Revolutionary visionary or tyrannical dictator, two names many rulers can be labelled with, these are the most heavily debated upon when the persona has been called both a French emperor and military leader, Napoleon Bonaparte. The first perspective praises Napoleon as a ruler ahead of his time being able to bring France into a new age of modernism.

The general positive public view was what Napoleon wished to achieve as his legacy, from his participation in the French revolution to coronation and exile, his military achievements and cultural reforms are a source of discussion for this perspective held by historical author Rafe Blaufarb. On the other hand, the second perspective.

The other perspective was that he was a tyrannical dictator that oppressed all his subjects and courtiers in freedom of speech to achieve his personal agenda, a perspective audibly held by historian Philip Mansel.

When Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in front of the Pope in 1804, this decision was met with a positive reaction from the people.[1] The French perspective of him was that he was a revolutionary visionary set on ameliorating France through many social reforms and establishing the unrivaled army of France, this lies parallel to Rafe Blaufarb’s perspective.

In 1802, Napoleon was responsible for appointing Dominique-Vivant Denon[2] as the first director of the Louvre in his scheme to create an imperial art gallery, thus the largest art museum was born under Napoleon’s rule, renamed Musée Napoléon.

Some paintings in the Louvre features Napoleon and his family exhibiting his influence of art through acknowledging artistic ventures and commissioning artists.[3] The Louvre, now cemented as a centre of global heritage is revolutionary as it most frequently visited museum in the world contemporarily.

Napoleon’s influence amplifies as he placed his family on the thrones of Europe, many more museums were built- the Prado in Madrid and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, for example.[4]

As a sovereign, Napoleon appreciated the importance of attaining peace within the country, with it being crucial to rectify the rift between all religions within France, this being done through the 1801 Concordat.[5]

A resulting outcome of the Concordat of 1801, a document signed by Napoleon and Pope Pius VII to reconcile France and the Catholic church,  was the tolerance of all religions, but with Catholicism formally recognized by the state as the prevalent religion[6], allowing the state to control the church including the election of bishops and abolishing the privileges of the Church under the Ancien Régime. [7] This nationwide transition set Napoleon as a revolutionist and France in an au courant era.

Rafe Blaufarb commented on the brilliance of Napoleon’s tax reforms that saved France from continuous debts and financial turmoils[8]. With the ending of the French Revolution, conditions of finance were such that without a reform, the country would welcome foreign intervention.[9]

To keep taxation stable Napoleon established a department called the Ministry of Finances in 1799[10], allocated with the job of levying and tax collection, these 840 professional tax collectors received fixed income.

To encourage equitable taxes, he bargained to name the square now known as Place des Vosges after the department that first completely paid it’s taxes, this meant that it was businesses with considerable wealth hastily paid their due taxes, attracting  660 million francs from income tax and public property.[11]

The next step was to introduce ‘Franc de Germinal’ in 1803, this would become the most stable currency in Europe of the time and remained the basis for more than a century later. These reforms are what historian Rafe Blaufarb and many others defines in work of a revolutionary revisionist, recognisably Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon’s greatly successful military campaigns allowed the French public to look favourably upon someone who they can rely on to commandeer the victories of a nation that had once been in a long period of chaos.[12] Napoleon served in 60 battles, losing only 8 and this was nearer to the end of his military career. 

The enemies he fought were often numerous in comparison, for example within his first battle at the Siege of Toulon, a battle that was decisive in the turn of the French Revolution, during which Napoleon was given command of the artillery, Napoleon noticed that if fort L’Aiguillette was captured, the French could easily throw off the Allies by effectively shooting at their ships.

Skeptical, General Jean François Carteaux committed only 400 men to Napoleon’s effort rendering the plan ineffective, until the arrival of veteran General Jacques François Dugommier who stated, “There’s only one possible plan – Bonaparte’s”.[13]Within the duration of 3 months Napoleon rose quickly in ranks from an Artillery Officer to Brigadier-General.

