You Say You Want a Revolution?
France – Revolution to Napoleon – 1700 > 1850
When the American colonies ripped themselves away from the grasp of the British Empire, it registered as merely a blip on the world’s radar. These newly created United States were no more than a baker’s dozen of frontier settlements clustered between the Atlantic Ocean and the vast unknown of the western territories. Sure, it was fairly impressive that this plucky little band of upstarts dared challenge the might of the British army, but at the time, few in Europe actually worried that this American model might in any way upset the social and political status quo of the continent. The American Revolution caused little concern.
But the French Revolution? That definitely made the monarchs of Europe sleep a little less soundly.
By the mid-18th century, France was the preeminent nation in Europe. It was the big boy on the block. It housed 28 million people, making it the third most populated country in the world behind China and India. Its colonial holdings spread across five continents, from the Mississippi basin in the Americas to the southeast coast of India. More important than territorial holdings was its cultural influence.
All eyes looked to France to see how to dance, how to dress, what to eat, what to watch, what to think. French was the language of diplomacy. Any educated man spoke French. The greatest literature and enlightened thought was written in French. Their monarchy was the crown jewel of the Western kingdoms. King Louis XVI’s palace at Versailles was the model all others tried to imitate. France was the greatest nation of Europe. In 1785, revolution wasn’t on even the most subversive tongue. No way. It could never happen. France was too big to fail.
But it did. In less than 25 years, the monarchy that had ruled for close to a thousand years was overthrown and a new social and political order completely reversed centuries of unchallenged order. Like with the Industrial Revolution in England, looking back, it seems the writing was on the wall; all the causes were right there if someone would have just taken the time to look. But in reality, the revolution never started with any radical changes in mind, but gradually transformed into something out of anyone’s control. Some might even argue that it wasn’t so much the demands of the revolutionaries that plunged France into the abyss, as it was more the exaggerated reactions of the counter-revolutionaries that turned what could have merely been a modification of a system of government and class control into a wholesale bloodbath.
Although France appeared the model to every realm from Belgium to Russia, beneath the glittering façade of Versailles and the majesty of the nobility rested serious problems that needed to be solved. The French class structure, the ancien regime, had defined everyone’s role in society for over three hundred years. Under the ancient regime, the nation was divided into three classes, or estates – the First Estate (the clergy), the Second Estate (the nobility), and the Third Estate (everybody else). The First Estate numbered to about 130,000, consisting of priests, bishops, monks and nuns. Although the smallest in size, they were the nation’s greatest landholders (over the years inheriting the vast tracts of lands bequeathed to them by the soon-to-be dead hoping for some preferential treatment in the afterlife). The Second Estate numbered around 600,000 and was made up of both the Nobles of the Sword (who could date their pedigree back hundreds of years to the wars of the cross) and the Nobles of the Robe (who had recently bought their way into nobility and who filled all major government positions). The Third Estate was the rest (about 27 million) of the nation – the bakers, the farmers, the doctors, the lawyers, the bankers, the merchants, the man in the factory and the man walking the street. They were separated by wealth, region, education and behavior. Some of the lowest members of the Third Estate lived in horrific squalor, barefoot in the countryside, using the medieval tools of their distant ancestors. Others resided in the glorious urban mansions of Paris, products of a fledgling Industrial Age (more to come in a couple chapters) that made millionaires out of entrepreneurs willing to risk their wealth. Yet, they were all united by one trait – the bitter reality that they were not members of the First or Second Estate. This distinction meant that they alone had to pay taxes and they alone were not privy to the privileges of the higher class – they couldn’t be officers in the military, they couldn’t hunt, they couldn’t wear a sword, and in a court of law, if they were arrested, they were tried and punished by a different set of standards. The Third Estate was below the Nobles and the Clergy, and no matter how much wealth they ever attained (and some even got richer than the members of the other two estates), they remained inferior.
