Napoleon Bonaparte has introduces many reforms during his reign. However, before we begin with the reforms of Napoleon Bonaparte, let’s first understand who is Napoleon Bonaparte.
- Early Life of Napoleon
- Reforms of Napoleon Bonaparte
- An All Powerful Consul
- A Period of Reform in France
- Administrative Centralization Reforms of Napoleon Bonaparte
- Financial Reforms of Napoleon Bonaparte
- The Bank of France
- Ecclesiastical Settlement-Concordat
- Judicial Reforms of Napoleon Bonaparte-The Code Napoleon
- The Legion of Honour
- Educational Reforms of Napoleon Bonaparte
- Public Work Reforms of Napoleon Bonaparte
- Colonial Enterprise of Napoleon
- Consulate the Most Successful Government
- Napoleon Becomes Emperor
- The secret of Napoleon’s Success
Early Life of Napoleon
Napoleon was born on August 15th, 1769, at Ajaccio, on the island of Corsica. Napoleon’s family was of Italian origin but they live on the island of Corsica for the last two and half centuries. Napoleon’s father’s name is Charles Merry Bonaparte. He belongs to a class of lesser society and was a lawyer by profession. Napoleon found a seat at the French military school at Brienne and then, at Paris, in the shape of a Charity scholar, On account of a concession given to the island of Corsica by the French government on its transfer to her jurisdiction.
At the school, Napoleon led a very gloomy and sullen life. However, he was exceptionally good at the studies. At the age of sixteen, Napoleon joined the French army as a second lieutenant of artillery. He was not happy with the service conditions of the French army. He got a very meager salary. Besides, he has to support a large family-his father having died earlier. Since he had a great love for his home and would run away to Corsica, whenever he got an opportunity; and often overstayed his leave, he ultimately lost his job.
When Revolution came, Napoleon came back to Paris in the hope of getting back his job, which he got in August 1792. Napoleon hailed the Revolution, thinking it might give him an opportunity to distinguish himself. He saved Toulon against the English for the Republic. In 1795, he saved the Convention itself from an attack of the Paris mob (1788). This was a hit of luck for Napoleon to come in the picture of history. In 1796, he married a beautiful rich widow Josephine Beauharnais.
Besides, he was the commander-in-Chief of the French forces during the regime of the Directory. Also, he was the first Consul of the Consulate of France in 1790.
The first battle fought by Napoleon was the Battle of Marengo, on 14th June 1800. In total, he fought 18 big battles and 65 small ones.
Besides, he was hardly 20 years of age when the French Revolution broke out in 1789.
Reforms of Napoleon Bonaparte
An All Powerful Consul
All powers under the Consulate were in the hands of the First Consul. He was to have the power of making peace and war, to appoints all State officials and judges. He was to control the army. Also, he was to propose all laws through the Council of State. The Tribune was to discuss the Laws but could not vote on them. The Legislative body was to vote on Laws but could not discuss them.
Thus it was all a farce and the only purpose for the introduction of the new constitution by Napoleon was to dupe the people to believe that they were sovereign and Republic still exists. This constitution was put to a popular vote or plebiscite and was approved by an overwhelming vote.
Therefore, Napoleon under this constitution had more powers than most of the monarchs of Europe. The other two Consuls, who were only put in to gratify republican prejudices had no other function than that of advising their chief.
A Period of Reform in France
The period of Consulate (1799-1804) is a period of great reforms in France. Napoleon had subdued his foreign enemies on the continent and England was quiet. He extents the territories of France and was now free to devote his energy and zeal to administrative matters.
The First Consul was the creation of the Revolution. He called himself “Son of Revolution”. As a matter of fact, he destroys the Revolution itself. He continues to believe in liberties. Such as social and economic liberty and to preserve both these liberties in France. But he did not believe in political liberty
Thus, most of the administrative reforms happen with this end in view. He gave equal justice, equal rights and equal chances of advancement and progress to all Frenchmen. He kept all political powers in his own hands. Thus, political order in France under him was despotism.
Administrative Centralization Reforms of Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon wants to centralize all powers in his own hands. Besides, most of the executive and legislative powers were under the Constitution of the Consulate. He brought the law courts in France under his control by subsequent legislation. Thus, in 1800, he completely revises the system of the Local government and Consulate of the country. Elective bodies of the departments (districts), and arrondissements (small districts) were abolished.
