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Napoleon: Enlightened Revolutionary or Power-Hungry Tyrant?

"Power is my mistress. I have worked too hard in conquering her to allow anyone to take her from me, or even to covet her."
-Napoleon Bonaparte

This famous painting, Napoleon at St. Bernard by Jacques-Louis David, depicts
French first consul Napoleon Bonaparte crossing the Alps in May 1800, leading
his army to confront the Austrian forces operating in Italy under the command
of Gen. Michael Friedrich von Melas during the French Revolutionary Wars.
The culmination of this march was a French victory at the Battle of Marengo
the following month, which ultimately led the Austrians to make peace with
France and thus served to solidify Napoleon's position as the new leader of
France. A highly dramatized piece, the painting also served as effective
propaganda intended to instill a sense of Napoleon's greatness among its
viewershis name appears etched in the rocks alongside those of Hannibal and
Charlemagne, two great historical conquerors who also led armies through the
St. Bernard Pass.
Napoleon was indeed a great conqueror; by the height of his reign as emperor
of France (which he became in 1804), he was able to bring nearly all of continental Europe under his control either
directly or indirectly. In doing so, he spread the ideals of the French Revolution across Europe, and although he
increasingly consolidated his personal power in the process, many of the republican reforms that he instituted
remain the basis of French law and government today. Despite the fact that Napoleon's tremendous
accomplishments continue to captivate students of history and the romantic legend that surrounds his legacy
remains strong, one question continues to inspire debate among scholars: was Napoleon an enlightened
revolutionary or a power-hungry tyrant?
Emerging from the turmoil of the French Revolution as the leader of France in 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte
transformed the infant French Republic into a grand empire that stretched across the continent of Europe at its
height. While the Napoleonic Era witnessed the implementation of many republican reforms based on the ideals of
the French Revolution, it was also a time of almost continual warfare and bloodshed as Napoleon led his armies in a
series of campaigns against the forces of Europe's remaining monarchies. Whether one views Napoleon's reign in a
positive or negative light, it is undeniable that his actions had a far-reaching impact on Europe and in many ways
marked the region's transition into the modern era.
Napoleon I is one of the most important figures in modern European history. He rose to great prominence in France
during the 1790s as a brilliant general, and in 1799, he overthrew the republican regime established by the French
Revolutionary Wars. He then ruled France as a virtual dictator and proclaimed himself emperor in 1804. At the
height of his power, he controlled most of continental Europe, and even though he was eventually defeated and
exiled in 1815 by the allied powers (led by Great Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia), he has remained one of the
most popular heroes in the history of France.
Napoleon Bonaparte was born at Ajaccio, a town on the island of Corsica off the coast of France, on August 15,
1769. His father was a prominent lawyer of Italian descentCorsica was populated by many Italians and had only
become a part of France months earlierand the family included five sons and three daughters. Napoleon was sent
to France at the age of nine in order to attend school, as he had received a royal scholarship for his father's loyalty

