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Was Napoleon the son or the enemy of the French Revolution?

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France was under the rule of the Bourbon family, King Louis XVI, until the French Revolution occurred in 1789 which ended to the Bourbon dynasty. France was in a state of chaos as the Federal Revolt, war and the Terror emerged in the following years (Morris 2000, 107). Nevertheless, the French still had hopes on one person who they believed could rescue and save their nation from all their political, economical and social problems.

Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Corsica in 1769, an island which had only become French the year before he was born. He was an artillery officer who seized an opportunity to make a name for him in 1793 when Toulon had revolted against the Revolution. He was awarded as a Brigadier General at the age of 24 after his successful win over the British and Spanish fleets in the revolt of Toulon. However, as Robespierre and his Jacobins fell apart, Napoleon’s career was ‘jeopardized’ and he was sent to jail for a month. Nonetheless, by 1796, Napoleon had achieved a meteoric rise in military and revolutionary society. In November 1799, Napoleon seized power of the French empire as The Revolt of Brumaire broke out, triggered by the failure of The Directory, until his fall in 1815 (Morris 110-114). During his regime, he was able to make progress, reforms, establish order, stability and create an influential, dominant and powerful empire in Europe.

The Napoleonic era has been assessed by many historians who come into two different conclusions. Some historians accuse Napoleon of being the enemy of the revolution mainly due to his despotic rule while other historians support Napoleon as a son of the revolution due to the positive changes he has brought to not only to France but Europe as well. And other historians believe that he was neither an enemy nor a son of the revolution but a fusion of both:he was not, however, merely a revolutionary or merely an enlightened despot; nor was he simply a combination of the two. He fused the Revolution and the ancient regime in such way as to produce an entirely new element (Lee 1982, 19).

Thus, Napoleon Bonaparte, a national hero, was neither a son of the revolution nor an enemy; he was an ambitious leader who made decisions that was best for him and France even if that meant that he had to mutilate the state into dictatorship with somewhat restricted liberty, equality and fraternity.

Napoleon used his absolute power to create new reforms in order to stabilize the government and make effective changes that brought progress. Napoleon’s “creation of the Legion of Honor in 1802 was fundamental to republican meritocracy” (Ihl 2006, 1). It abolished aristocracy in France and awarded people who served duties to the country. In other words, people were rewarded for their talent without the discrimination and prejudice regarding on their socioeconomic background; class privileges were eliminated. Before Napoleon seized power, the Bourbon family appreciated autocracy however, once Napoleon became the ruler, he displaced autocracy with meritocracy (Herson Jr. 2004, 1). Furthermore, he built his new government on the basis of meritocracy (Pilbeam 1995, 48). Thus, meritocracy was widely applied in France which eventually spread to other anti-liberal European nations such as Austria.

Napoleon not only emphasized meritocracy in France but underscored the Constitution, a legal statement of limitation upon the power of the government, and the rights and freedoms of the governed, as well. Napoleon highlighted the Constitution of 14 September 1791 to establish merit as the basis for all social hierarchies which meant that there was neither:nobility nor peerage, nor hereditary distinction, nor distinction of orders, nor feudal systems, nor patrimonial justice, nor any titles, names, or prerogatives derived from them, nor any order of knighthood, nor any corporation or decorations for which proof of nobility could be demanded, or that might imply distinctions of birth, nor any superiority other than that of public officials in the course of their duties. (Pilbeam 1).

Moreover, Napoleon centralized the government in Paris. This made the government to run more efficient and it united all the government bodies into one big solid institution. This led to the growth and spread of nationalism within France since the government wasn’t just there for Napoleon but for the nation. These political changes that Napoleon has brought up indicates that he was a man who brought stability and unity back to France and was an enlightened ruler anxious to bring lasting reforms beneficial to the French people and to consolidate the gains of the Revolution (Matthews 2001, 76). In addition, he was a successful soldier, a pupil of the philosophes, he detested feudalism, civil inequality, and religious intolerance. Seeing in enlightened despotism a reconciliation of authority with political and social reform, he became its last and most illustrious representative. In this sense he was the man of the Revolution (Lefebvre 1969, 68).

