The year is 1789; the place, Versailles, France. Several hundred delegates representing the people of France sit sullenly in the palace hall. When an officer of the King orders them to leave the hall and return to their proper meeting place, one delegate rises to his full height and thunders, “Tell your master that we are here by the will of the people, and that only bayonets can drive us forth”
A meeting of representatives of the French people? Defiance to the commands of the powerful king of France? In view of what you have read earlier about royal authority in France, all this sounds strange; but it actually happened in one of the opening scenes of the French Revolution. The French Revolution swept the King of France from his throne and abolished the special privileges of the French nobles and clergy. It also spread ideas of liberty and equality over most of Europe and even overseas.
Both Americans and Frenchmen sought liberty and both took up arms to win it, but conditions in America and in France were quite different.
(1) The English colonists in America were pioneers in a vast new land. They had brought with them the traditions of English liberty and because they were separated by great distances from their home government, they had grown used to handling their own affairs. France, on the other hand, was an old monarchy. It had a population in 1789 of 25 million people who lived in an area that was smaller than the present state of Texas. These people were divided into fixed classes. The great mass of people had few rights and no voice in government. Liberty to them was a new experience.
(2) To the east and south of France were powerful nations, in which people suffered oppression far worse than any endured by the English colonists in America. For this reason, the French Revolution represented a serious threat to rulers in neighbouring countries.
These differences help to explain why the French Revolution was so violent and why it had a great effect upon world politics in the century that followed.
Here we read how the French Revolution started and how it progressed. You will discover how it paved the way for Napoleon, who gained control not only of France but of most of Europe. In brief, you will find answers to these questions:
1. How did the French get rid of absolute monarchy and feudal privileges?
2. What changes took place in France as the Revolution continued?
3. By what steps did Napoleon gain control over western and central Europe?
4. What effects did Napoleon’s rule have upon France?
1. How Did the French Get Rid of Absolute Monarchy and Feudal Privileges?
France suffered from tyrannical and inefficient kings. You are already familiar with certain facts about France in the 1700’s which were bound to bring trouble sooner or later. We know, for example, that France had taken no steps toward a freer kind of government. During the 1600’s, when Parliament was putting an end to unlimited royal power in England, Louis XIV was making France the most absolute monarchy in Europe. In the 1700’s, instead of becoming enlightened despots like Frederick the Great of Prussia, French kings were doing little to improve conditions for their subjects. Louis XV grew up with all the faults and few of the virtues of Louis XIV. He was so lazy and selfish that he would not interrupt his pleasures to attend to public business. His vain ambitions led him to plunge France into costly wars. Louis XVI, who became King in 1774, was full of good intentions but lacked the ability to make sound decisions and stand by them.
Reforms were overdue. You know also from what we read earlier that many conditions in France cried out for reform. Personal freedom was lacking, there was no such thing as freedom of the press or of religion, or trial by jury. All authority centred in the king, whose orders were carried out by a host of major and minor officials. Many of these men were corrupt or inefficient, so that the machinery of government moved slowly and awkwardly. Laws varied greatly from province to province. As one writer put it, “You change laws as often as you change post horses.” Crushing taxes added to the burdens of the common people. No king since 1614 had summoned the States-General, the body which represented the various classes.
Poor government was bad enough, but the common people of France resented even more the special privileges enjoyed by the clergy and the nobles. The members of these two classes, although only a small fraction of the entire population, held most of the land. They also were excused from the more burdensome taxes! There was an old French saying, “The clergy pray for all, the nobles fight for all, the common people pay for all.” So far as it related to the nobles this saying was no longer true, for the king’s army did the fighting. There was no doubt that the common people had to bear the burden of heavy taxes so that the nobles might continue to live in luxury.
Liberal ideas had made headway in France. In spite of the oppression of the people, there were those who spoke out for reform. We have read about such writers as Voltaire and Rousseau. Their ideas had great influence in France because there was a large well-educated middle class, able and eager to read their books. This fact was important, for revolutions occur not just because people are badly treated but because somebody has ideas about how to improve conditions. Actually, Frenchmen were better off than people in several other European countries. Most French peasants were freemen, while in Prussia, Austria, Poland and Russia many or most farmers were still serfs. The French people were awake to the evils around them; the French middle class, remembering the words of Voltaire and Rousseau, led the demands for reform.
The American Revolution helped bring about the French Revolution. The American Revolution helped to fan the smoldering discontent in France into flame. To Frenchmen who dreamed of reforms, the American Revolution proved that people who fought for liberty and self-government could succeed. To the French government, however, the American Revolution brought a serious financial problem. By giving aid to the Americans, Louis XVI had helped to humble France’s old enemy, Great Britain, but French aid to the United States had cost large sums of money. This expense, plus the King’s extravagance, had plunged the French government deeply into debt.
