Dictatorship--Its History & Theory:  Napoleon as Dictator
by Alfred Cobban

There is a tradition of historians much more critical of Napoleon than Bruun or Remusat.  They see in Napoleon's rise to power and in the means he used to retain it elements of a modern dictatorship.  This view was particularly strong during the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps a reaction to events of those times.  The following selection by Alfred Cobban, a scholar from the University of London and a recognized authority on French history, is a good example of this interpretion.  Here Cobban analyzes how Napoleon gained power.

          Bonaparte came to power because his name provided a new source of authority, but at the same time the principle of the sovereignty of the people had established too firm a hold over men's minds to be abandoned. Some means of reconciling this principle with the rule of one man had to be found.  Emotionally this was easy:  the sovereignty of the people had become fused with nationalism, and Napoleon through his victories had come to be a living symbol of the national greatness. But to add the appearance of free choice he adopted the method used by the Jacobins in presenting their Constitution of 1793 to the country the plebiscite. Sieys and the men of
Brumaire had themselves presented this device to Bonaparte, when they incorporated, in the Constitution of the year VIII the name of the First Consul, Citizen Bonaparte; so that when it was submitted to the popular vote, it
was as much a plebiscite on Bonaparte as a vote for a constitution. The votes on the life consulate in 1802 and on the establishment of the Empire in 1804 are mere sequels. By these popular votes democracy, or at least the principle that all authority is derived from the people, was to be triumphantly vindicated by the election of Napoleon to the post of supreme power in the state. In this way arose, in the modern world the idea that one man might
himself represent the will of the people, and be invested with all the authority of the most despotic ruler in the name of democracy. The idea of sovereignty, freed from all restraints, and transferred to the people, had at last given birth to the first modern dictatorship....

          Napoleon came to power as a dictator from the right not, of course, as a leader of the old reactionary party, but as a dictator supported by the propertied classes, the financiers and commercial men, the upper bourgeoisie, and speculators, who had made large fortunes out of the revolution and had bought up church or crown lands or the property of migrs with worthless assignats.

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