Napoleon Bonaparte is both an heir to and an end of the French Revolution. He encapsulates the complexities and tensions that made French politics so volatile after July 14, 1789. These tensions were the result of the Revolution’s attempt to join two incompatible traditions. One was the Republican tradition of liberty, equality, and fraternity; the other was an authoritarian strain that sought to control all aspects of people’s lives, including their political opinions. This authoritarian tendency became most obvious during the so-called Reign of Terror (1793 to 1794), when the Revolution’s leaders, Maximilien Robespierre foremost among them, kept Paris’ guillotines busy with a procession of enemies, real and imagined. Thus, there was a battle throughout the Revolution between an egalitarian instinct and an authoritarian one. Napoleon brought these trends together, but Europe paid a terrible price for it.
On the 9-10 of November, after returning from Egypt, Napoleon held a coup d’etat, ending ten years of war and chaos under the Republic. This change had been coming for some time. In fact, it had already been predicted in 1789, when the British writer Edmund Burke wrote that the Revolution’s contradictory goals made a strongman inevitable, saying, “that he will draw all eyes upon himself, and that will be the end of your whole Republic.” The real problem was that French people were tired of the internal chaos, and many of them concluded that a strong executive authority was the only thing that could keep chaos at bay. Although Napoleon’s rise to power reversed part of the Revolution, it did not augur the Old Regime’s return. It was rather an attempt to find a consensus among the French people based on the need for security. After the Revolution, many people became property holders for the first time, and they saw Revolutionary unrest as a danger to their new status.
Napoleon’s early years in the position of First Consul were an attempt to come to terms with the forces of disorder in France. In 1801, Napoleon reached what was called the Concordat with the Catholic Church. In it the church recognized the loss of property to the state and allowed Napoleon to appoint church officials. In exchange, the state assured that all church officials were paid. This was an important historical moment, because it reconciled the church to the revolution. The church was now subordinate to the French state and bound to it.
Napoleon also settled the problem of France’s debt, which had ballooned during the wars of the “First” and “Second” coalition. Wars are expensive enterprises, and France desperately needed money to pay its expenses and to repair its credit. Until that time, the state had resorted to seizing property, when it could not buy what it needed. Napoleon addressed this issue by setting up the Bank of France, which was modeled on the extremely successful Bank of England. The Bank of France controlled monetary policy and provided sufficient stability to allow the French economy to grow again, which is usually a consensus-building phenomenon. The bank would also be important later, because it also allowed Napoleon to float loans that paid for his wars. In the meantime, however, Napoleon needed to end the war of the Second Coalition, which had been going since 1799. He rapidly defeated Austria, signing a treaty known as the Peace of Lunéville in 1801. He was unable to defeat the British, so he came to terms with them in the treaty Treaty of Amiens, signed in 1802. Thus, three years after his coup, Napoleon brought peace to France.
Finally, and most importantly, Napoleon continued the process that had begun under the French Revolution of instituting new legal codes in criminal, civil, and business proceedings. This new Códe Napoleon was the final manifestation of the French Revolution’s interest in Egalité, as it made all French citizens equal before the law. In addition, it regularized all legal proceedings, getting rid of the bewildering array of courts that had characterized the Old Regime. Thus, Napoleon signaled that the Old Regime was gone.
One thing to keep in mind here is that Napoleon’s efforts at consolidating the Revolution while reigning in its excesses were quite popular. Napoleon was the first European statesman to make plebiscites a tool of statecraft. He held his first plebiscite in 1802, asking the people whether he should be named First Consul for life. The French people approved the measure by 99%. Napoleon’s various elections were rigged, of course, and not everyone could cast a ballot. The issue for us, however, is that even Napoleon felt his legitimacy emanated from the people.
We have considered how Napoleon changed and did not change France. Now let us turn to the ways that Napoleon changed Europe, for his wars and administrative innovations made Europe seem a much different place in 1815, when he was defeated for the last time, than it seemed in 1799, or even 1789. Napoleon was a product of the shift from defending the Revolution to exporting it. He was, in fact, the main reason that the French did so well in battle, since he was the commanding general. From Napoleon’s perspective, military victory had been the key to his rise and it would be the key to his political legitimacy. From the time he became first consul in 1799, he followed a policy of conquest and annexation. This had the dual purpose of allowing him to appear strong, but it also meant that wars were not fought in France. As long as victories kept rolling in from wars in foreign lands, the French supported Napoleon.
So we can see that Napoleon always had the problem that he needed new enemies and new victories. In the end, his enemies became too large in number. Let us consider how he collected them. By 1803, war had broken out again between Britain and France. The two had always retained a deep mutual suspicion. The problem for Napoleon was that he could never match British sea power, so when war broke out again, his Navy could do no more than run and hide—and this they didn’t even do that well. In 1805, at the battle of Trafalgar, Admiral Horatio Nelson, destroyed the remnants of the French and Spanish navies, and the sea battle was over.
