Napoleonic Europe: how the Emperor built a continent

Napoleonic geopolitics didn't make much impression on Europe's maps, but its influence was wide-ranging.

Napoleon at the Battle of Wagram, painted by Horace Vernet
Napoleon at the Battle of Wagram, painted by Horace Vernet. Wiki Creative Commons

Napoleonic domination of the European continent was very brief, from the coup which brought Napoleon to power in France in 1799, to his final demise at Waterloo in June 1815. Even when the prelude of the French revolutionary wars – and the expansion of French territory they produced – is included, the era of ‘the Great Nation’ (as the French increasingly called themselves in these years) stretches back only to 1792. This is a very short tenure of power, particularly when set beside Rome, the political model both the French revolutionaries and Napoleon made recourse to most often for analogy, inspiration and, at times, outright imitation. To discount the influence of Napoleonic imperial rule on the future of Europe on these grounds is mistaken, however. Over the past quarter of a century, a generation of historians, shaped by the post-war realities of European integration, has increasingly concluded that the decades at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries saw the foundations laid for the public institutions of Europe. Napoleon’s personal domination of the continent was transitory, but the reforms he initiated in the public life of Europe remain the framework in which that public life is pursued.

The Napoleonic hegemony over Western and Central Europe was the geopolitics of its era; it represented a political reality that broke and reconfigured existing borders and regimes, most of which had to be reformulated, after his fall, at the Congress of Vienna in 1814–15. The origins of the process of Napoleonic expansion across Europe were, themselves, the result of geopolitics, of a series of choices made by the Napoleonic regime in its early stages, and a response to geopolitical realities Napoleon had inherited from previous French regimes, both before and after the Revolution of 1789. Since the 17th century, France had been in a unique position in Europe: it bestrode the Atlantic and continental spheres to a degree matched by no other major state. As the most populous European state of the era, with between 25 and 30 million people within its borders, it dwarfed its maritime rivals, Britain and Spain, while its proximity to central Europe also gave France a more pressing, permanent interest in the affairs of the continent, than its colonial competitors, particularly as Spain’s powers declined. The wars with Britain in the mid- 18th century greatly reduced the French empire in North America and all but ended its nascent ambitions to establish a presence in the Indian subcontinent. French territories in the New World had been reduced to St. Domingue, Guadalupe and Martinique, although these islands, St. Domingue especially, were of enormous economic value, particularly as the major producers of that most lucrative of commodities in this era, sugar. Looked at on the map and in the light of the resounding defeats at British hands, which had shrunk that colonial map, ‘the French Atlantic’ was a dead letter by the time Napoleon seized power in 1799. Indeed, the abolition of slavery by the French revolutionaries in 1793 – and their failure  to  implement  it  properly – led to successful slave revolts on St. Domingue,  which brought a rebel government to power under an ex-slave, Toussaint l’Ouverture.

It was exactly this crushing loss of revenue and the loss of the rump of territory that spurred the new Napoleonic regime into action, in a last attempt to revive a commercial Atlantic empire. The last of the pre-Napoleonic revolutionary regimes, the Directory, had already displayed colonial ambitions when it sent Napoleon on an ill-fated expedition to seize Egypt in 1798, which only succeeded in seeing its massive fleet destroyed by Nelson and leaving Napoleon’s crack troops stranded in the Middle East for several years. Almost at once, however, the new Napoleonic regime turned westwards. Napoleon’s North American ambitions had two separate components, which his foreign minister, Talleyrand (and through his efforts, Napoleon) believed could become complementary parts of a new French colonial empire: one of Talleyrand’s first diplomatic successes was to persuade Spain to cede the Louisiana territory to France, by the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso, in October 1800 (Napoleon had only come to power in December 1799). Louisiana, now to be settled by French pioneers, was meant to become the ‘bread basket’ for St. Domingue, whose mono-cultural economy, based on sugar, and its inhospitable topography, left little scope for food production. The economic vision was wholly mercantilist: this was to be self-sufficient autarky, enabling the French colonies to free themselves from American imports of basic necessities.

