Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) was born on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, which had been owned by the Italians until it was annexed by the French. He received his education in a French military school. When the French Revolution began, Napoleon was a low-level military officer but he quickly rose in rank and won important victories against the British and Austria. He was a popular military general who appealed to the people who looked to a strong military leader to the end disorder and corruption that existed under the Directory.
In November 1799, Napoleon overthrew the Directory and formed a new government the Consulate. The Consulate was made up of three Consuls but all the power was vested in Napoleon as the First Consul. In 1802, the constitution made him Consul for life, and in 1804, the constitution made him Emperor. For each of these constitutional changes, Napoleon held a national plebiscite (a yes or no vote).
And the French people, hoping for stability, supported him at each step in his rise. “Napoleon’s popularity as First Consul flowed from his military and political successes and his religious reconciliation. He had come to power in 1799 by appealing for the support of the army. In 1802, Napoleon decided to extend his power by calling for a plebiscite in which he asked the electorate to vote him First Consul for life”.(Civilization in the West pg 627.)
Napoleon instituted numerous domestic policies that helped France get back on its feet after the exhausting Revolution. One of Napoleon’s first moves was to make peace with the Catholic Church. In 1801, Napoleon signed a concordat with Pope Pius VIII. Napoleon acknowledged that Catholicism was the religion of the majority of the French people but affirmed religious toleration for all. By this agreement, he protected the peasant owners of former church land and pleased the overwhelming Catholic French population. Napoleon’s next move was the reform and overhaul of the laws of France. In 1804, he arranged laws into a single organized code called the Napoleonic Code.
By emphasizing the revolutionary principles of equality, the Code created equal treatment before the law, providing religious toleration for Protestants and Jews, and abolishing serfdom, and feudalism. However, the Code undid some reforms of the French Revolution. Women lost most of their rights under the Code. Male heads regained complete authority over their wives and children. “A wife, even when there is no community, or when she is separated as to property, cannot give, convey, mortgage, or acquire property, with or without consideration, without the husband joining in the instrument or giving written consent”(Civilization in the West pg 629).
Another domestic achievement was The Bank of France which was founded in 1800. It introduced a sound of currency and a balanced budget. Everyone was expected to pay taxes and there were no tax exemptions. By collecting taxes fairly and paying off the debt, Napoleon restored the government to financial health. These measures pleased the bourgeoisie. Napoleon also encouraged business enterprises. “Napoleon’s contribution to the French economy was the much-needed reform of the tax system. He authorized the creation of a central banking system. French industries flourished under the protection of the state” (Civilization in the West pg 628).
When Napoleon assumed power in 1799, France was at war with the Second Coalition, which consisted of Russia, Austria, and Great Britain. He was able to win significant victories and by 1802 ended the war favourably for France. In 1805, France resumed war with the Third Coalition (Austria, Sweden, Russia and Great Britain), and between 1805 and 1807 France defeated all these countries except England. For his great victory, Napoleon formed a Great Empire. The new Empire included the French Empire, Holland, Spain, Italy and the German states which excluded Austria, Russia and Prussia. As Napoleon took control over new areas, he instituted reform. He stripped away the power of the nobles and their privileges in order to destroy the last vestiges of the Old Regime. But in 1805, the British forces destroyed the French navy at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Since the military defeat of the British seemed unlikely, Napoleon decided to wage economic warfare through the Continental System instead. Unfortunately, many European nations did not abide by his commands, and the French Empire suffered worse economically than Great Britain did. French commerce lost much of its business, and unemployment spread while the British found new markets in North America. “The British economy was not broken and the French economy did not flourish when faced with restricted resources and the persistence of a black market in smuggled goods” (Civilization in the West pg 627).
Napoleon’s eventual defeat came about for many reasons. The resentment against the Constitutional System was one of the causes of nationalistic revival, which ended Napoleon’s dream of complete European domination. Another reason for Napoleon’s decline was The Peninsular War (1808-1814). Napoleon’s decision to put his brother Joseph on the throne of Spain’s Bourbon King Charles V angered the Spanish people and they revolted, waging a guerilla war that tied down the French soldiers for a number of years. But the main mistake that Napoleon made was The Invasion of Russia. When Alexander I of Russia withdrew from the Continental System in 1812, Napoleon invaded, leading an army of about 500,000 men into Russia.
The Russian army retreated and started burning crops as they went through villages. When Napoleon captured Moscow in September, they found the city in ashes. Napoleon ordered the Grand Army to retreat because there was not enough food to supply his army during the winter. Napoleon lost three-fourths of his army. “The Russians destroyed grain and shelter that might be of use to the French” ” (Civilization in the West pg 630). In 1813, the combined forces of Russia, Prussia, and Austria defeated Napoleon at the Battle of the Nations. In 1814, Napoleon abdicated his throne and was exiled to Elba, Small Island off the Italian coast.
The bourbons were restored to power and Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI, was crowned the new king of France. The king accepted the Napoleonic Code and honoured land settlements made during the revolution. However, Napoleon escaped from Elba and marched to France. The king fled and Napoleon was welcomed back as a hero. But his return only lasted 100 days. On June 18, the Allied army Russia, Austria, Prussia, and Great Britain defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.
Louis XVIII returned and Napoleon was exiled to the remote island of Saint Helena where he died in 1821 of a painful death know today as cancer. “Military, Napoleon went too far. The first cracks in the French façade began to show in the Peninsular War (1808-1814) with Spain, in which Spanish guerilla tactics proved costly for French troops. Napoleon’s biggest mistake, the one that shattered the myth of his invincibility, occurred when he decided to invade Russia in 1812” ” (Civilization in the West pg 630).
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