Jim Clark: The importance of Napoleon’s civic contributions
June 17, 2015
Last week we discussed the signing of the Magna Carta 800 years ago on June 15, 1215.
We traced subsequent political events in England and saw how the US Constitution embodied many British principles of law and government plus some new provisions added by our founders.
June is a rich month for tracing American political genealogy. June 18 is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, which put an end to the Emperor Napoleon's contributions to world political progress, but not before he instituted some monumental changes that affected many other nations including the United States.
Napoleon was born in 1769 in Corsica. He spoke "Corsicano" and Italian and learned French at boarding school. He developed an admiration for the Enlightenment, Rousseau and Voltaire while at military school, even though French kings had banned them and their teachings.
He also studied and admired America's founding fathers who gained America's independence when Napoleon was just 14.
The French Revolution and Reign of Terror began in 1789, and young Lieutenant Bonaparte became a key figure in its military successes against the royalists ultimately being appointed a general.
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Even while fighting for the revolution, he began to consider a post-revolution France and realized that its body of laws was based on royal prerogative and a feudal system.
In 1799, after the royal family was guillotined, Napoleon seized the reins of government naming himself first consul. In 1804, he crowned himself Emperor of France.
Invoking the principles of the Enlightenment, Napoleon began compiling a civil law for France based on ancient Roman law. Known as the Napoleonic Code, it was adopted the same year Napoleon became emperor.
The code superseded a hodgepodge of prior feudal laws and was direct, comprehensive and simple to understand.
It secularized France, ended propertied nobility and royalty, and standardized civil procedure. Many European and Middle East countries adopted the code.
France sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States in 1803, so the Pelican State also observes the Napoleonic Code.
The Napoleonic Code limited the power of judges to decide cases by general rule since general rules were the exclusive province of the legislature.
As a result, the basis of English Common Law, stare decisis, was prohibited, although judges still interpret legislation.
During the Revolution, France occupied lands in Germany and Italy that belonged to Austria. Starting in 1805 and recurring periodically thereafter, Austria, Prussia and Russia declared war on France, but the "little general" proved a military genius beating back France's enemies consistently.
Napoleon started none of those wars but won all of them. After 1809, an uneasy peace broke out, but in 1812, France's enemies cut France out of Russian markets, and Napoleon invaded Russia with 600,000 men.
The Russian Winter defeated the French and Napoleon returned with barely 100,000 men to face Austria, Prussia, Russia and Britain.
Although Napoleon's army defeated his enemies, his top field general surrendered Paris to the Austrians, Prussians and Russians.
Rather than trigger a civil war, Napoleon abdicated and was exiled to the Island of Elba in the Mediterranean Sea.
His foes brought surviving members of the royal family back to govern France, installing Louis XVIII as king.
The royals had not learned of the revolutionary changes that the French people experienced, such as low taxation, meritocracy, and secular education. They tried to run things the old way.
With France facing civil war, Napoleon gathered 600 guardsmen and returned. The king sent an army to arrest him but the commanders and men defected to Napoleon.
The Battle of Waterloo and Napoleon's defeat and capture followed. This time the British imprisoned him at St. Helena, a remote island in the South Atlantic where he died 5 years later of stomach cancer.
Napoleon is best known as a general and emperor. Few are aware of his contribution to civics.
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates. He has served on the Nevada and Washoe County GOP Central Committees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.