Brief history of the Napoleonic era (1799-1815)
By the end of 1799, when Napoleon became de facto the ruler of France, the country was yearning for peace and stability after the ten momentous years of the Revolution. In 1789 the King of France had to call an assembly known as the Estates General with representatives from all over the country to try to find a solution to the bankruptcy of public finances. Very soon the King lost control over the assembly which then called itself the National Assembly. Attempts to establish a constitutional monarchy failed and on August 10, 1792, the King was finally deposed, which led to the establishment of the first French Republic. Then followed a period of high intensity and public drama, including several months of "Terror" during which many people were executed. It was also a moment of great undertakings towards reorganisation and reform, particularly during the two years of existence of the assembly known as the Convention. But there were excesses, particularly during the Terror and it provoked a reaction in the summer of 1794 with the fall of Robespierre and the establishment late 1795 of a new government called the Directory. It is this government that Napoleon Bonaparte dismissed in a Coup d'etat known as the 18 Brumaire coup, towards the end of 1799. The following pages give a brief overview of Napoleon's years in power, from 1799 till 1815.
Napoleon's rise to power
Napoleon Bonaparte was born on the island of Corsica in 1769, shortly after the island had been annexed by France. The Bonapartes were members of the minor nobility of Corsica, and at the age of nine Napoleon was admitted to a military school in France. From that time on, he knew no other life than the army. When most of the aristocratic officer corps left France after the fall of the monarchy, Napoleon stayed on to serve the Republic. He rose to become a brigadier general in 1793 at the age of twenty-four. He helped to reconquer Toulon - one of the towns that rebelled against the Convention in 1793 - and he suppressed a royalist riot against the Convention in 1795. By 1797, when the Directory felt its power slipping, Barras, one of the Directors, realized that Napoleon's support could be valuable. He sought Napoleon's friendship first by introducing the young general to one of his cast-off mistresses, Josephine Beauharnais (whom Napoleon married), and then by giving him command of an army that was preparing for an invasion of Lombardy, a province in northern Italy that was then under the control of Austria.
The Italian campaign of 1797 was a success. It removed Austria from the war, it gave France control of northern Italy, and established Napoleon's reputation.as an outstanding general. After the defeat of the Austrians only England was still at war with France. In 1798 Bonaparte took an army by sea to Egypt, where he hoped to sever England's lifeline to India. He easily defeated the Egyptians, but the English admiral Horatio Nelson sank the a French fleet near the mouth of the Nile.
Napoleon's army, trapped in Egypt, was soon decimated by disease and dysentery. In the midst of this crisis, Napoleon heard that the Directory was in danger of falling and that some of the Directors wanted to create a military dictatorship. Leaving his army in Egypt, he made his way secretly back to France to offer his services to the conspirators.
The most important Director was the Abbe Sieyes, and it was with this former leader of the First French Revolution that Napoleon conspired. On November 9,1799, he used military force to compel the legislators to abolish the Directory and substitute a new government in which a board of three consuls would have almost absolute power. The conspirators asked Napoleon to serve as one of the consuls. Apparently they hoped he would provide the personal popularity and military power needed to support a regime that would be dominated, behind the scenes, by the other two consuls. But when the new constitution was written - at Napoleon's orders - the general emerged as First Consul and virtual dictator of France. When the French people were invited to endorse the constitution in a plebiscite, they voted overwhelmingly to accept it. To Frenchmen exhausted by years of revolution, terror, and economic instability, Napoleon seemed to be the guarantor both of the gains of the Revolution and of order.
Napoleon and domestic reform
Bonaparte was, above all, a military man, and his fortunes always hinged on military success or failure. Yet his domestic reforms were profound and enduring. If the French Revolution gave the country an ideology that, henceforth, would both inspire and divide Frenchmen, Napoleon gave France many of its characteristic institutions. Better than any eighteenth century monarch, Bonaparte fulfilled the philosophes' dream of an enlightened despot.
Between 1799 and 1801 Napoleon led a series of successful campaigns against the coalition that England, Austria, and Russia had formed to defeat him. He wanted to win a favorable peace so that he could devote himself to consolidating his position in France. Hostilities ended in 1801 and did not break out again on any major scale until 1805. Napoleon used those four years to
restore domestic concord and economic stability and to establish a network of administrative institutions that gave coherence and uniformity to the work of his government.