The King called a meeting of the States-General. Louis XVI needed money, but where was he going to get it? He had tried one Minister of Finance after another, but none had been able to fill the treasury. At last the troubled King decided to call a meeting of the States-General in May, 1789. This body included members of the three estates or classes: (1) the clergy or First Estate, (2) the nobles or Second Estate, and (3) the common people or Third Estate.
Louis XVI didn’t realize what a serious step he had taken in summoning the States-General. He expected the three estates to meet in separate bodies as they always had. He thought they would vote the new taxes he wanted and then go home. If some hotheaded members of the Third Estate demanded reforms, the clergy and nobles of the First and Second Estates would refuse to go along with such nonsense. It was as simple as that, the King seems to have thought.
Members of the Third Estate had ideas of their own. When the people’s representatives gathered in Versailles, however, they had a very different notion. Many Frenchmen had been reading and talking about the rights of men and therefore expected their representatives in the Third Estate to bring about reforms. These delegates of the Third Estate would find ways of filling the empty treasury, yes; but first they wanted to draw up a written constitution with the rights of the people put down in black and white. To carry out their plan, these delegates wanted the three estates to meet together in a single body instead of in three separate groups. Nearly all the representatives of the Third Estate (of whom there were as many as nobles and clergy together) favoured reform. If to their votes could be added the votes of some reform-minded clergymen and nobles, there was a good chance of bringing about sweeping changes.
The people’s representatives won the first clash with the King. Louis XVI got off to a bad start. When he insisted that the three estates meet separately as they had in the past, the angry Third Estate refused to obey. Instead, they declared themselves a National Assembly and when they were barred from their regular meeting place, delegates went to a nearby indoor tennis court. There all but one agreed to what is known as the Tennis Court Oath. In this oath the members of the new National Assembly swore “never to separate . . . until the constitution of the kingdom is established and fixed upon firm foundations.”
The weak-willed Louis blew hot, then cold. First he scolded the States-General and repeated his demand that they meet separately. Again the Third Estate, now joined by certain reform-minded members of the clergy and nobles, refused. It was at this time that a delegate defied the King, as you learned in the introduction to this chapter. Faced with such defiance, Louis lacked the forcefulness of many kings and dictators. He yielded, and ordered the First and Second Estates to join the Third Estate. The three-house States-General had now become a one-house National Assembly.
A Paris mob attacked the Bastille. The unhappy King’s troubles were not limited to the National Assembly. Rumors flew about that Louis was stealthily gathering an army to force the National Assembly to do as he ordered. In the city of Paris feeling among the people rose to fever pitch. On July 14, 1789, an angry crowd attacked the grim fortress-prison which was called the Bastille. In the fighting that followed, many people were killed. The wild mob finally forced the commander of the Bastille to surrender and hacked off his head.
News of the Bastille’s capture caused great rejoicing. To this day July 14 is celebrated in France as Bastille Day, just as Americans celebrate the Fourth of July. The fall of the Bastille weakened the King’s position still further. He had failed to use the soldiers at his command to stamp out the spreading sparks of revolution.
The National Assembly ended feudalism in France. Meanwhile peasants all over the French countryside began to rise in revolt. They refused to pay dues to their landlords or taxes to the government. They demanded an end to the whole system of special privileges for the clergy and nobles. They burned manor houses. Many nobles fled from France and began to plot against the Revolution.
As a result of these uprisings, the National Assembly passed a group of laws wiping out what was left of serfdom and ending almost all the privileges of the nobles and the clergy. Peasants were no longer forbidden to hunt on their own lands. Special taxes and dues were abolished. Hereafter all Frenchmen were to be taxed equally. Hereafter all could hold public office.
The National Assembly issued a Declaration of the Rights of Man. After doing away with feudal privileges, the National Assembly took another important step. It issued a Declaration of the Rights of Man. In this famous document the members of the Assembly declared that they were stating the rights of all men, for all times and for all countries. “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” “Law is the expression of the general will.” Freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly, stated the Declaration, should be guaranteed to all. No one should be punished for his religious beliefs. No man should be arrested or punished except according to law. Taxes should be equal for all classes and levied only by representatives of the people. Freedom was the right to do anything that injured no one else. The real purpose of law was to determine when any act injured the freedom of another person.
The Declaration was a statement of democratic ideas and principles. In many respects it read very much like a combination of the first part of our own Declaration of Independence and the first ten Amendments to our Constitution, our so-called Bill of Rights. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man did not immediately establish democracy for Frenchmen, but it set a goal toward which to work. Its principles had great influence in other countries.
