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Napoleonic Europe (1799-1815)

The Consulate (1799-1804)


Coalitions and a Brief Peace (1795-1803)


In 1799, the French government of the Thermidorean Reaction, called the Directory, was foundering. A brilliant young French general, having already won fame with a series of victories for Revolutionary France in Italy Napoleon Bonaparte, was then busy fighting a fruitless war in Egypt. Hearing of the chaos, Napoleon abandoned his army and with geat fanfare returned to Paris a hero. On November 9, 1799 (the month of "Brumaire" in the French Revolutionary calendar) Napoleon Bonaparte and Abbe Sieyes pulled off a coup in France. They overthrew the current Directory and replaced it with a new government: the Consulate. Sieyes and Napoleon both installed themselves as consuls, though the popular Napoleon became First Consul.

A career warrior, Napoleon now claimed he only wanted peace. At the time, Austria was the only continental country that remained at war with France. On June 1800, Napoleon led the French army against the Austrians at the battle of Marengo and emerged with a staggering victory. In February 1801, the Austrians were forced to sign the Treaty of Luneville, reaffirming the earlier Treaty of Campo Formio, which had created the Cisalpine Republic in Italy. The Cisalpine Republic was really a puppet-state controlled by France. On March 1802, France signed the Peace of Amiens with Britain, ending their warring, and briefly bringing Europe to peace, a rare occurrence in this violent period.

As First Consul, Napoleon moved rapidly to institute order in France. He put down rebellions in the French provinces. He created a secret police, led by Fouche. He centralized the government of the various French departments under a system of prefects. To reduce the number of potential revolutionaries floating around Europe, he issued a general amnesty, allowing various exiles, from aristocrats to Jacobins, to return home. Napoleon ended the exclusion of the nobility from power that had been the trademark of earlier post- revolution regimes. He simply wanted the best men he could find, even if they happened to be from aristocratic families. As an example, he took in Talleyrand as his foreign minister despite Talleyrand's aristocratic heritage.

Napoleon was not universally loved, however. On Christmas Eve, 1800, he was nearly killed by a bomb planted by conspirators wanting to restore the old Bourbon line of kings. Although it was clear that the plot had been royalist in origin, Napoleon felt more threatened by the Jacobins and used the event to persecute and intimidate them.

Though unreligious, in 1801, Napoleon signed a Concordat with the Catholic pope. This agreement smoothed over the rift between France and Rome the Revolution had caused, in which the French state assumed control over appointment of bishops and confiscated church lands. Napoleon did not give the property back, but he did make Catholicism the official religion of France, admitting, "the majority of France is Catholic." In exchange, the Vatican recognized the Consulate. Even under this new agreement with the Church, Napoleon upheld religious tolerance, which remained a fundamental principle of French life under his "enlightened despotism."

Napoleon also set about improving and modernizing French government. He wanted government power to apply to everyone equally, legal class differences and hereditary government offices to be abolished, and salaries to be given to his bureaucrats, who were to be selected based on talent, not birth. Napoleon stabilized French currency by creating the Bank of France, and he simplified the tangle of French law by producing the Napoleonic Code.

In 1802, having brought prestige, power, and a sense of patriotism to France, Napoleon was elected "Consul for Life". Monarchy was returning to France. In 1804, Napoleon did away with niceties and started calling himself what he had already been in reality for some time: the French Emperor.


Napoleon was born in 1769 on the island of Corsica, a former Genoan island in the Mediterranean that had recently been handed over to the French. Technically minor French aristocrats, Napoleon's family got him a scholarship to go to school in France. Trained at French military schools to command artillery, Napoleon proved capable of commanding far greater military contingents: after leading the revolutionary army to victory at the battle of Toulon, Napoleon was promoted to general. Next, on the Italian Campaign, in which he defeated Austria and gained territory in Italy for France, Napoleon became famous as a brilliant strategist and French national hero. The government, frightened by his massive popularity, next sent him on the Egyptian campaign. The government stated the reason for the Egyptian campaign as a means to threaten British trade with India, but in reality it seemed mostly a ploy to get the dangerous and ambitious Napoleon away from Paris.

The overthrow of the Directory and establishment of the Consulate marked the real end of the French Revolution. The Consulate was outwardly an institution of self-government, with its Council of Notables and Senate. This bicameral (two house) legislature was largely for show: Napoleon controlled the Consulate. Under his rule, France entered a period of "Enlightened Despotism", or dictatorial rule by someone who really was intelligent, wise, and in many ways looked to the welfare of his people. Napoleon's executive decisions were carried out by his chief agency, the Council of State.

Why was it that the French army was so dominant in this period? Although the "great-man" bias in history makes us want to attribute it all to Napoleon's strategic brilliance, there were other underlying factors. First, the reforms of the French Revolution created a higher amount of equality of opportunity in France than had been seen previously in Europe. The most talented men, rather than simply men of noble birth, now gained power at every level. French efficiency improved as result, as did the population's general enthusiasm. While other nations still fought largely with mercenaries, the French army was a national army of proud and patriotic citizens, who had very high morale and a sense of heroism. At the same time, France also boasted the largest population of any European country: an advantage for a nation trying to build a large army.

Why did Napoleon move to sign the Concordat of 1801, normalizing relations with the Church, when he wasn't himself religious? Napoleon was a smart politician. With the Church officially at odds with France, the clergy (influential with the masses) would become a source of resistance to his government (as could be seen in the revolt in the Vendee during the Terror of the French Revolution). By gaining recognition from the Pope, who was bound to comply since Napoleon's armies threatened the Papal States, Napoleon ended this potential source of conflict.

Though he was a dictator, Napoleon's reforms represented a victory for the goals of the bourgeoisie in the revolution: legal equality reigned; government posts went to the "men of talent"; education increasingly determined people's social status; tax-exemptions based on noble birth ceased to exist, providing more funds for the government, which then engaged in bigger and more ambitious projects. The Napoleonic Code was one of Napoleon's most important creations. After the various governments of the Revolution, French law was a complete mess. Lawyers, not to mention the people, hardly knew what was legal and illegal anymore, since there were so many confusing and conflicting laws on the books. The Napoleonic Code created a single, streamlined system of law, which enshrined the basic tenants of the Revolution, such as the legal equality of all citizens. The code, however, did have some negative aspects: it was harsher than Anglo- American "Common Law" in regards to the rights of criminals (Napoleonic law favored the prosecution and downplayed the "rights of the accused"). The Napoleonic Code also outlawed labor unions.

The other powers in Europe were understandably scared of Napoleon. He was a leader that fought tradition, and, furthermore the leader of the European nation with the biggest population, and which had been Europe's intellectual leader for the past century. Under a more merit-based system of selecting France's bureaucrats and officer, France became especially efficient, powerful, and patriotic. Napoleon threatened not only everything the old regime in Europe stood for, but that regime's very existence.

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