On this Blaufarb comments that “Napoléon ushered in the modern age of military leadership by expressing his belief that ordinary soldiers were both worth the effort to inspire them”[14]. This was only the beginning of Napoleon’s genius capability in inspiring his men to courageously fight for him, this ability would serve him well into the future.

Other major victories that secured his name as a military genius, and ensure that his tactics are still meticulously studied in contemporary time were the Battle of Embabeh in 1789, the Battle of Ligny in 1815 and the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, all resulting in minimal losses for Napoleon and abundance casualty to his opponents.

Antithetically, many of Napoleon’s achievements had underlying issues that with meticulous examination would classify him as a tyrannical dictator. Historian Phillip Mansel describes Napoleon as “…a monarch obsessed with rank, splendour and his own dynasty and one of the rudest monarchs in history”[15], from plundering neighbouring countries to setting oppressive regimes, Napoleon Bonaparte in this perspective is far from the man remembered by history.

When author and advocate, Stendhal, noticed this change in the Emperor’s behaviour, he wrote that he believed that it was ‘the contaminated air of the court’ which corrupted Napoleon and after 1810, ‘raised his vanity to the level of a disease.’[16]This vanity grew when Napoleon’s courtier undermined his trust, this only grew worse in the later years of ruling when Napoleon acquired more palaces and properties.

The Louvre, a symbol of sovereignty and dominance displays the magnificence of Napoleon as a form of propaganda. It was only through the pillaging of private collections, the confiscated riches of the Church and also the spoils taken by the army in Belgium, Italy, Prussia and Austria that the Louvre became a prominent symbol of art.

The vast quantity of pillaged art is shown when Napoleon abdicated in 1814, approximately 5000[17] artworks are returned to their country of origins. This conquering of countries and the utilization of the spoil as a way to reinforce the supremacy that Napoleon possessed, served as a display of dictatorship.

In another primary source, Stendhal stated that Napoleon could face adversity ‘with firmness and majesty’ but could also be ‘carried away to the point of frenzy when his passions met with opposition.’[18] This could be interpreted as that Napoleon was assertive but based on other accounts such as historian Henry Lee IV in 1834 who wrote that Napoleon’s temper was “sudden, fierce, and boisterous”, it is more likely that he was a temperamental man who sometimes planned out dramatic outbursts to aspire actions in his subordinate.

When contacting Pasquale Paoli during the early years of the Revolution to scheme political influences in Corsica and France, Paoli repudiated, calling Napoleon himself ‘impassioned’, ‘too self-centered’ and ‘too ambitious’[19], a minimal reflection of later disposition. In 1795,  Napoleon in calculated anger eradicated the Parisian Royalist mob with cannons, a terrible event known as the 13 Vendémiaire, described by Professor Owen Connelly, “Almost in one blast the whole thing was over. He killed hundreds of people.”[20]

His temperament may encourage his army on the battlefield but it brought him no respects in diplomatic circles as he radiates the hot headed and brutal exterior.[21] The querulous demands for attention, incivility and to always be preponderate distinguish Napoleon as a dictator, a crude one at that.

Although his religious reforms were seen as revolutionary, Napoleon exploited the Concordat to convince the church to sanctify his coronation and victory at Austerlitz as a holy day. Another example of self aggrandisation was when he replaced the original patron of all kings since 1610, St Louis, to St Napoleon recognised by the church as the new royal saint.

The Imperial Catechism reinstated that Napoleon was, “raised up by God in difficult circumstances, that he was God’s anointed, and that good Christians must love him, pay taxes, accept conscription or go to hell.”[22]

Propaganda was what conceived the imperialistic image of Napoleon although what resulted was a despotic image of a dictator, from commissioning  Jean-Gros to depict him in ‘Le General Bonaparte a Arcole’[23] leading the onslaught at Arcole, Italy in 1796, a permanent symbolic rendition that elevates his notability within the field; this is contrary to the fact that General Augereau actually lead the charge.

By distorting the observable truth, Napoleon expanded his popularity with the French public, another example being the exile of Madame de Staël thrice, in 1803, 1806, and 1810 for her written works in which she stated that France was, “a garrison where military discipline and boredom rule”[24].

