'Even when I am gone, I shall remain in people's minds the star of their rights, my name will be the war cry of their efforts, the motto of their hopes' - Napoleon
The Europe which saw the rise of Napoleon in the wake of the 'Death-Birth of a World' as Carlyle saw the French Revolution was one caught in a sudden vortex of rapid and often violent socio-political change. Attitudes toward religion and its role in the state were changing, systems of alliances were changing, family values were changing, etc. In France, the Bourbons were gone and the other Royal families of Europe were on their heels as France was on the move as the most technologically and socially advanced nation in the world.
The 'Age of Napoleon' as its often called was the period of nearly twenty years beginning with Bonaparte’s stunning victories in Italy in 1796 and ending with his final disastrous defeat at Waterloo in 1815, and it could not possibly have been better named. For no single person exerted more influence upon European society and affairs during the era than did Napoleon Bonaparte.
As the man who sold the Louisiana territory to the United States while still First Consul in 1803, a 15 million dollar bargain basement deal which doubled the size of America in one fell swoop, the lasting influence of Napoleon can still be felt even today, with the legal systems of more than seventy nations still being based upon the Civil Code named after him.
When we see either a statue or perhaps a silhouette of a man upon a horse wearing a knee-length grey riding coat and a little bicorn hat, almost at once the name Napoleon comes to mind. When a man is shown with his hand tucked inside his shirt, again we think of Napoleon. And when we hear the word 'Waterloo', once again his name comes to mind.
Because of Napoleon, people use everyday phrases like 'facing the fire' and 'old guard'. Because of Napoleon, one can notice lombard trees lining the roads of France today. Because of Napoleon, we can enjoy visiting the Arc de Triomphe. And largely because of Napoleon’s patronage, we can enjoy the magnificence of the Louvre in Paris as the world’s most celebrated museum of art. And Napoleon’s fabulous red granite tomb in the Hotel of the Invalids is still one of Paris’ most frequently visited tourist attractions.
Among Napoleon's many lasting influences, however, the most important is the effect his career had on the shifting treaties and balances of power among the great powers of Europe and the rise of nationalism among their peoples. Having been given at least a modicum of freedom as Napoleon marched across their countries snatching up territory and creating new kings and queens for them, the peoples who rose up against Napoleon after his disastrous retreat from Russia to restore the monarchical status quo would again rise up just a few decades later to try and cast off the yoke of the very despots they had restored to power.
The Age of Napoleon saw the rise of many great writers. In his Reflections on the French Revolution, Edmund Burke, a member of Parliament at the time, sounded alarm bells in London by predicting...accurately as it turned out...the rise of military dictatorship in Paris. Countering the naturalist beliefs of Rousseau which drove the Revolutionaries with his own faith in a God-given order to things, Burke’s passionate brilliance is considered the bedrock of modern conservative thought. He maintained that mankind is basically good and becomes evil only through negative societal influences.
One of the more influential movers and shakers was Madame de Stael, aka Germaine Necker, who published On Literature Considered in its Relationship to Social Institutions, Delphine, Corinne and a major work on German Romanticism, De l'Allemagne, in which the praise of German culture so infuriated Napoleon that he ordered the destruction of its first edition and exiled Stael from France. It's amusing to note in his letters Napoleon's ongoing problems in figuring out what to do about the determined de Stael, who worked tirelessly in her exile to foment opposition to Napoleon's increasingly despotic rule.
Madame de Stael had cause for hating Napoleon, but she was a bit of a coquette at heart and thoroughly enjoyed rubbing shoulders with other titans of her age, even those she didn't like. De Stael may indeed have come to regard Napoleon as a tyrant, and she suffered away from Paris and her great Salon there, but he was nonetheless a great man respected by the French people, even by de Stael herself during the early days and the Consulate. So when she learned of an impending Royalist attempt on Napoleon's life during his first exile on Elba, she was genuinely horrified and shot off a warning to Napoleon, who responded by extending a thank you to his wily old nemesis.
