Thinking Aloud: Vive L’Empereur!

Mar. 31, 2014 by Darius 

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the surrender and abdication of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France.  His France was defeated by a coalition of Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria.  Napoleon’s legacy, though, lives on: there is a very high correlation between the advances of Napoleon’s armies and European democracy today.

Napoleon came to power following the chaos of the French Revolution.  Napoleon may have been an authoritarian ruler, but he was undoubtedly a popular one and ushered in progressive social and political changes.  Napoleon’s most lasting contribution was probably the introduction of a modern legal system, the Code Napoléon, in 1804.  The Code Napoléon eliminated the patchwork of medieval laws that had governed France.  French armies carried the Code with them, literally and figuratively, as they began to govern the areas they occupied (see map below for Napoleon’s empire at its height.  Dark green represents the formal French empire, while light green is French satellite states).

Napoleon's conquests

Thanks to the conquests of Napoleon, the Code Napoléon was adopted by many German states, Italy, the Low Countries, Spain, Portugal, and even Poland.  What do those countries all have in common today?  They’re all stable democracies.  Coincidence?  No.  The Code Napoléon laid a groundwork for the rule of law and future democracy.

Napoleon was stopped in eastern Europe.  Just out of the reach of his armies (though not for lack of trying) were Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and the Balkans.  These countries are still struggling towards democracy, probably in no small part because they started the process 200 years after most of the rest of Europe.

Two hundred years ago Napoleon’s France terrified Europe’s monarchies. With his surrender and abdication those monarchies breathed a sigh of relief.  But history is rarely on the side of monarchy.  Had Napoleon not surrendered 200 years ago today and continued his push east, perhaps Europe would be a lot more democratic than it is today.

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