REFORMS UNDER NAPOLEON BONAPARTE
by Nicholas Stark
When you hear the name Napoleon, it’s almost always connected with war. However, there was more to his life than the battlefield; an aspect remains that is too often neglected. A state cannot survive solely on military victories; the river of loot that originally flowed in from conquests eventually runs dry (as it did for the Roman Empire), the land itself becomes too damaged to be of much use (as happened during the World Wars, especially WW2), manpower wanes (such as was the downfall of the Carthaginians during the Second Punic War), and the will of the people to fight cannot be maintained perpetually. Even if you manage to obtain nothing but victories, constant warfare wares away the people’s enthusiasm for fighting. A state needs peace, and more than that, it needs a well-founded and well-run internal structure. This is exactly what Napoleon worked on, and, I strongly believe, is the reason why he stayed in power for as long as he did. This is a look at the reforms in France under Napoleon Bonaparte.
Trying at Peace
‘We make war that we may live in peace'
For a state to be truly prosperous, it needs some measure of peace. Peacetime allows the reigning powers of countries to concentrate more fully on the needs of their own country. Following the Coup of 18 Brumaire at the end of 1799, which established Napoleon as one of the three Consuls of France who held the majority of the power, France was still at war with Britain and Austria. Napoleon saw that the desperate situation of France left over from the exceedingly voluptuary Bourbons and horribly corrupt Directory needed his direct attention, and peace was needed so he could focus fully on it; not to mention the fact that all of Europe was weary of the past eight years of war or so.
Austria, ruled by Emperor Francis I and being one of the greatest military threats to France, was making war mostly because it was being bankrolled by Britain. If peace were first made with Britain, then Austria would be forced, or at least greatly inclined, to make peace as well.
Britain, under King George III and Prime Minister William Pitt, said that it would engage in peace talks only under the condition that the Bourbon dynasty be restored and France reduced to its borders of 1789 (the year the French Revolution began). That was practically meant that they refused to accept that the French Revolution ever occurred. What an absolutely insulting and outrageous proposition that was! For those in the United States who feel that France should have given in to these conditions, consider this: if in peace negotiations during the War of 1812 the British said, ‘We’ll be willing to continue negotiations of peace, on the condition that you return control of all of your colonies to us and pledge allegiance to King George III again,’ would you say that the United States should have given in to these terms? Of course not! The offer was definitely not intended as serious, yet many people have twisted this offer to make it seem that it was instead Napoleon’s ‘designs on world domination’ that made him not give in to the peace conditions laid out in front of him.
The reasons for Britain’s refusal for peace are mainly twofold, one a political view and the other more personal. First, the British government at the time believed in a ‘balance of power on the Continent’ , meaning that one country should not be more powerful than another. This belief was the driving force between any number of Britain’s wars. Post-Revolutionary France had, in their view, broken that balance through its military might. The second reason is sheer animosity. The French and British had an ancient rivalry, dating back to the Hundred Year War, which hurt any negotiations between the two. More than a general hatred, PM William Pitt held a personal animosity for the French Revolution, and especially for Napoleon.
With Britain still in the picture, negotiations with Britain went nowhere. With the French Revolutionary execution of Austrian Marie Antoinette (Queen of France and Emperor Francis’ sister) still fresh in mind, along with the promise of gold from Britain, Emperor Francis was willing to continue the fight. What followed was a French invasion of Italy in May 1800, known as the Second Italian Campaign, which ended with the Battle of Marengo (14 June of the same year), one of Napoleon’s greatest and most famous victories. Austria signed the Treaty of Luneville on 8 February 1801, giving the Duchy of Milan, Belgium, and the West Bank of the Rhine River to France, restoring the Cisalpine Republic (consisting of various Italian states).
Peace at Last
‘We seek peace, knowing that peace is
the climate of freedom.’
- Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Only then, when the very last of Britain’s allies had been defeated, was peace secured. Although Britain was not directly threatened by France due to its superior navy guarding the English Channel, it could not hope to carry the on the war with France by itself. Yes, they had ships, but that hardly helps when your opponent is inland, and their army would not have been near sufficient enough to launch any sort of invasion of France and hope for good results. To top it off, PM William Pitt had been expulsed from government, due mostly to his support for Catholic emancipation in Ireland (he is replaced by Henry Addington). To be fair, the French were not in too great of shape either. Although the Austrians were out of the picture for now, the Russian ruler Tsar Paul I, who had taken a more positive stance towards Napoleon and France, was assassinated in March 1801. His successor was his son, Tsar Alexander I (who has been suspected in playing a part in the assassination), who did not share the same feelings towards the French, and being new to the throne he could not be relied upon. As if that weren’t enough, the British navy was about to strike a blow against Napoleon.
