Napoleonic France

The French Style of Government

The French government has drastically changed over the course of 15 years. Prior to Napoleon’s rule, the French government was in a state of disarray. They suffered from a declining economy and a sudden drought of resources. At that time, France was still under the control of the Directory. However, right before the turn of the 1800’s, Napoleon launched a coup to seize power. With the aid of five directors and his brother Lucien, Napoleon overthrew the Directory at the age of 30. The young tactician took advantage of political and financial disorders of the country at that time, which severely weakened the Directory. At the same time, it also helped that France had just lost to Italy and Germany.

Once in power, Napoleon established the Consulate Regime. Essentially, this act established a dictatorship, which placed Napoleon as first consul for the span of 10 years. In his new position, the government promised to provide new laws and order to the people, in an effort to revitalize the state of the nation. In 1801, the government launched a concordat that returned the church to its civil status. While it declared Catholicism the main religion of the French, it forced the clergy to swear loyalty to Napoleon. Essentially, this act solidified the power of the government, as it was designed in favour of the state. Despite his monumental achievements, Napoleon still desired more power. In 1802, a plebiscite made Napoleon consul for life. Yet Napoleon’s bid for absolute power would not end. In 1804, he dubbed himself Emperor of France, with complete control over the newly centralized government.

At this point, Napoleon sought to expand his empire and the influence of the French government. He accomplished this by assigning his relatives and sibling as the rulers of lands he conquered. His actions gave way to the Napoleonic Administration, which strived to preserve his power. In order to maintain his status as an all-powerful individual, the use of propaganda was in order. Napoleon used secret agents, arbitrary arrests, and executions to control the public opinion. He gained control over the press, which allowed him to completely control the media. The government exerted its power to relinquish freedom of speech and political liberty from the people. In doing so, anarchy would be avoided. Yet, despite this negative influence, the administration also brought about new reforms. The government provided an orderly and efficient system for the people to follow. At this point, a more centralized government was emphasized. Napoleon appointed prefects to administer major governing departments. Combined, this new system centralized Government authority in Paris. These representative institutions created the illusion of a democracy, when in truth, the people had no real power.

One of the greatest reforms brought about by the Government was the Napoleonic Code. This set of rules attempted to unify the legal system. Napoleon himself appointed a council of legal experts to create a new civil code, in a bid to pacify the public outbursts that plagued France for so long. This code brought equality to the citizens before the law. Employment would be based on ability rather than birth, while people were free to pursue the career of their choice. Moreover, citizens were granted religious freedom. In a way, the government attempted to empower the people, while still preserving their unchallenged authority and power.

In 1814, Napoleon was defeated by the allies and forced into exile. In his place, Louis the XVIII took the throne. This marked the return of an absolute monarchy that replaced the dictatorship previously insulated by Napoleon. Despite this sudden change, certain principles of the Napoleonic government were kept. The charter of 1814 was essentially an overhaul of the Napoleonic code, which still contained the same principles. Louis established a parliamentary government, while also providing the public with an independent judicial system. With the reinvestigation of an absolute monarchy, Louis the XVIII was wary to avoid the paths of his predecessors. In this sense, he did not attempt to rule as an absolute monarch, but as a patron that accepted the will and desires of the people.

It is difficult to accurately pinpoint the style of the French government in the 1800’s. This nation’s ruling system is known for undergoing sporadic changes and overhauls in the course of a couple hundred years. Under the control of Napoleon, this government attempted to seize absolute power and complete control of the people. This is evident by its attempts to silence the negative opinions of the public through unsavoury means, in order to command public expression. Yet, at the same time, the government did grant the people greater forms of social liberty in the Napoleonic Code.

In the end, the Napoleonic government supports a contradictory existence, in that one side strives to liberate the people, while the another side desires absolute power (the power to have the final word in running the nation). As for the government in 1815, it was simply an absolutist monarchy. It differed slightly from previous monarchies, in that Louis the XVIII sought to implement Napoleonic reforms that brought more freedom to the people.

