The Age of Napoleon Bonaparte



  • Explain how the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte in France an upgrade or downgrade from the rule of Louis XVI
  • Identify the lasting impact(s) of Napoleon’s reign

After the radical phase of the French Revolution, things took another drastic turn with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, who seized power.  Napoleon is a controversial figure in history as he had great accomplishments and dismal failures.

Napoleon was able to seize power because France was in bad shape after the Reign of Terror.  After the execution of Robespierre, yet another new government was formed, called the Directory.  It wasn’t much better than the other revolutionary governments that preceded it; it was corrupt and unable—as the failed governments before it—to solve the problems that caused the Revolution.  The French people were tired of all of the chaos.  They were ready for a strong leader that would solve all their problems.

Military hero Napoleon Bonaparte rose to national prominence and in 1799 staged a coup d’etat—a sudden take over of the government by the military—to become the ruler of France.  Once taking over, Napoleon wrote a new constitution and put it before the people in a plebiscite—when the people of an entire country vote for or against a proposal, especially on a choice of government or ruler.

Napoleon ruled as a military dictator, not that unlike the rule of Louis XVI.  But because Napoleon attempted to deal with problems more than Louis did, the people supported him.  At first, the people loved Napoleon because he was able to restore law and order in France, giving it the stability it lacked during the Revolution.  They loved him so much that the allowed him to crown himself Emperor in 1804, which was also approved by the people in another plebiscite.

As a military man, Napoleon seemed to view fighting wars as a key to leading.  Consequently, his rule led to a series of conflicts know as the Napoleonic Wars (1803—1815).  Napoleon—regarded as one of history’s military geniuses—built a European empire in process.

When Napoleon took over France, the country was still at war with a coalition—a multi-national military force under a single command—of Europe’s hereditary rulers determined to crush the French Revolution.  France was fighting against the First Coalition, which was made up of Austria, the Kingdom of Sardinia (Italy), the Kingdom of Naples (Italy), Prussia (Germany), Spain, and Great Britain.  Defending France from these invaders, Napoleon defeated the coalition.

But he didn’t stop there.  Napoleon began fighting a series of wars, taking over much of Europe in the process.  These wars increased French nationalism, but eventually the people also got weary of constantly being at war.  When taking over these other countries, Napoleon and the French were welcomed in most conquered territories as liberators because they freed the people from oppressive absolute monarchs and gave them rights.  But these feelings quickly turned to resentment as these other nations didn’t want to be controlled by France.

Napoleon’s empire was a ticking time bomb.  He sought to dominate European politics with it.  He installed friends in relatives in charge of the countries he conquered.  He also told the rulers in other countries what to do and—out of fear of being taken over—they usually listened.

In order to do so, he needed to elimate the influence of France’s chief rival, Britain.  The British and French competed not just for political influence over the other countries of Europe, but also economically. Napoleon sought to remove British influence over continental Europe and told all the countries he controlled not to trade with them.  This policy of not trading with England, which was part of Napoleon’s Continental System, was widely unpopular.  Many of the countries ignored it, causing conflict with Napoleon, which caused many of the other conflicts that are grouped into the Napoleonic Wars.

Napoleon also sought to rebuild a French colonial empire in the Caribbean and the Americas to compete with the British.  But things didn’t go well there and he eventually decided to cut his losses, doing things like selling off French territory on the Mississippi River to the Americans.

Napoleon was headed for trouble and his downfall was triggered by three main decisions.  When the King of Spain and Portugal didn’t follow Napoleon’s edict to not trade with Britain, Napoleon invaded.  The resulting Peninsular War—during which the French struggled against guerrilla warfare—ended with the expulsion of the French from both countries.

Then, in 1812, Napoleon was invaded Russia when the czar refused to comply with his demand that no one trade with England.  The French Army—the largest in the world at the time—quickly pushed to Moscow.  Because of their past success, they thought this would be an easy victory and didn’t even consider ordering winter supplies, since they invaded in spring.  The Russians did not surrender as the French expected.  In fact, the Russians practice a type of warfare called “scorched earth policy,” which means that they destroyed all the resources of an area before it fell into enemy hands. As the French waited for the czar to surrender, the Russian winter hit.  Under supplied, the French Army was forced to retreat in miserable conditions. Napoleon lost three-quarters of his Army in the retreat.  Napoleon was now weak, with his Army in disarray.  On the retreat from Russia, many troops deserted.  The Allies saw the chance and attacked.

In 1813, a coalition force of Russian, Prussian, and Austrian troops defeated Napoleon at Leipzig in modern-day Germany.  These Allies invaded France and removed Napoleon from power.  He was exiled to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean.

But, oddly, the story doesn’t end there.  In 1815, Napoleon made a comeback.  He escaped house arrest in Elba and returned to France, taking over the government again.  He ruled for one-hundred more days.  Another coalition force led by the British defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.  Napoleon was again removed from power and put under house arrest on the island of St. Helena, where he died a short time later.

Napoleon has had a lasting impact on European history for several reasons.  Firstly, Napoleon brought back economic stability and law and order after the chaos of the French Revolution.

Also, Napoleon made some of the ideals of the French Revolution part of the legal systems of Europe.  In France, Napoleon established his own law code called Code Napoleon (or the Napoleonic Code).  It provided for legal equality for all social classes.  It also established other key rights for all people that came from the ideas of the Enlightenment, such as freedom of religion and trial by jury, etc.  This is particularly important because when Napoleon conquered the other countries of France, the Napoleonic Code became the law in those territories too.  Even after the French left, people’s expectation for equality and rights remained.  Napoleon also instituted public schools run by the state.  This idea also spread throughout Europe.

Another key effect of Napoleon was how he helped cause a general rise in nationalism throughout Europe.  Nationalism—the belief that the people of a nation should rule themselves—helped cause the rise of the new nations of Italy and Germany in the 1870’s.  Nationalism is the belief that the people of a nation should rule themselves.  The nationalism Napoleon caused in the countries the French conquered would later help cause the revolutions of the 1800’s and the rise of the new nations of Italy and Germany in the 1870’s.

See also:  The French Revolution


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