to the new French regime. Napoleon attended the military school at Brienne-le-Chateau and began to prepare for a
career in the army. An awkward and shy boy with an Italian accent, he suffered the taunts of his classmates and
made few friends, but he was a brilliant student of math and read incessantly in history, philosophy, literature, and
military topics. His record gained him admittance to the cole Militaire in Paris, and he was commissioned a
second lieutenant in an artillery regiment on September 1, 1785.
After the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, Napoleon soon became an ardent supporter of the new regime.
As many aristocratic officers left France to escape the revolution, Napoleon began to earn rapid promotions in the
revolutionary army, an army that was constantly at war after 1792. After holding a number of positions in various
units, he directed the artillery at the siege of Toulon, a French city that had rebelled against the revolutionary
government, in late 1793. For his performance at that victorious operation, he was made brigadier general on
December 22, 1793. However, his career suffered a setback when the radical revolutionary regime of Maximilien
Robespierre, with whom Napoleon had become associated, fell in July 1794.
Nevertheless, Napoleon was soon able to work his way back into command, and he was called on by the
government to disperse a royalist uprising in Paris in October 1795. The young general quelled the demonstration
by firing his guns into the crowd, an event known thereafter as the "whiff of grapeshot." That decisive action
brought him back into favor, and on March 2, 1796, he was given command of a French army then fighting in Italy.
On March 9, the dashing young general (he was only 26 years old and had developed into a handsome, if somewhat
small man) married the beautiful Josephine de Beauharnais, and two days later, he left for the front.
When Napoleon arrived in Italy to take command, he found the army ragged, poorly equipped and supplied, and in
low spirits. Moreover, the older generals over whom he had authority were suspicious of the brash young man. In a
famous order, Napoleon promised his new ragtag soldiers "honor, glory, and riches" for serving him faithfully, and
he immediately set off on the offensive. He delivered on that promise in a series of brilliant battles against the
Austrian Army over the next year; he drove his enemies completely out of Italy and even closed within 25 miles of
the Austrian capital of Vienna. The Treaty of Campo Formio, signed on October 17, 1797 and negotiated by
Napoleon himself with the Austrians, gave France a number of new territories and brought Napoleon enormous
fame among his fellow French citizens.
Napoleon's next campaign was in Egypt, where he confronted the ruling Mamluks, the Turks, and the British. The
French Army landed in Egypt in July 1798 and won a series of crushing victories on land, including the Battle of
the Pyramids, but the campaign bogged down in Syria. Meanwhile, at the Battle of the Nile on August 1, the British
Royal Navy completely destroyed the French fleet that provided Napoleon's army with supplies and support, so the
army was stranded. In France, the government was threatened by discontent and unrest from both royalists and
radical revolutionaries, and the allied powers of Europe seemed poised to invade. Napoleon saw an opportunity to
offer his services to France in its hour of need, so he decided to cut his losses, left Egypt, and arrived in France on
October 9, 1799. The fact that his Egyptian expedition was largely a failure did not prevent him from being hailed
as a hero once again, and the leaders of the republic saw in him an answer to their problems. With their
cooperation, Napoleon engineered a coup d'tat on November 9.
That period of Napoleon's rule is known as the consulate; he ruled France with the title of consul, and the republic
was still ostensibly in place. He concentrated sole authority in his hands, however, and the majority of French
citizens accepted the rule of a strong leader as a small price to pay after 10 years of revolutionary turmoil and
instability. His main accomplishments during that period were in both the political and military spheres. On the
battlefield, he delivered a crushing blow to the Austrians and the allied nations that they led at the Battle of
Marengo on June 14, 1800. The Austrians made a separate peace with France in February 1801, and Great Britain
with the rest of Europe followed suit with the Treaty of Amiens on March 25, 1802. France was finally at peace
after 10 years of continuous warfare, and Napoleon's popularity soared.

Within France, Napoleon took important steps to consolidate the gains of the revolution while also repairing some
of the damage it had done. He negotiated the Concordat (1801), which restored good relations with the Roman
Catholic Church, as it had been attacked mercilessly during the revolution. Catholicism was recognized as the
"religion of the greater majority of Frenchmen," but freedom of religion, divorce, and civil marriage were all
retained. In addition, the land confiscated from the Catholic Church during the revolution was not returned.
Napoleon also put the nation's finances in order, made administrative reforms, guaranteed law and order with a new
police force, and organized French laws into the famous Napoleonic Code, one of his most enduring achievements.
With full popular support behind him, Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor of the French in May 1804. On
December 2, 1804, in a coronation ceremony, he himself placed the imperial crown on his head, a dramatic gesture
demonstrating his self-reliance and independence. However, he had not yet reached his zenith, which was still three
years away.
The peace Napoleon had negotiated in 1801 and 1802 did not last long, and France was once again at war with
Great Britain in May 1803. Soon thereafter, Austria and Russia also entered on the side of the British. In the
summer of 1805, Napoleon broke off preparations for an invasion of Great Britain and marched his army with great
speed across Europe. They met the Austrians first at Ulm (October 17) and then at Austerlitz (December 2, the
anniversary of his coronation as emperor). Both battles were spectacular French victories, and Napoleon's
performance at the Battle of Austerlitz was and is widely considered to be his finest hour as a commander. The
whole campaign was a masterpiece, and he followed up those victories with another at the Battle of Jena, where he
crushed the Prussian Army (which had only recently joined the coalition against France) on October 14, 1806.
Napoleon still had to deal with Russia, and he fought the forces of Czar Alexander I at the inconclusive Battle of
Eylau on February 8, 1807. He followed that battle with a victory at the Battle of Friedland on June 14. On July 7,
1807, Napoleon settled the Treaty of Tilsit with the Russians, which made him the undisputed master of continental
Europe. He sought to consolidate his power both militarily and dynastically; his wife Josephine Bonaparte could
not provide him with an heir, so he divorced her at the end of 1809 and married Austrian princess Marie-Louise in
March 1810. She bore him one son.
Only the British remained undefeated after 1807 largely because of their naval invincibility. Unable to challenge his
hated enemy on the seas, Napoleon sought to wage economic war against Great Britain. He enforced what became
known as the Continental System, which forbade any of the nations of Europe to trade with the British. The
embargo caused dissatisfaction among the other European nations, and French demands began to erode the power
that Napoleon had won between 1805 and 1807. He also encountered difficulties in Spain, which he invaded in
1807; there, guerrillas, with British aid, involved the French in the long, wasting Peninsular War that they
ultimately lost.
By 1812, Napoleon's Continental System was in shambles, and he undertook the Russian invasion to enforce his
will on the then uncooperative czar. That campaign proved to be Napoleon's great undoing. As he penetrated deep
into Russia, he won victories over Russian armies in the field but reached Moscow without forcing the czar to
surrender. The Russians burned Moscow rather than let the French find shelter there, and when the brutal Russian
winter set in, Napoleon had little choice but to retreat.
The retreat was a disaster, and of his army of more than 600,000 men, only 40,000 returned. That loss broke the
back of French military power, especially as the country had been considerably bled by the constant warfare over
the last 20 years. A loss of such magnitude could not be kept from the public. Napoleon's popularity and the French
people's willingness to send their sons off to fight in his campaigns had always depended on his ability to deliver
victories, and the first really serious murmurs of discontent began to be heard in Paris. Still, the emperor

