If there was something I disliked more than the lack of vegetables at my elementary school at age 9, it was history. I dreaded the class daily. Mindlessly listening to my teacher drone on about the Gold Rush was aggravating. I wanted to be the student who could recite the Declaration of Independence, but alas (earwax), I couldn’t muster up enough concern for “boring old stuff.”
Thanks to some wizards of history teachers in high school, I write to you as an extremely proud, Gold-Rush-appreciating history major. I’m obsessed. When I figured out that history wasn’t about regurgitating names and dates, but about analyzing change over time, I seriously experienced the greatest ah-ha moment of my life. And the best part? History never ends. We get to study the glorious subject forever. Snaps for that.
As someone who plans on devoting her life to teaching history, I always feel particularly queasy when I’m reminded of the numerous historical misconceptions that we’ve come to accept as truth.
For example, I remember being taught that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation, thereby ending the Civil War. Not so much, Abe. It’s a little world-shattering to find out that something as historically significant as the Emancipation Proclamation is consistently misinterpreted.
Of all the common historical falsehoods, none irks me more than the myth concerning our favorite Frenchie, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Time for another earthquake, readers. Napoleon wasn’t short. He wasn’t “The Little Corporal” or “The Little General.” The guy was 5-foot-7.
What creeps me out a little is I can’t remember being taught that Napoleon was short – it’s just something I knew to be true. Or, at least I thought it was.
The fictional story goes that Napoleon was much shorter than the average man, not to mention political leaders. Consequently, the Emperor compensated for his supposed lack of inches by being an overtly power-driven, ruthless leader. Because of this, he was often satirized as a stockish, bossy figure in British propaganda and was generally disliked by other leaders of the time.
Numerous justifications have been brought forth that address this myth. For one, the difference in units between French and British forms of measurement may have led to the majority of the confusion. In French terms (the pouce), Napoleon was 5-foot-2, which wasn’t taken well by the British, who assumed the measurement was already in inches.
In addition, some historians believe that Napoleon only appeared short because he was often seen with members of the French Imperial Guard, who were selected in part for their height – usually over 6 feet.
The bottom line is that we’ve become far too comfortable accepting that there’s some kind of connection between Napoleon’s height and his unique personality. This has proven rather dangerous. At least, academically speaking.
The term “Napoleon Complex” has been created to identify a specific form of inferiority complex – one that is centered on height. The condition is specific to men who are shorter than the norm.
The argument goes that a man with a Napoleon Complex will overcompensate for his challenges vertically by heightening another element of his personality, like Napoleon allegedly did with his aggressiveness. This would distract others from the man’s lack of inches, thereby masking his sense of inferiority and ultimately making him feel better about himself.
Thankfully, the Napoleon Complex, or “Short Man Syndrome” is not recognized by psychologists as a legitimate disorder. In fact, it is widely considered to be an offensive stereotype. It’s ridiculous how far the misconception has been taken.
Books, paintings, films – all these mediums have reinforced our image of Napoleon as the tiny, tyrannic ruler. Whether he’s being teased for his size by a cray-cray Egyptian pharaoh in Night At the Museum 2, or being incorrectly portrayed in a stage play, Napoleon’s height has become important. That can’t be denied.
Here’s the good news. It’s in our power to recognize that being 5-foot-7 wasn’t all Napoleon did.
He was an extremely influential historical figure. Let’s remember how he expanded the French Empire, how he managed to implement the Napoleonic Code across Europe and how he single-handedly changed the course of French history.
T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) was 5-foot-5. Mahatma Ghandi was 5-foot-4. Martin Luther King Jr. was 5-foot-6. All of these men created change, and they did it without people badgering them with a measuring tape. They weren’t accused of compensating. Not a history book today overlooks them or uses height to explain their actions. In the end, their charisma and dedication make them memorable.
So grab a croissant, pretend you didn’t know how tall Napoleon was, and think about how his actions affected the course of history. It’s about time we busted this myth.
MAYA MAKKER is convinced that museums and libraries come to life at night. If you’re interested in meeting Alexander Hamilton, shoot her an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.