions are all founded on miracles — on things we cannot understand, such as the Trinity. Jesus calls himself the Son of God, and yet is descended from David. I prefer the religion of Mahomet — it is less ridiculous than ours.
    • Letter from St. Helena (28 August 1817); as quoted in The St. Helena Journal of General Baron Gourgaud, 1815-1818 : Being a Diary written at St. Helena during a part of Napoleon's Captivity (1932) as translated by Norman Edwards, a translation of Journal de Sainte-Hélène 1815-1818 by General Gaspard Gourgaud, t.2, p.226
  • Muhammad was a great man, fearless soldier; with a handful of men he triumphed at the battle of Badr, great captain, eloquent, a great man of state, it regenerated his homeland, and created in the middle of the deserts of Arabia a new people and a new power.
    • Statement of 1817 quoted in Précis des guerres de César, écrit à Sainte-Hélène sous la dictée de l'empereur (1836) edited by Comte Marchand, p. 237
  • Our hour is marked, and no one can claim a moment of life beyond what fate has predestined.
    • To Dr. Arnott (April 1821)
  • Morality has nothing to do with such a man as I am.
    • As quoted in The Story of World Progress (1922) by Willis Mason West, p. 433
  • Waterloo will wipe out the memory of my forty victories; but that which nothing can wipe out is my Civil Code. That will live forever.
    • As quoted in The Story of World Progress (1922) by Willis Mason West, p. 437
  • The hand that gives is above the hand that takes. Money has no motherland; financiers are without patriotism and without decency; their sole object is gain.
  • Among so many conflicting ideas an so many different perspectives, the honest man is confused and distressed and the skeptic becomes wicked ... Since one must take sides, one might as well choose the side that is victorious, the side which devastates, loots, and burns. Considering the alternative, it is better to eat than to be eaten.
    • Letter to his brother, as quoted in The Age of Napoleon (2002) by J. Christopher Herold, p. 8
  • Ordinary men died, men of iron were taken prisoner: I only brought back with me men of bronze.
    • quoted from David Johnson's Napolean's Cavalary and its Leaders in C.J. Sumemerville's version of General de Segur's History of the Expedition to Russia.

Memoirs of Napoleon (1829-1831)

Memoirs of Napoleon was published in 10 volumes (1829-1831) by Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne who from 1797 to 1802 had been a friend and private secretary to Napoleon.
  • Immortality is the best recollection one leaves.
  • Kiss the feet of Popes provided their hands are tied
  • Malice delights to blacken the characters of prominent men.
  • More glorious to merit a sceptre than to possess one.
  • Those who are free from common prejudices acquire others.
  • What then is, generally speaking, the truth of history ? A fable agreed upon.
Napoleon Bonaparte

Maxims of Napoleon

The Maxims of Napoleon were collected and published by A. G. de Liancourt.
  • A constitution should be framed so as not to impede the action of government, nor force the government to its violation.
  • A Government protected by foreigners will never be accepted by a free people.
  • A great people may be killed, but they cannot be intimidated.
  • A great reserve and severity of manners are necessary for the command of those who are older than ourselves.
  • A king is sometimes obliged to commit crimes; but they are the crimes of his position.
  • A King should sacrifice the best affections of his heart for the good of his country; no sacrifice should be above his determination.
  • Greatness is nothing unless it be lasting.
  • Many a one commits a reprehensible action, who is at bottom an honourable man, because man seldom acts upon natural impulse, but from some secret passion of the moment which lies hidden and concealed within the narrowest folds of his heart.
  • The life of a citizen is the property of his country.
  • When you have an enemy in your power, deprive him of the means of ever injuring you.
  • You cannot treat with all the world at once.

