Napoleon: A Saviour?

By Aleysha Shergill - History Student @ St Hilda's College, Oxford

Napoleon: even for students who have not studied the French Revolution or the Napoleonic regime in depth, the name has many loaded connotations. A similar complexity abounds in the historiography, leading some historians to posit, how true was Napoleon’s claim to have saved France from itself? Early historical writing on the Napoleonic period produced very categorical and binary interpretations of events, while Marxist interpretations focused exclusively on imposing theories of class conflict. This historiographical summary seeks to provide a more nuanced introduction to the redeeming, and, indeed, darker qualities of the Napoleonic regime.


First, it is important to understand the divisions which existed in France after the French Revolution of 1789, the war in the Vendee, and the ensuing French Revolutionary Wars. Napoleon inherited a country beset with internal division and it is in this context that the regime must be understood.


The decree of 4th August 1802 on the Life Consulate amounted to a fresh political settlement and has since become known as the Constitution of the Year X. Historian Jacques Godechot suggests that Napoleon not only surpassed the constitutional authority Louis XVI was given during the Revolution, “he was already beginning to rival the absolutism of Louis XVI” and yet all this was done in the name of restoring and preserving order. Indeed, the Napoleonic regime was a compromise between factions.


One of the most avowed policies of the Napoleonic regime was to ‘rally’ and ‘amalgamate’ the opposition factions of the 1790s under the ‘big tent’ of the Napoleonic state. The regime became a ‘referee’ between political factions as it attempted to reconcile the opposing parties of the revolution. One can see this clearly in those measures designed to pacify many former opponents of the Republic, such as the relaxation of the laws against emigres (mostly aristocrats) and the closure of the official lists of political exiles in March 1800, encouraging the return of hundreds of emigres.


Recent historiography is also generally favourable towards the success of this policy. Whitcombe, for example, argued that the creation of the prefectoral corps “was one of Napoleon’s greatest administrative achievements.” Importantly, he argues that historians often fail to truly examine what proportion of the corps were recruited from each class and how these proportions changed over time. From 1807 to 1814, for example, he argues that the proportion of nobles increased by only 5%. Hence attempts to impose class-conflict theory on the Napoleonic regime are pointless since attempts to fuse the bourgeoisie of the Revolution with the nobility of the ancien regime were largely successful. This suggests that the Napoleonic administration was able to dampen the factionalism that had caused many to deflect to the royalist armies bordering France.


Napoleon’s claim to have saved France from itself is also supported by his approach to religion under the Consulate. Demonstrating the conciliatory side of the Consulate was the settlement with the Church, encapsulated by Bonaparte’s pragmatic view, “no church, no government”. Napoleon was convinced that the promise of greater religious latitude would pacify rebellion in western France. To avoid creating disputes between Catholics and Protestants, in the final version of the agreement between Napoleon and the Pope in 1801 (the Concordat) Catholicism was simply described as “the religion of the great majority of French citizens.”


However, it is also important for any discussion of the Napoleonic regime to acknowledge the divisions Napoleon created himself. Napoleonic conscription, for example, paradoxically weakened the regime and generated new waves of resistance within France, becoming an obstacle to reunification and the re-establishment of order. By 1806 the policies and apparatus were in place for routinized, bureaucratic conscription and historians emphasise the resistance to the principle of universal military obligation. Draft revision, for example, formed a reservoir of cheap labour for the wealthy who sheltered these men from the paramilitary. Even when large numbers were arrested, desertion, according to Woloch, continued to increase. Even the reduction of draft evasion for some historians should not be seen as a success for the regime but as a mutation in behaviour, rather than in attitude, for conscription remained unpopular.


Moreover, it is possible to conclude that Napoleon was committed to the reestablishment of order and we must accept evidence of a functioning coalition in government. However, one must bear in mind the strain conscription placed on the regime and the opposition it generated. Many more arguments can be made when we look at the Napoleonic Empire, such as the reintroduction of slavery in the Antilles in 1802, where it had initially been abolished in 1794.


Further reading:

  1. E.A. Whitcomb, ‘Napoleon’s Prefects,’ American Historical Review

  2. Howard G. Brown, ‘From Organic society to Security State: the war on brigandage in France, 1797-1802,’ Journal of Modern History

  3. Isser Woloch, ‘Napoleonic conscription: State Power and Civil Society,’ Past & Present

  4. Alexander Grab, 'Army, State, and Society: Conscription and Desertion in Napoleonic Italy 1802-1814,' The Journal of Modern History

  5. Martyn Lyons, Napoleon Bonaparte and the legacy of the French revolution (1994)

  6. Jean Tulard, Napoleon, the myth of the saviour (1985)