Napoleon was NOT short!

Napoleon was NOT short!

Sep 21
Napoleon was NOT short!

This is a very common misconception.  This is so much a part of the folklore that in 1908 the noted psychologist Alfred Adler used Napoleon as an example of an inferiority complex felt by short people that led to aggressive behavior as a compensation for their lack of height.  This became known as the Napoleon Complex.

So how tall was Napoleon and why was that not short?  His exact height is a subject of disagreement due to inconsistent standards for measurement at the time.  He is generally cited as being somewhere between 5 foot 4 inches to 5 foot 7 inches tall.  Granted, that seems small to us today.  That puts Napoleon as somewhere between my wife and daughters in height and several inches shorter than me; and I’m not considered a tall man.  Certainly no one has ever asked me if I played basketball in school (I didn’t).  But that was the average height of a Frenchman in 1800!  Napoleon’s height was exactly average.  Notice in the attached picture of Napoleon’s Return from Elbe that all the men surrounding him are neither taller, nor shorter, than he.

So why was Napoleon often referred to as short.  It is a common form of derision to speak of someone as being little.  Think of the inverse comments to “buck up”, “stand tall”, or even that being great is to loom large.  Conversely a troll is a mean person.  Angry people are often referred to as “being small”.  To “think small” or be “small minded” is an insult, as compared to being a “big thinker”.  Napoleon had many enemies, especially in England, his constant opponent (except for a brief period of peace), and Napoleon was constantly being denigrated in the British press where he was described as small in stature or troll-like.

Personally, I have another theory.  The officer corps before the Revolution was composed of aristocrats chosen for their birth and not their merit.  Came the Revolution, the officer corps was swept clean of aristocrats and a vacuum of leadership was created.  Many military units began electing their own officers from their ranks.  I believe that they tended to elect the roughest, toughest soldier, and that more often than not happened to be the tallest person.  Here in America it is worth noting that George Washington was a giant among men at 6 foot 4 inches tall.  Many of these proved to be incompetent and were eventually also swept aside, but many rose to positions of high rank.  Most of Napoleon’s Marshalls were very tall, imposing men.  In fact, when the noted artist Jacques-Louis David painted The Coronation of Napoleon, he had to move around the position of the Marshalls because Napoleon was annoyed that they made him look short.

Whatever the reason for this belief, the fact is that Napoleon was not short.

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