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
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
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
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
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 Napolऩon, 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
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