When writers contemplate the character of George Washington, they often quote Napoleon Bonaparte, who is supposed to have uttered the line “They wanted me to be another Washington.” The general who became a dictator and lost his empire reflects ruefully on the general who could have assumed a kingship, but did not. Thus is Washington’s greatness increased. But Napoleon never compared himself to Washington in this way; rather, he expressed the idea that had he been in America instead of France, living in American conditions of relative peace and social tranquility, rather than in tumultuous Europe, then certainly he could have “become a Washington” and without much effort. Yet had Washington found himself in France during Napoleon’s time, he would have been a “fool” to try to be himself, and Napoleon would have defied him. Finding a primary source for this quote supports this conclusion and renders the more famous utterance specious.
Stanley Weintraub attributed this quote to Napoleon in the context of the former emperor’s reflection on George Washington’s rejection of monarchical power: “Both dimensions of the General’s implicit rejection of a crown would be recalled by ex-emperor Napoleon when in exile on remote St. Helena. ‘They wanted me to be another Washington,” he explained, defending his own imperial ambitions, but circumstances ruled out his republican faith.” (General Washington’s Christmas Farewell, Free Press, 2004, p. 174).
Similarly, Richard Brookhiser employs the supposed utterance in his biography of Washington. Brookhiser used the words of a Washington contemporary—the painter Benjamin West—to describe the Founding Father as “The greatest character of the age.” Brookhiser continued: “The greatest character of the next age agreed. Though their careers overlapped, Washington was not aware of Napoleon, who was a French officer during the 1790s. But Napoleon was aware of him. After he had seized a crown and a continent and lost them both, Napoleon said, ‘They wanted me to be another Washington.’“ (Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, Free Press, 1996, p. 103).
The erudite columnist George Will construed Napoleon’s mood when delivering this line: “‘They wanted me to be another Washington,’ whined Napoleon in his exile, as stunned as the rest of the world by Washington’s voluntary yielding of power” (“The indispensable American,” Jewish World Review, July 4, 2002 [accessed online, http://www.jewishworldreview.com/cols/will070402.asp, 6/22/04]).
Richard Norton Smith, a presidential historian and biographer, even pinpointed the time of the utterance, writing that Washington’s “genius for renunciation prompted the dying Napoleon in his windswept exile to remark, ‘They wanted me to be another Washington.’” (“The Surprising George Washington,” Part 4, Prologue, Spring 1994, Vol. 26, No. 1, accessed online, http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/spring_1994_george_washington_4.html, 6/22/04).
Napoleon whined, he was stunned, he spoke thusly on his deathbed in exile. Of these four extracts, attribution of Napoleon’s utterance appears only in Brookhiser’s book. In A Literary History of the United States (Robert E. Spiller, and others, eds., New York: Macmillan, 1963, p. 200), we can read: “According to his memorialist, Napoleon himself sighed at St. Helena, ‘They wanted me to be another Washington’ and attempted to explain that conditions in Europe did not permit him to keep his republican faith.” No further citation is given in A Literary History and so there is no source for the assertion that Napoleon sighed. However, we do learn that Napoleon’s “memorialist” recorded the famous utterance. Who this person was is not given.
Napoleon biographer Christopher Herold indicated this memorialist when he cited a passage that seems related to the supposed quote:
Anybody would have done what he [Napoleon] did, not excluding Washington, he told Las Cases at St. Helena. “If Washington had been a Frenchman at a time when France was crumbling inside and invaded from outside, I [Napoleon] would have dared him to be himself; or, if he had persisted in being himself, he would merely have been a fool. …
As for me, I could only be a crowned Washington. And I could become that only at a congress of kings, surrounded by sovereigns whom I had either persuaded of mastered. Then, and then only, could I have profitably displayed Washington’s moderation, disinterestedness, and wisdom. In all reasonableness, I could not attain this goal except by means of world dictatorship. I tried it. Can it be held against me?” (The Age of Napoleon, 1963, p. 125).
Since Napoleon’s memorialist is generally known to be Emmanuel Augustin Dieudonne Martin Joseph, Comte de Las Cases (1766–1842), we turn to him for further answers.
