Political stability and orderly government are worthy goals for a country caught in the wake of a reign of terror and led by a weak and ineffective government. A leader offering means to these goals is sure to find support from the masses who had been frequent victims of prior injustices. In 1799 that leader was Napoleon Bonaparte, and the country was France. Napoleon was able to reform the government of France and accomplish the goals of political stability and orderly government, but not without a cost. The means used by Napoleon to reform France were strategically maneuvered to ensure his reign as an enlightened despot and paved the way for future dictators around the world. He once said that he loved power as a musician loves his violin, and he was determined never to lose it (Perry 267).
Napoleon, like the dictators that would follow him, was able to rise to power because he was in the right place at the right time in history. The conditions in which he found himself were perfect. The French were trying to organize themselves after the Revolution, jumping around from ideology to ideology attempting to solve the problems before them as a state. The army, infused with drafted soldiers from Jacobin conscription laws, was dispersed in the Mediterranean and central Europe defending la patrie and soaking in the glories of war. The established order was in a shambles and groups were fighting for the inclusion of their ideals into the new republic. Insurrections in Paris by sans-culottes maddened by hunger and a hatred of the rich, and royalists seeking to restore the monarchy, plagued France’s ruling body, the Directory, since 1795 (Perry 267). There was political divisiveness between Catholics and Huguenots over who would hold the distinction as the official religion of the state. The stage was set for a leader with a plan for governing that would include France’s diverse groups while carrying on the aspirations of the Revolution; a strong leader who could bring order where there was only anarchy and chaos. Napoleon fit the job description and had an army to back him up.
Napoleon’s legal and economic reforms were a mixture of reforms of the National Assembly following the Revolution, reforms designed to placate the sans-culottes, Jacobin reforms, and reforms intended to support his absolute power as an enlightened despot. Let’s briefly discuss these reforms, who initiated them, what influenced them, the means that Napoleon employed to achieve the reforms, and the end result of the reforms.
The Enlightenment ideas of liberty and equality inspired revolutionary France and in 1789, the National Assembly initiated reforms that began to tear down the structure of the Old Regime. These reforms included the abolition of manorial payments and the abolition of the guilds, which caused medieval economic systems to dissolve. The abolition of special privileges of the nobility and clergy, including the abolition of the courts of nobility and the clergy in favor of a standardized system of courts, began the decline of the social order and ended the legal order of the Old Regime. The bourgeoisie aspired to erase the stigma of common birth and demanded equality through the abolition of serfdom, while “the Sans-culottes, according to French historian Albert Soboul, began to realize that a privilege of wealth was taking the place of a privilege of birth. They foresaw that the bourgeoisie would succeed the fallen aristocracy as the ruling class.” They insisted that the government had a duty to guarantee them the “right of existence” (Perry 261). Napoleon endeared himself to the peasants by failing to reinstate the privileges of the aristocracy of the Old Regime when he assumed power. Napoleon demonstrated the enlightened view of Hobbes that “only absolute rule could provide a secure environment for people to pursue individual interests” (Perry 235) by concentrating ruling power into his hands alone. He achieved absolute rule through the suppression of individual political liberty. The result was political stability, strengthening of the state, and orderly government.
Napoleon’s strong central government was run by an effective civil service, “an army of officials, subject to the emperor’s will…linking together the entire nation” (Perry 268). The emperor’s will was circulated through newspapers printed by those willing to swear an oath to him. In his obsession to shape public opinion about himself and his policies, Napoleon ended the liberty of the press, silencing those who opposed his rule. From 1793-5 the Jacobins imposed dictatorial rule and justified, as well as legalized, the use of terror. Napoleon took it even further by wielding instruments of the police state such as secret agents, arbitrary arrest, summary trials and executions to suppress irreconcilable opponents (Perry 268). Being a brilliant military leader, Napoleon saw to it that his armies kept busy. He used war, conquest and military expansion to master the European continent. He fostered commerce by building or repairing the Empire’s roads, bridges and canals. This also had a serendipitous effect of quickly getting his troops where he wanted them. This vast European empire was now under French rule. They needed new, enlightened laws that reflected the reforms of the Revolution while keeping a strong, unified central government. The Code Napoleon, initiated by his officials, was established throughout the empire and began a social revolution that weakened the Old Regime of Europe beyond repair.
Some reforms were concessions given by Napoleon in order to extract support from various political groups. Tariffs on imports and state loans, reforms initiated by Napoleon to retain the favor of the bourgeoisie, stimulated the economy and aided industry. He also continued to support the sans-culotte and Jacobin initiated reforms of increased wages, the law of the maxim, and employment for the poor. Napoleon was no fool; he knew that large masses of peasants who are fed, are happy and do not threaten one’s position with revolution. In 1789, influenced by the desire of the philophes to understand nature and society through reason alone, the National Assembly initiated reforms that moved France toward a secular state. Jacobin rule reversed that trend, and Napoleon made an attempt at a compromise by making an agreement with the Pope. The Concordat of 1801 broadened his appeal with Catholics, peasants and the bourgeoisie. The peasants and bourgeoisie were allowed to keep former Church lands that they had purchased, which allowed them to gain social prestige by owning land. Although the agreement did not designate an official state religion, which was the desire of the Pope, it recognized Catholicism as the religion of the great majority of the French and eased the fears of the country’s Catholics. Napoleon saw no harm to his position by granting these groups their desires, because it solved immediate political problems and he knew that as an absolute ruler he had the power to change it at any time. Over a century later, Lenin used this tactic when the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia (Pipes 44).
Many of the means used by Napoleon became patterns used by dictators to obtain and maintain power. Military expansion, transformation of a free press into a propaganda machine, elimination of critics, suppression of opposing views, political disenfranchisement, creation of offices with no accountability and consolidation of power to one individual are actions that should send up signals of alarm whenever they rear their ugly head to freedom-loving people. And just as in Napoleon’s day, there are those waiting for the right combination of circumstances to unfold that will enable them to seize power over a politically fragmented and economically stressed people.
Napoleon’s reforms were numerous and touched every aspect of the lives of his subjects. Most reforms were initiated by others, so he scores low in originality. Those that he personally initiated served only him and his need to retain absolute power. When it is all said and done, the question remains: Was France better off after Napoleon’s reforms? It appears that most political groups and economic classes were better off. They had better roads, bridges and canals on which to travel, higher wages, more food, better education and healthcare, and greater opportunity. However, there were some reforms that turned off into paths that would set the stage for totalitarian regimes and world wars over one hundred years later. So, was Machiavelli right – did the end justify the means? I do not believe they did. The means used, made for faster results, to be sure. Sadly, the ideals of liberty and equality influenced by the Enlightenment and initiated by the National Assembly following the Revolution were sacrificed for expediency in this case. I hold the belief that human beings have the capacity to learn from the lessons of the past. Our lesson concerns the fertile conditions for the emergence of those who seek to destroy our freedom. The ever-present danger is that “here and now” becomes more important to people in times of stress, and they are willing to barter their birthright of equality and liberty for a bowl of stew as did Esau five thousand years ago in the book of Genesis. “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again” (Angelou).
(Works Cited Available on Request)