Although this state of inequality caused frustration, it didn’t cause revolution. This was brought on by a financial crisis. France was in debt. France was on the verge of bankruptcy. After decades of war against England, including the most recent financing of the American Revolution, the federal coffers were nearly empty. This situation wasn’t aided by the existence of Versailles, the king’s palace. Built initially as a summer hunting retreat for the royal family, King Louis XIV eventually transformed it into a palatial residence of over 700 rooms, able to house close to 20,000 people at a time. King Louis liked to keep his enemies close, so from time to time, he would invite the nobles of the realm to stay as guests in his home – both to keep an eye on them, but also to make sure they realized who really had the power (the man who owned the 87 million square foot palace). The keepers of Versailles then not only had to pay to keep the bushes trimmed, the fountains flowing and the floors clean, but they also had to see to the every whim of the pampered royalty. This cost a fortune. In today’s dollars, you couldn’t even put a price tag on its construction and maintenance fees (probably somewhere around $2 billion), but in looking at the state budgets of the 18th century, the feeding, housing, caring for and pleasuring of all the residents could take anywhere from 5 to 15% of the nation’s annual expenditures.
The economic straits weren’t alone caused by the financing of some ill-advised wars (though the United States was pretty thankful for the help) and the bankrolling of the king’s swanky palace, the biggest issue was that the groups most able to pay, the groups with the largest landholdings, these were the groups actually exempted from paying taxes. It’s not that they paid less tax. They paid no tax. France could never hope to escape their financial dilemma if they didn’t increase their revenue stream, and the Third Estate was all tapped out. You just can’t get blood out of a turnip (with the Third Estate playing the role of the turnip in this extended metaphor). Every finance minister Louis XVI appointed came up with the same recommendation – tax the nobility and the clergy. These recommendations posed a couple problems. Not only did the upper estates vehemently resist any attempts to alter their status, but even more important was that the more the finance ministers publicized the predicament, the more the masses hyper-scrutinized the affairs of the state. In an age where scores of newspapers were launched every year, the spindrift ways of the royal family became fodder for the urban dailies. Whereas for a century, a rare few might have whispered about the happenings at the Chateaux de Versailles, now hundreds of thousands openly questioned the expenditures of the royal family.
When in 1788 the First and Second Estate were once again strongly advised that they would need to reluctantly embrace the need for universal taxation, the nobles and clergy made a choice they thought would settle the issue once and for all, but instead opened a Pandora’s Box that could never be closed. They dug deep into their bag of tricks and suggested a reconvening of the Estates General, an archaic, seldomly-used assembly of the three estates that hadn’t been called since 1614. The king acquiesced, setting the date for assembly for 1789. Both sides thought this meeting could only benefit their cause. Even though the Clergy brought 300 delegates and the Nobles brought 300 delegates and the Third Estate brought 600 delegates, because each estate only counted for one vote, the upper estates believed they would win any vote 2-1. And the king was equally cocky, thinking his presence alone would awe everyone into supporting any royal mandate. They all didn’t account for one group – the Third Estate.
In the summer leading up to the Estates General, each region selected a representative to send to Versailles. As important as the delegates chosen (which were almost always lawyers or the most competent speakers in the towns) was the creation of a list of complaints. Any leader knows you rarely want to ask your minions if they see any problems. Chances are they do, but once you get the ball of complaints rolling, it’s hard to stop the momentum. The delegates started recording all of these grievances in what became known as the cahiers de doleances, and as each new topic was introduced and circulated, hope rose amongst the voiceless that change may be possible. When the doors to the Estates General opened on May 5, 1789, what entered wasn’t merely a group of awed members of the lower class excited to just be invited. What entered was a body of the oppressed, impatient to be heard.
