France under Napoleon

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Louis Bergeron’s France Under Napoleon is a work of synthesis which addresses the question of whether Napoleonic France drew its inspiration from the Revolution or owed its sources to the Old Regime. This is a question which has occupied historians for many years, given the variety of conflicting impulses found in the Napoleonic regime. Bergeron attacks this problem not by delving into Napoleon’s personality, but by examining the structures of France—its constitution, administration, property ownership, economy, religion, and education. Interestingly enough, Bergeron’s conclusion is that while Napoleon was determined to end France’s feudal and clerical regime, he chose to undertake this task by conciliating the aristocratic and religious supports of the Old Regime. Hence the result was that remnants of the Old Regime retained surprising power and strength in the new Empire. In order to achieve political acquiescence to his own rule, Napoleon turned France away from the revolutionary goals it had been pursuing.

Bergeron’s work is available in English thanks to the translation of Robert Palmer. Palmer is a distinguished historian of the revolutionary period in his own right, but he is also one of the few first-class historians who has translated important works. It was Palmer who translated George Lefebvre’s The Coming of the French Revolution in 1939 and thus brought this profound analysis to the attention of several generations of American students. Palmer has chosen Bergeron’s France Under Napoleon not only for its substantive argument but also because it is an example of the important French school of social history, generally referred to as the Annales school. By translating France Under Napoleon, Palmer has served the dual purpose of making a valuable study on a fundamental problem of revolutionary history available to English speakers, as well as offering American students a model of the work of the Annales school. Bergeron synthesizes all the latest work on the period, shows how detailed studies in social history are used to answer broad questions, and offers numerous hints to students on the need for further work. It would not be surprising to see several doctoral theses emerge from the problems raised in this book.

As Bergeron breaks France down into different sectors, it must be noted that he primarily discusses the elites. He says this bias is on account of the information available, but what results is primarily a study of the Napoleonic elites and the framework in which they operated.

As for the framework, Part One makes it clear that Bonaparte absorbed national sovereignty to himself, by eliminating voting and representative legislatures. Freedom of the press was nonexistent as well, along with liberty of persons, though it is true that this liberty disappeared before Napoleon took over. In effect, Napoleon restored the French monarchy, with the basic difference that he was a man of the Enlightenment.

Napoleon and his coterie also assumed more and more of the trappings of royalism—including, of course, the creation of the Empire in 1804. Bergeron holds that Napoleon moved so far in this direction in order to coopt royalist sentiment and consolidate support for his rule. Bergeron believes that the right was the only threat to Napoleon, the left having exhausted itself in the tumult of the Revolution. The achievement of a treaty with the Pope, the Concordat, was also carried out with the same purpose—to insure the passivity of counterrevolutionary elements.

The continuity at the top was carried on in the structures of government. The system of departmental prefects remained the key to French administration, though the departments were created during the Revolution. The judicial system was under Napoleon’s control with appointed judges and governmental security officers assigned to criminal courts. The educational system was reformed, with the state establishing lycées to gain influence over the formation of minds, but a classical curriculum was adopted to appeal to the notables and win their allegiance to the new schools. Tax collection was made more efficient, but Napoleon relied on indirect rather than direct taxation, again emphasizing his desire to win the support of the propertied classes. Napoleon had more administrative control than the Bourbon kings, but he used this control to accommodate the wealth of France rather than to confront this powerful class.

Bergeron’s point is that by 1800, this wealth reflected a combination of the powerful old nobility and the segment of the bourgeoisie which had taken advantage of the Revolution to increase its...

(The entire section is 1928 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Library Journal. CVI, August, 1981, p. 1537.