15 August, Birthday of Napoleon and Sir Walter Scott: Codes and Europe

Napoleon is one of the most interesting and important figures in the history of Europe; Sir Walter Scott was one of the most important and influential European novelists of the first half of the nineteenth century. They were both born on 15h August, the Emperor and general in 1789, so this year is his 250th anniversary, and the novelist in 1771. Napoleon was a fan, we know, of Ossian; it is unknown to your blogger whether he ever read any of Scott’s poetry, or whiled away a weary evening in St Helena reading one of Scott’s Waverley novels. One suspects not, however, since he died in 1821.

The indefatigable Scott, however, wrote a biography of Napoleon, The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte: Emperor of the French. With a Preliminary View  of the French Revolution ,  published in Edinburgh in 1827, in nine volumes. Despite Scott’s Tory views, he was actually measured and in many ways not unsympathetic in his treatment of his subject, admiring the military genius, and identifying with his life, as Susan Manning has pointed out. As a lover of Shakespeare it is perhaps no surprise that he depicts Napoleon as a tragic hero, ultimately brought down by the nemesis that followed his hubris.

Scott quotes a speech of Napoleon in which the Emperor claims he is aiming at “one universal European code, one court of appeal. The same one, the same weights and measures, the same laws, must have currency through Europe. I must make one nation out of all the European states, and Paris must be the capital of the world.” (Life vol. 7, pp. 157-8) Needless to say, reflecting the Smithian views of his teachers at Edinburgh,  Scott preferred the common law of England to the Code civil, commenting that it it is a “vulgar, though a natural and pleasing error” to prefer “the simplicity of an ingenious and philosophic code of jurisprudence, to a system which has grown up with a nation”. (Life, vol. 6, p. 59.)