April 30, 2009
There’s a lot of media buzz about President Obama’s first “hundred days.” What’s so special about one hundred days? After all, he was elected to a term of four years. One hundred days surely is not very long in comparison to the more than 1,460 days of a Presidential normal term. (Those hardy souls who are already sporting 1.20.13 bumper stickers seem to all their fellow commuters to have jumped the gun.)
The media is also full of stories of how Americans are in love with our “hip” First Family. If Americans are in love with a father-headed, married-with-children model family, that is certainly a very good thing. If the Obamas can make marriage hip, then I’d say hip, hip, hooray.
But that hundred day thing has an odd origin for a free people to celebrate. It comes from the Emperor Napoleon. Talk about hip. Napoleon was the trend-setter and fashion-maker of Europe for fifteen years. The “Empire” style in women’s fine clothing, art, architecture, and home decor was all the rage. Napoleon’s massive Arc de Triomphe in the heart of Paris commemorated all his spectacular military successes-and France did have spectacular military successes guided by the strategic and tactical genius of the young conqueror.
Nor was Napoleon only a military swaggerer. He revised the laws of France. To this day, the Civil Code (or Code Napoleon) forms the bulk of French law. He reorganized civil administration and education. Napoleon was a tireless ruler.
Then, in 1812, he invaded Russia. He wanted to force the Russians to abide by his trade boycott against England. He entered the vast, forbidding steppes in June, 1812, with more than 600,000 men. By the time he retreated from Moscow, in December, he had only 10,000 men left, suffering some 97% in casualties. The temperatures-sometimes as cold as 60 below-were so severe that the antimony alloy of the soldiers’ greatcoat buttons cracked and crumbled. Their coats flapped open. Thousands succumbed to cold, starvation, and disease.
You would think the French would hate such a bloody ruler. You would think he would be run out of France when he returned from Moscow. Think again. He was defeated in 1814 by the allies, captured and exiled to the little Mediterranean island of Elba. There he plotted his return.
He landed on the shores of Southern France on March 20, 1815. Would the French troops of the unsteady French King Louis XVIII shoot the returning despot down? Napoleon bared his breast to the soldiers and invited them to kill him. They wept (they were French, after all) and went over to Napoleon en masse.
Napoleon swept on toward Paris to reclaim the imperial throne he had invented for himself. He gathered more than 100,000 troops. In June, he met a hastily-reorganized allied army of British and Prussians under the Duke of Wellington at a little Belgian town called Waterloo. There, on June 18, 1815, the Iron Duke crushed Napoleon utterly. Tens of thousands more of his brave young French troops died crying out Vive L’empereur! (Long Live the Emperor!) They truly were brave.
Napoleon’s second and last period in power was just one hundred days. That’s where the journalists got the term that they quickly applied to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first three months of furious legislative activity during the Great Depression. It was then that a rubber-stamp liberal Congress rammed through dozens of bills-many of which set up agencies and programs we still live with. Some were pretty good. But many were ill-considered (if they were considered at all). That was 1933. And, hold onto your seats, friends, there was the second Hundred Days in 1937. That’s when FDR tried to pack the Supreme Court. He overreached then and even his go-along gang in Congress choked. On that one, they handed him a stinging defeat.
The Napoleon thing is fascinating. Yes, he did have some solid achievements for France. But he was a tyrant. He ruled with the aid of an efficient and ruthless secret police. He rigged all the elections and controlled the press. He led millions of young men of Europe to their deaths.
The people of France, however, seemed not to mind. When his body was returned to France from St. Helena long after he died in exile, all of Paris turned out for his re-interment in a huge and impressive tomb in the historic Hotel des Invalides. It was to this incredible monument that the conquering Adolf Hitler was drawn during his five-hour whirlwind tour of Paris after his stunning victory over France in 1940.
A hundred days? Are we seeing a return of that kind of hero worship in our time? Despite all that we know about Napoleon, tens of thousands of selfless young people were quite willing to lay down their lives for him. It’s a sobering thought.
“Men of intemperate minds cannot be free,” wrote the great Irish Member of Parliament, Edmund Burke, “their passions forge their fetters.” Burke was the great friend of liberty-and the implacable enemy of the French revolutionary disease.
Have we been stoking passions in this country-ever since the 1960s-that will forge our own chains of despotism? I pray it is not so. But even as we assess our own First Hundred Days, it is important not to give in to passion. We must remain cool and objective-if we would remain free.