Unsourced

A-C

A picture is worth a thousand words.
  • A celebrated people lose dignity upon a closer view.
  • A leader is a dealer in hope.
  • A man does not have himself killed for a half-pence a day or for a petty distinction; you must speak to the soul in order to electrify him.
  • A man will fight harder for his interests than for his rights.
  • A man like me troubles himself little about the lives of a million men
  • A picture is worth a thousand words.
  • A portion of the multitude must ever be coerced.
  • A revolution is an idea which has found its bayonets.
  • A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon.
  • A true man hates no one.
  • Ability is nothing without opportunity.
  • Ah, tenez, vous êtes de la merde dans un bas de soie.
    • Look, you're shit in a silk stocking.
    • Referring to Talleyrand (28 January 1809)
  • All men are equal before God: wisdom, talents, and virtue are the only difference between them.
  • Ambition never is in a greater hurry than I; it merely keeps pace with circumstances and with my general way of thinking.
  • America is a fortunate country. She grows by the follies of our European nations.
  • An army marches on its stomach.
An army of sheep, led by a lion, is better than an army of lions, led by a sheep.
  • An army of sheep, led by a lion, is better than an army of lions, led by a sheep.[1]
  • An emperor confides his trust in National Soldiers, not in mercenaries.
  • Authoritarian government required to speak, is silent... Representative government required to speak, lies with impunity.
  • Better not to have been born than to live without glory.
  • Better to have a known enemy than a forced ally.
    • Variant: Better to have an open enemy, than hidden friends.
  • Calumny, envy, and all revengeful passions appear almost exclusively to direct the actions of men.
  • Ces terribles chevaux gris! Comme ils travaillent!
  • Civil liberty depends upon the security of property.
  • Courage is like love; it must have hope for nourishment.
  • Cruelty can only be justified by necessity.

D-G

  • Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.
  • Death may expiate faults, but cannot repair them.
  • Different subjects and different affairs are arranged in my head as in a cupboard. When I wish to interrupt one train of thought, I shut that drawer and open another. Do I wish to sleep, I simply close all the drawers and then I am— asleep.
  • Doctors will have more lives to answer for in the next world than even we generals.
  • Every soldier carries a marshal's baton in his pack.
  • Everything has a limit, even human emotions.
  • Everything in religion should be gratuitous, and for the people; care must be taken not to deprive the poor... of the only thing which consoles them for their poverty.
  • Experience proves that armies are not always sufficient to save a nation; while a nation defended by its people is ever invincible.
  • Fanaticism must first be lulled, in order that it may be eradicated.
  • Female virtue has been held in suspicion from the beginning of the world, and ever will be.
  • Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.
  • France, the army, Josephine...
    • Reportedly his last words. In French: 'France, armée, Joséphine...'
  • Free trade favors all classes, excites all imaginations, and rouses the whole population; it is identical with equality, and tends naturally to independence.
  • Frenchmen know not how to conspire.
  • Friendship is but a name.
  • Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.
  • Great ambition is the passion of a great character. He who is endowed with it may perform either very great actions or very bad ones; all depends upon the principles which direct him.

H-L

  • He who fears being conquered is certain of defeat.
  • He who fights against his country, is a child who would kill his own mother.
  • He who is unmoved by tears has no heart.
  • He who knows how to flatter also knows how to slander.
  • How can you have order in a state without religion? For, when one man is dying of hunger near another who is ill of surfeit, he cannot resign himself to this difference unless there is an authority which declares, 'God wills it thus.' Religion is excellent stuff for keeping people quiet.
  • I accept I might be defeated, but caught in surprise, never.
  • I am never angry when contradicted, I seek to be enlightened.
  • I am sometimes a fox and sometimes a lion. The whole secret of government lies in knowing when to be the one or the other. (Idea originally conceptualized by Machiavelli in The Prince)
  • I believe love to be hurtful to society, and to the individual happiness of men. I believe, in short, that love does more harm than good.
  • I can no longer obey; I have tasted command, and I cannot give it up.
  • I feel as if I am being driven towards an unknown goal. As soon as it is attained and there will no longer be any use for me, an atom will be sufficient to annihilate me; but until then, all human efforts whether in Paris or in the army will be powerless to prevail against me.
  • If you start to take Vienna — take Vienna.
  • I have been called upon to change the face of the world.
  • I have not come to you except for the purpose of restoring your rights from the hands of the oppressors... (motivation for invading Egypt in 1798)
  • I have made all the calculations; fate will do the rest.
  • I have recognized the limits of my eyesight and of my legs, but never the limits of my working power.
  • I know men and I tell you that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Between Him and every other person in the world there is no possible term of comparison. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creation of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded His empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for Him.
  • I made all my generals out of mud.
  • In the world there are but two powers the sword and the mind, in the long run the latter always beats the former.
  • I was born and made for work.
  • If I always appear prepared, it is because before entering an undertaking, I have meditated long and have foreseen what might occur. It is not genius where reveals to me suddenly and secretly what I should do in circumstances unexpected by others; it is thought and preparation.
  • If I had 100,000 Croatians, I would conquer the world.
  • If I had to choose a religion, the sun as the universal giver of life would be my god.
  • If the whole world was a state, Istanbul would be the capital of it.
  • If they want peace, nations should avoid the pin-pricks that precede cannon shots.
  • If you want a thing done well, do it yourself.
  • If you wish to be a success in the world, promise everything, deliver nothing.
  • Imagination rules the world.
  • In a great nation, the majority are incapable of judging wisely of things.
  • In choosing a wife, a man does not renounce his mother, and still less is he justified in breaking her heart.
  • In great crisis, it is the lot of women to soften our misfortunes.
  • In politics stupidity is not a handicap.
    • Variant: In politics an absurdity is not a handicap.
  • In victory, you deserve Champagne; in defeat, you need it.
  • In warfare, the mental to the physical is as three is to one.
  • It is an approved maxim in war, never to do what the enemy wishes you to do, for this reason alone, that he desires it.
  • It is in the workshops of the country that the most successful war is waged against an enemy, at least it does not cost a drop of its people's blood.
  • It is not enough that I succeed — everyone else must fail.- Adapted from Hannibal.
  • It is the cause, and not the death, that makes the martyr.
  • It is the province of honest men to enlighten the government.
  • It requires more courage to suffer than to die.
  • It would have been better for the peace of France if this man had never existed.
  • Let China sleep. For when China wakes, it will shake the world.
    • Variant translation: When China awakes, the world will tremble.