The Economy

Prior to the Napoleonic Empire, the French economy suffered from decades of economic misery. With the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the gains of the Sun King’s reign would soon be destroyed by the Louis XIV’s inept heirs. For the next half century, the French economy boomed, supported by increased trade and products from the West. Better technology allowed products to be moved quicker from production to market. However, France’s economic downfall lay with the massive uneducated population of the third estate. While the intellectuals of France honed their skills in math, science, and the arts, the commoners suffered greatly. As the population grew to around 25 million, the woes of a largely uneducated people would soon be seen in the French economy.

In the second half of the 18th century, the economic gains of the first half were quickly erased by the suffering of the third estate. The growing French population created a widespread food shortage because the farmers could no longer produce enough for the entire population. The failure of the inept government to properly plan accordingly to the increased population would be their downfall. Furthermore, the largely uneducated third estate would lose in competition with British made goods. An example is British textiles, which were of higher quality and cheaper than French textiles. No longer able to compete with British products, massive unemployment joined hunger in the many social woes for the third estate. By now, the French economy was near breaking point. Losing the Seven Years’ War to the British cost the French its territories in North America and investing heavily in the American Revolution put the economy in a financial crisis. The government had no choice but to further tax the only people who could be taxed, the Third Estate. To add insult to injury, unfortunate weather destroyed crops in 1788, followed by a harsh winter. Hungry, cold, and broke from the heavy tax burden, the people rioted.

The revolution brought in different individuals in power who struggled to recover the French economy from the state that it was in. The National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism, nationalized and taxed the church, but was too busy with other affairs to focus on economic reform. The National Convention faired a bit better economically by setting price limits on food enabling people to feed themselves at a reasonable price. The Committee of Public Safety enforced this by executing those who sold food on the black market, but soon nobody could afford to even produce food. The Directory recognized that the economy could not be fixed without war and relied on French military success to stimulate the economy. However the cost of relying on military success led to a coup d’tat and Napoleon took power.

The Napoleonic Era ushered in hope for French economic recovery. Through his numerous military victories, Napoleon looted wherever he won and brought back massive wealth to France. In 1800, Napoleon established the Bank of France in an effort to stabilize the economy. Napoleon also did not want the influx of foreign wealth to cause massive inflation in France. The Bank of France was a major factor in stabilizing the French economy because it centralized the French economy. The bank would regulate currency to prevent inflation by controlling cash flow in the French economy. The Bank of France also promoted economic development with low interest loans, grant money, and tax rebates.

Napoleon’s tax reform also played a huge role in stabilizing the French economy. He assigned the task of collecting taxes to professional government employees and abolished all tax exemptions. Napoleon also placed taxes on a plethora of goods to raise revenue. Napoleon was also a big supporter of education. He recognized that the majority of the French were uneducated or very poorly educated so he created lycees (schools) to educate males. Napoleon said:

Of all our institutions public education is the most important. Everything depends on it, the present and the future. It is essential that the morals and political ideas of the generation which is now growing up should no longer be dependent upon the news of the day or the circumstances of the moment. Above all we must secure unity: we must be able to cast a whole generation in the same mould.

The increased availability of education to the middle class would prove a valuable investment, producing the bright minds of the future.

Napoleon’s greatest economic policy was the Continental System which eliminated Britain from competing with lower quality, and more expensive French goods. The Continental System was enforced by placing a large scale trade embargo upon all British goods for continental Europe. Countries in Europe were now forced to buy French goods, which stimulated the French economy, but hurt the economies of every other nation. Any country that did not comply with the Continental System was threatened with military action.