Before Tsar Paul was assassinated, he started an alliance of powers in December 1800 dubbed ‘The Armed Neutrality League’, consisting of: (of course) Russia, Sweden, Denmark, and Prussia. During that year France and Britain were locked in a trade war (where each of the nations tries to prevent any trading with the other), and the latter went so far as to attack neutral ships to discourage trade. This is what prompted the formation the League, where each nation involved refused to trade with Britain and promised to protect each other upon the high seas. Since Britain’s existence depended upon its trade, it was loathe seeing such a League created. The countries involved had all been big supplies to Britain, and this change could wreak a bit of havoc on its economy.
For this reason, a British fleet under Admiral Sir Hyde Parker sailed out to Denmark in an attempt to intimidate them into leaving the League. The response they received was that they weren’t about to give in to the likes of the British. Well, this didn’t settle with the young Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson who was present. He thought that a preliminary attack would do the trick, but Admiral Parker overruled him. Then, in an act of direct defiance, Nelson led a raid on the Danish fleet anchored off the city of Copenhagen on 2 April 1801. Of course he won (he’s the famous Nelson after all!) but it was undoubtedly a war crime, since Denmark was not at war with Britain. The real significance of this event in relations to Napoleon was that he could no longer count upon using the Danish fleet in any future designs on invading England; the Danish fleet was, after all, one of the best fleets in Europe at the time.
With all of this in mind, negotiations for peace between Britain and France began. The marquis Cornwallis from Britain met with the French representative Joseph Bonaparte (Napoleon’s older brother) in the French town of Amiens. The terms of the treaty were that Britain would leave Malta and Egypt and recognize the French gains of the Netherlands, the west bank of the Rhine River, and several provinces in Italy. France for its own part would also leave Egypt, as well as Naples and the Papal States. Ratified on 25 March 1802, this peace was the first real lull in fighting in Europe in a decade, and it was hailed with the greatest enthusiasm. The crowds in both London and Paris were crazed with enthusiasm; as great as this pace was, it would be short lived.
‘Law is order in liberty, and without order
liberty is social chaos.’
- Archbishop Ireland.
Even before peace was secured, reforms were underway in France. In fact, immediately after Napoleon became one of the consuls of France he made a commission under Second Consul Cambacérès to review the law. Their proposals were then sent to the Judicial Committee of the Council of State and to Napoleon himself. To draft the new constitution, four experts were put to the task and deserve special note: François Denis Tronchet, Félix-Julien-Jean Bigot de Preameneu, Jean-Étienne-Marie Portalis, and Jacques de Maleville. Within six months of Napoleon’s taking office, a rough outline of the new Code Civil was released, with new articles being made over the next few years and the complete work published on 21 March 1804. Overall it was incredibly progressive for its time.
While in the drafting stages, Napoleon personally attended at least 57 of the 109 meetings discussing this Civil Code. Despite what several authors have asserted, Napoleon did not always resort to using the full extent of his power to get his way, which is evident in the fact that after all the debating he didn’t get his way on everything. His ideas such as giving grandparents the right to protect their grandchildren from parental abuse and the ‘parental mess-tin’, where if a child was impoverished the parents would be required to provide food for them regardless of the age of said child, failed to make it in.
Nevertheless the Code was a great achievement, based on the principles of equality of all before the law, an end to feudal rights and privileges, inviolability of property, marriage as a civil act (as opposed to religious), and the freedom to choose one’s own profession. It replaced the old mess of a system where the law consisted of numerous regional codes, some 14,400 Royal decrees (often contradictory), and not to mention the fat that the northern France was governed by ‘customary’ law and southern by Roman law. What a complete basket case it was before! The situation that had existed would be alike to each of the states in the United States having radically different laws (of course, only very few significant laws differ from one to another in present day). Just imagine trying to travel from place to place and never knowing what you could get arrested for! Now with this Civil Code, regions were gathered into départments (similar to the system of states in the U.S.A.), allowing for the centralization of the law, which was no longer written in the traditional lawyer jargon, but in a clear and concise manner that could be understood by everyone.
‘Money is better than poverty, if only for
- Woody Allen.
One of the areas most desperately in need of reform was Finance. The value of money under the late Louis XVI had depreciated to such a degree that people had to use wheelbarrows full of franks (similar to the situation of Germany during its depression before WW2) to purchase bread. The situation grew worse during the Revolution when the franc piece was replaced with a new paper money called assignats, which caused the rate of inflation to skyrocket even higher. The Government was so in debt and poorly organized that civil servants and the military went unpaid for long periods of time. That left an impoverished people hungry and starving, and more than that, open for revolt. Conditions were such that if Napoleon didn’t fix things soon, they’d welcome in foreign intervention.
