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Hello, and welcome to Revolutions. Episode 3.54, The Empire.
Over the winter of 1804-1805, Emperor Napoleon I knew that come the spring he was going to have to march out to prove to the world that he deserved the imperial crown he had just bestowed upon himself. And when the inevitable war of the Third Coalition started up, he would not only prove it, he would achieve some of the most spectacular victories in military history. And this is really when he moves from the very good, even great, General Bonaparte to Napoleon.
The Third Anti-French Coalition got to forming right after First Consul Bonaparte became Emperor Napoleon. Nobody much liked where this all seemed to be headed. The Swedish signed an alliance with the British in December 1804, forming the first link, and then Tsar Alexander signed Russia up in April 1805. The Austrians then joined a few months later when Emperor Napoleon decided to have himself crowned King of Italy, a provocative declaration in what they still considered to be their backyard. The new Kingdom of Italy Napoleon just crowned himself King of covered all of Northern Italy, and this marks an important break with his revolutionary past. As he conquered and reorganized Europe, which he’s about to do, Napoleon would no longer be creating sister republics, he will instead be creating client kingdoms. And so Northern Italy is now no longer the Cisalpine Republic, it is the Kingdom of Italy, and Napoleon himself was its king.
Before the Third Coalition formed, Napoleon had been planning to finally invade the British Isles, to do what he had once said ought not be done. And to this end, he had gathered an army along the Channel Coast and had been drilling them relentlessly. The officers got to know the men, the men got to know the officers, and everybody got to know exactly what they needed to do should they be put into the field. But when it became apparent in late 1804 that Russia and Austria were about to get pretty belligerent, Napoleon pulled this well-drilled army off the coast and marched them east. And that army became the core of the legendary Grand Army, one of the greatest and most invincible armies ever constructed. When the Grand Army crossed the Rhine and made contact with the Allies, it turned out they were just miles better than their opponents. Crossing into Bavaria in August 1805, Napoleon executed a brilliant sweeping flank of the Austrian forces during the Ulm Campaign, which culminated in 1805 with the complete encirclement of the enemy. The French captured 60,000 Austrians and lost only 2,000 men of their own. Then Napoleon marched on the Austrian capital of Vienna and took it.
But the Austrians weren’t quite ready to give up because right at that moment the Russians arrived to reinforce them, and the remaining rump of the Austrian army joined with the Russians, forming an army 85,000 strong to face off against Napoleon’s 67,000 at Austerlitz. The Battle of Austerlitz was Napoleon’s crowning achievement. He tricked the Allies into thinking the French army was in trouble. He pulled his men off the high ground and intentionally weakened his right flank, and it was all just too enticing for the Allies to pass up. His enemies having fallen into the trap, Napoleon crushed them. It was a bloody victory, but 36,000 Allies wound up killed, captured, or wounded. It was a spectacular victory.
The immediate result of Austerlitz was nothing less than the final disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire.
Hotally beaten, Holy Roman Emperor Francis II signed the Punitive Treaty of Pressburg on December 26, 1805. It passed huge chunks of territory to new French-aligned states like the Kingdom of Bavaria and the Kingdom of Italy and the about-to-be-created Confederation of the Rhine, which was forged by all those German princes who had gotten really sick of the Habsburgs at the Congress of Rustat and now looked to France rather than Austria as their natural ally. Austerlitz made it possible for them to break with the Habsburgs decisively. Francis then renounced the title Holy Roman Emperor and became merely Francis I of Austria, thus ending the nearly thousand-year-old Holy Roman Empire for good.
But of course, Napoleon’s spectacular victory on land was not matched by victory at sea. On October 21, 1805, in between the Ulm Campaign and Austerlitz, Admiral Nelson thrashed the French navy at Trafalgar. Nelson died in the fighting, but his victory ensured that Britain would control the seas for the duration of the Napoleonic Wars. It also set the stage for mutual economic warfare. The British set up a blockade of Europe to strangle the French Empire economically, and Napoleon responded by declaring a continent-wide embargo on trade with Britain. The resulting attempt to enforce, or break, Napoleon’s so-called continental system paved the way for Napoleon’s undoing, as Spain and Russia were the two major cracks through which the British were able to keep up their international supply lines.
