Editor’s note: FFRF columnist James Haught died on July 23. We still have a bunch of pieces that Jim gave us to use — some fresh and others previously published — that we will be sending out in the coming weeks.
Whether you regard Napoleon Bonaparte as a brilliant hero (which he was) or an opportunistic egomaniac (which he also was), he remains a colossal figure in world history. He conquered most of Europe — until his lust for power brought him and numerous people to destruction.
Born this week in 1769, Napoleon was an agnostic during his years of triumph but as he neared death, broken by captivity, he uttered religious declarations. During most of his life, he cynically commented on religion many times.
“I once had faith, but when I came to know something, I found my faith attacked,” he once remarked. “It is said that I am a papist; I am nothing.”
On another occasion, he said, “All religions have been made by men.”
Napoleon’s rise began with the French Revolution, which was a rebellion against religion and aristocratic greed. France’s growing middle class came to disbelieve in the divine right of kings and resented the parasitic luxury of the clergy and nobles. When the National Assembly gained control in 1789, one of its first acts was to seize church property and order priests to swear loyalty to the new regime.
At that time, Napoleon was a young military officer who joined the radical Jacobin political club and made speeches against archbishops and aristocrats. After Jacobin zealotry produced the Reign of Terror, ending with the group’s destruction, Napoleon was arrested briefly but soon regained his army post.
When rioting royalists attempted to storm the National Convention in 1795, Napoleon ordered his troops to mow them down with grapeshot. Thus he saved the republic and became a public hero. Given ever-larger military commands, he began to win victories for France.
Napoleon used religion for power. While leading a French army in Egypt, he half declared himself a Muslim and an enemy of the pope to gain support of Egyptian potentates. When the Egyptian campaign bogged down, he slipped back to France, conspired with military colleagues, and staged a 1799 coup that installed him as First Consul, a dictator. Soon, he reached an accommodation with the Catholic Church, to the chagrin of freethinkers who had fought the church in the French Revolution.
“Among the Turks, I was a Mohammedan; now I shall become a Catholic,” Napoleon told aides. To seal the agreement with the Vatican, he attended an extravagant mass in Notre Dame cathedral – but told confidants he would not take the sacrament.
Napoleon still defied the Church. At his coronation as emperor in 1804, he seized the crown from the hands of Pope Pius VII and placed it upon his own head. Five years later, with Italy under French control, Napoleon demanded that Pius submit to his authority; the pope replied by excommunicating the emperor. Napoleon laughed at the decree and told his lieutenants: “In these enlightened days, none but children and nursemaids are afraid of curses.” He had Pius seized and imprisoned temporarily.
“I am surrounded by priests who repeat incessantly that their kingdom is not of this world, and yet they lay hands on everything they can get,” he said about the clergy.
Napoleon had two wives and several mistresses. He lived with a dazzling flair, leading armies in mighty conquests, setting up surrogate kingdoms with his brothers and sisters as rulers.
“Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich,” he caustically stated.
But Napoleon’s self-aggrandizement eventually brought doom. He lost hundreds of thousands of troops in a futile attempt to conquer frozen Russia in the winter of 1812. Nations he had trampled united against him and forced him to abdicate in 1814. He was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba. But he escaped, returned to France, raised another army, and met final defeat at Waterloo. An exile once more, Napoleon was confined this time to the barren island of St. Helena, off the African coast, where he spent his final six years.
The French military icon revealed no great love for religion in his tumultuous life. After all, he said, “Knowledge and history are the enemies of religion.”