The Napoleonic Era


The Napoleonic Era Essay, Research Paper

Napoleon Bonaparte was a significant man who was regarded as a person who was responsible for many historic events that would reshape France and Europe during the late 18th and early 19th century. He has been portrayed as a merciless leader, fearing little that stood in his way. Napoleon led his army in this fashion for nearly 20 years, literally changing the face of Europe and of his people. Around 1814, however, Napoleon’s reign was to cease; Napoleon’s empire began to collapse leading to his eventual exile from France. This essay will evaluate Napoleon’s supremacy and significant fall as the great leader of France, focusing on Napoleon as a person and great military leader, and the changes he brought to France.

Napoleon Bonaparte was born into a minor noble family on August 15, 1769 in Ajaccio on the Mediterranean Island of Corsica. He was the son of a lawyer, and was sent to French military school at the age of nine. As he grew, he developed an appreciation towards England’s establishment. Laws limited England’s monarchy, and Napoleon felt that France could benefit from similar rules, perhaps by establishing by what we know as of today as a democracy. His ideas will play a significant role as the young Napoleon matures into a leader. He finished his training and joined the French army when he was only 16 years old, shortly before the passing of his father. When the Revolution occurred in 1789, Napoleon was 20 years old. Although Napoleon was born to nobility, he supported the Revolution; he joined the Society of Friends of the Constitution, and supported the idea of a new government wholeheartedly. After the French monarchy was overthrown on August 10, 1792, a determined Napoleon quickly progressed through the ranks becoming a recognized officer under King Louis XVI. In 1792 Napoleon was promoted to the rank of Captain. In 1793 he was assigned to help fight off the English at a port called Toulon. He seized ground where he could get his guns in range of the British ships. Soon after that Toulon fell and Napoleon was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General.

As the new General, during 1796-1797, Napoleon led his army to deal with some troubles with Austria. With an cavalcade of roughly 44,000 troops, he defeated forces far outnumbering his army, won a dozen major battles, killed, wounded or took prisoner of thousands of Austrians, and captured flags and cannons. He liberated many people from various sorts of oppression (incompetent kings, or foreign rule, mostly Austrian) and helped them to establish democratic governments, including writing their Constitution; one of the states which he formed was called the Cisalpine Republic, which would become modern day Italy. Napoleon also freed Genoa, which became the Ligurian Republic. Napoleon’s abilities as a leader had really become evident to the French people and Napoleon knew it as well. The power vested in Napoleon was very attractive to him, providing self-confidence and an arrogance that would propel him for many years.

In 1802 Napoleon was elected First Consul for life by vote. He was to be the first consul for 10 years. Also in 1802, it began to be suggested by the French people that Napoleon should be Emperor, with the power therefore passed on to his line. A plebiscite vote on this again was overwhelmingly in Napoleon’s favor, 3.5 million for, fewer than 1,600 against. Thus Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, not by force rather by popular demand, December 2, 1804. France was now an empire. A victory like this demonstrates the faith his people had in him as a military leader and a person who could lead France and into the coming years. Neighboring countries were beginning to not like what they were witnessing.

A new alliance had started against France in 1805 with Austria, Russia, and Sweden but later that year Napoleon defeated the Austrian and Russian armies at Austerlitz in Austria. In 1806, Prussia joined Russia in a new coalition, but once more, Napoleon’s forces crushed the Prussian army at Jena and Auerstedt and in June 1807, Napoleon overwhelmed Russian armies at Friedland. Also, in 1809, he defeated the Austrians again at Wagram. Napoleon was unstoppable. Following each victory, the Napoleonic Empire grew bigger. In 1806, he appointed his brother, Joseph, king of Naples, his brother, Louis, king of Holland in 1807, his brother, Jerome, king of Westphalia, also in 1807. Finally in 1809, he gave his sister, Elisa, the title of Grand Duchy of Tuscany. His empire was brought to its height in 1810 when he added Holland and most of Northern Germany. Between 1806 and 1807, Napoleon set up something known as the Continental System. The rationale of this was to prevent British trade with the rest of Europe, hoping to demolish its economy. To do so, Napoleon seized control of Portugal and parts of Spain to stop the transfer of goods via ships. The Spanish and Portuguese forces rebelled against Napoleon and his troops and drove the French of the peninsula, known as the Peninsula war. At this point in Napoleon life, greed started to overwhelm him. Neighboring countries wanted their independence, and refused to be under French rule. This greed is a significant precursor to the fall of Napoleon, and his credibility was beginning to fall apart with his enemies.

