There are only a handful of significant historical figures who are as well known for their stature as they are for their deeds. Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, happened to be very tall. Others — for example, Napoleon Bonaparte — are known for their smaller stature. Napoleon Bonaparte accomplished a lot during his tenure as the leader of France and was one of the most memorable figures to come out of the French Revolution. But was he really as short as popular culture would have us believe?
Separating facts from fiction
The general consensus, if you ask a random person on the street, is that Napoleon Bonaparte was short — like, really short. We think of him as being so short that he inspired the term Napoleon Complex, which is used for men that happen to not only be short but also have aggressive personalities. So, how short was he?
Officially, Napoleon Bonaparte measured five feet, two inches tall, according to records that were taken a few years before his death. By our current system of measurement, this is indeed on the shorter side. But it turns out that the French standard of measurement during Napoleon’s life wasn’t based on the English imperial system still used by a tiny handful of countries today, including the U.S. In reality, that five-foot-two measurement is taller than it sounds.
At the time he was measured, one French inch (pouce in French) was the equivalent of 2.7 centimeters. Compare that to the Imperial inch, which equals 2.54 centimeters. Once you adjust for the discrepancy, you’ll find that Napoleon was said to have been anywhere from five-feet-five to five-feet-seven inches tall. In the 1700s in Europe, this was an average height. So, no, Napoleon wasn’t short, and he wasn’t trying to compensate for feeling small.
How did this disconnect happen?
If you have a passing understanding of European history around the French Revolution and through the Napoleonic Wars, you know that except for Waterloo, Napoleon was very good at his job. He managed to cut across Europe and even North Africa, successfully waging campaigns that strengthened France’s influence beyond its borders. And this had countries running scared. Napoleon was ambitious and strategic militarily — not a foe you'd want to underestimate. So, to even the playing field, the British took to propaganda to cut people’s opinions of their opponent down to size.
Political cartoonists harpoon Napoleon
It shouldn’t be surprising that political cartoons were just as biting during Napoleon Bonaparte’s era as they are today. In particular, the British cartoonist James Gillray continually harpooned Napoleon as a self-absorbed, boastful pretend leader who was more interested in fame and glory than in actually furthering the French cause. Over time, Gillray’s drawings showed a Napoleon who was significantly smaller than any other characters or objects in the picture. He even took to calling the French leader “Little Boney.” Eventually, the association was made, and people assumed that he was a short, angry man.
Who was the real Napoleon Bonaparte?
He was a lot of things, and your impression might vary depending on where your sympathies lie. There are plenty of myths about the virtually unknown man who emerged from the French Revolution as an ambitious leader of his people. But let’s separate fact from fiction with a few true tidbits about Napoleon and his accomplishments throughout his lifetime:
- He was Corsican by birth and grew up poor — which explains his support of the founding principles behind the French Revolution.
- Napoleon enlisted in the French military on his 16th birthday after enrolling in the prestigious École Militaire school in Paris. He rose quickly through the ranks, and by the close of the French Revolution gained the title of First Consul and later promoted himself to the title of First Consul for Life.
- He was married twice, once to Josephine de Beauharnais, from 1796 to 1810, and then to Marie Louise (also known as the Duchess of Parna), from 1810 to 1821. His first marriage was annulled after no children were born.
- Napoleon served as Emperor of France from 1804 to 1814 and then resumed his title in 1815 until his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.
- As Consul for Life and as Emperor of France, Napoleon expanded France’s presence and nearly conquered all of Europe. His ability to consistently win and increase France’s influence explains why nations were wary about facing off with French armies.