French ambitions in the Caribbean had to run in tandem for the project to succeed. These ambitions were only made possible by peace with Britain in 1802, which at last opened the seaways to French shipping and the French navy. That peace had come about through a series of military victories on land, won by Napoleon over the Austro-Russian coalition in 1800, and by a successful anti-British blockade supported by almost every major European state between 1801 and 1802. Britain came to the conference table at the northern French town of Amiens and the result was a brief period of peace, 1802–03, which allowed a French army to cross the Atlantic unhindered, to try to retake St Domingue. First, however, Napoleon had to confront the prospect of American ambitions in Louisiana. For a brief moment, the wilderness of the Louisiana territory became one of the most dangerous flashpoints in the Western world.

The American President, Thomas Jefferson, considered it his country’s ‘manifest destiny’ to expand across the continent and prepared to seize the upper Mississippi before the French could occupy it, for Napoleon had assembled an expeditionary force to do exactly this; but it was literally frozen, locked in harbour in Dutch ports, during the severe winter of 1802–03. Meanwhile, the invasion of St Domingue had ended in disaster: Napoleon’s army was destroyed, as much by disease as by guerrillas, and he had to admit total defeat. The raison d’être for the colonisation of Louisiana was now gone and so Jefferson and Napoleon withdrew from the brink of war. Louisiana was sold to the United States on April 30, 1803; when war broke out again between Britain and France the following month, the Royal Navy closed the Atlantic to Napoleon forever more. The last French troops were withdrawn from St Domingue the following year. Jefferson was now able to turn his country firmly inwards, towards continental expansion. Napoleon saw that France had to abandon its Atlantic ambitions. Colonial imperialism did not come naturally to him, for he saw it as the  product  of two things he distrusted: royalist nobles and capitalist financiers – often one and the same. The former represented an old order intrinsically hostile to him; the latter, a French replica of rampant, unstable British capitalism. The great earthquake had been avoided. Nevertheless, two tectonic plates had come close to colliding in 1803.

The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 proved a turning point in the geopolitics  of the Western world which has often been underestimated. Its importance rests not just on what Jefferson did next – opening the West to settlement – but on the course of action Napoleon set upon: as the Atlantic was lost to him, Europe beckoned.

Even as the new Napoleonic regime sought in vain to recreate an Atlantic empire, the negotiations at Amiens were simultaneously allowing it to consolidate the territorial conquests of the revolutionary wars in Western Europe, while opening new horizons for French influence, in ways subtler than anything the belligerent diplomacy of the Revolution could have achieved, given its innate, republican hostility to established monarchies. Napoleon approached the talks at Amiens with the hopes of making allies, more than in a desire to humble enemies, and it worked. Although he singularly failed to make a lasting peace with Britain, or to come to a meaningful accommodation with the Habsburgs, Napoleon used the peace process creatively and thus won one of his most lasting and resounding victories, without firing a shot. Exploiting their fears of Habsburg aggression, Napoleon forged firm alliances with the middle-sized states of southern and western Germany. French influence now embraced Bavaria, Baden, Württemberg and Nassau, whose rulers Napoleon and Talleyrand had begun cultivating as early as the council of Rastatt in 1798. These states became the cornerstones of the Confederation of the Rhine, created in 1806 under Napoleon’s leadership, which formalised these close contacts. With their support, Napoleon was now able to confirm the gains of the revolutionary regimes of the 1790s, so weakened had Habsburg influence become in Western Europe by the time of Amiens. The Peace of Amiens in 1802 consolidated the territorial gains made by France up to that time: her annexations of the west bank of the Rhine, Belgium and, more recently, of Piedmont in northwest Italy, were all recognised by the other powers, as was Napoleon’s own creation, the Italian Republic in north central Italy. The ‘sister republics’ France had set up in the Netherlands (Batavian) and Switzerland (Helvetic) were also recognised. Napoleon would be crowned Emperor in 1804, but the terms of Amiens had already made France an empire, by any reasonable definition.