M-S

  • Men are more easily governed through their vices than through their virtues.
  • Men are moved by two levers only— fear and self interest.
    • Variant: There are only two forces that unite men— fear and interest.
  • Men take only their needs into consideration—never their abilities.
  • My motto has always been: A career open to all talents, without distinctions of birth.
    • Quoted in Mémorial de Ste Hélène by Las Cases
  • Never awake me when you have good news to announce, because with good news nothing presses; but when you have bad news, arouse me immediately, for then there is not an instant to be lost.
  • Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.
  • Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.
  • Now we are in a fix. Peace has been declared.
    • After the treaty of Amien
  • One must change one's tactics every ten years if one wishes to maintain one's superiority.
  • One should never forbid what one lacks the power to prevent.
  • Passionate people invariably deny their anger, and cowards often boast their ignorance of fear.
  • People accustomed to great victories, know not how to support a day of reverse.
  • Popes have committed too many absurdities to create a belief in their infallibility.
  • Power is founded on opinion.
  • Power is my mistress. I have worked too hard at her conquest to allow anyone to take her away from me.
  • Public opinion is the thermometer a monarch should constantly consult.
  • Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.
  • Respect the burden.
  • Riches do not consist in the possession of treasures, but in the use made of them.
  • Six hours sleep for a man, seven for a woman and eight for a fool.
  • Skepticism is a virtue in history as well as in philosophy.
  • So you think the police foresees and knows everything. The police invents more than it discovers.
  • Some men have sufficient strength of mind to change their disposition, or at least to yield to imperative circumstances.
  • Speeches pass away, but acts remain.
  • Strategy is the art of making use of time and space. I am less concerned about the latter than the former. Space we can recover, lost time never.
  • Stupidity is not a handicap in politics.
  • Such work as mine is not done twice in a century. I saved the Revolution as it lay dying, I have cleansed it of its crimes and have held it up to the people shining with fame. I inspired France and Europe with new ideas which will never be forgotten.