Everyone entered, the King arrived and the minister of the proceedings jumped right to the topic of taxation. But the Third Estate didn’t flinch. They wanted to discuss the issue of representation, but more specifically, the issue of voting power. They didn’t want to meet separately (by “order”) with each group casting one vote. They wanted to meet together, each casting a vote by delegate (by number of “heads”). This suggestion posed a bit of a problem as the Third Estate alone had 600 heads, equal to the combined total of the Nobility and Clergy. As tensions rose and no resolution to this voting issue appeared possible, King Louis XVI terminated the meetings. Or so he thought. From a distant corner of the room, one man (the scandal-prone journalist Mirabeau) stood up and proclaimed he would “not leave except at the point of a bayonet.” The crowd was shocked. Didn’t this mere mortal get the memo? You’re not supposed to disagree with the King. He was God’s chosen one. But Mirabeau had spoken, and the gauntlet had been set. The King could cower and acquiesce yet again, or he could respond with force. He chose the latter.
In the next five months, France would implode. First, the Third Estate called itself the National Assembly and invited anyone from the First and Second Estate to join them. Seeing the writing on the wall, a few liberal clergy and enlightened nobles crossed party lines and joined this newly created governing body. Seeing the sides starting to unite, Louis panicked, locking them out of their meeting hall, to which the arriving delegates merely found the largest nearby meeting place (an indoor tennis court) and resolved they would not disband until they wrote a new constitution. Louis, seeing that this could turn violent quickly, ordered his army to protect Versailles from seemingly inevitable chaos. Meanwhile, 20 miles away in Paris, hearing of the rebellion of wills in the king’s palace, Parisians drew more frustrated over a condition closer to their hearts (well, actually, close to their stomachs). The recent bread harvest had been less than impressive, and the price of bread had skyrocketed to nearly 80% of a worker’s daily income. Just for bread. As the city rumblings increased, so did Louis’ military force. Parisian mobs of mothers and laborers started fearing the worst, that Louis’ troops would descend on them, adding further oppression to their already miserable state. If a showdown was what the king wanted, they would need to arm themselves.
On July 14, 1789, a mob of close to a thousand Parisians stormed the Hotel des Invalides (once a military hospital, but also a storeroom of weapons), stealing cannons and muskets. They then headed to the Bastille, a medieval fortress that had over the centuries become a prison for anyone who dared oppose the king. After hours of back and forth cannon volleys, the governor of the Bastille agreed to discuss terms with the mob. Possibly not understanding what a truce meant, the mob promptly stormed through the gates, stole whatever gunpowder they could find, cut off the governor’s head with a pocketknife and paraded it around Paris. So what was the fruit of the mob’s little outburst? They freed seven prisoners (two of which would later be sent to an insane asylum, four of whom were in for petty crimes and the last who was sent to prison by his parents), they added a bit of ammunition to their stockpile and they killed a few of the king’s soldiers. But like the Boston Massacre that killed a grand total of five men, the Bastille’s magnitude couldn’t be truly judged until the papers spun the tale. Within a week, the stories circulated that the people had spoken and that the symbol of tyranny had been destroyed. The line had been crossed. The king’s faithful children no longer unconditionally loved their father. Shots had been fired. The revolution had started.
All across France, the story of the Bastille fed people’s imaginations. Everyone then wondered – what would the King do next? He must have his revenge. Mustn’t he? New rumors popped up that the King was assembling all the lords and clergy to put down the Third Estate. July and August became the months of the Great Fear, where peasants across the countryside wondered if they would soon pay the price for the actions of the Parisian mob. Deciding to not wait to be attacked first, many of these peasants seized the moment to ransack the property of the landed and the religious. The Great Fear became the great opportunity to randomly murder people who once slighted them and possibly burn down their houses along the way. Churches were destroyed, lords were pulled out of their homes in the middle of the night and mutilated, courthouses were raided and property claims were destroyed. All across France, the nobles and the clergy feared for their lives. Some stayed, hoping to survive the chaos. Others got out as soon as possible. These émigrés fled to the safety of neighboring kingdoms, hoping to return once their world came to its senses. Many never returned.
