History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: Political Revolutions

The Napoleonic Experience (1799-1815) Click here for Audio

Napoleon Bonaparte kept power by evoking the Revolution, the original principles of 1789. He restored the prestige of the Church and the power of the middle-class, but kept both under control.

Napolen was both conservative (in the way he enforced the stability of his own rule) and liberal (in his laws). He was a genius at military strategy. Creating a new nobility based on merit within the army, he defeated much of Europe and created an Empire. He then made two mistakes: arresting the pope (thus alienating Catholics) and attacking Russia (where he lost half his army in the Russian winter). Defeated at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, he gathered an army in exile to defeat England, Austria, Russia and Prussia. Defeated at Waterloo in 1815, he was exiled to the island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821.

His legacy was the spread of the French Revolution throughout Europe, and the establishment of its principles in law. The Civil Code, based on Roman law, instituted the liberal and humanitarian goals of the Revolution: equality before the law, freedom of religion, property rights, and the abolition of feudalism. In taking over Europe, Napoleon rallied the middle classes and common people to defeat their own absolutist regimes. Even after Napoleon's final defeat, as European monarchs regained their power, they had to keep in mind the Revolution and promise reforms to maintain power. Even as these nations fostered a hatred of revolutionary France, they had to create their own nationalism in order to counter it. That changed European politics forever.