There was more to this hegemony than pure diplomacy. Those regions annexed directly to France received the reforms and institutions of Napoleonic France in full form, unmediated and undiluted by any concessions to local circumstances, while the ‘sister republics’ adopted constitutions and systems of law and public administration, which approximated to those of France in their essentials, if not always in detail. The rulers and chief ministers of the allied German states, supported by considerable sections of their elites, shared similar programmes for internal reform with Napoleon and proceeded apace with them in the following decade. The years after Amiens saw the development of common public institutions across all the territories of the Napoleonic hegemony, particularly in civil administration and the law. Its foundations were the Napoleonic civil code, which enshrined private property, open public trial and, above all, equality before the law. Its administrative system had a council of state at its apex and an unelected centralised bureaucracy, under direct executive control, firmly regulated by law. ‘The rule of law’, enshrined in a consolidated code, working through a professional, highly trained public sphere were the bases of the Napoleonic template. These were its unalterable, self-evident precepts. The whole was underpinned and enforced by the gendarmerie, the most powerful and effective police force Europe had ever seen. This was a phenomenon which embraced almost all Western Europe. The new kind of state forged in Napoleonic France, based as it was on the major reforms of the French Revolution – shorn of parliamentary government – now took root beyond the borders of France and its fundamental institutions survived the fall of Napoleon almost everywhere. The Napoleonic model of the state was authoritarian; where parliamentary bodies existed, they were weak in comparison to the executive. It was a system of government which was in no sense democratic, or even properly representative, for all its reforming zeal. This important component of the French Revolution – representative government – was absent from a system which might best be described as ‘enlightened authoritarianism’, or even ‘liberal authoritarianism’, because its concrete reforms and institutions originated in the revolutionary reforms of the 1790s in France, as well as in the reforms of enlightened monarchs before the Revolution.

In the Low Countries, western Germany and north central Italy, the success of the ‘Napoleonic public sphere’ went very deep. That success often depended most on political precedents which predisposed the elites of a particular polity to integrate Napoleonic reforms into their systems. Perhaps the most successful examples of assimilation came in the states of the Confederation of the Rhine and Switzerland, where reforms could be ‘buffered’, rather than in many regions under direct French rule, or in the satellite states. This was not universally true, however, as the Rhineland, the Netherlands and, eventually, Piedmont retained the Napoleonic system of government, almost in full, after 1814. This hidden map of Napoleonic influence is complex, but it is real nonetheless. Its shape was determined by the acceptance of a well formulated and quite rigid imperial ideology. It is not a map which corresponds readily to the new diplomatic map of Western Europe carved out by Napoleon in the course of his conquests or, indeed, of the one he inherited. This new geography, of assimilation to a uniform public sphere, could cut through Napoleonic state constructs: the original core of the Republic/Kingdom of Italy – Lombardy and what is now the Emilia-Romagna – largely embraced the Napoleonic model, whereas the former territories of the Venetian Republic, annexed only in 1806, represent an area which did not assimilate well. Equally and ironically, there were parts of France itself – which Napoleonic officials tended to call ‘the Interior’ or, as a new generation of imperial bureaucrats emerged, ‘old France’ – which assimilated less, or not at all, to the workings of the new regime and its ethos: the south and west of France (the recalcitrant Vendée, which had risen early and ferociously against the Revolution) remained under virtual martial law for most of the Napoleonic period; these were areas where the state was met with resentful indifference, at best, and armed resistance, at worst. This ‘map of the mind’ of an ‘inner empire’ was charged with ironies, but it contained deeper, more enduring realities for the future of Europe than the ever-shifting map of official borders made by Napoleon, as his conquests expanded at the fleeting expense of the old order.

Napoleon’s hegemony eventually became grounded in a ‘regional core’, as do most land empires, which did not correspond exactly to its point of origin. This core went on to become the mainspring of a new Europe, if not of a lasting empire. Its success was often masked by resentment of the very hegemony that shaped it and even more by the incessant demands of large-scale warfare. Conscription, high taxation and the heavy-handed policing of the gendarmerie were the daily realities of the new regime for most of its peoples. However, the experience of Napoleonic hegemony moulded a new geopolitical European reality for the future. This ‘map of the mind’ proved powerful and it was not the only such mental map forged in this period.

As Napoleonic hegemony expanded following the stunning military victories of the years 1805–09, so it came to contain regions which corresponded more to the Vendée than to Belgium or Bavaria in their loathing for the new regime of the ‘inner empire’ imposed upon them through conquest. Annexations driven by the need to enforce the anti-British blockade and new and ever more ephemeral satellite kingdoms, created in Spain and Westphalia, or by the need to remove unreliable allies and dangerous opponents (Prussia and Hesse-Kassel), led to the failure of the Napoleonic model in these places. For newer territories like the Hansa departments of the North Sea coast of Germany, or ‘Illyira’, the name given to the Croatian and Slovenian territories, acquired in 1810, or to Rome and Catalonia in the south, the impact of Napoleonic rule was powerful, but it was the impact of trauma, not of assimilation. By 1810, the French empire proper numbered 110 departments; its tentacles stretched along the North Sea coast as far east as Lübeck and as far south as Rome. The degree of control Paris exercised, in terms of being able to work through its administrative and legal templates, was quite another matter. However, even on such seemingly inhospitable ground, Napoleonic institutions often re-emerged, as in Spain, in the mid-19th century.

