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.

Napoleon: The Revolution & the Catholic Church

In this essay segment, I explore Napoleon’s connection to the French Revolution and Roman Catholicism. Even though he accepts the role of emperor, bringing civil rule to an end, perhaps he was more revolutionary than we tend to think.

It might be easy to dismiss Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign as a clear shift away from the revolution of 1789 because he walked away from the newly established republic making himself Emperor with power rivaling that of an absolute monarch.  However, Napoleon’s revolutionary credentials should not be summarily dismissed. It is important to remember that the French Revolution was not about promoting liberal democracy as we understand it in the twenty-first century.  It was a very early expression of the people of a nation overthrowing the shackles of tyranny by toppling the existing order which had abused and taken advantage of the masses for centuries. Despite his empire building, Napoleon continued the secular society and imperialist tendencies of the revolution.  Napoleon’s rule was a clear continuation of the revolutionary spirit which swept to power in 1789 which ultimately toppled the monarchy of King Louis XVI and overturned feudal society.

One of Napoleon’s main objectives was to centralize the power structure of France (Lyons 73). The centralization of power could easily be seen as a power grab and, to a certain extent, this analysis would be true.  However, the one thing that the young revolution was lacking was order.  The revolution had seen itself move swiftly through new constitutions, various governments and numerous uprisings.  The Great Terror experienced in the mid-1790s was fresh in everyone’s memory and seemingly France was always just a coup d’état away from coming to another realization of that terror.  The French Republic was in desperate need for order.  Constant revolutionary activity ultimately could not offer what the revolutionary propaganda promised to the people – equality, fairness and security.  In many respects, the Great Terror put an effective end to all three of those ideals. Napoleon’s ascension to power brought about peace within the nation – a peace in which people could live without fear and where the Old Regime no longer had its grip on society.

When Napoleon was crowned Emperor by the Pope in 1804, it was not necessarily a clear break with the revolution but more of a realization that the French Empire held the fate of so many European Catholics (Lyons 89).  It certainly was a symbolic move showing the world Napoleon’s absolute power, but it was also a picture of French power – revolutionary power that started in the 1790s and pushed the edges of French hegemony for decades to come.  While this bold move was shocking to some republican observers, it most likely was a moment of great pride for the French people to see the Pope crowning their leader.  It was the consolidation of French power and preeminence throughout the region.  This epic scene was a culmination of Napoleon’s shrewd political games which produced the Concordant between Napoleon and the Vatican bringing about a return to normal religious life for most Frenchmen.

The Concordant was a master-stroke by Napoleon that finished the work of the revolution in regards to the Catholic Church.   The Concordant signaled the end of religious intolerance and the end of the supremacy of the Catholic Church.  Napoleon realized that an agreement with the Vatican could strengthen his standing and put the final touches on the secular state.  If the Vatican could agree to some of the radical revolutionary views which would have been rebuffed twenty years earlier, then Napoleon could consolidate a secular state while having the support of the vast remaining network of Catholic loyalties.  In this regard, the Concordant was quite revolutionary.  The Vatican agreed to recognize other religious groups in France (Lyons 92).  This ensured that Catholicism was no longer the established or dominant religion (Lyons 86).   In essence, Napoleon ended what the Directory started.  He, in his very pragmatic approach, realized that his country could not become a secular nation by ignoring the traditionally large influence that the Catholic Church had on its people and nation.  Instead of stripping Catholicism from the nation, the Concordant achieved a heightened awareness of the nation’s religiosity while ensuring the secular nature of the state.   In this sense, the Concordant achieved a great victory for the revolution.  But the Concordant did much more than just help secularize French society.

Napoleon used the Concordant to pacify the country and eliminate the opposition of counter-revolutionary bishops (Lyons 84).  One of the great challenges of the first decade of the revolution was the many conflicts and upheavals which roared from Paris into the far-reaching corners of France.  In Vendée and other Catholic dominated areas, many rebels never accepted the diminished role of the church and the secularization of society.   But now, as the Pope stamped his approval of the French government by reaching an agreement with Napoleon, the bishops and other religious leaders were once again under Vatican control. Once this happened, the bishops had to encourage others in places like Vendée to obey the Vatican endorsed government (Lyons 91).  This was a great benefit to Napoleon who wanted to consolidate his power, but it was also a great benefit to the French people as a whole.  The decreased turmoil would allow citizens of all religious persuasions to go about their lives without the fear of terror and backlash which was a constant feature of the 1790s.

Under Napoleon’s reign, churches that had long been closed or used for other purposes were reopened; religious festivals and ceremonies resumed; pilgrimages forgotten during the revolution were taken once more and the religious calendar which was always so interconnected with agrarian life was once again observed (Lyons 144).  This normalcy which was nearly non-in the early days of the revolution certainly contributed to the majority of the peasants supporting Napoleon.  However, it seems that the main reason Napoleon had peasant support was because he offered a permanent end to the feudal lord system (Lyons 144).  Beyond anything else, the peasants enjoyed being free from the yolk of the nobles and royalty who demanded their dues.  Now that a vast majority of them experienced a return to their normal religious life, they were for the most part happy to put their support behind Napoleon.