And Fix things he did! He was not slow to act when it came to working out how to fix the debt. To help organize finances in the government, he created two new bodies: the Ministry of Finance and the Treasury. In one of the only wise moves the Directory (the previous governing body of France) ever made, the assignats began to be recalled and franc reintroduced. This was finished under Napoleon, and the affect was that people now had reliable money.
When Napoleon took office, the exchequer contained a mere 167,000 francs, with a debt of 474 million francs. Money was needed, and quickly! To combat this, Napoleon instated a national lottery, which drew in 9 million, and took out loans from bankers worth another 3 million. The next move was to fix the tax collection system, which he did with the help of three men: Martin-Michel-Charles Gaudin, François Barbé-Marbois, and Mollieu. Taxes were being collected by ordinary people who did it as a sort of side job, and who kept little if any records. In this manner they were able to keep large portions of the money for themselves, and corrupt moneygrubbers from within then further diminished what did make it to the government by taking portions for themselves.
The solution: Napoleon dismissed the old system and established a department of 840 professional tax collectors whose sole job was the levying and collection of taxes, and who received a fix income. This way, instead of having to raise taxes, they would be collected properly, and the money would make it to the right places. As an incentive to pay taxes, he promised to name the most beautiful square in Paris after the départment that first paid its taxes in full. This worked brilliantly, drawing in 660 million francs from income tax and public property (185 million more than the old regime under Louis XVI had back in 1788) and the square came to be called Place des Vosges.
To centralize finances, Napoleon instated the Bank of France on 13 February 1800. While taking out loans, Napoleon was disgusted with the fact that he was being charged at times 30 percent interest. Coming from a frugal family, he found such greed criminal, and with this in mind he limited the bank’s annual dividend to 6 percent. On top of this, the public debt was limited to the small number of eight million. In order to make sure that money was being collected and recorded properly, he made sure that each year the budget was balanced and scrupulously checked the money spent by each ministry. Instead of increasing the income tax over time, indirect taxes were raised on a few items over time: wine, playing cards, carriages, salt, and tobacco. In an attempt to help the impoverished, the government bought bread and distributed it to the poor. What was the result of all this? Napoleon’s administration never had to devalue its currency, inflation was stopped in its tracks, the cost of living remained stable, the national debt was eliminated within a year, the government had a balanced budget for the first time since 1738, and poverty was greatly reduced.
Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement
‘Modern science tells us that people are by nature
law breakers or law abiders. A wolf can wear a
sheep's clothing but he is still a wolf.’
- Geoffrey Rush as Inspector Javert,
Les Misérables (1998 movie).
In order to make law enforcement more effective, Napoleon established the préfecture. For every department there was a préfect directly responsible to Paris who ran the law enforcement of the area, supported by a council of local notables. This way each départment could sustain itself and have its own representation in legal matters. The préfects were given a good deal of power to deal of power, and Napoleon hardly ever interfered with them. This system greatly improved the efficiency of enacting the law. To fight off the bands of brigands (which became a real problem in the last few years of the rein of the Directory) and Jacobin extremists, special Military Tribunals were set up in 1802.
In addition to the préfects, in 1804 Napoleon established a system of Circuit Judges based largely off the British system of the time. When it comes to a fair trial, Napoleon supported the idea of a trial by jury. However, the Council of State didn’t share this view, and after receiving a number of complaints of inept decisions made by juries, the Council of State finally dispatched with the jury system in 1808 and replaced it with a chamber arraignment. A much-needed reform was passed on soldiers. In the western world, soldiers were susceptible only to Military Law. Now under Napoleon they were subject to Civil Law as well.
‘There can be no real individual freedom in
the presence of economic insecurity.’
- Charles Bowles.
The basis of the policy in this area was simple: full employment and the opening of large foreign markets. Trade with the continent did increase, but not much with Britain. Political problems between the two countries resulted in a not-so-progressive trading stance. In later years Napoleon would instate a full embargo on British goods, but for now there still was a good deal of trade.
To help agricultural growth, the government sponsored prizes and bounties, opened research institutes, and held exhibitions. In addition, they kept a tight control over grain prices so as to help stabilize the market. The agriculture of France prospered so much that by 1812 it was able to export butter, cheese, and vegetable oils, all of which before the Revolution were imports.
Other areas prospered as well. The wool industry, for example, increased is yield by 400 percent. In the textile industry, exported silks went up in value from 26 million at the beginning of the Revolution to 64 million in 1812. Likewise, the value of imported silks went down during the same time period from 24 to 17 million. On several occasions noted by Vincent Cronin in his biography, Napoleon personally intervened during economic problems. During the crises winter of 1806-07, he personally spent 2 million francs to buy up silks from Lyon, and a further 1 million on cloth from the district of Rouen. More than that, in 1811 he secretly advanced money to pay the weavers of the city of Amiens.
