Napoleon

Napoleon

Napoleon I was born on the French island of Corsica on the 15th of August 1769. Trained in the art of war at military academies in France, little did his supervisors know at that time that one day, this young officer was going to rise up the ranks in the army to become a General, play an important part in the French Revolution by being at the forefront of effective military operations against the First & Second Coalitions, then overthrow the same revolutionary government he helped install (1799), rule over France as First Consul and then Emperor(1804-1815) and by cleverly crafted wars and political alignments, hold offices and titles as diverse, but equally powerful, as  King of Italy, Mediator of the Swiss Confederation and Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine, thus effectively becoming the master of much of Mainland Europe. His military and political actions entailed significant influence on European History for years to come. [1]

Following expansionary policies, from 1800-1810, the French armed forces were engaged in pitched battles against and/or in the whole of Europe. Napoleon’s military and political prowess earned him a dominating influence over much of mainland Europe. His tactful masterpieces at Austerlitz and Friedland established his military power and forced alliances with weaker states, unwilling to stand up to the fury of his armies. He further consolidated his position by installing members of his family and close associates as the rulers of all states under French influence, with himself as supreme commander. [2]

However, Napoleon’s success story was halted by the catastrophic expedition sent to conquer Russia in 1812. He was out smarted by the retreating Russians and when he ordered a retreat following the conquest of Moscow, he ensured the destruction beyond resurrection of his own Grande Armée.

The powers that formed the Sixth Coalition inflicted on him another resounding defeat at Leipzig in 1813, and subsequently stepped foot on French soil. Surrounded by the invading armies, Napoleon vacated office in April 1814, and was forcefully exiled  to the island of Elba. However, refusing to admit defeat, he returned to France, established himself as ruler and proceeded to fight against his foes. However, his endeavors had limited success and he was finally defeated at the battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815. He was exiled again to the uninhabited island of St. Helena where he died a quiet man in 1821. [3]

Although Napoleon spent a lifetime on the battle field and his military conquests provide ample proof of his intelligence as a general, originality of technique was lacking at his end. He is credited though with the concept of fusing artillery into batteries and rearranging the military hierarchy to ensure that requirement of each core in the army was met adequately. These have become generally accepted principles in modern warfare. To this day, the Napoleonic wars are the subject of scholarly and academic study around the world. History remembers him for his military conquests and for his development of a bureaucratic structure (the Napoleonic Code), still followed in present day French. [4]

Effects that Napoleon had on France

In my opinion, the Napoleonic era proved healthy for France as Napoleon himself was a populist leader and developed the French armed forces into a mighty military machine.

Governing France

The French vote largely sided with Napoleon and approved of his actions. By the year 1804, Napoleon had established himself as unrivaled in power and authority in all of France. Realizing that the only way he could continue to consolidate his position was through garnering populist support; he continued the radical reform process while slowly tightening his grip on the political machinery. Although there was no single authority in the French state and all laws were made by an elected National Assembly (the lower house elected, the upper house appointed), Napoleon ensured that the weight age of power remained tilted towards him by choosing friendly elected candidates to the upper tier of the National Assembly. Since all laws were made by the Assemblies, Napoleon had considerable influence on all matters. [5]

Napoleonic Code

The Napoleonic Code was a law passed by the Napoleon administration that balanced, modernized, restructured, expanded and consolidated many of the previous reforms into a single source document. The code proclaimed the equal standing of all citizens and liberty to practice one’s religion of choice and labor mobility. However, some of the driving points of the revolution were left out of this code and in many places the interests of the common man were made subordinate to the interests of the state. Some laws, including those which guaranteed the rights of females and infants/children, were also repealed. [6]

French Economy and society

Napoleon understood that to finance his war machinery, he needed adequate finances and thus enshrined in law that all citizens pay taxes to the national exchequer. His policies helped reduce the level of inflation and ensured that a more just and equal distribution of income and wealth could be brought about. Thus, he abolished feudalism and introduced land reforms in turn increasing peasant land ownership. Furthermore, he ensured that the peasants were rid of their obligations to the Catholic Church as he settled the differences of the Vatican and the French State. On the other hand, the nobles were given freedom to rule over their respective lands as long as they plead political, economic and military allegiance to Napoleon. Dedication to the French State and its principles of hard and honest work were acknowledged through the introduction of the Legion of Honor (1802) which remains the highest civil and military award in the Modern French State.

