Napoleon and the French Revolution

Posted by Nick Efstathiadis in ,

"We have finished the romance of the Revolution, we must
   now begin its history, only seeking for what is real and
   practicable in the application of its principles, and not
   what is speculative and hypothetical."

After Brumaire (9-10 Nov. 1799) --the coup d'etat which first set
Napoleon on the path to becoming the supreme executive of a French
empire-- Napoleon declared, "The Revolution is made fast on the
principles on which it began;  the Revolution is finished."  Since this
famous utterance came so soon after he gained power, it is clear that
Napoleon was saying something significant about what the role of his
new-born regime would be to those which had preceded it.  Like the man
himself, this quote and the one at the head of this page are both highly
complex and ambiguous.  He is declaring that the new regime was both a
break from the immediate past and part of a continuity with that past.
What was Napoleon's relationship to the Revolution?  To what extent was
he its heir or its betrayer?  Did he save the Revolution or liquidate
To begin it is necessary to determine what one means by "the
Revolution".  There was not one Revolution, but really a series of them
which occurred as the French struggled to create a new political and
social system.  By the "Revolution" do we mean that of Barnave, or of
Mirabeau, or Lafayette, or Brissot, or Danton, or Robespierre, or
Hebert, or Tallien, of Babeuf, or Barras?  All of these were men of the
Revolution, yet they all held differing conceptions of what that
"Revolution" was.  I will be considering many of those fundamental
principles which guided most of these revolutionaries.  In general,
these principles include equal treatment under the law, one degree or
another of centralization of the government, elimination of feudal
rights, religious tolerance and careers open to talent not birth.
Georges Lefebvre wrote that the Emperor was "...a pupil of the
philosophes, he detested feudalism, civil inequality, and religious
intolerance.  Seeing in enlightened despotism a reconciliation of
authority with political and social reform, he became its last and most
illustrious representative.  In this sense he was the man of the
Revolution."  R. R. Palmer has observed that Napoleon considered the
Jacobin government of Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety the
only serious government of the Revolutionary period.  During the "Reign
of Terror" Napoleon was strongly identified with the Jacobins.  His
dialogue published in 1793, LE SOUPER DE BEAUCAIRE, championed the
Jacobins over the federalist Girondins.  What Napoleon admired were the
Jacobins' strong centralized government, their commitment to deal
decisively with the problems facing the fledgling republic, and their
attempt to forge a stron stable France while winning the war against its
Napoleon clearly felt, like the Jacobins, that an energetic
centralized state was essential to consolidate the advances achieved by
the Revolution and, at the same time, he wished to bring about the
stability many French longed for after the upheavals of the past
decade.  In his eyes this meant the need for a strong executive.  From
1799 until his death on the South Atlantic island of St. Helena,
Napoleon spoke of himself as the man who had completed the Revolution.
By this he meant that the basic goals of the Revolution enumerated above
had been obtained and that now it was time to consolidate and
instituionalize those gains.  France, after ten years of revolution, had
still lacked the proper foundation upon which to institutionalize the
revolutionary achievements until Napoleon provided it with his
administrative framework.
"Bonaparte came, as he said, 'to close the Romance of the
Revolution',"  H.A.L. Fisher wrote, " to heal the wounds, to correct the
extravagances, to secure the conquests.  It was his boast that he did
not belong to the race of the 'ideologues', that he saw facts through
plain glass, and that he came to substitute and age of work for and age
of talk...he would create a methodical government based upon popular
consent, and concieved in the interests not of any particular faction
but of France as a whole."  As Napoleon himself explained to the Council
of State in 1802:  "I govern not as a general but because the nation
believes that I have the civilian qualities necessary to govern.  If I
did not have this opinion, the government could not stand."
Napoleon is generally credited with having consolidated the gains of
the Revolution ("With the exception of fathering the Civil Code,
Napoleon perhaps gloried more in his reputation as consolidator of the
Revolution than in any other one title," Robert B. Holtman observed).
