“The Most Astonishing Surprise” of the French Revolution

The moment when Napoleon obtained power became the end of the French Revolution. This historical figure changed the direction of the political and social transformations in France swiftly and dramatically. However, the processes born by the Revolution could not disappear promptly: they were more likely to have a role of a departing point for further evolution. Thus, since the beginning of Napoleon’s period, the political life in France was defined by two poles: Napoleon’s personal motives of keeping and maintaining his power, and the inertial power of the revolutionary movement, and this should be considered when analyzing the situation in France during Napoleon’s governance.

The slogan “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” is a precise embodiment of the values and ideals supported by the revolutionary movement. The core of the French Revolution was defense and equalization of the human rights and transformation of the social and political system in France, which included the elimination of monarchy and replacing it with a republic; during Napoleon’s governance, these two matters submitted to the interests of Napoleon as a governor.

Instead of the republic, Napoleon established an empire and defended his power by means of strong military services (Hunt et al 652). Since that moment, the notion of “liberation” stated by the revolutionary slogan had lost its initial meaning and served to Napoleon’s plans as the justification and disguise for his intent of conquest, being realized in his French-style reforms throughout the lands belonging to France.

In 1789, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen proclaimed “freedom of religion, freedom of the press, equality of taxation, and equality before the law” (660). Napoleon slightly followed the statements born by the Revolution, adapting them to the needs of strengthening his power: for example, he reduced an initial number of newspapers in Paris, which was seventy-three, to thirteen and then to four (684). He cultivated and popularized the image representing him as a hero, a magnificent governor.

When forming the new political system of France, Napoleon followed his imperial intents: he focused on eliminating both the ascendancy of the old nobility and the influence of the contemporary revolutionary trends of equality and liberation, and the most appropriate decision was to create the new nobility based on the military estate which would support his power. Besides the political field, Napoleon reformed the legislation, having introduced the Civil Code: again, on the one hand, it was aimed to provide equality; on the other hand, this concerned only the adult males, omitting the rights of women and children.

The social transformations were fulfilled by Napoleon’s predecessors as well; however, they had another nature: the Revolution had penetrated into the life of the citizens too deeply, touching on all fields of their life, including even the forms of speech and the names of the months (669). Certainly, this intrusion was not a single factor that caused the resistance to the Revolution: some people were just tired of the hard conditions of life, such as “long bread lines” (670) or of the terror; however, the combination of a range of factors impact on the total outcome of the Revolution.

Thus, it is possible to find common features of revolutionary transformations and those introduced by Napoleon, as, firstly, they lay in the same dimension of social and political life, and secondly, it was just impossible to ignore the tendencies which had been developing for ten years and had embraced all the strata of the society changing their mode of life. What makes these periods different is the transformations’ intent: Napoleon came to power when the revolutionary “foam” descended and focused only on the matters which could impact his position and power, which defined the direction of his policy.


Hunt, Lynn, et al. The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures, A Concise History. 2nd edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006. Print.

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