to Wellington on his 250th Birthday!
In response to Sylvia Alexander-Vine’s article in the last Whistler comparing Napoleon and Wellington, it is important not to leave our readers with the impression that the latter’s only contribution to Western civilisation was one single piece of enlightened legislation, the Wellington boot, and advice for military cadets on how best to deploy cavalry, cannon and troops armed with muskets. Sylvia is, nevertheless, correct to say that Napoleon’s legacy as both the greatest general of his age (which even Wellington conceded) but also the greatest creative statesman, has been of much greater significance not only to France, but to Europe.
But as Napoleon can be credited with moderating the excesses of the French Revolution, Wellington can be credited with playing an important role in ensuring that Napoleon’s nepotistic dictatorship did not itself survive even if his institutions largely did, at least in France. His empire comprised vassal states ruled over by his relatives: the Kingdoms of Westphalia, Spain, Naples and the Principalities of Lucca and Piombino (in Italy) were variously given to his brothers, brothers-in-law and stepson, whilst he declared his infant son King of Rome. Wellington may well have been considered a political reactionary but he respected the British parliamentary system of the day and, unlike Napoleon, made no attempt to use the army or, indeed, a secret police force to achieve political ends. It must further be remembered that Wellington commanded an essentially volunteer army, whereas Napoleon’s regime imposed a ruthless conscription on a population which became increasingly recalcitrant as the wars continued.
One of the greatest stains on Napoleon’s character and an indictment on his personal rule (as First Consul in 1804) is the kidnapping and execution of the duc d’Enghien after a perfunctory military trial. Reacting to a report (which proved to be false) that Enghien was involved in a plot to overthrow him, Napoleon sent French gendarmes across the frontier into the then independent Duchy of Baden where they seized Enghien, stealing 2.2 million francs from his family safe at the same time. By the standards of despotic regimes in early 19th century Europe Napoleon was not particularly vindictive, but compared with Wellington his willingness to compromise became increasingly limited as the peoples of Europe and, indeed, France turned against him following the retreat from Moscow in 1812. Wellington did, after all, agree to relax the legislation penalising first non-conformists and then Catholics, and he made further concessions on Corn Law, all of which risked alienating his own political interest as a Protestant land-owning aristocrat.
Born just months apart in 1769, the 250th birthday of both these men should be celebrated, and that of Wellington celebrated especially by those of us in Brighton and in West Hill, given his connection with St Nicholas Church where he worshipped for a number of years as a boy. His legacy is an example of military leadership but also political compromise and, as he put it himself, of service as “a retained servant of King and people”. Although not as monumental as Napoleon’s, his legacy is nevertheless to be valued. He was opposed to parliamentary reform in the first half of the 19th century but he did promote the other reforms referred to above and in 1832, mindful of the dangers of social unrest, he persuaded his followers in the House of Lords to avoid a fatal clash with the Commons by absenting themselves from Parliament until the Reform Act, extending the franchise, was passed in June of that year.
So, let us all repair to the Duke of Wellington pub in Upper Gloucester Road on 1 May and raise a glass of Sussex ale, perhaps followed by a chaser of French Napoleon brandy on 15 August!