For the Love of Glory
For the Love of Glory
Napoleonic Imperatives in the Early American Republic
Utilizing a political-cultural approach to the concept of glory, this essay offers not only a fresh account of American perceptions of Napoleon, but also a new perspective on democracy’s development in the United States. More specifically, an investigation of select Bonapartist phenomena—printed accounts of and reader responses to Napoleon; post-revolutionary soldiers’ and sailors’ actions, dress, and utterances; a John Wesley Jarvis painting; and gender roles and concepts—illuminates early American democracy’s romance with power as expressed in a new culture of war. This new culture held that martial values were superior to civilian ones and depicted warfare as a compelling forum for romantic self-expression and nationalist apotheosis. Those preoccupied with Napoleonic glory were motivated by the idea that extraordinary individuals and nations could make a spectacle of themselves and transcend even as they dramatically altered history. This self-important, exhibitionist streak induced many to indulge preposterous fantasies. Yet no matter how outlandish, no matter how implausible, these fantasies should be taken seriously. In their Napoleonic flights of fancy, a sizeable number of Americans betrayed a desire to overturn longstanding assumptions about democracy’s weakness by ruthlessly enforcing its standing at home and in the world. Dreams of incontrovertible democratic power, moreover, undergirded popular fascination with and an inclination to employ—even at the expense of genteel civility and morality—terrifying, neo-monarchical authority. Even though democracy is often seen as the antithesis of monarchy, it is in many ways its fulfilment and amplification, so that nothing is more democratic than bold, even cruel, assertions of autocratic-military power.
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