True Story: Why Napoleon Could Never Have Had a Napoleon Complex

It turns out that Napoleon really wasn’t short after all.

He wasn’t tall, either, mind you. But records list him as being 1.7 meters tall, making him 5 feet 7 inches — completely average for a French man at that time, and about an inch shorter than average for a French man today.

There are two theories for why he is perceived as short, both blamed on the British — who, obviously, were not his biggest fans. The first is that the confusion resulted from the difference between the French pre-metric unit of measurement known as the pouce (2.71 cm) and the British inch (2.54 cm).

The second explanation is much more interesting, and I think probably more likely to be true. What with the British Tories hating Napoleon’s guts and all, British illustrators often drew him as a shrimp next to a dominant English foe. Below, you see him carving up the world with British Prime Minister William Pitt in 1805, the year the General Horatio Nelson beat Napoleon’s forces in the battle of Trafalger, off the southwest coast of Spain. (Nelson died in that battle, thus the impressive statue in London’s Trafalger Square.)

Though this cartoon was drawn months before that battle, the increasing dominance of the British Navy was already becoming apparent. Pitt, whom artist James Gillray often drew as a long, tall, goofy-looking guy, sits across the table from Napoleon, who’s teeny and sort of evil-looking. They’re carving up a plum pudding in the shape of the world, with Napoleon slicing off Europe and Pitt taking a much bigger portion of the world, mostly ocean (naval dominance, right?). Don’t even get me started on those big old pompous hats. Napoleon’s looks like it has tail feathers, doesn’t it?

The Plumb-pudding in danger, or, State epicures taking un petit souper ...

The psychologist Alfred Adler introduced the term “Napoleon complex” in 1908 to describe a short person who makes up for his lack of height with aggressive behavior. While we’ve all seen this phenomenon in action, given that Napoleon was, in fact, average and not short at all, it should probably be re-named. Got any suggestions for good candidates?

Since I’ve dashed your image of Napoleon as a little guy, here are a few other people from history who were surprisingly short. Really, I looked this up.

Poet Alexander Pope, 4 feet 6 inches
Gary Coleman, 4 feet 8 inches
J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, 4 feet 10 inches (so why did 5 foot-10-inch Johnny Depp play him in Finding Neverland?)
Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under U.S. President Bill Clinton –4 feet 10 and a half inches
Philosopher Immanuel Kant, 4 feet 11 inches
Artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 4 feet 11 inches
Author Jean-Paul Sartre, 5 feet, same as Danny DeVito
Poet John Keats and Mongol emperor Ghengis Khan, both 5 feet 1 inch
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, composer Franz Schubert, and — get this — murderer CHARLES MANSON, 5 feet 2 inches. Who knew? Talk about a freakin’ Napoleon complex!

And in closing — Prince and Dudley Moore are 5 feet 2 and a half inches, while world leaders Mohandes Gandhi and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il were/are both 5 feet 3 inches. The difference between those two being, Gandhi was a very good man who went barefoot and probably didn’t care about his height, while Kim is a not-so-good man (trust me on this) who wears lifts in his shoes and teases his hair to make it higher.

And before you accuse me of picking on short people, (thank you, 6-foot-tall Randy Newman, for the 1977 song), you should know that I am 5 feet 2 inches. Which is taller than singer Edith Piaf (4 feet 8 inches), televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker (4 feet 11 inches) and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (5 feet). Ms. Albright’s height really surprised me when I found it listed, because I’ve seen Ms. Albright in person and didn’t realize how short she was. (She was sitting down.)

So now you know why I’m fascinated with short people. I always make note of women celebrities who are my height. But we’ll save that story for another day. Spend small but live large, people.

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5 responses to “True Story: Why Napoleon Could Never Have Had a Napoleon Complex

  1. Prince is only 5’2″? Wow – I guess the camera adds 5 lbs AND 5 inches. Kim Jong Il should consider wearing vertical stripes to further his effort. I wonder if he uses as much hairspray as the Jersey Shore boys?

  2. Since Prince is never without his freakishly high heels, he should get credit for being 5’6″ at least.
    How about other famous shorties: Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Spike Lee?

  3. You know, I checked on Paul Newman: 5’9″. But Tom Cruise? 5’7″, same as Napoleon. He DOES have a Napoleon complex, doesn’t he?

  4. When Robert Reich was appointed Labor Secretary by Pres. Clinton, he said “I knew I would get this appointment when I heard that I was on the President’s ‘short list.'”

    Great idea for a blog!

  5. Napoleon would totally be average height relative to much of the male population of DC!

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