There was the talented Francois-Rene Chateaubriand who, like Madame de Stael, originally admired Napoleon but came to despise him. Chief among the writings of the versatile Chateaubriand are Historical, Political and Moral Test on Ancient and Modern Revolutions, Rene, Atala, Les Martyrs and the incredible The Genius of Christianity which emphasized the Romanticism-driven nature of Chateaubriand's harmonious style. As one great admirer said of him, 'he plays the harpsichord on all my heartstrings.'
Chateaubriand impressed First Consul Bonaparte, an avid reader, so much that he appointed Chateaubriand as Secretary at the French embassy in Rome, though the writer, at that time still blase about his Catholic roots, rejected the appointment almost immediately. Having once attacked faith, Chateaubriand came to cherish his usurped role of its defender, and in various writings he realized his ambition to turn things around, especially in Le Genie. His defense of religion presented in this celebrated book is spirited. Moreover, the subtitle of the first edition clearly indicates that the writer's intention was to point out the 'Beauties of the Christian Religion.'
The fundamental argument of the work is best expressed in its closing lines: 'Though we have not employed the arguments usually advanced by the apologists of Christianity, we have arrived by a different chain of reasoning at the same conclusion: Christianity is perfect; men are imperfect. Now, a perfect consequence cannot spring from an imperfect principle. Christianity, therefore, is not the work of men.'
The Age of Napoleon saw the budding of the great Romantic movements in Germany and England. Byron and Shelley became famous in this time. In Germany, the influence of Herder and Goethe, the literary titan of the age who all but worshipped Napoleon, spurred the rise of Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress), an explosion of poetic creativity which gave release to the chaotic emotions of rebellious, nationalistic ideologues yearning to stake out a claim to status as the ultimate Original Genius.
In the realm of art, the Age of Napoleon was overflowing with genius thanks to the great opera contralto Giuseppina Grassini of La Scala in Milan and the great tragedian Talma of the Comedie Francaise, a personal favorite of Napoleon’s, and the great Neo-Classical artists such as David, Ingres, Vigee Le Brun, Debret, Gerard, Gros, Prud’hon and Appiani. Always eager to exploit the popular appeal of fine art in a nation where vanity ruled all, Napoleon worked closely with a host of court painters to ensure his grandeur would endure. A visit to the Louvre and the Chateau of Versailles would be a treat for any fan of the First Empire.
In the world of music, Napoleon as First Consul in 1800 was on his way to the Opera to witness the first ever performance of Haydn’s The Creation when the infamous 'infernal machine' exploded in the Rue St. Nicaise, narrowly missing Napoleon but killing many others. Four years later, Napoleon made himself Emperor and in the process angered Beethoven to the point where the great composer decided not to dedicate his Eroica symphony to Napoleon after all.
As a politician, Napoleon was a dismal bumbler. The 'regicide' committed through the execution of the Conde line’s Duke of Enghien before a firing squad at Vincennes, the closure of nearly all of Paris’ 60 newspapers, the exiles of opponents, the ruinous Continental System, the faux pas with Rome which ended in his Excommunication and greatly expanded problems with rebellious Catholics in hardcore Royalist departments, the incursions into Spain and Russia, take your pick. Napoleon was as inept in the field of politics as he was master on the field of battle. But as Europe's greatest soldier, Napoleon was unrivaled. His efficient military system based on meritocracy rather than social rank became the model for armies that followed him, and his battles have become textbook study in the best military academies in the world.
As an enlightened civil administrator Napoleon was responsible for a Bank of France that relied on coinage rather than paper currency in order to stabilize the economy and balance the books, for France's excellent Lycee schools for the country's best students and for girls' schools for which he once wrote a curriculum himself, for the planting of trees along the highways, for a new department of forestry, for the Legion of Honor which helped bridge the traditional gulf between the army and the people, for the first professional fire brigade in Paris, for important road and canal-building projects and for an efficient orphanage system which cared for the needs of the children of his fallen soldiers.
In the Age of Napoleon, the French marched down the path to glory while King George III and his well-financed allies marched toward the destruction of the Revolution and the restoration of the balance of power in Europe. Men like Napoleon and Tsar Alexander dreamed of power for glory’s sake, while others like Talleyrand and Metternich dreamed of power for its own sake. It was a dangerous but exciting time to be alive, and the world grew up in a hurry living through it.