This article is part of theHistory of France series.
First French Empire
The First French Empire, commonly known as the French Empire, the Napoleonic Empire or simply as The Empire, covers the period of the domination of France and of much of continental Europe by Napoleon I of France. Constitutionally, it refers to the period of 1804 to 1814, from the Consulate to the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in the history of the French state, with a coda in the Hundred Days of 1815.
Bonaparte's march to empire began with the Constitution of the year X (August 1802). Having become "First Consul", he attracted more power and gravitated towards imperial status, gathering support on the way for his internal rebuilding of France and its institutions. He gradually dampened opposition and Republican enthusiasm, using exile, systematic bureacratic oppression and constitutional means. The decision of the Senate on May 18, 1804, giving him the title of emperor, was the counterblast to the dread he had excited.
Never did a harder master ordain more imperiously, nor understand better how to command obedience. "This was because," as Goethe said, "under his orders men were sure of accomplishing their ends. That is why they rallied round him, as one to inspire them with that kind of certainty."
Indeed no man previously ever concentrated authority to such a point, nor showed mental abilities at all comparable to his: an extraordinary power of work, prodigious memory for details and fine judgment in their selection; together with a luminous decision and a simple and rapid conception, all placed at the disposal of a sovereign will. No head of the state gave expression more imperiously than this Corsican to the popular passions of the French of that day: abhorrence for the emigrant nobility, fear of the ancien régime, dislike of foreigners, hatred of England, an appetite for conquest evoked by revolutionary propaganda, and the love of glory.
In this Napoleon was a soldier of the people: because of this he judged and ruled his contemporaries. Having seen their actions in the stormy hours of the French Revolution, he despised them and looked upon them as incapable of disinterested conduct, conceited, and obsessed by the notion of equality. Hence his colossal egoism, his habitual disregard of others, his jealous passion for power, his impatience of all contradiction, his vain untruthful boasting, his unbridled self-sufficiency and lack of moderation - passions which were gradually to cloud his clear faculty of reasoning. His genius, assisted by the impoverishment of two generations, was like the oak which admits beneath its shade none but the smallest of saplings. With the exception of Talleyrand, after 1808 he would have about him only mediocre people, without initiative, prostrate at the feet of the giant: his tribe of paltry, rapacious and embarrassing Corsicans; his admirably subservient generals; his selfish ministers, docile agents, apprehensive of the future, who for fourteen long years felt a prognostication of defeat and discounted the inevitable catastrophe.
So First Empire France had no internal history outside the plans and transformations to which Napoleon subjected the institutions of the Consulate, and outside the after-effects of his wars. Well knowing that his fortunes rested on the delighted acquiescence of France, Napoleon expected to continue indefinitely fashioning public opinion according to his pleasure. To his contempt for men he added that of all ideas which might put a bridle on his ambition; and to guard against them, he inaugurated the "Golden Age" of the police that he might tame every moral force to his hand. Being essentially a man of order, he loathed, as he said, all demagogic action, Jacobinism and visions of liberty, which he desired only for himself. To make his will predominant, he stifled or did violence to that of others, through his bishops, his gendarmes, his university, his press, his catechism. Nourished like Frederick II and Catherine the Great in 18th century maxims, he would not allow any of that ideology to filter through into his rough but regular ordering of mankind. Thus the whole political system, being summed up in the emperor, was bound to share his fall.
Although an enemy of idealogues, Napoleon followed grandiose visions in his foreign policy. A condottiere of the Renaissance living in the 19th century, he used France, and all those nations annexed or attracted by the Revolution, to resuscitate the Roman conception of the idea of Empire for personal benefit. On the other hand, he was enslaved by the history and aggressive idealism of the National Convention, and of the republican propaganda under the Directory; they guided him quite as much as he guided them. Hence the immoderate extension given to French activity by his classical Latin spirit; hence also his conquests, leading on from one to another, and instead of being mutually helpful interfering with each other; hence, finally, his not entirely coherent policy, interrupted by hesitation and counter-attractions. This explains the retention of Italy, imposed on the Directory from 1796 onward, followed by his treatment of Venice, the foundation of the Cisalpine Republic - a foretaste of future annexations - the restoration of that republic after his return from Egypt, and in view of his as yet inchoate designs, the postponed solution of the Italian problem which the treaty of Lunéville had raised.
