Napoleon Bonaparte Abdicated in Fontainebleau, Paul Delaroche, 1845
Based on the images above, how did Napoleon’s role in France change over time?
How did the French people’s perceptions of Napoleon change over time?
In 1799 members of the ruling Directory conspired with the well-known military leader Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) to take over the French government by means of a coup d’état. It was successful, and Napoleon quickly asserted his own dominance over others. By 1802 he had full power, and by 1804 he was the self-proclaimed Emperor Napoleon I.
The period from 1799 to 1815 is generally known as the Age of Napoleon. Rising with opportunities presented by the French Revolution, Napoleon gained power not only in France, but directly and indirectly throughout much of continental Europe. Within France he crushed threats from both radicals and royalists who wanted to extend or reverse the French Revolution. Through administrative reforms, codification of laws, and settlement with the Church, he institutionalized some of the changes brought about by the revolution and took the heart out of others. Backed by the ideological force of the revolution and strong nationalism, his armies extended French rule, institutions, and influence throughout Europe. In 1814 Napoleon's forces, weakened by overextension and a disastrous Russian campaign, were defeated by a coalition of European powers. After Napoleon's defeat, the major powers, meeting at Vienna, attempted to establish a new stability that would minimize the revolutionary and Napoleonic experiences.
The sources you will analyze focus on the principal interpretive debate connected with Napoleon:
How should Napoleon and his policies be understood?
Is Napoleon best viewed as a moderate defender of the French Revolution, as an enlightened despot in the eighteenth-century tradition, or as the first of the modern dictators?
To provide insight into these issues, the selections will examine Napoleon's rise to power and his ideas, external policies, and internal institutions.
Directions: Based on the various historical interpretations of Napoleon’s rule, provide specific evidence to support Napoleon as each of the following types of ruler:
Moderate Defender of the French Revolution
Enlightened Despot like those of the 18th century
First of the Modern Dictators
Based on what you have learned, what do you think Napoleon’s legacy should be? Under what kind of light should we understand and interpret his policies?