Napoleon Was NOT a Son of the Revolution

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At the end of the French Revolution, the hopes of the early stages of the Revolution had been mangled, leading into the Reign of Terror. France had dissolved into anarchy, with internal and international turmoil. It was out of the foreign wars that Napoleon came to power. Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power, victory by victory, eventually making himself Emperor of France, creating a strong central government while continuing the foreign wars, creating a mass French Empire. Although Napoleon was a product of the French Revolution and maintained the image as a “son of the Revolution,” idealism always fell to pragmatism as Napoleon’s main purpose was creating a strong unified France.

Napoleon’s policies reflected some of the ideals of Enlightenment thought and he sought to spread them across Europe as he conquered. One of the core beliefs of the Enlightenment is that the universe is orderly and that there are natural laws that apply to everyone. Although what these rights were was up to debate, the central idea was that everyone should have them. As Napoleon conquered Europe he applied the same laws to everybody, everywhere. This set of laws is known as the Code Napoleon. Some of the laws enforced by the Code Napoleon can be seen in Napoleon’s Imperial Decree at Madrid, where Napoleon abolished feudal rights, such as banalities, as well as seizing church lands to be distributed among the people. Other actions he took were creating “constitutions” that created laws that applied to all people equally and could not be altered on a whim. These are the same actions taken during the French revolution applied to all other areas. In fact, the promises of these reforms gave Napoleon’s forces supporters in the countries he sei...

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Napoleon’s rule was greatly influenced by the Enlightenment ideas, but he was not a “son of the Revolution.” Louis Bergeron considered Napoleon an enlightened despot, saying, “the dynamism of Bonaparte and his rigorous administration revived the experiment of enlightened despotism, somewhat belatedly, since in the setting of Western Europe it was already a bit out of date.” Napoleon did resemble an enlightened despot as he upheld absolute power while encouraging legal and social equality for all classes of people (that weren’t him). What makes Napoleon unique among enlightenment despots is that he formatted his image to appear to be something else. The discrepancies between the image he presented and the person he was creates room for interpretation as to whether Napoleon was a dictator, an enlightened despot, or a champion of the revolution.
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