In terms of geopolitical diplomacy, Napoleon’s sphere of hegemony had clearly reached its limits by 1803, when his colonial ambitions were aborted. To the east, the military and diplomatic limits were set by his failure to make the entente he sought with Tsar Alexander work between 1807 and 1812. He exerted control in most of Europe between the Vistula and the Atlantic in a strict military sense but, within these vast parameters, the depth and durability of the imperial template of the state become very complex. It is arguable that ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ empires emerged within this hegemony and they fixed the real, if unofficial, geography of European  political  culture.  What emerged from this combination of repression and state-building was a new map of Europe, with new contours in terms of law and order, and of the potential power of the state within its own borders, that are disguised by the frontiers created by both Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna.

The French imperial administrators and magistrates who ruled over the Napoleonic empire, or who guided the creation of its satellite states, carried another mental map of Europe with them. They brought to the task of imperial rule their own cultural prejudices and preconceptions, which influenced how they perceived and dealt with their new subjects, those they called les administrés, the ‘administered ones’, a term the French revolutionary regimes had quickly and almost instinctively substituted for ‘citizens’, well before French rule reached beyond its own borders. The geopolitical reality of outer and inner empires warrants interpretation in a cultural sense, as well as one based on how imperial rule functioned. In the minds of those who ruled it, the Napoleonic empire was part meridional, part Atlantic, part mitteleuropean. Napoleonic expansion pushed the French in all of these directions, simultaneously. It set French officials down on the peripheries, as well as the centres, of all three macro-regions. Frenchmen now found themselves ‘parachuted’ into Kassel, Osnabruck and Munster; into Genoa, Barcelona and Dubrovnik; and they often found themselves being transferred around and between such widely varied regions. In this very real sense, the Napoleonic empire was the last great supra-regional European empire to embrace the pre-industrial cultural boundaries of Western and Central Europe. It spanned the emerging Atlantic highway, the Rhine-Saône-Rhône-Main-Po axis, which was the hinge of inland Europe, and the Mediterranean. From these close, protracted contacts with other Europeans – utterly different from those made on grand tours or commerce – a clear French identity emerged or, rather, was sharpened by the direct experience of imperial government. That French identity then imposed itself on imperial policy. It was cultural imperialism in a European context.

The cultural geography of the French imperialists, like that of the effectiveness of their rule, bore only a partial resemblance to the political map drawn by their master, or to that of the old order he tore up. The cultural macro-region which corresponded most to the French vision of an advanced society and, so, to the imperial core of the inner empire, was the mitteleuropean alluvial axis. This appeared to the French a world like their own, whose elites’ ethos was rooted in state service, whose courts worked through codes of Roman law and whose states had rigidly uniform, professionalised, centralised civil administrations. That is, this world was statist, dirigiste and centred on a public sphere intensely defended by a professional, deeply respected bureaucracy and magistracy. It was as alluvial as it was allodial, free of feudalism, composed of moderately sized urban centres, surrounded by a tamed, productive countryside. Its markets were vibrant, but localised. This was a world of the commerce of rivers and canals, not of the open sea; of well-trodden routes, not new horizons. Its economic elites resembled the solid, moderate-sized landowners Napoleon had called ‘the masses of granite’ who had weathered the French Revolution, to become the bedrock of the new order. But it was culture that truly mattered. It was an urban world, but in a very traditional sense; secular and literate, the world of the salon, but not the café, of the theatre, but not the opera, of the written or spoken word, not of spectacle, of enlightenment, yet not of restless innovation. These were not stereotypes, or merely the contents of after-dinner conversational prejudice, but the bases on which the French formed judgements and relationships with those around them. It all crystallised, for the French, around the receptiveness of a given society, to the fundamentals of the civil code, for this determined family structures (the nuclear, rather than extended, family), concepts of property and its place in social and economic relationships (its essentially private, non-collective or patrimonial nature), the ethos of public service and the regard in which society held public service.

