The truth? Napoleon Bonaparte was between 168 and 170 centimeters, or 5’6” – 5’7” in height. While that’s not imposing—all but five US presidents have been taller—it was above the 5’ 5’’ average for a French male in Napoleon’s era. Coincidently, James Madison, at 5’4″ our shortest president, was in office during six years of Napoleon’s reign. Yet we revere him as a founding father and never mention his height.
So how did Napoleon become characterized as a pint-sized guy in a huge hat?
Convenient circumstances help justify the myth. First, in his time, the French standard for a “foot” was larger than that of the British, so Napoleon’s 5’2” in French feet equated to 5’7” under the British (and American) system. Next, Napoleon surrounded himself with the tall, imposing figures of his Imperial Guard who dwarfed his average stature. Then there was his nickname, “the Little Corporal,” earned while he was a young general who could not resist micromanaging artillery positions during battle. His troops bestowed that title out of fondness for the officer who so intimately shared their danger under fire.
All that fed into the British narrative of a pipsqueak upstart who threatened the aristocratic status quo. What better way to diminish his figurative stature than to mock his physical one? For more than a decade, the British papers were full of cartoons like the two shown here. With no photography or television to correct the impression, the British, and by extension the American public, took it as fact.
In the late 19th century, Leo Tolstoy added to the myth. In War and Peace, Tolstoy, who had fought in Crimea against Napoleon III and despised Napoleon I as an enemy of Russia, depicted the Emperor as “the undersized Napoleon,” and “the little man with white hands.” He called him “child-like” and “spoiled.”
Finally, in the early 20th century, psychotherapist Dr. Alfred Adler dealt a crucial blow to Napoleon’s image. An Austrian contemporary of Freud, Dr. Adler proposed the Napoleonic Complex as a part of his Theory of Personality. In it, he attributed excessive aggressive behavior to short men due to their inferiority complex. To this day, research goes on to debunk this widely-held, non-scientifically-based view.
But perhaps, I’m overly sensitive to this particular Napoleonic myth. Full disclosure: I’m 5’2” (almost).