The relative period of calm which France experienced in the first decade of the nineteenth century enabled Napoleon to pursue policies which often times benefited the nation and continued the spirit of revolutionary reform. One such reform was education.  Napoleon nationalized secondary education for boys in 1808 (Lyons 91).  This progressive educational policy gave all boys a secular education that was standardized.  The same curriculum was used in every corner of France so to ensure a unifying, nationalistic approach. Napoleon’s focus on education was tangible and practical.  The lycée, or secondary school, replaced the old central school system.  It was a completely government run system.  The government chose the teachers, implemented the same syllabus throughout the land, and standardized everything regarding their education (Lyons 105).  To ensure the on-going success of such a new educational system, the government even paid the boarding fee for 180 students per school (Lyons 105).  In addition, Napoleon introduced the national examination in 1809 which was given at the culmination of secondary education and would be used as an admissions test for those moving into higher education (Lyons 107).  Napoleon clearly had a liberal view of education and accomplished a national, secular system that many revolutionaries would have been proud of.  He did not, however, have the same progressive view of education for both genders and his educational reforms did not reach down to the primary levels.

It may be rightly pointed out that Napoleon’s policy towards secondary boys education basically meant that primary education and the education of girls were abandoned to the Catholic Church (Lyons 91).  However, it must be remembered that this fact, in essence, was no different than the education that began to emerge during the revolutionary years of the 1790s when the lack of qualified teachers put education back under the control of the church (Connelly 150).  The fact that girls were not educated in the public system or that primary education was overlooked in no way diminishes the revolutionary pedigree of Napoleon’s educational system.

Another of Napoleon’s main achievements which helped underscore his revolutionary mindset was the Civil Code.  The provisions set forth in the Civil Code consolidated the laws and achievements of the revolution.  These laws acknowledged the strides which the revolutionary-leading bourgeoisie had accomplished (Lyons 94).  This code was applied nationally to every part of the republic, and coupled with Napoleon’s secondary education system unified the nation like never before (Lyons 94-95).  Bonaparte’s secular laws were applied universally to every citizen; they were impressive enough that many nations of the world emulated them (Lyons 95).  Several European nations introduced the code which they viewed as a way to end feudalism and diminish the power of the church (Lyons 102-103). In this way, the Civil Code was a cutting edge feature of the lasting power of the revolution which spilled over into many European countries.

The unifying nature of the code certainly had many advantages for Napoleon’s regime.  It helped him consolidate power while limiting the local authority of the provinces.  Napoleon would not tolerate opposition to the code as evidenced by the purging of the Tribunate in 1802 (Lyons 95).  While the Civil Code may have helped Napoleon achieve his goal of the centralization of government, it also laid to waste the social landscape of the pre-revolutionary regime.  For example, the Civil Code officially rid the nation of privilege; everyone now stood equally before the law and this entitled people to get jobs based on merit not status (Lyons 96).  It also completely secularized marriage (Lyons 96).  Napoleon codified what the revolution tried to accomplish concerning marriage. The difference was that in the early hours of the revolution, many people did not trust that a marriage could be performed without a clergyman, so many continued to get married twice – first by civilian means and the second time by a priest just to play it safe (Connelly 164).  However, now the marriage laws were part of the national body of secular laws which applied to everyone.

Napoleon’s use of the revolutionary calendar was yet another way that Napoleon did not try to distance himself from the revolution. He preserved the revolutionary calendar for six years considering it to be a proper and fit way that a secular society should keep its state in order (Lyons 138).  He retained the observance of Bastille Day commemorating the beginning of the revolution, and he continued to celebrate the first day of the year which commemorated the inauguration of the republic (Lyons 138).  It could be argued that these were mere hollow gestures of a ruler trying to show revolutionary pedigree to a populace who was still weary of a resurgence of the old monarchy. But if that was the case, it only bolsters the point that Napoleon took the views of his people seriously.

Look for Part II as we’ll look at some of the criticisms of Napoleon in regards to the revolution.

Based on the following works:

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.



Taxes, Tithing, and Rumors: The Peasantry in the French Revolution

Complaints of an unfair tax system. Cries of inequality and a widening income gap. Rumors of impending doom. No, we are not talking about 2013. These were the themes which put a twist in the French Revolution of 1789. Here’s a short essay I wrote on the subject a while back. 

