The destination for history

Napoleon and the creation of an empire 1799 -1804


When Napoleon returned to France in October 1799, the Directory was on its last legs. Its corruption and incompetence had thoroughly alienated the French people, and it could only retain power if it enjoyed the support of the army. With a charismatic general like Napoleon busy intriguing against it, this situation did not last long: a coup d’état launched on 9 November 1799 put the Corsican in power, and he soon outmanoeuvred his co-conspirators, acquiring the status of First Consul and becoming the effective dictator of France.

Some pressing military matters demanded Napoleon’s immediate attention. During his absence in Egypt, a Second Coalition had been formed to confront the French Revolution. Although Prussia played no active role in the enterprise, Russia did, and her forces were heavily engaged. An Anglo-Russian invasion of the Netherlands proved unsuccessful, but the Austro-Russian army under Marshal Suvarov drove the French out of Northern Italy (with the exception of the territory around Genoa). However, the subsequent invasion of Switzerland proved an abject failure, and led to the withdrawal of all Russian forces from Western Europe.

By April 1800, the French General Massena was besieged in Genoa by the Austrians, who were also active in Germany. The Hapsburgs were convinced that the latter theatre would see the most vigorous French military activity, but Napoleon had other ideas. His Army of the Reserve marched through Switzerland into Italy, descending upon the supply line of the Austrians, although not quickly enough to prevent the fall of Genoa. However, the septuagenarian Austrian commander General Melas was undeterred, and launched a surprise attack on 14 June at Marengo. The ensuing battle was closely fought, but ended with an Austrian rout. This, combined with the defeat of the Hapsburgs’ army in Germany at the Battle of Hohenlinden, fought on 3 December, saw the end of the Second Coalition.

Napoleon was now granted a period of peace, which he used to rebuild France. After the indolence and corruption of the Directory, a compulsive workaholic like Napoleon had to be a massive improvement. The First Consul’s initial task was to streamline government. He started off by appointing men of efficiency whose loyalty to the new regime could be relied upon, regardless of their previous affiliations. Ex-Royalists and erstwhile Jacobins often rubbed shoulders in the Napoleonic bureaucracy, for as Napoleon always knew instinctively from his own example, ideological purity invariably came a poor second to personal ambition. The First Consul exploited this weakness by making what eventually proved to be inspired appointments.

The results of this sensible policy soon bore fruit. The Bank of France, created in 1800, controlled all state functions three years later, which served to increase economic confidence. Napoleon also centralised local government administration by appointing officials known as Prefects to run the regions, or Departments as they were termed in France. The First Consul also made a significant gesture by presiding over the renewal of Catholicism; although Napoleon himself was emphatically not a religious man, he had seen how the French peasantry had been alienated by the more extreme anti-Catholic Republicans. Accordingly, he prevailed upon the Pope to accept an agreement whereby the latter agreed to the loss of pre-Revolutionary Church land, in return for Catholicism being acknowledged as the religion of the majority - a careful formulation that avoided its becoming an official state religion.

Napoleon’s greatest administrative achievement lay in the legal field. The old French law had been a complex and multifaceted enmeshing of the often contradictory rigidities of Roman law with distinctly esoteric local and national customs. Napoleon set himself the task of codifying the amorphous mass, and rightly made it his top priority. The First Consul personally presided over many of the sessions of his Council of State that were devoted to legal reform. The resulting Code Napoléon, produced in 1804, was a document of truly historic importance; it is the basis of French law to this day, and has also been heavily influential in other European states and Latin America (its contents have of course been revised over the following two centuries, but its systemic template and methodology remain extant).

As with so much else in Napoleonic France, the Code represented a compromise between conservative and revolutionary principles. Whereas family law restored and enhanced traditional masculine authority for example, the principles of religious toleration and equality before the law were enshrined. The result was a triumphant success, and since everything was written down in books, the system could easily be exported elsewhere – as it was whenever the French took control of new territory. here is however another side to this picture. The Napoleonic regime may have had mighty achievements to its credit, but was distinctly authoritarian. Its system of government relied upon multiple tiers, only the lowest of which was elected by universal suffrage. The new bodies that enjoyed substantive power were handpicked by Napoleon himself or his nominees in the Senate. The populace was given the illusion of power with the holding of occasional plebiscites on significant issues.

However, like any referendum, much depended upon the precise wording of the relevant proposition; additionally, the choice of a simple affirmative or negative left little room for nuanced thinking. Moreover, ballots were not secret, and few voters found it prudent to risk incurring the First Consul’s displeasure by registering a negative verdict. The creation of a distinctly efficient and repressive Ministry of Police under Joseph Fouché in 1804, served to further undermine the principle of liberty and make the expression of dissent a decidedly imprudent step. It was inevitable that any plot against Napoleon would be met with savage repression; this was not even necessarily confined to French national boundaries. The most notorious example of extra-territorial infringement occurred in 1804, when the émigré Duc D’Enghien was kidnapped in the neutral German state of Baden, brought to Paris, and sentenced to death following a trial of dubious legality.

The combination of effective administration, imaginative reforms, and brutal repression soon created a powerful state. By December 1804 Napoleon was ready to throw down the gauntlet to the rest of Europe. The First Consul invited the Pope to Paris in order to crown him as Emperor – only for Napoleon to seize the relevant headpiece from the Pontiff and place it on his own head. It was the ultimate declaration of his status as a self-made man: Napoleon was a self-proclaimed monarch, an act which implicitly challenged the legitimacy of all other crowned heads. 

By Neil Thomas

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