Napoleon Bonaparte is a unique character in modern history, with the closest parallel to him being Julius Caesar. He not only guided and created events, but bestrode them like a colossus. And interest in him, which you might think would have waned with time, is now as great as ever. In fact, we receive more inquiries about Napoleon autographs than many other historical figures.
Why should this be so, so many years after his grand career? It is easy to see the continued relevance of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as the political system they established remains much the same today. But Napoleon’s empire ceased existence in 1815, and although he is surely associated with the French Revolution, he was not a major player until after the Revolutionary phase of French history was concluded with King Louis’ execution in 1793.
We believe the fascination with him, the reason people still find him a compelling and intriguing character, results from the confluence of three concepts and perceptions: philosophy, history and romance. The first, philosophy, involves the conviction that Napoleon, through his many invasions, battles, conquests, installed governments, etc. spread the ideals of the French Revolution far and wide, sewing seeds of dissatisfaction with monarchy everywhere. So that even though reactionaries triumphed in 1815, nothing and no one could undo the profound influence French ideals of liberty had throughout Europe and indeed everywhere. Thus the triumphs of France were the triumphs of liberty. This belief moved Beethoven, who wrote his 3rd Symphony, the Eroica (Heroic), for Napoleon (though when the conqueror had himself proclaimed emperor, Beethoven became disillusioned and removed Napoleon’s name from the work).
The second concept, history, consists of Napoleon’s own extraordinary story and the pure impact on history it had. As he is often mentioned in the same breath as Julius Caesar, a look at the parallels they share is fascinating. Both men were sons of gentry of no more than moderate influence, both quickly rose to top military authority in a time of upheaval based on pure ability and charisma, both conquered vast territories to augment their nations’ influence and prosperity, both seized royal and imperial power through the destruction of their own nation’s republican political systems, and both ended with defeat and martyrdom. These two men are seen as timeless titans of world history, and just as interest in Caesar has no end, similarly with Napoleon.
The third concept is romance, an intangible yet a very real one. Just as the story of the Old South in the United States evokes images in many of a land of cavaliers and cotton, so that of the image of Napoleon and his Grande Army bringing the ideals of the enlightenment to Europe, of hearing the sound of Les Marseilles sung (“Le jour de gloire est arrive, Contra nous de la tyrannie” – “The day for glory has arrived, Against us is tyranny”) as Napoleon reviewed his men as they marched under the Arc d’Triumphe, evokes great emotion even today.
Collecting autographs of Napoleon is quite different than collecting most other figures, in that the options available are somewhat more limited. Other men of his era had extensive private and personal correspondences regarding their own affairs, and many (and in some cases the vast majority) of their letters were handwritten as well as signed by them. Jefferson had letters relating to Monticello and Washington had them relating to Mount Vernon, and so many they wrote out and signed themselves. A high percentage of notables of the day had varied careers, such as those who served as soldiers in the Revolutionary War and later in Congress or the presidency. In both the case of Jefferson and Washington, there are also letters and documents from after they retired from public life. As another example, someone seeking to collect autographs of Ulysses S. Grant can choose from military documents from the Mexican War era, which he signed as a young officer; a variety of letters and endorsements signed by him at different points throughout the Civil War; documents and some letters from after the war when he led the United States Army; letters and innumerable documents signed as President; and letters written after he left the White House right up until the time of his death. Handwritten and personal letters abound. Not so with Napoleon. The vast majority of his collectible material consists of letters and documents on strictly military matters that he signed after he became leader of Grande Army in Italy in 1796, through his First Consulship and time as Emperor, down until 1815 when he was exiled to St. Helena. So whereas Jefferson’s autograph material is varied in nature and covers the span of 50 years, Napoleon’s is not and covers 20 years. Moreover, with Napoleon, purely personal letters are rarities, as are letters written completely in his hand.
So, specifically, what will you find? You’ll mainly see letters written out by his aides and signed by Napoleon, addressed to his generals and cabinet ministers (most particularly his secretaries of war), ordering some action or giving some directive. There are also numerous letters to his stepson and some relating to matters of state. In addition to letters, you’ll also find documents, some signed and some simply endorsed by him. Though limited in scope, the content of these pieces can be very interesting and significant, and is sometimes compelling and extraordinary. For example, some years back, we had Napoleon’s letter ordering the invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, one of the most important actions of the Napoleonic Wars. Interestingly, Napoleon does not seem to have liked writing. There are very few letters completely in his hand, and even when he signed, he generally used shortened forms of his name. Originally he started by simply signing “Bonaparte,” then progressed to using his first name alone. Occasionally he fully signed “Napoleon,” but more frequently used various abbreviations such as “Nap” and “Np.” You’ll almost never (if indeed ever) find a full signature “Napoleon Bonaparte.” During the time he signed “Bonaparte,” he had an aide sign even his signature for him. You can tell his apart because Napoleon signed with a paraph under his name, while the aide did not use a paraph below but did loop the “T” at the top of the name.