Bonaparte Betrayed The Revolution Essay, Research Paper
‘Bonaparte betrayed the revolution.’ Do you agree with this statement? Justify your answer.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s attitude towards the French Revolution is one that has often raised questions. That the revolution had an influence on Bonaparte’s regime cannot be denied – but to what extent? When one looks at France after Napoleon’s reign it is clear that he had brought much longed for order and stability. He had also established institutions that embodied the main principles of the revolution. However, it is also evident that many of his policies directly contradict those same principles. Was Napoleon betraying the same revolution that gave him power, or was he merely a pragmatist, who recognised that to consolidate the achievements of the revolution he needed to sacrifice some of those principles?
Firstly, in order to determine whether Bonaparte betrayed the revolution it is necessary to define what one means by “the revolution”. Clearly there never was just one French Revolution, but rather a series of revolutions. These occurred while the French struggled to create a new political and social system – one that would follow principles radically different to that of the ‘ancien’ regime. There were five regimes to French Revolution between 1787 and 1800. However, despite this fragmented revolution the same fundamental principles guided most of the revolutionaries involved. These principles included equality under law, centralisation of government, elimination of feudal rights, religious freedom and careers open to talent, not birth. In short, the three key principles were liberty, equality and fraternity. It is generally thought that Napoleon was a supporter of these principles. Historian Georges Lefebvre wrote that Bonaparte was “…. a pupil of the philosophies, he detested feudalism, civil inequality and religious intolerance”. In order to determine the validity of such a statement, one needs to examine institutions founded by Napoleon and conclude if they contained elements of these principles.
The most lasting and enduring of Napoleon’s achievements is the Code Napoleon. When he came to power, after the coup d’etat of 18 Brumaire, in 1899, France was administratively in chaos. It was lacking the foundation that was essential in order to institutionalise the triumphs of the revolution. That is until Napoleon drew up his own administrative framework. Initially known as the Civil Code it was promulgated between March 1803 and March 1804. As a set of laws it unified France legally. The submission of all members of society to a common scheme of justice recognised the demands of the revolutionary crowds. In the lists of grievances that had been handed to Louis XVI just prior to the revolution, many had asked that French Laws be uniform . Where Louis had failed to respond, Napoleon acted. Thus he can be seen as building upon the revolution. Equality, a key principle of the revolution was consistently enforced in the code. It guaranteed freedom of the person, freedom of religion and proclaimed “freedom of work”. The code also required equal inheritance by all male heirs . The manner in which Napoleon efficiently used The Civil Code to centralise power in France is proof that he was following the ideologies of those behind the revolution. In particular ideals of the 1793 revolutionaries, who were anxious for centralisation. Napoleon once declared that “The revolution is frozen” and the code was his way of preserving achievements brought about by the revolution.
One of the main grievances of those involved in the revolution was lack of advancement within society. The Bourgeoisie in particular found it difficult to advance their careers due to birth status. Thus, a catch cry of the revolutionary crowds became – “Career Open to Talent”. Napoleon, upon coming to power, enforced this revolutionary aim of the bourgeoisie. Careers were open to all those with ability, regardless of birth or social status. Napoleon proclaimed in 1816, “Wherever I found talent and courage I rewarded it” . He backed up this statement by establishing ‘lyce?s”. These were secondary schools for boys, where admission was based on ability. Like Napoleon in Animal Farm, education of the young was a priority in Bonaparte’s society. He created an upward ladder within society, opening an avenue of opportunity for the less wealthy in society by providing scholarships to those displaying ability. The only criterion being that the boy’s family were supporters of Napoleon. Thus, one of the grievances that had pushed the revolution forward was resolved. A revolutionary aim was realised.
A strategy of Napoleon’s that was intended to foster equality, as well as to reward talent, was the establishing of the Legion of Honour. Despite protests that it was a violation of equality , the practice of recognising civic contributions to society was widely regarded as a means of promoting equality. Le Memorial de Sainte-Helene (1821) declared that “…. establishment of the Legion of Honour, which was the reward for military, civil, and judicial service, united side by side the soldier, the scholar, the artist, the prelate, and the magistrate;”. Napoleon continually proved to be able to heal divisions caused by a revolution demanding equality. In order to bring the ideals of the revolution to fruition, i.e. to create social equality, Napoleon recognised that diverse groups in society needed to reconcile and unite in their attempt to consolidate the achievements of the revolution. So, as he himself stated, “I became the arch of the alliance between the old and the new, the natural mediator between the old and the new orders … I belonged to them both” . Always the pragmatist Napoleon united those who were on opposing sides in the Revolution. The past and one’s past actions were forgotten as long as one showed support for Napoleon. For example, former royalists who now served the empire could be promoted .
Social divides were hindering France from reaping the benefits gained by the revolution. None more so than religious divides. As the revolution had progressed traditional religions were persecuted, despite the fact that France was a majority Catholic country. Leaders, such as Robespierre who had set up the Cult of the Supreme Being , had terrorised Catholics. Hostility also remained within the church between those who had supported the revolution and those who had not. Therefore, there was much discontent in France. Many felt that such divisions and terrorising contradicted the ideals of liberty and fraternity. Napoleon was one such person. Signing the Concordat (15 July 1801) with Pope Pius VII allowed him to reconcile the religious differences that had torn France apart during the revolution. At the same time the Concordat insured religious freedom. It recognised Catholicism as the religion of the majority in France, but it did not make it an “established religion”. The Concordat brought tranquillity to France and therefore allowed Napoleon to solidify some of the changes brought about by the revolution.
