Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte was the military and political leader of France who changed the course of European Politics by his conquests. He was born in 1769 and remained emperor of France from 1804 to 1814. His career began in 1785, when he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the French artillery. In next three years, he polished his warfare skills with a French army regiment. In 1793, Napoleon distinguished himself in a Battle between the Revolutionaries and royalists (Battle of Toulon), in south France. He was promoted from Captain to Brigadier General. He became a national hero in 1795, when he defended the delegates from thousands of royalists who marched on the National Convention.

In 1796, the Directory appointed him to lead a French army against the forces of Austria and Sardinia. He crushed the Austrian army and then led an expedition to Egypt to check the British impediments in French trade with India. But, his army as well as naval forces were defeated in Egypt. But somehow, his defeat could not become public.

In 1799, the Directory had lost control of the political situation and confidence of the French people. In such circumstances he was advised to seize the power. The Directory was dissolved and in its place, a group of three consuls, one of whom was Napoleon, was established. Thus, Napoleon quickly assumed dictatorial powers as the first consul of the French republic.

A plebiscite in France was held to approve Napoleon as chosen leader of the free republic and to approve a new constitution. The French public overwhelmingly favoured Napoleon.

In the same year, the second coalition of anti-French powers viz. Britain, Austria and Russia was established to drive out Napoleon from power. There was again and war and by 1802, all three nations signed peace agreement (Peace of Amiens) with France. After the peace agreements, Napoleon focussed to restore peace and order in France. He devoted all his energy to heal the wounds of the French People inflicted during revolution.

Reforms of Napoleon

The reforms of Napoleon are summarised as follows:

In the sphere of economy, his goal was to achieve “Equal taxation and low prices”. He set up a fair taxes code and a National Bank. He also provided State Loans to Business and worked towards currency stabilization. These efforts resulted in equal taxation and a stable economy.

In the sphere of Government and society, his goal was to lower corruption and equal opportunity for all. All decided to make appointments on merit, sacked corrupt official, created a code of laws {Napoleonic Code}, and set up Lycees or government ran public schools. The result of these efforts was that honest and competent officials were included in the government and it raised the confidence of the public.

In the sphere of religion, the goal was to reduce power of Catholic Church and more religious tolerance. Catholicism was recognized as faith of Frenchmen. A concordat was signed with pope and government control over Church lands was established. These efforts led to government recognition of Church influence.

The Napoleonic Code

Napoleon’s most lasting effect on France and the world was the set of laws he created during his rule as emperor. These laws were so important that by 1960s, more than 70 countries around the world had adopted them or had used them as the basis for their own laws.

  • The Napoleonic Code was originally drafted as the French Civil Code. Before revolution, French law was based on the whims of its kings. Laws were the product of each individual monarch. They were lengthy, complicated, and different from region to region. Before Napoleon, there was no single law or document to unify them.
  • Though the rise of Napoleon marked the end of the French Revolution, he was really a child of the revolution. Within his empire, Napoleon tried to spread the ideas of the French Revolution. These ideas included legal equality and religious and economic freedom. The purpose of the French Civil Code was to collect all of the French laws into a single volume that would be simple and easy to understand.

At the heart of the code were three ideas from the revolution

  • That laws should be based on reason and common sense
  • That all men should be treated equally under the law
  • That they should have certain freedoms.

The Key concepts of the Napoleonic Code were as follows:

  1. Legal equality for everyone.
  2. No recognition of nobility or titles of birth.
  3. Freedom of religion.
  4. Separation of church and state.
  5. Freedom to work in any occupation.
  6. Protection of the family.

Flaws in Napoleonic Code

Napoleon was the child of the revolution, but in many ways he reversed the aims and principles of the movement from which he sprang. This statement is particularly true for Napoleonic code. The major flaw in the Napoleonic code was that he considered women inferior to men and women should not be allowed to have much influence in a society.

  • The Women could not vote.
  • Husbands had complete control over their wives and their personal property.
  • Children and unmarried women had few rights.

Despite these flaws, the heart of the Napoleonic Code—reason, equality, and freedom—has survived throughout the ages.