Spurred on by the actions of the Parisian mob, the National Assembly sped into overdrive. Within two months, they passed laws that wholly transformed French society. Well, maybe not yet. In 1789, they were merely a series of well-intentioned ideas brainstormed by an assembly reared on Enlightenment ideals and infused with a self-assurance that they should take this extraordinary moment and see what they could pull off. In August, they penned the aptly named August Decrees that outlined 19 principles including the abolition of 1) feudalism, 2) a lord’s right to administer trials, 3) the forced payment of tithes (10% taxes) to the church and 4) legal exemptions granted to nobility and clergy. They even dealt with some less momentous issues like the caging of pigeons during off-hunting season and the singing of patriotic songs while in church. A few weeks later they signed the Jefferson-inspired Declaration of the Rights of Man. The Declaration of Rights was more like the American Bill of Rights. It said you could say whatever you want, write whatever you want and practice whatever religion you want. No matter your birth or your status, your property would be protected and in the eyes of the courts you would be treated the same as others. And lastly, it said the power to rule didn’t come from God and it didn’t come from the royal family. The power to rule came from the people. Anyone who might climb to the top of the ruling hierarchy did so by the pleasure of the people. Should you anger these people, should you not protect their rights, you would no longer be needed. Louis’ grandfather King Louis XIV once allegedly (and arrogantly) said, “I am the state” - but a century later the people could finally proclaim, “No…actually, WE are the state.”
But still Louis XVI would have none of this. All the National Assembly’s posturing and proclamations were nothing but mere annoyances to him. Who was this National Assembly anyway? A bunch of people from the Third Estate coupled with a few noble and cleric traitors who decided to switch to the dark side? All this so-called National Assembly was doing was writing down a bunch of pie-in-the-sky ideas that no one would ever enforce. It’s one thing to write down a bunch of so-called laws or rules. It’s another thing to actually execute them, and as far as King Louis XVI was concerned, he was the only one with the authority to enforce anything. And he had no intention of implementing any of these notions.
Until the women got angry. On the streets of Paris, women were getting ticked off. A series of poor harvests meant the price of bread reached ridiculous levels. Unlike the British across the channel, the French never embraced the New World foods like the potato. Their diet relied on bread, so when the price of bread almost doubled in just one year, the women found it impossible to feed their families. This was where the revolution went from merely being a set of ideas to being a movement with force and the backing of the masses. The Estates General was a meeting of the brightest minds of the Third Estate. The Storming of the Bastille was a mob that got caught up with the emotion of the moment. The bread shortage was truly the catalyst that pushed people out of their homes and onto the streets. Enough was enough.
A rumor started circulating that the royal family was hoarding all the grain in Versailles. Many found this rumor fairly believable as the reputation of the queen, the Austrian Marie Antoinette, wasn’t exactly glowing. The tabloids clamoring for the public’s attention filled the streets with stories of her naughty behavior. As a foreign princess, she was never totally accepted. Depending on who you asked, she was either a reckless gambler, a philanderer, a plump princess, an opera connoisseur with her own delusions of becoming an actress or merely an air-headed bimbo who cared for little more than putting on fancy clothes and wearing puffy head pieces. She was often referred to as the Austrichienne (“chienne” is a dog…try to figure out what they were calling her).
The media didn’t help her reputation. In his book Confessions, Enlightenment author Jean Jacques Rousseau mentioned a princess who was so indifferent to her people’s hunger that she said, “Let them eat cake!” (he actually wrote, “let them eat brioche,” but you get the idea). The people thought Rousseau was talking about the Austrian queen. But the truth was irrelevant. As anyone who has ever survived adolescence can attest, the origin of a rumor isn’t nearly as important as what it eventually becomes once the masses manipulate it to fit their needs. By October 1789, a Parisian mob of 7000 women believed that the arrogant chienne did have a ton of food stored in Versailles, that she was wasting the people’s money on her own pampering, and that she must be so clueless to the realities of life that she had the gall to suggest they should just find some cake to fill their tummies.