Despite of his positive political changes, he restricted and limited some aspects in his domestic policy in order to achieve his main objective; bring order and stability in France. Therefore, Napoleon used propaganda in education in order to engrave his mentality and moral to the children of France. For instance, the imperial catechism for French children made NapoleonÂ’s priorities in education clear, and he was able to do this with the help of the Church (Morris 117). Furthermore, he used propaganda such as the Bulletins, regular reports of NapoleonÂ’s heroic deeds, which were carefully edited and published in France, as a way to gain respect, confidence and loyalty of his men (Morris 125). Also, Napoleon formed prefects in each department and dominated these powerful and usually competent officials, who reported directly to the Ministers of the Interior and Police.

Their job was to enforce the system of conscription and to pursue deserters, supervise collection of taxes, oversee food supplies and prices, spy on people who might be politically dangerous, spread propaganda issued by Napoleon, and help increase commerce and trade (Morris 121). To make things even worse, Napoleon used intimidation and execution in order to eliminate any opponents who were found to be obstacles; people who prevented NapoleonÂ’s goals; the progress in France:he knew how to exploit self-interest, vanity, jealousy, even dishonesty. He knew what could be obtained from men by arousing their sense of humour and by inflaming their imagination; nor did he for a moment forget that they could be subdued by terror (Lefebvre 66).

In 1804, Napoleon declared and self-crowned as the Emperor of France, literally cementing on the fact that he was a dictator, in order for him to become legitimate. In addition, he established the system of patronage. This in fact, re-created the French nobility called the Imperial nobility which consisted of about 3,600 people who were granted to a whole range of titles such as prince, counts and barons (Morris 117). These people were granted in return for their support on Napoleon and this clearly portrays how Napoleon was prepared to return to some of the practices of the ancien régime (Lee 19). Furthermore, the government was not elected by the people.

The government had forty men on the conseil d’état that chose other four hundred men to sit on Tribunate or the Legislature and vote, “a façade of democracy was retained in that members of municipal and departmental councils were elected by narrow plutocracies, but these bodies could only act in advisory capacities” (Alexander 1995, 43). In addition, Napoleon used the plebiscite, the direct vote of all the electors of a state to decide a question of public importance, which clearly reflected the general lack of interest in the constitution, “Napoleon and his plebiscites represent a logical next step towards fascism by giving tyranny an apparent mass justification” (Alexander 43). Lastly, the strong state controlled over people making the weaker states useless.

Napoleon brought positive economical changes that benefited the French population. Napoleon created the Bank of France, which was eventually taken into state control where they regulated the money supply, and paper money was abandoned in favor of metal currency. In addition, central treasury administered and supervised tax officials and prefects (Morris 118). These financial and economic policies were used to finance the army in order to expand their empire. However, these financial and economic policies had some negative sides to it. It did not improve on manufacturing industries in the long-term. This was due to the reason that the birth rate was falling due to the wars France was engaged in. But moreover, these economic trends in the late 1780s and 1790s were unhelpful to population growth as young men who were at the age when they might marry were often drafted into the army to fight in battles. Without population growth, agriculture and industry changed very little. Capital was in short supply; the technology was backward.

France remained largely in a ‘pre-industrial state.’ Even if there were 12,000 workers employed in cotton spinning in Paris in 1807, few of them worked in factories. Also, Napoleonic warfare did stimulate iron production, but techniques were out of date, with charcoal still used for smelting. This was the typical picture of French industry. To make this situation worse, industrial wages declined and usually fell below rising prices and taxes (Morris 119). Due to these reasons, Napoleon continued using agriculture as major source for France’s income. Therefore, whenever there was a lack of rain, the harvest was poor and this resulted into a financial crisis especially to the farmers. Moreover, Napoleon brought back some economic institutions from the ancien régime:Napoleon restored some of the financial institutions of the ancien régime: the chambers of commerce, suspended in 1791, were reinstated; by 1803 there were twenty-two of these, one allocated to each département, to assist in the formulation of policy. Perhaps the most obvious return to the practices of the ancien régime, however, was Napoleon’s preference for indirect taxation at the expense of direct (Lee 22).