Having lost at sea, Napoleon turned to what we today would call economic warfare. His troops occupied Italian and northwestern European ports, preventing the importation of British goods. This merely added to Napoleon’s list of enemies, as the occupations irritated Austria and Russia, who then joined Britain in the war of the Third Coalition (1805). Things went no better this time, as Napoleon defeated Austria and Russia, setting the stage for the Treaty of Pressburg, which reduced Austria significantly and extended Napoleonic France all the way from Amsterdam to modern-day Croatia. (See map) After dispensing with the Austrians and Russians, Napoleon turned on the Prussians, whom he defeated at the battles of Jena and Auerstädt in 1806. Having defeated all these continental enemies, Napoleon expanded his economic war on Britain by establishing the “Continental System,” which banned all British goods from continental Europe. In 1807, he signed the peace of Tilsit with Russia. This treaty made Russia a French ally and closed the continent to British commerce, at least in theory.
Now Napoleon controlled the entire European continent. Let us consider how the measures he took to reorganize this huge swath of territory. Napoleon’s efforts built on the French Revolution’s pattern of setting up sister republics. In 1805, he reorganized the previous Cisalpine Republic and turned it into the Kingdom of Italy. He then conveniently had himself crowned as King. After French troops pressed further down the Italian peninsula, they overran the Papal States and later annexed them to France. Finally, what had been the Kingdom of the two Sicilies, was renamed the Kingdom of Naples, and Napoleon put his brother Joseph on the throne. Thus, by 1810, France controlled, in one way or another, the entire Italian peninsula.
The political changes were even more dramatic in Germany. Before 1789, much of the area that we today consider Germany was included in an ancient organization called the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Founded on Christmas Day in the year 800, the empire was loved by many on Germany. It was, however, completely useless on the international scene, as it lacked any real taxation power and, thus, had no army. This old institution collapsed under the weight of Napoleon’s military might. In 1801, Napoleon had signed a treaty with the Austrians called the Treaty of Lunéville. As part of this treaty the Habsburgs recognized France’s annexation of all territories left of the Rhine. Since most of this territory was German and had been controlled by princes of the Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, in effect, ceased to exist. The treaty compensated the displaced German princes by giving them territory that lay further west. In 1805, when Austria was defeated yet again, the Empire’s remnants were completely swept away. In 1806, Emperor Francis II, who had already renamed himself Francis I, Emperor of Austria, declared the Holy Roman Empire defunct.
Without any effective opposition, Napoleon was now free to remake Europe in his own image. We will begin with Germany. In addition to annexing everything to the left of the Rhine, Napoleon turned to Germany’s medium-sized states, Baden, Württemberg, and Bavaria, binding the new rulers to him with major land grants. He also gave each of them new titles. The Margraves of Baden became Grand Dukes, and the Dukes of Württemberg and Bavaria became Kings, respectively. In addition, Napoleon created two new German states, the Kingdom of Westphalia and the Duchy of Berg. These states were to be model French states. Not coincidentally, Napoleon put his brother Jerome on the throne of Westphalia and he put a favored general in the Duke’s seat in Berg.
Napoleon, of course, did not stop with Germany. In 1805, the Batavian Republic was renamed the Kingdom of the Netherlands and another Napoleonic brother, this time Louis, was put on that throne. Two years earlier, the Helvetic Republic had been reconstituted as another Swiss Confederation, but this time Napoleon was its official protector. He also put a favored General, named Bernadotte, on the throne in Sweden, in addition to putting yet another brother on the throne in Spain. Finally, after Prussia’s defeat in 1807, Napoleon carved the ethnically Polish regions out of Prussia and set up the Duchy of Warsaw, which was intended to be a friendly support for France in Eastern Europe. Thus, Napoleon set up an entire ring of puppet states that would support him, sometimes more and sometimes less.
Now let’s step back on look at the Napoleonic system from a broader perspective. Although the Napoleonic system had its problems, by comparison to what had come before, it also had advantages. The new Napoleonic administration restored order, reduced brigandage, and rebuilt the infrastructure. There were high taxes and heavy conscription, but the new system also seemed to respect legal norms, and in general its benefits outweighed the costs for many. The first decade of the nineteenth century saw good harvests and high grain prices, which kept the countryside happy. In addition, during the first decade of the nineteenth century, manufacturing activity was 50% higher than during the Old Regime. This upsurge occurred in France, but also in parts of Belgium, Germany, and Bohemia. The period 1802 to 1812 saw full employment for urban craftsmen, which made Napoleon extremely popular among the so-called sans-culottes. Only military defeat would remove Napoleon from power.
