The First French Empire (French language: Empire Français), also known as the Greater French Empire or Napoleonic Empire, was the empire of Napoleon I of France. It was the dominant power of much of continental Europe at the beginning of the 19th century.
Napoleon became Emperor of the French (L'Empereur des Français, pronounced: [lɑ̃.pʁœʁ dɛ fʁɑ̃.sɛ]) on 18 May 1804 and crowned Emperor on 2 December 1804, ending the period of the French Consulate, and won early military victories in the War of the Third Coalition against Austria, Prussia, Russia, Portugal, and allied nations, notably at the Battle of Austerlitz (1805) and the Battle of Friedland (1807). The Treaty of Tilsit in July 1807 ended two years of bloodshed on the European continent.
The subsequent series of wars known collectively as the Napoleonic Wars extended French influence over much of Western Europe and into Poland. At its height in 1812, the French Empire had 130 départements, ruled over 44 million subjects, maintained an extensive military presence in Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Duchy of Warsaw, and could count Prussia and Austria as nominal allies. Early French victories exported many ideological features of the French Revolution throughout Europe. Seigneurial dues and seigneurial justice were abolished, aristocratic privileges were eliminated in all places except Poland, and the introduction of the Napoleonic Code throughout the continent increased legal equality, established jury systems, and legalized divorce. However Napoleon also placed relatives on the thrones of several European countries and granted many noble titles, most of which were not recognized after the empire fell.
Historians have estimated the death toll from the Napoleonic Wars to be 6.5 million people, or 15% of the French Empire's subjects. In particular, French losses in the Peninsular War in Spain severely weakened the Empire; after victory over the Austrian Empire in the War of the Fifth Coalition (1809) Napoleon deployed over 600,000 troops to attack Russia  in the catastrophic French invasion of the Russian Empire in 1812. The War of the Sixth Coalition saw the expulsion of French forces from Germany in 1813.
Napoleon abdicated in 11 April 1814. The Empire was briefly restored during the Hundred Days period in 1815 until Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. It was followed by the restored monarchy of the House of Bourbon.
In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte was confronted by Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès – one of the five Directors who constituted the executive branch of the French government—who sought his support for a coup d'état to overthrow the French Constitution of 1795. The plot included Bonaparte's brother Lucien, then serving as speaker of the Council of Five Hundred, Roger Ducos, another Director, and Talleyrand. On 9 November 1799 (18 Brumaire, An VIII under the French Republican Calendar), and the following day, troops led by Bonaparte seized control. They dispersed the legislative councils, leaving a rump legislature to name Bonaparte, Sieyès and Ducos as provisional Consuls to administer the government. Although Sieyès expected to dominate the new regime, the Consulate, he was outmanoeuvred by Bonaparte, who drafted the Constitution of the Year VIII and secured his own election as First Consul. This made him the most powerful person in France, a power that was increased by the Constitution of the Year X, which made him First Consul for life.
The Battle of Marengo (14 June 1800) inaugurated the political idea that was to continue its development until Napoleon's Moscow campaign. Napoleon planned only to keep the Duchy of Milan for France, setting aside Austria, and was thought to prepare a new campaign in the East. The Peace of Amiens, which cost him control of Egypt, was a temporary truce. He gradually extended his authority in Italy by annexing the Piedmont and by acquiring Genoa, Parma, Tuscany and Naples and added this Italian territory to his Cisalpine Gaul. Then he laid siege to the Roman state and initiated the Concordat of 1801 to control the material claims of the pope. When he recognised his error of raising the authority of the pope from that of a figurehead, Napoleon produced the Articles Organiques (1802) wanting, like Charlemagne, to be the legal protector of the papacy. To conceal his plans before their actual execution, he aroused French colonial aspirations against Britain and the memory of the 1763 Treaty of Paris, exacerbating British envy of France, whose borders now extended to the Rhine and beyond, to Hanover, Hamburg and Cuxhaven.
