The Age of Napoleon


The currents of history run fitfully. At some points they turn sluggish; spreading out into what seems stagnant pools of time, as in the “Dark Ages” of Europe. At other points they appear to rush on, cutting new channels towards the future, as they did, for instance, in the early years of the sixteenth century. In 1789, with the storming of the Bastille, the flow of human events suddenly broke into a rapid which in its swirling, turbulent course had no precedent. For a quarter of a century, ending with the maelstrom at Waterloo, people and principalities were tossed about by forces that shattered the peace of Europe and disrupted its established structure–forces that, before they were spent, reached to far corners of the world with revolutionary consequences.

While the Continent struggled to contain its internal disturbances, in the Americas and in the Indies old empires disintegrated and new ones took shape, new nations were conceived and others were born to larger destinies. But during those crucial years Europe remained the centre of the world stage, and for most of them Napoleon Bonaparte played such a dominant role that, as has been said, the man quickly became the epoch.

It seems impossible to consider Napoleon dispassionately. In his own day he was variously regarded by his enemies and adherents with fear, hatred, awe, respect, admiration, devotion, and even veneration-but rarely with love, even by members of his own family, and never with indifference by any who fell within the range of his influence. Ever since, he has remained the subject of continuous interest and controversy-sometimes cast as a demigod, sometimes as a demon, practically always seen as a figure considerably larger than life. Probably no other mortal has received so much attention from historians and biographers, critics and enthusiasts.

Yet in spite of the prodigious amount of study that has been devoted to the man and his times, there is still little general agreement as to whether Napoleon is more important as a product and symbol- a victim, perhaps- of circumstances that were not of his making, or as a man who, pursuing his own destiny, shaped circumstances that governed the course of history. Like all great men, Napoleon was both, of course; but to a degree uncommon in other great men, he was also an opportunist who took circumstances as he found them and used them to his own ends.. He did not count on luck, but by studied calculations of the risks and by swift decision he countered on mastering luck. By his own confession his ultimate objectives were often not clear. In the final analysis it was his own destiny that mattered, and this he identified or confused with the destiny of civilization itself.

At the moment Napoleon appeared on the world scene the destiny of Western civilization seemed to hang on the outcome of the French Revolution. Chaotic forces had been loosed that quickly brought France to a state of terror and charged much of the surrounding world with excitement and apprehension. But with these convulsive beginnings, Napoleon had little to do. The megalomania that seized France in the years immediately following the Terror was not induced by Napoleon either, but by the impetus of the Revolution and the ideas it projected. Nevertheless, when as First Consul he acquired supreme control of the nation, Napoleon appeared to many as the true child of the Revolution- the embodiment of its spirit and the saviour of its principles.

Neither the Revolution nor the Napoleonic wars completely broke the stream of French tradition. Napoleon’s most constructive accomplishments followed historic trends that had deep roots in the policies of his royal precursors. His Civil Code, his centralization of the administration of France, and the monuments he had raised were but refinements and enlargements of the intentions of Richelieu and Louis XIII, Colbert and Louis XIV more than a century earlier. Even his Egyptian campaign was a long deferred enactment of schemes hatched by royal ministers of the past to secure the “master key to world commerce” and unlock convenient channels to the fabulous wealth of the Indies.

The success with which Napoleon rapidly reorganized the administration of his own country, unified its laws, an reduced its economic confusion was the envy of such other rulers as Alexander of Russia. In achieving those positive ends he was giving reality to ideals of system, order, and efficiency that had stirred the imagination of philosophers as well as that of “enlightened despots” throughout the eighteenth century. That his reforms had to be buttressed, both against internal strains and external threats, by effective military force added stability to a structure of widely approved designs. Such a highly organized, powerful system of bureaucratic control had not been seen in the Western world since the decline of imperial Rome; and France bears its imprint to this day. The impact of these reforms was felt- is still felt- far beyond the confines of France. The Civil Code by which the new government was administered has been termed one of the few books that have influenced the whole world. It was, Napoleon himself claimed, “the code of the age. It not only ordains tolerance but systematizes it, and tolerance is the greatest blessing of mankind.”

That Napoleon assumed dictatorial authority in bringing the Revolution so sharply to order at first caused little enough concern, save in French royalist circles. The men whose writings had done so much to undermine the foundations of the old regime-Montesquieu, Diderot, Turgot, Rousseau, and the philosophes in general- had made no great claims for republicans as such, no more than they did democracy; but to a man they had aimed at a more rational order of society. They sought a formula to express those “natural” principles which, once discovered and applied to government, would assure human liberty and social harmony. It should matter little under what auspices the principles were put in practice, but likely enough it would take a strong man to dictate such enlightenment to a land so long in the shadows of outworn tradition.