The National Assembly tried to regulate the Catholic Church. The National Assembly was not content just to proclaim freedom of worship; it also undertook to regulate the Catholic Church. The Church, which had been the only legal church in France since Louis XIV cancelled the Edict of Nantes, was wealthy and powerful. To help fill the empty French treasury, the Assembly took over Church lands and other property. The Assembly went even farther. Bishops and high clergy hereafter were to be government officials, paid by the new government and required to take an oath to support it.
These efforts to control the Catholic Church led to trouble, as mixing politics and religion often does. They brought on a bitter quarrel with the Pope. Moreover, many devout priests refused to take the oath of loyalty to the new French government. Many faithful French Catholics sided with the priests.
The National Assembly prepared a constitution. After two years the National Assembly had completed the job the reformers had sworn to finish in the Tennis Court Oath. They had drawn up a constitution which the King had been forced to accept. By this constitution France was still a monarchy, but the king’s powers were limited. There was a one-house legislature, chosen by the taxpayers, to make the laws. The king could not veto laws, though he could suspend them for a time. He could not declare war or make peace without the legislature’s consent.
Under the new constitution all parts of France were to be governed uniformly. Instead of the old provinces, with laws that varied from one place to another, France was divided into departements (departments) or small districts, as nearly equal in size as possible. Furthermore, laws were to be uniform throughout France.
The National Assembly did a remarkable job. In 1791 the National Assembly disbanded because it had finished its work. Its record was a good one. The Assembly had put an end to absolute monarchy, feudal privileges and countless old abuses and injustices. It had given France a more democratic constitution than that of any other great power on the European continent. It had won the admiration of such men as Thomas Jefferson, author of the American Declaration of Independence.
If the French Revolution could have stopped then and there, it would have done as much good and as little harm as any great political change in history, but unfortunately, it is as hard to stop a revolution at just the right point as it is to stop a landslide halfway down a mountain. From 1791 to 1799 France was to suffer violence and confusion and to be plunged into war with its neighbours. In fact, so great were the excesses of the Revolution that many people felt that much of the value of the Revolution was lost.
2. What Changes Took Place in France as the Revolution Continued?
The King and Queen tried to escape. How did those who had formerly controlled France feel about what was taking place? King Louis XVI and his court, although they outwardly accepted the work of the National Assembly, were at heart opposed to most of the new reforms. They still hoped for a return to the “good old days.” In 1791 the King fled from Paris to join French troops that were still loyal to him. But Louis bungled this attempt, as he had bungled almost everything else. Dressed as a valet, he and his Queen, who pretended to be a Russian lady, rode out of Paris in a lumbering coach. They had almost reached the border when someone recognized the royal couple. Back to Paris the King and Queen had to go, practically prisoners.
The French Revolution led to foreign war. Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, was a proud woman with little common sense. She was a daughter of the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa. Marie Antoinette’s brother, the Holy Roman Emperor, was concerned over the Queen’s plight. He was surrounded by angry French nobles who had fled for their lives and who wanted to regain their property and former positions in France. Moreover, the princes who ruled many of the German states feared that revolutionary ideas might spread into Germany and cost them their palaces and crowns. French exiles as well as many German princes therefore urged the Emperor to send soldiers to France to crush the Revolution and restore power to the King and the nobility.
War fever was also rising within France. The Legislative Assembly, which was elected under the new constitution in 1791, contained no members of the old National Assembly and few with any experience in government. It was controlled by hot-headed, idealistic young men who were not content to continue with a limited monarchy. They argued that the King was a traitor and that France should be a republic. They also were eager to share with other nations their ideas of liberty and equality. In fact they dreamed of a general European revolution to bring an end to kings and nobles and privileges everywhere. With foreign rulers being egged on to crush the Revolution and with rash members of the Legislative Assembly eager to spread revolutionary ideas, it is little wonder that fightng broke out. By 1792 France was at war with Austria and Prussia.
The French Revolution entered a new and violent phase. Up to this point the French Revolution had proceeded in a more or less orderly fashion. The King still maintained his position, although shorn of many of his former powers. France had a constitution and a Legislative Assembly chosen under that constitution. During the summer of 1792, however, events swept France with the violence of a whirlwind. If you will refer to the Timetable of the French Revolution, you will find it easier to keep these events straight.
The progress of the foreign war alarmed the leaders in Paris. To start with, the foreign war went badly for the French. The Austrian and Prussian forces won the first skirmishes and crossed the border into France. Many French officers who sympathized with the King deserted and the troops were in confusion. The Austrian and Prussian troops looked forward to an easy time, for how could mere mobs in Paris stand against disciplined troops?