There is no doubt that Napoleon’s foreign policy had some positive aspects. The creation of modern state in Europe: Confederation of Rhine to Germany and Italian Republic to Italy owes its existence to Napoleon. In addition, by signing the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797, France gained Belgium, parts of the Venetian Republic and large areas of Italy, and this was possible due to Napoleon’s ability and talent to win wars, “to win the French people, he declared himself both a man of peace and a god of war” (Lefebvre 66). This in fact expanded the French Empire. Also, the Treaty of Tilsit in June 1807 created an alliance between France and Russia as Tsar asked for peace and Alexander met Napoleon in Tilsit to seal the treaty. This clearly demonstrates the diplomatic side of Napoleon who was in favor of peace and not only war.

Furthermore, NapoleonÂ’s Continental System prohibited British goods from French territories after 1793. Napoleon expanded this as a way of weakening Britain and protecting the Napoleonic Empire, which now became a huge market for French goods. After that, the economic campaign against Britain intensified. As First Consul in 1803, Napoleon banned British goods from north-western Europe. In addition, The Berlin Decrees of 1806 blockaded Britain which meant that goods coming from British (and colonial) parts would be excluded and seized. One of the main objectives of this system was to eliminate the monopolization of British trade within Europe.

Therefore, as the Empire expanded so Napoleon’s hopes of success rose. By 1807, the Milan Decrees turned the screw still tighter-if any neutral ship had called at a British port; its cargo could be confiscated (Morris 119). Napoleon’s foreign policy was mainly aimed to spread revolutionary ideas (at least in his eyes) such as laws and ending of feudalism, dominate Europe (driven by power), achieve economic stability through war and expansion, bring wealth through war and expansion, politically redraw the map of Europe (Italy and German states), economic domination of Europe (Continental System), and crush the great powers (Russia, Prussia, Austria) and especially the Great Britain.

Thus, to achieve his aims, he had to defeat and surmount the Second, Third and the Fourth Coalition. Nevertheless, Napoleon’s foreign policy created problems. The Continental System cut off trade with Britain which upset other nations such as Russia which eventually antagonized the European powers, and gave rise to nationalism especially Italy and Germany. Moreover, Napoleon was an occupier and did not concentrate on advancing France itself but pushing its territories farther and spreading its “revolutionary” ideas. Revolutionary ideas were not in fact established in France itself. Lastly, Napoleon’s foreign policy was a failure in the long-term due to these following reasons: Napoleon couldn’t control the Continental System as years passed (it was out of his control), and Napoleon’s ambitions and ego led to several failures and defeat in battles such as the Spanish Ulcer and the Russian Campaign of 1812, and Waterloo.

The Civil Code was one of the positive social changes that Napoleon had brought to France. The Civil Code confirmed the abolition of feudalism, equality before the law and freedom of conscience, and gave little to those who had brought church and émigré lands during the 1790s (Matthews 81). Another positive social changes formed by Napoleon was the fact that civil rights were granted (equality before the law). In addition, class privileges were eliminated and education became widely available.

However, Napoleon’s social changes created problems regarding the rights of liberty, equality and education. First of all, liberty was limited as Napoleon reestablished social elite, “it was Napoleon who ultimately granted social status and his conception of what constituted merit proved very narrow” (Alexander 48). Napoleon believed that wealthier few will eventually gain control over the majority of the wealth. Also, Napoleon tyrannically restored a patriarchal society and oppressed women. Women couldn’t join the ranks, therefore could not get any merit in Napoleon’s meritocracy:Feminist writers often point to the Napoleonic codes as a capstone of Revolutionary gender bias. The civil code was patriarchal in character, consistently enhancing the legal status of the eldest male in a family, depriving married women of property rights, and creating a remarkable double standard when it came to matters such as divorce or acting as legal witness (Alexander 52).

Furthermore, Napoleon restored ancien régime’s code of criminal procedure of 1808 and lettres de cachet and the Penal code of 1810 (reintroduction of branding).

Second of all, there was limited equality under NapoleonÂ’s reign. Napoleon manipulated the population through propaganda and censorship, the practice or policy of censoring books, plays, films, reports etc., especially by government officials. In addition, plebiscite (which appealed to the people) outcomes were changed by Napoleon. Furthermore, Napoleon was no longer favored by Revolutionary radical groups which probably drove the Revolution to its extreme liberal views:it is instructive to keep in mind that many Jacobins had supported Bonaparte in 1799; thereafter their allegiance had been slowly eroded. The assault upon liberty undoubtedly played a part in this, but probably more disruptive was the return to hierarchy (Alexander 47).

