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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F.Betts

The French Revolution

The Age of Napoleon
The ideal of a social order that provided personal liberty remained far off. It soon could not even be heard enunciated in France, where the sound of trumpets and the beat of drums now suggested that any march forward by humanity was to be of a military sort. Napoleon turned the Revolution to his own uses--and they were not democratic.

Napoleon has been called the "French Revolution on Horseback," a title which has considerable validity if his actions and his program are considered.

A military hero who had won spectacular battles in the Italian peninsula against the Austrians, who had ventured to Egypt in 1798 and fought a "Battle of the Pyramids" there, Napoleon was of heroic proportions, if of diminutive physical stature. He was a man of great ambition and of great self-control and calculation. (He once remarked that his mind was arranged the way a set of file drawers would be, everything in its proper place and accessible.) But he was ruthless as well, for he determined to make fate his mistress.

At one of the several moments when the pendulum motion of the French Revolution swung the nation toward internal chaos again, the desire for strong government, for public order, was loudly expressed. The government of the Directory was by the summer of 1799 faced with growing popular opposition and was publicly challenged by street riots. Napoleon had already been called in during the year 1797 to put down one such upheaval, which he claimed to have eliminated "with a whiff of grapeshot," and now he eyed the opportunity to do more than give an order to a group of musketeers.

With the aid of his brother Lucien, then a senator, Napoleon staged a coup d'etat; he dispersed the weak government and seized power with the backing of his troops. Thus on the ninth of November 1799, the day of the coup d'etat, the Napoleonic Era began.

The Napoleonic Era
1799-1804: The Consulate
In imitation of the Roman system, the Consulate had three consuls elected to office for a period of ten years. As First Consul, Napoleon controlled all the power. Some of his more spectacular reforms were effected during this period. Of great interest is the Concordat of 1801 by which France and the Catholic Church came to an understanding. (The Church had been forced underground during the Revolution. ) Catholicism was reestablished in France, not officially, however, but only as "the religion of the majority of Frenchmen." Napoleon retained effective control of the Church by having the authority to nominate all high church officials. In 1802 Napoleon exploited his military popularity by having himself elected Consul for Life.

1804-1814: The Empire
In 1804 France was given a new constitution through which "the government of the Republic is confided to an Emperor." By plebiscite (the great Napoleonic political device) the purple mantle fell easily on Napoleon's shoulders. While Napoleon had created an array of parliamentary bodies grouped under the name Corps legislatif, he ruled as an absolute monarch. His mother, a Corsican of pessimistic hue, was wont to remark, "Pourvu que ca dure" (If it only lasts). It did, until 1813 when, at Leipzig, in the "Battle of Nations," Napoleon was defeated by a combined Russian, Prussian, and Austrian force. (His grave military mistake had been the invasion of Russia in 1812, an invasion which extended his army and its supply lines beyond endurance.) Napoleon abdicated at Fontainebleau on April 6, 1814, and was sent to the island of Elba.

1815: The Hundred Days
Napoleon grew impatient, detected dissension among the allied powers who had defeated him, and surreptitiously returned to France in March of 1815. He marched triumphantly on the capital, while the newly returned Bourbon monarchy of Louis XVIII fled to Belgium. In Paris, Napoleon gathered together an army and set out to meet the allied army under the Duke of Wellington, who was marching on France. Napoleon met defeat at Waterloo on June 18, 1815. Exiled to St. Helena, he died in 1821.

Napoleon's titles varied-from "First Consul" to "Consul for Life" to "Emperor"- but these variations were only outward modifications in the consolidation of personal power. When he assumed the imperial dignity as "Emperor of the French," he explained this somewhat-less-than-humble action by saying that in a Europe of kings, he had to be a "crowned Washington." In the greater scheme of things, the title and the garb Napoleon fancied were far less important than the changes he brought about in his real capacity of "enlightened despot."

Napoleon was a popular ruler who initially provided stability to a politically weary nation and who obtained widespread support by his many astonishing military victories. In his role of military strongman, Napoleon presented something of the appearance of the modern dictator, and some historians see him as the first in that dismal line leading down to Hitler and Stalin. Yet there is no denying that Napoleon institutionalized many of theideals and institutions that the French revolutionaries had never got beyond paper. In this sense it was in the Napoleonic Era that the administrative structure of modern France acquired clear definition. Napoleon reorganized regional government, making it directly responsible to central authority. He thereby furthered the Jacobin ideal of "one republic, indivisible," by making the Parisian ministries the seat of all national power. Furthermore, he reformed the university system, established the Bank of France, and had drawn up the Code Napolˇon, the most important legal codification since Justinian's effort a good millennium before. Each of these actions enhanced the power of the central government and, in turn, further secured Napoleon's hold on public authority.

Yet the Napoleonic regime rested less on institutions than on public acclaim. Napoleon was the first ruler to make effective use of the plebiscite--that special national election in which the voting public is required to decide one important issue. In 1802 the French people were asked, "Shall Napoleon Bonaparte be consul for life?" The results of the ballot boxes showed that 3,568,885 voted in the affirmative, while only 8,374 responded "no." Then in November 1804 the voting public was again asked for its collective opinion, this time on whether the Bonaparte family should inherit the imperial title. Again, the response was impressive, with 3,572,329 agreeing, and only 2,759 opposing. Such figures tell nothing of the seriousness or freedom of the voting, but they say much about state control of elections. Modern dictators have followed the Napoleonic precedent with equally impressive results. Here is an important example of the twisted use of democratic electoral devices to assure dictatorship.

But the battlefield remained the political campaign field for Napoleon. Victory meant popularity. And then came final defeat. On June 18, 1815, outside the little town of Waterloo, not far from Brussels, Napoleon fought and lost his last major battle. He retreated by coach in sullen disgust and was soon thereafter shipped by his victors to the island of St. Helena, off the coast of South Africa, where he lingered and died in 1821-at the age of fifty-two. Napoleon once said his career was like that of a meteor, briefly lighting the night sky of history.

It was more than that. For this brilliant, ambitious man, who directed the destinies of France and Europe for some fifteen years, emerged as a historical "hero," not a person doing good, but a person altering the course of history. No other figure, save Jesus Christ, has been the subject of more biographies than Napoleon. Such a raw statistic says much. Napoleon was the model of the "self-made man," the individual, both lonely and aloof, who courted history, who sought fame and endured ignominy. There would be others like him, yet none so successful and none so respected historically. Napoleon ended the French Revolution. He completed it by giving its ideals administrative structure; he destroyed it by denying the French people the very liberty they had waged revolution for.

Some English wit during the era of the French Revolution said that the French revolutionaries were like the man who was asked if he could play the clavichord. "I don't know," he replied, "but I am willing to try." And so the French people were willing to try the first major experiment in self-government that Europe witnessed. The only analogous contemporary experiment was, of course, in the new United States.

Yet what sets the French effort off by itself was the enormity of the change. The major absolute monarchy in Europe, the strongest military power of the time, the most populous country in Europe--this was France of 1789. If the royal government verged on bankruptcy, no one doubted the importance and strength of the French nation. That such a nation should succumb to a change so radical as that of the Revolution was momentous.

Perhaps more important was the hope offered by the revolutionaries. Liberty was the magic word that raced around Europe, exciting the middle classes and frightening the aristocracy. Tradition had in principle and in fact been replaced by popular sovereignty. The French Revolution unsettled the Old Order, as it ruthlessly prepared the way for a new secular age.

NEXT:  Chapter 3: International Order and Domestic Strife    Copyright ©2000, LLC