Did Napoleon preserve the French Revolution or did he destroy it?

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Napoleon was unquestionably the product of the French Revolution, which opened the door for a man of talent and ambition like himself to rise to remarkable heights. In many ways, he continued it by building his power on the structure of the revolutionary state. He also eliminated many aspects of the ancien regime once and for all, most conspicuously refusing to restore the old aristocracy. He reformed the French law code, incorporating a host of revolutionary reforms. He also established educational reforms, including the creation of meritocratic lycees.

On the other hand, when he was in power, he rolled back many of the reforms of the Revolution, including the rights of women and basic protections for civil liberties. He anointed himself emperor and established his family members as hereditary monarchs of sovereign European nations. In this sense, he completely eviscerated the liberal reforms of the revolution. Many have argued that his policies of state consolidation in service of war anticipated the twentieth century fascist state. One could say that of France under the Terror as well, but it was Napoleon that organized it around a cult of personality almost unprecedented in European history, and ultimately antithetical to the reforms of the Revolution.

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thetall | (Level 1) Senior Educator

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Earlier in his reign, Napoleon preserved the French Revolution and its original ideals. He rose to power through the military wing of the French Revolution and sought to unify the country. Unity was lacking during the French Revolution because of conflicts between Jacobins and Girondins. Napoleon upheld the idea of a French republic and extended an opportunity to the people to occupy positions of power regardless of their social status. However, his ambition overtook his support for revolutionary ideas, and in the later part of his reign, some of the important gains of the Revolution were rolled back. Napoleon crowned himself emperor of France and extended the title of “King of Rome” to his son. He led the restoration of the French aristocracy and handed nobility titles to his close friends, which went against the basic principles of the Revolution. Thus, Napoleon preserved the Revolution earlier on in his reign, but he went against its guiding principles in the later part of his leadership.

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