What were Napoleon's goals and was he a reformer or just a dictator?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Unquestionably among the greatest military commanders of history, Napoleon Bonaparte was, like many great men, corrupted by his victories and increasing power. Nevertheless, he was a successful reformer of the military and of education in France and his Napoleonic Code is yet followed in many European, Middle Eastern, and African countries today, and many of his educational reforms are yet practiced.

  • In 1804, Napoleon established Code civil des français, or the Napoleonic Code which changed feudal laws that were unorganized and often contradictory. 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. This Napoleonic Code extended its early influence upon the developing nations of the Middle East, nations that were involved in modernizing their lands through legal reforms. Indeed, the historian Robert Holtman regards this code as one of the documents that have influenced the entire world.
  • Napoleon reformed the legal system of France according to the ideas set forth in the French Revolution as the old feudal and royal laws were inconsistent and confusing. After the revolution of 1789, feudalism was abandoned and with it the laws because these royal laws were inconsistent as exemptions, privileges, and special charters were made for different lords or kings. In addition, the various bodies of civil law were made more rational; for example, judges were prohibited from deciding a case by way of introducing a general rule as the creation of general rules is an exercise of legislative, not judicial power. Thus, in theory, there is no such thing as "case law" in France.
  • Napoleon included freedom of religion in his code. But, he established the supremacy of the man over the woman in marriage. "A woman was given fewer rights than a minor. Divorce by mutual consent was abolished in 1804.
  • A new criminal code was established, abolishing what were crimes of "superstition." In 1804 a new code d'instruction criminelle (criminal code) was laid out. This system initiated the "inquisitorial system." While in England a person charged with a felony had no right to counsel, under Napoleon, courts were mandated to find a lawyer for the defendant.

Although these codes have been amended or judicially re-interpreted, they yet remain in France today. Education was also an area of reform for Napoleon, who believed in uniformity and improvement.

  • Every school was to provide one professor for certain required subjects
  • All teaching was to be conducted in French.
  • Every month there was to be a public lecture on the advances in sciences and the "useful arts."
  • Every central school was required to have a public library, a garden, and a natural history collection along with a collection of machines and models that related to arts and crafts
  • Every central school was required to have a collection of scientific apparatus 

Napoleon had schools so well organized that on a particular day and at a particular time, all students in France were studying the same, exact thing. His reforms that provided greater structure were designed to make France stronger, more organized, better educated, and more equitable to its people. Napoleon's system was the foundation for the centralized  system yet in place today in France. 

While his tremendous successes wrought a hubris in Napoleon which effected his downfall, there is no question that his reforms throughout France brought stability and direction to France. 

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