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  • Writer's pictureRichard Murff

Death & Exile

If there is one bit of American exceptionalism of which we can all be proud – it’s our (near) perfect history peaceful power transfers that makes us the second oldest government on the planet. Unlike the No. 1 slot, Great Britain, we’ve done it without an apolitical monarch acting as differential between the factions. This is no mean feat and we’ve managed it because our leaders accepting free election results without a fuss and, crucially, stay gone – or at least keeping their mouths shut. Apart from a bloviating one-termer called Trump and another simpering one called Carter, we’ve done pretty well.

In the world’s more lively political theaters, the way to keep the last guy out of your hair – if you can’t get away with the traditional assassination – is house arrest: consider Aung San Suu Kyi, currently twiddling her thumbs in Myanmar while the military trashes the country back to the stone age. Russia’s Alexi Navelny was never in power, but as the only viable opposition to Vladimir Putin, was enough of a threat to go ahead and kill via poisoned underwear. Except that it didn’t take. The man spent five months on life support in a Berlin hospital while his legend grew to epic status in the motherland. On his return to Russia in January, Navalny was arrested and Putin is not about to let him out of sight now.

Without getting into the morals of the issue, that’s the smart move. Exile can be problematic, you never know just what rivals will do after being voted off the island. They may take their money and go sit in the sun. But they may not…

This week marks the anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s first exile to Elba as well as his death, 200 years ago, in his second exile. To wit, a look at a leader who just wouldn’t leave.

Unlike most leaders who spent their time on the throne making war, Napoleon did not do it because the domestic situation was a train wreck. He was actually one of history’s more capable reformers, tamping down the ideological purity of the revolution for modern system in some harmony with basic human psychology. According to Andrew Robert’s in his definitive Napoleon: A Life:

The ideas that underpin our modern world—meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on—were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them he added a rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire.

He was also competent at making war as well. Under the old regime, Napoleon’s family lacked the money to bribe is way into the dashing aristocratic regiments like the cavalry or infantry. What neither he, nor anyone else, could know at the time was just how much the new technology of modern artillery was change war. More practically, with the revolution axing most of the officer class for their aristocratic connection, Napoleon was pulled up a promotional vacuum. He was an aristocrat, but only just, hailing from minor French nobility made even more minor by the fact that he was actually born minor Italian nobility. With quick promotion and a knack for killing heaps of people at a distance, up he rose through the ranks.

Napoleon became the most powerful man not only in France, but Europe, and by extension, the world. He also fell to the Big Man trap, one that the United States in the 21stCentury would do well to consider: You may well be able to take on any one power, or any two (or three) for that matter – you won’t be able to take on the entire world united against you. On the heels of Grand Army’s defeat in the face of guerrilla war in Spain, Europe banded together into a Sixth Coalition, pressed in on Paris and forced Napoleon to abdicate.

In a world where monarchies outnumbered republics, royal houses were at great pains to maintain the mystique of elites, even when trying to get rid of them. So in 1814, the Emperor of the French went into his first exile as much reduced Emperor of Elba.

As sovereign of a sun-baked rock, he was allowed a 600 man personal guard. He turned into the army of Elba, then created a navy as well. Being Napoleon, he started to clean-up the little island’s administration. At first the 12,000 souls living about 12 miles off the coast of Italy liked the reforms well enough. They liked court glamour their new “emperor” brought to the island, along with his Italian mistress. (For all his mastery of arms and administration, according to his first wife Josephine, the man was “useless” in bed. And she would know.) He revived the iron industry, agricultural methods as well as the island’s education system and legal codes.

Well, the locals liked it until they realized that – since no longer part of France – they’d be footing the bill themselves. Then they got fussy. Reformers, then and now, rarely think their grand ideas through to the price tag.

Elba, though, was never quite big enough of a canvas for a guy like Napoleon. At least that was the way he sold it. Other factors included that fact that he knew from a constant stream of visitors that the British, who’d already cut off his agreed upon allowance, were planning to move him much further away to a tiny island in the south Atlantic called St Helena.

And so it was that Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from exile to return to France. En route, he recruited into his ranks the army the new Bourbon King Louis XVIII (himself a once and future exile) sent to stop him and retook the government for about a hundred days. Then, he became the first man in history to face a literal, not figurative, Waterloo.

After his defeat, he planned a final escape to the United States – New Orleans – were a wealthy supporter donated a house for Napoleon’s retirement. He never made it past the British blockade.

Having enough of the man, the Brits shipped him off to St. Helena, which, for the record is not 12 miles off the coast of Italy – but nearly 1,200 miles off the coast of Liberia. There he died, also this week, in 1821.

Outdated, perhaps, but I can think of one idea where it might not be a bad idea.


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