The Battle of Marengo (June 14, 1800 inaugurated the political idea which was to continue its development until Napoleon's Moscow campaign. Napoleon dreamed as yet only of keeping the duchy of Milan, setting aside Austria, and preparing some new enterprise in the East or in Egypt. The peace of Amiens, which cost him Egypt, could only seem to him a temporary truce; whilst he was gradually extending his authority in Italy, the cradle of his race, by the union of Piedmont, and by his tentative plans regarding Genoa, Parma, Tuscany and Naples. He wanted to make this his Cisalpine Gaul, laying siege to the Roman state on every hand, and preparing in the Concordat for the moral and material servitude of the pope. When he recognised his error in having raised the papacy from decadence by restoring its power over the churches, he tried in vain to correct it by the Articles Organiques ? wanting, like Charlemagne, to be the legal protector of the pope, and eventually master of the Church. To conceal his plan he aroused French colonial aspirations against England, and also the memory of the spoliations of 1763, exasperating English jealousy of France, whose borders now extended to the Rhine, and laying hands on Hanover, Hamburg and Cuxhaven.
By the "Recess" of 1803, which brought to his side Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden, he followed up the overwhelming tide of revolutionary ideas in Germany, to stem which Pitt, back in power, appealed once more to an Anglo-Austro-Russian coalition against this new Charlemagne, who was trying to renew the old Holy Roman Empire, who was mastering France, Italy and Germany; who finally on December 2, 1804 placed the imperial crown upon his head, after receiving the iron crown of the Lombard kings, and made Pope Pius VII consecrate him in Notre-Dame de Paris.
After this, in four campaigns, the Emperor transformed his Carolingian feudal and federal empire into one modelled on the Roman empire. The memories of imperial Rome were for a third time, after Julius Caesar and Charlemagne, to modify the historical evolution of France. Though the vague plan for an invasion of England fell to the ground, the Battle of Ulm and the Battle of Austerlitz obliterated Trafalgar, and the camp at Boulogne put the best military resources he had ever commanded at Napoleon's disposal.
In the first of these campaigns Bonaparte swept away the remnants of the old Roman-Germanic empire, and out of its shattered fragments created in southern Germany the vassal states of Bavaria, Baden, Württemberg, Hesse-Darmstadt and Saxony, which he attached to France under the name of the Confederation of the Rhine; but the treaty of Pressburg (December 26, 1805) gave France nothing but the danger of a more centralised and less docile Germany. On the other hand, Napoleon's creation of the kingdom of Italy, his annexation of Venetia and her ancient Adriatic empire - wiping out the humiliation of 1797 - and the occupation of Ancona, marked a new stage in his progress towards his Roman Empire. His good fortune soon led him from conquest to spoliation, and he complicated his master-idea of the grand empire by his Family Compact; the clan of the Bonapartes invaded European monarchies, wedding with princesses of blood-royal, and adding kingdom to kingdom. Joseph Bonaparte replaced the dispossessed Bourbonss at Naples; Louis Bonaparte was installed on the throne of the newly formed kingdom of Holland carved out of the Dutch Batavian Republic; Joachim Murat became grand-duke of Berg, Jerome Bonaparte son-in-law to the king of Württemberg, and Eugène de Beauharnais to the king of Bavaria; while Stéphanie de Beauharnais married the son of the grand-duke of Baden.
Meeting with less and less resistance, Napoleon went still further and would tolerate no neutral power. On August 6, 1806 he forced the Habsburgs, left with only the crown of Austria, to abdicate their Roman-Germanic title of emperor. Prussia alone remained outside the Confederation of the Rhine, of which Napoleon was Protector, and to further her decision he offered her English Hanover. In a second campaign he destroyed at Jena both the army and the state of Frederick William III of Prussia, who could not make up his mind between the Napoleonic treaty of Schönbrunn and Russia's counter-proposal at Potsdam (October 14, 1806). The butchery at Eylau and the vengeance taken at Friedland (June 14, 1807) finally ruined Frederick the Great's work, and obliged Russia, the ally of England and Prussia, to allow the latter to be despoiled, and to join Napoleon against the maritime tyranny of the former.
After the Treaties of Tilsit, however (July 1807), instead of trying to reconcile Europe to his grandeur, Napoleon had but one thought: to make use of his success to destroy England and complete his Italian dominion. It was from Berlin, on November 21, 1806, that he had dated the first decree of a continental blockade, a monstrous conception intended to paralyze his inveterate rival, but which on the contrary caused his own fall by its immoderate extension of the Empire. To the coalition of the northern powers he added the league of the Baltic and Mediterranean ports, and to the bombardment of Copenhagen by an English fleet he responded by a second decree of blockade, dated from Milan on December 17, 1807.