Count de Las Cases was a member of Napoleon’s suite—which also included French generals and valets—that accompanied the deposed emperor to St. Helena in late 1815. For the next 18 months, until he was kicked off the island by the British governor, Las Cases recorded a memoir that he would publish to great acclaim (and sales) in 1823. His Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène was republished in English by Redfield of New York in 1855 as Memoirs of the Life, Exile, and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon. The Columbia Encyclopedia describes this work as “a primary source, although not always an accurate one” (Sixth edition, 2001 [accessed online, http://www.bartleby.com/65/la/LasCases.html, 6/22/04]).
The following extract is Las Cases quoting Napoleon Bonaparte, in an entry dated 29–30 November, 1815, in the English edition of his work. The French version is taken from a website that transcribed the first part of the work, http://www.iondavid.ifitsa.com/memorial/index.html:
“My code alone, from its simplicity, has been more beneficial to France than the whole mass of laws which preceded it. My schools and my system of mutual instruction are preparing generations yet unknown. Thus, during my reign, crimes were rapidly diminishing; while, on the contrary, with our neighbours in England, they have been increasing to a frightful degree. This
alone is sufficient to enable any one to form a decisive judgment of the respective governments!
“Look at the United States, where, without any apparent force or effort, every thing goes on prosperously; every one is happy and contented: and this is because the public wishes and interests are in fact the ruling power. Place the same government at variance with the will and interests of its inhabitants, and you would soon see what disturbance, trouble, and confusion, and above all, what an increase of crimes, would ensue.
“When I acquired the supreme direction of affairs, it was wished that I might become a Washington [Arrivé au pouvoir, on eût voulu que j’eusse été un Washington]. Words cost nothing; and no doubt those who were so ready to express the wish did so without any knowledge of the times, places, persons, or things. Had I been in America, I would willingly have been a Washington, and I should have had little merit in so being [Si j’eusse été en Amérique, volontiers j’eusse été un Washington, et j’y eusse eu peu de mérite]; for I do not see how I could have reasonably acted otherwise. But had Wash-
ington been in France, exposed to discord within, and invasion from without, I would have defied him to have been what he was in America; at least, he would have been a fool to attempt it, and would only have prolonged the existence of evil [Mais si lui se fût trouvé en France, sous la dissolution du dedans et sous l’invasion du dehors, je lui eusse défié d’être lui-même, ou s’il eût voulu l’être, il n’eût été qu’un niais, et n’eût fait que continuer de grands malheurs]. For my own part, I could only have been a Crowned Washington. It was only in a congress of kings, in the midst of kings, yielding or subdued, that I could become so. Then and there alone, I could successfully display Washington’s moderation, disinterestedness, and wisdom. I could not reasonably attain to this but by means of the universal Dictatorship. To this I aspired; can that be thought a crime? …”
Thus, Napoleon was not lamenting that he was no George Washington. Las Cases did not describe a stunned, sighing Napoleon on his deathbed. Las Cases reported this statement in his entry for November 29–30, 1815, more than five years before Napoleon died. The Last Days of Napoleon, the detailed memoir by Dr. Francesco Antommarchi—the physician who attended to Napoleon in his last months—makes no mention of any such utterance concerning Washington between September 1819 and Napoleon’s death on May 5, 1821. It is possible that some other memorialist, perhaps grand marshal Henri Bertrand or Napoleon’s adviser Count Charles de Montholon, or any one of the many other persons who accompanied or encountered Napoleon during his final exile, heard Napoleon utter the line and recorded it and the mood of the speaker for posterity. But all the evidence points to Las Cases as the witness to the moment when Napoleon compared himself to George Washington, and in a way not favorable to Washington at all. “[I]t was wished that I might become a Washington” but “no doubt those who were so ready to express the wish did so without any knowledge of the times, places, persons, or things.” Napoleon could have been a Washington, if he found himself in America. But Washington, in the exiled emperor’s view, could never have been a Napoleon.
(Note: I researched and wrote this in 2004 at the request of a historian at the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. He showed me the quote in the Weintraub book and asked me to look into it.)
– Fred Dews, June 7, 2018