Revolution and After: Tragedies and Farce


Napolean


   There are few individuals in history that have captured the imagination of their contemporaries and of historians; perhaps the most compelling of these figures is Napolean Bonaparte. Both historians and his contemporaries were and are a little too captivated by this figure; world history and world civilizations like to linger over this man, often at the price of dealing sufficiently with other aspects of world history. It is perhaps best to step back a little and look at this figure with a little less imagination and captivation; while his story is truy impressive, an overly solicitous concern with the details of the history blind us to the real changes he wrought and the way he, and his actions, transformed the European imagination. I will, then, endeavor not to make the same mistake almost every world history textbook makes and lose the forest for the trees. The brevity of this history, I hope, will be made up for by presenting a balanced picture that doesn't get washed out in details.

Napolean Bonaparte

   Perhaps the aspect of Bonaparte's life that most captivated his contemporaries and historians follow was his humble beginnings. Here, like some Greek tragedy, is the story of the rise from the bottom of a strong-willed and brilliant man whose flaws eventually cause him to fall from power. The reality, of course, is much more complex than the romance associated with the story. Napolean's rise to power was, indeed, impressive, and was predicated on both his military capabilities and his strength of will. Other forces were at work, however, as they were at work in his downfall as well. Let's not forget, that Napolean's humble beginnings were, though real, largely a creation of the personal mythology he built around himself.

   He was born in Corsica—an Italian— in 1769; France had annexed Corsica in 1768, so he was officially a French citizen. Although his parents were not extremely wealthy, they were nobility. While Napolean built up around himself a mythology of low origins, he was still higher up on the social scale than the overwhelming majority of Europeans.

   He attended French schools and, at the age of sixteen, became an artillery officer in the French army in 1785. When the Revolution started he was an ardent supporter of the revolutionary and then the Jacobin cause. He distinguished himself in the Battle of Toulon and was appointed general; when the Jacobins were thrown from power in the following summer, he only barely hung on to his commission. Napolean, however, became a national hero when he crushed the Austrian and Sardinian armies in Italy and brought the war with the alliance to a close in October of 1797 by negotiating the Treaty of Campo.

   He then turned his eyes to fighting the British, the only country still actively pursuing the war against France. Fearing an outright attack on Great Britain, he turned instead to capturing territory in Egypt from the Ottoman Empire. In this way, he could disrupt British trade through the Mediterranean. When Admiral Horatio Nelson defeated the French Navy at the Battle of Aboukir on August 1, 1798, Napolean's invasion was successfully thwarted. Not only did the invasion of Egypt fail, it also brought Russia into war with France, for Russian itself was turning its eyes on acquiring territory in northern Africa.

The Consulate (1799-1804)

   This was the state of affairs when Abbée Sièyes invited Napolean to Paris to effect a coup d'etat and replace the Directory with a new triumvirate. The new constitution of France created a consular government of three consuls; one of these consuls, however, was First Consul. That role, of course, was assumed by Napolean; it was, more or less, a virtual dictatorship.

   The consulate of Napolean was in many ways an astonishing success. He rigorously pursued the welfare of the country by tirelessly trying to end all the conflict within and without France. In a steady succession of treaties, he made peace with Austria and then with Britain. By 1802, all the wars were over, concluded in the Treaty of Amiens with Britain.

   Napolean, however, worked hard to heal the wounds of over a decade of revolution. He allowed all types of political refugees back into the country, and appointed both radical republicans and royalist aristocrats to his government. His greatest act of reconciliation, however, was allowing the Catholic church back into France in his concordat with Pope Pius VII. The church was allowed back in, however, on Napolean's terms. Clergy which had supported radical or monarchist uprisings were dismissed, confiscated church lands were to remain confiscated, and the principle of religious freedom, part and parcel of the Revolutionary constitutions, was to remain in force. It was because of these magnificent efforts at reconciliation and peace that the French voted him "Consul for Life" in 1802; he promptly produced a new constitution to reflect this change.

   In France, Napolean pursued the dream of centralized power with an efficiency that hadn't been seen since the days of Louis XIV. He centralized the administration of the country and made all parts of that administration directly under the national government's control; although he was an egalitarian, he was a true follower of absolutist principles. Nevertheless, his reforms installed real equality into French government; for instance, the tax system he set up made no allowances for wealth or station. In addition, he ruthlessly stamped out any monarchist rebellions; and, finally, in 1804, his armies crossed over into Baden and arrested the Bourbon duke of Enghien, the heir to the French throne. With the Duke of Enghien executed, the monarchist counter-revolution effectively died.