His stance on unions and guilds wasn’t too positive. Actually, he outright suppressed them as ‘Jacobin institutions’. Unions were forbidden, and guilds closely supervised. However, this was not done out of hatred for the workers. In fact, he improved their conditions by modernizing workhouses. Instead, it was out of fear for the mob. He felt, and rightfully so as history later shows us, that the unions would instigate riots and disrupt the peace. His solution was to make the workers conditions better so that they’d have no need for unions. Despite there being no unions, Napoleon encouraged popular welfare. A primitive version of health insurance was experimented around the city of Liège (at that time it belonged to France, although it now is part of Belgium), and several independent ‘benefit societies’ sprang up from place to place.
New Social Hierarchy
‘Every soldier carries a marshal's baton in his pack.’
- Napoleon Bonaparte.
This is one of the most novel and unique parts of Napoleonic France. At this time, all other European countries and even, to a degree, early post-Revolutionary America had a society where privileges were based purely on birth and wealth, except for France. One of the ideals of the French Revolutionary was that there should be no distinction between people as to one being higher than another. However, as Napoleon and the French people began to see, and as is the view of modern Capitalism, there needs to be some distinction. This is where Napoleon added his personal touch. Instead of going back to the system of privileges based on birth, which the public no doubt would have scorned, he instated a hierarchy based on one’s personal merit. This meritocracy was evident through some of Napoleon’s best generals, such as Joachim Murat, André Masséna, and Jean Lannes, who came from very humble backgrounds.
Out of this meritocracy came one of the longest lasting legacies of Napoleon: the Légion d’Honneur, or Legion of Honor. One of the remarkable parts of this award was that it wasn’t a strictly military award, but could be rewarded to men who accomplished civil reforms as well. There are several levels of the award, represented by either a medal or a sash depending how high of a level they were awarded. To receive the award on any level was, and still is, a great honor. There are some stories that a few women were awarded the Legion of Honor during Napoleon’s reign, but I cannot attest to the veracity of such a claim. In present time it is available to both women and foreigners. For example, in early 2007 (February 17 to be precise) legendary American actor Clint Eastwood received the award, along with Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom as well as Canadian Ben Weider of Montreal.
It was at this point that Napoleon used those famous words, ‘It is with such baubles that men are led,’ in response to criticisms that the award was merely a throwback to the ancien régime and could do no good. Napoleon continued, ‘You imagine an enemy army can be defeated by analysis? Never. In a republic, soldiers performed great deeds largely through a sense of honor… I don’t pretend that an honorific order will save the Republic, but it will help.’ He knew, as history well attests, that such awards for valor and achievement can provide a great boost for morale. In battle, men will risk their lives in war for such awards. Even for those who don’t fight for awards, to receive one afterwards as recognition for what they’ve risked and gone through can mean worlds to them. Although they are only ribbon and metal on the outside, they stand for so much more to the people who receive them. The same goes for those in civil positions; people in fields from science to mathematics will work their hardest for a chance to win prestigious awards.
In addition to that award, there were actual titles given out. In 1804 Napoleon established the Marshalate, the highest title awarded, of which there were originally 18. To become a Marshal of the Empire was not only an absolute honor, but it also came with an enormous pension, land, and generally was followed with additional titles. Although in all technicality it wasn’t a military position, the Marshals are best remembered for their military roles, often controlling an army corps. Apart from the Marshalate, there were princes, dukes, counts, barons, and knights. However, these titles were not the only things that were seen as a throwback to the ancien régime, but there was the reinstatement of the court. No longer the Royal court, it became the Consular Court under the Consulate and later the Imperial Court under the Empire. As odd as it may seem, the people actually missed the idea of a court; probably not so much for its own sake, but rather because they were great social gatherings, not to mention that it gave people an excuse to show off. However, the court was but a shadow of that of the ancien régime, and its members were often remarked to have appeared awkward and out of place.
The Will of the People
‘Its name is Public Opinion. It is held in reverence. It settles everything. Some think it is the voice of God.’
- Mark Twain
Unlike the other crowned heads of Europe, Napoleon felt it was important to make sure that everything done was in accord with the will of the people. After the Coup of 18 Brumaire, a plebiscite, or public vote, was sent out, which approved of the creation of the Consulate. Then on 2 August 1802 a plebiscite went out on the issue of making Napoleon First Consul for life. The result: an astonishing 3.5 million votes for and only 8,000 against! Finally, there was a plebiscite on 6 November 1804 on the issue of Napoleon as Emperor of the French, which received nearly the same results; this time only 2,500 were against!
