The Napoleon Series: FAQ

Was Napoleon an Heir to the French Revolution?

By Robert Burnham

Napoleon was indirectly responsible for spreading many of the ideals of the French Revolution throughout Europe. Although he never openly espoused revolutionary tenets his Empire and government was in many ways the living embodiment of those ideals. The three main areas that he had a significant impact were individualism, secularism, and nationalism.

Individualism: Prior to the French Revolution, class or social status was more important in French society and government than the individual. Merit and ability was subordinated to your family status and whether you were of the noble class. The Revolution did away with this and stated that all individuals were equal in the eyes of the government. How one advanced was based on merit rather than who one's ancestors were. Napoleon enshrined this with a new aristocracy based on merit. Those who performed and contributed were rewarded. The new Princes, Dukes, and Barons were men who earned their titles, most often on the battlefield. A review of his Marshals would show that they came from all walks of life, including a barrel maker, a cabin boy, a former sergeant, and a minor noble. In addition to this, he created he Legion of Honor to recognize those who deeds merited it.

Secularism: The French Revolution placed the state above the Church, an extremely revolutionary concept. The Revolution even went as far to ban organized religion. Napoleon was willing to heal the rift between the Catholic Church and the government, but only if the Church did not meddle in state affairs. The Church lost its right to run schools, and to have special taxes and privileges, however Napoleon did re-open the churches and was tolerant of all religions. He even invited the Pope Pius VII to his coronation to crown him the new Emperor of France. Napoleon's true feelings on his relationship with the Church were demonstrated by his actions at the coronation. When the Pope went to place the crown on Napoleon's head, Napoleon took the crown out of the Pope's hands and crowned himself. Thus showing that he believed that since he embodied the State, the Pope had no legitimate right to crown him for in the new France the state was not subordinate to the Church.

Jacobin Nationalism: Prior to the Revolution, the state was symbolized by the monarch and the loyalty of the people was to ruler not to the state. The Revolution made the government the sovereign of the people. It was to this government the people owed their loyalties. "National interests transcend dynastic and all other interests. Citizens are put in national armies and national schools. National flag and anthem supplant royal ensign and hymn." (Hayes; 573). Napoleon built his Empire based on these concepts. It was his soldiers who ousted the old dynasties throughout Europe and gave rise to both German and Italian nationalism that eventually unified the numerous minor kingdoms, states, and principalities into the respective nations of Germany and Italy.

For more information about this topic, read:

Hayes, Carlton. Modern Europe to 1870. MacMillan : New York; 1953; Pp. 572-574.

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