Napoleonic Empire Research Paper

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The Napoleonic Empire (1799–1815) was the largest, most politically uniform state Europe had seen since Roman times, and it laid the foundation for many fundamental institutions of modern Europe.

When Napoleon Bonaparte became First Consul and head of the French state in November 1799, France had already been at war with the great European powers since 1792 and had acquired several adjacent territories as a consequence. Thus, the First French Republic, founded with the overthrow of Louis XVI in August 1792, had already become an empire by 1799. In 1795, France annexed the Austrian Netherlands, present-day Belgium, turning them into French departments governed from Paris under French laws and institutions. In 1797, they did the same with the all the areas of the Holy Roman Empire—now Germany—on the left (western) bank of the Rhine. In 1795, the United Provinces, the modern-day Netherlands, was renamed the Batavian Republic under a puppet government. In 1796, Napoleon created a “satellite republic” in northern and central Italy with himself as its president—the Cisapline Republic—and its capital at Milan. In 1798, occupying French armies set up the Roman and Parthenopian republics over the Papal States and the mainland parts of the Kingdom of Naples, respectively, in southern Italy, and the Helvetic Republic in present-day Switzerland; the first two lasted only a few months, and were soon overthrown by an internal revolt; the third is still the official name of the Swiss Confederation. Until a series of military reverses in 1799, France effectively controlled most of western Europe.

The Creation of the Inner Empire, 1800–1805

Napoleon’s first task was to recapture these territories from the Austro-Russian coalition and reestablish French hegemony in one form or another. This he did in a series of well-coordinated military campaigns in 1799 and 1800. By 1801, a general peace had been concluded with all the major powers, culminating in the Peace of Amiens with Great Britain in March 1802. Although Britain and France were soon at war again, France did not return to war with the continental powers until 1805, allowing Napoleon time to consolidate his rule in France itself, in northern and central Italy, and in the Low Countries. Simultaneously, Napoleon cultivated the larger states of western and central Germany within the Holy Roman Empire, winning them over from their traditional allegiance to the Hapsburg emperors with promises of territorial growth at the expense of the tiny imperial states and greater control over their states if freed from Hapsburg domination.

By 1805, the Napoleonic Empire is best expressed as a power bloc, a hegemony, over most of western and southern Europe. This hegemony was exercised in three different ways. The left bank of the Rhine, modern Belgium, and northwestern Italy were annexed directly to France; satellite states were recreated in the Netherlands and north central Italy; the rest of western Germany was the preserve of states closely allied to France: Nassau, Baden, Bavaria, and Wurttemberg chief among them. These territories became deeply imbued with core French institutions, either by their direct imposition or through free but conscious imitation. These were principally the Civil Code, which guaranteed open trials and equality before the law, and the centralized state based on prefects—civil servants appointed by the central government— and departments, the units they administered. The satellite states received constitutions modeled directly on that of France, which created a strong executive and a centralized bureaucracy; everywhere, local laws, weights and measures, currency, and administrative structures were replaced by those developed by the French revolutionaries since 1789. This also meant the abolition of the vestiges of feudalism, of provincial and noble privileges, and the confiscation of the properties of the church. To be within the French Empire meant joining a uniform, standardized political system; the old orders were swept away in every area the French took under their definitive control. Taken together, the areas under Napoleonic hegemony before 1805 became an “inner empire,” the true core of Napoleonic power. Here, French public institutions and legal and administrative practices were readily assimilated, at least by the local elites, and usually endured after Napoleon’s military eclipse and fall in 1814–1815. This was crucial for the future development of Europe, because the embedding of the Civil Code and the centralized state laid the legal and institutional foundations of many western European states.

These reforms were aimed primarily at increasing state power, and that new power was enforced by the creation of the gendarmerie, a paramilitary police force mainly devoted to patrolling the countryside. Particularly after 1805, when large-scale war erupted again in Europe, this new force was used primarily to impose mass conscription and heavy taxation on peasantries for whom central authority had been a mere shadow before Napoleonic rule. Even in the more stable period of peace, 1800–1805, the arrival of the new state came as a traumatic shock. Much of southern and western France remained under virtual martial law in these years; northern and central Italy saw widespread, if localized, peasant revolts; very traditional forms of local justice and government, based on arbitration, were expunged from rural parts of the Rhineland for example. Independently, the German princes met similar opposition within their own borders. Some aspects of Napoleonic rule, such as the religious settlement or the ruthless imposition of conscription, were never really accepted outside France, or over much of the south and west of France itself.

Nevertheless, the propertied classes, which also included much of the peasantry, benefited from the higher levels of law and order brought to the countryside by the gendarmerie, particularly by wiping out banditry. Justice became quicker and cheaper to obtain under the Code than in the past, and was administered by an honest, professional magistracy. The fair and equitable reparation and administration of property taxes was largely achieved by the compilation of accurate land registers (the cadastre), although indirect taxes became very high under Napoleon. The prefects proved able and honest local administrators, all of which left a deep, favorable impression on the elites of Western Europe, even among those politically opposed to Napoleon.