Another move that won Napoleon over with the public is sometimes undervalued by writers. After the French Revolution seized land from the Church and nobility, the people who had just newly purchased and settled on said land feared that the government might retake it. However, Napoleon gave the people his utmost assurance that he would not do such a thing, and in fact he was true to his word. This allowed the people to finally do what they wanted with their land and fully settle in, and they greatly appreciated it, contributing in part to Napoleon’s overwhelming popularity with the people.
Concerning the Nobility
‘Strip the proud nobility of their bloated estates,
reduce them to a level with plain republicans,
send forth to labor, and teach their children to
enter the workshops or handle the plow, and
you will thus humble proud traitors.’
- Thaddeus Stevens.
During the French Revolution, many of the nobles fled the country fearing for their lives and were dubbed émigrés. Taking refuge in other countries, some worked on plots against the Revolution and later against Napoleon himself. Under the Revolution and Directory, any émigrés were to be killed upon return to France. However, when Napoleon came to power, he offered amnesty to those who would return. They would be welcomed as full-citizens and have their pasts wiped clean; however, their lands would not be returned to them, for they were already promised to the people who bought them after their flight (as mentioned in the above section The Will of the People). Although plots from this group would continue, a large number did in fact return to France and become members of the society and, in some cases, the government.
‘The more I want to get something done,
the less I call it work.’
- Richard Bach
Now, I mentioned that with the collection of taxes that a much larger percentage of the money made it to the right places. Well, here is where that comes into place. With more money in the bank, the government was able to launch a series of projects to renovate France. This also fitted in with perfectly with the policy of full employment, since such projects would require a deal of manpower.
If people are to go anywhere, a good transportation system is needed, but more than that, you need a good road system. With this in mind, Napoleon commissioned the roads of France to be paved; the first pavement laid in Paris was in 1802 along what is today Rue de la Chaussée d’Antin. Outside of Paris, roads were blasted through the Alps, through passes of the Great St. Bernard, Little St. Bernard, and Col de Tende. By doing this, it became possible to pass freely between France, Switzerland, and Italy. For the houses in France, a new way of numbering was instated: the odd-even system that’s so familiar to us today. To top it off, in 1810 Paris’ first professional fire brigade was founded.
A large amount of money was spent on roads in France during the Empire, but there was also the matter of the element of water. No biggie though. In the interest of trade, three great seaports were constructed: in Cherbourg, Brest, and Antwerp (at the time it was part of France, although it now belongs to Belgium). To allow water transportation to be conducted more easily, several canals were built to connect rivers across France, which gave it one of the world’s finest water-bound transportation systems.
‘I need to go outside. I wouldn’t say I’m an
outdoors person, but I like to go outside.’
- Edie Brickell
Although in the lists of environmentalists across the ages Napoleon’s name is hardly, if ever, mentioned, he indeed instated several measures that helped the environment. By law in 1811, it became required that all roads capable of being planted with tress must be so, which provided shade for travelers. In addition, he created the Administration des Eaux et Forêts to preserve forests and rivers. When it came to animals, Napoleon opened 6 national studs and 30 dépôts d’etalons, which gave horse breeding a long lasting importance that continues to this day.
Religious Organizations and Freedoms
‘Religions do a useful thing: they narrow God to
the limits of man. Philosophy replies by doing
a necessary thing: it elevates man to the plane of God.’
- Victor Hugo.
Back before the Revolution, Catholicism had been sole official religion of France. Once the Revolution began, that changed completely. Being largely anti-clerical, the revolutionaries took out their wrath on churches, priests, bishops, cardinals, and statues. Streets with the word ‘saint’ or any other religious reference were renamed, and in fact the very calendar was changed. Instead of beginning with the estimated year of the birth of Jesus Christ, it started from 1792, the year the French Republic was first proclaimed. It was this furor that fueled the counter-revolutionary uprising in Vendée. With the establishment of the Republic came the ideal of freedom of religion. However, nothing much was done to quell the hatred for the Church, and less so for Jews.
Despite the feelings from the Revolution, people were beginning to feel a yearning for the Church again. Not so much even for the Church, but for the religion. This is where Napoleon would step in. Although he himself had no set system of religious beliefs, he realized that something should be done to settle things between Catholics and revolutionaries, for the aim of greater stability in France.
Once Pope Pius VII was elected on 21 March 1800, Napoleon approached him to make a sort of peace with the Church. Negotiations did not begin well. The Church was loath to bargain for its lands (a large part of which had been taken during the Revolution) and power back. At first the Pope wouldn’t accept anything less than the full reinstatement of its former position in France. Before the Revolution, the Church held great power in France. In the social order, there were three estates: the king, followed by the clergy and nobles, and then everyone else at the bottom of the heap. Something that many people forget as well is that the Church then wasn’t as it is today, with the pope in the little area of the Vatican surrounded by the ceremonial Swiss Papal Guards. The Church of the day controlled a series of regions referred to as the Papal States, and commanded a functional army. After some time of dead-end arguments, the reality set in with the Church that the French people just wouldn’t tolerate such a thing (their last impression of the Church was of an institution decidedly corrupt and destructive), and discussions continued on more fruitfully.
