Historical Context

Extraordinary circumstances bring to light extraordinary people. Napoleon Bonaparte and George Washington came to power in a period of profound change in western civilization.

Both men were born into relatively modest families. Napoleon was born the second of eight children of a minor italian (Corsican) noble family. Washington was the first born of a wealthy Virginian gentry of ‘middle rank’ class.  Both of these men aspired to break their way through the ridged class structure of the 18th century by means of military achievement and by doing so they changed the world.

Lets briefly consider the circumstances in which these two men rose to prominence and changed history:

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon came to power on the heals of one of the most profound and turbulent events in the western world. The French Revolution and its subsequent reign of terror left in its wake a terrified people and a weak central government besieged by enemies both internal and external. It was in this circumstance that the young Corsican, who had proven his worth in battles of northern Italy, stepped in to save a failing French government from insurrection with a ‘whiff of grapeshot‘.

Napoleon waged a spectacular war against the old world superpowers. He repeatedly defended France against nations that feared a man who gained power on the heels of a violent revolution that ended with a king with no head. If France achieved prosperity through revolution and dictatorship, what does that mean for Europe’s monarchies?  Napoleon was surrounded by unrelenting enemies with seemingly limitless resources who were determined no to unseat this upstart from power matter how long it took.

George Washington

As a young man, Washington almost singlehandedly launched the world’s first global war. It was Washington’s actions in the backwoods of the Ohio country that sparked the French Indian war (or the 7 years war as it was known in Europe). The conclusion of the French Indian war brought about taxes from England, and with these taxes rebellion took hold in the colonies.

Washington was chosen to lead patchwork of merchant colonies against the world’s premiere superpower. He was voted to power by a ad hoc collection of state representatives that were desperate for someone –ANYONE with experience–to take over an army of militia against the British camped in Boston. Washington had three things going for him: He was well recognized from his exploits (and un-exploits) in the French Indian war, he towered over his contemporaries at 6’2″, and he was a Virginian.

So it is with this rough online that we begin to compare the two men: Napoleon Bonaparte emerged from the French Revolution to achieve spectacular victories against coalitions of old world superpowers.  George Washington fought against the worlds primary superpower in his home country with an army that was no more than a militia funded by loose coalition of thirteen rebellious colonies.

Both these men achieved greatness. But who was the greatest of all? 

 

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