Perhaps Napoleon's most characteristic contribution was the Code Napoleon. From the debris of the laws left by the several legal systems of the Old Regime and the succession of revolutionary governments, Napoleon's advisers compiled a uniform legal code that is still the basis of French law. The Code maintained in theory the revolutionary concept of the equality of all men before the law, but it was in fact far less egalitarian than the laws of the revolutionary era. It emphasized, for instance, the authority of the state over the people, of business corporations over their employees, and of male heads of families over their wives and children. Property rights received particularly strong protection under the Code.
Other Napoleonic reforms followed a similar pattern. They often upheld in principle the ideals of the Enlightenment and the Revolution but served in practice to strengthen France's new authoritarian state. Napoleon retained, for instance, the division of France into eighty-three uniformly administered departments. He used the departmental system, however, not to foster local responsibility, as had been intended, but to create a highly centralized administration controlled directly by the First Consul through field administrators called prefects. He also instituted a nationwide system of public schools that not only educated the young - an ideal of the philosophes - but imbued them with an exaggerated patriotism and devotion to their ruler.
In reforming France's finances Napoleon followed the British and American examples by chartering a privately owned national bank to provide both a depository for government funds and a source of credit for French businessmen. With government deposits as security, the bank issued paper money as legal tender. Increased currency, a stable franc, and improved credit helped to improve France's shaky economy. Napoleon also resolved that perennial problem of the Old Regime - taxation - by developing uniform taxes collected directly from each individual by
Although Napoleon himself was far from religious, he understood better than his republican predecessors that domestic peace could not be achieved until the religious question had been settled. Accordingly, he concluded an agreement with Pope Pius VII, the Concordat of 1801, which regularized the situation created by the Revolution. Although the document recognized that the majority of Frenchmen were Roman Catholics, the Catholic Church was not to be the established church in France. Church properties confiscated during the Revolution were not to be restored. Moreover, the First Consul retained the right to appoint bishops. Through the Concordat of 1801, Napoleon regained the loyalty of French Catholics to the official government and at the same time won the gratitude of owners of former church properties.
Although Napoleon brought a form of enlightened despotism to France, he did so at the expense of much of the individual liberty that had been the first principle of the Enlightenment. The legislative institutions created by the Constitution of 1799 were a sham. Political opposition was punished by police action, and the press was strictly censored. Napoleon's training was military, and too often his solution to political and even social problems was force. Nevertheless, his government in its early years was popular. He preserved the property of those who had gained from the Revolution. He satisfied the social ideal of the Revolution by maintaining equality before the law, equality in taxation, and careers open to all men of talent. In his own administration, he incorporated royalists, cons titutionalists, and Jacobins. With such accomplishments to his credit, he easily won popular approval when he declared himself First Consul for life in 1802. And two years later, on December 2, 1804, the nation rejoiced when, in the presence of the pope, he crowned himself Emperor of the French.
The Napoleonic Empire
Napoleon did not create French imperialism; he inherited, indeed he had been an agent of a policy of aggressive expansion undertaken by the Convention and the Directory. A satellite republic had already been established in Holland in 1795, and during the victorious campaigns against Austria toward the end of the decade, French armies had brought revolutionary ideals and French power to Switzerland and parts of Italy. This burst of French expansion had come to an end when Napoleon signed separate peace treaties with Austria, in 1801, and England, in 1802. Large-scale hostilities were resumed only in 1805, but from that time until Napoleon's ultimate defeat ten years later, France was almost constantly at war.
If Napoleon could have avoided war he might have established his empire as the dominant state in Europe. But his own insatiable ambition and the continuing enmity of England made war almost inevitable. England would have looked on France with suspicion in any case; the egalitarian ideas of the Revolution and the early Empire seemed dangerous to the English ruling classes. Napoleon gave the English government other reasons for opposing him by trying to extend his sphere of influence in Germany and Italy. England was determined to keep France from becoming the dominant political and economic power in Europe. French control of the Low Countries had already violated a basic rule of English foreign policy - namely, to keep these invasion bases and commercial centers out of the hands of a strong power. Finally, the British and their ablest statesman of the period, William Pitt the Younger, were convinced that Napoleon was using the peace to ready France for yet another war. Pitt soon was able to persuade other continental states that they must join England to restore the balance of power and resist the spread of French influence in central Europe.
