2.8 Napoleonic Era

Napoleonic Era

Appiani, Andrea. "Portrait of Napoleon as King of Italy." 1805
Appiani, Andrea. “Portrait of Napoleon as King of Italy.” 1805. Kunsthistorisches Museum. Wikimedia. July 2, 2016.


The foreign wars of the French Revolution allowed military men to take control. In contrast to the ever- changing government at home, the generals on the battlefields were able to maintain rigid control. This is actually very similar to what happened centuries earlier in Rome when the Roman Republic fell under the control of victorious generals whose troops were more loyal to the generals than they were to the republic. France fell into a similar trap. While you read about this period and watch the video clips, consider the following: What major events brought Napoleon Bonaparte to power in France? At what points might he have been stopped? How might he have been stopped?

Considering that he would go on to become one of the most significant French rulers of all time, there is considerable irony in the fact that Napoleon Bonaparte was not born in France itself. Instead, Napoleon was born on Corsica in 1769. He was the son of a minor noble, but this did not serve him at all. With no title and no wealth, Napoleon was little better than a bourgeois. He did train at military school and was able to test his skills during the foreign campaigns of the French Revolution. Napoleon was bold and quickly rose through the ranks of the French Revolutionary Army, inspiring immense personal loyalty from his men. Thanks to his relentless drive, considerable intellectual gifts, and more than a little luck, he would eventually achieve a position of unchallenged authority he had always sought. Napoleon was a great contrast. On the one hand, he was a man of the French Revolution. He had achieved fame only because of the opportunities the revolutionary armies provided; as a member of a minor Corsican noble family, he would have never risen to prominence in the pre-revolutionary era. Likewise, with his armies he “exported” the Revolution to the rest of Europe, undermining the power of the traditional nobility and instituting a law code based on the principle of legal equality. Decades later, as a prisoner in a miserable British island-prison in the South Atlantic, Napoleon would claim in his memoirs that everything he had done was in the name of France and the Revolution.

On the other hand, Napoleon was a megalomaniac who indulged his every political whim and single-mindedly pursued personal power. He appointed his family members to run newly-invented puppet states in Europe after he had conquered them. He ignored the beliefs and sentiments of the people he conquered and, arguably, of the French themselves, who remained loyal because of his victories and the stability and order he had returned to France after the tumult of the 1790s. He micro-managed the enormous empire he had created with his armies and trusted no one besides his older brother and the handful of generals who had proved themselves over years of campaigning for him. Thus, while he may have truly believed in the revolutionary principles of reason and efficiency, and cared little for outdated traditions, there was not a trace of the revolution’s democratic impulse present in his personality or in the imperial state that he created.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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