Instead, the First Consul was to appoint Prefects and Sub Prefects in their place. Prefects were to appoint mayors of small communes in their districts. The first Consul chooses the Mayors of town with populations more than 5000 each. Thus, local autonomy of any kind ceased to exist in France. All local and central government was centralized in Paris. It became effective, prompt, and uniform. This was what France needed most at the time.
Financial Reforms of Napoleon Bonaparte
He was aware from the very beginning that finance was the backbone of the state. The financial disorder was the cause of the downfall of the ancient regime in France. He, therefore, put himself against this danger (peril).
He adopts several ways and means to bring in money:
In the first place, Napoleon exacted heavy tributes from the lands he invaded and desolated.
Secondly, he ensures that taxes in France were carefully collected.
Thirdly, he enforced a rigid economy everywhere in his administration.
The Bank of France
In 1800, Napoleon established the Bank of France. This was the crowning achievement of his financial reforms. Ever since its establishment, the Bank of France was one of the soundest financial institutions in the world.
Finance was torn asunder by religious dissensions for a decade. So, Napoleon wants to establish peace in this sphere too. He fully appreciates the importance of religion as a political lever and determines to use it for his own ends.
Therefore, he was prepared to leave the Catholics undisturbed if they ceased to interfere with the State and did not plot against him. Also, he wants to gain the active support of the conscientious French Catholics, who drifted away because of the anti-clerical measures of the revolutionaries.
He, therefore, concluded a settlement with Pope Pius VII in April 1802. This settlement is famous as Concordat. The Pope recognized the confiscation and sale of the church property during the early period of the Revolution. He also agreed to the suppression of the monasteries.
Further, the First Consul appoints the bishops and the Bishops were to appoint the priests. Thus, the Catholic Church in France became national and branch of the government. The Concordat gave a considerable immediate advantage to Napoleon, as the clergy were strictly subordinate to the State and became his willing Vassals.
Judicial Reforms of Napoleon Bonaparte-The Code Napoleon
Prior to the French Revolution, France was under a set of haphazard and perplexing laws. There was no uniformity in the judicial system of the country. There were different historical origins of different laws.
As a result, there was a strong desire to do away with this confusion and discrepancies of the several legal systems in the country. The constitution of 1791 had promised to do so and the National Convention had ordered work on it. But things had delayed the job. Thus, it was ultimately left to the genius of Napoleon to do away with the abuses of the system.
Subsequently, Napoleon took up the work in hand and completely rebuild the legal system of the country. A great civil code was brought out in 1804. As a result, there was the adoption of the Codes. Such as Civil Procedure, Code of Criminal Procedure, Penal Code, and a Commercial Code.
Actually nothing was left beyond the scope of Code Napoleon. Frenchmen, after all, had a body of law-clear, rational, and national-on all aspects of life. They now know what was legal and what was illegal.
All these codes-sets of Laws were so simple and elegant. Even several states on the continents copied and applied them. Laws of Napoleon guarantee civil equality, religious toleration, legal arrest, equality of inheritance, and the Trial by Jury. Thus, Napoleon was not wrong when he remarked at St. Helena that “my real glory is not my having won forty battles, what will never be affected, what will endure forever is my civil code.” No wonder then that Napoleon has been hailed as a second Justinian.
The Legion of Honour
Napoleon establishes the institution of the Legion of Honour, to honor and reward those who render distinguished service to the state. This institution became extremely popular in France.
Educational Reforms of Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon’s reforming zeal touches every aspect of life. He felt that the nation’s educational system was defective that the state did not have much control over it. Hence, the First Consul established a University in Paris. In fact, the first University in France. This was to make the educational system a standard one and uniform throughout the country. The First Consul appointed its chief officers. Anyone who wants to open a school or wishing to do private teaching needs to obtain a license from the University. All education was to conform to the Catholic Church and was to be loyal to the state and the First Consul.
Napoleon did not want to encourage private education. He, therefore, established a regular system of education in the country. In the first place, every commune was to maintain primary schools and the prefects were to manage the affairs of these schools. They were more or less municipal schools.
Secondly, grammar schools were open with the object of providing special training in French, Latin, and elementary sciences. In fact, the government controls these schools.
Thirdly, High schools were open in all important towns. The government also controls these schools. Besides, the government appoints the teachers in these schools.
Fourthly, there were special types of schools like the technical schools and the military schools-fall under governmental Patronage and control.