T

  • Ten people who speak make more noise than ten thousand who are silent.
  • The act of policing is, in order to punish less often, to punish more severely.
  • The allies we gain by victory, will turn against us upon the bare whisper of our defeat.
  • The aristocracy has the advantage of concentrating the power of Government into less dangerous hands than those of the ignorant multitude.
  • The battlefield is a scene of constant chaos. The winner will be the one who controls that chaos, both his own and the enemies.
  • The best cure for the body is a quiet mind.
  • The best way to keep one's word is not to give it.
  • The Bible is no mere book, but a Living Creature, with a power that conquers all that oppose it.
  • The favorable opportunity must be seized; for fortune is female, and if you balk her today you must not expect to meet her again tomorrow.
  • The guilt of many men may be traced to over-affection for their wives.
  • The heart of a minister should be nowhere but in his head.
  • The infectiousness of crime is like that of the plague.
  • The most important qualification of a soldier is fortitude under fatigue and privation. Courage is only second; hardship, poverty and want are the best school for a soldier.
  • The nature of Christ's existence is mysterious, I admit; but this mystery meets the wants of man. Reject it and the world is an inexplicable riddle; believe it, and the history of our race is satisfactorily explained.
  • The only victories which leave no regret are those which are gained over ignorance.
  • The only victory over love is flight.
  • The people never rub themselves against naked bayonets.
  • The people to fear are not those who disagree with you, but those who disagree with you and are too cowardly to let you know.
  • The revolution is over. I am the Revolution
  • The spectacle of a field of battle after the combat is sufficient to inspire princes with the love of peace and the horror of war.
  • The strong man is the one who is able to intercept at will the communication between the senses and the mind.
  • The stupid speak of the past, the wise of the present, and fools of the future.
  • The surest way to remain poor is to be an honest man.
  • The true character of man ever displays itself in great events.
  • The woman we love is ever the prettiest of her sex.
  • There are calumnies against which even innocence loses courage.
  • There are only two forces in the world, the sword and the spirit. In the long run the sword will always be conquered by the spirit.
  • There is neither subordination, nor fear in empty bellies.
  • There is no greater misfortune for a man than to be governed by his wife: in such case he is neither himself nor his wife, he is a perfect nonentity.
  • There is one kind of robber whom the law does not strike at, and who steals what is most precious to men: time.
  • There is one thing that's not French: for a woman to be able to do what she likes.
  • They think I am stern, even hardhearted. So much the better— this makes it unnecessary for me to justify my reputation. My firmness is taken for callousness. I shall not complain, since this notion is responsible for the good order that is prevailing, so that there is nothing that needs to be repressed.
  • To abandon oneself to despair without a struggle, to commit suicide as a relief, is like leaving the field of battle before we have vanquished the enemy.
  • To extraordinary circumstances we must apply extraordinary remedies.
  • To have a right estimate of a man's character, we must see him in misfortune.
  • To have good soldiers, a nation must always be at war.
  • To seduce a wife from her husband, or a son from his father, are odious acts, unworthy of civilised nations.
  • To write history, one must be more than a man, since the author who holds the pen of this great justiciary should be free from all pre-occupation of interest or of vanity.

U-Z

  • Un bon croquis vaut mieux qu'un long discours.
    • Translation: A good sketch is better than a long speech.
    • Alternate translation: A picture is worth a thousand words.
  • Victory belongs to the most persevering.
  • War is the business of barbarians.
  • Water, air, and cleanness are the chief articles in my pharmacy.
  • We cannot escape from the arbitrariness of the judge, unless we place ourselves under the despotism of the law.
  • We must laugh at man to avoid crying for him.
  • We must not obstinately contend against circumstances, but rather let us obey them. We have many projects in life but little determination.
  • We must not take up arms for vain prospects of grandeur, nor the allurements of conquest.
  • We must take things as we find them, and not as we wish them to be.
  • We walk faster when we walk alone.
  • When he who measures the duration of life has pronounced his secret, all the sciences of humanity are but useless essays.
  • You must not fear death, my lads; defy him, and you drive him into the enemy's ranks.
  • You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war.
  • You would make a ship sail against the winds and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? Excuse me, I have no time to listen to such nonsense.

Misattributed

  • Give them a whiff of grapeshot.
    • This is often quoted as a command Napoleon issued when dispersing mobs marching on the National Assembly in Paris (5 October 1795), or it is occasionally stated that he boasted "I gave them a whiff of grapeshot" sometime afterwards, but the first known use of the term "whiff of grapeshot" is actually by Thomas Carlyle in his work The French Revolution (1837), describing the use of cannon salvo [salve de canons] against crowds, and not even the use of them by Napoleon.
  • A constitution should be short and obscure.
    • Quoted in The Life of Napoleon I by John Holland Rose as an exchange between Roederer and Talleyrand
      • Roederer tells us ("Œuvres," vol. iii., p. 428) that he had drawn up two plans of a constitution for the Cisalpine; the one very short and leaving much to the President, the other precise and detailed. He told Talleyrand to advise Bonaparte to adopt the former as it was "short and" — he was about to add "clear" when the diplomatist cut him short with the words, "Yes: short and obscure!"
  • Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
    • Commonly known as Hanlon's razor
    • Attributed to Napoleon without source in Blunden, Bill (2003). Message Passing Server Internals, p. 15. ISBN 0071416382.

Quotes about Napoleon

  • In early life he may have been a sincere republican; but he hated anarchy and disorder, and, before his campaign in Italy was over, he had begun to plan to make himself ruler of France. He worked systematically to transform the people's earlier ardor for liberty into a passion for military glory and plunder.
    • Willis Mason West in The Story of World Progress (1922), p. 434
  • I don't know why, but the little bastard scares me.
    • Comment by one of his generals when he showed up to command the army of Italy, as portrayed in "N" by Laura Harrington.

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