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Napoleon: A Hero or a Villain?

Arannya Saha

HST 104: Western Civilization: From the French Revolution to the Present
Volker Benkert
9/21/2015

Napoleon Bonaparte, a penniless political refugee from Corsica1, becoming the Emperor of
the French and overlord of all Europe was the very ideal that the French revolution wanted to
establish. To what extent did Napoleon, the greatest product of the French revolution, actually
practice these ideals or help uphold them? This is a contentious issue not only in Modern
France2 but across the world. As historians remain divided on his legacy and motivation, in
this essay I argue for the acceptance of the reality of Napoleon as an ambitious dictator whilst
also recognizing his contributions to the idea of the modern nation state.

Napoleon's contributions to law has been immense. The Code Napoleon forms the basis of
law not only in many countries in Europe, but across the world, from Japan to Louisiana 3. It
,on paper at least, solidified into law the equality of citizens in the eyes of the law, effectively
abolished feudalism ,provided freedom from arbitrary arrest, protected property rights,
unrecognized privileges to be enjoyed from birth, established religious toleration and
separated church and state4 indispensably modern concepts. The code was undoubtedly
revolutionary in the world at that time. But it came with reservations. Its social conservatism
and sexism was undoubtedly carried over from Napoleon himself who called women
machines for making babies5. They were were also deeply anti worker crushing their rights
to unionize and strike.6 But it can be argued that the revolution itself wasn't a big step forward
1

Blaufarb, Rafe. Napoleon Symbol for an Age (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's 2008),p.5

2"Why Napoleon's Still a Problem in France." Newsweek. May 8, 2014. Accessed September 21, 2015.
3
4
5
6

Roberts, Andrew. Napoleon: A Life(New York: Viking 2014) p.279


Ibid p.275-279
Horne, Alastair. Age of Napoleon (Modern Library 2006),p.52
Roberts, Andrew. Napoleon: A Life(New York: Viking 2014),p.279

for womens rights, even though they had participated actively, even for the Jacobin cause. The
Jacobins eventually forced women to step aside and go back home7. Sadly, the liberties the
people found were soon to be conditional on their support for Napoleon. Napoleon had
established one of the worlds first secret police under the control of Joseph Fouche. The secret
police enforced censorship, arbitrarily arrested political opponents and enforced morality. 8The
number of newspapers in Paris went from over 73 to 4 by 18149 under the censorship of his
regime. Lastly, Napoleon for his imperial enterprise gave the permission to reinstate slavery
in St. Domingue and Guadalupe10, first contemplating serfdom. Napoleon had also ordered
the deportation of white women who had prostituted themselves to Negroes 11.

Napoleon's administrative actions were also unparalleled. He and his Consiel d'Etat(that still
meets today in Paris) brought a streamlined administration12 to France which was so much in
chaos after the French Revolution. He with tireless energy and limitless attention to detail set
about administering France, formulating laws and overseeing the minutest details. He would
recruit men from all classes; their merit not birth settling who was to get important positions
in the Empire13. Not only would people from the lowest classes be included, he would also
7
8

9
10

11
12
13

Levy et al.Women in Revolutionary Paris, 1789-1795.(University of Press Illinois Press 1981), p.143-149
Alphonse, Aulard Paris sous le Premier Empire (Paris: various publishers, 1912-1923).vol.1 1327-28; vol 2, 12 vol 3,
226-27, in Blaufarb, Rafe, Napoleon Symbol of an Age. A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St.
Martin's 2008), p.97-100
Emsley, Clive.Napoleon: Conquest, Reform and Reorganization (New York: Routledge 2015) p.26
Letters du General Lecrec, commandant en chef de l'armee de Saint-Domingue en 1802, ed. Paul Roussier (Paris:
Ernest Leroux, 1937) p.269-72 in Blaufarb, Rafe, Napoleon Symbol of an Age. A Brief History with Documents
(Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's 2008) ,p.162-164
Ibid
Blaufarb, Rafe. Napoleon Symbol of an Age. A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's
2008),p.140
Blaufarb, Rafe. Napoleon Symbol of an Age. A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's

give positions to men like Talleyrand who came from a noble family. This was essential and
revolutionary in promoting equality under his regime. But in contrast to this is his
appointment of his family as the monarchs in the new Empire. This was his greatest folly and
would be his downfall. In a bid to establish his dynasty and secure succession for his
son(The King of Rome) he reestablished the nobility creating titles and granting them to
capable, but loyal people14, but in whom he would include people just famous due to their
name.15 It was an affront to the republican ideals.
Napoleon's greatest gift to France was the stability he brought after the mindless chaos of the
French Revolution. But how was the stability brought about at the aftermath of the
revolution? In one instance he can be seen advising his brother about his methods, that
involved terror, pillage of civilian property and summary executions16 and of course his secret
police. But the state that Napoleon had taken on him to govern was in a state of absolute
anarchy, with traditional power structures broken17. Napoleon had to act and he did by using
special military commissions that were to subvert equality. He had to act and Napoleon
always acted decisively in the face of challenges to his authority. If anything, his actions
during the Vendemaire uprising18 was already suggestion enough that he could crush
2008),p.22
14 Archives Nationales, AF IV 1040, in Blaufarb, Rafe. Napoleon Symbol of an Age. A Brief History with Documents
(Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's 2008),p.114-115
15 Archives Nationales, AF IV 1310 in Blaufarb, Rafe. Napoleon Symbol of an Age. A Brief History with Documents
(Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's 2008),p.116
16 Correspondence de Napoleon, ed. Maximilien Vox (Paris: Gallimard, 1943),p.339-42 in Blaufarb, Rafe. Napoleon
Symbol of an Age. A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's 2008),p.153-155
17 Archives de la Guerre, B13 119, Letter of Challamel, director of the jury of the arrondissement of Largentiere (24
Pluviose VIII) in Blaufarb, Rafe. Napoleon Symbol of an Age. A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St.
Martin's 2008),p.56-57
18 Adolphe-Mathurin de Lescure, Bibliotheque des Memoires relatifs a l'Histoire de France pendant le 18eme siecle:
nouvelle serie, vol 30( Paris: Firmin Didot, 1875) 341-43 in Blaufarb, Rafe. Napoleon Symbol of an Age. A Brief

opposition to his accession to power with force.

