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Napoleon and the French Revolution
During the French Revolution, the uprising provoked many of the nations of Europe to attack France to stop the upheaval, because they feared revolution against monarchies and past institutions would spread to their areas too. France also dealt with internal conflicts as well. Royalists, those loyal to the monarchy, tried to attack the National Convention in 1795. A solider named Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) defended the National Convention and forced the royalist forces to retreat.
Napoleon rose as a leader in the army to fight against Austria, a nation that entered into war with France, when the French Revolution began. Napoleon achieved great success in Europe and even attacked British interests in Egypt. Napoleon wanted to disrupt British trade in the area and advance France’s presence to expand their own trade. At the Battle of the Nile, in 1798, a British naval leader, Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) utterly defeated the French navy marooned in the Egyptian delta. This was a major setback for Napoleon's goals for Egypt. Yet, he remained a famous war hero to the French.
A coup is when people rise up against their government to establish new leaders. In 1799, in the Coup d'état, Napoleon returned from Egypt. Napoleon’s troops removed from power the leaders who challenged his reign. The lawmakers that remained dissolved their existing order, called the Directory, a group of five men with executive power, and made a new leadership group called the Consulate. Napoleon was the First Consul with the most power, essentially making him the dictator of France. Britain, Austria, and Russia led a military resistance to remove Napoleon. Yet, by 1802, these nations had signed peace agreements with France recognizing Napoleon as the new leader of France.
By 1800, the French people voted to approve a new constitution. This vote of the people is called a plebiscite. While he was, paradoxically, a dictator, Napoleon claimed he supported many of the reforms that had occurred in the Revolution rooted in the ideas of the Enlightenment. Napoleon established public schools for males, called Lycées, and reestablished the presence of the Catholic Church in France. Yet, it he insisted that the Catholic Church did not get to have control of the national government.
Napoleon felt a standard of law should be created and recognized throughout all of France. He called this standard the Napoleonic Code. This created stability for the nation, but in a strict, authoritarian way. Many of the freedoms that the Enlightenment and the French Revolution championed, such as the Freedom of Speech, Elected Leaders, and other rights, were severely limited in the new code. In 1804, Napoleon declared himself to no longer merely be the First Consul of France, but he asserted he was now the Emperor of France. At the coronation, Pope Pius the 7th (1742-1823) was present, showing the Catholic Church recognized Napoleon’s new title.
Napoleon wanted France to control every part of the world it possibly could. He turned first to the Americas in the Western Hemisphere. Saint Domingue was an area where slaves rebelled against France and abolished slavery. While their ties with France were not completely severed, the locals were hostile toward France and Napoleon sought to crush their opposition. Yet, Toussaint L'Ouverture (1743-1803) led a successful resistance to Napoleon. The area declared itself independent and renamed the area Haiti in 1804. Failures like these caused Napoleon to relinquish his plans for the Western Hemisphere. He also gave up lands in North America, selling them to the USA in 1803, then led by President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), in an exchange known as the Louisiana Purchase.
Partially due to the funding he now had through the Louisiana Purchase, Napoleon increased his military pursuit to conqueror all of Europe. He began to expand to parts of the Netherlands, to exert his influence over Switzerland, and to control various areas in Italy. Once again, European nations had to go to war with France, due to this provocation. Britain, Russia, and Austria ended their peace reached in 1802 and once more engaged in war with France.
Led by Napoleon, France experienced many victories over the European alliance against them. Yet, at the Battle of Trafalgar, in 1805, Horatio Nelson led a British fleet against the French forces off the coast of Spain. Spain actually cooperated with France against Britain. Once again, Horatio Nelson led a victorious campaign against Napoleon. This victory established Britain’s domination of the seas and ensured Napoleon would never try to invade Britain. Yet, Napoleon’s campaigns had led to massive control of Europe by the French Empire. He claimed various lands for France and set up puppet leaders, many even related to him, in nations like Spain.
Napoleon established the Continental System, a blockade like scheme to keep Britain from trading with the rest of Europe. He closed various ports in Europe to achieve this goal. This plan didn’t work well. Europeans still smuggled in British made goods or just ignored the system all together. Likewise, Britain used its powerful navy to establish its own blockade like system against France. Ships trading with France were redirected to Britain and had to pay fees to continue to France. This is partially why the USA entered into the War of 1812 with Britain, to stop the seizing of their ships. That conflict ended in the Treaty of Ghent in 1814.
In the Peninsular War, from 1808-1814, Napoleon launched and unsuccessful invasion through Spain to Portugal. Portugal was antagonistic toward the Continental System and Napoleon wanted to conquer their resistance. Napoleon appointed his brother, Joseph, as ruler of Spain. Many Spaniard peasants used guerilla warfare, striking against French soldiers to resist Joseph and Napoleon’s rule. Aided by the British, many Spaniards kept up the resistance causing Napoleon to lose his objective to control Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula. In 1812, Napoleon was furious that the leader of Russia, Czar Alexander the 1st (1777-1825), refused to stop trading with Britain. Alexander even wanted to cooperate with Napoleon, despite this disagreement. Napoleon refused to cooperate and invaded. He led over 400,000 men into Russia. In a drastic move, Alexander initiated a scorched-earth strategy. Even though they had to evacuate, the Russians burned down valuable areas, such as farms and cities, rendering them useless to the invading French. Napoleon even made it to Moscow. Yet, the Russians had set it on fire to stop the French from taking it. The severe winter allowed Russian troops to launch attacks against Napoleon’s troops, forcing them to retreat from the area. France lost the vast majority of their soldiers as casualties to the conflict.
Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Sweden joined with Russia to once again fight Napoleon. By the start of 1814, the alliance was marching on Paris. On March 31st, 1814, France surrendered to the invading forces. Instead of executing him, Napoleon was banished to a small island called Elba off the Italian coast. It seemed as if Napoleon was finally defeated and the series of wars against him would finally be over.
In the absence of Napoleon, the brother of King Louis the 16th, Louis the 18th, took control of France. Yet, many feared this would usher in the old institutions that were challenged by the Enlightenment, such as absolute monarchies. Napoleon utilized this opportunity to assert he wanted to remove the monarchy from France to continue to the French Revolution. He returned and took power declaring himself to be emperor. Furious that he had escaped his exile, Britain launched an invasion of mainland Europe. At a village in Belgium called Waterloo, they attacked Napoleon’s forces. At the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815, to help Britain, the Prussians also invaded. Napoleon was eventually defeated and had to give up power. Once again, Napoleon was exiled, this time to St. Helena in the Atlantic ocean. His rule had brought with it the deaths of millions and horrific wars that plagued the European people. He died in exile and never again was able to gain power in Europe.
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