In the history of the world there have been great empires that have risen only to fall. Human history is the history of the great empires that have ruled though the ages. It has always been that throughout the history of civilization, man has tried to win land and in their unending quest for land, they have either suffered humiliating defeats and annihilation or have built the greatest empires of their age. In ancient times the Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great, the Nauryan Empire of Asoka and the Roman Empire all were made by the ruthlessness of man in their quest for power, control, and wealth. By the late 1700’s on to the world’s stage came Napoleon Bonaparte.
” Power is my mistress” the man whose ego collided with destiny. An ego that grew to the size of Mount Everest with each military victory much like that of Alexander the Great before ruled all of Europe for over a decade. In all of history there has always been those who were born destined to reshape the world and leave a lasting legacy. Alexander the Great, Caesar, Charlemagne, and Washington are at the top of the list of individuals who changed the course of history. Napoleon Bonaparte was such an individual. Like Alexander the Great, was one of history’s greatest military generals. He was a risk taking gambler, a workaholic genius but so often a short term planner that at times led to disastrous results. A temperamental tyrant some have called him, but none can doubt his military amplitude and his ability to seize the moment when opportunity came along.
A mathematical prodigy, whose intellect catapulted him into fame and glory for his remarkable military skills at the height of the French Revolution. A renowned reformer but also a ruthless military commander who used the best tactics not only from studying other campaigns from history but utilized his own innovations like the placement of artillery in key locations that proved to be decisive in winning battles. Even today his military tactics are studied at all military schools all over the world. Aside from all his military achievements, like Charlemagne, is remembered for his reforms. The establishment of the Napoleonic Code is the basis that French law is still used today was one of many reforms that Napoleon implemented.
Some historians considered him one of histories enlightened despots but others now consider his accomplishments in a much better light. But, none the less his vision of a unified Europe where France ruled would never become a reality in his own time. The constant rivalries between Europe’s competing powers, such as Great Britain, France, Germany and Russia that would erupt into two world wars a hundred years later always prevented Napoleon’s dream. Eventually after years of conflicts the pursuit of the European Union would emerge. There are some today attribute this to Napoleon’s vision, which included a common infrastructure and a common legal code. Unlike Hitler in the second World War Napoleon and Charlemagne both had a vision of a unified Europe where reforms in place would benefit all.
It was the French Revolution had alienated the government from the Catholic Church. One of Napoleon’s remarkable skills in diplomacy occurred when he negotiated the Concordat of 1801 with the Pope to bring religious and social peace to France. Napoleon appointed several members of the Bonaparte family and close friends of his as monarchs of countries he conquered and as important government figures (his brother Lucien became France’s Minister of Finance). He demanded total loyalty and expected nothing less from those around him. Although their reigns did not survive his downfall, a nephew, Napoleon III, ruled France later in the nineteenth century.
Napoleon was one of the greatest military commanders in history. He has also been portrayed as a power hungry conqueror. Napoleon denied those accusations. He argued that he was building a federation of free peoples in a Europe united under a liberal government. But if this was his goal, he intended to achieve it by taking power in his own hands. However, in the states he created, Napoleon granted constitutions, introduced law codes, abolished feudalism, created efficient governments and fostered education, science, literature and the arts.
When Napoleon became Emperor he again proved to be an excellent civil administrator. One of his greatest achievements was his supervision of the revision and collection of French law into codes. The new law codes, seven in number incorporated some of the freedoms gained by the people of France during the French revolution. These, including religious toleration and the abolition of serfdom. Napoleon also centralized France’s government by appointing prefects to administer regions called departments, into which France was divided.
While Napoleon believed in government “for” the people, he rejected government “by” the people. His France was a police state with a vast network of secret police and spies. The police shut down plays containing any hint of disagreement or criticism of the government. The press was controlled by the state. It was impossible to express an opinion without Napoleon’s approval.
Napoleon’s own opinion of his career is best stated in the following quotation:
“I closed the gulf of anarchy and brought order out of chaos. I rewarded merit regardless of birth or wealth, wherever I found it. I abolished feudalism and restored equality to all regardless of religion and before the law. I fought the decrepit monarchies of the Old Regime because the alternative was the destruction of all this. I purified the Revolution.”
Between 1799 and 1815 the fate of France and Europe was in the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte, the man described by Chateaubriand as the “mightiest breath of life which ever animated human clay’. Napoleon’s ultimate downfall was due to the forces that the Revolution had unleashed and Napoleon accelerated.
Napoleon Bonaparte was born on the island of Corsican who first became an officer of artillery, an unfashionable branch of the army at the time. He did however was able to make the right connections. During the Terror, his friendship with Robespierre’s brother, and his skilful use of artillery at Toulon in September 1793 helped him rise to the rank of brigadier. His cool head during the Vend miaire revolt and his friendship with Barras carried him even further. His marriage to Barras’ ex-mistress, Josephine de Beauharnais in October 1796 put him into the center of fashionable circles. This made it all the more accessible to literally network his way into the French nobility that got him the command of the 30,000 men of the Army of Italy.
Napoleon was very image conscious and had a great flair for publicity much like General Douglas McAuthur did during the Second World War. His published battle reports and his ordres de jour’ attracted popular attention. He once said that “moral force wins more victories than mere numbers.” He also was an excellent actor who could at strategic times appeal to the deepest loyalties’s of his soldiers: “The military are a free masonry and I am their grand master’. “
After the failed Russian invasion the fortunes of Napoleon turned sour. Mainly because of his reluctance to grasp the dimensions of the high casualty rates had on the moral of his army and the French populace growing tired of war which continued to drain the economy. This, while other nations were becoming more fearful of his military threats. Sure, Napoleon was extremely lucky but by 1812 his luck was running out. Due to the inadequacies of his planning in the Russian campaign where over 3/4 of his army perished and the collapse of the treaties that were signed earlier enabled his enemies to regain a counter offensive to once and for all stop Napoleon from achieving complete dominance in all of Europe.
By 1814 after reclaiming power the forces that would ultimately crush Napoleon were already gathering. On the battlefields of Waterloo the great destiny fell. All that Napoleon gained was lost in the heat of the battle of Waterloo. Nowhere in the annals of history has an empire built by one man came crashing down so swiftly and decisively. Who knows what the world would be like today if Napoleon had actually won one of history’s most influential battles.
Even if you think the French leader as more of a despot in the long line of kings in Paris who ruled France, then, who established his family on the seats of European thrones, he actually was different. Even if Bonaparte did not champion all of the ideals of the French revolution. He was still a man of honor. Napoleon was a warrior, but also a man of ideals and law. He believed in the ideals of the French revolution, at least to some degree.
When Napoleon landed on the shores of France after his first exile, the soldiers sent to arrest him openly weep. When Napoleon ripped open his shirt and said either shoot me now or accept me as your general exemplifies the mystic that Napoleon had not only with the military but with most of the French population. This is why many people silently route for him. If Napoleon had defeated Wellington there would have been no world wars in the 20th century. Many historians conclude that fact today. History is what it is though. Napoleon will be forever linked to one of histories greatest military commanders and empire builders.