Pope Pius VII wanted Catholicism to be the one and only recognized religion of France again (unlike today, the Church recognized no religion besides itself). That was no good; Napoleon, an indeed the Revolution itself, stood for freedom of religion Napoleon offered to make Catholicism one of the official religions. The idea of the political power of the Church hierarchy (cardinals, bishops, etc.) being restored was right out. Fine, said the Pope, but then the French state would be required to pay the salary of the clergy. This was acceptable to Napoleon, but on the condition that he [Napoleon] be the one who appoints the clergy as well. And so it was that the Concordat of 1801 was agreed upon, with the following terms:
~Catholicism would be recognized as one of the official religions of France
~ The lands taken from the Church during the Revolution would not be returned
~ The State [of France] would be given the power to appoint clergy, who would then be confirmed by the Pope
~The Pope still maintains the power to depose bishops
~The State would be required to pay the salary of the clergy, who in turn had to swear allegiance to the State
Although signed in 1801, news of the treaty was not released to the public until shortly after the news of the Peace of Amiens in 1802. Regardless, there was great rejoicing over the twin peace with Britain and the Pope. At last the people could return to their Catholic faith! Despite the joy of the populous, Napoleon took a lot of backlash for signing the Concordat. Much of it came from those whom it was meant to please most: the diehard Catholics and extreme revolutionaries. Those Catholics were upset that not enough was given to the Church, while those revolutionaries complained that too much (which in their book meant anything at all) was given to the Church. In addition to them, Napoleon took backlash from the government itself for making peace with the Pope. Apart from those groups, it was an overall blessing. It would help relations with the monarchs of Europe, the Italian states (remember that there was no Italy as we know it know), and Belgium (both of which were strongly Catholic); more importantly, it would rob the Bourbons of their claim that they were the sole defenders of the Christian tradition in France.
What Napoleon did for the Jews has been greatly neglected by many writers, but it is nonetheless an important part of Napoleon’s story. Although the Revolution stood for freedom of religion, which included Judaism, and made them (in name) full citizens, virtually nothing was done to improve their conditions. Their synagogues were closed, the Hebrew language forbidden, and they were barred from many professions. This wasn’t a purely French prejudice; all throughout Europe Jews faced this sort of problem, and in most cases they were confined to ghettoes as well.
Napoleon’s experience with the Jews, according to Ben Weider [President of the International Napoleonic Society], began during the First Italian Campaign on 9 February 1797 in the town of Ancona when he saw that some people were wearing yellow bonnets and armbands with the Star of David on them. Upon inquiring, he was told they were Jews, and were wearing those articles to identify themselves and allow them in the ghettoes at night. At that point he ordered that they remove those makers, he closed the ghettoes, and allowed them to practice their faith freely.
Later, during the Egyptian campaign, when Napoleon captured the island of Malta [12 June 1798], which was ruled by the Knights of Malta, he allowed the Jews there to build a synagogue, something that had not been permitted for several centuries under the religious-military order in place. Further into the campaign, during the siege of Acre, Napoleon a proclamation already written up that would make Palestine an independent Jewish state. Unfortunately for both the Jews and Napoleon, the siege of Acre failed, and the proclamation was abandoned along with it. As fate would have it, it wouldn’t be till after WW2, 150 years later, that the idea presented by Napoleon would become reality. The proclamation was destined to be used in David Ben Gurion’s justification for the creation of the Jewish State.
Under Napoleon’s rule of France, he would still continue to help the Jews. By 1802 the law officially proclaimed that they were allowed to practice their religion just as any other accepted religion in France. The next great step would come in 1806 when Napoleon called together a Sanhedrin, the likes of which hadn’t gathered since the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 72 AD. The purpose of this was to allow them to answer to accusations, and to give Napoleon a better understanding of the situation. On 23 July of said year, 111 rabbis and other Jewish leaders from across France would meet in Paris, and then again early the next year. The result: Jews were to be granted full citizenship, freed of all previous restrictions, and Judaism would become an official religion of France.
