Napoleon and the Revolution.



I’ve just been asked a great question by Adrian Jordan – – which I thought I must share with you all. What are your thoughts? Please do let me know! (Adrian and I already have a discussion about this topic on my Birth of Modern Europe page, but I wanted to share this discussion with you all too!)

Did Napoleon let the revolution down, or was he an inevitable consequence of the ‘Terror’?

My response: 

I believe he continued many of the revolutionary aims, although extending the ‘natural frontiers’ to an extent the revolutionaries probably didn’t envisage. However, some of his codes seem to contradict revolutionary ideals…I wouldn’t say he let it down completely, but I also don’t think he carried out all they wanted.

I’m also not sure how much he was a consequence of the terror…his regime never exiled or had as many ‘disappearances’ as there were under the terror itself. Then again, had the terror not occurred and officers fled the regime, would he have gained a commission in the first place?

Adrian’s response: 

I think there are parallels between Napoleon and Hitler inasmuch s he depended on his continued popularity, as he claimed himself, on continued war and conquest. Defeat was not an option, though in fact Napoleon’s defeats were not infrequent but always claimed as victories.
He was, of course, a privileged man from birth and his first experience of France was from the viewpoint of a diplomat’s son visiting the French court. I am unsure how far he had any sympathy with the aims of the Revolution. Certainly his re-instatement of religion (a way of quieting the masses, as he saw it, even before Marx) most notably by involving the Pope in his crowning as emperor, went against the ideal of the revolution. His ‘reign’ relied upon war and soldiery. Any hope of the people being unburdened by a sound lasting economic base was never pursued, rather the economy of war was how France had to survive. The subsequent demise of France as a European power may be a testament to his squandering of resources, in much the same way as the court at Versailles squandered the wealth of France on frippery.

I think the Terror did come to an end under it’s own steam, however it left a vacuum insofar as the regime had divested the people of their culture and religion, and indeed their King, and after the frenzy was over a real desire for something new was desperately need, and something glorious and ‘good’. Napoleon’s victories were indeed good news and would have been welcomed eagerly by an otherwise suspicious and diluted people. Had the revolution and the Terror not happened then it is not at all certain that the son of a Corsican Diplomat would have had any chance at all of putting his wonderful nose so deeply in the trough.

The point, for me, is not whether Napoleon was ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the terror. It is that Napoleon was wedded to the effects of the Terror. Had Napoleon not come along when he did, another ‘Napoleon’ would have.

Again the parallel with Hitler is a little striking. A country undergoing huge political change, embroiled in violence and internal struggle ad reviled by the rest of Europe, eager for something different. The French revolution failed, the Terror won.

What do you think? Get in touch!


10 thoughts on “Napoleon and the Revolution.

  1. jamiehist

    I don’t think the revolution was failed by Napoleon, I just think that he consolidated its gains. The revolutionary principles themselves were never going to work in a country that required the backing of the bourgeois/noble elite, and so a new elite needed to be formed which is what Napoleon did, he built an elite by mixing the bourgeois with the old emigre. The only way he could do this was to say that he was upholding the revolutions ideals whilst pacifying Europe of all counter-revolutionaries and royalists, so that he would have the backing of the masses. But at the same time engaging with the old nobility because he would need their support to run his highly centralised government.

    As for what he did to carry on from the Revolution, he ended feudalism within the Napoleonic codes, he kept the sold church lands under the biens nationaux, after his reconciliation with the Pope with the Concordat, and lastly he maintained the equality of frenchmen, be it a very limited enfranchising, in the constitution and the civil code.

    For the end of the revolution itself we don’t have to look much further than Robespierre’s death and the Thermidorian reaction, his execution signalled the end of the Revolution, after he tried to increase the reign of Terror. So in respect to the ‘consequence of the Terror’ aspect, I think that the Directory was a result of this the fact that the Directory was easily corrupted and needed taking care of is what Napoleon was required for. The fact that Napoleon was not the first choice of Sieyes to lead the Brumairian coup just highlights that Napoleon was not a consequence, just in the right place at the right time. 🙂

    • I think it depends on what the Revolution stood for; a set of ideals or merely a set of events. Ideals as ideas might carry on but I concede that as hard facts of life then they may not. I am not sure that the things that did ‘carry on’ after his rise to power should really be attributed to him exclusively for they were ideals forged in the furnace of the revolution. It is a hard pin to balance upon I suspect; how far Napoleon was progenitor or protagonist, but for my money the Revolution was the real protagonist. Nonetheless, I agree Napoleon did build on Revolutionary principles, he could do little else is some ways. However in other ways he took the French nation backwards and abandoned much that had been forged n that furnace.

      As to the longevity of the Revolution, and here I mean it’s ideals, then they did not end with the Robespierre’s death, it was, for me, the Terror that ended as a result of his execution, the ideals, and the above argument supports this to some extent,carried on. The terror and the Revolution are distinct, I think.

      The Revolution itself offered the opportunity for change, and in the short term change happened. How far that mandate for change could have been fostered by another course of history is an interesting question, but the facts are that Napoleon happened, and I suggest that Napoleon, or something like him was inevitable. In this we agree for many of the reasons you mention. Idealism may well be the poor sister of Pragmatism. Napoleon the Pragmatist, however abandons the poor sister, in just the same way that he abandoned Josephine.

      As to the detail of how Napoleon rose to power, well the detail is what it is. He was indeed in a place at a time, but whether it was indeed ‘right depends on what values you hold. Pragmatism is King.

      I hope this is of interest. 🙂 AJ

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