In this sense he can be credited with having 'saved' the Revolution by
ending it.  Had the Bourbons come back to power in 1799 instead of
Napoleon, they would at that time had less trouble "turning back the
clock" to the ancient regime than they had in 1814.  As Francois Furet
has put it, "Revolutionary France was indeed under the spell of the new
sovereign, who was its son and had saved it from the danger of a
restoration...France had finally found the republican monarchy toward
which it had been groping since 1789."  The Code Napoleon, one of the
Emperor's most enduring achievements, embodied many of the principles of
the Revolution and made them permanent.
To Prince Eugene, his viceroy in Italy, Napoleon wrote, "I am
seeking nothing less than a social revolution."  Feaudalism was
suppressed and careers were open to all those with ability regardless of
birth ("Wherever I found talent and courage I rewarded it."  Napoleon,
1816)  Napoleon became the personification of the revolutionary aims of
the bourgeoisie.  He reformed and modernized French institutions
(historian Jacues Godechot has said that with Napoleon the medieval era
ended and modern history began).  He brought much longed for order and
stability to France and forged a sense of unity.  He attempted to unite
under his wing both the revolutionaries and the emigres --nobles, clergy
and others who chose or were forced to live in exile under the
Revolution ("I became the arch of the alliance between the old and the
new, the natural mediator between the old and the new orders...I
belonged to them both."  Napoleon. 1816).  The sales of the lands taken
from the nobles who had emigrated or been declared enemies of the state,
from the Church, or from the Crown (the "biens nationaux")  --an
important benefit for the middle classes and the peasants of the
Revolution-- were recognized not only in Napoleon's coronation oath, but
also in the signing of the Concordat with the Pope.
Robert B. Holtman observed, "This task of consolidation made
Napoleon  a conservative in France, desirous of keeping the gains of the
Revolution, but a revolutionary in acien regime areas abroad."  It has
been said that many of Napoleon's reforms were just continuations of
reforms begun under the Revolution (just as it has been said that many
of the reforms of the Revolution were continuations of those begun
during the ancien regime).  It is important to keep in mind that
Napoleon also brought these reforms to the countries with the Empire,
where they were truly revolutionary.  Owen Connelly has said that
"Napoleon...was a conscious promoter of Revolution all over Europe.  In
fact, I firmly believe that this was the reason for his demise.  He was,
to the legitimate powers of Europe a crowned Jacobin...[These powers]
were able to mobilize against him in the end the very people who stood
to gain the most from the governments which Napoleon installed."  The
principles which Napoleon inherited from the Revolution and consolidated
in France, he exported to the countries which fell under the French
imperium.  If Napoleon's reforms in France were no longer revolutionary,
outside of France these same reforms were profoundly revolutionary
(Goethe described Napoleon as "the Revolution crowned.").  It had been
the goal of many of the Revolution's leaders to "revolutionize" the rest
of Europe.  Napoleon accomplished this.
The principle of equality was recognized in the destruction of
feudal rights and privileges in the Empire and in the submission of all
members of socirty to a common sceme of justice, the Napoleonic Code.
The Legion of Honor was also intended to foster equality, as well as
reward talent.  "...The establishment of the Legion of Honor, which was
the reward for military, civil, and judicial service, united side by
side the soldier, the scholar, the artist, the prelate, and the
magistrate; it was the symbol of the reunion of all the estates, of all
the parties." (LE MEMORIAL DE SAINTE-HELENE, 1821)  The Emperor, as the
supreme executive, was deemed the representative of the general will.
This powerful executive was a feature also of the relationship between
the Convention and the Committee of Public Safety, as well as the
Legislature and the Directory.  The Revolution, like Napoleon, bore a
strong authoritarian streak.
"It was Napoleon's fuction in history to fuse the old France with
the new,"  H.A.L. Fisher observed.  Napoleon declared that he wanted "to
cement peace at home by anything that could bring the French together
and provide tranquility within families."  Like Mirabeau, Napoleon
didn't see an incompatibility between the Revolution and monarchy.
Napoleon did what the Bourbon King could not --reconcile the elements of
