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European History Pt. 43 — Napoleon’s High Point

We have recently seen how Revolutionary France was able to survive three coalitions of European powers that were ostensibly designed to destroy it. It didn’t hurt that France had Napoleon as their commander.

The Continental System

After the Treaty of Tilsit of 1807, Napoleon decided to wage war against Britain, the only problem is that his fleet had been destroyed at Trafalgar. Thus, he opted for economic warfare. He tried to organize a Europe-wide boycott of British goods. He thought this would lead to unemployment and the inability for England to carry its debt.

At first, the strategy seemed to work quite well. Russia, Prussia, and Austria Hungary agreed not to buy any British goods and even declared war on Britain. Britain, fearing for its economic life, rushed to rattle sabers (cannons) at Copenhagen, which was an entry point for its goods into the rest of Europe. This move backfired, and Denmark allied with Napoleon.

Napoleon even got Spain on board by getting the Bourbon king (Charles something) to abdicate. Napoleon’s own brother was installed as the new king after Spain and Portugal were invaded. Napoleon reasoned that he needed to control every inch of the European coast to make Britain bleed, and in that he was probably right.

However, the Penninsular war (on the Iberian penninsula) went badly. Spanish guerillas fought back and Britain reinforced them with the forces of the Duke of Wellington. These successes spurred a wave of anti-French feeling, and Austria Hungary again prepared (for the fourth time) to go to war against Napoleon.

Austrian War of Liberation 

In 1808, Napoleon met with Tsar Alexander I, his Russian ally, hoping to expand their alliance. However, Talleyrand, the famous French diplomat betrayed his master and country. He said that Napoleon was overreaching that the Russians should stay on the sidelines. He thought the traditional balance of power tradition of Europe was being flaunted and that the most powerful countries should not be allied, as there could be no counterbalance. This suited Alexander fine since Napoleon had been less than supportive of Alexander’s aims in the Balkans.

Russia stood on the sidelines when Austria declared war against Napoleon for the FOURTH time in 1809. Austria lost for the fourth time, and was partitioned as punishment.

At this time —  history is so crazy — Napoleon was 40 and was casting around for a way to get a son to inherit his great empire. He had no sons by his current wife, so he divorced her. He tried to marry a Romanov or a Hapsburg, and in the end, he was hitched in 1810 with the NIECE OF MARIE ANTOINETTE, and they had a child that year, who was made the King of Rome (Napoleon was so grandiose it makes me sick). The pope protested of course, but he was simply taken captive.

Napoleon at the height of his power

In 1810 and 1811, Napoleon’s influence was at its zenith. He controlled both coasts of Italy, for ships and for glory (rome was a historic imperial city, obvi), and Belgium in the north. France was like an octopus, reaching a tentacle north and south across central Europe, sandwhiching a host of lesser lords. Spain in the west, and Prussia in the northeast and Austria in the southeast obeyed his commands.

Napoleon’s hereditary powers (important in these sorts of European power struggles) were great as well. His brother Josef ruled Naples and then Spain. His brother Louis was king of Holland for a while, brother Jerome was king of Westphalia and sister Caroline became queen of Naples after Josef left.

Culturally, Napoleon’s legal codes were everywhere. He believed in a universalist, ratlonalist state. He believed that all people desired basically the same thing and that regional customs and laws got in the way of systematically constituting a government no paper. As a result he favored constitutions: they were official and could be made, like enormous governing contraptions.

Catholicism was depleted in every part of the empire. Napoleon believed in toleration and a secular state. He even demanded this of Spain, which was outraged by these demands.


European History Pt. 42 — Napoleonic Europe

In the past few posts (here, here, and here), I’ve looked at the course of the French Revolution. This was at such a summary level that I was basically rehearsing dates and major events. Anyway, now the book moves to the international scene of Europe, AS the French Revolution was taking place. The book notes that one should think about this time as a period of world war. Everyone was involved in war with each other. Though one caveat that the book stresses is that the four great powers of Great Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia were never ALL in the field at one time until 1813.

A couple of things to note

1. France did not transform Europe at this time solely by force. Many countries that they conquered wanted some sort of change and worked with Napoleon to get it (sometimes). Thus, Napoleon brought broad social changes, not just conquest.

2. Internationally, various countries were happy to ally with Napoleon. Only after sustained contact with him did most leaders conclude that their ultimate interest was to dispose of him entirely.

A Rough Timeline

Remember, the declaration of Pillnitz in 1791 was signed by Leopold because he thought that it would never result in war, because its details required that all signatories be willing to form a coalition. He never thought that would happen.

Nonetheless there was war, but France made out ok because Austria and Prussia were preoccupied with the partition of Poland and with Russia. This is a theme in the French revolution. Austria and Prussia were looking east. Campo Formio in 1797 ended this first coalition.

The second coalition of 1799 was also dissolved. After Napoleon’s Egypt campaign, Russia withdrew, realizing that the British were their enemies in the Mediterranean. Austria accepted peace in 1801 and even Britain accepted peace in 1802.

In the peace of 1802-1803, Napoleon consolidated his power in the Cisalpine republic in Italy and the Helvetic Republic. He helped arrange Germany to his liking.

Great Britain goes back to war against the French in 1803, and the naval campaign is successful enough to make Napoleon abandon the new world altogether. He sold “Louisiana” in the Louisiana purchase to the United States.

Great Britain also put together a coalition for the land battle as well. In 1805, the Austrians joined, and then so did Tsar Alexander I of Russia (Alexander deserves some ink in his own right. He was Catherine the Great’s grandson, educated by a French tutor. He was an enlightened despot in many ways, and he was an astute observer of the international system and the balance of power. He declared the need to have law over force in international, and not surprisingly, he saw himself as the person to bring that dictum to pass by counterweighting Napoleon).

The war went pretty badly for the land arm of the third coalition. Russia and Austria were defeated in several battles, most notably the battle of Austerlitz. Various kingdoms in Germany were altered so that the Holy Roman Empire was finally deceased. The only bright spot was that in 1805, the British won the battle of Trafalgar, a monumental sea battle that assured British naval supremacy for a century. In 1806, Prussia (NOT part of the third coalition) went to war BY THEMSELVES against Napoleon and were soundly defeated.

Napoleon pressed on toward Russia and this made Alexander worried. He was not sure he could retreat into Russia lest the serfs or even the nobles revolt. Thus, he sued for peace. Peace was prefaced by the famous meeting between Alexander and Napoleon on the Nieman river. The result of the meeting was the treaty of Tilsit in 1807. The third coalition was dead. 


European History Pt. 41 — The Directory

After the terror and the Thermidorian reaction France finally put in place a new constitution and became a republic. The constitution stipulated two chambers, one with 500 people and the other with  250, both of which helped elected the directory, 5 executives for the government of France.

Directory and then Coup of Fructidor 

The directory got off to a bad start in 1795 because it prohibited certain candidates from serving in the new government based on their desire to bring back a king. Agitation during the elections based on this arbitrary limitation of democracy forced the directory to rely on a young commander named Bonaparte to put down the agitation “with a whiff of grapeshot.”


In 1797, the first really free elections were held in France under the new constitution and many royalists won. They were the party of peace,  hoping to give some conquered regions and end the protracted war with Europe. Here again, the Republicans were forced to rely on the military. They wrote to Bonaparte, asking for his help in purging some of the royalists from the governing bodies of the Republic. Napoleon wanted to help because he had conquered lands in Italy and was living independently on requisitions, and on the power of his sword. He wanted to keep an expansionist foreign policy, and so was eager to support the republicans, as long as they wanted war.

The result was the coup d’etat of Fructidor (September 1797).

The result was fairly tragic.  The republicans, in the name of “preserving the revolution” and preventing a return of monarchy, were forced to purge the first freely elected body constituted in France. The lesson is that revolution is a bitch; it’s easy to preach democracy until you see what the results are.

Coup of 1799

Force begets force, and after the directory had twice interfered with elections, it became a kind of ineffective dictatorship, purging and altering elections by force. Bonaparte was promoted and given an army that was being trained to invade Great Britain. He decided instead to launch the famous Egypt campaign to attack them indirectly (and threaten their Indian holdings). This brought everyone in Europe to war against him again. For instance, at this time even the RUSSIAN army was operating as far west as north Italy. When Bonaparte was surrounded after losing the battle of the Nile to the British fleet, he slipped back to Paris, where he found the political climate ripe for dictatorship.

In November (Brumaire) 1799, Napoleon’s troops drove legislators from their chambers, forming the Consulate with three consuls and Bonaparte as First Consul.

The Consulate 

The consulate was a big joke. There were bodies, and tribunates and notables, and elections, but none of them mattered. Not in the sense that they were ineffective — most governments throughout history are pretty ineffective — but rather they DID NOT MATTER AT ALL. Napoleon tried to arrange it that no one had power but himself. Not surprisingly, this useless machinery quickly fell into disuse.

In fact, the more I read about this time in history, the more I am terrified. Napoleon was a man of great charisma and genius, and the people flocked to him. He met their adoration with manipulation and propaganda. He hid the agenda of government so as not to provoke opposition, and he fanned the flames of crude nationalism and expansionism. “Secret police?” you ask, but of course.

Bonaparte was attacked by a bomb on the way to the opera, and though it was a royalist bomb, he cooked up the attack as planned by Jacobins, a hundred of which he exiled. He invaded the independent state of Baden and arrested the Duke of Enghien, distantly related to the Bourbon monarchy. He know that Enghien had done nothing wrong, but shot him to appease the Jacobins.

The only positive thing to be said about Bonaparte was that in comparison to the directory and Robespierre’s terror, he looked about par for the course.

Well I take that back, Bonaparte was an organizational genius. He brought back the church to serve the needs of the state and he made public governance more a meritocracy, creating a pay system and a path of advancement for civil services. No more would there be favors, privileges, and the buying and selling of offices.

Part of this was the famous Napoleonic codes, which systematized the judicial system and the laws, leading to some improvements, though most of the new laws were burdensome to women and biased against the accused.

The book has this curious quote which I wish I understood better, “They [the Napoleonic Codes] also set the character of France as it has been ever since, socially bourgeois, legally egalitarian, and administratively bureaucratic.”




European History Pt. 40 — The Emergency Republic ’92-’95

Last time I looked at the end of the early phase of the French Revolution. This was the years of the national assembly, from ’89 to roughly ’92. Things get confusing because the national assembly was a continuation of the estates general, which had a legally recognized role in the ancient regime. Things had proceeded in a semi-lawful manner. But after the peasant outbreaks in Paris during 1792, the national assembly died and was replaced by the NATIONAL CONVENTION (sounds similar). The national convention wanted to try again to draft a constitution, but it ended up just ruling itself without making much progress on the constitution it was supposed to be writing.

I’ve read about the period of the national convention before, and its bafflingly complex. I almost think it would be better for me to write nothing about it than follow the books’ AMAZINGLY simple characterizations of what went on. Nonetheless, I’ll do it. But only with a descriptive caveat about this period. This was a time of decreasingly lawfulness and increased political participation by average people. At home, clubs grew and interacted in Paris. They met in the streets by chance, at bars, and in halls, and there was a rush toward radicalization. Any resistance to “moving forward” with the revolution or an attempt to consolidate the gains of the revolution was met with purges. One always wanted to be the most progressive and at the head of change. To be left behind was to be killed. Paranoia and suspicion began to run high and mobs roamed France in the name of revolution or counterrevolution — it all became the same. At large, France was caught up in war, sometimes winning sometimes losing, always spilling more and more resources. But let’s begin a basic look at what happened at this time.

Basic Timeline

In August 1792, the national assembly was formed. It was more radical than the national convention which was now defunct. In December 1792, Louis XVI was put to death by a vote that was won by a single person. All of those deputies who voted for his death were now COMMITTED in a new way to preventing the return of the Bourbon monarchy. They could not turn back and so were radicalized further by this already radical decision.

At this time, the San Culottes, the workers without the knee-breeches worn by the middle and upper class became very active in the revolution. They wanted price controls and currency controls and other measures to help them in a time of need. They radicalized the deputies in the national convention, which resulted in the purging of the Girondins by a new faction, the Mountain (so called because Mountain deputies preferred to sit high up in the assembly hall). This was an instance of the mood of PARIS dictating the revolution to all of France, because it was the commune of Paris who organized the San Culottes into invading the national convention and arrested the Girondins.

In 1793, Robespierre largely headed the Committee of Public Safety, an emergency panel that largely ran the country. I read a biography on Robespierre at this point, and he came off as a very scary person. He conducted executions (ultimately of one of his best friends) from his office, filing papers and worrying about the “internal” foes of the revolution. He sought to root them out wherever he could. About 40,000 perished during the terror, most of which were peasants. However, it was at this time that Marie Antoinette was guillotined.

In 1793, the national convention adopted a republican constitution that allowed for universal male suffrage. Pretty good right? If you think so, you haven’t understood the pattern of the French Revolution. The constitution was “suspended” indefinitely and the government was declared “revolutionary until the peace.” This meant basically that AGAIN France had failed to consolidate its societal changes into a public document.

In 1794, the national convention decreed slavery illegal everywhere in the French colonies. This was laudatory, but Napoleon would reverse it in 1802.

In 1793-1794, the national convention proved to be what I think was its dictatorial leanings by clamping down on the clubs and informal revolutionary groups that helped put it into power. Women’s revolutionary clubs were outlawed and the leading “enrages” (the most extreme revolutionaries) were arrested.

Another pattern though is that France just kept producing ideological splinter groups that were more and more insane. After the enrages were locked up, the Hebertists came to prominence. Even ROBESPIERRE thought they were insane (they were responsible for drowning roughly 200 people in barges in Nantes at this time). The Hebertists also wanted to thoroughly dechristianize France, but Robespierre resisted, trying to preserve the popularity of the revolution. In vain, he introduced the cult of the supreme being as a compromise. He was also at this time pressed by hebertists and those accusing him of being right wing (Robespierre RIGHT-wing? c’mon). In concession, he killed many moderate (right wing) members of the Mountain including his friend Danton. At this point though, the national convention was become terrified (as it were) of their own ruling committee. They made Robespierre “illegal” and he was Guillotined.

This whole period was closed out by the Thermidorian reaction; a kind of collective “whew” uttered by all of France. The Jacobin club was closed down, extreme price controls were removed. Latent peasant revolts were put down. It was a bourgeois moment. The constitution that was made in 1793 and suspended on emergency grounds was thrown away and ANOTHER constitution was drafted (this is constitution number 3).

and we’ll pick it up there next time.


European History Pt. 39 — the second revolution of 1792

Last time, I looked at the national assembly as it went about drafting and then putting into practice the Constitution of 1791. From my reading this was a turbulent but relatively politically innovative time at which a lot of LAWS were passed to change things. From this point on, trust in the laws and the people making the declined sharply.

International Scene

At first many countries ignored the French. England thought that the French were finally trying to emulate them (a naive, complacent sentiment), and Hungarian landlords and polish aristocrats pointed to French upheaval as an example. The most trampled classes too responded. The Irish were enthused, as well as Silesian weavers, labor in Hamburg, and the Belgian underclass. There was, at this time of Wordsworth and Hegel, excitement in the air.

But as history teaches us, revolution breeds counter-revolution. Monarchs like Gustavus III (Sweden) and Catherine the Great were appalled. Expat French nobles wanted their manorial privileges back and conspired with the king’s brother, the Count of Artois to lead a reinstatement of the ancient regime.

Revolutionary Foreign Policy 

Other countries started to get nervous though. France took Avignon at the request of revolutionaries without talking with its owner, the pope. German princes with rights in Alsace lost them when feudalism was abolished at a stroke by the national assembly.

So, Leopold II, emperor of Austria and BROTHER to Marie Antoinette, started thinking about taking steps. He got together with Prussia and said that he would try to restore order in France IF (huge if) the other powers would help. Leopold hoped the other powers would never all consent to helping and so, his promise bound him to nothing. This was the famed DECLARATION OF PILNITZ.

France didn’t see through the diplomatic maneuvering. They thought the alliance was serious and threatening, and this turned them against the monarchies of Europe. War gathered popularity in two quarters. Loyalists to Louis XVI supported war because they thought it would restore his popularity and radical, internationalist Jacobins known as Girondins thought the revolution would never be safe unless it could spread to all of Europe.

The Second Revolution

And so everything changed. The lower classes were squeezed by war and they grew increasingly suspicious of the monarchy and the girondins. Why war at a time like this? Where was the support for labor and against property? They were whipped further into a fury by people like Robespierre, Danton, and Marat. Especially Marat. That guy was a lunatic. An insane bloodthirsty monster (my opinion, but please read about him).

Troops streamed into the city on their way to the front, and Paris was turned upside down. In August of 1792, the lower classes revolted, killed the king’s french guard and imprisoned the royal family. A revolutionary commune was set up to govern Paris, and a NEW constitutional assembly was chosen to draft a NEW constitution (France kept trying to draft a constitution, to no avail). Soon after, the September massacres occurred, in which priests and others were executed.

Next is the terror.


European History Pt. 38 — French Revolution ’89-’91

Last time I did some of the history leading up to the rights of man. This was mainly the history of the Summer of 1789.

Now we’ve established the national assembly and heard about the rights of man, we can see what the national assembly actually did. For two years, this assembly went about drafting stuff. They wrote scores and scores of new laws, changing the relationship of the French government to regional autonomy, to the church,and to economic policy. Their finished product was the Constitution of 1791, because it went into effect on that date and brought this period to a close.

I realize that my bullet pointing has been bad, so I’m going to try to be more synoptic today.


France was divided in 83 departments. The departments had large amounts of power and this became important once war began. These departments did whatever they wanted.

Louis Abandons the Revolution

In 1791, Louis tried to escape the country, but was caught at Varennes. This alienated him from the revolution and radicalized those who still trusted him. he later used refractory priests, further pushing him away from the revolutionary spirit. It’s a shame because there was a large window where his leadership would have been well received.


During the revolution, the debt of the old regime was never repudiated. This is significant, why not? The answer is that the debt was mainly owed to the ascendant bourgeois. One way the debt was paid is that church lands were confiscated and assignats were issued against that land. Owners of assignats could use them to buy church lands and many peasants  did. Without this property, public education in France, which was run by the Catholics, suffered.


The constituent (national) assembly also issued the civil constitution of the clergy which went very far to nationalize the french church, making some clergy positions elected and levying taxes for the maintenance of church functions. Bishops could not acknowledge papal supremacy — they were to be tools of the new government (as was the fashion of the time, enlightened despots were using religion to support their rule and property, leading to Marx’s invective against it). The refractory (non official) clergy were forced to turn to the pope, which greatly elevated the importance of the Vatican in French affairs. The civil constitution of the clergy, but creating a counter revolutionary sector of elites, has been called “the greatest tactical plunder of the Revolution.”

Next time is the much more violent “second revolution of 1792.


European History Pt. 37 — French Revolution, more buildup

Last time we saw that Louis XVI was considering how to dissolve the national assembly, which had broken away from the estates general. He gathered some troops to Versailles, and in his mind, he had more or less allied himself with the nobles, which meant repression.

Then there was a misunderstanding in Paris. Members of the third estate were worried about wandering vagrants and encroaching troops and so crowds began to look for weapons in public buildings, one of which was the Bastille, an old prison that was commissioned to be turned into a park. There were few prisoners there at this point — the Marquis de Sade had been moved from the prison just TEN DAYS before it was seized. Yet, the prison was a symbol of royal power, and when the governor of Paris put cannons on the war and refused to arm the crowd, the crowd became a mob, which stormed the bastille, losing 98 people in the process.

When the bastille was captured the governor and some soldiers were killed and their heads PUT ON PIKES. I emphasize this not because it was particularly gruesome for the time, this was the 18th century! But, it is worth noting because it illustrates how even at this supposedly, constitutional, liberal, constructive stage of the French Revolution, there was enormous anger and mistrust between the various estates. This would become crucial.

The storming of the Bastille convinced Louis XVI to accept the national assembly and not to repress it. The Marquis De Lafayette, a tragic character because of what happens to him, is made captain of the guard in Paris (he helped win the revolutionary war for us).

The National Assembly in Action 

In August of 1789, the Nation Assembly made big moves. On Aug. 4, it flatly declared that “feudalism is abolished” and in one fell swoop unburdened land-owning peasants from paying dues for “eminent property.” Then, later in August, the National Assembly issued “the Rights of Man and Citizen.” Without going into too much detail, the rights of man declared a host of what we would consider core democratic and liberal privileges, such no taxation without consent of the governed as well as the declaration that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”