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No, Napoleon Didn't Say That...

An army travels on its stomach.” Or does it?

Napoleon Bonaparte is probably one of the most quoted men in history. Take, for example, his legendary quip to his foreign minister, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, when the minister conspired to have him overthrown.

“You are shit, Talleyrand…shit in silk stockings,” the Emperor of France allegedly said.

But only saying that it was “a pity that so great a man should have been so badly brought up,” as Talleyrand remarked when the emperor had left the room after the insult, would not do Napoleon justice.

In fact, many a famous quote can be attributed to Napoleon, like “In politics, stupidity is not a handicap” or “Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools.” And that is just to name two of the many witty things he said during his life.

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord by François Gérard, 1808

However, despite the Frenchman’s obvious cunning and intelligence, many of the quotes attributed to him were either never voiced by him or were merely rephrased quotations ascribed to other famous men. Let’s take a look at ten outstanding statements that are falsely assigned or credited to Napoleon.

“England is a nation of shopkeepers.”

Anyone who has read The Wealth of Nations, the so-called magnum opus of economics by the renowned British economist, author, and philosopher Adam Smith, will recognize this as Smith’s words. He was the pioneer of political economy, a central figure during the Scottish Enlightenment and, many say, the Father of Economics or Capitalism.

Portrait of the political economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790) by an unknown artist, which is known as the ‘Muir portrait’ after the family who once owned it. The portrait was probably painted posthumously, based on a medallion by James Tassie.

It was Adam Smith who first described Great Britain as a nation of shopkeepers:

“To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers, may, at first sight, appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.”

Napoleon, as the clever man and avid reader he was, had of course read Adam Smith’s famous work – and he cunningly used the economist’s words as an insult to the British because of their staunch resistance to his plans.

Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries by Jacques-Louis David, 1812

“An army of sheep, led by a lion, is better than an army of lions, led by a sheep.”

Now, this one goes as far back as the indefatigable Macedonian General Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC. And even then, Alexander probably cadged the words and changed a few things said by another wily and ancient Greek commander, for the Spartan General Chabrias had said, “I should prefer an army of stags led by a lion, to an army of lions led by a stag.”

There is no evidence that Napoleon ever said either of the aforementioned versions, although one has to admit that the words do sound like something he might have said.

“An army travels on its stomach.”

This one is attributed to either Frederick the Great of Prussia or Napoleon. Having said that, Napoleon did not phrase the sentiment that way. Instead, he said, “The basic principle that we must follow in directing the armies of the Republic is this: that they must feed themselves on war at the expense of the enemy territory.”

“God always favors the big battalions.”

This one is a classic example of a great man rephrasing the words of other exceptional men.

“Providence is always on the side of the big battalions” was a proverbial saying in the early 19th century. Earlier versions are attributed to the Comte de Bussy-Rabutin (1618-93), “God is usually on the side of the big squadrons against the small,” and Voltaire (1694-1778), “God is on the side not of the heavy battalions but of the best shots.”

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

Many people credit U.S. Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower with this quote. Others insist that it was General George Patton who said it. Yet others believe that it was Napoleon who uttered the words.

In truth, the general observation actually belongs to the mid-nineteenth century Prussian Field Marshall Helmut von Moltke whose phraseology was not as pithy: “No operation extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main body of the enemy.”

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

It is most likely that his statement was adapted over time and, judging by the conciseness of the above quote, that particular one is most likely American in origin. However, we cannot be sure.

“I gave them a whiff of grapeshot.”

Sure, that sounds cocksure and very much like something a confident military man like Napoleon might have said. However, if you take a moment and attempt to translate the above words into French, you will find that they really do not translate all that well.

The French word for grapeshot is mitraille, and the closest you would get to “whiff” is bouffée, so accordingly the above quote could be translated into “Une bouffée de mitraille.”

Napoleon Bonaparte, aged 23, lieutenant-colonel of a battalion of Corsican Republican volunteers. Portrait by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux.

A “whiff” has something decidedly Anglo-Saxon about it, so one might guess the quote is most likely something conceived in the mind of an English-speaking novelist or historian.

And that is the case here. “A whiff of grapeshot” is the brainchild of Thomas Carlyle in his book The French Revolution: A History. It was published in 1837, sixteen years after the death of Napoleon.

Thomas Carlyle in 1854

“Not tonight Josephine.”

Men are always up for it, right? Wrong! Apparently, Napoleon was not always in the mood to make sweet love to his wife, Josephine. But did he say the above words to his wife? Maybe—we cannot be sure of the happenings in the privacy of the emperor and empress’ bedroom.

Nevertheless, it is more likely that the above phrase was the creation of English satirists who loved to mock one of history’s greatest love affairs

Joséphine, Viscountess of Beauharnais, Duchess of Navarre

“You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war.”

Yes, Napoleon did say this. However—and again, there is nothing wrong with this—he sponged off a more ancient historical figure in the form of Plutarch.

Marengo was ridden by Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo in 1815 where he was defeated by the British

“Give me lucky generals.”

This is another quote that is often attributed to Napoleon, but there is no evidence to suggest he ever said the words. If he did, then as an avid amateur historian he probably based them on something Cardinal Mazarin, chief minister of France in the 17th century, said.

Mazarin had noted that one must not ask of a general “Est-il habile?” (“Is he skillful?”), but rather “Est-il heureux?” (“Is he lucky?”)

Retreat of Napoleon on 19 October 1813, showing the explosion of the bridge

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

The above quote is often accredited to Napoleon, but there is simply no evidence to suggest he said it.

Some people claim that the quote is from the 1980 compilation of Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong, edited by Arthur Bloch.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.1828

However, it can safely be said that the above words belong to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the man who embodies German classical literature. In his work The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774, he wrote “Misunderstandings and neglect occasion more mischief in the world than even malice and wickedness.”

The research of important and meaningful citations is a precise art, which is as fickle in its execution as April weather. So while Napoleon Bonaparte said a lot of wise things, he cannot be credited with every witticism ever uttered. Moreover, as we have seen, he, like the rest of us, occasionally pinched the odd phrase from other learned men. It is thanks to his fame that so many familiar sayings were easily linked to him.


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