Napoleon Bonaparte

The Cultural Legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte

Few historical figures have captured public imagination as much as Napoleon Bonaparte. As a warrior, a statesman, and a personality, he has come to epitomize grand ambition and catastrophic failure. Nearly two centuries after his death, he continues to inspire both admiration and hatred. As biographer Alan Schom points out, "Being neutral about Napoleon has never been easy" (Preface, xix). Looking past his divisive attributes, however, one finds a figure whose vision, intelligence, and strength of will helped to form modern European culture, and by extension world culture, as we know it today.

Napoleon was born on Corsica to Italian parents on August 15, 1769, shortly after Genoa ceded the island to France. This heritage would be inescapable for him; despite his strong ties to France, he would be known until the end of his life as "the Corsican." This was not necessarily a compliment, since the Corsicans at the time were known as a "feuding, assassinating, divisive, disputatious and sullen people" (Englund 6). The French government and the Corsican population were not an easy fit, and Napoleon got an early, firsthand view of the shifting and contentious nature of European politics.

At the age of 9, Napoleon entered the Royal Military Academy in Brienne, France, on full scholarship. There, he excelled at mathematics and geography but did not endear himself to the other students. His behavior was often arrogant, stubborn, and aggressive. Looking back on his schooling, Napoleon observed, "I had even then the belief that my willpower was destined to make me triumph over others" (qtd. In Schom 4). Despite his social difficulties, Napoleon completed his training and received a commission in the Royal Artillery at the age of sixteen, embarking on one of the most celebrated military careers in modern history (Englund 18).

As a young second lieutenant, Napoleon witnessed the beginnings of what would become the French Revolution. He had read Voltaire and Rousseau, and he understood and appreciated the political philosophy underlying the political unrest. Because of his experience as a Corsican under French rule, he was particularly sensitive to the relationship between a government and its people. In one of his letters written during this period, he stated that the job of a ruler was "to render the people over whom he rules happy, and to make society prosper. [He must] balance with justice the rights of the men to whom he is responsible" (qtd. In Schom 11).

The Revolution itself had conflicting effects on Napoleon. On the one hand, he was inspired by the ideals of the revolutionaries and excited by the action. As he told a fellow soldier, "Revolutions are ideal times for soldiers with a bit of wit and the courage to act" (qtd. In Schom 12). On the other hand, he was horrified by the sight of unruly citizens storming the Tuileries and butchering the Swiss Guard. This experience permanently instilled in him a distrust and even a fear of the ungoverned masses.

Napoleon first distinguished himself in battle fighting for the French Republic against British troops that had been called in by the royalists. During the siege of Toulouse in the winter of 1793, Napoleon played a key role in forcing the British to flee the city. As a result, he was promoted to Brigadier General. His fortunes fell when Robespierre, the architect of the Reign of Terror and an admirer of the young officer's, fell from power, and Napoleon himself was arrested for treason due to his association with Robespierre. He was eventually released, but not before losing his command. (Britannica 2)

Napoleon did not have to nurse his frustrated ambitions for long, however. In 1795, the National Convention faced yet another revolt from royalists who sensed that it had weakened. The dictatorial head of the Convention, Paul Barras, had heard of Napoleon's prowess during the siege of Toulouse, and asked him to head the Republican forces. Napoleon succeeded in quelling the rebellion, and in return was named commander of the Army of the Interior and commander of chief of the Army of Italy. (Britannica 3)

These positions finally allowed Napoleon to act on the political and military ambitions that had been steadily growing in him since his entry into military service. He began by routing Austrian forces from Italy. Upon their withdrawal, he addressed the Italians with grandiose magnanimity: "People of Italy! The French army has broken your chains of bondage. The French people are the friends of all peoples. Have confidence and work with us" (qtd. In Schom 47).

His military success solidified his reputation in Paris. He had gained fame as "a formidable warlord, a hero of France, [and] easily the nation's most powerful man" (Schom 60). His contemporaries had disparate views. Some called him a "stunted little man…a bastard" while others proclaimed him a "new Alexander the Great" (Ibid.). Whatever their views, however, there was no denying that Napoleon had taken a fractured, ill-equipped army under the direction of a contentious and unstable government and had turned it into a powerful fighting machine and serious force in international politics.

Despite a defeat in Egypt against British forces, Napoleon's political clout in Paris did not suffer, and in a coup d'etat in 1799, he was made first consul. Within three years, he was consul for life, and within five years he was emperor (BBC History). This meteoric rise within the political system and the efficiency with which Napoleon manipulated the French government around himself has contributed greatly to the idea that he was a megalomaniac who betrayed the ideals of the revolution and sought only glory and self-aggrandizement. While surely these attributes were present in the character of Napoleon, they do not begin to explain the motives behind his actions. Beneath the self-promotion was a remarkable political philosophy and a talent for organization that can only be recognized when one looks at the contributions that he made to the concept and practice of government.

In his study of Napoleon's legacy, Alexander Grab claims that Napoleon's rule "launched the modernization of French state and society" (58). This modernization relied heavily on Napoleon's insistence on a strong, authoritarian centralized State. Napoleon had seen the bloodshed and chaos that resulted from the masses acting of their own accord during the Revolution, and felt strongly that it was best for the nation and for the citizens to be ruled from a clear and consistent source of power.

To institute this state, Napoleon drew from his experience as a military commander and created a bureaucratic hierarchy designed to extend the reach of the government from the height of power down to the local administrations. Its officers were hired and trained instead of inheriting their power, and an efficient and powerful police force was put into place to maintain order and enforce law. While this centralized administration exerted an enormous amount of power over the citizens, they benefitted from consistency, safety, and absolute equality under the legal system. (Grab 58)

One effect of Napoleon's rule that would impact France's well-being far beyond his lifetime was his reform of the financial system. As a result of his effective government administration, the franc stabilized and taxes were collected in an orderly fashion without corruption. Napoleon created the Bank of France as a joint venture between shareholders and the state (Britannica 5). With the stabilization of its financial identity, France was able to rebuild itself as a financial force in Europe.

Napoleon also considered education to be a primary right of the citizens of France, and organized the educational system under government auspices. Again, he used his military experience to organize secondary school systems hierarchically, ensuring governmental control and consistency. He reestablished university systems that had dissolved under the post-Revolutionary government.

Napoleon's most lasting political legacy,…