Although the Napoleonic Era was a huge improvement on the years of inadequate French economic policy, the Napoleonic economy was largely based on the military. The Bank of France was created because of Napoleon’s numerous military victories as well as the education system. The continental system which forced other countries to trade with France was enforced by the French military. The problem with such a military backed economy is that it is not fully self sufficient and the true problems are quickly revealed should the military fail. Napoleon’s economic strategy was essentially to invest into the French economy with money he took from other countries. As a result, France boomed, but unfortunately for Napoleon, Britain retained its naval superiority and the real loser in the Continental System was France because French ships were under threat of being sunk by the British Navy. In conclusion, Napoleon’s economic policy was the only hope for a country torn by years of revolution.

The French Military

The standard weapon of the French infantry was the musket with delayed and limited fire power. Each musket was equipped with a bayonet. The Napoleonic army utilized the benefits of the advanced guns of the times and thus gave more mobility to its artillery. So, the versatility of its guns, the agility of its infantry, backed up by its well-trained cavalry, gave the French army a unique edge in a majority of its battles.

The French military strategy called for two major campaigns. One army was to move in a northeasterly direction, and the other was to advance into Italy against Sardinia and Austria. This latter campaign was entrusted to Bonaparte. In a series of brilliant maneuvers through the Alps into Italy, he swept away the armies to the Sardinians and the Austrians. By the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797, France was given the Ionian Islands and the Austrian Netherlands. As partial compensation for the loss of the Netherlands, Austria was given the Venetian Republic, but only on promising to stay out of other parts of Italy. Both Austria and Sardinia were thus removed from the conflict and only Great Britain remained to oppose France.

Members of the Directory realized the danger of their position in having a military hero in Paris. Bonaparte himself favored an Egyptian campaign as a means of striking at England and his wished were followed. Bonaparte’s soldiers won new laurels in the shadows of the pyramids and suffered terrible hardships on an unsuccessful Syrian campaign. But Lord Nelson defeated the French fleet and maintained the supremacy of English sea power in the Mediterranean. The most significant accomplishments of the Egyptian campaign were scientific rather than military.

Bonaparte was well aware that his Egyptian adventure was a military failure; but the French people were willing to believe that their remarkable young commander had won new honors for the republic. Great Britain Austria and Russia made an alliance in which the British statesman, William Pitt, was an important leader. Armies of the coalition won victories over French troops, and in France itself there was domestic chaos.

French’s foreign enemies were alarmed by the growing power of Napoleon Bonaparte. The imperial designs of the little despot became a matter of international concern. England induced Austria and Russia to join a new coalition of powers to reduce the increasing power of France. In 1803, he had sold Louisiana, his greatest American possession to the United States to raise money for the impending war. Although Bonaparte began to build a navy, he became convinced of the impossibility of carrying the war to the British Isles, so he attacked England’s continental allies.

In less than six months his citizen army and Bavarian allies captured the Austrian capital and dealt the combined Austrian and Russian armies a crushing defeat at Austerlitz. He next turned on Prussia, another of the allies, and drove its army from the field at Jena and Auerstadt on October 14, 1806. Of the continental members of the coalition, only Russia remained to be humbled.

The march from the Prussian battlefields toward Russia was impeded only at Friedland, where the French army signally defeated a Russian army supported by Prussians. Czar Alexander of Russia did not risk further defeat but agreed to meet Napoleon to sign the Treaty of Tilsit. More than a peace was concluded, since Alexander soon appeared as an ally of France and an empire builder in his own right. Sweden, in spite of feeble aid from England, loses Finland to the Czar in 1809.

Unable to cope with England directly, France devised an indirect war on Britain. The French navy, which had been reconditioned and augmented, lost its effectiveness in the battle of Trafalgar in October, 1805, and so in a single stroke, Napoleon’s chief weapon against England was taken from him. His plan of indirect war on Britain was to strike at her trade with continental Europe. Bonaparte closed all of its ports to British goods, hoping to starve the British people. Further decrees, after 1806, even allowed confiscation of English goods found on the continent. England, unable to attack Napoleon on the continent, issued counter decrees prohibiting the world’s trade with France, and ordering the seizure of vessels that complied with French decrees.

