Napoleon as Preserver of the Revolution
George Rudé
SOURCE:   Norman F. Cantor.  Perspectives on the European Past, vol. II. Reprinted by permission of Macmillan (New York, 1971),  pp. 59-60.

In recent years historians have become more reluctant to categorize Napoleon under any one label.  Instead, they tend to interpret more judiciously his words and deeds, taking care to note that both were inconsistent and even contradictory at various times. This tendency among historians is exemplified in the following selection by the well-known British social historian George Rude.  Rude has emphasized looking at history from the bottom up.

          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 "brother" 
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 Napol
éon (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.

  1. What argument did Rudé make that Napoleon was a "Preserver of the Revolution"?
  2. How would Louis Bergeron react to Rudé's interpretation of Napoleon?