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

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Napoleon was undoubtedly a child of the Revolution in that it helped to create the political conditions necessary for the Corsican general's rise to power. By the time Napoleon came on the political scene, the Revolution had abandoned its radical phase and was now heading in a more conservative direction...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Napoleon was undoubtedly a child of the Revolution in that it helped to create the political conditions necessary for the Corsican general's rise to power. By the time Napoleon came on the political scene, the Revolution had abandoned its radical phase and was now heading in a more conservative direction with the establishment of a five-man governing committee called the Directory.

However, the Directory soon proved to be staggeringly inept at dealing with the many urgent political and economic challenges that France faced. The cry went up around the country for a strong, decisive personality who would end the current stagnation and lead France to greatness.

Enter Napoleon. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and Napoleon certainly seemed to be the man for the moment. He took his chance to lead an audacious coup against the Directory and establish himself as First Consul.

Later on, when Napoleon, on the back of a string of impressive military victories, made himself Emperor, he broke decisively with the republican traditions of the Revolution. For good measure, he reversed some of the Revolution's most progressive advances, such as the abolition of slavery in the French colonies.

In some respects, however, Napoleon maintained some degree of continuity with the Revolution. In establishing the Napoleonic Code, for instance, he carried on the Revolutionary tradition of sweeping away the old legal customs and replacing them with a more modern, standardized system.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Indeed, Napoleon was a "child" of the Revolution. For one, he benefited tremendously from the meritocratic principles it embodied and the social disruption it created. An artillery officer in the French Army, he rose the ranks rapidly in the early Revolutionary era and became a general at a very young age. And yet, as much as his career was born out of the spirit of the Revolution, he also came to represent principles antithetical to it.

This first became apparent in the decisive street battle of the 13 Vendémiaire, where he used artillery to diminish the threat of a radical armed Revolutionary force on behalf of the more conservative (and even royalist) forces who would come to form the Directory. It is said he wiped out the Revolutionary threat with a "whiff of grapeshot."

After this Napoleon's power only increased. He led an expeditionary and military campaign to Egypt in 1798 and finally seized power from the Directory in 1799, becoming emperor or first consul for life in 1802. Thereafter, his power became absolute, as he fought numerous battles against the conservative anti-Revolutionary forces in Europe in an effort to create a continental empire.

Napoleon left a divided legacy. His charismatic military dictatorship was a far cry from the early republican Revolutionary principles of democratic participation. And yet he introduced reforms involving the law (the famed Code Napoleon), education and the administration of state affairs that were in keeping with some of the early Revolutionary principles.

One could say that while Napoleon was a child of the Revolution, his growing into adulthood represented fierce rebellion against the principles of that very same Revolution.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team