If their new subjects were seen as malleable to the social values embodied in the code, they were civilised men who recognised the universal truth of a good law; if not, they had to learn such truths, through the good government Napoleonic hegemony would bring them. Above all, the French regarded the societies of this alluvial world as governed by reason, rather than tradition, and tradition was not there to be respected, but to be discarded if it was unenlightened, or adapted to the new regime, if it corresponded to its norms. Napoleonic ‘civilisation’ had a regional core. However, beyond that core, it had a civilising mission; and that meant most of its empire.

The other cultural macro-regions of the French imperial imagination felt the full force of an imperial mission to bring the values of the new regime to them, however much in vain that mission proved. To explain how and why the French saw these regions as they did does more to explain their cast of mind than the contemporary realities they actually found. This map of the mind was shaped by prejudice and a sense of cultural superiority which often blinded the French to the world around them. Nonetheless, it is the key to understanding why they acted as they did. The French perceived a remarkably uniform ‘meridional’ culture in their Italian and Spanish territories and in their own south, as well. This was a culture that could not readily accommodate itself to the code, or the vision of society that went with it, at least not without a struggle. It was not the natural territory of the empire. The urban centres of meridional Europe were populated by degenerate masses, enslaved to baroque Catholicism by a dependency culture of alms, while their elites had degenerated from their pinnacle in Roman antiquity, to what Edward Said has called ‘a trivialised civilisation’, infantilised by superstition and ostentation; superficial in its intellectual life and corrupt in its private morals. Its common people, urban and rural alike, had been kept in deliberate ignorance by the baroque Church. Here, the true enemy was the Church and the French launched assault after assault on popular piety and clerical influence in society. In this world, French officials contended that conscription was a means to social regeneration, as much as a civic duty: through military service, meridional manhood would find again the martial spirit and sense of dignity which had made their Roman forbears the example for all great imperial civilisations. This rejection of the meridional did not, of itself, entail embracing the Atlantic. Just because the French rejected the Mediterranean as it had become in their times, it should not be assumed they embraced the Atlantic world per se. They did not. Theirs was not a vision of Anglo-Saxon liberty and an interesting window on this was their appalled reaction to the commercial, entrepreneurial, a-statist ethos of the Dutch Republic and the Hansa ports, with the sharp distinction these regions posed to the French new regime, with its professional magistrates, codified law and centralising ethos. The world of uncertainty, an over-urbanised world of ‘boom-and-bust’ economics, as unattuned to the military virtues as the south, repelled them, if not in so dramatic a way as in southern Europe.

As has been seen, many within the Napoleonic state, including the emperor himself, had a deep distrust of the French commercial elites, who had derived their wealth from the Atlantic trade. The economic life and social milieu of cities like Le Havre, Nantes and Bordeaux were not as alien to them as those of Amsterdam or Hamburg, but they were equally distasteful. In their worldview, true wealth derived from the land, as did social cohesion. A world where money talked louder than public service was anathema to the Napoleonic vision of society. The problem here was not too little enterprise or acumen, but too much of it. If the source of social degeneracy in the Mediterranean world was the baroque Church, in the Atlantic world, it was the floor of the stock exchange.

The geopolitics of the Napoleonic era are ridden with paradoxes. The political map of Europe that Napoleon created through military conquest was transient, almost ephemeral, in the history of the continent. The artificial satellite kingdoms and sister republics he ordered into existence at bayonet point were swept away by the allied armies of Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria within a decade of their creation, while the borders negotiated at the Congress of Vienna, after his demise, endured much longer, until the unifications of Italy and Germany in mid-century and the collapse of the Habsburg Empire in 1918. The ‘official’ map of Napoleonic Europe shows those who behold it only the fragile ambitions of one man. In starkest contrast, it is the two maps of the mind which endure. The ‘working map’ of inner and outer empires point to a division within Europe of spheres of political evolution, of boundaries between different political cultures, which show where the origins of the common public institutions of postwar Europe are to be found: that ‘inner empire’ of prefects, councils of state and codified law, juxtaposed to regions under Napoleonic hegemony, which would take far longer to adopt the new public sphere, or reject it. This is to say nothing of Britain and Russia, which stood outside and almost immune to this process. Then, there is the cultural geography of the mind, which did so much to shape French relations with the peoples of the empire. And all because Napoleon was forced to choose continental expansion when his Atlantic vision collapsed.

This essay by Michael Broers was originally published under the title The Napoleonic Empire: Global Ambitions and European Legacies in The Return of Geopolitics: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess Publishing, 2016


Michael Broers