Bonaparte, Napoleon

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Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821): French General and Emperor.

Napoleon I ranks as one of the world's great conquerors. In addition to conquest, his legal and administrative reforms changed the course of history. Through ambition, intellect, and sheer drive, Napoleon became the ruler of France and created a vast empire. Born into an Italian family from Corsica, Bonaparte was educated in French military schools, and gained notoriety by suppressing an uprising in 1795. An ingenious innovator of military tactics, including the use of artillery, Bonaparte won the unswerving devotion of his troops. Following major victories in Italy, while his army was on campaign in Egypt, he seized power in Paris in 1799.

Leading France for the next 15 years, Bonaparte remained a popular figure who demonstrated that he was to some extent a child of the French Revolution, and thus of the Enlightenment. He promulgated a new constitution and a civil code reflecting the chief accomplishments of the Revolution: popular sovereignty, trial by jury, equality before the law, a citizen army, freedom of religion, abolition of feudal privileges, and freedom of the press. He introduced financial reforms and further centralized the administration of France. Though frequently violated in the years after 1789, the principles of liberty and equality became so entrenched in French political culture in the early 18th century that they would endure as permanent facets of political life.

As a military leader, Bonaparte endeavored to secure France's "natural borders" and to bring large parts of Europe under French control. In 1803, he launched a series of wars of conquest, and, in the wake of victories swift and stunning, French domination by 1806 extended from the Netherlands and the German North Sea coast to the Illyrian Provinces along the coast of the Adriatic. Italy came under French jurisdiction, and some territories, including Rome, were annexed outright. As he proceeded from conquest to conquest, he placed his brothers, son, and marshals upon thrones throughout Europe. He would crown himself emperor in 1804.

Many in Europe regarded Bonaparte as the embodiment of the Revolution, the very prophet of its ideals. These latter were perennial weapons, some would say the most effective in his arsenal. Yet, the cardinal irony in an era laden with ironies was that Bonaparte's successes sowed the seeds of his ultimate downfall. As his campaigns ignited the fires of nationalism outside France, other European governments were compelled to emulate France by carrying out reforms and raising citizen armies. The French Empire would face antagonism not only from hostile governments, but from entire groups and peoples as well. After 1807, Spain became an incessant battleground that drew in masses of French troops in a pitiless guerrilla war, during which hideous atrocities were committed on both sides. In 1812, his huge army of invasion disintegrated in the vastness of Russia. The following year, Bonaparte was defeated at Leipzig, where France and its few remaining allies were pitted against Prussia, Austria, Sweden, Russia and England. France itself was thereafter invaded, and as French armies retreated, imperial control crumbled. Paris would fall in March 1814.

Bonaparte was then exiled to the island of Elba, where the great powers established a small principality for him. Less than a year later, though, he returned to France, raised fresh armies, and renewed his military campaigns. His plans for conquest came to naught when British and Prussian forces defeated the French at the great battle of Waterloo. Bonaparte was again exiled, and died a virtual prisoner on the South Atlantic island of St. Helena. Always the reformer, Bonaparte's legacy in Europe was far-reaching. He centralized French government in ways former monarchs would not have thought possible. A national police system was organized, and all officials in the more than 80 administrative departments were appointed from Paris. Local autonomy was significantly curtailed, and a modern bureaucracy established. In all French dominions, equality took precedence over liberty; legal equality and equality of opportunity became operative principles. Careers, including ones in the French Army, were open to talent and ability. The middle classes, above all, benefited from the new opportunities.

Among Bonaparte's enduring achievements was the codification of law, the Napoleonic Codes. A composite of tradition, edicts from the old regime, and decrees of the Revolution, these were promulgated in seven subject areas, and have survived in revised form to this day. Of these, the most consequential was the 1804 Civil Code that regulated numerous aspects of society such as divorce, religious freedom, and individual liberty, and guaranteed equality before the law and freedom from arbitrary arrest. In the criminal code, protection of society was paramount. The penal code provided guidelines for punishment, including execution.

Reform of the educational system included the establishment of academic high schools (the lycées) that prepared pupils for university study. The elite Grandes Écoles trained the country's leaders as administrators, engineers, scientists and teachers. Under the Empire, the National Library was expanded, the National Archives reorganized and institutionalized, and the Louvre palace made into one of the greatest art galleries in Europe.

Further Reading:

Christopher J. Herold, The Age of Napoleon, 1963.

Robert B. Holtman, The Napoleonic Revolution, 1967.

George Lefebvre, Napoleon, 2 vols., 1969.


David M. Keithly

American Military University

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