Lyons claims that Napoleon, born to an Italian family in Corsica, was in fact born on French soil, as he was born the year after Bourbon France annexed the island.
A few other notes about Napoleon’s personality from Lyons:
- Napoleon crowned himself but did not take the crown from pope Pius VII, as some have said.
- He was unbelievably cold in ending his relationship with Josephine. After 8 years with her, on determining she was past childbearing age (46), he told her he was divorcing her on New Year’s Eve, 1809. He then married the 18 year-old Marie Louis of Austria, a Habsburg, in 1810 and had a son born within a year.
- In invading Russia he “trusted to fervently in his own destiny and in his private vision of power in the east.”
By striking the Concordat with Pius VII, who he viewed as a minor political rival and nothing more, he looked to defuse the opposition of the counterrevolutionary bishops. After, “the clergy could once more be regarded as allies of political order and obedience,” per Lyons.
Note, though, that the Church did not get back its pre-Revolution wealth or privileges, an exception to the fact identified by Lyons that capital ended up mostly in the same hands as it was pre-Revolution.
As an aside, it’s interesting to note the interaction between Napoleon’s attitude toward religion and his war in subjugated Spain. “The guerrilla [this is where the term came from] war against the French was a struggle between the counter reformation and the French revolution.” The war, the “Spanish ulcer,” sapped Napoleon of money and manpower needed in his Russia campaign.
More broadly, Napoleon’s reign meant a break with the past role of the Church in France and elsewhere. The Napoleonic code “was instrumental in the spread of revolutionary ideas; it preserved the essential social gains of the revolution, abolishing privilege, recognizing equality and individualism, and completely extracting the legal system from its old religious framework.“
A key theme of the book is that Napoleon solidified certain changes of the Revolution by guaranteeing the gains made by the bourgeoisie and the new bureaucratic class.
“Under Bonaparte, fortified by his revolutionary legacy, the privileged orders had permanently lost their grip on the state. Instead, social and political institutions were increasingly shaped by the revolutionary bourgeoisie, made up of administrators, lawyers and landowners, together with commercial interests.”
“The progressive satisfaction of bourgeois self interest meant that the role of ideologies in politics was thereby weakened.”
“The Napoleonic empire was a modern technocracy dressed in the garb of Charlemagne.”
Napoleon also maintained support in rural areas by several means. One was effectively restoring Catholic worship and the religious calendar. Another was guaranteeing the end of seigneurialism, the system of land ownership/rent that was the cause of much of the peasantry’s complaints. Lyons also suggests that a key source of support was veterans returning from foreign wars came back to their villages with expanded horizons -- Egypt, Italy, Spain Russia -- and telling tales of Napoleonic glory to people who never left their hometowns.
He was also aggressive about censoring the press and putting out propaganda. In fact, his dictatorship was not a military dictatorship but a civil one, according to Lyons, based on the fact that he won via plebiscite.
Napoleon brought the rationalizing spirit of the Revolution to other parts of Europe via conquest. Napoleon shaped the secular state. Corruption and favoritism were officially outlawed. Bringing that to other countries often entailed social upheaval, especially in terms of instituting civil marriage and allowing divorce.
“Abolition of privilege, Jewish emancipation, the end of primogeniture and the entailing of aristocratic estates suddenly overturned some of the basic certainties of old regime society.”
French rule “impose[d] a uniform system of values on a very wide variety of European cultures and traditions…. Local customs were here identified with feudal obscurantism.” Note the parallel with James C. Scott: Local customs viewed as an obstacle to legibility. Taxation became much more efficient, according to Lyons, including in Italy, as huge sums were raised for war.
Of note, Napoleon banned political economy -- that is, economics, then taught in most German universities -- “as a subversive discipline.”
By eroding the particularism of city-states, Napoleon did help develop the nation-state, Lyons concludes.
Napoleon gradually distanced himself from his revolutionary past when he became a hereditary emperor in 1804, married a Hapsburg in 1810, and invaded Russia in 1812.
“The decision to invade Russia was Napoleon’s alone; he ignored… In terms of the defense of the revolution, or of France’s interests, the invasion of Russia was completely unnecessary; its logic lay in the relentless impetus of the war as Napoleon had pursued it, and in the obsessive Fantasy of power which gripped him.”
After Metternich was able to align all the powers against Napoleon, Napoleon, no longer able to pursue a “divide and conquer” strategy, saw the Grande Armee defeated at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, and had no choice in 1814 but to exile himself to Elba.
When the Coalition, by propping up as king Louis XVIII, who then had no popular mandate and aligned with reactionary forces, created an opening, Napoleon “returned to the true origins of his power, which lay in the Revolution of 1789. The events of 1814-15 presented France with the stark truth that Napoleon was the only alternative to monarchy and aristocratic reaction”
After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, it was Lafayette who persuaded parliament to demand abdication.
One other note from the book: Napoleon’s economic war against the British caused the rise of the Luddites, as the “continental system” blockade induced a severe recession and high unemployment in 1809, and helped lead to the War of 1812, as the British naval blockade caught up neutral American ships.