immediately raised another army, but the allied powers defeated his inexperienced troops decisively at the Battle of
Leipzig (also known as the Battle of the Nations) in October 1813. The French were forced to retreat, and they were
defeated outside Paris. Napoleon's enemies had finally caught up with him, and he abdicated his throne on April 6,
The victorious allies exiled the emperor to the island of Elba, restored the monarchy in the form of King Louis
XVIII, and set about working out the details of the peace. Napoleon secretly left his exile on Elba and returned to
France in March 1815. As soon as he landed in southern France, the army, which had always remained loyal to
him, rallied to his side. Even before he fell from power, he had grown old and fat and bore little resemblance to the
dashing young officer he once was, but he was still able to inspire those around him with visions of the glory of
France. His journey to Paris turned into a triumphant march, and more and more people came out to acclaim him
along the way.
Louis fled the country. Although the allies were caught off guard, they would not tolerate a reconstituted French
Empire under Napoleon, so they prepared to meet him in battle once again. After a few minor victories, Napoleon
met the British at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18; he caught them without their Prussian ally and expected to win
a decisive victory. The British held fast, however, and the Prussians arrived just in time to turn the battle into a rout
of the French forces. Thus ended Napoleon's brief attempt to return to power, a period known as the Hundred Days
The British gained custody of Napoleon, and they exiled him to Saint Helena, a remote island in the Atlantic
Ocean. There, Napoleon suffered a lonely existence, as he pined for his days of glory and wrote his memoirs. He
died on May 5, 1821. His remains were returned to France in 1840 and interred in a monumental tomb in Paris.
Even today, his name still inspires deep admiration in France.
"Napoleon I." World History: The Modern Era. ABC-CLIO, 2011. Web. 15 Mar. 2011.

Background Essay
The identity of Napoleon Bonaparte is a major concern for today's historians, as they seek to add more than just
further detail to the familiar outline of his military and political career. They have begun exploring the construction
of his personality, and the images and representations that were generated in the process. A myth was certainly
manufactured after his death, but its fabrication commenced during his own lifetime, elaborated not simply by
contemporaries but through Napoleon's own deliberate efforts. He had history in his sights from the outset, and was
constantly reinventing himself, from Buonaparte a Corsican patriot, to Bonaparte the revolutionary general and
republican consul, to, finally, in 1804, Napoleon the emperor. In the Hundred Days campaign the revolutionary
aspect briefly resurfaced, before the embellishment of the legend on St. Helena was undertaken during the last years
of his life. This final endeavor carried his appeal still further, and Bonapartism became established as a significant
political option in 19th-century France. Together with the sheer scale of his ambition and a series of stunning
military victories, this protean character, reflected in a vast array of printed and visual imagery, helps to explain his
unparalleled longevity in the global memory. Though the achievement ultimately fell short of his vast reach, it lent
a romantic aura to an astonishing individual who has prompted more ink to flow than any modern figure.
Bonaparte's ambition, energy, and sheer ability were displayed to their fullest extent under the French Consulate,
the most fruitful period of his dominion. It was not devoid of military success, of course, though the victory at the
Battle of Marengo in 1800 was an extremely close-run thing that could have prematurely curtailed his newly won
political authority. As he himself recognized, military defeat would be his undoing, though that recognition did not
prevent him staking everything on continuing success. As it was, peace on the continent of Europe in 1801 was
followed by the Treaty of Amiens with Great Britain in 1802. This welcome respite from constant warfare helped
shift attention to internal achievements, though some of the greatest measures were already underway. It was in