As much as this pleased the Jews and Napoleon, they were the only ones. Every crowned head of Europe attacked Napoleon, as well as the Catholics, Protestants, or Orthodox. Even his own uncle, Cardinal Fesh, opposed by saying, ‘Sire, so you wish the end of the world to come with your actions to give the Jews equality as Catholics.’ Attacks cam from inside as well, including from the press, notables, and government officials. Under so much pressure, Napoleon made a regretful choice to limit the newfound freedom of the Jews by issuing the Restrictive Decree, but with the plan of removing the limitations over time as the attacks diminished. Within a month several departments had already lifted the Decree, and by 1811 the Decree was no more. Judaism became one of the three official religions of France (along with Catholicism and Protestantism) and Jews were finally fully free and productive members of society; they were free to live where they please, worship as they will, and work in the profession they desire.
What were Napoleon’s motives in freeing the Jews? Some have asserted that it was purely political. I can safely dismiss this idea for two reasons. First, Jews represented only a small percentage of the total population of France. Secondly, the support of the numerically deprived Jews would not make up for the political backlash from all of Europe. No, the explanation lays in either (or both) his compassion for their plight, or his self professed reason of wishing to make them part of a greater unified France where they can share in the principle of equality and contribute like everyone else.
‘I can’t think of anything to write about except families. They are a metaphor for every other part of society.’
- Anna Quindlen
When it comes to family, the Code Civil reaches one of its least progressive points. To make this run smoother, perhaps it would be best to get over the least pleasant parts best. Within a marriage, the wife was to be subordinate to the husband, who was entrusted with the care of the family. This old-fashioned view can find no real justification; it was nothing but a refusal to abandon an age-old tradition. But other areas saw improvement. For the youths of society, the marrying age was increased: for women the minimum age requirement changed from 13 to 18, and men from 15 to 20. A new benefit was given to married couples: the right to divorce. More importantly, the wife was allowed to register for divorce as well. This met with nothing but hostile opposition from the Church and certain government officials who felt it would destabilize society, but nevertheless it was made legal, with the following restriction: the couple must have been married more than 2 years but less than 20. The rationale was that a set minimum time together would prevent some non-serious marriages that last only a week (as happens in present-day society), and that by the set maximum time together comes, any flaw that would have been enough to warrant a divorce should have been recognized, and would prevent divorce due to one spouse just growing bored of the other.
‘The true conquests, the only ones that leave
no regret, are those made over ignorance.’
- Napoleon Bonaparte
If a state is to prosper, it needs competent leadership and able citizens. For this purpose, a certain level of intelligence is required, which comes only through schooling. So, if you want smart people, make better school systems. This is exactly what Napoleon would do. Under the ancien régime, priests taught elementary levels free of charge, but it was focused only on religious aspects. Under the Revolution, a series of public secondary schools, called écoles centrales (central schools), were opened, but there were few students and even fewer teachers. The majority of good secondary schools were private, which was beyond the means of most people. Unfortunately, with the floundering of secondary education, all universities were forced to close down.
Under Napoleon, all that would change. On the whole, elementary education was left alone, being the responsibility of the municipalities they were located in, and continued to be taught mostly by priests. It was the field of secondary education that he had the most interest in and would do the most changes in. By this point in a man’s education, he had to choose between pursuing a military and a civil career, which would decide the focus of their curriculum. Military education focused on military drills, sciences (particularly physics and chemistry), and mathematics. Civil education focused on language, rhetoric, and philosophy. Either way he chose, he was guaranteed employment in his choice of career.
Those central schools of the Revolution were disbanded, and replaced with a new system of higher education that still exists today in France: lycées. Although there were only 30 of them at first, they were the apex of secondary education, and only the best students could make it in. Rank wise, they were above both colleges (municipal secondary schools) and institutes (private equivalent of colleges), and were meant to be a link between secondary schools and universities. The curriculum focused mainly on mathematics and science, and included courses on language and literature.
As far as women in education were concerned, limited progress was made. They were now allowed to attend school at the elementary level, and their curriculum included learning how to read and write, Botany, history, and domestic arts (dancing, singing, sewing, etc.). This wasn’t done as much out of the wish of making women equal citizens as it was to help them find husbands. This education, as Napoleon said, was intended to produce ‘not women of charm but women of virtue: they must be attractive because they have high principles and warm hearts, not because they are witty or amusing.’
Napoleon’s belief in a centralized and state-controlled curriculum still exists in the France of today. To this end, in 1808 he established the Imperial University, which was the ultimate measure of centralization. All teachers were required to belong to it, and it had control over every aspect of education, including private schools. In addition, teachers were required to swear an oath of loyalty to the state and to Napoleon himself, and promote patriotism in their students. To a degree this sort of thing still exists in the U.S.A today, with students and teachers swearing allegiance to their country daily (although admittedly they do not swear allegiance to any specific head of state) and teachers are required (to a varying degree) to promote patriotism in students. Although one might question the fact that the Imperial University had control over private schools, the decision was actually a bargain on Napoleon’s behalf. It was argued that private schools should be abolished altogether, but by making them ultimately responsible to the Imperial University they were able to be sustained.
