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"A warrior is always aware of what is worth fighting for. He does not go into combat over things that do not concern him, and he never wastes his time over provocations."
Napoleon and Europe
Napoleon had been made a general in 1793 at the age of twenty-four. Two years later, he made a name for himself by putting down a royalist uprising in Paris.
The next year, he was given command of the French army of Italy, where he scored victory after victory against the supposedly superior forces of Austria. He returned to France a hero, and even after the coup of 1799, his popularity remained high. He was elected first consul for life in 1802, and two years later crowned himself Napoleon I, emperor of the French. He was to hold that title for ten years, and during most of that time, he and France dominated Europe.
Within France, Napoleon pursued the middle course of the Directory, trying to preserve the major gains of the Revolution while avoiding a return either to radicalism or to monarchy. He emasculated representative institutions, censored the press, put down rebellions, and imprisoned or executed those caught in either royalist or republican conspiracies. He also made peace with the Catholic Church, signing a concordat with the pope and eliminating most of the harassment of the church and clergy that had been unleashed by the Revolution. Perhaps his most enduring legacy was the introduction of a new legal code, the Napoleonic Code, which remains today the basis for the legal systems of France and most of the rest of Europe.
Napoleon formed mass armies and led them into other countries to spread the ideas of the revolution and to enhance his own power and that of France. In 1805, he inflicted a punishing defeat on combined Austrian and Russian forces at Austerlitz, in Austria. The next year, he crushed the Prussian army at Jena, in Germany, and occupied Berlin. At the height of the Napoleonic empire in 1810-1812, France controlled Spain, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, and much of Germany, Poland, Croatia, and Slovenia.
Napoleon was not a revolutionary, but he solidified many of the revolutionary changes of 1789-1791, and he himself supported most of the ideas and proposals of Enlightenment philosophers. Through his military conquests, he spread many of the ideas of the Enlightenment and the Revolution across the Continent. In many of these areas, Napoleon established satellite republics complete with constitutions, declarations of rights, elected legislatures, and civil equality, and he implemented financial, judicial, and administrative reforms modeled on those of the French. In every part of the empire, he undermined feudalism, introduced a legal code, fostered notions of representative government, and awakened the spirit of nationalism.
The peoples of these areas did not exactly welcome French rule per se, but they saw French innovations as tools to be used against their own repressive monarchies. The monarchs, of course, saw Napoleon as a threat, both to the old order and to the balance of power in Europe. Eventually, though, Napoleon’s extensive military conquests spread his power too thin. In 1812, he assembled an army of four hundred thousand soldiers and launched an attack on Russia. Napoleon had changed the nature of warfare in Europe by conscripting huge armies and infusing them with a commitment to fight for France and for “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” the slogan of the Revolution. Almost everywhere, the size and spirit of these armies overcame the better-trained, but mercenary, armies of European monarchs, whose soldiers fought for a salary rather than a cause. But the army of the Russian campaign dwarfed any previous one, and its size posed intractable problems of supply, movement, and logistics. By the time Napoleon’s army reached Moscow, the Russian winter had set in and the city was in flames, probably set by the Russians themselves to deprive the French of shelter from the cold. In retreat, almost the whole French army either deserted or perished from cold, hunger, and guerrilla attacks by the Russians.
Only seventy thousand made it back to France. By this time, Austria, Prussia, and Britain were allied with the Russians against Napoleon, whose military fortunes began to wane. The allied armies pressed on, entered Paris, and forced Napoleon to abdicate, sending him into exile on the island of Elba off the Italian coast. He escaped within a year, rallied support in France, and confronted the allied armies again, only to be defeated finally by a British and Prussian army at the famous battle of Waterloo, in Belgium, in 1815. This time, he was banished to a small island in the South Atlantic, St. Helena, where he died in 1821. With the defeat of Napoleon, European monarchs attempted a restoration of the old order in France. Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI, was placed on the throne, thus restoring the Bourbon monarchy. The boundaries of France were returned to those of 1790. However, the revolutionary genie could not be put back into the bottle entirely. Louis XVIII issued a constitutional charter that incorporated many of the changes that had entered into French life and society since 1789, including a degree of freedom of speech and parliamentary government.
