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Napoleon Bonaparte's Lasting Contributions

Part of the Napoleon For Dummies Cheat Sheet

When you hear the name Napoleon, you may think first and foremost of a military leader. But Napoleon made many lasting contributions to the institutions of France and to Europe as a whole. Here are just a handful:

  • The Code Napoléon: When Napoleon became the leader of France, one of his top priorities was to reorganize the entire legal structure. By the time he was done, France had a unified, progressive legal system, which Napoleon then gave to other parts of his empire. Today, the Code Napoléon is the basis of law in France and a number of other countries, as well as in the state of Louisiana!

  • Economic reforms: The terrible French economy was one of the key factors leading to the French Revolution. When Napoleon came to power, he turned it around in only a year. Fair taxes, increased trade, the development of French luxury industries, a new commercial code, an improved infrastructure, and a central bank to control monetary policy were keys to his success.

  • Religious freedom: The Catholic Church had dominated French society, but the French Revolution tossed it out on its ear. Napoleon reached an agreement with the Pope allowing the Church a major role in French society while providing religious freedom for all others. He also abolished slavery and freed the serfs, and today he is seen as a progressive force in European history.

  • Freedom for the Jews: The previous item might seem to encompass this accomplishment, but the awful discrimination against Jews makes them a special case. In various parts of Europe, they had been forced to wear arm bands, kept from certain professions, made to live in ghettos, and prevented from attending their synagogues. Napoleon put an end to all of those restrictions, made Jews full citizens of France, and even wrote a proclamation that established the idea of a Jewish homeland in Israel.

  • Education reforms: To create a middle-class cadre of leaders, Napoleon reorganized France's education system. He restarted the primary schools, created a new elite secondary system of schools (called lycées), and established many other schools for the general populace. He promoted education for girls and greatly improved teacher training. Literacy levels in France soared under Napoleon's reforms.

  • European unity: Napoleon's empire, accompanied by his legal and other reforms, helped provide the basis for what is today the European Union. He worked hard to create a unified Italy, Poland, and Germany. Napoleon was also responsible for sweeping away many of the old regimes and promoting the ideals of equality and European solidarity. Sure, the old regimes still had some life in them when Napoleon left the scene, but things were never really the same. For that reason, Napoleon is often considered the father of modern Europe.

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