Many of Napoleon’s policies within France were not regarded as being truly revolutionary and it must be acknowledged that Napoleon’s main aim within France was to consolidate rather than to advance. However, it was during the building of his Empire that Napoleon proved to be a truly revolutionary man. It was the aim of many of the revolution’s leaders to revolutionize the rest of Europe – something that Napoleon accomplished. The principles that he inherited from the revolution he tried to export to the countries that he conquered. In fact, Napoleon’s enthusiasm to “revolutionize” the rest of Europe eventually caused his downfall. Napoleon himself claimed that he was only trying to liberate Europe. Unlike Napoleon in Animal Farm, Bonaparte was willing to spread the message of the revolution to other areas, as well as consolidating it at home. Eventually this ambition, along with his thirst for battle, led to his demise. On 6 April 1814 he abdicated after a crushing defeat by the British, Prussians and Russians. When he could have been satisfied with the expansions he had made and extending revolutionary principles to these areas, he instead went to war, in an attempt to spread the revolution even further.
Of course, while acknowledging that Bonaparte was the consolidator of the revolution, it must be recognised that elements of the revolution suffered under his rule. Napoleon restored titles abolished by the revolution. For example, ‘prince’ was reintroduced (1804), followed by ‘duke’ (1806). These were given to ordinary people in recognition of service to the state. Many believed Napoleon was undermining the principle of equality and undoing the work of the revolution by establishing new ‘nobility’ – the ‘notables’ . It seemed Napoleon was creating a new social hierarchy based on service to the state. The introduction of the Legion of Honour was also regarded as a step towards the recreation of an aristocracy. However, Napoleon claimed that these honours merely marked distinguished careers. He believed that they re-enforced equality, showing how people of all economic means could be rewarded equally. He was levelling ranks by raising them not by lowering them, creating social equality.
Historian Tom Holmeberg noted that many blame Napoleon for destroying the principle of liberty in France. However, in fact the revolutionaries themselves were never successful in attaining liberty during the revolution. Historian Albert Vandal stated that “Bonaparte can be reproached for not having established liberty; he cannot be accused of having destroyed it, for the excellent reason that on his return from Egypt he did not find it anywhere in France”. Nonetheless, it could never be a realistic aim of Napoleon to establish liberty while France was in chaos. He believed that liberty would only come with the preservation of order and the consolidation of the triumphs of the revolution. Therefore, liberty was sacrificed. While liberty could not be guaranteed Napoleon would instead assure the French of their rights, in the Napoleonic Code. Albert Mathiez wrote that Napoleon “would keep most of the revolutionary institutions while at times amalgamating them with those of the Old Regime, which were restored but adapted. His work would prove so solid that it made any total restoration of the past impossible.” Therefore it seems clear that Napoleon was leading France firmly down a path (the foundations of which were laid during the Revolution) that had elements of the ‘ancien’ regime in its construction for support. Ever the pragmatist, Napoleon recognised that unless his was a balanced system the triumphs of the Revolution would be lost.
Napoleon Bonaparte was certainly a man of the revolution. He was not its betrayer but in fact its heir and preserver. This is evident in his policies. In France his Code Napoleon embodied the principles of the revolution and provided France with the administrative framework necessary for building institutions founded on the ideals of the revolution. He unified a country which had been torn apart by political, religious and social strife for over a decade. He ensured religious tolerance. He opened careers to talent and rewarded those who served the state regardless of traditional social status. It is abroad that we truly see Bonaparte for the revolutionary man he was. Trying to spread the ideals of equality, liberty and fraternity to other nations eventually cost Napoleon his power. He was building a fragmented empire, one that was increasingly difficult to administer. However, his determination to revolutionize Europe blinded him to this fact, eventually leading to his downfall. Above all Bonaparte was a pragmatist. He recognised the need to be practical and was willing to sacrifice certain principles of the revolution in order to make others permanent. It was he who ended the revolution in France, consolidated its gains, corrected its extravagances and exported its ideals to Europe. He certainly did not betray it. As Francois Furet wrote, “He was chosen by the revolution, from which he received his strange power not only to embody a new nation … but also to fulfil its destiny.”
? D.M.G. Sutherland, France 1789-1815 Revolution and Counterrevolution (London 1985)
? Tom Holmberg, “Napoleon and the French Revolution”, 1998, www.napoleonbonaparte.nl/html/body_nap_and_revolution.html
? www.chesco.com/~artman/napoleonbonaparte.html (Quotes by Napoleon Bonaparte)
? George Orwell, Animal Farm, (Middlesex, England 1945)
? Colin Jones, The Longman Companion to the French Revolution, (New York, 1988)
? John Merriman, A History of Modern Europe, Volume 1, (London, New York)
? Class Notes
? Class Documents HI 4712
Class Readings HI4712