Napoleon as French Emperor

In 1804, Napoleon crowned himself as French Emperor. After becoming the emperor, he envisioned control of the rest of the Europe and reassert French power. The Austrian Netherlands and parts of Italy had already been annexed to France. A puppet government had also been already established in Switzerland. Fearful of his expansion plans, Britain persuaded Russia, Austria, and Sweden to join in a third coalition against France. This third coalition was defeated but only one major battle the Battle of Trafalgar was lost by Napoleon. This was a naval battle and it took place in 1805 off the southern coast of Spain. There was a decisive British victory in this battle. The French fleet was destructed and this battle assured the supremacy of the British navy for the next hundred years!

This battle also forced Napoleon to give up his plans of invading Britain. Britain was a formidable enemy of the British and Napoleon now tried to control them via the English Channel. However, his extravagant efforts remained largely fruitless.

The extent of French Empire

By the end of the first decade of the 19th century, the major powers, which remained out of the control of Napoleon, were only Britain, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, and Sweden.

The French Empire under Napoleon controlled not only France but also Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, the Italian peninsula, much of modern-day Germany, and a variety of central and eastern European lands including parts of the Balkans and modern day Poland. Poland was officially independent but only in name.

By 1812, Napoleon controlled numerous supposedly independent lands apart from those which were formally part of the French Empire. These included Spain, Warsaw, and numerous German principalities. The rulers of these states were puppets of Napoleon. The countries such as Russia, Prussia, and Austria were loosely attached to Napoleon’s empire via alliances. Such was the fear of Napoleon that they could be easily manipulated by threats of military action.

The most important result of the military might and threats of Napoleon was that the conquered people became more and more conscious of their loyalty to their own nations. This was an important aspect of the development of nationalism.

To have a legitimate heir, Napoleon needed a son. He divorced Josephine, who had failed to bear him a child, and married Marie Louise, of the Austrian Royal Family, who gave birth to a son Napoleon II

The French empire could be maintained at its greatest extent only for five years from 1807-1812. After that it quickly disintegrated owing partly the spread of nationalistic feelings across Europe and partly due to the policies if Napoleon himself.

Three Mistakes of Napoleon

Continental System

In 1806, Napoleon had signed a decree ordering a blockade (closing of ports), so that to prevent all trade and communication between Great Britain and other European nations. The idea was to make the continental Europe more self sufficient and simultaneously destroy Britain’s trading and industrial economy. But this system was not successful because the blockage was loose enough to be broken occasionally by smugglers.  The blockade was able to weaken the British trade but could not destroy it. Britain also imposed its own blockade whereby the British navy stopped neutral ships bound for Europe and forced them to sail to a British port to be searched and taxed. The navy of Britain was stronger and so their blockade worked better than that of French. The British Navy had also stopped the American Ships with the result that America declared a war upon Britain in 1812, which ended in a draw.  In summary, the Continental system hurt more to French than their enemies. The economy of France was weakened.

Peninsular War

Spain is located at Iberian Peninsula. After imposing the continental system, it was found in 1807-08 that Portugal was deliberately ignoring it. So, to teach them a lesson, Napoleon sent an army via Spain to invade Portugal. The people in Spain rioted in protest, and consequently, Napoleon deposed the Spanish king and placed his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne.

This move outraged the Spanish public who were ardent supporters of their king

The public in Spain was devout Catholic. They were afraid that the French conquerors would undermine the Church. Thus, the Spanish peasants rose and started the Guerrilla warfare against the French army, which continued till 1813. In the meantime, Britain also sent its own troops to support the rebels. From 1809, the British forces, under the Duke of Wellington, gradually fought their way forward in a bitter struggle, finally invading southwest France in 1813–14. The result was that Napoleon lost around 3 Lakh men in this peninsular war. This drastically reduced the power of the French empire.  The nationalism proved to be a powerful weapon against Napoleon. Following the Spanish, the Germans and Italians etc. conquered peoples also turned against the French.