On 12 May 1802, the French Tribunat voted unanimously, with exception of Carnot, in favour of the Life Consulship for the leader of France. This action was confirmed by the Corps Législatif. A general plebiscite followed thereafter resulting in 3,653,600 votes aye and 8,272 votes nay. On 2 August 1802 (14 Thermidor, An X), Napoleon Bonaparte was proclaimed Consul for life.
An overwhelming tide of pro-revolutionary sentiment swept through Germany by the "Recess of 1803", which brought Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden to France's side. William Pitt the Younger, back in power in Britain, appealed once more for an Anglo-Austro-Russian coalition against Napoleon to stop the ideals of revolutionary France from spreading.
On 18 May 1804, Napoleon was given the title of emperor by the Senate; finally, on 2 December 1804, he was solemnly crowned, after receiving the Iron Crown of the Lombard kings, and was consecrated by Pope Pius VII in Notre-Dame de Paris.
After this, in four campaigns, the Emperor transformed his "Carolingian" feudal and federal empire into one modelled on the Roman Empire. The memories of imperial Rome were for a third time, after Julius Caesar and Charlemagne, to modify the historical evolution of France. Though the vague plan for an invasion of Britain was never executed, the Battle of Ulm and the Battle of Austerlitz overshadowed the defeat of Trafalgar, and the camp at Boulogne put at Napoleon's disposal the best military resources he had commanded, in the form of La Grande Armée.
In the War of the Third Coalition, Napoleon swept away the remnants of the old Holy Roman Empire and created in southern Germany the vassal states of Bavaria, Baden, Württemberg, Hesse-Darmstadt and Saxony, which were reorganized into the Confederation of the Rhine. The Treaty of Pressburg, signed on 26 December 1805, did little other than create a more unified Germany to threaten France. On the other hand, Napoleon's creation of the Kingdom of Italy, the occupation of Ancona, and his annexation of Venetia and its former Adriatic territories marked a new stage in his Empire's progress.
To create satellite states, Napoleon installed his relatives as rulers of many European states. The Bonapartes began to marry into old European monarchies, gaining sovereignty over many nations. Joseph Bonaparte replaced the dispossessed Bourbons in Naples; Louis Bonaparte was installed on the throne of the Kingdom of Holland, formed from the Batavian Republic; Joachim Murat became Grand-Duke of Berg; Jérôme Bonaparte was made son-in-law to the King of Württemberg; and Eugène de Beauharnais was appointed to be the King of Bavaria while Stéphanie de Beauharnais married the son of the Grand Duke of Baden. In addition to the vassal titles, Napoleon's closest relatives were also granted the title of French Prince and formed the Imperial House of France.
Met with opposition, Napoleon would not tolerate any neutral power. On 6 August 1806 the Habsburgs abdicated their title of Holy Roman Emperor in order to prevent Napoleon from becoming the next Emperor, ending a political power which had endured for over a thousand years. Prussia had been offered the territory of Hannover to stay out of the Third Coalition. With the diplomatic situation changing, Napoleon offered Great Britain the province as part of a peace proposal. This, combined with growing tensions in Germany over French hegemony, Prussia responded by forming an alliance with Russia and sending troops into Bavaria on 1 October 1806. In this War of the Fourth Coalition, Napoleon destroyed the armies of Frederick William at Jena-Auerstedt. The Eylau and the Friedland against the Russians finally ruined Frederick the Great's formerly mighty kingdom, obliging Russia and Prussia to make peace at Tilsit.
Height of the Empire
The Treaties of Tilsit ended war between Imperial Russia and the French Empire and began an alliance between the two empires which held power of much of the rest of Europe. The two empires secretly agreed to aid each other in disputes. France pledged to aid Russia against Ottoman Turkey, while Russia agreed to join the Continental System against the British Empire. Napoleon also convinced Alexander to enter the Anglo-Russian War and to instigate the Finnish War against Sweden in order to force Sweden to join the Continental System.
More specifically, the Tsar agreed to evacuate Wallachia and Moldavia, which had been occupied by Russian forces as part of the Russo-Turkish War, 1806-1812. The Ionian Islands and Cattaro, which had been captured by Russian admirals Ushakov and Senyavin, were to be handed over to the French. In recompense, Napoleon guaranteed the sovereignty of the Duchy of Oldenburg and several other small states ruled by the Tsar's German relatives.