The French invasion of Europe was at first viewed by the European peoples as liberation from the tyranny of their own monarchs. Everywhere the Napoleonic army was welcomed as the herald of new day.

Napoleon’s policy was to keep his subject states so weakened that none could rise against him. Groups of smaller states, such as the Confederation of the Rhine, were banded together to balance the power of Austria and Prussia. Russia was the only continental power that did not feel the force of the Napoleon for Europe. The Czar escaped its rigors because he had, by chance, become the ally of the master. For a short time Portugal, too, held out against the new order. When Portugal and Spain fell, all continental Europe was in the hands of Napoleon.

Although the conquests of Europe were first understood by European peoples as an extension of Liberty, and Equality the ideals of the French Revolution, it was not long before they felt the tyranny of Napoleon’s rule. In the workings of the “continental system,” which has already been described, they found subjected to poverty because Napoleon wanted to attack England. His numerous demands for soldiers to fill the ranks of many armies depleted the population and filled almost continental family with the sorrow of death.

French armies marched up and down the Europe, but the spirit of revolt against Napoleon’s despotism could not be suppressed. His Russian ally, the czar also began to slip out of his position as a friend of France. Russia was no longer cooperating with France by 1810. Napoleon realized that he needed to mend the situation.

He quickly chastised the Italian states and laid the plans for a Russian campaign. First, he secured a nominal Austrian alliance by marrying an Austrian princess. Next he collected the largest army Europe had ever seen and marched it toward Russia. One-half million men were in the Army that entered Russia to find burned villages and a denuded country side. The Russians had evacuated their towns, set them afire, and sought the safety of the hinterland. Napoleon found Moscow a mass of ruins. There the army camped in the middle of desolation and the swirling snows of a Moscow winter awaiting the surrender of the enemy who would not fight with France.

Napoleon might have been able to defeat the Russians if they had fought; but, as it was, his only enemies were cold, hunger, disease, and the maddening raids of elusive Cossack warriors. In the late days of the year 1812 Napoleon began an inevitable retreat. Few of the half-million soldiers died. Napoleon’s power decreased and it was the beginning of the road to the Elba and to Waterloo.

The European countries did not remain idle when they saw France so seriously weakened. Prussia, particularly, was ready to lead the way in a general European revolt. The earlier victories of Napoleon’s armies, composed of citizens fired with nationalistic ideals, taught Prussia that the disinterested professional armies were obsolete. Prussian military leaders trained a national army in spite of the various restrictions. As in the case of the army, other national institutions were brought up to date and to the peak of efficiency. Prussia joined Russia in a war on Napoleon in March, 1813. Other European states were preparing to join the leading powers.

Napoleon struck at Prussia immediately, but, while winning battles, was unable to demoralize his enemies. At this juncture Austria, wavering for a time to see which side would win, chose to risk her lot with that of the allied powers. For the first time in the years of war against Napoleon, the enemies were united in both spirit and purpose. Together they struck at Napoleon’s tired army and administered a crushing defeat at Leipzig. Methodically, relentlessly, the followed him into the heart of France.

Napoleon’s army size at Leipzig was about a total of 122,000 men at Leipzig with another 53, 000 coming behind. The Battle of Leipzig happened during October 16th to 18th in 1813. Napoleon Bonaparte tried to capture the capital of Berlin with a few attempts, but he placed his army west of the River Elbe on September 24th 1813. Napoleon’s plan was to utilize Leipzig as his command base. Right after he withdrew his army, the combined allied forces were marching towards Leipzig. Prince Karl von Schwarzenberg was the commander of the Austrian Force, and they approached from Dresdon to the south of Leipzig. The Prussian force was under the command of General Blucher from Wartenburg where he arrived on the 3rd October 1813. The command of the Swedish Prince Jean Bermadotte was responsible for the third Force; moving towards the North of Leipzig with his army.

