Napoleon himself believed that his work was a kind of crowning of the Revolution,
and he was remarkably honest about his friendship with Robespierre's brother. He defended
Robespierre from the charge of being bloodthirsty; he respected him as a man of probity.
Napoleon would never have imagined that his own career could have flourished as it did
without the surgery performed on French society by the Revolution. He was born in
Corsica of poor, proud, petty-noble parents, and before the Revolution he could not
possibly have risen above the rank of captain in the French army. Also, he had read
Rousseau and sympathized with much of the Jacobin philosophy.
Napoleon had two different aspects. He believed in the overthrow of the old
aristocracy of privilege; on the other hand, he believed in strong government—and he learned
both of these beliefs from the Revolution. He was both an authoritarian and an
egalitarian. Yet, admittedly little of this seems to fit the man who created a new aristocracy, who
prided himself on being the son-in-law of Francis of Austria, referred to his late
Louis XVI, and aspired to found a new imperial dynasty.
However, if we judge Napoleon on what he actually did and not only on those things
that are usually remembered (despotism and foreign conquest), we must concede that
his armies "liberalized" the constitutions of many European countries. They overthrew
the aristocratic system in Italy and Germany, and even, to some extent, in Poland and
Spain. A great many European liberals rallied to Napoleon's banners, particularly where
French administration was at its best (as under Napoleon's brother Jerome in
Westphalia). Napoleon's armies did bring many of the ideals of the Revolution to Europe:
the basic ideas of the overthrow of aristocratic privilege, of a constitution, of the
Code Napoléon (which was a codification of the laws of the French Revolution). In this sense
Napoleon was a revolutionary. He turned his back on revolution to the extent that he was
authoritarian and contemptuous of "the little man," but certain important
accomplishments of the Revolution—peasant ownership of land free from feudal obligations,
expropriation of the possessions of the Church and of the émigré nobility—were retained
and even extended beyond Frances borders. Napoleon was indeed a military despot, but
he did not destroy the work of the Revolution; in a sense, in a wider European context,
he rounded off its work.