As the French bourgeoisie revolution raged in the summer of 1789, the peasants who had long been under the stern hand of an unkind system were emboldened by the maneuverings in Paris and created a widespread uprising that pushed the French Revolution into a new phase. The peasants did not wait quietly to hear all of the political outcomes of the Estates General. In fact, the peasants moved, pushed and provoked the revolution into unpredictable territory.

The peasants comprised the bulk of the French population.  They toiled tirelessly on the land often not being able to grow enough on their meager plots on which to subsist. (Lefebvre 130).  The peasants endured a long list of inequalities which made them the most overburdened class in France.  These burdens united the rural population in common recognition that all of the obligations placed on them could not continue (Lefebvre 133).  One of the grossest inequalities concerned the tax system.

The peasants were singled out discriminatively in regards to tax requirements.  They were the only class which had to pay the taille, the unfair land tax, and they also contributed most to the poll tax (Lefebvre 133).   Likewise they were the only class which was randomly chosen for military service (Lefebvre 133).  But this by far was not all.  They endured the indirect taxes on items such as salt, but perhaps worst of all, they paid the dreaded manorial dues to the lords of the land.  The church also had its hold on the peasants if but to a lesser degree.  The tithe had to be paid to the clergy.  Perhaps the peasants would not have minded paying the tithe as much if they saw the proceeds being put to use in the local parish; however, the tithe collector who claimed their potion of the peasants harvest seemed to become nothing more than a grain hoarder (Lefebvre 135).  It would have made the peasants frustrated and angry to see grain being stored in large quantities around the country when the bulk of the rural folk did not have enough to eat.  The peasants were also critical of the bourgeoisie many of whom owned thriving businesses and generally had better means to navigate difficult economic times.  Clearly, however, the overwhelming sense of anger and discontent emanating from the peasants was focused on the nobility and when the peasants moved, they hit their desired target hard.

One of the interesting features of the peasant revolts was the mass hysteria being conjured up by any one of a thousand rumors which spread contagiously across the land.  There was widespread belief in an ‘aristocratic conspiracy’.  Many believed that the aristocrats would not sit back and let their privileges be taken away by a bourgeoisie assembly.  The peasants believed that the aristocrats would deceive the king into action to crush the Third Estate using hired foreign armies or bands of brigands or thieves to do their bidding (Lefebvre 143).  In fact, the long drawn out inaction of the Estates General during the months leading up to the storming of the Bastille was in the peasants’ view merely a part of this conspiracy (Lefebvre 143).  In light of these ‘conspiracies’, the peasants bonded together in solidarity many claiming that they would not make any payments on the harvest during the coming fall months (Lefebvre 143).

To further disturb the already aroused feelings of the rural farmers, fear and panic of impending disaster and attack became widespread.  This so called Great Fear pushed one person’s fear upon another creating confusion, terror and backlash against the nobles and landlords.  Rumors spread that cavalrymen were wandering around the countryside; a simple group of people coming out of the forest could spread viral rumors about brigands and others hired by nobles who were going to threaten the peasants land and livelihood; one group of the new National Guard was mistaken to be brigands which led to more rumors and upheavals (Lefebvre 147).  It is not likely that any of these rumors which spread fear and panic throughout much of France in 1789 was organized or planned.  It did, however, have a great impact on how the peasants thought and acted.  Misinformation gave credence to their actions, and it did not really seem that the verification of the rumors was necessary.  It emboldened the peasants to act out lest they lose the little they still had.

One broad factor that roused the peasantry into rebellion was the economic woes that accompanied the year of revolution.   In the spring of 1789, the high price of bread brought about widespread riots and uprisings in the Northern provinces (Lefebvre 145).   An already overtaxed population would not tolerate the drastic rise in their sustenance; many moved into action.

In the southern province of Dauphiny, an agrarian revolt broke out.  In one place, a group of peasants gathered fearing their houses were in danger of being burnt down.   In response to this unspecified threat, they attacked the local manor houses and torched them all (Lefebvre 149).  In fact, after the storming of the Bastille in Paris on July 14, the peasants were in many ways emboldened and in their celebratory state burnt down many manor houses (Lefebvre 145).   The targeting of the manor houses was logical.  Above all else, they hated the dues that they had to pay to the nobles.  They hated the class system which pushed them down to the benefit of the privileged classes.  The peasants wanted nothing less than the complete renunciation of manorial dues and the complete destruction of the manor system (Lefebvre 146).

The peasant revolt moved the revolution from the cities to the most remote rural areas.  The peasant revolt also pushed the revolution out of the mere political arena in Paris by violently confronting the nobles who had so long persecuted and used them.  An uprising of the peasantry was not an assured matter.  Lefebvre contends that without the king calling an Estates General they would not have moved at all (144).  But the fact that they did adds a fascinating and perhaps surprising feature to the French Revolution.

Works Cited

LeFebvre, Georges. The Coming of the French Revolution. Trans. R.R. Palmer. Princeton:

Princeton University Press, 2005.