Nationalism also played a major role in the downfall of Napoleon in that he wanted an empire and his opponent’s wanted independence. As Napoleon was conquering lands and creating a vast empire, his troops stressed in the far lands that they conquered life, liberty and equality. Even though Napoleon did not realize it, it triggered nationalistic feelings among the conquered nations. For instance, in Germany, anti-French feelings started to break out. Russia, who was an ally of France, went against the word of Napoleon. So Napoleon decided to invade Russia. Napoleon’s army had roughly 700,000 men. Most of the soldiers were not French; therefore mixed feelings filled the heads of the soldiers with regards to the war. In 1812 Napoleon began the invasion, and Russia retreated. As the Russians retreated they burned all crops – a source of valuable food. When Napoleon reached Moscow, the Russians burned the city around Napoleon’s army. The Russians also destroyed the food supply to Napoleon, and with the winter months around the corner, the result was mass starvation of his troops and terminal illness due to frostbite and exposure to the elements. Napoleon had a decision to make, and decided to retreat back to France. On his return, Russian Cossacks slaughtered the soldiers who fell behind. Napoleon was forced to abandon his army and go back back to France. This miscalculation destroyed his credibility with his opponents, and inspired those countries to fight for their independence.

In 1813 almost every nation in Europe joined in the final coalition against France. Napoleon raised a new army but couldn’t restore the gear lost in Russia. In October 1813 allied forces from Russia, Austria, Prussia, and Sweden defeated Napoleon at Leipzig. (Battle of the Nations) By April 1814 the coalition occupied Paris, and Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba, and Louis the 18th was appointed king. The coalition made peace with France. In Elba, Napoleon planned his return to France because of discord with allies and discontent with King Louis the 18th. In February 1815, Napoleon sailed to France and then marched to Paris, gathering supporters along the way. The men sent to fight him joined him. Louis fled when he approached and on March 20, Napoleon entered Paris where the crowds cheered him again. Napoleon declares a new constitution that limited his powers. He was ready for a quick victory due to a divided and concerned nation at his hands. Napoleon went into Belgium and hoped to defeat Britain’s separate armies of the Duke of Wellington and Blucher of Prussia. Napoleon defeated Blucher and on June 18, Napoleon attacked Wellington at Waterloo in one of history’s most memorable battles. Seemingly, the French were strong, and it appeared as if the British would surrender. Without notice, Blucher and his army showed up and backed up the British. The French were overpowered and suffered the defeat. Napoleon abdicates again, and dies years later in 1821.

Napoleon certainly was a legend of his time. He brought significant changes to France and to Europe as well. The Code of Napoleon was of the more notable changes. The Code’s concepts were:

- Equality of all

- No privileges because of nobility birth

- Freedom of Religion

- Separation of Church and State

- Freedom to work desired occupation

In France, the country’s basic law is still the Code Napoleon, and the administrative and judicial systems are based on Napoleon’s ideas and processes. It is apparent of in the law of many European countries as well. His downfall is contributed by his lust for power. Greed and dominance was an overbearing factor for him. For instance, his life was work-centered; even his social activities served his motives. His character suggested he was generally a good man, having intense loyalties to his family and old associates. However, nothing could interfere with his work. Napoleon was at times a tyrant and forever a totalitarian, but was one who believed in a democracy type government. He was a tremendous success with regards to reform, but a bit of a failure when dealing with nationalism. Nationalism proved to be thorn in his side, and his inability to deal with it, perhaps because of his arrogance and character, led to his decline.

Napoleon will always be regarded as a war hero and legend, and perhaps a great catalyst of change. His quest for peace was overpowered by his lust for power and his greed, but the results of Napoleon’s leadership and ideas would greatly improve France and all of Europe following his reign. Napoleon will always be remembered as a revolutionary and a legend.

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