the monarchy with elements of the Revolution-- which was the failed goal
of Mirabeau in 1790.  Napoleon was largely successful in attracting men
from all parties --from ex-Jacobins to ci-devant nobles-- to his
government.  Signing the Concordat (15 July 1801) allowed Napoleon to
reconcile the religious differences which had torn France apart during
the Revolution.  (At the same time, the Concordat insured religious
freedom.  It recognized Catholicism as the religion of the majority of
the French, but did not make it an "established" religion as the Church
of England was in Britain.  Protestants an Jews were allowed to practice
their religion and retain their civic rights.)  A general amnesty signed
by Napoleon (26 April 1802) allowed all but about one thousand of the
most notorious emigres to return to France.  These two actions helped to
bring relative tranquility to those areas of France which had long been
at war with the Revolution.  Albert Sobould has wrtten that "stabilizing
socirty on the fundamental base of the Revolution, [Napoleon] integrated
the returned emigres into a new social hierachy; and, while reinforcing
the principle of authority, he merged these emigres into a new order
which at first had been constructed against them."
What of liberty?  Of the three key principles of the Revolution
--liberty, equality, and fraternity--  it was liberty which suffered
most under Napoleon.  Historian Albert Vandal has observed that
"Bonaparte can be reproached for not having established liberty; he
cannot be accused of having destroyed it, for the excellent reason that
on his return from Egypt he did not find it anywhere in France."  The
French desiring to safeguard what thet had acquired during the
Revolution, be it rights or property, wanted these guaranteed.  Many
felt that guarantee could come only with the restoration and
preservation of order.  They were willing to sacrifice their liberties
for that guarantee, for that order.  "In the absence of political
liberty, he would assure Frenchmen of their individual rights.  In the
Napoleonic Code, he would sanctify equality, their dearest possession.
He would keep most of the revolutionary institutions while at times
amalgamating then with those of the Old Regime,  which were restored but
adapted.  His work would prove so solid that it made any total
restoration of the past impossible," wrote Albert Mathiez.
Napoleon was most of all a pragmatist, willing to adapt "what
worked", whether it was borrowed from the Revolution or from the ancien
regime.  He delt with the problems facing France in practical terms, not
in the abstract ("To pursue a different course today would be to
philosophize, not to govern."  Napoleon, 1800)  The solutions Napoleon
came up with leave little doubt that he was the heir and preserver of
the Revolution.  Francois Furet has written that "...he was chosed by
the Revolution, from which he received his strange power not only to
embody the new nation (a power that others before him, most notably
Mirabeau and Robespierre, had possessed) but also to fulfill its
destiny."  Napoleon had undoubtedly felt a revolution had been
necessary.  When it had achieved its purpose he felt that it was
necessary to end the Revolution and begin the work of governing.  He
exported to those countries under French hegemony many of the
achievements of the Revolution.  He embodied these achievements in the
Code Napoleon.  Without the Revolution Napoleon, despite his talents,
would have been no more than an obscure provincial military officer.  He
unified a country torn apart by ten years of political and religious
strife  ("All titles were forgotten; there were no londer aristocrats or
Jacobins..." LE MEMORIAL DE SAINTE-HELENE, 1821).  While liberty
languished, he promoted equality and opened all careers to those with
talent.  "Risen to the throne," Chateaubriand wrote, "he seated the
people there beside him.  A proletarian king, he humiliated kings and
nobles in his antechamber.  He leveled ranks not by lowering but by
raising them."   He insured religious tolerance.  He cosolidated and
preserved the gains of the Revolution.  Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that
Napoleon "fell, but what was really substantial in his work lasted; his
government died, but his administration continued to live..."  The
Bourbon Prince de Conde summed up Napoleon as "One-third philosophe,
one-third Jacobin, and one-third aristocrat."

Tom Holmberg © 1998

Suggested Readings:
(Hinsdale, IL: Dryden Pr,. 1957)
NAPOLEON: FOR AND AGAINST.  Pieter Geyl.  (New Haven, CT: Yale
University, 1963)
THE NAPOLEONIC REVOLUTION.  Robert B. Holtman.  (Baton Rouge: Louisana
State Univ., 1981)
Lyons (N.Y.: St. Martin's, 1994)

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