But the application of the Concordat and the taking of Naples led to the first of those struggles with the pope in which were formulated two antagonistic doctrines: Napoleon declaring himself Roman emperor, and Pius VII renewing the theocratic affirmations of Pope Gregory VII. The Emperor's Roman ambition was made more and more plainly visible by the occupation of the kingdom of Naples and of the Marches, and by the entry of Miollis into Rome; while Junot invaded Portugal, Radet laid hands on the pope himself, and Joachim Murat took possession of formerly Roman Spain, whither Joseph Bonaparte transferred afterwards.
But Napoleon little knew the flame he was kindling. No more far-seeing than the Directory or the men of the year III, he thought that, with energy and execution, he might succeed in the Peninsula as he had succeeded in Italy in 1796 and 1797, in Egypt, and in Hesse, and that he might cut into Spanish granite as into Italian mosaic or "that big cake, Germany". He stumbled unawares upon the revolt of a proud national spirit, evolved through ten historic centuries; and the trap of Bayonne, together with the enthroning of Joseph Bonaparte, made the contemptible prince of the Asturias the elect of popular sentiment, the representative of religion and country.
Napoleon thought he had Spain within his grasp, and now suddenly everything started slipping from him. The Peninsula became the grave of whole armies and a battlefield against England. Dupont capitulated at Bailen into the hands of Castaños, and Junot at Cintra to Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington; while Europe trembled at this first check to the hitherto invincible imperial armies. To reduce Spanish resistance Napoleon had in his turn to come to terms with the tsar Alexander I of Russia at Erfurt; so that, abandoning his designs in the East, he could maka the Grand Army evacuate Prussia and return in force to Madrid.
Thus Spain swallowed up the soldiers who were wanted for Napoleon's other fields of battle, and they had to be replaced by forced levies. Europe had only to wait, and he would eventually be found disarmed in face of a last coalition; but Spanish heroism infected Austria, and showed the force of national resistance. The provocations of Talleyrand and England strengthened the illusion: Why should not the Austrians emulate the Spaniards? The campaign of 1809, however, was but a pale copy of the Spanish insurrection. After a short and decisive action in Bavaria, Napoleon opened up the road to Vienna for a second time; and after the two days' battle at Essling, the stubborn fight at Wagram, the failure of a patriotic insurrection in northern Germany and of the English expedition against Antwerp, the treaty of Vienna (14 December 1809), with the annexation of the Illyrian provinces, completed the colossal Empire. Napoleon profited, in fact, by this campaign which had been planned for his overthrow.
The pope was deported to Savona beneath the eyes of indifferent Europe, and his domains were incorporated in the Empire; the senate's decision on 17 February 1810 created the title of king of Rome, and made Rome the capital of Italy. The pope banished, it was now desirable to send away those to whom Italy had been more or less promised. Eugene de Beauharnais, Napoleon's stepson, was transferred to Frankfurt, and Murat carefully watched until the time should come to take him to Russia and instal him as king of Poland. Between 1810 and 1812 Napoleon's divorce of Josephine, and his marriage with Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, followed by the birth of the king of Rome, shed a brilliant light upon his future policy. He renounced a federation in which his brothers were not sufficiently docile; he gradually withdrew power (sociology) from them; he concentrated all his affection and ambition on the son who was the guarantee of the continuance of his dynasty. This was the apogee of his reign.
But undermining forces already impinged: the faults inherent in his unwieldy achievement. England, his chief enemy, was persistently active; and rebellion both of the governing and of the governed broke out everywhere. Napoleon felt his impotence in coping with the Spanish Uprising , which he underrated, while yet unable to suppress it altogether. Men like Stein, Hardenberg and Scharnhorst had secretly started preparing Prussia's retaliation.
