There is a general belief that Napoleon Bonaparte was unusually short, and that he is therefore part of the common perception that dictators tend to be short people who make up for it by being particularly unpleasant to everybody else and conquering as many countries as they can. But, in Napoleon’s case, is this true?
Dictators are short people, aren’t they? Joseph Stalin was 5 foot 5 inches, as was Vladimir Lenin. Mussolini was 5 foot 6, Adolf Hitler was 5 foot 8 (not particularly short, but only average for a German of his time) and Kim Jong Il was a mere 5 foot 3 (perhaps an unfair comparison, given that Koreans are not particularly tall people anyway).
By contrast, democratic western leaders are tall and well-built, and thus so assured of their stature that they don’t have to get nasty and start invading their neighbours just to get their own back on the unfairness of life. Hence you have General de Gaulle at 6 foot 5, Abraham Lincoln at 6 foot 4 and F D Roosevelt at 6 foot 2.
However, the many exceptions to these trends would seem to cast a dampener on the general theory. There have been many tall dictators, including Fidel Castro at 6 foot 3, Saddam Hussein at 6 foot 2 and Idi Amin at 6 foot 4. There have also been some notable short non-dictators, such as Winston Churchill at 5 foot 6.
Napoleon has certainly been part of the “lack of height equals dictatorial tendencies” myth. The story that has gained common currency is that he was only 5 foot 2 inches tall, and that he wore thick-soled boots to make himself look taller. But was this true?
The idea that Napoleon was on the small side derives from a 1910 French biography of Napoleon that contained the statement: “Napoleon was of mediocre stature (about 5 foot 2 inches) and well built”. This implies that he was short and tubby.
However, this statement does not agree with British accounts that give his height as 5 foot 6 or 5 foot 7. These include the opinions of contemporaries who were in regular contact with Napoleon during his exile on St Helena after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. That said, his official height at his death in 1821 was given in French sources as being 5 foot 2.
A difference of measurement
There is every reason to believe that both the French and British measurements of Napoleon’s height were correct. How was this possible? The answer is that the French and British foot were not the same, with the French foot being slightly longer than the British foot. A height of 5 foot 2 in France would be equivalent to 5 foot 6 in Britain.
The system of weights and measures in France was reformed in 1799 with the introduction of the metric system. Napoleon would have been 30 years old at the time, so it is not surprising that his early contemporaries would have estimated his height in the old style.
There was also a hiatus from about 1812 to 1837 during which the new system fell out of favour and people reverted to the old measurements. When Napoleon died in 1821 it would therefore have been natural to give his height in French feet and inches.
So there we have it. At a British height of 5 foot 6 Napoleon would not have appeared to be particularly short, especially as the average height of a Frenchman at that time was around 5 foot 5.
He would, however, have fitted in well as a member of the short dictators club as mentioned above. Had they been contemporaries, he would have been able to look Lenin and Stalin in the eye and only been slightly overshadowed by Hitler!
One other confusion is suggested by the portrait entitled "Napoleon Crossing the Alps" by Jacques-Louis David , copied above. In this he looks to be particularly long-thighed, and therefore not short at all. The reason for this is that the painting was highly creative - not only did Napoleon not cross the Alps mounted on a fiery steed (he walked most of the way wrapped up in a cloak to escape the incessant rain), but the "body double" was David's son who posed astride a step-ladder!
About the Creator
I am a retired librarian, having spent most of my career in academic and industrial libraries.
I write on a number of subjects and also write stories as a member of the "Hinckley Scribblers".