Washington and Napoleon: Leadership in the Age of Revolution

In This Review

Washington and Napoleon: Leadership in the Age of Revolution
by Matthew J. Flynn and Stephen E. Griffin
Potomac Books Inc., 2011
272 pp. $29.95

In this uneven but often very lively book, Flynn and Griffin demonstrate why it is important to write about U.S. history in a global context -- and why it is difficult to do so well. Washington and Napoleon borrows the method of comparative biography used by Plutarch in his paired biographies of Greek and Roman historical figures. George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte are well suited to this approach. Both men were marginal figures who sought military glory as a means of social and political advancement, took power as politics were being reshaped by the Enlightenment, and sought to guide revolutionary upheavals along the path to stable systems. The contrasts are also interesting: Washington was a worse general but a more successful commander than Napoleon, who is remembered as a warrior but whose most enduring accomplishments were in civilian law and administration. Some of Flynn and Griffin’s judgments seem forced, but their central contention is certainly sound: Washington’s embrace of constitutionalism and Napoleon’s turn to military despotism sprang not from any deep difference in their characters but from the political cultures that surrounded them and the differing sets of circumstances they faced.