So they marched. For 20 miles they marched. Their ranks gradually swelled to include a few dozen men, and even the king’s own guards who followed close by, not knowing what exactly to do with a parade of women carrying garden and kitchen tools. The guards hadn’t really been trained to deal with such a sight. When they reached Versailles, ripe with venomous anger and howling stomachs, the women easily overthrew the king’s guards, cut off their heads and stuck them on a couple poles (this head-pole thing was starting to become routine) and then ransacked the palace searching for the little chienne. She eventually walked out onto the balcony and stared down the crowd, even though they had cannons and muskets sighted in on her painted muzzle. Their desire for blood turned into a desire to “protect the royal family.” The mob forced the king, the queen and their son to pack their things and head back to Paris, “escorted” by the female mob. The hungry women had left Paris wanting bread. They had returned with the royal family.
Not surprisingly, soon after, King Louis XVI recognized the National Assembly as the legitimate government body. It was kind of difficult to argue when you had a mob threatening to kill your spouse and run your own head on a pole. But though Louis might have sided publicly with this newly-founded assembly, he privately conspired to return life to the good ol’ days. His new home/prison was in the heart of Paris, at the Tuileries Palace (which has since been destroyed and today is basically the front yard to the Louvre Museum). The king wasn’t content to ride out the storm, granting a few concessions to the stirred up mobs. He entered into a series of private correspondences with the French émigrés and the nobility across Europe. They promised to help him regain the throne. Louis believed if he could just make it out of France, he could drum up enough support from the neighboring monarchies that he could put down this insurrection and resume his life of self-indulgence.
So, on the night of June 21, 1791, Louis, his family, some nannies, some servants and some friends hopped on a bright yellow carriage and tried to escape to a protected fortress in the border town of Montmedy. Pathetically, not understanding the gravity of the situation, the king kept ordering his escape party to stop and take breaks. He even had the audacity (let’s call it “stupidity”) to walk alongside the carriage enjoying the views. Eventually he was recognized by a postmaster named Drouet (who allegedly recognized the king after comparing his profile to a noggin on a coin) when Louis asked to stay the night in Varennes. The next morning he woke up and was met by a mob of revolutionaries who volunteered to accompany the king back to Paris.
This was the tipping point. Any chance for reconciliation was gone. Though some wanted to maintain the position of the king (even actually giving him authority in the newly-created Constitution), others saw this latest episode as another example of how little the royal family could be trusted. On his road back to Paris, his carriage was spat on, and mobs of angry belligerents all wanted a piece of the traitor. The line had been drawn – you were either for the traitor and maintaining the royalty of old or you were for liberty and equality, for a new day, for revolution. In that National Assembly, everyone’s allegiance was clear – if you believe in conserving the royal family, you sat to the right, if you believed in transforming the power structure, you sat to the left. This designation eventually became the left wing/right wing, liberal/conservative political schism that has lasted till this day, but in the months following the royal family’s return, it became the divide that upped the level of violence. You were either with the revolution or against it.
When the revolution moved to Paris, the major playmakers no longer saw themselves as members of the First, Second or Third Estate. That ancient divide had been replaced by a new form of organization – the political club. Dozens of clubs popped up across Paris (and eventually across the country), each having their own idea for what life should look like in a new France. There were Jacobins and Girondins and Feuillants and Carabots. Robespierrists and Enrages and Dantonists and Republican Women. Before, the Third Estate was united in their frustration with the current regime, but once they saw change was actually possible, they began splintering across ideological lines. Some focused on enforcing the constitution of 1791; others said it didn’t go far enough. Some wanted to declare war against Austria; others wanted to maintain neutrality. Others focused on economic issues like controlling the price of goods. Some cared more about social issues like expanding the role of women or allowing gay marriage. These clubs fought with each other for power, and yet power was fleeting. Another rival always stood at the ready, eager to jump in and seize control of the government should any party fall out of favor.