The treaty removed about half of Prussia's territory: Kottbus passed to Saxony, the left bank of the Elbe was awarded to the newly created Kingdom of Westphalia, Białystok was given to Russia, and the rest of Polish lands in the Prussian possession were set up as the Duchy of Warsaw. Prussia was ordered to reduce their army to 40,000 and to pay an indemnity of 100,000,000 francs. Observers in Prussia viewed the treaty as unfair and as a national humiliation.
Talleyrand had advised Napoleon to pursue milder terms; the treaties marked an important stage in his estrangement from the emperor. After the Treaties of Tilsit, instead of trying to reconcile Europe, as Talleyrand had advised, Napoleon wanted to defeat Britain and complete his Italian dominion. It was from Berlin, on 21 November 1806, that he had dated the first decree of a continental blockade, intended to paralyze his rival, but which would contribute to his own fall by its immoderate extension of the Empire. To the coalition of the northern powers, he added the league of the Baltic and Mediterranean ports, and to the bombardment of Copenhagen by a Royal Navy fleet he responded by a second decree of blockade, dated from Milan on 17 December 1807.
The application of the Concordat and the taking of Naples led to the first struggles with the Pope, centered around two issues: Napoleon declaring himself Roman Emperor, and Pius VII renewing the theocratic affirmations of Pope Gregory VII. The Emperor's Roman ambition was made more visible by the occupation of the Kingdom of Naples and of the Marches, and by the entry of Miollis into Rome; while Junot invaded Portugal, Joachim Murat took possession of formerly Roman Spain, whither Joseph Bonaparte transferred afterwards.
Napoleon thought he might succeed in the Iberian Peninsula as he had done in Italy, in Egypt, and in Hesse. However, the exile of the Royal Family to Bayonne, together with the enthroning of Joseph Bonaparte, turned the Spanish against Napoleon. After the Dos de Mayo riots and subsequent reprisals, the Spanish began an effective guerrilla campaign, under the oversight of a Supreme Junta. The Peninsula became the grave of whole armies and saw a war against Spain, Portugal, and Great Britain. Dupont capitulated at Bailen to General Castaños, and Junot at Sintra, Portugal to General Wellesley. To combat the Spanish resistance, Napoleon came to terms with the Tsar Alexander I of Russia at Erfurt, so that, abandoning his designs in the East, he could make the Grand Army return in force to Madrid.
Spain used up the soldiers needed for Napoleon's other fields of battle, and they had to be replaced by conscripts. Spanish resistance affected Austria, and indicated the potential of national resistance. The provocations of Talleyrand and Britain strengthened the idea that Austrians could emulate the Spaniards. On April 10, 1809, Austria invaded France's ally, Bavaria. The campaign of 1809, however, would not be nearly as long and troublesome for France as the Spanish one. After a short and decisive action in Bavaria, Napoleon opened up the road to Vienna for a second time. At Aspern-Essling, Napoleon suffered his first serious tactical defeat, along with the death of Jean Lannes, an able Marshall and dear friend of the Emperor. The victory at Wagram, however, forced Austria to sue for peace. The Treaty of Schönbrunn, 14 December 1809, annexed the Illyrian provinces and recognized past French conquests.
The Pope was deported to Savona, and his domains were incorporated into the Empire. The Senate's decision on 17 February 1810 created the title of King of Rome, and made Rome the capital of Italy. Between 1810 and 1812 Napoleon's divorce of Josephine, and his marriage with Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, followed by the birth of the king of Rome, shed light upon his future policy. He gradually withdrew power from his siblings and concentrated his affection and ambition on his son, the guarantee of the continuance of his dynasty. This was the apogee of the empire.
Intrigues and unrest
Undermining forces, however, had already begun to impinge on the faults inherent in Napoleon’s achievements. Britain, protected by the English Channel and her navy, was persistently active, and rebellion of both the governing and of the governed broke out everywhere. Napoleon, though he underrated it, soon felt his failure in coping with the Spanish uprising. Men like Baron von Stein, August von Hardenberg and Johann von Scharnhorst had secretly started preparing Prussia's retaliation.