The Battle of Leipzig began on October 16th, 1813 after Russian’s first attack under the control of General Mikhail Barday de Tolly. The size of Russian army was approximately 78,000 could not attack southern French defenses. At the night time, Napoleon reorganized the position of his army after two attacks. On October 17th, 1813 Napoleon was fighting with his full army as his other part of his army managed to withdraw into Leipzig. The allies surrounded the area around Leipzig on the 18th, 1813, and the allies gathered as their full strength a total number of 355,000 men made a massive attack on French army. The casualties of the French men were 38, 000 killed, and about 30,000 were taken as prisoners. The Allies lost about 52, 000, also, this battle is referred to as the Battle of the Nations. After Leipzig, the French army paled in comparison to the coalition forces that could raise 1 million men east of the Rhine alone. The state of the army was in disarray, especially after years of war. Thus, the Battle of Leipzig established the coalition as the dominant force in Continental Europe, erasing the little military capability the French had.

Role during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars

The French Revolution

The initiation of the French Revolution was due solely to France in terms of its economic and class system. One of the reasons was that the people did not favor absolute monarchy because not everyone in the French society felt a sense of equality. The nobles and the clergy had privileges in the feudal system whereas the lower classes were the ones suffering. The debt that France owed worsened the economic state of France and burdened the lower classes with higher taxations. The higher classes were a minority group and therefore a majority of the population sought freedom and equality and wanted enlightenment. They attacked the government, wanted freedom of speech and challenged the Catholic Church and nobility and thousands of nobles and high clergy were eventually killed during the Terror. This chaos made Louis dependent on the aid of the National Assembly.

The National Assembly wrote a constitution in 1791. The first act was to demolish seigniorial obligations and this included taxes or labor services provided by the lower class to the upper class. The Assembly also wrote a document, which demonstrated Enlightenment called the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. This was gave people a sense of freedom and a lack of oppression. The people were allowed to be a part of the political system by allowing citizens to vote.

When Louis XVI was found trying to escape France, the Girondins believed in constitution monarchy whereas the Jacobins did not want a king. The Declaration of Pillnitz demanded that Louis XVI to be returned to throne. The National Convention however decided to have no monarchy and wanted France to be a republic. In January 1793, Louis XVI was executed for treason. After a poorly fought war against Austria and Prussia, the citizens were enraged and overthrew the Girondin controlled National Convention. Maximilien Robespierre who led the overthrow of the Girodins was now in control. After the Reign of Terror in 1793-1794 where 15 000 people was executed, Robespierre himself was executed. This was the period of Thermidorean reaction in which the government was reconstructing itself. Out of necessity, the Directory was forced to use Napoleon’s victories to distract the public from the economic woes. As a result of his increased popularity, Napoleon Bonaparte led a coup in 1799 and declared himself “first consul”, thus ending the French Revolution.

The Napoleonic Wars

Napoleon provided the people of France with stability after years of chaos. He introduced Code Napoleon in 1804, a set of laws which ensured equality for all male citizens regardless of class. It was similar to the principles of 1789 because he believed in freedom and equality and it is a mixture of old and new ideas.

In 1802, Napoleon stated his desire for conquest and after his conflict with England: war begun. Britain formed an alliance with Austria and Russia upon threat of invasion from the French Army and Navy. In 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar, the majority of the French Navy was destroyed and the invasion of England was unsuccessful. Napoleon then attempted another tactic, which is the Continental System by not allowing English exports into France and destroying their industries. This plan did not work since England had other trading partners and held naval superiority and he was again unsuccessful.

The war against Russia started in 1811 when Napoleon wanted an independent Polish state on Russia’s borders whereas the Czar refused. He invaded Russia with about 600,000 men however Russia had a large army as well. The Russians retreated every time Napoleon tried to attack them. The war took longer than Napoleon expected and they had a limited amount of resources. The Russians used the scorched-earth strategy where they burned everything including crops so Napoleon’s army would have no resources to live off of. The army died from hunger, the cold and exhaustion and he retreated. In the end his army was mostly destroyed and only 50 000 soldiers remained.