And then France went to war. Partly wanting to return their nation’s daughter to the throne, but mostly needing to ensure this anti-monarchy absurdity spread no further, Austria declared war on France in April of 1792. Now the French could unite against a common enemy outside their borders. The political clubs started to raise the level of vitriol. Anyone not siding with the revolution could then be seen as not only a traitor to the cause, but as an enemy sympathizer. Who then became public enemies #1 and #2? The émigrés and the royal family. Why else would anyone willfully leave France other than a hidden desire to sabotage the revolution? This became the excuse needed to seize all the lands of the émigrés and pass them out to the masses in one of the greatest land re-distribution schemes in European history. But what about the king? He couldn’t be trusted. With his loyalist supporters and his familial connections to the enemy, he had to be killed. In June 1793, he was stripped of his title, stripped of his honor and then stripped of his head. The guillotine had taken yet another life, but not just any life, the life of a king, a person once seen as God’s representative on earth. The European nations sat shocked at this turn of events, and even many Frenchmen thought the revolution had gone too far.
Enter the Reign of Terror.
Maximilian Robespierre and his Parisian faction known as the Jacobins took over the National Assembly, promising to ensure the spirit of the revolution of 1789 continued and that no one’s personal desires or greed stood in the way of the realization of both the August Decrees and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The counterrevolutionaries who popped up after the death of the king had to be silenced. What better method than the guillotine? Initially implemented because it was seen as the most humane, efficient way of off-ing someone’s head, it later became the symbol of this most violent period of the French Revolution. So many thousands lost their lives to the guillotine that some began to openly question the humaneness of the practice. Onlookers spoke of decapitated heads biting at each other as they sat in a bag or the recently chopped blinking several times before finally expiring. Eventually observing scientists concluded that after the guillotine did its dirty work, the brain actually did remain alive for a bit – thirteen seconds on average to be exact – undoubtedly the longest thirteen seconds of the victim’s life.
As soldiers died on the battlefields throughout Western Europe, within France, neighbor turned against neighbor and brother against brother. These civil wars for control of the throne cost close to 40,000 lives, with both enemies and supporters of the revolution meeting a violent end. In Paris, Robespierre established the Committee of Public Safety (always be afraid when countries create groups to ensure safety…pretty good chance your safety will feel anything but protected), who presented weekly reports on how the war against Austria was progressing and who might be an enemy of the state. Trials were held, sentences were passed and executions were performed. At first, the Committee actually put on an air of legality to the proceedings, but within a year, the farce had become a witch hunt and anyone could send an enemy, political or otherwise, to the gallows. Some trials even involved entire groups of people tried simultaneously with no evidence presented, except for the knowledge that the defendants disagreed with how the government was run. Blood continued to flow and heads kept rolling, until the Convention had had enough. On July 27th, 1794, Robespierre rose to the podium yet again, spewed out another of his never-ending lists of enemies of the revolution, but this time the crowd didn’t buy his argument. The crowd shouted, “Down with the tyrant!” This time it would be Robespierre that would be arrested. And the next day he was guillotined, which officially ended the revolution.
Now the pendulum swung the other direction. The French wanted a return to order. This period, known as the Thermidorian Reaction, saw an attempt by the conservatives to calm the entire pulse of the nation, bringing back a semblance of order. Instead of a king or an assembly, this phase of the revolution saw the rise of the Directory – five men who would jointly decide on how best to enforce the laws of the nation. This was a total failure. There’s a reason why countries don’t have five presidents, five kings or five dictators. It’s not exactly efficient. Inflation rates skyrocketed, the economy was in disarray and bread prices shot to levels even worse than those before Louis XVI’s ouster. The people had had enough. But where do you turn when you need true order imposed? Where do you turn when you need a man strong enough to battle the forces of the right and the left? Where do you turn in your time of need?
In 1799, the man seen centuries later as “short,” made one of the biggest power plays history had ever witnessed. This 5’6” hero from the former Italian island of Corsica, entered the government building of the Directory in 1799 with his army of followers, formally ended the proceedings and announced he would assume power over the government until he could guarantee stability.
And it worked. After almost a decade of chaos, the French people were more than happy for a little coup d’etat. After all the starvation, terror and death of the revolutionary years, all the people really wanted was a little bit of peace - even if that meant handing over power to an enlightened dictator. Napoleon sensed the mood of the Parisians, and of France as a whole, so when word got out that he had held the legislature at gunpoint until they agreed to crown him “First Consul,” few batted an eye. The entire French Revolution had been fought to close the era of absolute rulers, to give power to the people. But when it turned out the people were crazy or power-hungry or short-sighted, the ideals of the revolution could be temporarily ignored if it meant a taste of stability.