The alliance arranged at Tilsit was seriously shaken by the Austrian marriage, the threat of Polish restoration to Russia, and the Continental System. The very persons whom he had placed in power were counteracting his plans. With many of his siblings and relations performing unsuccessfully or even betraying him, Napoleon found himself obliged to revoke their power. Caroline Bonaparte conspired against her brother and against her husband Murat; the hypochondriac Louis, now Dutch in his sympathies, found the supervision of the blockade taken from him, and also the defense of the Scheldt, which he had refused to ensure. Jérôme Bonaparte lost control of the blockade on North Sea shores. The very nature of things was against the new dynasties, as it had been against the old.
After national insurrections and family recriminations came treachery from Napoleon's ministers. Talleyrand betrayed his designs to Metternich and suffered dismissal. Joseph Fouché, corresponding with Austria in 1809 and 1810, entered into an understanding with Louis and also with Britain, while Bourrienne was convicted of speculation. By consequence of the spirit of conquest Napoleon had aroused, many of his marshals and officials, having tasted victory, dreamed of sovereign power: Bernadotte, who had helped him to the Consulate, played Napoleon false to win the crown of Sweden. Soult, like Murat, coveted the Spanish throne after that of Portugal, thus anticipating the treason of 1813 and the defection of 1814. Many persons hoped for "an accident", which might resemble the deaths of Alexander the Great and of Julius Caesar.
The country itself, though flattered by conquests, was tired of self-sacrifice. The unpopularity of conscription policies gradually turned many of Napoleon’s subjects against him. Amidst profound silence from the press and the assemblies, a protest was raised against imperial power by the literary world, against the excommunicated sovereign by Catholicism, and against the author of the continental blockade by the discontented bourgeoisie, ruined by the crisis of 1811. Even as he lost his military principles, Napoleon maintained his gift for brilliance. His Six Days Campaign, which took place at the very end of the Sixth Coalition, is often regarded as his greatest display of leadership and military prowess. But by then it was the end (or "the finish"), and it was during the years before when the nations of Europe conspired against France. While the Emperor and his holdings idled and worsened, the rest of Europe agreed to avenge the revolutionary events of 1792.
Napoleon had hardly succeeded in putting down the revolt in Germany when the Tsar of Russia himself headed a European insurrection against Napoleon. To put a stop to this, to ensure his own access to the Mediterranean and exclude his chief rival, Napoleon made an effort in 1812 against Russia. Despite his victorious advance, the taking of Smolensk, the victory on the Moskva, and the entry into Moscow, he was defeated by the country and the climate, and by Alexander's refusal to make terms. After this came the lamentable retreat in the harsh Russian winter, while all Europe was concentrating against him. Pushed back, as he had been in Spain, from bastion to bastion, after the action on the Berezina, Napoleon had to fall back upon the frontiers of 1809, and then—having refused the peace offered to him by Austria at the Congress of Prague (4 June–10 August 1813), from a dread of losing Italy, where each of his victories had marked a stage in the accomplishment of his dream—on those of 1805, despite Lützen and Bautzen, and on those of 1802 after his defeat at Leipzig, when Bernadotte – now Crown Prince of Sweden – turned upon him, General Moreau also joined the Allies, and longstanding allied nations, such as Saxony and Bavaria, forsook him as well.
Following his retreat from Russia, Napoleon continued to retreat, this time from Germany. After the loss of Spain, reconquered by an allied army led by Wellington, the rising in the Netherlands preliminary to the invasion and the manifesto of Frankfort (1 December 1813) which proclaimed it, he had to fall back upon the frontiers of 1795; and then later was driven yet farther back upon those of 1792—despite the campaign of 1814 against the invaders. Paris capitulated on 30 March 1814, and the Delenda Carthago, pronounced against Britain, was spoken of Napoleon. The Empire fell with Napoleon's abdication at Fontainebleau on 11 April 1814.