completing projects and, above all, resolving, if not always permanently then at least for a lengthy period, some of
the thorniest problems thrown up by the revolution, that Bonaparte revealed his true genius.
As might be expected from a soldier, Bonaparte imposed an authoritarian solution in most domains. Nomination
replaced election for the most part; opponents were treated harshly; and for one recent historian, H. G. Brown, the
measures taken to restore law and order amounted to an incipient security state. Yet Bonaparte introduced many
elements of reconciliation as well as repression, witnessed in his choice of collaborators from across the political
spectrum, or in efforts to repatriate the migrs, for example. This effective combination of carrot and stick is
especially apparent in his settlement with the Catholic Church, which resulted in the restoration of public worship,
largely on Bonaparte's terms. This hard-driven bargain both rallied many of the French people and deprived
proponents of a monarchical restoration of a vital weapon in their armory, with which Republicans had signally
failed to deal.
Napoleon was also able to synthesize elements of the ancien rgime with principles of the new order, choosing
freely from both. For instance, his management of popular sovereignty was symbolized by the plebiscites that
secured general assent for the growth of his power. The great Napoleonic Code, which brought the labors of a
decade to fruition, definitively enshrined the new order of legal equality, though at the price of a patriarchal
settlement. Where the revolutionaries had experimented, he consolidated. In the confronting of issues unresolved or
unfinished by the revolution, his lack of a political past could be put to good advantage, while his unorthodox
background endowed him with a greater degree of objectivity than most of his contemporaries.
On the other hand, a fierce, clannish loyalty to his own family, together with an insatiable urge toward greater
personal power, served as a drawback that manifested itself more strongly the longer his rule continued. Under the
First French Empire, established in 1804, Napoleon adopted a more conservative outlook and many compromises
of the consular period were adulterated. It might have been said earlier that he discarded the liberty of the
revolution while retaining its principle of equality (his own rise to power, after all, represented the triumph of the
principle of "careers open to talent," and, at the coronation of December 2, he crowned himself to symbolize this
fact), but the imperial decade threatened such social fluidity. Initially at least, even greater glory was achieved on
the battlefield, with the Battle of Austerlitz coinciding with the first anniversary of the coronation and Prussia
crushed at Jena-Auerstadt the following year. Thereafter the tide gradually turned toward disaster, in Spain and
above all in Russia, but the empire was also a much less productive period from the political point of view. The
reestablishment of heredity and the recreation of a court encouraged the reemergence of a more aristocratic and less
meritocratic society.
Nonetheless, it is often said that Napoleon remained a Jacobin abroad, and it is certainly true that the expanding
empire (which reached 130 departments at its height, including Baltic and Illyrian, as well as German and Italian
provinces) did destroy clerical dominion and much customary practice. Yet the pattern of sister republics that
Bonaparte had helped to shape before and after 1799 was now replaced with satellite kingdoms, several of them
ruled by members of Napoleon's family, notwithstanding their variable political ability. Louis Bonaparte was given
charge of Holland and Joseph Bonaparte dispatched to Spain, for example, while Joachim Murat (who had married
Napoleon's sister Caroline Bonaparte) was given Naples. The process was literally crowned in 1809 when
Napoleon divorced the childless Josephine Bonaparte and, the following year, married Marie-Louise, daughter of
the emperor of Austria. She succeeded in delivering the long-awaited male heir, though he never ruled as Napoleon
II, and also encouraged further genuflections toward the established ruling houses with which Napoleon
increasingly identified himself. In fact, it was the old dynasties for whom Napoleon now evinced such respect that
eventually overturned him in 1814, through the adoption of some of his modernizing agenda, but, most of all,
through a concerted effort against the waning resources of an exhausted, overstretched French Empire.
Yet this was not the end of Napoleon, merely the opportunity for another beginning. Less than a year later, in 1815,

