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This year, specifically May 5, marked the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, First Consul of France, King of Italy, Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine, and more. He is famous for his military genius, conquest of nearly all of Europe and short stature.
Who was Napoleon?
After the French Revolution in 1789, which overthrew the monarchy under the Bourbons in France, Napoleon became prominent in French politics in 1795 when he led a force that defeated royalist rebels marching on the National Convention, a legislative assembly in France. He subsequently became commander of the Army of the Interior and then led a campaign into Italy as the commander-in-chief of the Army of Italy, scoring a string of victories before marching on Vienna and causing the Austrians to sue for peace.
After a disastrous invasion of Egypt, Napoleon returned to France in 1799 and overthrew the ruling government, becoming part of the Consulate with two other men; he was, however, the one with real power. His famous Napoleonic Code was made into law in 1804, which guaranteed many of the reforms for which the French Revolution had strived. He also proclaimed the Empire of France the same year, becoming its first emperor.
Napoleon continued his winning streak across Europe, defeating multiple coalitions. He gained territory for France as well as founded various puppet states, even reviving Poland. His downfall, though, began in 1808 when he forced the Bourbon king of Spain to abdicate and installed his own brother. This sparked the bloody Peninsular War, which drained his manpower and ended in a loss.
His greatest and most famous error, however, was his 1812 invasion of Russia to enforce his continental system, a European continental blockade on Britain. His army of 600,000 was diminished to about 10,000 due to the Russians’ scorched earth strategy as well as the country’s notorious winter– both left him without enough supplies for his army. Even when he occupied an abandoned and burning Moscow, the Russians did not sue for peace.
While returning to France, he decisively lost the battle of Leipzig and abdicated in 1814 upon realizing that France was surrounded and out of motivation. He was exiled to the island of Elba before returning to France in 1815 and regaining power, beginning the 100 days campaign before losing at Waterloo and being exiled to the island of St. Helena in the Atlantic, dying there on May 5, 1821, of stomach cancer.
Was He An Embodiment of the Revolution or A Warmongering Autocrat?
Views on Napoleon are split. Some view him as the personification of the revolution, which brought him to power; others characterize him as an absolutist emperor who only sought conquest.
Neil McCarthy, social studies teacher, explained this dueling viewpoint.
“One of the reasons why I love learning and teaching about Napoleon is that he’s incredibly complex…because very often he does exemplify the values of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, like including his Napoleonic Code and beliefs that we’re all equal,” said McCarthy, who continued with the following: “On the other hand, in Notre Dame in 1804, he decided to crown himself emperor, taking the crown right out of the Pope’s hands. There couldn’t be anything more despotic ever in history.”
Susan Theotokatos, social studies teacher, elaborated on just how symbolic a gesture it was.
“The Pope comes to Versailles, and there’s a big throne; he takes the crown from the Pope’s hand and crowns himself,” she said. “This is an important visual, the optics, because he’s basically telling the Pope ‘I’m more important than you, bro; I just took the crown upon myself. I didn’t need you to crown me.’”
The French Revolution started as a result of the actions of the autocratic and despotic French ruling dynasty, the Bourbons– leaders over whom Napoleon was arguably an improvement.
“And I think with some of his codes and some of his reforms that Napoleon did represent the ideals of the Revolution and something better than what the Bourbons had established, but I also think he did take a lot of power to himself and become a new monarch and new dictator and emperor for life,” Andrew Hood, social studies teacher, said.
Napoleon also promulgated the ideas of liberalism, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution across Europe– by overthrowing the autocratic regimes of many countries. He eventually betrayed this ideal, though, and did exactly what the Bourbons and Hapsburgs did– spreading their dynasty across Europe.
“When he was invading to the east, initially he was overthrowing monarchs and bringing his Napoleonic Code, this enlightened document,… so many people, like in Poland and in the German Kingdoms, and so on, Lithuania, on and on, they were happy to see him, to get rid of their despotic monarchs in the short run, but right after that, he began to appoint his own family members, other Bonapartes,” McCarthy said.
Why Has He been Characterized as A Military Genius?
Napoleon is also famous for his sheer military genius, subduing coalitions of nearly all of Europe for nearly 15 years with victory after victory. He redefined the way war was fought with his use of artillery and flanking and the shocking speed of his troops.
“He’s also famous for being this incredible general, something like 58 victories, 58 and 3 [losses], something like that, just remarkable, better than Muhammad Ali,” McCarthy noted.
Napoleon’s troops were also one of his strengths. They were loyal, brave and highly motivated.
“He was also a great leader, speaker; he was very charismatic,” McCarthy said. “He could get his poor French soldiers to march three times as fast as Hapsburg soldiers who hated their king. They were not motivated; they were not like, ‘Yeah!,’ whereas Napoleon, he knew [his soldiers] were fighting for an idea, for the Enlightenment, for the republic, so they had something to die for.”
Napoleon’s soldiers were so loyal that when he returned after his initial exile to Elba and met a French force sent to stop him, they switched to his side.
Napoleon was not perfect, however, as his enemies eventually learned how to counter his tactics. He also invaded Spain and Russia, two disastrous campaigns which ruined him.
“Napoleon got too greedy, just like many great leaders,” Hood said. “They overextend their military, their supply lines. They try to go too far, and maybe disease or misfortune or climate or just failure to keep everyone motivated, that usually brings you down, your hubris, the overconfidence.”
What Were Napoleon’s Lasting Effects on History?
While the Europe Napoleon molded did not last after his defeat, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 redrew the borders of Europe, which affected the 19th century and beyond Europe tremendously. He also left a taste for liberalism in Europe, which was not quenched.
“He inspires a lot of the revolutions of the 1840s– these new liberal movements to try to oust former monarchs in the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, parts of Italy and parts of Poland, too,” Hood said.
Napoleon also caused the collapse of the Spanish empire and subsequent independence of most of their American holdings. His invasion and reorganization of Germany and Italy led to a desire for unification in both these countries. His empire was the one that sold Louisiana to America. Napoleon also pretty much started Egyptology.
Said Theotokatos, “When [Napoleon] went to Egypt, he also brought a slew of professionals with him known as Egyptoglists. And so what he did, and his men that came with him, they really opened up this interest and this scholarship in ancient Egyptian history, artifacts and archaeology.”