This stability he had brought could have been used for great purposes and like Cincinnatus of
old, Napoleon leaving power after ensuring the stability, the strength of the administration
and the religious climate brought about by the Concordant of 1801 could have been used for
great good by an actual republic or even an constitutional monarchy after the Peace of
Amiens. Napoleon confessed to de Las Cases that he wanted the Empire of the World 19 and
that he would not be satisfied by sharing power.
His wars were to cost the most lives in the history of Europe until that time. However,
blaming all his military adventures on him is very incorrect as the wars he had fought and so
exceptionally excelled at were wars declared on him by the various coalitions, except the ill
fated Russian and Spanish wars. Britain's distrust of Napoleon due to his rapid reorganization
of power in Western Europe(which was in itself a challenge to the infallibility of the rulers of
these kingdoms, and led in no small part to the republican and nationalist movements that
were to ferment here) made it harder for the peace to ever come to fruition. Again after the
decisive victories in Austerlitz and the defeat of the third coalition, Napoleon would not be
satisfied with mere concessions20;he wanted complete domination of Europe.
Thus, in his imperialist adventures he had betrayed the revolution's ideals largely. A

History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's 2008),p.116


19 Emmanuel-Auguste, comte de Las Cases, Memoires de Napoleon 1er(Memorial de Sainte-Helene), vol.5(Paris: Cocuad,
n.d),p76-79 in Blaufarb, Rafe.. Napoleon Symbol of an Age. A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St.
Martin's 2008)p.191-93
20 Esdaile, Charles. Napoleon's Wars: An International History 1803-1815 (New York: Viking 2008), p.252-53

streamlined administration, a meritocratic society, a free peasantry all would have to be


subject to Napoleon and depend on his benevolent rule, and that of his sons thereafter. But
would that be true freedom? But the fact that the challenge that Napoleon presented and the
way in which he entirely demolished opposition in his career severely undermined the
monarchs in Europe. His appeal to nationalism was emulated across Europe as the monarchs
tried to have armies as effective as his. This sowed the seeds of nationalism that would prove
to be their downfall and his too, as European armies soon started copying his techniques to be
better on the battlefield21. The systems of laws that he had spread throughput Europe was also
something to be proud of about his legacy, alongside with his ideas about administration that
was a catalyst for the modernization of Europe. The paranoia that had fostered in European
monarchs led them to become more conservative and veto reforms thus building up to the
massive revolutions that ultimately led to democracies, not only in Europe but in its colonies
across the world.

Napoleon safeguarded certain ideas of the revolution that fit his agenda, disregarding others.
But his actions made Europe a perfect place where those ideas could re-germinate much later
through other revolutions that led to the modern states. His agenda was making himself and
his dynasty the most powerful in the world19.He could thus be compared perfectly to Joseph II
21 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. And trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 1976),p.591-93 in Blaufarb, Rafe. Napoleon Symbol of an Age. A Brief History with Documents (Boston:
Bedford/St. Martin's 2008),p.118-20
19 Emmanuel-Auguste, comte de Las Cases, Memoires de Napoleon 1er(Memorial de Sainte-Helene), vol.5(Paris: Cocuad,
n.d),p76-79 in Blaufarb Rafe. .Napoleon Symbol of an Age. A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St.
Martin's 2008)p.191-93

who had very much the same ideas for the Holy Roman Empire, but whose ambitions were
thwarted by the nobility and his military weakness 22. Napoleon's success in codifying laws
and spreading anti-feudalism which were products of the French revolution across borders
was one of his greatest successes. The efficient administration that he had built and the
meritocratic system of appointments was vital for the modernization of not only France but
also all of Europe. It can be argued that all this was for feeding his war machine and
furthering of his Imperial agenda. But the influence of his actions are undeniably the very
foundations of the modern liberal state. He was not to directly liberate Europe, but his ideas
stuck .He was also undoubtedly one of the greatest Generals ever, but his creation of his own
imperial cult and overconfidence in his own greatness doomed him. However, he remains one
of the greatest statesmen as a man of unbelievable energy and resourcefulness . As Carlyle
was to write:
There was an eye to see in this man
a soul to dare and do
He rose naturally to be the King,
All men saw that he was such 24

22 Padover, Saul K.. The Revolutionary Emperor: Joseph the Second, 1741-1790(London:R. O. Ballou, 1934)
24 Carlyle, Thomas. The works of Thomas Carlyle, Volume 5:On Heroes, Heroic Worship and the Heroic in
history(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010),p.240

Bibliography

Balufarb, Rafe. Napoleon Symbol for an Age. A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St
Martins 2008)
Carlyle, Thomas The works of Thomas Carlyle, Volume 5:On Heroes, Heroic Worship and the Heroic
in history(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010)
Emsley, Clive. Napoleon: Conquest, Reform and Reorganization (New York: Routledge 2015)
Esdaile, Charles. Napoleon's Wars: An International History 1803-1815 (New York: Viking 2008)
Levy et al. Women in Revolutionary Paris, 1789-1795.(University of Chicago Press 1981)
Padover, Saul K.The Revolutionary Emperor: Joseph the Second, 1741-1790(London:R. O. Ballou,
1934)
Roberts, Andrew . Napoleon A Life ( New York: Viking 2014)