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Napoleon Bonaparte's rise to power at the end of the eighteenth century led to two decades of change not only in France, but in all of Europe. From the Napoleonic Wars to progressive reforms in law, education, and human rights, Napoleon left a legacy that forever changed the politics and culture of Europe.

The seven coalitions of the Napoleonic wars

The often-used term Napoleonic Wars implies that Napoleon was the instigator in every military campaign of the period. That’s not the whole story. The wars of this period were really about other nations of Europe trying to overthrow first the French Revolution and then Napoleon. Seven coalitions were formed for these purposes:

  • First coalition (1792–1797): Austria, Great Britain, Spain, and Prussia variously were in or out of this coalition against Revolutionary France. The coalition collapsed with General Napoleon Bonaparte’s success in Italy that led to the Treaty of Campo Formio. The most important battle was probably the Battle of Lodi (May 10, 1796).

  • Second coalition (1799–1802): Britain, Austria, and Russia, which were unhappy with French expansion, were the main culprits here. Napoleon was in Egypt for part of this time, winning the Battle of the Pyramids and establishing modern Egyptology, but he hastened back in 1799 and took control of France as First Consul. His campaign in Italy, mostly against the Austrians, was highlighted by the Battle of Marengo (June 14, 1800).

  • Third coalition (1805): Fearful of an expanding France, Britain, Austria, and Russia formed the third coalition, but Austria and Russia were soundly beaten at the Battle of Austerlitz (December 2, 1805). The ensuing treaty ended hostilities for only a short time.

  • Fourth coalition (1806–1807): Russia and Britain were still at war with France, and Prussia jumped into a new coalition. But the Prussians and Russians were soundly drubbed at the Battle of Friedland (June 14, 1807), effectively ending hostilities.

  • Fifth coalition (1809): Once again, the Austrians and British (these guys just dont give up, do they?) joined forces to try to throw Napoleon out of France. And once again, Napoleon thumped the Austrians, this time at the Battle of Wagram (July 5–6, 1809). But the Brits were getting active in Spain, and the handwriting was on the wall.

  • Sixth coalition (1812–1814): Russia betrayed Napoleon, and the resulting hostilities led to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and victory at Borodino (September 7, 1812). But Napoleon’s withdrawal from Russia opened the floodgates, and one by one his allies became former allies and members of the sixth coalition. Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Leipzig (October 16–19, 1813) sealed his fate, and in 1814 he was exiled from France (as Emperor of Elba).

  • Seventh coalition (1815): Napoleon’s return to France in March 1815 for a second reign as emperor (dubbed the Hundred Days to indicate its duration) caused all his old enemies to unite against him, with final defeat coming at Waterloo (June 18, 1815). That was it for Napoleon, who was exiled to the island of St. Helena, where he died on May 5, 1821.

Napoleon Bonaparte's lasting contributions

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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