Napoléon Bonaparte and science

“If I had not become general-in-chief and the instrument of the fate of a great people, […] I would have thrown myself into the study of the exact sciences. I would have made my way along the path of the Galileos and the Newtons. And since I succeeded constantly in my great undertakings, well, I would have distinguished myself highly also by scientific works. I would have left the memory of beautiful discoveries. No other glory could have tempted my ambition. ”

These words of Bonaparte, reported by Arago, confirm to us that he did not lack ambition. But it is much more interesting that his ambition also turned to science, suggesting that he could even surpass Newton, even though Lagrange had declared – naively – that this was impossible! In the history of France, some of our kings, emperors, or presidents have supported science, but Napoleon Bonaparte is probably the only one who would have dreamed of being a scientist… if he had not been “the instrument of the fate of a great people”.

Bonaparte loved science but he understood very quickly that he could use scientists to develop his political project. In return, scientists loved him and supported him, sometimes slavishly. Monge, the mathematician, and Berthollet, the chemist, were literally fascinated by the young general during the Italian campaign. They managed to get Bonaparte elected to the National Institute in 1797 when he was only 28 years old and his scientific contributions were non-existent, and… will remain so. The general took the chair of Lazare Carnot, who was a much better scientist than he was, but who had just been expelled from the Institute following the coup d’état of Fructidor, of which Bonaparte was one of the instigators. The Institute showed a self-serving foresight in securing the favors of the man who would later become its protector. Bonaparte often used the prestige of his new status and signed his letters “Member of the Institute, General-in-Chief, Bonaparte”.

It is said that on December 11, 1797 Bonaparte dined with some influential members of the Institute to ensure his election, which was to take place two weeks later. To show off his mathematical skills, he explained to Laplace – the so-called French Newton – how to find the center of a circle if you only had a compass and no ruler. Laplace would have exclaimed “We expected everything from you, general, except lessons in geometry”. Did Bonaparte mention that this geometrical construction was in a way a war prize, since he had obtained it from a Milanese mathematician, named Mascheroni, whom he had just met during the Italian campaign? It is – perhaps – what convinced Laplace to vote for Bonaparte.

Then came the Egyptian campaign, which ended in a military defeat but a remarkable scientific success. Do we know that Bonaparte was sufficiently convincing for 160 scientists to accept to embark in Toulon with 50,000 soldiers, without having any idea of their final destination? The only information given to the geologist Dolomieu was that “where we go, there are mountains and stones”. Had we ever seen in history an army of invaders joined by mathematicians, naturalists, archaeologists and philologists? War and science sometimes make alliances. On the deck of the ship that took him to Alexandria, Bonaparte educated himself and organized scientific conversations, to the great displeasure of the soldiers who found it all useless. Science conferences on board a warship! As soon as he arrived in Egypt, after the victory of the Pyramids (“forty centuries contemplate you”), the Institute of Cairo was founded in the image of the National Institute: president Monge, permanent secretary Fourier, vice-president Bonaparte. Behind the troops trampling in the desert in pursuit of the Mamelukes, Monge wrote articles explaining the phenomenon of mirages and Berthollet understood the nature of chemical equilibrium by observing lakes of natron.

Bonaparte fled Egypt in a hurry at the end of 1799, before the military disaster, abandoning his army and most of the scientists of the expedition. But his lifelong friends, Berthollet and Monge, were on the return trip to Paris. A few days later, the coup d’état of 18 brumaire, the end of the Directory, the beginning of the Consulate, which will then lead to the Empire and the absolute power of Napoleon Bonaparte, until Waterloo, in 1815.

The period of the Consulate and the Empire was probably the most glorious in the history of science in France. Here are a few names that sound like a list of streets in Paris: the mathematicians Fourier, Lacroix, Lagrange, Laplace, Legendre, Monge, Poisson, the astronomers Arago, Cassini, Lalande, the physicists Ampère, Biot, Borda, Carnot, Coulomb, Fresnel, Haüy, Malus, the chemists Berthollet, Chaptal, Charles, Fourcroy, Gay-Lussac, the naturalists Cuvier, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Lamarck, the Jussieu brothers, the doctors Laennec or Sabatier, and I forget many!

Napoleon was a great supporter of science during this period. A support not only of principle, but especially financial. Scientists have probably never been so well paid in our history: enough to make contemporary scientists dream. Very generous prizes were distributed by the Institute. For example, impressed by Volta’s experiments, the emperor offered a considerable sum of money to advance the nascent theory of electricity.