Napoleon was just as ready for war as was England. He felt that
his empire could never be secure and that his plans for Europe could never be achieved until England had been thoroughly defeated. The two states drifted into war in 1803, and other continental powers - Austria, Russia, and finally Prussia - joined England.
It was a difficult war for the two major contestants. Napoleon could not gain control of the sea, and without this control he could not subdue England. He made his greatest effort in 1805 when he concentrated his army at Boulogne and tried to pull the English fleet out of the Channel by an elaborate set of naval feints in the Atlantic. But the English were not deceived. While one fleet guarded England against invasion, another, under Nelson, caught the French and their allies off Cape Trafalgar and annihilated them (October 21, 1805). Napoleon was never again able to threaten England with invasion. The English, on the other hand, could not defeat the French on the Continent and were dependent on the armies of their allies.
By the fall of 1805 the armies of the Russian and Austrian emperors assembled in central Europe for a combined assault on Napoleon. Instead of waiting for the attack, Napoleon marched an army deep into central Europe and took the Austrian and Russian generals by surprise. He defeated the Austrian and Russian forces first at UIm, and then again in the most spectacular of all his victories, at Austerlitz, on December 2, 1805.
With Austria defeated and Russia in retreat, Napoleon followed up his victory with a complete reorganization of the German states. He helped end the Holy Roman Empire and eliminated many of the small German principalities. Out of these petty states he created a satellite system composed of fourteen larger states that were united in a Confederation of the Rhine; Napoleon served as protector of this German Confederation.
Prussia, which had not at first joined the coalition against Napoleon, entered the fray in 1806 and was soundly defeated at Jena in October of that year. King Frederick William III was forced to accept a humiliating peace and to become an ally of France. The following spring, Emperor Alexander I of Russia again sent an
army against Napoleon, only to have it defeated at Friedland in June 1807. In three campaigns in three successive years, Napoleon had defeated the three strongest powers on the Continent and established his position as master of Europe. Russia was too large to occupy, but Napoleon had taught Emperor Alexander the futility of opposition. A few weeks after Friedland, Napoleon and Alexander held a dramatic meeting near Tilsit in eastern Prussia.
Alexander recognized Napoleon's supremacy in the West, and Napoleon agreed not to intervene in Russia's internal affairs or to prevent Alexander from extending Russian influence into the Ottoman-controlled Balkans.
Napoleonic Europe and the Continental System
Napoleon was now at the summit of his power. All Europe, save England, was to some degree under his rule (see map p. 151). France, Belgium, Germany west of the Rhine, and parts of Italy and Illyria constituted a French Empire ruled directly by Napoleon as emperor. Holland, Westphalia (a Napoleonic creation in Germany), and southern Italy were theoretically independent kingdoms, over which Napoleon placed three of his brothers as kings. Northern Italy was also a kingdom, with Napoleon himself as king. The Grand Duchy of Warsaw was carved out of Prussia's Polish territories and given to France's ally, the king of Saxony. In 1808, the Bourbon monarch of Spain was overthrown and replaced by Napoleon's brother Joseph.
England alone resisted the tide of French expansion. From 1806 on, Napoleon tried to weaken England by wrecking English trade with the Continent. This so-called Continental System imposed heavy penalties on anyone trading with England and forbade the importation of English goods. Since England produced the cheapest manufactures and was a good market for food and raw materials, this ban put a heavy strain on the economies of the continental countries. England made the strain worse by blockading all countries that subscribed to the French system. The English blockade was harsh enough to drive Denmark into a close alliance with France and to help cause the War of 1812 with the United
States. But on the whole it caused less ill will than Napoleon's decrees. It was simply impossible for the European economy to function properly without English trade.
Napoleon himself had to allow exceptions and grant special licenses, a procedure that irritated everyone who did not receive such favors. Smuggling became a highly organized and profitable business, and attempts to enforce French regulations strengthened the opposition to Napoleon everywhere. Most important of all, it led to a quarrel between Napoleon and Alexander of Russia.