Lastly, education was used by Napoleon as a tool to bring up loyal subjects. In other words, like the church, Napoleon used schools to bring up loyal subjects from the youth. In addition, public education was completely under NapoleonÂ’s control and public education was a process of brainwashing:Napoleon thought of public education in political terms: its function was to produce intelligent but obedient citizens, ‘In establishing a corps of teachers,Â’ he said, with a candor unusual in governments, ‘my principal aim is to secure the means for directing political and moral opinions…So long as one grows up without knowing whether to be republican or monarchist, Catholic or irreligious, the state will never form a nation; it will rest on vague and uncertain foundations; it will be constantly exposed to disorder and change.” (Durant 1963, 264)

Despite these negative aspects of Napoleon’s social policies, Napoleon’s religious policies united the French into one single nation. The Concordat, a treaty made between the Papacy and a state government, was certainly a major achievement and arguably a masterstroke in reconciling many French Catholics to the Napoleonic regime (Matthews 81). Nonetheless, his religious policies had more negative sides as Napoleon used the clergy particularly the bishops as an arm of the state to encourage conscriptions or relaying government propaganda and decrees and reinforce its authority:since religion fulfilled a social function, it had to be carefully directed, which meant that it ‘must be in the hands of the government.’ The Concordat, formed with the Pope in 1801, ensured government control over the appointment of clergy and minimized papal interference in France (Lee 25).

In other words, Napoleon intended to use the church for his own purposes; his treatment of the Pope in the later years of the Empire gave strong warning against making any church a forum for discussion which might be considered hostile to the government. Moreover, NapoleonÂ’s Concordat bore a certain resemblance to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy of 1790 (Alexander 49).

All in all, Napoleon, a product of the French Revolution, who seized power after the end of the Bourbon dynasty, was a charismatic leader that many French admired and idolized, “Napoleon won the hearts of the French” (Morris 142). It is clear that Napoleon used the ideas of enlightenment during his rule despite the fact that he sometimes made despotic decisions and changes. It is true that there were some negative aspects during Napoleon’s rule such as intimidation and execution:Napoleon’s lasting influence on contemporary France should not be judged solely on the enduring nature of his positive achievements, but also on the trauma his rule induced in those who endured it (Broers 2006, 38).

Nevertheless, Napoleon made progress, reforms and established order, stability not only in France but Europe as well. Also, the creation of
modern national states in Europe such as Italy and Germany owes its existence to Napoleon. Furthermore, Napoleon was fully responsible for making France a powerful nation; one of the great-influential powers in Europe by uniting France, reinforcing nationalism by conquests, and gaining tremendous amount of resources and territorial acquisition.

However, after the abdication of Napoleon, the French Empire once again faced domestic and foreign problems and started to fall apart; it became a weaker nation as Austria, Russia, Prussia and Great Britain seized and controlled the power in Europe by forming treaties and political alliances such as the Holy Alliance. Nonetheless, by looking at historical incidents such as the 100 days, there is no doubt Napoleon was a national hero and a role model to the non-French as well. Today, Napoleon is an embodiment of one of the influential and strongest leader that has ever existed in the world history, aligning and comparing him to other legendary leaders such as Alexander the Great and Charlemagne.

Works Cited

“France During the French Revolution and Under Napoleon Bonaparte.” San Antonio Web Design, Web Hosting & Internet Access by Internet Direct | User Pages. Web. 21 Sept. 2009. .

“French Navy – Age of Revolution – 1789-1814.” GlobalSecurity.org – Reliable Security Information. Web. 21 Sept. 2009. .

Hibbert, Christopher. The Days of the French Revolution. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999. Print.

“Lecture 15: Europe and the Superior Being: Napoleon.” The History Guide — Main. Web. 21 Sept. 2009. .

Mignet, F. A. M. History Of The French Revolution From 1789 To 1814. Grand Rapids: Kessinger, 2004. Print.


“Napoleon: Revolutionary or Tyrant? – HistoryWiz.” HistoryWiz: for students, teachers and lovers of history. Web. 21 Sept. 2009. .

O’Brian, Patrick. The Hundred Days (Aubrey/Maturin Series). Boston: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999. Print.

Schom, Alan. Napoleon Bonaparte A Life. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998. Print.

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