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Discussion of Whether Napoleon Was a Hero Or a Tyrant

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In order to determine if Napoleon is a hero or tyrant, the definition of the aforementioned terms must be clarified. For a leader to be classified as a hero, they must always act in the best interests of their people. A hero would also acknowledge, understand and obey the law. Making decisions for personal gain or goals, and bringing suffering to their people, would identify a leader as a villain. A villain would also voluntarily put themselves above the law, to achieve their personal goals. Napoleon Bonaparte, who rose to power in 1804, has been associated with both of these terms. His domestic policy aimed to bring equality and economic stability to France, as per the promises of the revolution. His foreign policy aimed to spread the democratic ideals of the revolution to other European countries by military conquest. Napoleon would be considered a hero due to his egalitarian domestic policy and his necessary reform to the French economy, however, his foreign policy would be considered villainous.

Napoleon’s domestic policy included the complete implementation of his code, which would guarantee equality amongst all Frenchmen and could be considered a heroic action. As First Consul, Napoleon had the ability and opportunity to resolve the chaos in France. He was able to effectively recognize the heart of the issue and devise a plan for its end. “More than any man in France, he saw that its greatest need was a thorough overhauling and unification of its law.” The Napoleonic Code was introduced by the Convention and then finished and implemented by Napoleon in 1804. The code stayed true to the revolution’s promise of equality and was the first of its kind in the history of France. It addressed, with clarity, private property laws, individual freedom, the separation of institutions and Church, and criminal law. “This plan was remarkable for its excessive brevity; there was only one article for certificates of civil status, only one for domicile, and the rest in proportion; the whole consisted of six hundred and ninety-five articles.”

The code also allowed for the formation of an efficient bureaucracy as it abolished the inheritance of nobility and class discrimination, and made opportunities availible to all classes of society. The code allowed all jobs positions to be granted based on an individual’s education rather than its pedigree. This included all positions in the government and provided Napoleon with the opportunity to be able to build an efficient and effective bureaucracy. “Bonaparte had come to power without an organized faction of supporters; in filling key posts he had sought talent and energy alone and had ostentatiously ignored the political background of those who served him.” The vast increase in the number of candidates for each job in the government permitted Napoleon to elect the most competent and reliable men. The Napoleonic Code granted many freedoms to the Frenchmen and allowed the Frenchmen to have control over important matters, that were previously determined by either the state or the Church. Through the establishment of his code, Napoleon was able to tame a large amount of the chaos that had ensued and accumulated due to the incoherent laws of the French government.

Napoleon’s eradication and replacement of France’s failing economy played a major role in France’s ability to regain stability and therefore classifies him as a hero. Napoleon understood the dire state of France’s pitiful economy. He effectively utilized his authoritarian rule to implement efficient changes to resolve this issue. “Bonaparte found the treasury virtually empty and the government desperately dependent on loans from private bankers. He encouraged his experts to revamp the system of direct taxation, and, through his nation-wide bureaucracy, he succeeded in enforcing collection.” Napoleon handed the reins of France’s credit system to the Bank of France and ensured that the bank was put in check by financiers who had significant knowledge of economics. The financiers were also personally invested in the success of France’s economy which guaranteed the Bank’s success. This system, though strict, served its purpose well, “for the next century the franc was to become the most stable monetary units in Europe.” This system helped stabilize the currency as well as improve the process of borrowing money from the government. Combined with the efficient bureaucracy, Napoleon’s system brought economic stability back to France.

Napoleon’s foreign policy and the methods by which he was able to achieve it, were villainous in definition. Napoleon desired to “liberate” the other Europeans countries and introduce them to the ideals of the revolution. This goal, in and of itself, would be considered heroic. However, the achievement of his foreign policy violated multiple laws of the Westphalian System. His expansion neglected the neutrality of small states and the rule of non-intervention. Napoleon also used unethical tactics to force states to adopt his foreign policy and maintain his control over them. “That he ordered his generals and satraps to use preventive terror to control their domains; that not only conquered and suppressed other states war, but also used tactics of bullying, manipulation, and extortion on them in times of peace, almost without regard to whether they were hostile or friendly.” Napoleon’s disregard for the law and his willingness to resort to violence in order to maintain control would be considered villainous actions.

Though Napoleon was able to spread equality in Europe, he failed to provide liberty. Napoleon overtaxed and conscripted his empire to provide sufficient financial means in order to keep it and maintain control over it. It is evident that Napoleon was not only breaking the law to provide freedom to other states but also using the states for personal gain. This negates any aspect of heroism that previously could have been found within Napoleon’s foreign policy. Multiple states which originally welcomed Napoleon with open arms, began to resist his control after his invasion — beginning with Spain in 1808, followed by Russia in 1812 and Russia in 1813. It was Napoleon’s humiliation and exploitation that spurred Spain and Russia to resist because they were content with the democratic reform that Napoleon had brought at first. This would result in more wars which would put additional strain on Napoleon’s empire. Napoleon’s foreign policy did not benefit his empire but only fed his ambition.

The continuous chain of wars took a heavy toll on France. After a while, even France grew weary and resentful of Napoleon, who was bleeding their resources dry by maintaining a constant state of war. By 1813, “there was open dissension in France and dangerous restlessness in Europe.” Also in 1813, after losing a large number of men at the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon abandoned the remainder of his men to race back to Paris and raise another army of men. This would result in another round of conscription from an already discontent France. It is evident that Napoleon’s foreign policy resulted in little to no advantages for France and was not a strategy that kept the well-being of his empire in mind.

Napoleon cannot simply be categorized as a hero or a tyrant. Throughout his reign of France, he has displayed qualities of both. With reference to his domestic policy, it can be said that Napoleon was a hero for his effective use of authoritative power to establish a proper system of civil rights and a sustainable economy. However, according to Napoleon’s foreign policy, he would be a villain due to his disregard for the Westphalian Laws and the well-being of his empire including France. Napoleon left behind a mixed legacy due to his rational decisions contrasted with his endless search for glory. However, without a doubt, it can be said that Napoleon played a major role in the history of France and Europe. 

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Discussion Of Whether Napoleon Was A Hero Or A Tyrant. (2021, December 16). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 25, 2022, from
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