The Napoleanic Code (1804)

   Of all the reforms of Napolean's consulate, the historically most significant was the legislation of the Civil Code of 1804, alternatively called the Napoleanic Code or the Code of Napolean. This legislation sought to make French law completely uniform. It was based on two ideas: that all men are equal under the law (but not women) and all people have a right to property. In the former case, the code eliminated all privileges from the laws, including tax laws. In the latter case, the code spelled out various contractual laws to ensure the inviolability of private property.

The Empire (1804-1814)

   For all practical purposes, the constitution of 1802 had officially installed Napolean as a lifelong dictator. Along with the incredibly efficience centralization of power, Napolean had become monarch of France in all but the title. Needless to say, not a few people were displeased by this turn of events. There were numerous plots against Napolean's life—plots he used to his advantage for they allowed him to move against his opponents with a ruthless severity. In 1804, Napolean announced his intention to be crowned Emperor of France; by this move, his position would become hereditary and so obviate all plots against his life. You may kill me, he was saying, but you won't kill the institution.

   He produced yet another constitution—think about this: Napolean was responsible for no fewer than three constitutions for France— which established the imperiate. The French voted for this constitution with an overwhelming majority and Napolean was crowned Napolean I, Emperor of France in 1804.

   Now this was a mighty strange turn of events. The counter-revolution had been a miserable failure. However, all during the wars with France and afterwards, European governments began to steadily change. During the imperiate of Napolean, they changed even more dramatically. The principles of the French Revolution slowly diffused outwards in Europe; governments began, quietly and infinitesmally, to adopt some of the principles of government forged in the French Revolution. This, of course, is why the Revolution is so important to European history even though it was a total failure in France. In addition, Napolean was highly responsible for this, for France controlled many European territories, such as Italy, Germany, and Holland, even though these territories were not under the direct control of the Empire. It was in these territories that the principles of the revolution were most thoroughly adopted, such as the abandonment of privilege and the ideas of equality under the law.

   Napolean's vision had now gone beyond France. What he saw in the future—a future he would build—was a united Europe, another Roman Empire with Paris, and Napolean, at its center. For this reason, Napolean turned back to Roman culture and instituted Roman architecture, art, and sculpture all over France to reflect the new coming order. He had one significant obstacle in the way, however: Great Britain. In order to bring Britain to its knees, he instituted the Continental System, which forbade the importation of European goods into Europe. This ban, however, didn't work, in part because of the power of the British navy which itself carried out an effective blockade of trade against France. After Britain declared war in 1805, its most significant victory was the defeat of the French and Spanish navies in the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805. This engagement, led on the British side by Admiral Nelson, effectively destroyed the naval power of Napolean and guaranteed that an invasion of Britain would not take place. It also solidified Britain's dominance over world trade.

   With each passing day, however, Napolean was looking more and more like a monarch chipped from the same mold as the Bourbon monarchs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He freely made his brothers and sisters monarchs of various European territories he controlled and, when he divorced his wife, Empress Josephine, he then married a Habsburg princess. And, in his vision of a united Europe, he threatened to bring all European states under this new, nepotistic, and efficient monarchy.

   Fearing the monarchical pretensions and territorial greediness of Napolean I, European powers banded together in 1805 to contain French ambitions. This alliance, led by Britain, but including Russia, Prussia, and Austria, was a miserable failure. In battle after battle, they were crushed by the French and Napolean looked more and more invincible. When Napolean defeated the Austrians at the battle of Austerlitz, they were forced to cede all of Italy north of Rome to him—he then crowned himself king of Italy. On July 7, 1807, after defeating both the Prussian and then the Russian armies, Napolean signed the Treaty of Tilsit. This treaty allowed Napolean to keep territory seized from Prussia and Russia, required the two countries to participate in the Continental System and boycott all trade with Britain, and required that Prussia become an open ally of France.

   In 1808, however, Napolean invaded Spain. He wanted both Spain and Portugal to become part of the Continental System; he overthrew the king of Spain and put his brother Joseph on the throne. The Spanish, however, would have none of it. They resented his presence in Spain, his abolition of the Inquisition, and his control of the church and began to fight back. Thus began the Wars of Liberation. The Spanish War went very badly for the French; the Spanish, hopelessly outgunned, fought using guerilla tactics which the French were unaccustomed to. The war dragged on until 1813 when the Spanish, with significant help from the British under the command of Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, drove the French over the Spanish border and back into France.

