History Optional Paper- 2 Solution – 2009: Q.7 (a)

Q.7 (a) How did Napoleon Bonaparte fuse the old France with the new?


Napoleonic rule saw comprehensive reforms which included religion, governance, legal justice, education etc. These reforms preserved several ideas of post-Revolutionary France but at the same time  they also contained elements of ancient regime i.e. pre-Revolutionary France. Napoleon showed himself at once the heir of the Revolution as well as the product of the reaction against it.

Principles of liberty, equality and fraternity

Of the three basic ideas of the French Revolution- “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”- Napoleon adopted “Equality” and ‘Fraternity’ but rejected “Liberty”.

His reforms were in accordance with the principles of the Revolution in so far as equality is concerned. He adopted the principle of “equality” in social and fiscal matters. His famous Civil Code enshrined that idea. He showed no partiality and no favourites. All shared in bearing the nation’s burden in proportion to their ability and all had equal chance of holding public offices. By throwing “careers open to talent” he secured to all equal opportunities and thus ignored any privileged class. Thus social and fiscal basis of France remained Revolutionary.

Napoleon did not respect political liberty, the grand idea of the Revolution. He thought liberty as a disturbing factor that prevented the efficiency of a state. Hence he reverted to many systems of ancient regime, for example:

  1. He, like King Louis, and unlike the Revolution, allowed neither liberty of speech nor liberty of the press.
  2. He deprived the “Departments” of all powers of self-government and emphasised a reaction towards the old system of “intendants” by a law which imposed a prefect and a sub-prefect on every department. These officers were appointed virtually by Napoleon himself. Thus the principle of election was subordinated to that of selection.
  3. Though the Prison and Courts system was ‘officially’ different, in that one could no longer be put in prison without charge and everyone was equal in the courts, nobles did not have special rights any more, but there were several shortfalls. Napoleon had a secret police force, which from 1810 could arrest people without trial.


Before Revolution in 1789, King Louis had absolute power, and could not be removed. There was no functional National Assembly (or Parliament) and there were no elections, so people did not have a say in who was in power in France.

The Revolution brought changes. There was no single ruler of France, and a National Assembly was elected by voters (all men). The Assembly made all the laws, which meant that many new laws were introduced.

Under Napoleon, more changes were introduced. Napoleon became Emperor of France, and could not be removed from power. There were two National Assemblies, with members chosen by Napoleon from candidates elected by the people. All men could vote, but after 1804, there were no elections.

The administration decisions of France made by the Constitution of 1791 was retained but the power vested in the local elective bodies by the same constitution were now abolished. These powers were now vested in local officers, prefects, sub-prefects and mayors They were appointed directly by Napoleon. The principle of election wad replaced by that of appointment or selection.

The Catholic Church

During the Revolution, the land owned by the Catholic Church was sold off and any religion was permitted (only Catholicism was practised in the ‘Ancien Regime’). In 1802, Napoleon made an agreement with the Pope called the Concordat in which the Pope agreed that the Church would not get its land back and in return, Catholicism was accepted as the religion of the majority. Also, it was agreed that Bishops were to be chosen by Napoleon, and agreed by the Pope. This meant that the government now had greater control over the Church.

Napoleon said: “The People must have religion, and religion must be in the hands of the government.”

Principle of nationality

The Revolution had accepted the principle of nationality, but Napoleon showed himself anti-national in several occasions like in his dealing with foreign countries, specially Germany and Spain where he expanded his family rule. At the same time, he tried to maintained the glory of France.

Changes to education

In the ancient regime (pre-revolutionary era), only the privileged went to schools, which were run by The Church. Pupils were taught respect for elders and religion.

The Revolution brought some change. Revolutionaries proclaimed that school was for everyone, and state schools were even proposed. The Aim was to encourage pupils to investigate and question.

Under Napoleon, the education system in France fused elements of both pre-revolutionary system and post0revolutioary France. Four grades of school were set up: primary, secondary, lycées (schools run on military lines) and technical schools. Schools now stressed the importance of obedience and military values – although primary education stayed almost as it had been before 1789. Science and maths became more important subjects in secondary schools.

Several other elements of education system was of ancient regime. Loyalty to the need of the state and respect for the catholic church were included in the curriculum of the studies. Napoleon regressively considered that public education does not suit women and marriage is their whole estimation. He did not regard women as equal to men.

Changes in Justice System

Napoleon brought out Code Napoleon in 1804 which contained civil code, criminal code and commercial code. It was a synthesis between the liberal customer and natural laws propounded during the Revolution and the Roman law of ancient France.

On the one hand it preserved the valued fruits of the Revolution like social equality, tolerance, equality in inheritance, individual liberty etc, on the other hand it respected the old tradition of family discipline, private ownership of property envisaged in Roman law.

The system of election of judges introduced in 1791 was abolished and now they were appointed by Napoleon.

Modernisation of France

The vigorous impulse given to useful and splendid public works, the attempt at the restoration of the colonial empire lost by Louis XV – all these marked a return to the method of Louis XIV and Colbert during ancient regime. At the same time, he established modern institutions like Bank of France, Stock Exchange of France, which showed the path to the post-revolution modern France.

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