Napoleon believed only he knew exactly what his people wanted. He also knew he would have to dance precariously between employing the dictatorial powers necessary to exact change, while continuing to appear as a son of the revolution. Napoleon had mastered the art of public relations during his military campaigns across southern Europe and into Egypt. He knew wars couldn’t be won without the seven P’s (Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance), but he also knew morale and public perception kept his men inspired and kept the families back home loyal to the cause. As a battlefield commander, Napoleon made sure his every victory circulated through news pamphlets and socialite circles, and he ensured his every defeat never hit the public’s eyes. He was so successful at controlling his own public perception, that even after he was soundly defeated in Egypt and had to abandon his men on the battlefield, he still received a conquering hero’s welcome when he returned to the streets of Paris.
As first consul (aka “president”), he again pandered to the crowds. He rewrote the law books. The dreams of the early revolution were formalized by law. Feudal bonds were forever broken. All private property was protected. He created an official legislative branch to write laws and separate government departments (think Treasury Department, State Department and Agricultural Department) to execute the will of the state. He separated the church and the state, but also made sure the Catholic Church was again protected. The French could worship freely and the clergy could apply for government jobs. Segregating Jews was forbidden. But above all else, classes were equal under the eyes of the law. You netted no special favors simply because of your parents’ status. All government jobs were open to all classes – merit trumped birth. He created a unified nation. He gave France a national bank, a national anthem, a standardized currency and a uniform decimal measuring system to expedite trade across the nation. These reforms all became part of what was called the Napoleonic Code, and as Europe watched France prosper, they too then realized the value of these modifications, many (like Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Spain) even choosing to likewise enforce national codes and institutions.
But Napoleon also knew when nationalism, liberty and equality had to be disregarded. He cracked down on freedom of speech. He closed down newspapers critical of his throne. He sent his spies out looking for rivals. He imprisoned thousands, held them without trial and sentences many to death. The days of taking your voice to the streets were gone. The people demanded order and Napoleon fulfilled their wishes, even if that meant forsaking the rights of man.
He also knew that the role of consul was beneath him. He wanted to recreate the Roman Empire. And he needed a title that fit. So on December 2, 1804, at the Notre Dame Cathedral, Pope Pius VII arrived from Rome and officially anointed Napoleon, Emperor of France. From that moment, nothing could stop his ascension.
He then took another page out of the Roman Empire’s Strategies for Keeping the Masses Happy handbook. Feed them and make them feel proud. And he could kill two birds with one stone. How do you feed millions of people and simultaneously make them love their country so much they forget about economic despair? War.
They’ll satisfy their anger with the blood of the enemy, and they’ll satisfy their stomachs with the spoils of battle.
Napoleon raised armies and took France’s revolution across Western Europe. It wasn’t hard to find a country to fight. The monarchies of the West all feared that one day the revolutionary ideals of France might spread across their borders. Napoleon knew he was surrounded, so instead of waiting for his foes to align, he took the war to them. From 1803 to 1815, France fought a series of endless wars against everyone from the Russians, the Prussians, the Spanish and the British to the Persians, the Ottomans, the Swedes and the Swiss. In the first few years of his campaign, it looked like no one could stop Napoleon. He took his million troops, his application of every bit of military technology and strategy known to the West, and his promise to give his soldiers honor, a daily meal and an enemy to focus their anger, and created an empire that by 1810 covered Span, Naples and parts of Germany. Even at the Battle of Austerlitz where Napoleon was outnumbered by Russian and Austrian forces, Napoleon proved adept at pumping up his forces and splitting up the overconfident alliance from the east. A wise man would have been content with his victories, secured his borders and sat back and ruled over the largest European empire since the Romans.