Censorship was what Napoleon posed as preventing “the manifestation of ideas which trouble the peace of the state, its interests and good order.”[25] From the banning of 50 newspapers in Paris, rescripting plays and declaring that all published books was due for a Commission of Revision, allowed Napoleon to appropriate books as he saw fit. The curtailment of freedom of speech was key in defining Napoleon as a tyrannical dictator.

Determinately, Napoleon’s personality can be debatable due to his actions that both ameliorate and demarcate France as well as other countries under his governing, historians like Rafe Blaufarb and Philip Mansel must examine obscure sources to come to their conclusion as well. The French perspective of him changed accordingly with the pattern of time, always with two definitive sides.

However, with the realisation that almost all reforms he initiated to strengthen France such as religion, arts and education, eventually backfired or taken advantage of by Napoleon to alleviate his powers, it is undeniable that his actions are correspondent to those of contemporary dictators. Thus the outstanding perspective was that Napoleon Bonaparte was a tyrannical dictator but was significant in the evolution of France.

[1] Blaufarb, R and Liebeskind, C ‘Napoleon- Symbol for an age’ (2008) Part one, chapter: From Republic to Empire

[2] “Napoleon > Art of Revolution & Empire – NGV.” Accessed 21 Aug. 2018.

[3] “Napoleon (1769-1821) | Louvre Museum | Paris.” Accessed 28 Aug. 2018.

[4] David, Grubin ‘NAPOLEON’ (2000) –  PBS EMPIRE.

[5] Blaufarb, R and Liebeskind, C ‘Napoleon- Symbol for an age’ (2008) chapter 14: Papal Agent Ghislieri and Pope Pius VII, Letters on the Origin of the Concordat, July 10, 1800

[6] “Napoleon Bonaparte’s Concordat and the French Revolution.” Accessed 26 Aug. 2018.

[7] “Ancien régime | French history |” Accessed 26 Aug. 2018.

[8] Blaufarb, Rafe “The Creation of the imperial Nobility |” Accessed 27 Aug. 2018.

[9] “stark – International Napoleonic Society.” Accessed 21 Aug. 2018.

[10] Francis of Ivernois [A translation of Tableau historique et politique des pertes que la révolution et la guerre ont causées au peuple français, published in London, 1799.]

[11] Blaufarb, R and Liebeskind, C ‘Napoleon- Symbol for an age’ (2008) Part one, chapter: Napoleon in Power

[12] “Napoleon as a Military Commander: the Limitations of Genius.” Accessed 27 Aug. 2018.

[13] ibid.

[14] “Napoléon: What Made Him Great? | HistoryNet.” 30 Aug. 2017, Accessed 27 Aug. 2018.

[15] “Bad manners and a game of thrones: inside the court of Napoleon ….” 11 Apr. 2018, Accessed 21 Aug. 2018.

[16] Mansel, P 2015, The Eagle in Splendour: Inside the Court of Napoleon, I.B. Tauris & Co., London. UK. pg.90

[17] “Napoleon Bonaparte: History’s Greatest Art Thief? | William … – LinkedIn.” 8 Mar. 2017, Accessed 28 Aug. 2018.

[18] “Napoleon The Man | History Today.” Accessed 21 Aug. 2018.

[19] NAPOLEON (PBS documentary). Accessed 19 Aug. 2018

[20] “Napoleon: Hero or Tyrant? – Social Learning.” 11 Apr. 2015, Accessed 20 Aug. 2018.

[21] “Bad manners and a game of thrones: inside the court of Napoleon ….” 11 Apr. 2018, Accessed 26 Aug. 2018.

[22] Wilson-Smith T. “Napoleon” (2001) pg 178.

[23] Jean-Gros, Antoine “Le General Bonaparte a Arcole” 17. Nov.1796. Oil on canvas.

[24] “The Censorship of Writing and Literature Under Napoleon I ….” 21 Sep. 2010, Accessed 26 Aug. 2018.

[25] Holland Rose, J.. “The Censorship under Napoleon I.” Journal of Comparative Legislation and International Law, New Series Vol 18, no. 1 (1918): 58-65.

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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