Invasion of Russia

The worst blunder of Napoleon was committed in 1812. The Emperor of Russia Alexander I had become Napoleon’s ally, yet he refused to stop selling grains to Britain. Apart from that there was a mutual suspect on designs on Poland.

In June 1812, Napoleon marched into Russia with his 4,20,000 strong Grande Armée, which was not all French was a huge group of men from all over Europe. Those who were not French; had little loyalty to Napoleon.

When this army entered Russia, the Russian army retracted towards east (from western borders) rather than confronting with it. As these Russians retreated toward Moscow burnt all the grain fields and slaughtered all the livestock, so that nothing is left for the enemy aliens to eat.

This was an effective policy because the French soldiers needed to desert the army and search for food. The important battle took place in September 1812 at Borodino. The fight remained largely indecisive but gave a narrow victory to Napoleon, who was now able to take Moscow. But when he entered Moscow, he found that the Russians had set the city on fire rather than allowing surrendering it to the French.

Napoleon stayed in the ruined city for few days and expected that the Czar would come down and make a peace offer but the Czar did not turn up. In October 1812, Napoleon asked his army to return back. But the climate was harsh now. The snow began to fall and many of the soldiers were killed due to exhaustion, hunger, and cold at minus 30 degree temperature. The Napoleon army finally reached in December and this Grande Armée was thus reduced to around 30,000 soldiers, out of which only 10,000 were fit for fighting.

The Downfall of Napoleon

It was now turn of the enemies of French to take advantage of the situation. A fourth coalition was formed between Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Sweden. After sometime, Austria also joined this coalition.  Napoleon was defeated in the Battle of Leipzig. In April 1814, Napoleon abdicated the throne and accepted a treaty of surrender drafted by Russian emperor Alexander I. He was given a pension and sent to Elba, a tiny island near the Italian Coast. Napoleon later tried to comeback and he again ruled for 100 days; then he was again defeated in the Battle of waterloo and was exiled to St. Helena for 6 years. He died in exile in 1821.

Outcome of the Napoleonic Wars: Congress of Vienna and beyond

Congress of Vienna

After defeat of Napoleon, the European heads of government met from 1814 to 1815 to settle the terms by which the Napoleonic Wars should be concluded. A series of meetings in Vienna for this purpose was hold with an objective of a collective security and stability for the entire continent. This is called Congress of Vienna and it ended by sealing a return to more or less the same system of European powers that existed before the French Revolution.

Most of the decisions were made by the five great powers of the day viz. Russia, Austria, Britain, France and Prussia. The Austrian delegation was led by its foreign minister Prince Klemens von Metternich. Metternich was one of the most influential diplomats, served as foreign minister of the Austrian Empire from 1809 until 1848. He was an ardent anti-democracy, who believed that Napoleon’s expansionist dictatorship was a result of the experiments with democracy.

Thus, there were three goals of Metternich at Congress of Vienna.

  • To prevent future French aggression by surrounding France with strong countries.
  • To restore abalance of power, so that no country would be a threat to others.
  • To restore Europe’s royal families to the thrones they had held before Napoleon’s conquests.
How France was contained?

France was contained by making weaker countries around France stronger. For example:

  • The Austrian Netherlands and Dutch Republic were united to form the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
  • The German confederation was created out of 39 German speaking states as a loose group dominated by Austria.
  • Switzerland was recognized as a free country.

However, that the defeated French may not stand up again to seek revenge, France was not severally damaged. Those territories which had been conquered by Napoleon were taken back from it but still it was left as a large and intact nation. France could keep some of its overseas territories, its army and its government. Thus, France was still a major nation, but its power had been curtailed to a great extent. The power was balanced in such as way that no country would become a threat to another.

The Vienna Congress was a victory for the conservatives, who favoured restoration of the powers of the Royal families. In France Louis XVIII returned to power. This new king took a wise decision to remain the constitutional head and adopt the constitution. The royal dynasties of Spain and Sicilies were also restored. Now, France and Britain were the two Constitutional monarchies of Europe, while Russia, Prussia and Austria remained absolute monarchies. Thus, there was cooperation among these countries for a long time till The Crimean War that broke out in 1853.

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