Napoleon wasn’t this wise man. He was bombastic, egotistical and he had surrounded himself with “Yes Men” who were more apt to support his misguided schemes than call him on the error of his ways. So what did Napoleon do after he won his greatest battle against Russian and Austrian forces? He invaded Russia. He took 600,000 men and marched on Moscow. This was a mistake. There was no way he could keep that size of a force fed and healthy, so in the summer of 1812, across Eastern Europe, tens of thousands fell to starvation and disease. The only thing keeping his troops alive and Napoleon’s faith unchallenged was Moscow. If he could just get his army to Moscow, they could live off the land and the riches of the city. They could sleep in the beds of the Muscovites, drink from their water and recover from the thousand-mile journey.
Brilliant idea except for one problem.
Moscow burned itself to the ground. The French entered an abandoned city with no food, few homes and a destroyed infrastructure. Napoleon had a choice to make. Keep his men in Moscow and rebuild the city or head back to France. He returned back to France – in the winter. This choice signed his soldiers’ death warrants. There was no way they could survive the Russian winter. As they marched back home, they froze, they starved and one by one, they were picked off by Russian guerilla fighters who never gave the soldiers a moment’s rest, attacking unexpectedly and then fleeing to the safety of the forests. By the time Napoleon re-entered Paris, only 30,000 men had survived – 5% of his original force. He had failed and the luster of his initial glory had darkened.
Napoleon could no longer hold onto power. His military campaigns had bankrupted his treasury. He even resorted to funding French pirates across the Atlantic and selling his French holdings in the Americas (the Louisiana Purchase) for some quick money. But it was not enough. His little trip to Russia weakened his control of his other territorial holdings. His states in Spain and Italy began to rise up, and even in Haiti, a band of slaves proved too much for Napoleon’s diluted forces. His own men were tired of fighting, and after a couple years of relative peace, the Russian, British and Austrian forces mustered an army of a few hundred thousand soldiers and surrounded Napoleon. This time he could not escape and he could not win. He surrendered and was forced into exile on a small little island called Elba off the coast of Italy. This exile was only temporary, as he escaped in 1814 and returned to Paris. He again tried to muster a force able to defeat the allied forces of Western Europe, but at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, he was routed for the final time. This time the allies exiled him to St. Helena, a tiny little island in the middle of the Atlantic. There was no way he could escape from this desolate island prison. He lived out the rest of his days, dying six years later in 1821.
Yet Napoleon had left an imprint on Western Europe that would last until the 20th century. Seven million men lost their lives in the Napoleonic Wars, monarchs almost lost their thrones and an entire continent was confronted with France’s little experiment with liberty, equality and brotherhood. The European powers knew they had to make sure a Napoleon could never rise to power, and that the madness and turmoil of the French Revolution could never terrorize the region again. In France, the revolution continued on for another few decades. The nobles and the royal family would return and try to reverse many of the reforms of the revolutionary era. In 1848, it looked like France hadn’t learned a thing. The people were starving, the nobility looked to be living the good life and a new generation of the poor thought they could change their world again. There were marches, declarations, protests and bloodshed. One king stepped down. Another despot took his place. The rest of Europe was getting tired of this seesaw of French politics, knowing that “whenever Paris sneezed, the rest of Europe caught a cold.”
The European powers decided they would be wise to reform their governments voluntarily before their citizens forced the issue. One by one, the West abolished slavery, gave all men the right to vote, abolished the death penalty and improved the workday by exacting a ten-hour day maximum and mandating safe working conditions. The European powers also met at the Congress of Vienna to redefine their borders so that no singular nation would dominate the rest. The boundaries of Germany expanded, but its 360 states merged into a 38-state German confederation. Some nations absorbed their neighbors. Others ceased to exist. Boundaries that had been fought over since the Middle Ages were established and ratified by all the signatories. Europe had caught a glimpse of what industrialized war could do to their continent. They wanted to make sure the Napoleonic Wars were never replicated.
And they did keep the peace for the rest of the 19th century.
But then the 20th century started, the horror stories of Napoleon had long since been forgotten and each European power falsely believed that if a war was to be fought again, it would be quick, effortless and relatively bloodless.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
But that is for another chapter.