The war against Spain started when Napoleon wanted to dethrone the current King and replace him with his brother Joseph. The outrage by the Spanish King started the Peninsular War. The war lasted six years, but Napoleon was unsuccessful.

Austria, Russia, Prussia and Great Britain all signed a negotiation to fight against Napoleon. The Minister Talleyrand took control of the government and wanted to make Louis XVII the king. Napoleon surrendered and signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau and was exiled to Elba for the time being. The treaty offered him 2 million Francs a year and allowed him to keep his emperor title. With the help of the Congress of Vienna, France was restored and they made sure no one would be able to gain too much power.

Historical Foreign Relations of France

Pre Napoleonic era Foreign Relations

Relations with the Austro-Hungarian Empire

France had been in conflict with Austro- Hungary for several years before the Napoleonic wars were even started. The source of conflict during the post monarch era of France was also the reason for peaceful relations during the years before the revolution. The last French monarch before the French revolution had an Austrian wife, this served very well in preventing conflict between the two powers. The efforts done to establish France as an empire started the conflict between them and intensified it at every stage.

Relations with Great Britain

France had a long history of conflict with Britain that spanned both Europe and the new world. Conflicts between Britain and France in the 100 years alone before the Napoleonic wars included the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) and the War of the American Revolution (1775-83). These wars helped set stage for the Napoleonic wars as they hurt the economy and France’s role in the American Revolution brought back revolutionary ideas.

Relations with Spain

The Spanish monarchy was closely related to the French monarchy, as it was a bourbon house. In the years leading up to the French revolution, their foreign relations were fairly warm. Before there was a Bourbon monarch ruling Spain, it was ruled the rival Hapsburgs, this often resulted in many conflicts between them.

Relations with Prussia

The relations between France and Prussia have been mostly hostile with rare opportunistic alliances between them. The war of Spanish succession was fought between them with resulting in France putting one of its monarchs as the Spanish king. The rivalry between the two powers has a long history dating back to the Bourbon Hapsburg rivalries, with Prussia often siding with Hapsburgs.

Napoleonic era foreign relations

Relations with the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Austria was one of the first countries to pursue war against the French republic and was the first country to be attacked by the republican French army. The source of the conflict was related to the queen’s relation to Austria and its royalty, coupled by the influence of the fleeing French nobility. The only time that Austria sided with Napoleonic France was when napoleon conquered Austria and married one of its princesses; it later betrayed France as it was fleeing from a failed Russian campaign though.

Relations with Great Britain

The emergence of Napoleonic France and its treatment of their king had Prompted Britain to fight many successive wars in Europe and around the world under several coalitions until the defeat and exile of Napoleon at waterloo. The two powers waged many wars against one another outside of their usual cold war.

Relations with Spain

Spain was part of the first coalition in the Napoleonic wars but later found itself to be an unwilling ally of France only then ending up being in a coalition that defeats France. The Spanish monarchy was closely related to the deposed French monarchy and felt extremely unsympathetic towards napoleon and republican France.

Relations with Prussia

Prussia sided with the coalitions for most of the Napoleonic wars and was one of powers that gained the most from the defeat of napoleon. The side that it chose was often based on the amount of opportunity that the power saw for success and expansion. Overall Prussia grew in size and power throughout the Napoleonic wars and rivalry continued between the two powers of the continent of Europe.

Works Cited

Asprey, Robert B. The Reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. New York: Basic, 2001. Print.

Markham, J. David. “The Revolution, Napoleon, and Education.” The Napoleon Series. International Napoleonic Society, 2010. Web. 03 Apr. 2011. http://www.napoleon-series.org/research/society/c_education.html.

Source by Alan Zhong

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