'Napoleon on his achievements, 1816': How far can one rely on written sources left by Napoleon?

Essay by franklinjCollege, UndergraduateB, June 2006

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Are these written sources open to doubt and careful scrutiny? Could it be that Napoleon was constantly and consciously concerned about his own image, and how posterity would view him in later years? By analysing this source, we hope to gain a broader perspective of Napoleon by placing it in context and evaluating its significance.

The source in question is the memoir dictated to Count Las Cases by Napoleon, written in 1816 on the island of St. Helena where Napoleon was exiled. It can be said that this is a 'hybrid' source, having the characteristic of being a primary and secondary source, such as Stendal's A Life of Napoleon (Block 2, p.38). This is a primary source in respect that Las Cases was present, writing while Napoleon was reminiscing over his past record and passing the time. Also Napoleon was there during the time he was speaking about, it is his past he was talking about.

The source is also a secondary source due to Las Cases not being present during the period that Napoleon was describing, the Napoleonic Period, but of course he is just writing what he is told to write.

The memoir is useful in the respect that it is more or less an accurate record of Napoleons' past. When placing reliance on it, one should continue with caution because on one hand it is an account of his record, but one the other hand it was probably glossed by interpretations of himself. Napoleon had a habit of censoring everything that was going to be read by the public so that it would glamorise his appearance. Napoleon believed that by dictating this memoir it might help him to return to Europe, respectively England, to be placed '... under the protection of its laws, ...' (Block 2 p.29).