Napoleon and the French Revolution (Part II)

You can read Part I HERE! In this part, I explore some of the criticisms leveled at Napoleon. Is it still fair to call him a revolutionary at heart when he was crowned emperor?

The criticisms of Napoleon’s actions are not few, and it should be noted that he went to great lengths to hold on to his power.  Even so, Napoleon’s early career in the army was during the forefront of the revolution, and as First Consul and then Emperor, Napoleon never intended to make a clean break from the republic.  In his own eyes he was the people’s ruler who was legitimized by plebiscite. Furthermore, by keeping the state’s secularism and the fervor of nationalism, he was able to claim that many republican features of the revolution were still intact (Lyons 137).  By doing this, he gained significant enough support from republicans that any serious opposition to his rule would be fairly splintered (Lyons 137).  He viewed his actions as those of a man who stopped the chaos of the 1790s and ushered in a period of peace and order – at least for a time.

When Napoleon accepted the crown and became emperor, he was certainly breaking away from the republic. This no doubt unsettled the most ardent revolutionaries who feared that an imperial empire could augment the return of a state resembling the Old Regime.  This especially was true after Napoleon created the imperial nobility in 1808.  Using the word “noble” must have sent shockwaves through a peasant population who had memories of feudal dues and a privileged class which derived their status through heredity.  But Napoleon’s nobility did not resemble the old Second Estate.  Napoleon created this new imperial nobility and rewarded them for their service as a way to help preserve his imperial legacy by keeping a loyal following of administrators who depended upon the system he created (Lyons 172). This move to create the imperial nobility was another attempt by Napoleon to consolidate his power.  In retrospect, it does not fit well at all with the revolutionary spirit that Napoleon was said to represent, but at the same time, it was not a return to feudalism.

Another reason that Napoleon’s dictatorship could correctly claim to be linked to the revolution was that it was not a dictatorship emboldened by military might, but one which derived power from the people through referendum.  Napoleon could always rightly claim to have been given the authority to rule by the masses who overwhelmingly voted to approve his authority.  Granted, the referendums brought forth by Napoleon would be hard pressed to stand up to twenty-first century scrutiny in regards to open and free democratic voting.  When voting on important issues such as “Should Napoleon be consul for life?”, citizens had to vote a flat ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in such a way that their vote was recorded publicly (Lyons 112).  The lack of a secret ballot system could and was used to persuade people into voting ‘yes’.  Anyone who was bold enough to vote ‘no’ would have to stand up to the scrutiny of a governmental authority which would watch you closely to make sure you were not trying to form any sort of oppositional movement.  But even with these limitations, the fact that Napoleon sought the people’s approval is a significant departure from a military dictatorship.  He cared what the people thought, and he went to great lengths to make himself look good. He even personally communicated with his subjects through written army bulletins which were unique for that day and age (Lyons 179). He viewed his role as Consul and then Emperor as a mere extension of the will of the people claiming that he was “popular sovereignty in action” (Lyons 111).

Napoleon saw to it that the bourgeoisie who had risen up and seized the reigns of revolutionary power continued to prosper, thrive and dominate the administrative landscape of his empire. The privileged classes of the Old Regime had permanently lost their power and social policies were now being formed by the revolutionary bourgeoisie (Lyons 127).  Sixty-one percent of the prefects were bourgeoisie as were 58 percent of the imperial nobility (Lyons 170-171).  In addition, one-fifth of Napoleon’s nobility was from the popular classes (Lyons 171).  His imperial empire had very little resemblance to the court of King Louis XVI.  He also was open about seeking advice of experts in law and administration consulting with them directly about all sorts of technical issues (Lyons 117).  All of this seems to indicate that the revolutionary spirit had not waned despite the lack of political opposition and the open exchange of free ideas which western democracies of today come to rely upon.  After all, the First and Second Estates were a thing of the past as were the manorial dues and the unfair taxes levied on the peasants.  The Catholic Church no longer had a strangle-hold on vast portions of French land, and the reduced influence of the church afforded Protestants and members of other faiths protection under the law.  And perhaps most importantly, the relative peace that was experienced under Napoleon’s first decade was a refreshing break from the 1790s which promised progress and rights but brought nothing but instability and bloodshed while often times suppressing the very rights that the revolutionary movement promoted.  In voting for Napoleon through referendum, the people may have been trading some of the promise of the revolution for order and normalcy, but they were also turning their back on the harsh reality which revolution brutally brought to France. It could be argued that the French people of the first decade under Napoleon were better off than in the previous two decades.  Perhaps this is one reason he enjoyed such support from the rural areas.

Napoleon’s reign was not a utopian expression of republicanism or democratic revolutionary fervor.  Far from it.  Many of his actions seem to negate the gains of the tumultuous 1790s.  However, the one clear message that emerges from Napoleon’s reign is that he was not interested in turning back the clock and making his empire anything like the previous monarchy.  His laws, educational systems and policies which eased religious restrictions were clearly a logical continuation of the revolutionary way of thinking.  In addition, he permanently abolished privilege classes based on birth and gave unprecedented opportunities for many Frenchmen who previously made up the Third Estate.  Napoleon was a unique yet imperfect cog in the revolutionary wheel – one which influenced France and Europe for many decades into the nine-tenth century.


Works Cited

Connelly, Owen. The French Revolution and Napoleonic Era. 2nd Ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt

Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1991.

Lyons, Martyn. Napoleon Bonaparte and the Legacy of the French Revolution. New York:

Palgrave, 1994.


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