Was Napoleon a child of the French Revolution or the absolute antithesis of it?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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While Napoleon became corrupted by his power, crowning himself Emperor and becoming very dictatorial, he was, indeed, a child of the French Revolution first. For, his governmental and civil reforms were in accord with the principles of the French Revolution of 1789. In his biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, Robert Asprey perceives Napoleon as an heir to "the liberal vision" of the French Revolution, but he also recognizes Bonaparte as "a survivor of the Great Terror" and an extremely gifted general of a revolutionary milieu characterized by brutality, ruthlessness, and intrigue. Nevertheless, Napoleon remains a historical icon whose civil achievements have produced profound effects from the fight of the French for "Liberté, Equalité, et Fraternité." 

The Napoleonic Code created three categories to Civil Law: Personal Status, Property, and Acquisition of Property, the main ideals of the French Revolution as these would equalize everyone. The code eliminated privileges based upon birth; it allowed freedom of religion, and it specified that government positions should go to the most qualified for them. Further, Napoleon reformed the legal system in line with the thinking of the Revolution as he eliminated all vestiges of the feudal system. People were provided legal representation if they were put on trial; judges were prohibited from deciding cases by introducing a general rule.

Napoleon's re-organization of education in France was also in keeping with the principles of the Revolution. Education was provided for all children; moreover, he strove to establish uniformity in the schools so that students would not be denied instruction in any of the required courses. Some of the reforms that Napoleon enacted are  

  • Every school was required to provide certain required subjects and one professor would teach this
  • All teaching was to be conducted in French.
  • A public lecture on the advances in sciences and the "useful arts" was to be provided each month.
  • A public library, a garden, and a natural history collection along with a collection of machines and models that related to arts and crafts were required of every school.
  • A collection of scientific apparatus was required of every school.

Certainly, Napoleon's action of crowning himself Emperor and his rejection of Josephine for someone who is capable of giving him an heir display an egotism not in keeping with the attitude of the Revolution. Nevertheless, he remains a man who brought economic stability to a great nation.

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