Napoleon escaped from the Mediterranean island of Elba where he had been confined in comfortable circumstances
and began his celebrated Hundred Days. Not only was he back in charge of France between March and July 1815
but, most important, he recast himself in a revolutionary role. He was once more emperor, but he resurrected a
Jacobin image and proposed a liberal version of his erstwhile regime. The episode was inevitably short-lived, and
when he came to grief at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon was shipped off to St. Helena in the south Atlantic,
whence there would be no return, until his remains were entombed at the Invalides in Paris in 1840. But the
importance of the Hundred Days was posthumous; it was crucial in turning the image of the emperor from tyrant to
liberator, a remarkable transformation that set the scene for the emergence of Bonapartism in the 19th century.
Napoleon himself returned to his original vocation as a writer during the final years of his life, which were spent,
like his early years, on a remote island. Much of the legend that was spun by Napoleon was contradictory and some
of it downright mendacious, yet, in the light of the Hundred Days and his apparent ill-treatment by his British
captors, it struck a tremendous chord with many of the French of all classes and conditions. The combination of
glory and bathos, mixed with the meteoric rise and fall of the self-made man, who aroused the hostility of the
establishment, but offered order and security, was to have broad appeal on both right and left. It was especially
attractive to liberals and republicans who bitterly opposed the restored monarchy after 1815 and found the legend a
potent rallying cry. Such was its appeal that the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe, founded in 1830 when the
Bourbons provoked another revolution, sought to annex the Bonapartist inheritance to its own account, if to no
lasting effect.
With the demise of this moderate form of monarchy in 1848, the way was paved for Napoleon's determined nephew
to offer the real thing, by creating a Second French Empire that consciously imitated the first. Like his uncle,
Napoleon III employed an amalgam of authoritarianism and democracy, but having promised peace, like his
predecessor he too was undone by war. The eventual establishment of the French Third Republic after 1870
reduced Bonapartism to a fringe doctrine, with most appeal on the extreme right. Yet its demise was by no means
complete, and one might regard the advent of Gen. Charles de Gaulle and the French Fifth Republic in 1958 as
something of a latter-day incarnation of the Bonapartist tradition. What is astounding is that the individual himself
continues to inspire so many and varied reactions. He left a massive legacy as a statesman, in addition to the
reputation for outstanding military success, for which he is best known. Above all, at a popular level, the silhouette,
the trademark tricorne hat, or the arm in the jacket, remain instantly recognizable. There can be no greater
testimony to the sheer longevity of a figure born in obscurity more than 200 years ago who, as he himself predicted,
continues to fascinate the entire world.
Crook, Malcolm. "Background Essay." World History: The Modern Era. ABC-CLIO, 2010. Web. 4 Feb. 2010. <>.

Argument Opening: Napoleon I: Enlightened Revolutionary or Power-Hungry Tyrant?

French emperor Napoleon I is undoubtedly one of the most important and influential figures of modern European
history. He is also as divisive a character as he is famous. While Napoleon was an effective statesman and reformer
who spread many of the ideals of the French Revolution throughout monarchical Europe, he also led the armies of
France on a series of campaigns of conquest across the continent that only ceased when other European states
combined in overwhelming fashion to defeat him.
In the first Perspective, Dr. Charles J. Esdaile evaluates the Napoleonic legend that has tended to dominate the
historical study of Napoleon's life and career. By comparing the reality of Napoleon's actions to the myth that
surrounds his legacy, Esdaile attempts to show that while it may be going too far to condemn him as a powerhungry tyrant, Napoleon was certainly not an enlightened revolutionary. In the second Perspective, Dr. Michael V.
Leggiere argues that Napoleon was neither a tyrant nor an enlightened revolutionary, but rather an authoritarian
who provided France with a form of enlightened despotism masked by a faade of democratic ideals. In other

