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READ: Appraising Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of the French and conquered much of Europe. Did he end the French Revolution, or put its principles into action?

Appraising Napoleon

By Trevor R. Getz
Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of the French and conquered much of Europe. Did he end the French Revolution, or put its principles into action?

Appraising Napoleon

The French Revolution ended on December 2, 1804. After this long struggle for democracy, a single man—Napoleon Bonaparte—crowned himself Emperor of the French. All the dreams of “liberty, equality, and brotherhood” that had begun the Revolution in 1789 had come to an end. Or had they? Was Napoleon just another European monarch, a tyrant who thought he ruled because God wanted him to? Or was he the man who would spread the ideals of democracy from France throughout Europe, bringing an enlightened age to the continent? These are the question we will explore in this article.

General Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte was born into a mostly Italian family on the island of Corsica in 1769—twenty years before the French Revolution began. In that year, France took over Corsica, so Napoleon grew up under French rule. In fact, Napoleon’s family mainly opposed French rule of the island and as a young person this future French emperor was a Corsican nationalist. Nevertheless, he moved to France at the age of nine to study at a religious school and later a military school. There, he discovered that he was very skilled at the combination of mathematics and military sciences that a good artillery officer needed. So, at sixteen, he became a lieutenant in a French artillery regiment. He was still serving when the Revolution broke out four years later, in 1789.
After the Revolution, France quickly came under an attack by many of the most powerful states in Europe, all of which hoped to contain or stop the spread of revolutionary ideas. Napoleon found himself commanding the artillery facing a British invasion force at the southern French city of Toulon. His brilliant plan to bombard the British forced their retreat. Because many of France’s generals had been killed or had left, Napoleon was rapidly promoted and became a general at the age of twenty-four.
The Coronation of Napoleon, by Jacques-Louis David. This painting, officially commissioned by Napoleon, shows him taking the crown himself and putting it on his empress. Meanwhile, he wears the golden laurel leaves of a Roman Emperor. What do you think these acts are meant to signify? Public domain.
When royalists (supporters of the king) declared a counter-revolution on October 3, 1795, Napoleon used artillery to repel the attackers. His victory over the royalists made him an immediate hero. He was sent to lead French forces in Italy, fighting the Austrian (Habsburg) Empire. There, he won a number of huge victories and by 1797 had invaded Austria itself. His troops looted huge amounts of wealth wherever they went, and sent much of it back to France. This made him even more popular. In 1798, he led an attack on Egypt, in North Africa. Although the campaign was successful, his troops were soon cut off by a British fleet and he returned to France.

Consul Napoleon

In 1799, Napoleon used his popularity to take power in France along with a few other leaders. They replaced a radical government—one that wanted dramatic and often violent change. Calling themselves “Consuls” of France, they took a somewhat more moderate path. Napoleon was the most powerful of them. As the new leader of France in all but name, he wrote a constitution that called for elections and voting but gave himself enormous power to make decisions almost entirely alone. Then, with this new power, he turned to battle again. In early 1800, his forces defeated a large Austrian army at the Battle of Marengo, in a very risky campaign. In 1801, the Austrians gave up, and peace descended on Europe for a while.
This peace allowed Napoleon to return to France where he began to reorganize the government and laws. One of these changes was to re-authorize slavery, undoing one of the most dramatic acts of the Revolution. But Napoleon felt pretty secure in his popularity, so in 1804 he asked the people to vote to elect him Emperor of the French. Almost 4 million people voted, and he won the election, resulting in the coronation depicted in Jacques-Louis David’s colorful painting.

Emperor Napoleon

As Emperor, Napoleon went on to fight a series of wars. His victories over both the Austrian and Russian armies at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 were among his most important battles. However, he also suffered two great military defeats. The first was his inability to conquer and hold Spain, where guerilla fighters (indeed, this campaign is where the word guerilla comes from!) supported by British forces continually bled his troops and his money. The second was his decision to invade Russia in 1812 with an army of over 400,000. Despite not losing any battles, Napoleon could not win a decisive victory here. He eventually faced a lack of food and a terrible, freezing winter. He retreated having lost as many as 90 percent of his troops.
One of the most famous infographics of all time, by Charles Minard. It shows the size of Napoleon’s army invading Russia in red, and their retreat in black. The shrinking width of the line shows the number of men he had with him at any time. Public domain.
Defeated, Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba. The royal family of France was restored to the throne—but not for long. The new (old) monarchy proved unpopular, and in 1815 Napoleon escaped Elba and returned to power. He put together a huge army and immediately marched to war. His first big battle was at Waterloo, against the British Duke of Wellington and the Prussian Prince Blücher. He was defeated, however, and returned to exile, this time on the distant island of St. Helena, where he died.

Liberator or Tyrant?

At its peak, just before the invasion of Russia, Napoleon controlled most of Europe. He was Emperor of France, and had put his friends and relatives on the thrones of the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain. He had set up supportive, allied states in central Europe including the Helvetic Republic (today Switzerland), the Confederation of the Rhine (today much of Germany), and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw (today Poland). Britain was his constant opponent throughout this period, while Russia and the Austrian Empire went back and forth between them, and the Ottoman Empire mostly stayed out of the conflict.
Europe in 1812, showing the extent of Napoleon’s empire. © Getty Images.
For many in Europe, Napoleon was a hero—even a liberator. Many Poles celebrated him for expelling their Russian rulers and helping them to create their own country. Similarly, many in Italy believed he had freed them from Austrian rule. Everywhere he went, he brought some of the ideals of the French Revolution, especially through the legal system known as the Napoleonic Code.
The Napoleonic Code was a set of laws that brought into effect many of the important ideas of the French Revolution. For example, it introduced the assumption that any suspect was innocent until proven guilty, and limited arrests without reason. It also said that there could be no secret laws, and that the same laws applied to everyone, no matter what their wealth or social class.
Indeed, Napoleon believed that equality was a very important right. He introduced education reforms that would provide a quality education to any French citizen, and created a system of taxation that taxed everyone in the same way. He also supported freedom of religion. In some ways, this last idea was very much a legacy of a revolution that called for freedom of faith. By contrast, earlier revolutionaries had gone so far as to attack the Catholic Church for being the only powerful religion in the country. Napoleon actually healed that division, truly opening religious freedom for all.
Yet at the same time, Napoleon undid many of the political rights of the French Revolution. Although he was actually elected—first as Consul and later as Emperor—he crowned himself Emperor, symbolically stating that nobody had any right to limit his power. He ruled very much as an autocrat, an individual making decisions without limits. He ruthlessly put down any dissent and sent spies around to figure out who might betray him.
Additionally, Napoleon undid many of the freedoms that had been won through the French Revolution. You have already seen how he restored the status of slavery, which had been abolished prior to his rule. His Napoleonic Code also undid the few advances women had gained through the Revolution. It recognized the father as head of the household with total control over family property and authority over his wife and children. He established censorship over writing, undoing any freedom of the press.
In the end, there is no real agreement about how we should view Napoleon. But most scholars recognize both the ways that he advanced people’s equality and standards of living and also restricted their rights. What do you think? Was Napoleon a liberator? Or a tyrant?
Author bio
Trevor Getz is Professor of African History at San Francisco State University. He has written eleven books on African and world history, including Abina and the Important Men. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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