Assessment of Napoleon and his era

Konstam’s assessment of Napoleon seems to me to be honest and truthful, if a bit unctuous. Napoleon was indeed a very great general; a military genius. His genius was not limited to the military; the law code he oversaw is still used in France today to name one example. He was also a skilled politician.  But on the other hand, Napoleon’s ambition was megalomaniacal in its scope, and he thought nothing of plunging into wars where thousands died to support that ambition.  Napoleon was indeed the Colossus that stood astride his times and much of the history of that time was either caused by him or a reaction to his actions.

The Napoleonic Era was both an extension and culmination of the Enlightenment or “Age of Reason”. Certainly Napoleon felt he was a son of the Enlightenment, having read many of the great Enlightenment philosophes, such as Rousseau and Voltaire.[1]   Napoleon certainly applied the enlightenment ideals of logic and reason to many of his great projects, not the least of which was rationalizing the government of many of the territories France conquered, like the Rhineland and Westphalia.[2] Although others have argued that the Enlightenment ended in the blood and death of the French Revolution, regardless of the fact that Napoleonic France tried to continue the Enlightenment ideals and even impose them on other countries.[3]

It is fair to say that all of Napoleon’s other successes in life were built on his success in the military realm. So any kind of assessment of the Emperor’s life and career has to focus on his military acumen.   However, he never let military requirements get in the way of his ambition, after all he abandoned defeated or cut off armies twice in his life to feed his own political aspirations; one in Egypt after the Battle of the Nile in 1799 and another again after Moscow in 1812.[4]

Without a doubt, Napoleon was a military genius. Building on the innovation for the French Revolutionary Army, his largest contribution to the operational art of war was twofold, he eliminated the huge and slow baggage trains that bogged down rapid maneuver and he formed his armies into combined arms Corps with a strong central reserve under his personal command. The Napoleonic Corps would have infantry, artillery and cavalry arms under one commander and these different branches would cooperate closely with each other within the Corps structure. These formations were so powerful they could and often did fight battles by themselves, or at least engage the enemy on terms that would allow other Corps to arrive in support. [5] This basic operational structure is still used by most armies in the world today. Further, the Emperor’s real genius was that he could get inside his opponents decision cycle so that even if his subordinates or he made a mistake, chances are that he could quickly recover and still win the war.[6]

During the time of relative peace between 1802 and 1804, Napoleon turned his considerable powers to the law code and education. He managed to attend 57 out of 109 meetings that wrote the Code Civil, also called the Code Napoleon. The Code Civil in its two thousand articles replaced and rationalized the 360 different law codes in effect in France. But the First Consul couldn’t escape his Corsican roots and the Code was a step backward for women’s property rights. Despite that, it was still a great achievement and in exile Napoleon thought it his greatest.[7]

In the area of education reform, the Napoleon applied the same rational, centralized and equalitarian ideals to the school system as he did the army. Taking away education from the Church, he created the high school, or Lycee system, he centralized control such that it was said that the same subject was taught at exactly the same time in every Lycee throughout France. He imposed a military order on the schools, so that students were actually called to class with drum rolls. But these high schools were only for the most promising students. In Post secondary education in 1802 he took the Ecole Polytechnique and turned it into a military academy for engineers and artillerists.[8]

It should never be forgotten that despite all the social good that the Napoleonic reforms did, they were not imposed to merely do that social good, but rather they were done to strengthen the state and the state apparatus of control.[9] Napoleon, as First Consul and later Emperor, certainly took to heart the famous observation of Charles Tilly: “War made the state and the state made war.” [10] Napoleon made a more powerful state to make a more powerful military machine so he could win his interminable wars.

In summation, the assessment of Napoleon is ultimately much like that of another famous historical figure. A figure that followed a very similar career path to one the Emperor did. That is to say, he born in relatively humble circumstances, rose to supreme power in a time of violence and tumult by dint of his superior military skills and ability to seize political opportunities. This figure is of course the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. That is to say, as Earl of Clarendon called Cromwell, “a great bad man”, So Napoleon could also be called “a great bad man.” [11]

[1] Frederick C. Schneid, “Napoleon’s conquest of Europe: the War of the Third Coalition”, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 2005), 6.

[2] “The Rhineland under the French” at rhineland_french/ (accessed 7 October 2010)

[3] Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, The Rise of Modern Paganism, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1966), 17; William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, New York, 2002), 210.

[4] Marvin Perry, Myrna Chase, James R. Jacob, Margaret C. Jacob, Theodore H. Von Laue, Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society. (New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Harcourt Publishing Co., 2009), 483.

[5] Claus Telp, “The Evolution of Operational Art, 1740-1813: from Frederick the Great to Napoleon”, (Oxon, UK: Frank Cass Publishing, 2005), 77-80.

[6] Phil Grabsky, “The Great Commanders – Napoleon Bonaparte – The Battle of Austerlitz”, The History Channel DVD, July 1 1993.

[7] Alistair Horne, “The Age of Napoleon” (New York: The Modern Library, 2004), 37-39.

[8] Ibid., 40-42

[9] Grabsky, “Battle of Austerlitz”.

[10] Charles Tilly, “Reflections on the History European State Making” in The Formation of national States in Western Europe, ed. Charles Tilly (Princetone, NJ: Pricneton University Press, 1975), 42.

[11] Grabsky, “Battle of Austerlitz”.


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