Emperor Alexander had not been entirely happywith the results of his alliance with Napoleon. France had gained vast territories; Russia had acquired only Finland and Bessarabia. Napoleon's creation of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw menaced Russia's control of the Polish lands it had seized in the 1790s. But the great and overwhelming grievance of the Russians was the Continental System. Russia needed English markets for its grain, and Alexander would not and could not enforce the rules against trade with England. Napoleon, bent on the destruction of England, could not tolerate this breach in his system, which was already being weakened by the ill will of other rulers. He requested Alexander to stop the trade; when Alexander refused, Napoleon prepared to invade Russia.
The Weaknesses of the Napoleonic Empire
When Napoleon undertook his Russian campaign in June 1812, his hold on Europe and even on the French had begun to weaken. French expansion had at first been greeted with some enthusiasm by many of the inhabitants of the Low Countries, Germany, and Italy. Enlightenment ideas were strong in these regions, and the existing governments were unpopular. Thus, in the northern Netherlands there was opposition to the domination of the House of Orange and the urban oligarchy. In the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium), nationalist feelings had led to a revolt against Austrian rule as early as 1789. Italy was dominated by Spain and Austria; both growing nationalism and spread of the Enlightenment made the ideas of the French Revolution attractive to many Italians. In
Germany the writings of the philosophes had been eagerly read, and there was general disgust with the archaic structure of the Holy Roman Empire and the stodgy governments of the petty principalities. French influence and French ideas were especially strong in the Rhineland. In short, there had been serious political unrest in much of Europe in the 1780s and 1790s, and the invading French armies had often been hailed as liberating forces. Napoleon took full advantage of this feeling. He was able to break the archaic political and social structures of many states. Within the Empire, the Code Napoleon was established, the privileges of the Church and aristocracies were abolished, and fetters on local industry and commerce were removed. Napoleon saw himself, in other words, as the "revolution on horseback" and sought to impose a new order on Europe - a new order that was enlightened, rational, and French.
This vision of Napoleon's was, at best, only partially achieved, and even those who had most enthusiastically received the invading French armies soon perceived that imperialism was a more important component of the Napoleonic system than was liberation. The Continental System contributed to a general economic crisis in Europe that alienated the commercial and industrial interests. High taxes and conscription were imposed on the tributary states. And the French system was enforced by tight police surveillance. Napoleonic tutelage, even at its most benevolent, appeared incompatible with the libertarian and nationalistic ideals of the French Revolution.
Nationalism had helped the French in their wars in the Low Countries and Italy, but it now became a danger to them. Increasingly, Napoleon was beset by the growth of nationalistic feelings and national resistance to his rule. In Germany, Italy, and Spain, national awakening was intimately linked to the opposition to French hegemony. This opposition took many forms. In Italy and Germany cultural movements gained momentum that emphasized the common history, language, and literature shared by the fragmented parts of these countries. In Spain, resistancewas expressed in a more violent manner when rebellions broke
out in 1808 against the regime of Joseph Bonaparte. It was in Spain that Napoleon first confronted guerrilla warfare and first encountered serious failure. A Spanish victory at Baylen in 1808 was the initial break in the emperor's record of invincibility. By 1813, the Spanish rebels, with the help of an English army under Wellington, had driven the French from Madrid and had organized a constitutional government that controlled more than half the country.
The appearance of a well-organized English army on the Continent was one indication that the balance of power in Europe was beginning to shift against Napoleon. There were other signs, the most important of which was the recovery of France's nominal ally and potential enemy, Prussia. After the humiliating defeat of the Prussians at Jena, the process of reconstructing the kingdom was begun. Under Generals Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, the Prussian army was modernized and a form of universal military training for young men was introduced. To revitalize the country, another reformer, the Baron von Stein, persuaded the king to abolish serfdom and to grant a large measure of liberty to Prussian municipalities. Stein's social legislation was limited in its effects, but the military reforms allowed Prussia to play a significant role in the final defeat of Napoleon.
