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Emperor of the French 1804 -1815

On December 2, 1804, in a ceremony of great pomp and splendour at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned Napoleon I, Emperor of the French. Pope Pius VII was there. He had come from Rome to offer his blessing and to place the crown on the head of the new emperor but Napoleon did not do what was expected of him. Instead of kneeling, he took the crown from the Pope’s hands and put it on himself. He also placed a crown on the head of his wife, Josephine.

Only twelve years had passed since the French had risen in revolt against their king. Now, by popular vote, they had placed Napoleon on the throne and approved a new constitution giving him almost unlimited power. People in other lands wondered if the French were turning their back on the revolution, but the French did not think so. They looked upon Napoleon as the man who had made laws and treaties to protect most of the benefits which they had won during the revolution.

Yet the French had changed. They no longer spoke of liberty. They were willing to give up some of their freedom in order to enjoy other things that now seemed just as important and men who had once been great champions of liberty could do little about it. Among them was Lafayette, who had returned to France after several years in Austrian prisons. Not wishing to support a government under which freedom did not exist, he refused to accept any public office and lived the life of a gentleman farmer.

Most Frenchmen simply felt that a practical form of government was more important than liberty. They had discovered some frightening things about liberty during the Revolution — too much of it could lead to wild confusion and mob violence. What they wanted most now was security. Napoleon was a popular leader in whom they had great faith, for he had proved himself as a soldier, as a political leader and had given them a more dependable government than any they had ever known. They did not think the change they were making was a big one. Napoleon as emperor would continue to give them security. They still had their constitution and their code. France was still to be called the French Republic.

It was a far more efficient government than the old-fashioned royal governments of other European countries. In those countries the royal authority was limited by local traditions, by serfdom and by special privileges of nobles and churchmen. In France such obstacles had been swept away by the revolution and Napoleon had organized a government in which all the strength of the nation was subject to his command, even at the local level. He used strong police methods to enforce his will and would not permit himself to be criticized in books or in newspapers.


France and England both broke the terms of their peace treaty and prepared for war. France prepared for an invasion of England, building a large fleet of flat-bottomed boats to carry her army across the English Channel. The difficulty was that such a fleet could easily be destroyed by the powerful British navy and for months the French attempted to lure the British fleet away from the Channel. Waiting at Boulogne on the coast with an invasion army of 150,000 troops and 1,200 beats, Napoleon grew impatient with his admirals. None of them, it seemed to him, were willing to meet the British at sea in a fair fight.


He finally lost his temper when Villeneuve one of his best admirals, sailed his large fleet of thirty-three ships into the Spanish port of Cadiz to escape from the British. In a letter filled with insults, he ordered Villeneuve to leave Cadiz and face the enemy at once. Villeneuve had no choice. On October 21, 1805, his ships sailed out of Cadiz in a long curved line. Lord Nelson, with a fleet of twenty-seven ships, attacked him in two columns. The Battle of Trafalgar, so named because it was fought off the Cape of Trafalgar‚ ended six hours later in a splendid victory for the British. Without the loss of a ship, they destroyed or captured more than half the French fleet. They did suffer a great lose in the death of Lord Nelson, who was shot by a sniper‘s bullet during the battle.

After Trafalgar, Napoleon never again challenged the British at sea and Englands influence was also felt strongly on the continent itself. She persuaded Russia, Austria, Sweden and Naples to join her in another war against France. They were all convinced that there could be no lasting peace in Europe so long as Napoleon remained in power.

As usual, Napoleon caught his enemies off balance with a series of long, swift marches. Before the Russians and Austrians could join forces, he was able to swing behind a large Austrian army at Ulm and attack it from all sides. The Austrians were forced to surrender. Napoleon then took Vienna, which was not strongly defended, but the city was soon threatened by Russians and what was left of the Austrian army. Outnumbered‚ Napoleon slowly withdrew from Vienna, making the enemy believe he was even weaker than he really was. At Austerlitz, a place he had carefully chosen for the battle, he took his stand. There he won what he called his “most glorious victory.”

The Battle of Austerlitz led to important changes in the map of Europe. Austria lost her possessions in Germany and Italy, possessions which made up a large portion of the Holy Roman Empire. That thousand-year-old empire was broken up and Francis of Austria lost his right to be called the Holy Roman Emperor. The small German states over which he had ruled were gathered together by Napoleon into a Confederation of the Rhine.

Napoleon was now master of many lands, but as his power grew, so did his dreams of greater glory. He wanted his empire to include all of Europe. One stumbling stone in his path was Prussia, the powerful German state in the north, which was still independent. Napoleon made unreasonable demands upon her and she joined England and Russia in another war against France.

This war began on October 7, 1806 and Napoleon was well prepared for it. Within a week he had defeated the Prussians in two important battles. After defeating the Russians the following June, he brought the war to an end with the Treaty of Tilsit in July of 1807. The Russians agreed to Napoleon’s division of Prussia, one part of which was to become the Duchy of Warsaw and another part the Kingdom of Westphalia. The Kingdom of Prussia was reduced to a few provinces.


