The Importance Of Napoleon To Essay Research

The Importance Of Napoleon To Essay, Research Paper


The French Revolution and Napoleonic years are very important to European history because they mark a time of great change and transformation, a time when Europe was in the thrall s of its rise to modernity. Two of the aspects of modernity brought to light during the French Revolution were the increasing importance of the middle class and the idea, though not necessarily the practice, of political liberty. However, some of strides made in France toward modern liberty were almost completely erased only a few years after the Revolution by Napoleon Bonaparte, who brought his own thoughts on modernity to Europe with the advent of nationalism and total warfare.

One of the other ways in which the Revolution affected the rise of modernity was by asserting the importance of the middle class and masses. Before the revolution, France was made up of three estates: The First Estate was the Church, which made up 1-2% of the population, the Second Estate was the nobility which made up less than 2% of the population and the Third Estate was the commoners, which made up approximately 96% of the population. Whereas the First and Second estates enjoyed luxury, extensive privileges and great wealth, the Third Estate were the heavily taxed and poorly treated bourgeoisie, peasants and city workers. One of the reasons the revolution originated was the discontent among the lower and middle classes in France. Those in the Third Estate grew tired of the unjust laws and taxes they were forced to live by and decided to take a stand, eventually making their mark in French society.

One of the first times the masses asserted themselves was when the newly formed National Assembly was drawing up a Constitution. Angry crowds in Paris rioted, forcing the National Assembly to recognize their demands. The people were protesting heavy taxes, and outrageous food prices. Next, the masses demanded that King Louis XIV return to Paris where they could watch him, and to prevent further uprisings, Louis agreed. It was at this time that the power of the masses was truly realized; for a group of the Third Estate to band together and make demands of the King, and for the King to listen was a great step in the establishment of the middle class as a force to be reckoned with.

The masses were not merely content with having the King agree to follow their demands, they wanted to have some power over their own lives. Thus even when Louis yielded and legalized the National Assembly, the crowd rioted because of his dismissal of a reform-minded minister, leading to the infamous storming of the Bastille by an excited Paris mob. Louis, anxious to avoid bloodshed gave in once more and Necker was reinstated. Later, when rumours of counterrevolutionary court intrigues were exploited, an angry mob marched to Versailles and forcibly moved the royal family and the Assembly to Paris. The tables were now completely turned, instead of the Third Estate being run by the King, the King was being run by the masses. This stunning changeover of power acted as a starting point for the modern notion of the middle class and masses having an important place in society. After the French Revolution, no European kings, nobles, or other members of the aristocracy could take their powers for granted or ignore the cries of the masses.

The French Revolution was not only caused by the rebellion of the Third Estate against feudal oppression, but also the liberal Enlightenment of the 18th century and the assertion of the new capitalist bourgeoisie against the fixed order of the ancient regime. The common thread between these three groups was their desire of a form of political liberty. On August 26, this desire manifested itself in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, a document that proclaimed liberty and equality as the right of all and asked citizens to treat each other with respect. In its first victory, the Revolution put an end to absolutism in France. Instead of the divine right of the Kings there was the will of the people . This was understood to mean limiting the powers of Government through a constitution and electing an assembly and parliaments. Free speech, freedom of the press and freedom to form political parties were now seen as basic human rights.

In principle, the Declaration was a great step on the path to political liberty, but unfortunately it was never truly followed. Instead of following through on their proclamation of liberty, 28 days after the signing of the Declaration the Assembly confiscated all church property, proving they had no intentions of following the Declaration. By confiscating the Church property, the government lost sight of what a free society is. Though the Church was responsible for many abuses, seeking to build a free society by undermining property rights was not a good way to declare liberty and equality. The confiscation of property served only to set precedence for further violations of property rights, which in turn, violated the individual rights of man and the citizen which France s new government was proclaiming. By confiscating Church property, France s revolutionary leaders showed that they had no interest in a true free society, only one created in the image of their own philosophers. To further this lack of free society, in the spring of 1792, the First Committee of Public Safety was established. The committee s job was to judge and punish those French citizens deemed to be traitors. Soon, the streets of Paris were running with blood as thousands of people were sentenced to death and killed in the guillotines . The following fall, the French government announced it was prepared to help subject peoples everywhere win their freedom; in other words, France began exporting war and revolution. As more soldiers were required the liberate the rest of Europe, France instituted history s first levy the ultimate in state control over the lives of its citizens. To sum up, Political Liberties won by the revolution did lead to a constitutional parliament but not a democracy; the Revolution had provided one democratic election, the National Assembly, and not for women. Though the French Revolution popularized the ideal of political liberty throughout France, the practice of this liberty was not yet possible for the French people.

Though the idea of liberty and the importance of the masses did arise out of the French Revolution, many of the steps made during this time were wiped out with the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon rose to fame in 1793 after winning many battles against the British, and with the help of troops, he overthrew the government in 1799. Under his new government, Napoleon was called the First Consul. His military talents helped him to win popular support, and with this support he was named the dictator of France.

Though freedom was supposed to be a basic human right for the French, personal liberty and freedom ceased existing after Napoleon established his dictatorship. When Napoleon came into power, he erased the notions of free speech, freedom of the press and freedom to form political parties. Napoleon implemented an army of officials who were subject to his will, in each French village creating a centralized state. Napoleon used executions to suppress his opponents and shaped public opinion towards him by ending the liberty of the press. Printers swore an oath of obedience to the emperor, and newspapers were converted into government mouthpieces . Napoleon repressed liberty and restored absolutism in France, erasing some of the liberal gains that the Revolution had fought so hard to implement

Though Napoleon was not liberal, his more centralized bureaucracies and Secret Police Force he gave Europe a glimpse of greater efficiency of modernized institutions and laws. Napoleon chose not to destroy absolutism, but simply create a more efficient form of it. Unfortunately, the Napoleonic Wars also led to two destructive forces identified with the modern state: total war and nationalism. The French Revolution brought in conscription and modern nationalism. During the revolution, loyalty was directed at all of France, not just a village or the King, France was la patrie (the fatherland) and Napoleons national army demanded allegiance and sacrifice for the nation. The love of France and the idea that the advancement of the nation was the most important thing nearly extinguished completely the liberal ideals of freedom and equality, setting precedence for modern nationalism. Napoleon did succeed in modernizing much of Europe, but his means of repressing liberty, subverting republicanism, and restoring absolutism, reversed some of the liberal gains of the French Revolution .

In the long run, the French Revolution and especially the Napoleonic era made some important steps in the direction of modernity, though Napoleon did reverse some of the liberal gains of the Revolution. The French Revolution and Napoleon ended the supreme rule by French Kings and strengthened the middle class, moving Europe steadfastly towards modernity. Like all great periods in history, the Revolution and Napoleonic years were full of rises and falls, successes and failures, but the end result was a society forever free of the medieval structures of Europe, heading towards 19th century liberalism, and nationalism, in other words, modernity.

Works Cited

Chase, Myrna, James Jacob, Margaret Jacob, Marvin Perry and Theodore Von Laue, eds.

Western Civilization, Ideas, Politics & Society. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Dover, Thomas L. A Brief History of France: 1750-1950. London: Faber and Faber

Limited., 1963.

Gilecki, Nickolas, Analysis of the French Revolution. In A History of Europe, 5th

Edition, ed. Dr. Parker Smith , 550-575. New York: Grolier Publishing, 1996.


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