Napoleon was finally brought to his knees by the never-ending conflict with Britain. No matter what he did, the Brits still hung around, and in fact grew stronger. Although the Continental System hurt British commerce initially, the value of Britain’s products on the European market far outweighed the risks of running afoul of Napoleon’s laws. The result was a huge smuggling operation that sneaked British products onto the Continent at enormous profits. In fact, the system became so regular that insurance companies even began writing policies to cover smugglers’ losses. The Continental system was too porous, and this led Napoleon to take drastic actions to prevent further incursions of British goods.
Napoleon’s problems began in Spain in 1807, where a series of uprisings against French occupation occurred that took thousands of additional troops to control. Austria took this as its cue for action, having concluded not only that France was vulnerable but also that French nationalism had to be fought with German nationalism. The problem with this call to nationalism was that the other German princes felt threatened by it. The princes in Napoleon’s confederation of the Rhine contributed 100,000 troops to the army that Napoleon would lead against the Austrians. By May 1809, Napoleon and his army were in Vienna and the Austrians had to sue for peace.
Napoleon’s problems in 1808-09 caused him to extend his control even further into Europe. First, as part of the peace treaty with Austria, France seized the Illyrian coast (roughly today’s Croatia). Napoleon then annexed the entire North Sea coast from Holland to Hamburg. In addition, he also annexed the Papal States, extending his control deeper into the Mediterranean.
Unfortunately for Napoleon, his economic woes soon mounted. The harvests of 1810 and 1811 were bad, and the prosperity on which so much of his empire had been based vanished. Europe’s coastal cities were already unhappy at their economic situation and now more places and people were added to the discontented. We can see how serious the situation had become for Napoleon, when we consider that in annexing Holland he displaced his own brother from the throne. Moreover, Bernadotte, Napoleon’s former general and King of Sweden balked at the embargo, and he was Napoleon’s friend. It was, therefore, no surprise that Russia refused to continue with the embargo any longer.
Russia’s decision to back out of the embargo gave Napoleon the perfect pretext for war, which was of course what he was really good at. In 1812, he collected what at that point was the largest army in the world 650,000 men strong. 300,000 of the men came from Napoleon’s allies, the other 350,000 were French. This was a massive undertaking, but the very size of the army hindered its performance. The Russians exploited Napoleon’s weaknesses brilliantly. They rarely offered battle and simply retreated into Russia’s great mass of land. As they did so, they scorched the earth, burning anything that Napoleon’s army could eat.
Napoleon did make it all the way to Moscow and took the city. But this accomplished nothing, since the Russians had evacuated the city and burned it, too. Napoleon sat in the Kremlin for a month waiting for the Russians to sue for peace, but they never showed up. With his army exhausted and poorly fed, and with winter approaching, Napoleon ordered a retreat in 1812. The exit was not easy. The Russian army dogged the retreat and an early winter savaged the men. By the time Napoleon crossed the border into Prussia, only 100,000 of his original 650,000 men were left. Napoleon hastened back to Paris to set up a new army for the attack that he knew was to come.
Here we can see just how efficient the Napoleonic state was. By the spring of 1813, Napoleon had another sizeable army at his disposal, although many of the men were untrained. Nonetheless, blood was in the water. Johann Yorck von Wartenberg, a Prussian general who had led an army during Napoleon’s march to Moscow, switched sides and called for a German national uprising against Napoleon. Yorck had committed treason, since he had switched sides without his king’s permission, but the Prussian king nervously joined him. The Austrians also joined the coalition against Napoleon, and along with the Russians, the new coalition defeated Napoleon in October 1813 in a battle outside of Leipzig that came to be called the Battle of the Nations. At this point, the entire system collapsed. All of Napoleon’s German allies switched sides. Sweden declared war on France. The British and the Spanish united to throw the French out of Spain. By March 1814, Russian, Prussian, and Austrian troops took Paris. Napoleon was forced to abdicate and he went to the Mediterranean island of Elba, though he later staged a comeback that led to his ultimate defeat at Waterloo. After this battle, Napoleon and the French Revolution were finally over.
So what does all this mean? How are we to understand the role Napoleon played on the world stage? Above all Napoleon represents the end of feudalism. The French revolution had ended feudalism in France, but Napoleon exported those changes across Europe. It was Napoleon who institutionalized the changes wrought by 1789, and he provided the stable environment in which those institutions could become permanent. For the first time, people were able to enjoy the benefits that ending feudalism brought. From this point on, too many people had a stake in retaining the revolutionary changes to allow the Old Regime’s return. In addition, for the first time, European states, especially France, had a large cadre of highly trained bureaucrats who would never consent to a return to the old ways. Their positions were based on the equality of law and they had grown accustomed to making decisions that affected the entire state, not just the one group over which they had control. In sum, although much had remained the same, in important and fundamental ways, the world had changed under Napoleon and there was no going back. The famous German historian Thomas Nipperdey began his three-volume history of Germany with the words “Am Anfang war Napoleon.” (In the beginning, there was Napoleon.) Napoleon was both a beginning and an end. In our next hour, we will consider one of many beginnings that lurked in the New Regime that Napoleon had helped to bring about.