After a brief exile at the island of Elba, Napoleon escaped, with a ship, a few men, and four cannon. The King sent Marshal Ney to arrest Napoleon. Upon meeting the army sent to arrest him, Napoleon dismounted and walked into firing range, saying "If one of you wishes to kill his Emperor, here I am!" But instead of firing, they went to join Napoleon's side shouting "Vive l'Empereur!" Napoleon recaptured the throne temporarily in 1815, reviving the Empire in what is known as the Hundred Days. However, he was defeated by the Seventh Coalition at the Battle of Waterloo. He surrendered himself to the Coalition and was exiled to Saint Helena, a remote island in the South Atlantic, where he remained until his death in 1821. After the Hundred Days (just less than a third of a year), the Bourbon monarchy was restored, with Louis XVIII regaining the throne of France, while the rest of Napoleon's conquests were disposed of in the Congress of Vienna.
Nature of Bonaparte's rule
Napoleon gained support by appealing to some common concerns of French people. These included dislike of the emigrant nobility who had escaped persecution, fear by some of a restoration of the ancien régime, a dislike and suspicion of foreign countries that had tried to reverse the Revolution – and a wish by Jacobins to extend France's revolutionary ideals.
Napoleon attracted power and imperial status and gathered support for his changes of French institutions, such as the Concordat of 1801 which confirmed the Catholic Church as the majority church of France and restored some of its civil status. Napoleon by this time however was not a democrat, nor a republican. He was, he liked to think, an enlightened despot, the sort of man Voltaire might have found appealing. He preserved numerous social gains of the Revolution while suppressing political liberty. He admired efficiency and strength and hated feudalism, religious intolerance, and civil inequality. Enlightened despotism meant political stability. He knew his Roman history well, as after 500 years of republicanism, Rome became an empire under Augustus Caesar.
Although a supporter of the radical Jacobins during the early days of the Revolution (more out of pragmatism than any real ideology), Napoleon became increasingly autocratic as his political career progressed and once in power embraced certain aspects of both liberalism and authoritarianism – for example, public education, a generally liberal restructuring of the French legal system, and the emancipation of the Jews – while rejecting electoral democracy and freedom of the press
Notes and references
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- Martyn Lyons, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Legacy of the French Revolution. p. 232
- Martyn Lyons p. 234-236
- Todd Fisher & Gregory Fremont-Barnes, The Napoleonic Wars: The Rise and Fall of an Empire. p. 146. Additionally, with 300,000 troops in Spain and 200,000 scattered throughout Central Europe, the Empire had an army whose numbers exceeded a million.
- Bulletin des Lois
- Claims he seized the crown out of the hands of Pope Pius VII during the ceremony – to avoid subjecting himself to the authority of the pontiff – are apocryphal; the coronation procedure had been agreed in advance. See also: Napoleon Tiara.
- The Frankfort Declaration, 1 December 1813: http://www.napoleon-series.org/research/government/diplomatic/c_frankfort.html
- Chandler, David G. The Campaigns of Napoleon. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. ISBN 0-02-523660-1
- Colton, Joel and Palmer, R.R. A History of the Modern World. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1992. ISBN 0-07-040826-2
- Elting, John R. Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon's Grande Armée. New York: Da Capo Press Inc., 1988. ISBN 0-306-80757-2
- Fisher, Todd & Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. The Napoleonic Wars: The Rise and Fall of an Empire. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2004. ISBN 1-84176-831-6
- Lyons, Martyn. Napoleon Bonaparte and the Legacy of the French Revolution. New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1994. ISBN 0-312-12123-7
- McLynn, Frank. Napoleon: A Biography. New York: Arcade Publishing Inc., 1997. ISBN 1-55970-631-7
- Roberts, J.M. History of the World. New York: Penguin Group, 1992. ISBN 0-19-521043-3
- Schom, Alan. Napoleon Bonaparte. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. ISBN 0-06-092958-8
- Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. London: Penguin Group, 1982. ISBN 0-14-044417-3
- Uffindell, Andrew. Great Generals of the Napoleonic Wars. Kent: Spellmount, 2003. ISBN 1-86227-177-1
- Napoleon, His Armies and Battles
- First Empire Magazine Covering the History, Battles and Uniforms of Napoleonic era
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