So far Napoleon indeed appears as the child of his age, an offspring of the ambiguities that so distinctively characterized the eighteenth century. Beyond this however, he becomes an anachronism, at once a throwback to a vanished past and a herald of times yet to come. The epoch that so heavily felt his influence begins to resemble an aberration of history, a deviation explicable only in terms of the temperament and genius of one man. Over the previous centuries Europe had been partitioned into kingdoms that were in effect private estates of their ruling dynasties, estates conveyed by one generation to another by royal marriages, or should dynastic schemes become hopelessly snarled, by royal wars of succession- relatively “civilized” wars compared to those that would follow. Tradition and circumstance had long established among these diverse states a fluctuating balance of power. That relatively comfortable stability was shattered by the marching French armies which under Napoleon became a war machine such as the world had not seen.

As the citizen soldiers of revolutionary France- mobilized in great masses to serve their patrie- swarmed across national boundaries, the professional armies of tradition were quickly proved obsolete. In self- defense against this new military pattern the rest of the world would have little choice but to follow suit. Warfare was converted from “the sport of the kings,” as it was once called, to the total effort of a people struggling either for prestige or for survival, as world has had continued reason to remember.

In retrospect the imbalance of power created by the sudden rise of French might proved to be an anomaly. The separate traditions of the nations of Europe were so deeply rooted that even the withering blasts of Napoleon’s armies could not long stunt their growth. On the contrary, as it happened, they found new vigour during the passing storms; in the century that followed, nationalism flowered as it never had before. Yet for a decade or more all Europe, from the Urals to the Atlantic and from Archangel to Cape Mattapan was subject to strife and conquest; the fate of all nations lay within the reach of a single individual. Beyond its Channel fortress even England was threatened with invasion. And before this abnormal state of affairs was corrected, the dead would have to be counted and institutional debris would have to be cleared away.

More than a thousand years after Pope Leo had crowned the Frankish king in St. Peter’s, almost two thousand years after Caesar conquered at Pharsalia; Napoleon overcame the emperors of Austria and Russia, who claimed to represent the old and the new Rome respectively. Francis abdicated his imperial title and Europe’s most venerable institution came to its end, and with it an era of world history. The self- styled “Emperor of the French” could hope to rule all Europe from Paris as Caesar had ruled it from Rome. And this he came remarkably close to doing. At the peak of his influence, Napoleon’s international domain included a greater area than the European holdings of the entire empire o Caesar or of Charlemagne.

For Frenchmen who survived them, those were unforgettable days. Even under Louis XIV, the Grand Monarch, France had not known such glory and grandeur, or such power. To the parades of victorious armies Napoleon added the pageant of imperial ceremony on a continental scale. Abandoning the barren Josephine for a Hapsburg princess, he married into one of Europe’s oldest and proudest families. The saga of the little Corsican was up to the turning point of his fortune, the greatest success story ever told.

When his success ran out and a new European balance sheet was drawn up, the results were contrary to almost everything Napoleon had envisioned. England stood firmly at the crossroads of world commerce, supreme mistress of the seas. Russia emerged as an important power in the West for the first time in history. The way was prepared for a federation of German states under the domination of Prussia. The people of Italy were reminded of their own ancient unity. And France remained, somewhat shrunken on the map, at the crucial centre of aroused nationalism and international rivalries.

Along with the divisive tendencies that kept Europe so effectively split into competing national camps went an old, recurrent dream of continental unity- a dream that has not yet lost its power to stir the minds of men. Under the single law and language of ancient Rome, proudly shared by diverse peoples, Europe had known such unity over a period of centuries, a period that was recalled with nostalgia long after the dissolution of the Roman Empire. Again under Charlemagne and during the early Middle Ages most of Europe was united, by a common religion and a common social structure, into a single church- empire that only slowly broke apart and faded away. At other times and in other ways the dream has been revived. The cosmopolitanism of the eighteenth century led toward a cultural unity that was charged with creative energies.

With the Napoleonic age the dream became something of a nightmare. The kind of political unification Napoleon had hoped to impose upon the Continent- if not upon the world- proved to be premature, if not simply specious. His pragmatism in applying what he chose to consider the principles of the French Revolution betrayed the weakness of eighteenth- century philosophy. Goethe stated with more enthusiasm than accuracy that “Napoleon was the expression of all that was reasonable, legitimate, and European in the revolutionary movement.” but, even had Goethe been right, there are loyalties and habits which men will not forsake in the name of reason. Napoleon’s failure to consolidate the Continent in a unified system was in a sense th failure o eighteenth century to redeem itself in the name of reason.

In one of his moods Napoleon contended that the causes of his ultimate defeat remained beyond the reach of either man or reason. “The obstacles before which I failed did not proceed from men but from the elements,” he rationalized at St. Helena. “In the south it was the sea that destroyed me; and in the north it was the fire of Moscow and the ice of winter; so there it is, water, air, fire, all nature and nothing but nature; these were the opponents of a universal regeneration commanded by Nature itself! The problems of nature are insoluble!”

By courtesy:The Age of Napoleon by J. Christopher Herold published in New York by the American Heritage Publishing Company Inc. 1963.


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