   The alliance with Russia broke down very quickly after its formation in 1807. Napolean had forced Russia into the Continental System, but Russia had fallen into a severe economic crisis as a result. Much of the Russian economy was based on the exporting of raw goods, such as timber and grain, to Britain in exchange for manufactured goods. In order to avert economic collapse, Tsar Alexander I allowed trade to proceed with Britain, despite the protests with France. Four years of this insubordination was too much for Napolean; in 1811, with the war still going badly in Spain, he assembled an army of six hundred thousand men and invaded Russian in 1812 with the sole purpose of punishing the tsar. As he marched through Russia, the Russian army refused to stand against him but continually retreated deeper and deeper into Russia; Napolean had expected to prosecute the war primarily near the border and then march unopposed to Moscow. When he reached Moscow, the Russian army simply allowed him to occupy the capital, which they promptly burned down. After a month of idling in the capital, Napolean set back for France. It was, however, too late. The Russian winter settled on his return march with a vengeance. His troops could barely make any progress through mountains of snow, acres of mud, and flooded rivers. Mounted Cossacks would periodically fly out of the blizzards and pick off the hapless soldiers. One by one they died off from cold and starvation—they died while they marched, they died at night by the campfire, and some simply sat down in the snow and waited for death to come. When Napolean crossed over into Germany on December 13, over three hundred thousand men had died out of the original six hundred thousand. Almost all had perished in the deadly cold that blanketed Napolean's retreat.

   Napolean's staggering losses breathed new life into the Wars of Liberation. Fired by the possibility that Napolean had been irreperably weakened, Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia fell once more to the attack. Most of the war was prosecuted in Germany and Napolean's forces met their decisive defeat at the Battle of Nations in 1813 near Leipzig. Wellington marched his army into France from Spain, and in 1814, allied armies crossed over into eastern France from Germany. Napolean eventually retreated to Paris where, on March 31, Tsar Alexander I and King Frederick William III of Prussia marched into the city. They forced Napolean to abdicate and exiled him to Elba, a small island off of Italy.

The Congress of Vienna

   With Napolean gone, there was little reason to hold the coalition together. The nations of the coalition, however, recognized that they would not be able to pursue their interests until the French "problem" had been solved. Before the war ended in 1814, the coalitions allies had signed the Treaty of Chaumont on March 9. This treaty stipulated that the Bourbons be restored to the French monarchy and that France return to pre-1792 borders. Of course, this was only a document of principles. Working out the mechanics of this treaty fell to the Congress of Vienna after the abdication of Napolean.

   The Congress met in September of 1814 and continued until November of 1815. Almost all the heads of European states were present, but the Congress was more or less run by Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Uppermost on the participants' minds was preventing France from expanding beyond its borders ever again. To achieve this, the members of the Congress produced a series of "buffer" states around France, such as the Netherlands. For the most part, however, Europe remained divided into the states that Napolean had established; the most significant change that Napolean had effected was the elimination of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. The Congress ratified that dissolution, and the states of the Holy Roman Empire disappeared into other entities. Finally, the Congress of Vienna fully ratified the notion of monarchy and thoroughly rejected any republican or democratic governments in Europe. They installed Louis XVIII, the brother of Louis XVI, as King of France.

The Hundred Days

   He was down but he was not out. On March 1, 1815, Napolean returned to Paris to cheering crowds. His army was still loyal to him, and Louis, fearful of his life, hightailed it out of Paris. The alliance had started to bicker among itself, but this unexpected turn of events stunned them into action. Napolean instantly went on the move, marching into the Low Countries of Belgium. There he met the allied army—which had been cobbled together in the greatest haste—under the command of Wellington at Waterloo. On June 18, the coalition forces dealt Napolean a final and resounding defeat. Barely over a hundred days after his triumphant return, Napolean was utterly defeated and was exiled to St. Helena, a dreary island in the South Atlantic where he lived out his days, fat and powerless, until 1821.

   He would leave as his final legacy, this small man who straddled two centuries, the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth, and who straddled two worlds, the world of monarchical Europe and the world of modern Europe, several lasting legacies. Despite his downfall, his administrative and legal reforms remained in place in France and would eventually serve as a model for other European governmens, particularly the Napoleanic code. He created almost single-handedly the modern, centralized bureaucratic state with state-run police and public educational systems. Moreover, with the Congress of Vienna, the concept of "legitimacy" became the predominant mode of European relationships. The principle was introduced by Great Britain at the Congress in order to prevent retaliation against France; ultimately it became the argument for restoring the monarchy. The restoration of the monarchy, however, allowed France to retain its traditional borders. The entire system was based on a concept of balance and stability. No state in Europe should be allowed to gain too much territorial power; in place of aggression, the Congress hoped to create a diplomatic rule—that of territorial legitimacy—that would guide international relations. Europe had transformed itself from a set of absolutist monarchies into an international state system.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-2-97