Napoleon's material omnipotence could not stand against the moral force of the pope, a prisoner at Fontainebleau; and this he did not realise. The alliance arranged at Tilsit was seriously shaken by the Austrian marriage, the threat of a Polish restoration, and the unfriendly policy of Napoleon at Constantinople. The very persons whom he had placed in power were counteracting his plans: after four years' experience Napoleon found himself obliged to treat his Corsican dynasties like those of the ancien régime, and all his relations were betraying him. Caroline Bonaparte conspired against her brother and against her husband Murat; the hypochondriacal Louis, now Dutch in his sympathies, found the supervision of the blockade taken from him, and also the defence of the Scheldt, which he had refused to ensure; Jerome Bonaparte, idling in his harem, lost that of the North Sea shores; and Joseph, who was attempting the moral conquest of Spain, was continually insulted at Madrid. The very nature of things was against the new dynasties, as it had been against the old.
After national insurrections and family recriminations came treachery from Napoleon's ministers. Talleyrand betrayed his designs to Metternich and sufferred dismissed; Fouché corresponded with Austria in 1809 and 1810, entered into an understanding with Louis, and also with England; while Bourrienne was convicted of peculation. By a natural consequence of the spirit of conquest Napoleon had aroused, all these parvenus, having tasted victory, dreamed of sovereign power: Bernadotte, who had helped him to the Consulate, played Napoleon false to win the crown of Sweden; Soult, like Murat, coveted the Spanish throne after that of Portugal, thus anticipating the treason of 1813 and the defection of 1814; many persons hoped for "an accident" which might resemble the tragic ends of Alexander the Great and of Julius Caesar.
The country itself, besides, though flattered by conquests, was tired of self-sacrifice. It had become satiated; "the cry of the mothers rose threateningly" against "the Ogre" and his intolerable imposition of wholesale conscription. The soldiers themselves, discontented after Austerlitz, cried out for peace after Eylau. Finally, amidst profound silence from the press and the Assemblies, a protest was raised against imperial despotism by the literary world, against the excommunicated sovereign by Catholicism, and against the author of the continental blockade by the discontented bourgeoisie, ruined by the crisis of 1811.
Napoleon himself was no longer the "General Bonaparte" of his campaign in Italy. He was already showing signs of physical decay; the Roman medallion profile had coarsened, the obese body was often lymphatic. Mental degeneration, too, betrayed itself in an unwonted irresolution.
At Eylau, at Wagram, and later at Waterloo, his method of acting by enormous masses of infantry and cavalry, in a mad passion for conquest, and his misuse of his military resources, were all signs of his moral and technical decadence; and this at the precise moment when, instead of the armies and governments of the old system, which had hitherto reigned supreme, the nations themselves were rising against France, and the events of 1792 were being avenged upon her. The three campaigns of two years brought the final catastrophe.
Napoleon had hardly succeeded in putting down the revolt in Germany when the tsar of Russia himself headed a European insurrection against the ruinous tyranny of the continental blockade. To put a stop to this, to ensure his own access to the Mediterranean and exclude his chief rival, Napoleon made a desperate effort in 1812 against a country as invincible as Russia. Despite his victorious advance, the taking of Smolensk, the victory on the Moskva, and the entry into Moscow, he was vanquished by Russian patriotism and religious fervour, by the country and the climate, and by Alexander's refusal to make terms. After this came the lamentable retreat, while all Europe was concentrating against him. Pushed back, as he had been in Spain, from bastion to bastion, after the action on the Berezina, Napoleon had to fall back upon the frontiers of 1809, and then - having refused the peace offered him by Austria at the congress of Prague, from a dread of losing Italy, where each of his victories had marked a stage in the accomplishment of his dream - on those of 1805, despite Lützen and Bautzen, and on those of 1802 after his defeat at Leipzig, where Bernadotte turned upon him, Jean Victor Moreau figured among the Allies, and the Saxons and Bavarians forsook him.
Following his retreat from Russia came Napoleon's retreat from Germany. After the loss of Spain, reconquered by Wellington, the rising in the Netherlands preliminary to the invasion and the manifesto of Frankfurt which proclaimed it, he had to fall back upon the frontiers of 1795; and then later was driven yet farther back upon. those of 1792, despite the wonderful campaign of 1814 against the invaders, in which the old Bonaparte of 1796 seemed to have returned. Paris capitulated on 30 March 1814, and the Delenda Carthago, pronounced against England, was spoken of Napoleon. The great empire of East and West fell in ruins with the emperor's abdication at Fontainebleau. Only the Hundred Days revived the flame for a final flicker: France returned to a restored Bourbon monarchy in the person of Louis XVIII.
See also: Napoleonic Era
Initial text from 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica. Please update as needed.