Napoleonic Imperialism

Napoleonic Imperialism:

The empire created by Napoleon was a transient product of lightning wars, diplomatic coups, dynastic networks, and exigency devices (like the continental system) which is generally dubbed Napoleonic Imperialism.

Having set the internal affairs in order through reforms and reorganization, he now embarked on an ambitious venture of spreading his influence in Europe. As Emperor of France and “Son of the revolution” he launched a new offensive against the absolute monarchies of Europe with the main purpose of spreading the revolutionary principles to other countries and glorifying himself and France.

However, there was a fundamental difference between the character of the wars waged by Revolutionary France from 1792 to 1802 and the Napoleonic wars from 1803 onwards. The former were wars of liberation that carried the message of the revolution to the people of foreign countries and roused in them hopes of deliverance from the tyranny of absolutism. But the Napoleonic wars did not rouse any such popular fervor. They were waged to achieve glory and satisfy individual aspirations consequently antagonism assumed appalling proportion.

We must qualify that Napoleon did not create French Imperialism; he inherited, indeed he had been an agent of a policy of aggressive expansion undertaken by the convention and the Directory.

Large-scale hostilities were resumed only in 1805, but from that time until Napoleon’s ultimate defeat ten years later France was almost constantly at war.

If Napoleon could have avoided war he might have established his empire as the dominant state in Europe. But his own insatiable ambition and the continuing enmity of England made war almost inevitable. Napoleon could not resist the temptation to extend his sphere of influence by entering into intrigues in Germany and Italy. England was determined to keep France from becoming the dominant political and economic power in Europe.

In this background, various wars were fought. Napoleon defeated the Austrian and Russian forces first at Ulm and then again in the most spectacular of all his victories, at Austerlitz, on December 1805.

With Austria defeated and Russia in retreat Napoleon followed up his victory with a complete reorganization of the German state.

Prussia which had not at first joined the coalition against Napoleon entered the fray in 1806 and was soundly defeated at Jena.

The following spring Emperor Alexander I of Russia again sent an army against Napoleon only to have it defeated at Friedland in June 1807.

In three campaigns in three successive years, Napoleon had defeated the three strongest powers on the continent and established his position as master of Europe. A few weeks after Friedland, Napoleon, and Alexander held a dramatic meeting near Tilsit. Alexander recognized Napoleon’s supremacy in the west and Napoleon agreed not to intervene in Russia’s internal affairs. Practically the whole of Europe had been overrun by him. He was now at the summit of his power.

It is to be highlighted here that his external policy and his Empire importantly enough had interesting analogies with his internal reforms. Theoretically, he sought to export the French Revolution with his reforms abroad, often through wars. But these wars were more the means of personal aggrandizement as manifested in his efforts to create a dynamic network in Europe. This possibly explains why he was denied outside France. Interestingly, the ideas he had disseminated in Europe were used against him. At this juncture, we need to note the contradictions involved in his foreign policy and his attempts to create a Napoleonic Empire in Europe.

All of Europe except England, was to some degree under his rule. France, Belgium, Germany west of the Rhine, and parts of Italy constituted a French Empire directly ruled by Napoleon as Emperor. Holland, Westphalia, and Southern Italy were theoretically independent kingdoms, over which Napoleon placed three of his brothers as kings. In 1808, the Bourbon monarch of Spain was overthrown and replaced by Napoleon’s brother Joseph.

England alone resisted the tide of French expansion. For this particular, he devised the continental system through which he decided to wage an economic war against Britain and persuaded his allies to accept the Continental System.

The Continental System, an economic boycott of British trade throughout Europe set up by the Berlin decree (November 1806) became the basis of the new empire and his foreign policy as well. It was basically a mercantilist and strategic offensive of a desperate ruler and a navally inferior. France to cripple the British trade and credit and bring her down to the knells. The system was chiefly mercantilist in spirit. It was entailed by the military weakness of France. Thus, it was based on certain assumptions. That effective economic warfare against Britain would beuidate her power and in turn, create internal discontent. This in turn would add France both economically and diplomatically. In the process, it had to involve the French allies against England.

But ironically it was based on an erroneous assumption. The assumption that only the export of British goods would be checked and not imports was a crucial mistake. Further, its success required a powerful French navy to guard the vast coastline but inferior to the English naval power. Moreover, any long-term commitment on the part of the French allies was impossible. (It was simply impossible for the European economy to function properly without English trade). Infact, a third of English direct exports and three-quarters of English re-exports formally went to Europe substantiates this.

In this context, Britain by keeping open her channels of communication found new markets to replace the old viz; in Burnes Aires in 1806, in Brazil in 1808, in the Near East following a trade agreement with Turkey in 1804, and in the Baltic in 1810. Most significantly, in 1810 above 80% of her wheat imports had come from France and her allies. Above all, the French were themselves turning against commercial restrictions that the system imposed on them.

Further, there was a basic contradiction between his efforts to promote a dynastic network in Europe and to introduce the ideas of revolution and civil code outside France. The establishment of a vast dynastic network clearly suggested that his wars were not revolutionary but was a means of selfish pursuits. It was resisted by the old Royal Houses and surging nationalism to which he himself had contributed in significant measure.

It is plausible to argue that Napoleon had been successful because all other powers were doing or interested in doing what Napoleon was doing. Thus, they were as ready to ally with Napoleon as against him. But whole defeats, territorial losses, and diplomatic humiliations drove the government of Europe into an alliance, so the disastrous effects of French economic exactions of the Continental System aroused among the people of Europe a deeper, more national resentment against the rule of Napoleon. This suggests why his external ventures were ephemeral.

Broadly speaking, the Way in which Napoleon expanded his empire was an interplay of diplomatic maneuverings in which, barring the war, coup, and alliance, the Continental System played a pivotal part in materializing his aspirations on the one hand, but soon involved France in a bitter struggle or the so-called the Peninsular war (1808-14) on the other. The continental system, the attempt to seal the continent of Europe against British trade, was more than a device of economic warfare against Britain. It was a vast system of economic preference and protection in favor of France and against not Britain alone but the rest of Europe. Apparently as well as inherently, its purpose was to sap British trade and undermine her commercial prosperity. However, the design failed for several reasons. Foremost was the fact that throughout the war Britain retained control of the sea. The British naval blockade of the continent served as an effective counter to Napoleon’s system. In the time of crisis, the British worked with success to develop a lively trade with South America. Internal tariffs were a second reason for the failure of the system. The final cause for the system’s collapse was the fact that the continent had more to lose than Britain.

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?
Importance of the French Revolution
French Revolution of 1848
The Foreign Policy of Louis Philippe
Causes of the Revolution of February 1848
Napoleon Ascendency
Consulate Rule and Constitution of 1799
Reforms of Napoleon
Napoleon Concord With Pope
Napoleonic Code
Continental System
The United States and the French Revolution, 1789–1799