These defeats alarmed the radical or extremist leaders of the Revolution who regarded themselves as true patriots. They thought that people who did not agree with them must be faithless traitors to liberty, to the rights of man and to France. They also believed that Louis XVI was plotting with foreign enemies to overthrow the revolutionary government. These leaders knew only too well how they would fare if foreign soldiers took over France and if the King and nobles regained their power.
French radicals took control. In the summer of 1792 a wild mob stormed the King’s palace in Paris. The loyal Swiss Guards were massacred and the King and his family were made prisoners. The radical leaders now took matters into their own hands. They were determined to put an end even to limited monarchy. For this reason they persuaded the Legislative Assembly to call a National Convention to draw up a new constitution which would establish a republic.
France was ruled by “lynch law.” The National Convention, however, could not meet until elections had been held. For several weeks, therefore, France was controlled by the radical leaders of the Revolution, backed up by the Paris mob. France was in confusion Austrian and Prussian armies were winning new victories and uprisings against the Revolution spread through remote country districts. In the face of these dangers the radical leaders decided that boldness was the only attitude to take. “Dare, dare again, always dare, and France is saved!” shouted a fiery orator named Danton. New armies were raised and marched off to meet the enemy, singing the famous song of the Revolution, the Marseillaise. The song defied “ferocious soldiers” and their “blood-stained flag of tyranny.”
The radical leaders, however, did not stop with steps to win victory over France’s foreign foes. They decided as well to strike terror into the hearts of Frenchmen who might be “enemies of the Revolution.” Early in September 1792 over a thousand prisoners were handed over to the Paris mob and massacred. These unfortunates had no trial. There was no organized government to stop such lynchings, even though many of the less extreme revolutionary leaders disapproved of them.
TIMETABLE OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
Louis XVI opened a meeting of the States General, May, 1789
Third Estate declared itself a National Assembly (Tennis Court Oath), June, I789
People of Paris attacked Bastille, July 14, 1789
Assembly issued Declaration of the Rights of Man, August, 1789
Assembly made France a constitutional monarchy, 1790
King and Queen attempted to flee Paris, June, 1791
First Legislative Assembly met, October, 1791
War began with other European states, April, 1792
Paris mob stormed king’s palace, August, 1792
National Convention met to declare France a republic, September, 1792
Louis XVI executed as a traitor-Reign of Terror raised Robespierre to power, 1793
New constitution established the Directory, 1795
Napoleon overthrew the Directory, set up the Consulate with himself as First Consul, 1799
Napoleon proclaimed Emperor, 1804
The National Convention ruled France for three critical years. The National Convention met in late September 1792 and proclaimed France a Republic. Though its main job was to draw up a new constitution, it spent most of its time from 1792 to 1795 carrying on the day-to-day government of France. The National Convention raised armies to drive the Austrians and Prussians from France and to put down uprisings against the Revolutionary government. It also had to make laws to deal with critical conditions in France.
To tighten its control over the country, the National Convention created a small group called the Committee of Public Safety. This Committee, as well as the National Convention, was dominated by members of the Jacobin party. The Jacobin party got its name from an old building in Paris, a former Jacobin convent, where party members sometimes met. The Jacobins were extremists who governed France more ruthlessly than any king. They could count on the help of the Paris mob.
The Committee of Public Safety directed a Reign of Terror. The government itself now took over the job of doing away with enemies of the Revolution which the murderous Paris mob had started in the massacres of September 1792. The Committee of Public Safety ordered the death of thousands of citizens who opposed the Revolution. This period of mass murder which occurred during 1793 and 1794 is known as the Reign of Terror. Some people were shot by firing squads. Some were crowded below deck in old ships, which were deliberately sunk to drown their wretched prisoners. Many more were beheaded by the guillotine, a machine which drops a heavy blade on the victim’s neck. The guillotine is still used in France for executions.
King Louis XVI was guillotined early in 1793 and Marie Antoinette later in the same year. Both showed great courage in facing death, though neither had shown much wisdom in life. Large numbers of priests and nobles were executed because they had belonged to the old privileged classes. Many who were suspected of nothing more than being lukewarm in their sympathies for the Revolution also died by the guillotine. Even leaders of the Revolution themselves did not always escape, for they turned against each other in a mad and bloody struggle for power.
The Reign of Terror reached its height under Robespierre. Month after month the Reign of Terror mounted. Its chief supporter was a radical member of the Committee of Public Safety named Robespierre. Robespierre became the idol of the masses who believed him to be honest, earnest and fearless! Actually he used the Reign of Terror to kill off those who opposed extreme revolutionary ideals or threatened to become his rivals. For a while it looked as if Robespierre might become the absolute ruler of France, but he went too far. When he threatened the Convention with more arrests and executions, the members could not help asking themselves, “This time does he mean me?” In July 1794, Robespierre’s turn came. The guillotine which had executed so many of his victims now executed him.
