Napoleon Bonaparte: Hero or Tyrant?

 Napoleon Bonaparte. The man, the myth, the legend. A man who took the world by storm, and managed to accomplish so many great things that are still marveled at today. Many think he was a tyrant. Many think he was a hero. From studying his war tactics to analyzing his very words, people have been debating the true worth of Napoleon for many, many years, even escalating to fist fights and broken noses. We are not brutes, however. We are scholars. So we will look at the facts instead of siding with someone on an argument. But in the end, it will ultimately be your decision alone that will decide whether he was a hero sent down by the angels or a tyrant brought up from the devil. 

France was in a tough spot, dealing with the rebuttal of the French Revolutionary Wars. Napoleon came in with his very large reputation and promised order to return to France. Now, after dealing with being hit over and over again, the French were all for order again. Everyone was in agreement with giving Napoleon enough power to make order appear in their lives again. France happily gave him the power, and then a constitution was presented that would give Napoleon absolute power. Normally, this might seem like a suspicious request but these people were still picking themselves off of the ground, so it’s understandable what their decision came to be. The people were asked if they approved of the constitution and their response was an overwhelming, “Yes!”. Half of the people only said yes because it was a public voting, not an anonymous one, like they are today. And so, because of the response, Napoleon took over. Taking power, he slashed the newspapers in half, censored the news, and put opponents in prison and even had some executed. Sounds fair, right? Sounds pretty suspicious actually. Another constitution approved and Napoleon became a consul for life. A consul is as follows:

“An official appointed by a government to live in a foreign city and protect and promote the government’s citizens and interests there.” -Wikipedia 

Meanwhile, Pope Pius VII was elected and Napoleon saw an opportunity. He wanted the church back into the lives of the French. However, Napoleon just wanted the church under his thumb because of the power that it held. Pope Pius VII and Napoleon reached an arrangement and a written agreement confirmed it. Suddenly, the church’s land was confiscated and Catholicism became the religion for the majority of the French. Bishops were supposed to be nominated by Napoleon and approved by the Pope. Bishops were to appoint priests from government lists. As you can see, Napoleon’s hand was deep in the church, and it only goes deeper. He was subtly taking complete control of the church. You might think that Pope Pius VII was furious with the turns of events. However, he chose to look on the optimistic side of things, claiming that at least the churches were open again. He still continued to have authority over the church, so I don’t think he was too upset. Until, that is, the Organic Articles. The Organic Articles were a set of articles that basically discussed France’s freedom. Church marriages weren’t recognized unless accompanied by a civil certificate, something that is very normal today. It wasn’t back in 1700’s Europe, that’s for sure. And it wasn’t just with the marriages, it was with the seminary in the church. You see, seminary training, instead of being under the church’s watch, was under the governments watch and control. If you were starting to doubt Napoleon, you’d turn around in a second once you see what he did next. He introduced Code Napoleon, which was established in all areas of Europe where the French became dominant. Code Napoleon or the Napoleonic Code was a French code that gave more freedom to the people. What kind of freedom? Well, it let you choose your own religion and you weren’t given special privileges based on where you were born. It made it so that government jobs would be given to the most qualified instead of just the rich or fortunate. However, despite the good it might’ve done, in 1804, Napoleon decided that he wanted more power. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, but apparently Napoleon didn’t get the memo. So, he went to Pope Pius VII, stateing that he wanted to become emperor and that he wanted the Pope to officiate. Despite inviting Pope Pius VII to the ceremony, Napoleon was the one who put the crown on his head. With all of this power, he decided it was time to take action. And so he went and made very hostile moves towards Switzerland. England decided that it wasn’t going to stand for that behavior. But Napoleon was prepared for a rebuttal. He set up the Continental Blockade, which meant that any country that he didn’t dominate, couldn’t trade with England, which cut off trading sources for England. They retaliated with a blockade of their own. Many significant battles took place during the two years of the blockades. In 1805, Napoleon led the Battle of Austerlitz. This is considered one of his greatest victories to date. Napoleon was on one side, and Great Britain, the Holy Roman Empire, and Russia were on the other. Obviously, Napoleon came out on top, his victory legendary as it is. The battle, along with many other wars fought by Napoleon have been named the Napoleonic Wars, which included the downfall of the Holy Roman Empire.

Pope Pius VII didn’t stand for the blockades. And because Napoleon didn’t like that, he had his troops overrun the Papal States. The Papal States were a collection of states ruled over by the Pope, much like how the President of the United States rules over the United States. The Pope, however, stood his ground but the French troops occupied Rome, probably to draw out the Pope. Napoleon was not happy and demanded that the Pope surrender. He claimed that he would annex the Papl States and force the Pope to be his vassal. In simpler terms, Napoleon wanted to add the Papal States to his collection of power and wanted to have the Pope under certain conditions as an ally. And in retaliation, Pope Pius VII excommunicated Napoleon. This was a very big deal, as by excommunicating Napoleon, the Pope took away Napoleon’s power over the church. Napoleon, in turn, ordered his generals to bring him the Pope, calling him a crazy fool. The French soldiers burst in on the Pope but were so struck by his power, that they tried to be as polite as possible, showing him respect, and even kissing his ring.

Napoleon brought much of Europe under his domination and in 1812, decided to make the worst decision of his life. He decided to invade Russia. Now, Russia wasn’t some small colony that could be overrun. No, Russia was massive and it’s armies were brutal. So, it was no surprise when Napoleon lost over ninety percent of his army and limped back home. Seeing his weakness, other forces came together and started to finish him off. He was sent to Elba, but sneaked back to France and, under everyone’s noses, he raised yet another army! And then of course, there was the Hundred Days War in the spring. Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, and Russia put out one-thousand five-hundred troops each, in order to end Napoleon, once and for all. After realizing that he was outmatched (and after putting up quite a fight) Napoleon’s followers turned on him and he escaped and demanded safety from the other nations. Great Britain agreed and kept him on the island of Saint Helena. There he remained for the rest of his days, claiming the government was trying to kill him faster while he was there, and finally died on May 5, 1821 at fifty-two years old. 

So! After reading his life story, gather your facts, for it is time for us to compare notes. Was Napoleon really a hero or was he a tyrant? We could go on the hero side and say that he did much good for Europe and the French. After all, he introduced the Napoleonic Code which has done a great many good things! It’s even been implemented in areas outside of Europe! That’s a pretty good thing, right? What about him coming in and saving the French? He gave them order and a ruler to look up to. His battle strategies are studied in military schools today because he was so clever. He made the world a better place. Or did he make it worse off? Let’s look at the tyrant side of things. He forcefully took over the church once he re-introduced it. He stuck his little hands in everyone’s business. He declared war and fought ruthlessly. He crowded himself Emperor so that he’d have all of the power. He lashed out at the Pope for disagreeing and took over his collective states as a response. On one argument, he was someone who wanted the best for his people and wanted to rule fairly over all. On the other, he was a power-hungry genius who wanted to have Europe in the palm of his hand. Was he truly a hero or was he a psychopath bent on a tyrannical rule? Was he truly a tyrant or was he a misunderstood ruler who only wanted the best for the world? It is your decision in the end, though I think the facts speak for themselves. 

-Reference, Wikipedia

Western Civliliaztion 2, Lesson 180


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