Posted: March 18th, 2023
Although there are some elements of Napoleon’s domestic and foreign policies that would suggest he was extending Enlightenment idealism through his autocratic regime, his coming to power is more accurately framed as marking an end to the French Revolution. Some of the French Revolution’s core principles did emerge during Napoleon’s rule. For example, Napoleon’s legal and judicial reforms offered a more egalitarian model than the ancien regime had due to the doing away with a two-tiered system treating aristocracy and peasantry differently under the law (Lecture Notes, p. 8). Napoleonic law dismantled the feudalism of the ancien regime, and established in its place a code of Enlightenment legal principles (Lecture Notes, p. 8). In spite of the promising legal reforms Napoleon implemented as the supreme leader of France, his rule can be deemed nothing but a dictatorship. The means by which Napoleon seized, maintained, and wielded power were purely despotic. Napoleon’s reforms were based more on political expediency than on a genuine belief in Enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality. Therefore, Napoleon’s coming to power marks the end of the French Revolution.
Napoleon was a leader in the right place at the right time, able to capitalize on the power vacuum left in the wake of the Revolution. Napoleon attended the Royal Military School in Paris, and “as his education broadened, his came more and more to espouse the fashionable deism of the Enlightenment,” (Ellis 15). This meant that Napoleon’s childhood could almost be deemed a secular humanist one, were it not for the fact that Napoleon developed overtly sexist policies that tainted his legacy and regime (Lecture Notes 9). Napoleon was opportunistic during his military schooling, as “there were an unusually large number of vacancies in the officer ranks during the 1790’s,” (Lecture Notes 3). Napoleon rose through the ranks relatively rapidly, ultimately participating in the suppression of a coup against the new revolutionary government (Lecture Notes 3). Because Napoleon was Corsican, it seems like he rose through the ranks based on merit alone rather than on political connections. This would have made Napoleon a genuine child of the Revolution, and a ” pro-revolutionary general whose career epitomized the revolutionary goal” of equality (Lecture Notes 3).
However, it soon became clear that Napoleon picked and chose the Revolutionary ideas that suited him and his own political ambitions. Napoleon ultimately created a despotic model of government that did not represent what the Revolution stood for in the least. First, Napoleon seized power after a coup in 1799, rather than being elected by the people in a manner more befitting of a Revolutionary leader. Napoleon quickly abolished public elections entirely and established himself as supreme leader — Emperor — an echo of the ancien regime. He “was able to concentrate more and more power in his own hands” by gradually eroding constitutional rights with “blatentâ€¦aberrations” of Republican governance (Ellis 46). Not only did Napoleon establish himself as supreme leader, but he also used a nepotistic system to appoint members of the legislative body who were sympathetic to his aims (Ellis 46). In the earliest stages of Napoleon’s leadership, it became abundantly clear that this was no Enlightenment idealist who would reinforce the hard-fought principles of the French Revolution. This was a dictator who would cleverly grant the French people just enough freedom, liberty, and rights to allow the illusion of Revolution to perpetuate itself in the French consciousness. The only reason why it is possible to question whether or not Napoleon was a pro-Revolutionary leader or a despotic one is because many of the Emperor’s domestic policies reflected Revolutionary ideals.
Four cornerstones of Napoleonic domestic policies included education reform, reform of the role of the Church in French society, reform of the Civil Code, and financial reform. These four elements borrowed something from French Revolutionary and Enlightenment ideals, while still retaining Napoleon’s firm dictatorial powers. In some cases, the Napoleonic reforms were barely meaningful in terms of their practical results. Education is, for example, the social institution that might have changed the least under Napoleonic rule. In terms of educational reform, Napoleon did not include half the population. Excluding females from education was directly contrary to Revolutionary ideals (Lecture Notes 10). Females were to remain Church educated, as Napoleon “did not think it important that females be educated,” (Lecture Notes 10). Males, however, were to receive a new secular education in the lycee system. The male educational reforms under Napoleon were not much more Revolutionary than the female reforms, given that a full third of school placements were “the sons of notables serving Napoleon in the army or government even if they didn’t qualify on academic grounds,” (Lecture Notes 10). The remaining posts were also not open to any boy, but only to those who were “exceptionally gifted,” (Lecture Notes, p. 10). Therefore, Napoleonic educational reforms did not lead to any appreciable changes in French society. The reforms did not cut to the root of social inequality or injustice, which the Revolution was attempting to target. Instead, Napoleon’s “educational policy served its utilitarian perception of the practical needs of the State,” (Ellis 155)
In terms of the reform of the role of the Church, Napoleon was equally half-hearted about his policies. The separation of Church and State had been proposed and partially implemented during the Revolution. With Napoleon, the Church inched its way back into politics. The most notable sign of reunion between Church and State was the Concordat in 1801, in which Napoleon and the Pope came to a special agreement (Ellis 59). Napoleon understood well the role religion plays in facilitating social control. Thus, Napoleon fostered ties with the Church “not to promote a spiritual revival as he sometimes suggested, but rather in order to enable the state — i.e., himself — to more tightly control the church and use it for his political objectives,” (Lecture Notes 7). However, Ellis admits that Napoleon also willingly allowed the sale of confiscated Church property (Ellis 2). Napoleon also capitalized on the fact that the Church was much weaker than it was prior to the Revolution, and the dictator was therefore able to control the fragmented Church, just as he was able to control the fragmented populace (Ellis 59).