Napoleon crowned his youngest brother, twenty-three-year-old Jerome, King of Westphalia. Jerome was expected to introduce the Code Napoléon and the liberal benefits of the French Revolution to the people of his country. He was supposed to change them from subjects, who knew only how to obey, into citizens who could take an active part in the government of their country.

In one of his letters of instruction to Jerome, Napoleon wrote: “The advantages brought by the Code Napoléon, publicity of legal procedure and trial by jury, will be characteristic of your monarchy. . . . Your people must have a liberty, an equality and a prosperity hitherto unknown in Germany. . . . What nation would ever wish to go back to Prussian rule when it had once experienced the advantages of a liberal government?”

Napoleon sent similar letters of instruction to his brother Joseph, whom he had made King of Naples and to his brother Louis, whom he had made King of Holland. In every conquered land and puppet state in the empire, Napoleon introduced his famous code of laws, which offered everybody equal justice under law, freedom of religion and an opportunity to take part in self-government. Thus, for the middle-class peoples of Europe, Napoleon swung open the door of a promising new world. These people at first hailed him as a hero, a liberator. Later, when they found themselves being used for the greater glory of his empire, as they usually did, their feelings about Napoleon changed.

So long as France and England were at war, the peoples of Europe had to suffer for it. The British ruled the seas and always stood ready to aid any European country bold enough to make war on France. Napoleon could not strike back at England directly. The best he could do was to close all ports under his control to British shipping. This included all ports in Prussia, Holland, Belgium, France, Italy and Spain. The Danes were willing to co-operate and the Russians had also agreed to do so in the Treaty of Tilsit.


Napoleon called his plan the Continental System. He believed that if he could take all European markets away from British manufacturers, he could force England to sign a treaty. England turned the tables by declaring a blockade of all ports under French control, turning back the ships of all nations. The Continental System caused great suffering and hardship on both sides of the Channel.

The entire coast of Europe had to be watched constantly to make Napoleon’s action against England effective. He invaded Portugal to close the ports there and this led to trouble in Spain. When he tried to win control of Spain by placing his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne‚ the Spaniards rose up in revolt. To make matters worse, England sent an army to help the Spanish rebels. Bands of Spanish guerillas struck and melted away to strike again, pinning down some of the finest troops of France.

The fighting spirit of the rebels amazed and encouraged other peoples of Europe. What was happening in Spain proved that Napoleon’s troops were only human, after all. They could be beaten. The Austrians were so encouraged that they made war on France once again and again suffered defeat at the hands of Napoleon.

During 1810 and 1811, the fighting went on in Spain, but Napoleon controlled most of Europe. The Continental System had become a serious problem. By preventing the normal flow of commerce between countries, it created poor business conditions, high prices and much unemployment everywhere in Europe. Furthermore, the French were tired of war. So were the other peoples of Europe. Moreover, they were tired of their French masters. The ideas of human rights and liberty that were so much a part of the French Revolution had given people the feeling of independence and increased their national pride; now they were becoming restless and difficult for France to control.


Russia and France, both guilty of treaty violations, prepared to go to war in the spring of 1812. This war was part of Napoleon’s larger plan for gaining control of all Europe, but he had a number of reasons for fighting Russia. The Russians had opened their ports to British trade, thus destroying the effect of Napoleon’s Continental System. Napoleon and Alexander of Russia also had serious differences over Poland and the Turkish Empire. Russia was supported in her war effort by England and Sweden and Napoleon raised a gigantic army of more than 500,000 troops, which included Italians, Poles, Swiss, Dutch, Germans and Spaniards. He hoped this large army would strike terror in the Russians and so bring them quickly to the point of surrender, but the huge size of the army actually made it slow, awkward and almost impossible to feed.


The Russians were so greatly outnumbered that they backed away as Napoleon advanced into Russia. Again and again the Russians avoided battle, burning villages and crops as they fell back, leaving only barren land in which the French could find neither food nor shelter. As the French marched deeper and deeper into the country, they outran their food supplies. Tens of thousands fell behind, too weak to continue.

When Napoleon reached Moscow on September 13, he found it an almost deserted city. The following day mysterious fires broke out in all parts of the city, destroying most of it. For a month Napoleon awaited an offer of peace from Alexander and finally he had no choice but to make the long march back to France. It began on October 19 and the Russians and the weather combined to make it the most costly retreat in all history. The French troops were tormented almost daily by surprise attacks of mounted Cossacks, but it was the deep snow and the bitter cold of the Russian winter that turned retreat into catastrophe. There was no help for those who weakened and fell. In a few minutes they were nothing more than frozen lumps in the drifting snow. The wolves that followed behind usually found them before the Russians did.


Like ghosts in rags, the French army stumbled on and on through the snow. Many threw their muskets away. In the last week of November they came to the Berezina River and found the bridge destroyed, while on the far bank of the river a large Russian army waited for them. Napoleon fooled the Russians into thinking he intended to cross at another place. While the Russian army matched away, the French engineers quickly built two bridges. Most of the French had crossed before the Russians discovered they had been tricked and came rushing back, but once again the French losses were staggering. By the time the Grand Army had reached the border of Russia on December 18, it had been reduced to 18,000 men.