words, Napoleon instituted sweeping reforms based on the ideals of the Enlightenment while simultaneously
refusing to accept the revolutionary concept that sovereignty lies with the people.
Perspective 1: Napoleon Bonaparte: A Divisive Historical Figure
Ruler of France from 1799 till 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte is a figure who continues to this day to divide the
historical community. Indeed, to make use of the title of the book written by the leading Dutch historian, Pieter
Geyl, it is very much a question of "Napoleon, for or against." On the one side are those who see the emperor, if not
as a great hero, then at least as a great reformer who was instrumental in dragging Europe into the modern world
and espoused many of the values of the French Revolution, and, on the other, those who regard the emperor as, at
best, a highly successful warlord in a long line of European warlords, and, at worst, a by-word for unfettered
ambition who was concerned only for his own glory and brought with him nothing but blood and destruction.
Unfortunately for those who persist in admiring Napoleon, amongst academic historians an increasingly critical line
has come to dominate discussion of the emperor. There is general agreement that he was no Hitler or Stalin: he
neither engaged in genocide or mass murder nor set up concentration camps for his opponents. Equally, he enjoys
wide recognition as a statesman who greatly strengthened the machinery of the French state and exported the
principles of 1789 to many parts of Europe which they had not reached before: in most of the French Empire,
feudalism was abolished, the estates of the Catholic Church expropriated and sold off, the Jews emancipated,
unified codes of law based on the French model established, and some form of constitutionalism introduced. Yet
none of this makes him a liberator. Setting aside the often overlooked fact that, notionally at least, Napoleon
reintroduced slavery in the French colonies, none of the changes brought about by the French ruler were ever
regarded by him as developments that were worth introducing for their own sake, let alone for the benefit of the
peoples who were subjected to him. Rather, they were in each and every case designed either to strengthen his
political and military base in France and the ever-growing collection of territories that were directly annexed to her,
or to ensure that the satellite states that came to make up the rest of the empire functioned in an efficient fashion
and rendered all that could be expected of themand morein terms of men and money (even the emancipation of
the Jews was a double-edged sword: if the so-called "Grand Sanhedrin" of 1807 is anything to go by, what
Napoleon wanted was for the Jews of each state in the empire to be, in effect, united in national "synagogues" that
could, like the Catholic Church, be transformed into yet more cogs in the machinery of government).
We come here to the question of war and foreign policy. Adherents of Napoleon are adamant that the constant wars
that so marked the Napoleonic epoch were the fruit of the determination of the Old Order to overthrow the French
Revolution and all it stood for, and that, faced by this hostility, the first consul, and, as he later became, emperor,
had no option but to maximize his war-making resources by every means available. This argument, however, has
little substance. From 1803, Napoleon certainly faced the constant hostility of Great Britain, but that did not mean
that Britain was necessarily opposed to a peace settlement with Napoleon. In the period 18021803, the very
generous peace terms that France had obtained in the Treaty of Amiens had been given a fair trial by the Addington
administration, whilst in 1806 the exercise of a little diplomatic skill might easily have persuaded the Whigdominated "Ministry of all the Talents" to put an end to the fighting. And, even if it is accepted that Britain was not
disposed to make peace, it certainly cannot be argued that all of France's Continental opponents were suborned into
fighting by means of what those in favor of Napoleon still like to refer to as "Pitt's gold." Until 1813, British
financial aid was generally both somewhat limited and, except in the case of Spain and Portugal, offered somewhat
unwillingly. In consequence, if France faced coalition after coalition of foreign enemies, it was in reality because
Napoleon's actions ensured that this was the case. Austria, Prussia, and Russia all essayed a policy of dtente with
Napoleon at one point or another, but they were all driven one after another to break with him, and eventually
coalesced in the coalition that finally brought down the French Empire in 1814.
Given that all of the powers of Europe could have lived with Napoleon as ruler of France, and, further, that they

could probably have been united in a grand coalition against Britain (a power that was universally distrusted on the
Continent, and one, too, that Napoleon's control of Europe was forcing into policies that were ever more damaging
to France's potential partners), one is forced to ask why victory eluded the emperor. This question, however, is not
difficult to answer. As witness his relations with Alexander I of Russia in the wake of the Treaty of Tilsit, Napoleon
was in the first place incapable either of treating other rulers and their states as equals or even of recognizing that
Austria, Russia, and Prussia had legitimate interests which had at least to be taken into consideration. This alone
would have been sufficient to ensure his failure as a statesman, but at the same time too the French ruler was also
driven by a lust for glory that led him constantly to engage in dramatic actions for which there was little real
rationale (one such is the occupation of Portugal in 1807; a second the overthrow of the Spanish Bourbons; and a
third the invasion of Russia in 1812). Coupled with the expansionism inherent in his adoption of the Continental
Blockade (the exclusion of all British trade from the Continent), this produced a feeling that Napoleon simply could
not be contained within the European diplomatic system and, ultimately, that he had to be overthrown.
To conclude, then, Napoleon was much more of a power-hungry tyrant then he was ever an enlightened
revolutionary. Whilst he certainly stood for reform, what he wanted was in the end not the benefit of his subjects,
but more men, more ships, and more money, to obtain which he was prepared to stop at nothing. And, if he wanted
more men, more ships, and more money, it was not because he was forced into war, but rather because war was
integral to his rule, both as a means of satisfying his own self-image and as a means of giving employment to the
swollen army that had brought him to power in the first place. One can, perhaps, go too far in condemning himin
the end he was simply an enlightened absolutist of the 18th century writ very large indeedbut, for all that, the
Napoleonic legend should really be considered dead.
Esdaile, Charles J. "Napoleon Bonaparte: A Divisive Historical Figure." World History: The Modern Era. ABC-CLIO, 2010. Web. 4 Feb. 2010. <>.

