Following the chaos of the French Revolution, the nation of France was in dire need of a stable form of government which would continue the program of modernization begun by the revolutionaries. Ironically, the nation that had rose up against its absolute monarch was now in need of an autocratic ruler. The man destined to fulfill this role was Napoleon Bonaparte, (1769-1821) who ruled as first Consul after the coup d'état that thrust him to power in 1799, and as Emperor after 1804. His reign was an era of far-reaching social and political change for France. Education and local government were reorganized, the currency of France was stabilized, and a new legal system known as the Code Napoléon was instituted.
However, Napoleon is better remembered for his aggressive foreign policy. Displaying a rarely-paralleled military genius in more than a decade of continuous war, he brought all of continental Europe under French control by 1808. Nevertheless, his empire was not indestructible. The French conceded naval supremacy to the British after their defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The Peninsular War (1808-1814) further showed the vulnerability of the French. Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 proved disastrous. Weakened by that defeat, Napoleon's armies were unable to stand up to the combined forces of the other European powers at the Battle of the Nations in 1813. Napeolon was forced to abdicate and was exiled to the island of Elba. However, he soon escaped and attempted to restore his empire during the campaign known as the " Hundred Days". This dream was destroyed forever when Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and was exiled to the island of St. Helena.
Napoleon was popularly portrayed as a champion of liberalism and nationalism, a child of the French Revolution. While this may seem at odds with his dictatorial style of rule and his imperial ambitions, it is incontrovertible that he was one of history's greatest military tacticians and conquerors.
- ^ Swyrich, Archive materials