The Age of George III

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Napoleon's France 1799-1804

Between 1799 and 1815 the fate of France and Europe was in the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte, the man described by Chateaubriand as the 'mightiest breath of life which ever animated human clay'. Napoleon's ultimate downfall was due to the forces that the Revolution had unleashed and Napoleon accelerated.

Napoleon Bonaparte was a Corsican and also an officer of artillery - an unfashionable branch of the army. He was therefore doubly handicapped because of his unacceptable accent and military expertise. However, he did have the right connections. During the Terror, his friendship with Robespierre's brother, and his skilful use of artillery at Toulon in September 1793 helped him rise to the rank of brigadier. His cool head during the Vendémiaire revolt and his friendship with Barras carried him to the next level. Marriage to Barras' ex-mistress Josephine de Beauharnais in October 1796 put him into the centre of fashionable circles, and got him the command of the 30,000 men of the Army of Italy.

Napoleon was very 'image conscious' and had a great flair for publicity. His published battle reports and his 'ordres de jour' attracted popular attention. He once said that 'moral force wins more victories than mere numbers'. He was an excellent actor who could appeal to the deepest loyalties of his soldiers: 'The military are a free masonry and I am their grand master'.

Although Napoleon was capable of humane gestures, they never came between him and ambition. He had little concern for the high casualty rates of 30-40%, which resulted from his tactics of 'toujours l'attaque' (always attack). His military ability consisted of his combination of mass conscript armies and very rapid movement by 'living off the country' - unlike the British army under Wellington, which 'marched on its stomach'. Napoleon's victories were due more to logistical planning than tactics. In addition, he deserted two armies in his life, one in Egypt in 1799 and one in Russia in 1812.

Napoleon was also incredibly lucky. Not only did he slip past a couple of British frigates on his way back from his Egyptian disaster he also happened to be the best man on hand when Sieyès was looking for some way of linking the army and the political system and, in particular, a popular military hero as a 'front' or a 'sword'. Sieyès did not often make mistakes, but he made one when he chose Napoleon from a shortlist of three potentials. Initially Sieyès produced a constitution in the cynical belief that 'authority must come from above and confidence from below'. A complex system of indirect elections would produce lists from which an unelected Senate would choose the legislators and two Consuls, one for foreign and one for internal affairs. From this basis Napoleon manipulated his way towards sole, unlimited executive power.

First of all he got Sieyès to agree to one of the Consuls being in office for four years and having considerable powers over appointment of officials and the initiation of legislation. He used these powers to restructure the police, departmental, local government and criminal courts systems so that he could control them in his own interests. The election of officials was discarded - even for local mayors. Napoleon's personal standing was enhanced by the military victories of 1800 and the Treaty of Lunéville; he went on to conduct purges of the legislature, the army officer corps and surviving Jacobins. Then, in May 1802, with the rejoicing at the Peace of Amiens in the background he converted his job into that of Consul for Life and amended the constitution to give himself virtually dictatorial powers. A plebiscite of 3½ million votes to 8000 ratified the extension of his term of office.

In 1803, war broke out with Britain again and a plot by the royalist Georges Cadoudal to kidnap Napoleon with the assistance of British agents was revealed. This was an excuse for another purge of royalists and Jacobins; in May 1804 the Senate also offered Napoleon the status of hereditary emperor in the interests of national stability. In December 1804 he crowned himself at Notre Dame in the presence of Pope Pius VII. The trappings of a court had already appeared, but in 1808 he founded an imperial nobility. In 1802 the Order of the Legion of Honour had been established, but it was based very much on meritorious service to the state.

Napoleon's domestic reforms 1800-3

It was in the period of the Consulate that Napoleon produced his most valuable reforms with the advice of his Council of State a non-political body of experts.

Economic management

The Code Napoleon (1804)

One of Napoleon's greatest contributions was the codification of French law and especially the great Civil Code which replaced the 360 local codes of the Ancien Régime. It was a combination of the egalitarianism of the Revolution and the authoritarianism of Napoleon. The old paternal authority within the family was restored, for instance, while women's rights were strictly limited - Napoleon once remarked that 'women should stick to knitting'. However, the achievements of the Revolution were continued with guarantees of equality, property rights and the rights of the citizen won in 1789. Published in a small compact edition in 1810, it became a model for legal rationalisation in many other states of Europe. One feature which was greatly to affect the future of France was the insistence on equal division of estates between sons.


Napoleon left the education of the poor and women to local, municipal and church schools. He did however create a system of lycées - selective secondary schools - designed to train the future leaders and administrators of France. A third of the places were reserved for the sons of officers and civil servants.

The Concordat (1801)

Napoleon himself was rather broad-minded: he once said, 'if I were governing Jews I would restore the Temple of Solomon'. However, he realised the value of organised religion as a means towards social peace and order: 'The people must have a religion and that religion must be in the hands of the government'. The result was the religious settlement of 1801: the Concordat, which said:

However, so that he should not be seen as restoring Roman Catholicism Napoleon attached the Organic Laws to the settlement:

In fact, the Concordat endured even when Rome was annexed in 1809 and the Pope became a French prisoner.

Napoleon's Limitations

No-one could deny Napoleon's astonishing administrative energy or versatility, or that much of what he did would have a considerable impact upon the social development of France in the future. On the other hand, what he did should not be exaggerated into part of the propagandist 'myth of Napoleon':

In his legal reforms especially, all that Napoleon was doing was building upon the ideas and activities of other reformers before him. Consequently, all he did was to consolidation of the achievements and developments of the Revolution

There is a marked absence of social reforms. Napoleon cared little for 'la vile populace', and any interest he had in economic or social matters was not aimed at improving standards of living. Apart from the spin-off effects of easy loot and 'la gloire' Napoleon's régime was rooted only in the support of a narrow band of officials, middle class people and, of course, the army. Even less could the subject peoples of the Empire see any direct benefits arising from alien rule.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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