Perspective 2: Enlightened Despotism Comes to France

Napoleon Bonaparte effectively ended the French Revolution in 1799. In that year, he assumed the title of first
consul and became the virtual dictator of France. Like Adolf Hitler, Napoleon overwhelmed those who had put him
in power under the misperception that they could control him. As first consul, Bonaparte concentrated more
absolute power in his hands than any Bourbon monarch before him, even the great Louis XIV. Unlike Louis XIV,
no institution existed in France whose authority Napoleon had to respect or whose power he could not eclipse.
Because Bonaparte created both the legislative and executive branches of the consulate and imperial governments,
no national, representative body existed to check his power. Not only did Napoleon dictate the constitutions of the
consulate and empire, but he packed the upper level of the French legislaturethe Senatewith his supporters. As
for traditional obstacles to centralized or "federal" power in France, the nobility and the Catholic Church had been
broken during the Revolution.
Napoleon's domestic program cannot be categorized as that of an enlightened revolutionary, for he never believed
in the revolutionary concept that sovereignty resided with the people. Nor can his domestic policies be likened to
those of a power-hungry tyrant. Instead, Bonaparte provided France with a form of enlightened despotism masked
by a faade of democratic ideals. France had missed out on the political ideology of enlightened despotism, which
had been popular among the rulers of Prussia (Frederick II), Austria (Joseph II), to a lesser extent Russia (Catherine
II), and a host of secondary states in the mid- to late 18th century. The key to understanding the ideology of
enlightened despotismas opposed to revolutionary ideologyis the concept that sovereign power resided only
with the monarch and not with the people. Enlightened despotism should be viewed as an intense acceleration of
absolute monarchy, which included the subjugation of traditional obstacles to the state's centralized power.
Enlightened rulers served their subjects by passing reforms and streamlining government for the improvement of
the state community as a whole. Thus, enlightened despots introduced innovative policies in taxation, economic
development, education, secularization, and religious toleration. They saw themselves as the first servant of their

