Many of Napoleon’s individual domestic reforms—the system of prefects, the Bank of France, the law code—proved enduring, but the fate of the First Empire as a whole was determined on the battlefield. Indeed, the First Empire was, more than anything else, a machine of war. In 1803 France renewed conflict with England, and soon thereafter with other powers. Over the next few years, Napoleon won a string of brilliant military victories. His special target was Britain, the keystone of the opposing alliance. Napoleon sought to cripple the British economy and stimulate French production with the Continental System, a blockade to prevent British goods from reaching most European nations. The Continental System failed, but by 1810 Napoleon had established an empire of satellite kingdoms—many ruled by his relatives. Napoleon’s empire extended from Spain to Poland and included an alliance with Russia as well as the subordination of Prussia and Austria.
This empire proved unstable and was short-lived. Spain erupted in guerrilla activity, supported by Britain; Russia pulled out of both the Continental System and its French alliance; and Napoleon failed to turn around Russian opposition through his ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812.
By 1813 the empire was crumbling and reeling from defeat. The following year allied armies entered France. Napoleon abdicated and was sent to the Italian island of Elba while the Bourbons returned to power under Louis XVIII.
In 1815 Napoleon attempted a comeback. He arrived in France and rallied the people to his side under the promise of a new, more liberal regime. But this brief interlude, known as the Hundred Days, ended with Napoleon’s final crushing defeat in the Battle of Waterloo and the second Bourbon restoration. The career that began in military glory ended because of military and diplomatic miscalculation. Napoleon was exiled to the Atlantic island of Saint Helena, where he died in 1821.
Few individuals have had such a lasting impact on French history as Napoleon. Yet the nature of his legacy remains disputed. He ended the turbulence of the revolutionary decade while completing some of the revolution’s unfinished business. His way of healing the cleavage between revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries was to personalize politics through a cult of his own glory, to embark on ultimately fruitless campaigns of military conquest that cost the lives of about 3 million people, and to unify the nation through the centralization of power. This was one possible answer to the instability resulting from the revolution, and those who were moved by Napoleon’s myth in later years found it as compelling as had so many of his contemporaries.
Yet, whether such a system could have endured much longer is questionable, given the losses of manpower and wealth. Although Napoleon attempted to stimulate French economic production, he was unable to prevent a net decline in trade and a reduction in the agricultural and industrial growth rate, due to the disruptions of war. Moreover, it is arguable that the Napoleonic system of command was not suited for a nation that still had aspirations for liberty, had practiced a primitive form of democracy during the revolution, and was about to enter a new industrial age. Napoleon opened careers to men of talent but modest background, so long as they accepted the kind of state-imposed tutelage from which the early revolution had sought to release them. It remained to be seen what the French would do under less coercive regimes. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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