Napoleon could not hide the fact that his Russian campaign had been a tremendous and costly blunder. People began to say that his luck had run out and his enemies prepared to strike before he could regain his strength. In desperate haste, Napoleon began building a new army. Many of his recruits were no more than boys. He did not have time to train them, for large armies of Prussian patriots were already threatening in the north. Prussia, England, Sweden and Austria also joined in the war against France.

Even though the new French army was short of cannon and other weapons, Napoleon managed to win several battles. At Leipzig his German troops from Saxony and Württemberg deserted him, reducing his army to 40,000 troops. He was forced to give up the city and fall back to the Rhine in his first great defeat. The invasion of France took place that winter and Napoleon could not stop it. Paris fell to the enemy on March 21, 1814 and less than two weeks later Napoleon was forced to give up his throne. He was sent to the little island of Elba, off the coast of Italy, to live there in exile for the rest of his life.

Napoleon was joined by his mother and sister. “He seems to have forgotten the past!” wrote one of his friends. “The management of his small household gives him occupation; he is now looking out for a suitable site to build his country-seat; we ride, drive and sail around the coasts as much as we please.” A year later, however‚ all Europe was shocked when Napoleon escaped from the island. Landing in France, he began a triumphant much toward Paris to rescue the nation from its week and unpopular king, Louis XVIII.


King Louis had kept many of the changes brought about by the revolution. He had given the French a representative form of government much like the one in England. He had retired most of Napoleon’s army officers on half pay and appointed nobles in their place. Now the nobles were demanding many of their old privileges, including the return of property which had been taken from them and sold to the peasants during the revolution. Word of this had reached Napoleon and made him decide the time had come to return to France and indeed, the peasants welcomed him and many joined him on his much toward Paris.


But a Paris newspaper reported, “The monster has escaped from his place of exile!” King Louis sent troops to arrest him. When Napoleon met them on the road near Grenoble, he recognized many men who had served under him. He quickly leaped from his horse, threw open his cloak and said, “If there is one amongst you who wishes to kill his emperor, let him come forward and do so. Here I am!”

No one moved. After a silence that seemed endless, one of the soldiers shouted, “Long live the Emperor!” With cries of joy, the soldiers joined their emperor on his march to Paris.

The march took twenty days. Fat King Louis fled from the country and Napoleon took back his throne without firing a shot. His first act was to appeal to the other countries for peace, but they refused to trust him. Once again Russia, Austria, Prussia and England made ready to invade France. Napoleon saw that he needed a quick victory to win the full support of his countrymen and divide his enemies. He marched his troops into Belgium, met the Prussians and drove them back before they could join the British and other forces under General Wellington.

At noon on June 18, 1815, he attacked Wellington, who held a position on a hill near the town of Waterloo. Napoleon saw no reason to be concerned. The British outnumbered him slightly, but he did not respect them as soldiers. His one fear was that Wellington might try to escape. He did not know that the Prussian army was only hours away and hurrying west to join Wellington. Earlier he had sent his own General Grouchy with 30,000 troops to chase the Prussians east and to prevent them from coming to Wellington’s aid, but Grouchy had been unable to find them.

The battle was several hours old and the British had beaten back several French attacks when Napoleon heard that the Prussians were coming in force. He sent a note by messenger to Grouchy, ordering him to come back at once, but Grouchy was many miles away. Now he had to beat the English quickly before the Prussians arrived. He ordered a great cavalry charge against the English centre, but it stood firm. He still kept his old guard, his best soldiers, ready to send in if the enemy showed signs of weakening. Napoleon held them back until just after dusk, when the Prussians came up and launched an attack on his right flank. His old guard went in, but it was too late. The French broke in panic and Napoleon and his men fled for their lives.


The defeat at Waterloo, one of the most important battles in history, cost Napoleon his throne. After an unsuccessful attempt to escape to the United States, he gave himself up to the British and was sent to Saint Helena, an island in the South Atlantic. There he lived in exile until his death on May 5, 1821.

With Napoleon removed from Europe, the great powers tried to establish a lasting peace with the Treaty of Vienna in 1815. The Netherlands, Switzerland and Sardinia were to serve as buffer states between the big countries — Russia, Austria, Prussia and France. France was to be occupied for a time and her boundaries were cut back to about the same as they had been in 1789. Austria won control of Italy again and shared influence over the German states with Prussia.

King Louis returned to his throne in France, but neither he nor his nobles ever succeeded in turning back time. The revolution, with the help of Napoleon, had left its mark not only upon France, but upon Europe and the world. The Code Napoléon continued as the basic system of laws in France and served as a model for the law makers of many lands, including Holland, Italy, Spain, parts of Germany, South America and the state of Louisiana in the United States.

Historians look upon the French revolution as the great turning point in modern history. It multiplied the effects of the American Revolution many times over. It led people to discover the great strength of their numbers and prompted them to use that strength against special privilege and the absolute rule of kings. It also led people to discover the ideal of nationalism, of people united and working together for the good of their country. It would inspire many revolutions in many lands, where once again men would raise the slogan first used by the French — “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

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