Military victories helped bring the Reign of Terror to a close. The rulers of surrounding countries had been shocked by the execution of the French King and Queen. They were further alarmed by the offer of the French radical leaders to help other peoples to gain liberty. So in 1793 England, Spain and Holland joined Austria and Prussia in their war against France. While Robespierre had talked to cheering crowds, more practical leaders in the French government had been busy. The French army had been reorganized and enlarged. When this new army began to win victories, the leaders of the government breathed easier. No longer need they fear defeat and punishment for their violent acts. This fact, together with Robespierre’s death, brought the Reign of Terror to an end.
The National Convention finally completed a constitution for a new government. France was still to be a republic, but there were to be two houses in the law-making body as in our Congress. The executive or law-enforcing power was to be divided among five men called Directors. For this reason, the new government became known as the Directory.
The Directory ruled France for four years. The Directory lasted only a few years, 1795-1799. It was not as cruel as the National Convention and its Committee of Public Safety had been, but neither was it as efficient. Many Frenchmen, disgusted by the graft and inefficiency of the Directory, took comfort in the glorious victories being won by the French army. Maybe one of the young generals, many of whom had risen from the ranks by sheer ability, could give France a strong and stable government. As we will learn, General Napoleon Bonaparte understood this feeling and made the most of it.
The French Revolution was not confined to violence and destruction. Before leaving the story of the French Revolution in its later stages, it is important to note some of its lasting results. The Reign of Terror was so terrible, it is easy to overlook the fact that the National Convention made important reforms. A system of universal education was begun. A beginning was made at preparing a code of laws for France — that is, arranging them in a definite and orderly way. Slavery was abolished in the French colonies of the West Indies. The system of weights and measures which we call the metric system (measuring in terms of kilograms and kilometers instead of pounds and miles) was introduced. Even a new calendar was adopted, though it was never popular and was soon forgotten.
Not all the changes were brought about by passing laws; some were matters of custom. When the Revolution was at its height, no one used the old aristocratic terms of sir and madam, but citizen and citizeness (in French, of course). It was also bad taste to wear knee breeches, so the true patriot wore the long trousers of the workingman. The head that wore a powdered wig was apt to be cut off. Even playing cards were changed, as it would never do for a true patriot to play with “kings” and “queens.” Most of the changes in custom disappeared when the Revolution ended, but some lasted. Powdered wigs and knee breeches, for example, never came back into general use.
The Revolution brought lasting gains to the French people. None of the new constitutions set up between 1791 and 1799 proved lasting. Certain changes for the better did endure: (1) the basic ideas of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, (2) the ending of special privileges for the clergy and nobility, (3) the establishment of the same law and justice for all Frenchmen and (4) the division of France into small departments like counties. Moreover, those peasants who had gained land during the Revolution kept it, so a real beginning was made of turning France into a country of many land-owning farmers rather than of a few rich landlords.
Another permanent result of the Revolution was to inspire a new and stronger feeling of national patriotism. The Frenchman before 1789 fought for his country as a matter of duty to his king, but the Frenchman after the Revolution fought for his country because he felt it was his own. The Revolution had been opposed by foreign monarchs, the enthusiasm for liberty became devotion to the French nation which protected that liberty. The tri-coloured flag — red, white, and blue — of the French Revolution became a symbol of national glory and the Marseillaise became a war song of the conquering armies of Napoleon.
3. By What Steps Did Napoleon Gain Control Over Western and Central Europe?
Truth has been called stranger than fiction. Suppose that in 1769 someone had said, “There is born this year on the little island of Corsica, which France has just bought from Genoa, a son to an Italian family named Buonaparte (changed by Napoleon to the French form without the u). No one at the French court has heard of this family. Still, before this youngster is out of his twenties he will win greater Victories than did Charlemagne or Frederick the Great. At thirty he will be dictator of France. At thirty-five he will be Emperor of the French. At forty he will have come nearer to conquering all Europe than any previous man in history. His brothers and his generals will become kings of Spain, Italy, Holland and Sweden and a part of Germany. He will dictate laws to long established kingdoms and empires. His own empire will collapse as suddenly as it arose and he will die a prisoner in exile, but his name and memory will disturb Europe for generations. His campaigns will be studied in the military schools of every nation more carefully than the victories of their own greatest generals.” Would not this true prophecy have been considered too fantastic for the plot of a play or novel? How did it all come about?