Napoleon retained an official separation between Church and State with the 1804 Civil Code (Code Napoleon). The Civil Code was one of Napoleon’s “most important legacies,” as it “confirmed the revolutionary concept of equality under the law,” (Lecture Notes 8). However, the Civil Code was imperfect, and served the best interests of Napoleon more than it did the people. Women were excluded from full rights and liberties under the law, especially regarding divorce codes (Lecture Notes 9). With regards to women’s legal rights, Napoleonic law actually reverted back to a pre-Revolutionary sexist and patriarchal program. Ellis also points out that when it was politically expedient to do so, Napoleon would forge ties with feudal lords if it served his needs (5). This was especially true when Napoleon began expanding his territorial interests into Europe (Ellis 5).
Another important political legacy of Napoleon was his financial reforms. For one, he divided the treasury role from that of the ministry of finances (Ellis 67). The dictator “reorganized tax collection” and laid the foundations for a public banking system in France (Ellis 67). Also, an improved public accounting system seemed to be in line with Revolutionary or at least Republican governmental reform (Ellis 67). After all, some of Napoleon’s programs did seem to reflect his Enlightenment education.
Many, if not most, of Napoleon’s policies were starkly non-Revolutionary if not counter-Revolutionary. The most glaring of all of Napoleon’s ethical errors was his suspension of free speech. Napoleon had a strong sense of the importance of propaganda in preserving political power. Thus, he designated official art forms in the service of the state. As Ellis puts it, official art during the Napoleonic era became “monumentalist in the service of Imperial grandeur,” (155). The goal of art and communications was squarely to “present Napoleon to the people in the best possible light,” as with the “hero ethic” that Napoleon cultivated (Ellis 155-6). Rather than signaling an Enlightened leader, Napoleon summarily ended Revolutionary ideals by clamping down on the freedom of the press. As Ellis puts it, “one classic way of silencing his critics was of course through censorship of the press,” (57). Censorship was, under Napoleon, a “draconian” measure to suppress the people and subjugate the masses just as they were before the Revolution (Ellis 57).
Land was a major factor in Napoleon’s foreign and domestic policies, and highlighted his position as the Emperor of France. Napoleon annexed several territories during his reign. His land acquisitions were “pragmatic,” according to Ellis (6). Likewise, Napoleon’s land use and taxation practices at home were pragmatic. During the Revolution, revised land laws attempted to override the entrenched feudal system. Napoleon did not completely reverse Revolutionary land laws, but he did revise them in ways that allowed him to remain in the good graces of nobility (Ellis 57). It was certainly politically expedient for Napoleon to remain close with the French elite, while also ensuring the pacification of the masses by not reinstating feudalism formally. Napoleon thus resembles a Machiavellian leader: pragmatic in his approach, and understanding fully the need to keep the populace just happy enough not to rebel. “Harnessing the talents among the existing social and professional elites” allowed Napoleon to appease multiple social sectors at the same time (Ellis 172). The notion that promotion in government was via talent alone was sustained in theory but not always in practice, although Napoleon’s educational and political reforms represent at least a system in which more men had access to channels of power. An insufficient number of the total French population, though, had access to a meritocratic system. For the most part, Napoleonic regime was autocratic and despotic.
Napoleon’s regime resembled more a pre-Revolutionary Enlightened Despotism than it did an idealistic Enlightenment-influenced rule. Although some of the social structures and institutions that existed prior to the Revolution such as feudalism were abolished, many structures and systems remained fully in place if not entrenched even further. Patriarchy was, for example, further strengthened in France under Napoleon’s rule because he systematically excluded women from being educated in the public school system. Likewise, only select boys would have access to the pathways to receiving an education in Napoleon’s system. Thus, some of Napoleon’s reforms were rooted in the despot’s education in Enlightenment times but his legacy represents the antithesis of Revolutionary ideals.
Ellis, Geoffrey. Napoleon. Essex: Pearson, 1997.
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