The French Revolution

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Did Napoleon preserve or destroy the French Revolution?

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This is one of the great questions on the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era and a subject of considerable debate (and you can probably make a case for either side of it).

Of course, it should also be noted that the French Revolution was itself extremely tumultuous. When speaking of the principles of the Revolution, it might be worth asking: which Revolution? After all, the Revolution was a continuously evolving drama: the Revolution of 1789 was radically different than the Revolution of the Terror, which itself was followed by the Thermidoreans. The French Revolution itself tends to be very, very complicated. It defies easy classification.

I'd suggest the same can be said of Napoleon. On the one hand, he represented the restoration of autocracy and class distinction (and this included the return of noble titles), and yet, this Napoleonic nobility was different in certain key respects than the nobility of the Old Regime. As historian John Merriman points out:

Between 1808 and 1814, Napoleon created 3,600 titles. ... More than half of all men granted titles by the emperor had rendered service in the military. ... The civil service was the second most important avenue to a Napoleonic title. (John Merriman, A History of Modern Europe (3rd Ed.), New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010, p. 497)

In essence, then, you can argue that this Napoleonic vision of nobility was based in service to the State rather than in lineage. If it represents a departure from the most radically democratic visions awakened by the Revolution, at the same time it remains far removed from Absolutism's hierarchy based in hereditary privilege.

With that example, I hope I've given a sense for how complicated this question actually can be. Anyway, I'd suggest you can probably argue for either side in this debate (or argue for a middle ground between the two).

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In terms of military expansion and conquest, Napoleon was very much a child of the Revolution. The French revolutionaries sought to extend the Revolution beyond the boundaries of France to bring the benefits of liberty to the poor, benighted masses of other countries groaning under the lash of monarchical oppression. However, what started out as a war of liberation soon turned into a war of conquest, and this formed the basis of Napoleon's inheritance. However, it should be acknowledged that Napoleon was no ideologue; he was a pragmatic opportunist who believed that military conquest would add to his personal glory and strengthen his grip on power.

Much the same could be said about Napoleon's attitude toward the centralized state he inherited from the revolutionaries. The revolutionaries believed that a strong, centralized state was necessary to build the new nation. Gone was the loose and often bewildering patchwork of ancient regions and provinces; it was to be replaced by a single, unified nation. That was the theory, at any rate. In any case, Napoleon realized that a centralized structure of government was better able to maintain and consolidate his hold on power.

To some extent, Napoleon represented a synthesis of the ancien regime and the Revolution. At heart he was a revolutionary, but, in practice, he acted more like a king, culminating in his crowning as Emperor in 1804. In time, he came to regard the inheritance of the Revolution largely as a means to an end: a strong, stable France with himself as its undisputed master.

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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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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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