The French Revolution offered opportunities to trained military men. As you have already learned, the revolutionary government of France had to raise new armies to fight foreign enemies. The French soldiers in these armies were raw troops, fresh from desk or plow, who needed training. Most of the former officers, being noblemen, had gone into exile or had been guillotined as traitors. Under these circumstances any loyal, well-trained young officer was worth his weight in gold to the revolutionary government.
Napoleon won great military successes. Napoleon was just such a man. He had received his education in a military school and had become a second lieutenant in the French army at the age of sixteen. He had won favour with the revolutionary government by a victory against the English and Spanish and by successfully defending the National Convention from attack by a mob. In 1796 Napoleon was given command of an army fighting the Austrians in northern Italy. With astonishing speed he conquered the little republics and kingdoms of northern Italy and smashed the Austrian armies sent against him.
Then Napoleon proved that he was a skillful diplomat as well as a successful general. He persuaded the Austrians to make peace by allowing them to have Venice. Austria agreed to surrender the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) to France and to permit most of northern Italy to be divided into little republics under France’s “protection.” Prussia and Holland had already made peace. Great Britain, in command of the seas, remained France’s only powerful enemy.
Napoleon struck at the British in Egypt and Syria. France lacked the sea power needed to make a direct attack upon the British Isles. So Napoleon persuaded the Directory that the next best thing for France would be to conquer countries like Egypt and Syria in the eastern Mediterranean region. Such a move would strike a blow at British trade in the East. Possibly Napoleon even dreamed of out doing Alexander the Great and building an empire which would stretch from France to India! He not only had complete confidence in his ability to accomplish such a feat, but was able to inspire great loyalty among his soldiers. In Egypt he gave them a feeling that they were a part of the march of history when he proclaimed, “From yonder pyramids 40 centuries are looking down on you.”
Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt and Syria fell short of his hopes. He won victories by land, but the British fleet, under Admiral Nelson, destroyed his fleet and forced him to hurry home. On his return to France, however, Napoleon was hailed as a hero. The French people had heard much about Napoleon’s victories and little about his defeats. What this young general had accomplished in foreign lands seemed brilliant when compared with the record of the Directory at home.
Napoleon seized control of France. To bad government and high prices within France there was now added the threat of another foreign war. A new alliance of Russia, Austria, Great Britain and certain smaller states had been formed to drive the French from Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. Under such conditions, Napoleon believed the French nation would rally round a bold and victorious soldier who was willing to assume the responsibilities of a dictator.
In 1799 Napoleon overthrew the Directory and proclaimed a new constitution for France. Napoleon’s own title was to be First Consul. Two other consuls were to aid him as advisers. There were several government bodies including a legislature and a council, but Napoleon, as First Consul, could control their membership. The whole new constitution, in fact, was a sham. Outwardly France remained a republic, but actually it was a military dictatorship with the real power in the hands of the First Consul, Napoleon. Yet a plebiscite (meaning “direct vote of the people”) approved Napoleon’s new government by a large majority.
Napoleon filled the position of First Consul of France from 1799 to 1804. During this period, called the Consulate, Napoleon showed a genius in both military and governmental affairs. The tasks of war and peace are so different that even an outstanding person rarely is both a great general and a great ruler. Napoleon was such an individual. He smashed the alliance against the French and gained all Germany west of the Rhine River. He extended France’s influence over all Italy and strengthened France’s grip on Holland and Switzerland. He even forced Great Britain to make peace in 1802. At the same time he started important reforms within France.
Napoleon took the title of Emperor. In 1804 Napoleon took the next step. He cast aside his title of First Consul of the French Republic for a new one, Emperor of the French. Again the French people voted their approval in a plebiscite — over 3 million for the Emperor, only about 2500 against! It may seem strange that the French who a few years earlier had revolted against their lawful king, should now grant a military adventurer such unlimited power, but Napoleon stood for order, prosperity and military victory.
Napoleon became master of the continent of Europe. Shortly after Napoleon became Emperor, war broke out again. Still another alliance was organized against Napoleon. Great Britain, Austria, Russia and Sweden were the principal members. In the campaigns that followed, Napoleon displayed his greatest genius and won his greatest victories. The result was to bring most of the continent of Europe directly or indirectly under his control.
By 1810 the French Empire itself had been extended to include Belgium, Holland, western Germany, north-western Italy and part of what is now Yugoslavia. A large part of Europe, Spain, most of Poland, the rest of Italy, Switzerland and a group of German states known as the Confederation of the Rhine — though not annexed to the Empire, was under the French Emperor’s control. States such as Austria, Prussia, Denmark and Norway (which belonged to Denmark) had been forced against their will to become allies of France. Even the Russian Czar had been obliged to promise aid to Napoleon.