If you want to have an educated population, it is also very important to have competent teachers. To this end, the École Normale Supérieure was created with the sole purpose of training teachers. The state, and later the Imperial University, provided a teacher’s salary, in addition to pensions granted. They also were offered rewards for finding and promoting students of special talents, so that those students of exceptional scholastic talent could receive the special training they need to reach their fullest potential. Unlike the modern educational stance in countries such as the U.S.A that the focus should be on students whose performance is especially poor, Napoleon felt that it was more important to promote students more likely to play an active and productive part in society and give France a larger pool of qualified and intelligent leaders.
Apart from these things, there was a project Napoleon conceived that never came to pass. It was a special college containing 30 professors, each an expert in a particular field. The purpose of this institution was to allow any person to be able to come with an inquiry on any scholarly topic and find an answer. It’s hard to tell what the affect of such an institution would have had on modern society, but it’s most interesting to speculate. In the end, this reorganization of the education system was a triumph. The level of learning was able to improve, and the schools were flocked with students.
Censorship and the ‘Fuzz’
‘I’m not against the police; I’m just afraid of them.’
- Alfred Hitchcock
Often I have heard it said that suppression of the press ran rampant under Napoleon, and that the secret police were out of control. There is some truth to both, but there are problems with those statements as well. The press wasn’t censored to any serious degree for the better half of Napoleon’s reign. Over time, especially with the Spanish and Russian campaigns and onwards, in an attempt to keep things under control information was spun and twisted to keep it on the positive side. In truth, Napoleon did not believe in the inviolability of the freedom of the press and felt that a degree of censorship should be maintained. There were several papers that were closed due to failure to comply with the censorship. However, for all Napoleon and the government’s talk of strict censorship, serious measures were hardly ever taken against those responsible, and the papers that were printing the troublesome information found ways to continue to do so even when closed.
As for the police, it wasn’t the secret police that were the problem, but rather the Ministry of Police under the infamous Joseph Fouché. In fact, part of the reason the secret police was instated by Napoleon was to put a check on Fouché’s police. To Napoleon’s disappointment, his secret police wasn’t nearly as effective as that of Fouché. To attest to that, Bourrienne [Napoleon’s private secretary], writes of how Fouché would set little traps for Napoleon’s secret police to fool and show them up, and by the same token proving his own importance and indispensability. It would be Fouché who would abuse his power, having his spies infiltrating salons, shops, and organizations of every sort and concocting false news of conspiracies. However, the arrests and activities that did occur have been greatly exaggerated though time. Yes, there were several cases of crimes committed by the police, but they weren’t anywhere as numerous as they are oft made out to be. They actually provided an overall useful service, turning up several real assassination plots against Napoleon and decreasing outside criminal activity. Having said that, Fouché himself was a duplicitous and treasonous man, and it was under his leadership that his ministry committed the wrongs it did in fact do.
Summary of an Empire
‘To repeat what others have said, requires
education, to challenge it, requires brains.’
- Mary Pettibone Poole
If one were to take a serious look at the reign of Napoleon overall, it would be hard not to be impressed by all that was accomplished. Like all administrations, Napoleon’s had its own set of setbacks, slow progress, and problems. We’ve seen the wrongly used police under Fouché the hardly-progressive stance towards women in the family, and at periodic censorship of the press. On the other hand, the finances of the nation were fixed, religious freedom obtained, and crime put under control. In the end, what was gained through Napoleon’s reforms far outweighs whatever was lost, or simply not improved. Whatever your stance on his military career, his civil career was one of the best in history.
Chandler, David G. The Campaigns of Napoleon. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1966.
Cronin, Vincent. Napoleon Bonaparte: An Intimate Biography. New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1972.
Count Lavalette. Memoirs of Count Lavalette. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1894.
Markham, J. David. Napoleon for Dummies. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2005.
Markham, Felix. Napoleon. New York: New American Library, 1963.
Bourrienne, Louis Antoine Fauvelet de, ed. Phipps, Ramsay Weston. Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte. Online. 4 August 2007.
Markham, J. David. The Revolution, Napoleon, and Education. Online. 3. August 2007.
Markley, Robert. Peace of Amiens 1801. Online.
Reilly, Cameron and Markham, J. David. The Napoleon Bonaparte Podcast #9- Domestic Affairs. Online. 1 August 2007.
Weider, Ben. Napoleon and The Jews. Online. 3 August 2007.
André Masséna; Battle of Copenhagen (1801); Concordat of 1801; French Republican Calendar; Jean-Étienne-Marie Portalis; Jean Lannes; Joachim Murat; Légion d’honneur. Online. 1 August 2007.
All headline quotes, unless noted otherwise are from one of the following sites: