Napoleonic Empire and its Territorial Expansion

Napoleonic Empire and its Territorial Expansion:

The establishment of the empire was not an outright repudiation of the French Revolution. The principle of popular sovereignty was still recognized. The social gains of the Revolution were still intact. The magic words “liberty, equality, fraternity” still blazed forth on public buildings. The tricolor was still the national flag.

Of course, some changes were made in externals. The title of “citizen” was replaced by “monsieur”. The republican calendar gradually lapsed. Napoleon’s relatives became “grand dignitaries”. The revolutionary generals who accepted the new regime were promoted to be “Marshals of the Empire”. Old titles of nobility were restored, and new ones were created.

The changes in France were reflected in the surrounding puppet states. And in making the foreign alterations, Napoleon took care to provide for his numerous family. For his brother Louis, the Batavian Republic was transformed into the kingdom of Holland. For his brother Joseph, the Parthenopean Republic became the kingdom of Italy with Napoleon as King, and Eugene Beauharnais, his stepson, as viceroy. For his brother Jerome, estates were subsequently carved out of Hanover, Prussia, and other northwest German lands to form a kingdom of Westphalia.

The Consulate had been characterized by domestic consolidation and a policy of peace. The ten years of the Empire (1804-1814) were attended by continuous war. For with opposition crushed in France, with the loyalty of the French nation secured, and with an enthusiastic nationalist army at his beck and call, Napoleon as Emperor could gratify his natural instincts for foreign aggrandizement and glory. He had become all-powerful in France; he would become all-powerful in Europe.

When the Empire was established, the war between France and Great Britain, interrupted by the Treaty of Amiens, had already broken forth afresh. The struggle had begun in 1793 as a protest of the British monarchy against the excesses of the Revolution, especially against the French conquest of Belgium, and doubtless, the masses of the English nation still fancied that they were fighting against the demon of revolution, now personified by Napoleon Bonaparte. But to the statesmen and influential classes of Great Britain as well as of France, the conflict had assumed a deeper significance. It was an economic and commercial war. The British were mindful of the assistance that France had given to American rebels and resolved that France should not regain the colonial empire and commercial position that it had lost in the 18th century. The British had struggled to maintain their control of the sea and the superiority of trade and industry that attended it. Now, when Napoleon extended French influence over the Belgian and Dutch Netherlands, along the Rhine, and throughout Italy, and even succeeded in negotiating an alliance with Spain, Britain was threatened with the loss of valuable commercial privileges in all those regions and was further alarmed by the colonial projects of Napoleon. In May 1803, therefore, Great Britain declared war. The immediate occasion for the resumption of hostilities was Napoleon’s refusal to cease interfering in Italy, Switzerland, and Holland.

Napoleon welcomed the renewal of war. He understood that until he broke British resistance all his Continental designs were imperiled and his colonial and commercial projects hopeless. During the years 1803-1804, he made elaborate preparations for an armed invasion of England. Along the Channel coast were gradually collected a host of transports and frigates, a considerable army, and an abundance of supplies. To the French armament, Spain was induced to contribute its resources.

Great Britain replied to these preparations by covering the Channel with a superior fleet, by preying upon French commerce, and by seizing Spanish treasure ships from America. And William Pitt (the younger), a very embodiment of the Englishman’s dislike for things French, headed the ministry of his country. Great Britain had no large armies to put in the field against the veterans of Napoleon, but Pitt spent liberal sums of British money in order to enable the Continental powers to combat the French Emperor. Pitt was the real bone and sinew of the Third Coalition, which was formed in 1805 by Great Britain, Austria, Russia, and Sweden to overthrow Napoleon.

Francis II of Austrai smarted under the provisions of the Treaty of Luneville, and especially over French predominance in Italy. He had recently added the title of “hereditary Emperor of Austria” to his shadowy dignity as “Holy Roman Emperor”, and he was irritated by Napoleon’s assumption of an imperial title.

In Russia, the assassination of Tsar Paul, the crazy admirer of Bonaparte, had called to the throne in 1801 the active though easily influenced Alexander I. In early life, Alexander had acquired a smattering of the “enlightened” philosophy of the 18th century, its liberalism and its humanitarianism. At the bottom, however, he was quite as despotic and militaristic as Peter the Great or Catherine the Great, and he was ambitious to play a commanding role in Europe. The poverty-stricken condition of Russia made it difficult for him to finance his army, but when Pitt offered liberal subsidies, he perceived an opportunity to surmount the one obstacle to his ambition; and Pitt’s assurance that Napoleon was the enemy of liberty and humanity provided Alexander with “enlightened” justification for his action. So the Tsar joined his army with Austria’s, and in the autumn of 1805, the allies advanced through southern Germany toward the Rhine.

Pitt had done his best to bring Prussia into the coalition, but the Prussian King, Frederick William III (1797-1840), was timid and irresolute, and, despite the protests of his people, was cajoled by Napoleon’s offer of Hanover into a declaration of neutrality. The south German states of Bavaria and Wurttemberg, jealous of Austria, became open allies of the French Emperor.

Before the troops of the Third Coalition could threaten the eastern frontier of France, Napoleon abandoned his projected invasion of Great Britain, broke up his armaments along the Atlantic coast, and, with his usual rapidity of march, hurled his finely trained army upon the Austrians near the town of Ulm in Wurttemberg. There, on October 20, 1805, the Austrian commander, with some 50,000 men, surrendered, and the road to Vienna was open to the French.

This startling military success was followed on the very next day by a naval defeat quite as sensational and, in the long run, more decisive. On October 21, the allied French and Spanish fleets, issuing from the harbor of Cadiz, encountered the British fleet under Lord Nelson, and in a terrific battle off Cape Trafalgar were completely worsted. Lord Nelson lost his life in the conflict, but from that day to the close of the Napoleonic era British supremacy on the high seas was not seriously challenged.

Wasting no tears or time on the loss of sea power, Napoleon hastened to follow up on his land advantages. Occupying Vienna, he turned northward into Moravia where Francis II and Alexander I had gathered an army of Austrians and Russians. On December 2, 1805, the anniversary of his coronation as Emperor- his “lucky” day, as he termed it- Napoleon overwhelmed the allies at Austerlitz.

The immediate result of the campaign of Ulm and Austerlitz was the enforced withdrawal of Austria from the Third Coalition. Late in December 1805, the Emperors Francis II and Napoleon signed the Treaty of Pressburg. The former ceded Venetia to the kingdom of Italy and recognized Napoleon as its King, and also resigned the Tyrol to Bavaria, and outlying provinces in western Germany to Wurttemberg. Both Bavaria and Wurttemberg were converted into kingdoms. By the Treaty of Pressburg, Austria lost 3,000,000 subjects and large revenues and was reduced to the rank of a second-rate power.

For a time it seemed as if the withdrawal of Austria from the Third Coalition might be compensated for by the adherence of Prussia. Stung by the refusal of Napoleon to withdraw his troops from southern Germany and by the bootless haggling over the transference of Hanover, and goaded by his patriotic and high-spirited wife, the beautiful Queen Louise, timid Frederick William III at length ventured in 1806 to declare war against France. Then, without waiting for assistance from the Russians who were coming up, the Prussian army- some 150,000 strong, under the aged Duke of Brunswick- advanced against the 200,000 veterans of Napoleon. The resulting battles of Jena and Auerstadt proved the superiority of Napoleon’s army over the Prussian; they marked not only a disastrous defeat but the total collapse of the Prussian army and the destruction of the military prestige acquired under Frederick the Great. Napoleon entered Berlin in triumph and took possession of the greater part of Prussia.

The Russians remained to be dealt with. Winter was a bad season for campaigning in East Prussia, and it was not until June 1807, at Friedland, that Napoleon was able to administer to the Russians a defeat comparable with those which he had administered to the Austrians at Austerlitz and to the Prussians at Jena. The Tsar Alexander at once sued for peace. At Tilsit, on a raft moored in the middle of the River Niemen, Napoleon and Alexander met and arranged the terms of peace for France, Russia, and Prussia. The impressionable Tsar was dazzled by the striking personality and unexpected magnanimity of the French Emperor. No Russian soil was exacted, only a promise to cooperate in excluding British trade from the Continent. Alexander was given to understand that he might deal as he would with Finland and Turkey. “What is Europe?” exclaimed the emotional Tsar: “Where is it, if it is not you and I?”

But Prussia had to pay the price of the alliance between French and Russian Emperors. Form it was taken the portion of Poland which was erected into a grand duchy of Warsaw, under one of Napoleon’s German allies, the Elector of Saxony. Altogether, Prussia was despoiled of half of its territories and compelled to reduce its army to 42,000 men and to maintain French troops on its remaining lands until a large war indemnity was paid. Tilsit destroyed the Third Coalition and made Napoleon master of the Continent. Only Great Britain and Sweden remained under arms, and against the latter country, Napoleon was enabled to employ both Denmark and Russia.

Early in 1808, a Russian army crossed the Finnish border without any previous declaration of war, and simultaneously a Danish force prepared to invade Sweden from the Norwegian frontier. The ill-starred Swedish King, Gustavus IV (1792-1809), found it was all he could do, even with British assistance, to fight off the Danes. The little Finnish army, left altogether unsupported, succumbed after a heroic struggle against overwhelming odds, and in 1809 Sweden agreed to cede Finland and the Aland Islands to Russia. Thus Sweden lost its grand duchy of Finland and was permitted to retain a small part of Pomerania only at the humiliating price of making peace with Napoleon and excluding British goods. In the same year, Gustavus IV was compelled to abdicate in favor of his uncle, Charles XIII (1809-1818), an infirm and childless old man, who was prevailed upon to designate as his successor one of Napoleron’s marshals, General Bernadotte.

The year that followed Tilsit may be taken as marking the height of Napoleon’s career. The Corsican adventurer was Emperor of a France that extended from the Po to the North Sea, from the Pyrenees and the Papal States to the Rhine. He was King of an Italy that embraced the fertile valley of Po and the ancient possessions of Venice, and which was administered by a viceroy, his stepson and heir-apparent, Eugene Beauharnais. Napoleon’s brother Joseph governed the kingdom of Naples. His brother Louis and his stepdaughter Hortense were King and Queen of Holland. His sister Elise was the princess of the diminutive state of Lucca. The King of Spain and Denmark were his admirers, and the Tsar of Russia his ally. A restored Poland was a recruiting station for his army. Prussia and Austria had become second-rate powers, and French influence prevailed in Germany.

It was in Germany, in fact, that Napoleon’s achievements were particularly striking. Before his iron touch, many of the time-honored political and social institutions of that country crumbled away. As early as 1801 the diminution of the number of German states began. The treaty of Luneville made imperative some action on the part of the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire in order to indemnify the rulers whose lands on the left bank of the Rhine were incorporated into France and to grant “compensation” to the south German states. After laborious negotiations, lasting from 1801 to 1803, the Diet authorized the confiscation throughout southern Germany of ecclesiastical lands and free cities. One hundred and twelve formerly independent states lying east of the Rhine were wiped out of existence and nearly one hundred others on the west bank were embodied in France. Thus the number of German states was reduced from more than three hundred to less than one hundred, and the states that mainly benefited, along with France, were Bavaria, Wurttemberg, Baden, and Saxony, all of which Napoleon desired to use as an equipoise against Austria and Prussia. In this desire he was not disappointed, for in the War of the Third Coalition (1805) he received important assistance from all four; and each of them was duly rewarded. Bavaria, Wurttemberg, and Saxony were recognized as kingdoms, and Baden as a grand duchy.

In 1806, pursuant to Napoleon’s wishes, the Kings of Bavaria and Wurttemberg, the Grand-Dukes of Baden, Hesse-Darmstadt, and Berg, the Archbishop of Mainz, and nine minor princes virtually seceded from the Holy Roman Empire and formed a new “Confederation of the Rhine”, under the “protection” of the French Emperor, whom they pledged to support with an army of 63,000 men. Then, following Napoleon’s refusal to recognize any longer the Holy Roman Empire, its nominal head, the Habsburg Emperor Francis II, laid down the crown that his ancestors for centuries had worn. The work of a long line of French Kings and statesmen- Francis I, Henry IV, Richelieu, Mazarin, Louis XIV- was thus consummated by Napoleon Bonaparte; and the Holy Roman Empire came to an inglorious end. Its last Emperor had to content himself with his newly appropriated title of Francis I, Hereditary Emperor of Austria.

By 1808 all Germany was at the mercy of Napoleon. Prussia was shorn of half of its possessions and forced to obey the behest of its conqueror. The Confederation of the Rhine was enlarged and solidified. A kingdom of Westphalia was carved out of northern and western Germany at the expense of Prussia, Hanover, Brunswick, and Hesse, and bestowed upon Jerome, brother of Napoleon. The grand duchy of Berg was governed by the Protector’s plebian brother-in-law, Joachim Murat. And, the most significant fact of all, wherever the French Emperor’s rule extended, there followed the abolition of feudalism and serfdom, the recognition of the equality of all citizens before the law, and the principles and precepts of the Code Napoleon.

This was the true apogee of Napoleon’s power. From November day in 1799 when the successful general overthrew the Directory down to 1808, history was a magnificent succession of triumphs of peace and war. Whatever the judgment of his contemporaries or of posterity upon his motives, there can be little question that throughout those nine years he appeared to France and to Europe what he proclaimed himself- “the son of the Revolution”.


Important Links:

Intellectual Enlightenment
Political Causes of the French Revolution
Economic Causes of the French Revolution
Beginning of the French Revolution
Functions of the Constituent Assembly
Unsuccessful Attempt of the Royal Family to Flee the Country
Phases of the French Revolution
Role of Philosophers in the French Revolution
Nature of the French Revolution
Correlation Between the Objectives and Achievements of the French Revolution
Do you agree that the French Revolution achieved far less than what it intended to achieve?
Triumph of Jacobinism
Transformation of the Republic into a Military Dictatorship
Importance of the French Revolution
The Course of the French Revolution
French Revolution of 1848
The Foreign Policy of Louis Philippe
Causes of the Revolution of February 1848
Short Note on the French Revolution of 1848
Bonaparte Napoleon
Napoleon Ascendency
Consulate Rule and Constitution of 1799
Reforms of Napoleon
Napoleon Concord With Pope
Napoleonic Code
Continental System
Causes of the Failure of the Continental System
Napoleonic Imperialism
Napoleonic War
Short Note on Napoleon Bonaparte
Decline of the Napoleonic Empire
Spread of Revolutionary Principles
Popular Movement
Metternich and the Vienna Peace Settlement
The United States and the French Revolution, 1789–1799