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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.