At the same time that his enemies were strengthening themselves and challenging the French monopoly of force on the Continent, Napoleon began to lose his grip on the French people. French economic domination of Europe, which had been one of the goals of the Continental System, failed to materialize, and France, like the rest of the Continent, suffered from the economic crisis that marked the last years of Napoleon's reign. Internally, the regime grew more repressive, and Napoleon became increasingly intolerant of criticism and even of his ministers' advice. After his divorce from Josephine and his marriage to an Austrian princess, Marie Louise, Napoleon more and more took on the airs of an Old Regime monarch. In the end, those Frenchmen who had provided him with his magnificent and spirited army were exhausted by the burdens of empire.
The Invasion of Russia and the Fall of Napoleon
In June 1812 Napoleon marched into Russia with six hundred thousand men, the largest army ever assembled up to that time. Only about a third were French. Most had been recruited in the German states or in other dependencies. Napoleon expected to deliver a fast and decisive blow, but the Russians, so greatly outnumbered, did not give battle. Instead they retreated, drawing Napoleon behind them. After one costly but inconclusive engagement at Borodino, Napoleon occupied Moscow in September and waited for Alexander to offer peace terms. But no message came.
After five weeks Napoleon realized that he could not keep so large a force in Russia through the winter, and on October 19 he began the long march westward. Almost immediately he encountered difficulties. Since the land through which he passed had already been burned by both armies, he lost thousands of men to disease and starvation. When the cold weather came, the weakened soldiers were no match for the elements. As the remnants of Napoleon's army stumbled closer to the frontier, Polish and German soldiers deserted and headed homeward. When Napoleon reached the German border in December, he could not muster one hundred thousand men. If Austria or Prussia had chosen to launch an attack at this time, the war could have been ended. But the allies as yet had no clue to the vastness of the disaster.
Once in German territory, Napoleon fled in disguise to Paris and organized a new army that he marched toward the Russian border in the spring of 1813. But defeat had deflated the Napoleonic image, and Napoleon was badly beaten at Leipzig in October by the combined armies of Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Napoleon lost about two-fifths of his men and retreated back across the Rhine. Meanwhile, the British general Wellington defeated another French army in Spain and crossed the border into southern France. On March 31, 1814, the combined armies entered Paris, and one week later Napoleon abdicated. After some
debate, the allies restored the Bourbons to the throne of France and then called a peace conference in Vienna to settle the fate of the rest of Europe.
Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba, off the Italian coast. But he still had one battle to fight. In March 1815 he escaped and landed in the south of France. The army proved loyal to the deposed leader, and Napoleon was soon in control of France once again. But the allies were prepared. Napoleon was conclusively defeated at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, and three days later he abdicated for the second time. (The three months spanning Napoleon's escape from Elba, resumption of power, and second abdication following his defeat at the battle of Waterloo are known as the Hundred Days.) The allies now exiled him to St. Helena, a small and remote island off the Atlantic coast near Africa. The era of the Revolution and Napoleon had ended.
The era had ended, but it.could not be effaced. The allies could restore a Bourbon to the throne of France, but the new king, Louis XVIII, could not restore the Old Regime. He had to keep many of Napoleon's officials. He had to preserve the Napoleonic administrative system and the Concordat with the Church. He had to accept both the revolutionary principle of equality under the law and the revolutionary land settlement. He had to grant a constitution to his people. It was a conservative constitution with a very limited electorate, but it meant that the king's rule was not absolute. And throughout Europe the great ideas of the Revolution - liberty, equality, and nationalism - lived on, and with them the new and dangerous concept of revolution as a means of attaining social and political goals. These ideas were only partially recognized in some countries and totally suppressed in others, but they persisted everywhere - smoldering coals that were to burst into flame again and again during the nineteenth century.
The political balance of power in Europe had been permanently altered. No one could restore the petty states of Germany or the feeble republics of Italy. No one could ignore the claims of Russia to have, for the first time, a voice in the affairs of Western Europe. No one could fail to recognize the tremendous strides
that England had made in industry and commerce during the wars. Conversely, for the first time in two centuries, France was no longer the richest and strongest European state. These were some of the new political facts with which the diplomats at Vienna had to deal.
From Joseph R. Strayer & Hans W Gatzke,
The Mainstream of Civilization,
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, N.Y 1979,
Ch. 23, "The French Revolution and Napoleon, pp. 536-543.
Napoleon on the British
ship HMS Northumberland
taking him to St Helena