Democratic politics, however, formed no part of Napoleonic rule. The western European experience of the new Napoleonic state did not include meaningful representative, parliamentary government. Also, as the core of the Napoleonic Empire took shape, that core was not wholly French. Many non-French areas, particularly the allied German states, the Rhineland, the Low Countries, and northern Italy, absorbed French institutions and proved better sources of taxes, conscripts, and administrators than western or southern France, where resentment of the revolutionary reforms of the 1790s persisted. When the empire expanded through war from 1805 onward, these areas came to form an “inner empire” around the new territories to the east and south.

By 1805, the Napoleonic Empire had emerged as a direct challenge to other European empires in several senses. Its territorial expanse and the material and human resources it controlled made it an obvious military threat and a regional power of the first order, at least in western and central Europe. At a more structural level, its compact territorial nature and, above all, its centralized, uniform administrative system marked it out as very different from the looser, more arbitrational imperial model of the Holy Roman Empire and of the Hapsburg monarchy. On one level, Napoleon now chose to imitate his rivals; on another, they chose to imitate him. In December 1804, Napoleon crowned himself “Emperor of the French,” and according to the new constitutional formula, “the French Republic was entrusted to a hereditary dynasty” (quoted from the coronation oath). In line with this, the Italian and Batavian Republics became kingdoms, the former under Napoleon but effectively ruled by his stepson, Eugene de Beauharnais, the latter under his brother, Louis. However, the real changes in the European order came in the years immediately following the creation of the empire. Fearing that the change of title heralded an attempt by Napoleon to become Holy Roman Emperor, the Habsburg emperor, Francis I, dissolved this ancient institution, and henceforth styled himself Emperor of Austria. In the same spirit of suspicion about Napoleon’s ambitions, Austria soon joined with Britain and Russia in a new coalition against Napoleon. They were crushed by the French in a lightning campaign in 1805, and when Prussia and Russia attempted to fight on, they were defeated in a series of campaigns in 1806–1807 that took French armies into Russia itself.

The “Grand Empire,” 1805–1814

This round of victories altered the shape of the empire and of Europe as a whole in dramatic, unexpected ways. In 1805, Napoleon seized the southern Italian Kingdom of Naples, placing his brother Joseph on the throne in place of the Bourbons. The states of western and southern Germany were linked together in the Confederation of the Rhine, with Napoleon as its “Protector,” thus providing a new kind of political “umbrella” to replace that of the Holy Roman Empire; territory seized from Prussia and Hesse-Cassel in north central Germany became a new Kingdom of Westphalia, under Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome. Further east, following the Treaty of Tilist, with Czar Alexander I, a new state, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, was created from the Prussian parts of Poland. Napoleon annexed Tuscany and the Papal States, in central Italy, in 1809, and the North Sea coast of Germany, between the Kingdom of Holland and Denmark, in 1811. After 1805, the Napoleonic Empire was no longer a purely West European state system, but a pan-European Empire. Territorially, the Napoleonic Empire reached its height in 1811. Its own departments, ruled directly from Paris, numbered 130, embracing 44 million inhabitants; when the satellite kingdoms and the Confederation of the Rhine are added, the “Napoleonic hegemony” contained over 80 million people. Appearances are deceptive, however. The territories acquired in this second phase of expansion proved less ready to accept the set of laws and administrative institutions that defined the Napoleonic imperium than those regions under its control up to 1804. Feudalism was much more powerful in northern Germany, southern Italy and, especially, in Poland, than elsewhere in Europe, nor was the principle of religious toleration readily accepted in many of these regions. Thus, the Civil Code was never fully implemented in many of these areas. Although they became important sources of conscripts for the armies and for supplies, these regions came to represent an outer empire, which never properly absorbed the essence of Napoleonic rule, although the Grand Duchy of Warsaw remained politically very loyal to Napoleon, personally, for having restored its independence. Spain was never really under Napoleonic control, and its resistance proved an important springboard for the British to relaunch the war against Napoleon effectively in 1808, several years before Napoleon’s military power was smashed in the 1812 campaign against Russia. By 1814, the “Napoleonic adventure” was effectively over.

The empire’s administrative and legal uniformity was not mirrored in Napoleon’s economic policies. To defeat Britain by economic means, Napoleon imposed a blockade along the imperial coastlines, which proved largely ineffective. His “Continental System” was a series of treaties erecting customs barriers protecting France from all European competition, even within the empire, creating a “one-way common market.”

The Napoleonic Legacy

Napoleon’s hegemony over Europe was brief; in some regions, it lasted only three years. Nevertheless, his reforms exerted a lasting influence on how the states of western Europe were governed henceforth. Although the Congress of Vienna, which reorganized Europe after Napoleon’s fall, reordered the borders of states to a considerable degree, Napoleonic administrative institutions and, above all, the Civil Code reemerged sooner, rather than later, as basis for civil government in what had been the inner empire, and would become the historic core of the modern European Union. Later, the centralized, culturally uniform model established under Napoleon became the guiding principle of French overseas imperialism, starting with Algeria in 1829 and spreading across much of Africa and Indochina in the late nineteenth century. The legacy of the Napoleonic Empire in European and imperial history is less in Napoleon’s transient military exploits than in the durability of his civil reforms.


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