state, as opposed to the traditional view held by absolute monarchs as stated by Louis XIV: "I am the state, the state
is me." Yet, enlightened despots embraced the ideas of the 18th-century Enlightenment to increase the centralized
power of the state and not to incubate revolution. The wars of the mid-18th century made the monarch's ability to
harness the resources of the state (money, manpower, and material) vital if the state was to survive the intense
international competition of the age. France failed and lost India and North America; Poland failed and disappeared
from the map of Europe. Consequently, power and the ability to sustain their state in the arena of international
competition remained the overriding concern of the enlightened despots. Napoleon proved to be no exception.
As first consul and later as emperor, Bonaparte held true to the principles of enlightened despotism. In short,
Napoleonthe child of the Enlightenment and not the child of the Revolutionsucceeded in providing rational
order to the chaos, anarchy, and confusion of the French Revolution. He instituted sweeping reforms in education,
administration, and finance that still exist today. He saved the state from bankruptcy, healed the rift with the
Catholic Church, and ended a bloody civil war. His most comprehensive achievement, the Napoleonic Code, made
law uniform throughout France and protected the individualism established by the Revolution by forever abolishing
custom and privilege. To Napoleon's credit, the expanded and amended codes remain the basic law of France as
well as many other countries. An incomparable servant of the state, Bonaparte's impact on the national institutions
of France can still be seen today. True to the tenets of enlightened despotism, Napoleon strove to improve the state
community as a whole by giving the people what they needed, yet he never felt inclined to govern according to
their will. His actions indeed represent enlightened thought, but not that of a romantic revolutionary. Instead,
Bonaparte epitomized the Enlightenment's rational approach to problem solving, to providing efficient government,
to eliminating abuse, injustice, and corruption, and above all to harnessing the nation's resources for war. If, toward
the end of the French Empire, certain aspects of Bonaparte's domestic program did become despotic, it is not
because Napoleon was a power-hungry tyrant. Instead, the reason is because Napoleon himself was a despot. He
never held out the prospect of embracing republican democracy and surrendering his sovereignty to the will of the
The desired end result of Napoleon's domestic policy was indeed the harnessing of France's and later Europe's
resources to such an extent that the French state not only participated in the arena of international competition, but
completely changed the rules of the game. Not a man of peace, blame for the wars that shook the Western world
between 18031815 can be placed squarely on Bonaparte. However, it is not accurate to label Napoleon's foreign
policy that of a power-hungry tyrant. Instead, it is more correct to view the Napoleonic Wars as a mere continuation
of the wars of the 18th century. France's enemies certainly pursued traditional 18th-century national objectives until
five failed coalition wars finally convinced them to at least suspend their own agendas for the sake of uniting to
defeat France. The difference is that while his opponents expected Napoleon to adhere to the rules of 18th-century
diplomacy and peace-making that focused on the concept of compensation for all belligerents, Napoleon instead
brought his concept of rationalism to the negotiating table. As a general of the French Republic and even as first
consul, Bonaparte attempted to negotiate peace treaties that awarded his vanquished foe a degree of compensation,
such as Austria with the 1797 Treaty of Campo Formio and the 1801 Treaty of Lunville. He soon concluded that
such treaties, which failed to punish the vanquished or cripple their ability to wage war, only led to renewed wars.
Thus, Bonaparte brought the concept of the strategy of annihilationwhich separated him from the generals he
confronted on the battlefield who employed the 18th-century strategy of attritionto the peace table. For a rational
thinker, signing treaties that would lead to renewed hostilities in a few years certainly contradicted common sense.
Consequently, the only recourse for Bonaparte was to cripple his adversaries' ability to wage war against France, as
he did to Prussia in 1807, and to create a French-dominated international system (as he did in 1808) that would
produce lasting peace. Napoleon did not fail because he was a power-hungry tyrant. He failed because in the end he
was too much of a rational thinker. Bonaparte refused to believe that his rational version of the Revolution that was
spread by way of French military conquest ultimately would be rejected by the peoples of Europe. He could not
understand how the nations could prefer custom, tradition, local values, regionalism, feudalism, and the Catholic
Church over the universalism and individualism of the French Revolution. French domination produced

nationalisma genie more powerful than the great captain of his age, for Napoleon survived the Russian campaign
of 1812 and fielded an army of 500,000 men less than six months later. Yet it was too late, the peoples of Europe
had rejected his enlightened rationalism for romantic nationalism.
Leggiere, Michael V. "Enlightened Despotism Comes to France." World History: The Modern Era. ABC-CLIO, 2010. Web. 4 Feb. 2010. <>.

While Napoleon's tenure as leader of the First French Empire witnessed the spread of revolutionary ideals across
Europe, this process came hand-in-hand with almost constant bloodshed as the emperor led the armies of France in
a series of campaigns against the forces of Europe's monarchies. While it is undeniable that his actions had a farreaching impact on Europe in many ways and marked the region's transition into the modern era, Napoleon
Bonaparte is a figure who continues to divide the historical community; some scholars celebrate him as a great
reformer, while others challenge that characterization and instead argue that he was merely a self-serving warlord.
In the first Perspective, Dr. Charles J. Esdaile evaluates this dichotomy and points out that an increasingly critical
line has come to dominate discussion of Napoleon among academics. Such criticism, he explains, tends to regard
Napoleon's reforms as merely self-seving; that is, he did not implement reforms for the sake of revolutionary ideals,
but rather followed such a course to benefit himself and the strength of the French state. Esdaile also argues that the
continuous warfare that gripped Europe during Napoleon's reign was largely his fault, concluding that a lasting
peace settlement could have been achieved if Napoleon had demonstrated more restraint and diplomatic skill. War
was instead integral to Napoleon's rule, the result of a lust for glory that superseded any benevolence he may have
felt for his subjects. Esdaile concludes that while characterizing Napoleon as a power-hungry tyrant may be going
too far, he was certainly not an enlightened revolutionary. In the second Perspective, Dr. Michael V. Leggiere
argues that Napoleon was an authoritarian who provided France with a form of enlightened despotism masked by a
faade of democratic ideals. While he implemented innovative reforms for the benefit of the state, he
simultaneously refused to ever accept the republican notion that sovereignty lies with the people. While Leggiere
does not believe Napoleon is deserving of a reputation as an enlightened revolutionary, he does point out that
Napoleon's historical significance is undeniable, for his reforms brought an end to the chaos of the French
Revolution and provided the basis for modern French law and national institutions.