In short, Napoleon had turned Europe upside down. The centuries-old Holy Roman Empire had been dissolved. Napoleon, a once-poor Corsican, had divorced his wife to marry the daughter of a Hapsburg emperor! To help in the control of Europe, Napoleon had given thrones to his relatives and favourite generals.
Napoleon could not defeat the British navy. Great Britain remained undefeated. This fact was due in large part to its island position and to its command of the seas. In 1805 the British fleet, commanded by the great Lord Nelson, had crushed the French fleet in the important sea battle of Trafalgar, off the coast of Spain. This victory not only saved England from a French invasion but gave conquered Europe new hope. In fact, Britain’s stubborn resistance was the chief means of keeping the wars against Napoleon alive. British money helped to create alliances against Napoleon. British money and troops fought Napoleon in Portugal and Spain. British warships seized French vessels and barred the ships of neutral countries from entering or leaving European ports controlled by Napoleon.
Napoleon tried to cut off Britain’s foreign trade. Napoleon decided that he could play the same game. By his orders all countries under his control were forbidden to buy from the British. Since, in one way or another, he held sway over almost the whole continent of Europe, Napoleon’s policy was called the “continental system.”
What Napoleon overlooked, however, was that continental Europe had great need of British goods, for Great Britain at that time was the greatest manufacturing nation in the world. In spite of the continental system, goods leaked into Europe at a hundred points. Napoleon had to march his armies into widely separated parts of Europe as well as patrol the coasts of the continent in an effort to stop smuggling.
The double blockade injured American made. This war of blockades between Great Britain and Napoleon seriously affected our own country. In the early 1800’s the United States exported large quantities of food and raw materials but imported most of its manufactured goods. Trade with Europe was therefore important and American ships put out from a number of thriving seaports along the Atlantic coast. With Great Britain and Napoleon trying to blockade each other, any American ship starting for Europe was in danger. A French vessel might attack and capture it if it was sailing to England; a British warship would do likewise if it was bound for the Napoleon held harbours of Europe. The fact that the United States was neutral (not involved in the war) did not seem to trouble either France or Great Britain.
Interference with American rights finally led to war. The British made more trouble for young America than did the French. The British commanded the seas and therefore could stop more ships than could the French. Moreover, British naval officers seized American sailors of British birth who were on American ships. Whether or not these men had become American citizens made no difference to the British, who needed men. “Once an Englishman, always an Englishman” was the British motto.
Indignation over the seizing or impressing of sailors and the desire of frontier westerners to annex Canada finally led the United States to declare war on England in 1812. We read about the out come of that war. By helping to bring on this war, Napoleon added greatly to the difficulties of England, his foe of foes.
The peoples of Europe came to hate and fear Napoleon. Meanwhile NapoIeon had problems of his own. He had not only the British army and navy to contend with, but the populations of the countries he had overrun. At first French armies had been welcomed as “liberators” by the common people of Holland, Belgium, Germany and Italy. These people knew about the Declaration of the Rights of Man and thought that French armies would free them from unpopular rulers and unjust laws. As time went on, the peoples of the conquered territories began to wonder about the high price they had to pay for the “benefits” of French rule. Napoleon plundered captured cities of their works of art and shipped them to France to beautify the city of Paris. He forced conquered peoples to contribute soldiers to swell his armies and money to pay for his wars.
The rising national feeling in these conquered countries was to prove Napoleon’s undoing. Discontent turned into rebellion as the people of different countries banded together to throw off French control. So long as Napoleon had merely to overthrow kings, outwit statesmen, or defeat professional armies, he was victorious. When he had to fight conquered peoples who were stirred by national patriotism, Napoleon began to lose. He did not have armies strong enough to hold them down.
The tide turned against Napoleon. In 1812, the very year in which the second war between the United States and England broke out, Napoleon made the mistake of invading Russia. At first he was successful. He defeated the Russian army and captured Moscow. He had failed to reckon on two things — the spirit of the Russian people and the cold of the Russian winter. Finding it impossible to remain in Moscow, much of which the Russians had burned, Napoleon began one of the most disastrous retreats in military history. The Russians cut-off supplies of food, destroyed roads and bridges and captured stragglers. Always there was the terrible, biting cold.
When Napoleon reached German soil again, little was left of his army. Meanwhile all his enemies had turned on him. Rebellion broke out among the Germans, while French armies were defeated in Portugal and Spain. In 1813, in the Battle of the Nations near Leipzig, Germany, Napoleon suffered a disastrous defeat. He was driven back to France and finally forced to surrender.