Changes to education

Education also saw attention from Napoleon and soon reform was introduced in this sector too. Government run schools were set up and the curriculum standardized. The schools advocated radical love for the country and the state. The schooling system was divided amongst the primary, secondary, military and technical schools. Although primary education remained more or less the same, the rest of the schooling system advocated discipline, unity and faith along with a strong emphasis on military training. [7]

The Catholic Church

Napoleon understood that although the people had strong associations with religion, reform was also the need of the hour. Therefore, he tried to find a balance between the enshrined laws of the church and his new laws. In 1801, he signed a Concordat with the Vatican thus ending the long lasting feud between the state and the Catholic Church.  The agreement changed the way Bishops were chosen. Previously elected, they would now be appointed by the French government. No one but the pope would yield influence over them. In return, the Church ended its demand that all material interests taken under custody or destroyed by the revolution be returned or compensated for. [8]

Building and roads

Napoleon understood that a strong infrastructure would greatly help him in war. Therefore, finances were used in the development of roads, bridges and canals to facilitate the movement of troops and goods from the rural areas to the urban centers. At the same time, to signify his own glory, Paris underwent a huge beautification program under which the existing buildings were renovated, new ones were erected and various monuments were put up to signify the greatness of Napoleon and the revolution. [9]

It would be harsh to judge Napoleon as a dictator for it can be inferred that a good number of his measures were aimed at improving the affairs of the common French lot. While many of his measures were unjust, one can argue that they were the need of the hour to protect the revolution and ensure the establishment of a republic. However, his appointment of himself as emperor negates this view.

France fought wars on different fronts from 1792 to 1815 in order to ensure the continuity and survival of the revolution, under threat from the armies of other European monarchist powers, afraid that revolution in France would encourage populist uprising in their own empires. Napoleon’s skill and expertise ensured that the invading powers were kept at bay for as long as possible given the inherent limitations of any country.

At its peak, the French empire spanned the whole of Mainland Europe. The whole area, from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to the very borders of Russia was controlled by Paris. Moreover, Napoleon exported the ideology of the French revolution to all areas under French control. [10]His measures included freedom of religion, an end to serfdom, and loosening the grip of the Catholic Church on the state. The Napoleonic Code also found itself being implemented in other countries as the source law. However, calamity can strike anytime. Napoleon invaded Russia and despite his hopes of defeating the Russians quickly, saw himself engaged in a long and draining fight with the retreating Russian soldiers.

Napoleon was forced to chase the retreating army deep inside Russian soil and when he finally managed to win Moscow, the gravity of the situation dawned on him. He understood that maintaining a garrison in war torn Russia was impossible and ordered a retreat and this decision co incided with the Russian winter, known for its ferocity.  The climate and the shortages of food and shelter took the lives of many soldiers while the remaining fell prey to the resurgent Russian military. Despite all his attempts to resurrect his powerful military machine, Napoleon soon found out that time was not on his side and was soon forced to abdicate following the conquest of Paris in 1814 by the Coalition powers. [11]

The years from the start of the revolution to the abdication of Napoleon have had a marked effect on France in particular and Europe in general. He introduced equality and justice throughout the lands he governed and even though France returned to having an emperor, the new King had limited power. Napoleon’s wars were followed by the concept of nationalism in Europe that helped shape the future Geo political landscape. In my opinion, the Napoleonic years had a resounding effect on European history and although some of his actions are controversial, it can be argued that he was able to help France move towards a republic. [12]

References

Baily, J.T. Herbert. Napoleon. London: The Cranford Press, 1908.

Bainesville, Jacques. Napoleon. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1933.

Barnett, Correlli. Bonaparte. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.

Bergeron, Louise. France Under Napoleon. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Bowden, Scott. The Glory Years of 1805 -1807: Napoleon and Austerlitz. Chicago: The Emperor’s Press, 1997.

Bruce, Evangeline. Napoleon & Josephine. New York: Kensington Books, 1995.

Carrington, Dorothy. Napoleon and His Parents. New York: Dutton, 1990. [13]

Castelot, Andre. Napoleon. New York: Harper and Row, 1968.

Chandler, David G. The Campaigns of Napoleon. New York: Scribner, 1966.

Connelly, Owen. The French Revolution and Napoleonic Era. Fort Worth: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1991.

Cronin, Vincent. Napoleon. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1971.

Geyl, Pieter. Napoleon For and Against. London: Jonathan Cape, 1957.

[1] Bainesville, Jacques. Napoleon. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1933). 53.

[2] Chandler, David G. The Campaigns of Napoleon. (New York: Scribner, 1966). 124
[3] Cronin, Vincent. Napoleon. (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1971). 111
[4] Chandler, David G. The Campaigns of Napoleon. (New York: Scribner, 1966). 126
[5] Bergeron, Louise. France Under Napoleon. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990). 225
[6] Baily, J.T. Herbert. Napoleon. (London: The Cranford Press, 1908). 26
[7] Castelot, Andre. Napoleon. (New York: Harper and Row, 1968). 68
[8] Connelly, Owen. The French Revolution and Napoleonic Era. (Fort Worth: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1991). 91
[9] Connelly, Owen. The French Revolution and Napoleonic Era. (Fort Worth: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1991). 123.
[10] Cronin, Vincent. Napoleon. (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1971). 73
[11] Geyl, Pieter. Napoleon For and Against. (London: Jonathan Cape, 1957). 58
[12] Baily, J.T. Herbert. Napoleon. (London: The Cranford Press, 1908). 192