At the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), the four triumphant Great Powers (Britain, Austria, Russia, and Prussia) confirmed the restoration of the old order, with some modifications, and put back in place the balance of power with the intent of preserving monarchical power and maintaining a lasting peace. And indeed, no continent-wide wars occurred in Europe for the next hundred years. But the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars had unleashed forces that would shake the foundations of European society. The first modern revolution occurred in 1789, and the 1792 French republic was the first modern experiment with democracy in Europe; these events have inspired democrats, liberals, socialists, and revolutionaries ever since. Napoleon spread ideas of democracy, liberty, and equality and planted the seeds of representative government all across Europe while causing military destruction and the loss of hundreds of thousands of human lives. Even Russia, which withstood the French attack in 1812, was affected: Russian soldiers who pursued the retreating French armies into France were exposed to French civilization, Enlightenment thinking, and revolutionary ideology. Back in Russia, some of them attempted to establish a constitutional monarchy in Russia, in the Decembrist revolt of 1825. This effort was crushed, but the Decembrists were a later inspiration for the revolutionaries who sparked the next great modern revolution, in 1917, in Russia.
The Napoleonic Code
Before the Revolution, royal law and church law both competed with local level traditions in many French provinces. Napoleon commissioned a battery of lawyers to help establish a uniform code of law and personally played a hand in the project. The code, over two thousand articles in length, institutionalized many of the gains of the Revolution, including equality before the law, freedom of religion, and the rights of property owners. It also reflected Napoleon’s traditional views of the family, which he considered a crucial intermediary between the state and the individual. Napoleon once complained, “Women are considered too highly. They should not be regarded as equal to men. In reality, they are nothing more than machines for producing children.” 2 The new legal code reflected this patriarchal view, with women and children legally subordinate to and dependent on their husbands or fathers and with men assigned control of family property. However, the code also required that inheritances be divided among all sons and daughters, thus ending the practice of primogeniture, which assigned all property to the eldest son. As an unexpected consequence, French couples began to limit themselves to two or three children, so their property would not be further divided.
The Napoleonic Code, applied or adopted throughout much of Europe, is still the basis for the legal systems of much of the Continent, including secular, but Muslim, Turkey, as well as of the state of Louisiana, which was a French colony at the time of the code’s inception. Napoleon himself felt that his code was his most enduring legacy: “My glory is not to have won forty battles . . . what nothing will destroy, what will live eternally, is my Civil Code.
The War of 1812
The War of 1812 between the United States and Britain was an indirect consequence of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. The United States had remained neutral in the conflict between Britain and France, but there was much sympathy in the States for French revolutionary ideals and lingering gratitude for France’s support of the American revolution a generation earlier. Continuing
U.S. trade with France during the European wars prompted the British to blockade U.S. ports, intercept American merchant ships, and “impress” U.S. seamen suspected of being British deserters. The United States declared war on Britain in 1812, although this dispute remained a sideshow for Britain, which was focused on defeating Napoleon. When this finally happened, the blockade ended, as did the impetus for the conflict with the United States, which was concluded in 1815. Many Americans celebrated this as the country’s “second war of independence,” and the lyrics to the country’s national anthem were composed by Francis Scott Key in 1814 after he witnessed the British naval bombardment of Baltimore’s Ft. McHenry.
Beethoven and Napoleon
The German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was also a revolutionary-in the world of music-and like many revolutionaries he had divided feelings about the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Beethoven, himself a republican (favoring representative government), admired Napoleon as the embodiment of the values of the French Revolution and, in 1803, dedicated his Third Symphony to the general. But the next year, when Napoleon declared himself emperor of France, Beethoven became disillusioned and tore up the page dedicating the symphony to Napoleon, renaming it simply Eroica-the heroic symphony.
The way Beethoven wrote music, and the music itself, was revolutionary, and reflected the spirit of the times. His predecessors (including Franz Joseph Haydn and Mozart) had mostly written works commissioned by kings or princes, keeping the aristocratic audience in mind and performing in refined and elegant courts. Beethoven followed his own individual spirit, wrote with a passion and bombast that shocked his audiences, and performed at public concerts that people paid to hear. He took music to the streets. The Eroica symphony, like all of his major works, was a massive and lengthy composition, full of tension, emotion, tragedy, and joy. It was revolutionary music, and Beethoven himself became a symbol of freedom and individualism.