Napoleon, though exiled, made a last try for power. In 1814 the victorious allies sent Napoleon into exile on the island of Elba in the Mediterranean Sea. They restored the monarchy, put Louis XVIII’s brother of the guillotined King, on the throne of France and turned to the problems of bringing peace to Europe. Suddenly the peacemakers were interrupted by startling rumours. Napoleon had escaped from Elba! He was in France! He was marching on Paris! The French troops sent to capture Napoleon joined his army instead. To one of his old regiments he said: “Here I am. You know me. If there is a soldier among you who wishes to shoot his Emperor, he can do it.” King Louis XVIII fled the county and for 100 days (March to June 1815) Napoleon was again in control of France.
Napoleon met final defeat at Waterloo. The master of France, however, was no longer the master of Europe. Napoleon’s enemies united in a last campaign in 1815. On the field of Waterloo, in Belgium, the British led by the Duke of Wellington and the Prussians under Blucher defeated Napoleon.
This time the British found a safe place for Napoleon, the faraway little island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. There he died a few years later at the age of 52. His body now rests in a magnificent tomb in Paris and his name still is a magic one to millions of Frenchmen.
4. What Effects Did Napoleon’s Rule Have Upon France?
While Napoleon was in power, he made plans for France which you might expect of a practical soldier. He had lost his early enthusiasm for the French Revolution, but he was determined to complete many of the reforms it had begun. Napoleon had two main goals — to replace the confusion of the Revolution with law and order, to keep those achievements of the Revolution which were dear to most Frenchmen.
Napoleon reorganized the government of France. Napoleon set up a centralized government for France. Each département had its prefect and each district or town within the département was ruled by an officer appointed by Napoleon or his assistants. Of course this arrangement did away with local control or “home rule.” Napoleon’s government was efficient. Taxes were collected properly. Roads, canals and bridges were built which helped to unite France. French industries were aided when a tax was placed on imported goods. The tax “protected” the home industries by raising the prices of rival goods imported from other countries.
Napoleon codified French law. Napoleon appointed lawyers to finish organizing French law into a uniform code for all France. This ended confusion and also preserved such ideals of the Revolution as personal rights and the equality of all citizens. To this code of laws he gave his own name, the Code Napoleon. This code has had wide use in Belgium, western Germany and Italy, as well as in France. Law in our state of Louisiana, which was formerly a part of New France, had its basis in the Code.
Napoleon skirted a system of universal education. The leaders of the Revolution had favoured schools under state rather than private control. Napoleon was quick to see how a system of public education could be helpful to the nation. He set up a whole system of public schools — elementary schools, high schools, military academies and universities — all under the supervision of the central government. Private schools were permitted to continue, but they had to have government approval.
Napoleon re-established the Catholic Church. Napoleon realized that many faithful French Catholics had been disturbed by the treatment given the Catholic Church under the Various revolutionary governments. He determined to bring an end to this situation. Frenchmen continued to have complete freedom to worship as they wished, but an agreement was reached with the Pope in 1801 whereby the Catholic Church became the established Church of France. The Church agreed to give up claims to its former lands, but regained ownership of church buildings. The government agreed to pay the salaries of the clergy. You can see that this agreement, while it restored the Catholic Church in France, kept it under the close control of the government. In fact in local government, in education, and in religion, final control rested in the central government.
How did Frenchmen feel about Napoleon? Frenchmen were quite willing to let Napoleon have such powers. Apparently French farmers reasoned about as follows: “I still have the land which the Revolution gave me. Also I am a Catholic and Napoleon lets me worship now in my old church with the priest I used to know. As for your politics, I’ll leave all that to the people in the towns.”
Next in numbers to the farmers were the businessmen, the bourgeoisie. Napoleon is said to have called the English a “nation of shopkeepers,” but he could have applied the same name to his own France. “What a respectable man like myself wants is law and order,” the shopkeeper would tell you. “With all that rioting and worthless paper money and new laws every week, I never knew where I was from 1789 till Napoleon put his foot down in 1799. Of course, I don’t want the old system back as it was before the Revolution, but there is no danger of that now.”
French unity and national patriotism grew strong. The army, under Napoleon, represented the young men of the whole nation and was on fire with enthusiasm for its leader. Even the clergy and nobles, though they would have welcomed the return of the old Bourbon kings, felt that some form of one-man control was better than none. Only a few die-hards still held out against Napoleon and his Empire and most of them were in exile. Moreover, it was wartime. To attack the great military leader of France seemed unpatriotic — it amounted to helping foreigners to invade and conquer France. So the same lips that recently had shouted in the streets of Paris “Hang the aristocrats to the lampposts!” now shouted “Long live the Emperor!”
The French had fought bravely against most of Europe. Moreover, they had won equality for themselves in their own country. Feudalism was forever gone. Yet the French had not achieved lasting freedom or true self-government. By 1830, as you will read more, Frenchmen had again taken up their determined march toward liberty.