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If the life and career of Napoleon Bonaparte is examined in a vacuum, then it would certainly appear that he was a demagogue and dictator who simply imposed his will upon subjected peoples. But, it would be naïve to judge this great leader without considering the world around him, the events that led up to his rule, and the ultimate effects of his decisions. In light of those circumstances it is reasonable to assert that Napoleon was the “son of the Revolution”, and that he liberated Europeans from reactionary and monarchical rule.
Napoleon started at the lowest possible rung on the ladder where his ascension to greatness would still be possible. If he were any lower in the socio-economic system then he would have not been able to obtain the education necessary to achieve greatness. His rise to power is equivalent to what we call the “American Dream”, and his actions show that he understood the importance of this sort of meritocracy. Napoleon is often quoted as saying, “La carrière ouverte aux talents", which roughly means “careers open to the talented.” And, his rule certainly spread this sort of republican ideology that was ingrained in the French revolution.
Napoleon’s actions leading up to and on the 18th of Brumaire were not consistent with republicanism, but they put him in a position where he could enact reforms that would bring some closure to the French Revolution and bring in an equitable government that was the real goal of the revolution. He reconciled the problems with the Catholic Church, improved education, brought meritocracy to government, reformed the tax code, and implemented his civil code.
When Napoleon latter gave himself the title of emperor many people were disappointed. This was seen as taking France back from a republic to a monarchy, but the practical effect was probably not so bad. Napoleon ostensibly did this to erode the Bourbon family’s claim to the throne, and this logic is somewhat reasonable considering that the other monarchs in Europe would have been happy to reinstitute the monarchy and help solidify their own standing. With Napoleon as emperor the French people lost their republic, but they maintained many of the ideals that they fought for in the revolution. In fact, when the Bourbon family was eventually restored in 1814, not only was franchise for the impotent Chamber of Deputies limited to about one percent of the population, but the king attempted to go back to many of the pre-revolutionary policies.
Napoleon also helped to spread the ideas of the French Revolution beyond France’s borders. The Napoleonic wars tore down aristocracies and kingdoms, then replaced them with nation-states whose people were infused with a sense of pride in who they were rather than who their lord was. The sense of nationality that made people want to be free of Napoleon would not have even existed without Napoleon redrawing Europe.
Napoleon has many critics, but most of the criticisms seem somewhat hollow to me. Napoleon is criticized for waging so much war. But, in all likelihood these wars would have been unavoidable. The other European monarchies would have loved to bring their system of leadership back to France, and would have conceivably made advances without Napoleons strong presence. Most of the Napoleonic Wars were arguably a result of the coalitions formed against France for those reasons. Napoleon was the central figure of the wars, so his name gets placed on them, and thus he takes an unfair percentage of the blame.
Napoleon and his opponents were harsh, but it is my view that Napoleon had the people’s welfare in mind. He was the son of the French Revolution, but the progenitor of European revolutions.
Originally written October 5th, 2009