Public Work Reforms of Napoleon Bonaparte
In another field too, Napoleon changes the very face of France in the course of a few years. This was in regard to public works. He improves the existing roads and constructs new ones. Most of the modern roads of France were actually built with the orders of Napoleon. He could boast of having got constructed at least 299 roads. Thirty of them were most important and became the very arteries of France. These roads connect almost all parts of France with Paris. The most wonderful feat of the road-construction works was that Turin, Milan. Rome and Naples were all brought in touch with Paris.
Besides, he constructs bridges and canals dugout. Marshes were drained and dikes strengthened. Some of the important harbors like Toulon were enlarged and fortified. Public buildings were enlarged and beautified.
He also converts Paris into a beautiful city with broad roads and spacious parks. The population of Paris almost doubled in the time of Napoleon and it became one of the fashionable cities in Europe.
The most remarkable aspect of all this work of construction was that it did not cost the nation much, as the prisoners of war were doing all this job. The net result of these reforms was that trade and commerce became very brisk. It helps the economic welfare and prosperity of the people. No wonder, Napoleon became the idol of the nation. He gave to France not only military and political glories but also economic prosperity.
Colonial Enterprise of Napoleon
One great ambition of Napoleon was to restore the French colonial empire. He was able to get back the territory of Louisiana in America from Spain in 1800. He also wanted to conquer the island of Haiti and for that purpose, he sent his brother-in-law, General Leclere, with an army of 25,000 men. This result in a fierce war with the natives. As a result of this war, the French need to evacuate the island. In 1803, Napoleon sold to the United States the territories of Louisiana, as he felt unable to hold it. Thus the great Consul was not able to fulfill his ambition of a colonial empire.
Consulate the Most Successful Government
It must be agreed on all accounts that the Consulate was the most successful government that France ever had. It was a record of clean administration. Public confidence in the efficiency of the government had returned. First, Consul’s officials were honest and hardworking.
Napoleon had established one of the finest administrations, and the whole continent looked towards France. Napoleon had beaten his foreign enemies and no army could stand against him. The second coalition of power against France had been broken up and peace made. Practically all interests of France were fulfilled with the introduction of internal reforms by the First Consul. Thus, the period of Consulate was the most useful to France and Frenchmen. French prestige stood very high indeed.
Napoleon Becomes Emperor
Fortune had smiled on Napoleon from the very beginning of his military and political career. Armies and empire had reeled before him. In 1802, First Consulship was conferred on him for life, with the right to nominate his successor. Napoleon had now only to express a wish to assume royalty and the subservient Senate was only too ready to fall in line with him. A decree was issued by the Senate announcing that “The government of the Republic is entrusted to an Emperor,” and that Napoleon assumes the title of “Emperor of the French”.
This was done in 1804 and put to a vote of the nation. France was under immense gratitude to the great Consul. Therefore, the plebiscite went overwhelmingly in favor of the Proposal. An imposing ceremony was held in the presence of Pope Pius VII, on December 2, 1804, in the ancient Cathedral of Notre Dame and Napoleon Bonaparte placed the crown on his head with his own hands-a fitting act by one who was the architect of his own fortune and in his rise, owed nothing to the favor of priest or Pope. A new era had begun in French history.
The secret of Napoleon’s Success
French politics of the time and certain outstanding qualities of the character of Napoleon combined to make him so successful in life.
In the first place, he had a conviction that he was a man of destiny that some supernatural power was leading him on to victory. He, therefore, plan everything thoroughly and luckily all went so well.
Secondly, he had a good sense to endear himself to his soldiers and to become their idol. He even remembered the names of many of his soldiers and flattered them, by his personal cheers to them individually.
Thirdly, Napoleon was not wanting in personal bravery. He was always ready to take the greatest possible risk. When his men were wavering in the face of acute danger, he would himself plunge in the thick of the battle.
Fourthly, he was very shrewd, a keen observer, and a clever critic. He always struck at the right moment. In 1799, the nation wanted a strong and powerful man and Napoleon provided the gap. Fifthly, he was extremely unscrupulous and could employ any means to achieve his ends. He had neither fear from God, nor regard for men in the achievement of his ambition.
Sixthly, he thoroughly understood the character of the people.
Lastly, Napoleon chose all his commanders and Marshals from amongst the humble folk. Massena was the son of a saloon-keeper, Murat of a country inn-keeper, Ney of a Cooper and Augerau was the son of a mason. None of these men should have attained any position under any other regime. Therefore, all of them stood by his side.
Source: Mohammed Rafi Komol & O. Jnanendra Singh
A Guide to History of Modern Europe 1789-1945.
Imphal, Khumanthem Babudhon, 2018,