Napoleon Bonaparte was convinced that scientists should play a major role in political life and he placed some of them in the highest positions. Never has the French political world been so aware of the latest advances in science. Should we be inspired by it today? Certainly, the first attempt was a failure. Three days after the 18 brumaire, Laplace was named minister of the Interior. The First Consul dismissed him six weeks later, and justified himself by writing, “A first-rate geometer, Laplace soon proved to be a more than mediocre administrator; from his first work we immediately understood that we had been mistaken. Laplace did not treat any question from a good point of view: he looked for subtleties everywhere, he had only problematic ideas and finally he carried the spirit of the infinitely small into the administration. “But Napoleon knew how to make remarkable choices of great servants of the State among the best scientists, heirs of the Enlightenment. I will cite only two emblematic examples, Fourcroy and Chaptal.

Fourcroy, a chemist, was the author of an overhaul of the French educational system, with the creation in particular of the famous Napoleonic lycées in 1802. These were boarding schools for boys with a quasi-military discipline that trained the elite that the centralized power needed to maintain order. Precise programs were imposed by law. All this is not very conducive to individual creativity and we still feel the deleterious effects today. At the same time, science was finally given the place it deserved: a real revolution compared to the Ancien Régime. Latin, history and geography were taught, of course, but also, on an equal footing with the humanities, mathematics, physics, chemistry, natural history and mineralogy, throughout a six-year curriculum ending with studies in Latin and French belles lettres and so-called transcendental mathematics. Alas, the implementation of this system was laborious and from 1809, with the creation of the Imperial University, the beautiful equality was to regress, and scientific education was to virtually disappear during the Restoration. Science was then reproached for distracting from religion. During the nineteenth century, the teaching of science will experience ups and downs and it will be necessary to wait for the great pedagogical reform of 1902 to see a very partial rebirth of science in high school. Today, science is still the poor relation of the elementary school.

As for Chaptal, his contribution goes far beyond the production of sugar from sugar beet, when the continental blockade prevented the importation of sugar from cane. He was an excellent Minister of the Interior, giving an impulse to the industrialization of France that would continue throughout the century. He updated the way the medical professions functioned and reformed the hospitals. He promoted vaccination with enthusiasm, without making it compulsory, as it is today. He organized the road network, re-established the chambers of commerce, and set up the first public statistical services, important for a good national administration. He never hesitated to oppose the emperor, who did not hold it against him.

Napoleon protected the Institut de France, sometimes excessively so: in the law of 11 Floréal of the year X, we read “that no establishment may henceforth take the name of Institute. The National Institute will be the only public institution that will bear this name”. This law has not been repealed to this day and seems to be little applied! In return, the Institut de France did not fail to show its affection for the emperor, for example by inaugurating with great pomp a majestic statue in the Palais Conti. Napoleon is represented in imperial costume and his right hand rests on a small column on which is engraved a Minerva, symbol of the Institute. During the ceremony, a very obsequious lyrical song was performed. Scientific and political circles know flattery.

Of course, such intimate ties based on mutual seduction can only lead to crises when trust is called into question. From Elba, during the first Restoration, Napoleon noted with bitterness the eagerness with which the Institute had disowned him. Had not the president of the Institute written, the day after the abdication of the emperor: “With liberty, we find the king that our wishes called for”? After the flight of the eagle, back in Paris, the emperor expressed his irritation through Lazare Carnot, who had become his minister of the interior. He no longer wished to be a member of the Institute, he was no longer one of their colleagues but he was their superior and the title that should be given to him from now on was that of protector of the Institute.

Napoleon’s love for science was not feigned. After Waterloo, he believed he could escape to America without difficulty. He said to Monge: “Idleness would be the cruelest torture for me. Condemned to no longer command armies, I see only the sciences that can strongly seize my soul and my mind. Learning what others have done is not enough for me. I want to leave in this new career, works, discoveries, worthy of me. I need a companion who will first of all bring me quickly up to date on the current state of science. Then we will travel together across the new continent, from Canada to Cape Horn, and in this immense journey we will study all the great phenomena of the physics of the globe, on which the learned world has not yet pronounced itself. “Monge exclaimed: ‘Sire, your collaborator is found: I accompany you! “. Napoleon replied that his friend Monge was too old to embark on the adventure. Sire,” replied Monge, “I have your business with the person of one of my young colleagues, Arago. “The young Arago did not accept the offer. It is understandable, he had much better things to do in France. Later, on St. Helena, Napoleon would say of Monge: “He loved me like a mistress, and I returned him well. As for Monge, he would confess around the same time, “I had four passions: geometry, the Polytechnic, Berthollet and Bonaparte. ”

Indeed, Napoleon and science were passionately in love.