After the Holy Roman Empire was wiped off the map, and Napoleon was gobbling up all its territory, the Prussians finally roused themselves from the neutrality they had maintained since 1795, and in the spring of 1806 joined what then became known as the Fourth Coalition, which is really just the Third Coalition, with Austria being replaced by Prussia. But this turned out to be a pretty bad move on Prussia’s part. In a double battle fought at Jena and Auerstedt on October 14, 1806, the Grand Army annihilated the Prussians. 67,000 French took out 120,000 Prussians. The French then occupied Berlin, and then just kept rolling right on through Poland all the way to the Russian frontier. Then in June 1807, a French army 80,000 strong crushed 60,000 Russians at the Battle of Friedland, forcing Tsar Alexander to come to the table. So as it was turning out, Emperor Napoleon not only deserved his title, he was basically invincible. We started the show with five great major powers—Britain, France, Prussia, Austria, and Russia—and Napoleon has just basically taken out three of them.
But though he had beaten the Russians, Napoleon really wanted them to be his friend, not his enemy. So he cultivated a relationship with young Tsar Alexander, and as the French and Russians negotiated the subsequent Treaty of Tilsit, the Russians were granted pretty generous terms. The Prussians, meanwhile, got it square in the face. The French and Russians agreed to the dismemberment of Prussia. From Prussian lands in Poland, Napoleon created the Duchy of Warsaw and then handed territory to the west and south over to the new Kingdom of Holland and the Confederation of the Rhine. A Prussian kingdom remained on the map, but much reduced and now a full client of the French Empire. Its army, for example, was now Napoleon’s to command.
But though the Treaty of Tilsit in many ways represents the apex of Napoleon’s power, sown within it were the seeds of discontent, especially between Napoleon and his foreign minister Talleyrand.
Talleyrand was opposed to the harsh treaties of Pressborg and Tilsit that humiliated the Austrians and Prussians. Rather than laying the foundations of a stable peace, Talleyrand saw only fuel for future wars that a now badly overextended French Empire would not be able to cope with. Tilsit marks the beginning of Talleyrand turning on Napoleon and coming to the belief that for the good of Europe, Napoleon’s imperial ambitions were going to have to be checked. Talleyrand resigned as foreign minister in 1807, but, critically, he was kept on as a senior councilor of state.
So the new map of Europe created by the treaties of Pressborg and Tilsit is a handy moment to run through Bonaparte’s use of his family to rule Europe. He was really hoping to forge a pan-European imperial family who could be trusted to run the empire. And though he did not yet have a son, something that was creating lots of tension between Napoleon and his wife Josephine, Napoleon did have lots of brothers and sisters to cement the Bonaparte imperial dynasty. His brother Joseph, for example, was made King of Naples in 1806, and as we’re about to see, will be made King of Spain in 1808. His younger brother Louis was made King of Holland in 1806 when Napoleon decided he could not trust the government of the Batavian Republic to run the blockade on the British, though, as it would turn out, he couldn’t really trust Louis either. Louis basically went native while running Holland and started to identify more with his Dutch subjects than his imperial brother, forcing Napoleon to remove Louis as king in 1810. Another brother, Jerome, was made King of Westphalia. His sister Eliza was made Grand Duchess of Tuscany, and then another sister, Caroline, was married off to Joachim Mira, one of Napoleon’s key lieutenants, who was then himself made King of Naples in 1808. When the Revolutionary Wars began in 1792, one of the grand aims was to sweep aside the old royal dynasties, and Napoleon achieved this, only to replace them with a new imperial dynasty. One guy you might have noticed missing from that list was Lucien Bonaparte, who had been so critical to the success of Brumaire. It turns out that Lucien was a Republican true believer who was not at all happy with his brother’s autocratic turn. Napoleon tried to marry Lucien off to a Spanish princess, but Lucien refused and then went into self-imposed exile in Italy. After years of living under de facto house arrest, he tried to escape to America, but was captured by the British shortly after putting to sea. This wasn’t so bad for Lucien, though, because when he was brought to England, he was celebrated as the good Bonaparte, the one who had turned his back on his evil brother Napoleon.
So Lucien lived comfortably in England and then returned to France following the Restoration, but at the very end, he decided to support his brother during the Hundred Days, and so wound up prescribed by the Bourbons after Waterloo. Lucien is kind of like the opposite of Talleyrand, always managing to stay on the wrong side of the winners.
The unraveling of the Napoleonic Empire began just after the Treaty of Tilsit was signed, and it began on the Iberian Peninsula. Trying to lock down the continental system, the French army invaded British-allied Portugal in November 1807, and once that invasion was complete, Napoleon then turned around and double-crossed the Spanish Bourbon monarchy. King Charles IV was forced to abdicate after spontaneous riots broke out in favor of his son Ferdinand. Ferdinand was elevated to the throne, and he turned to Napoleon for support, but Napoleon ousted him too, putting his own brother Joseph Bonaparte on the Spanish throne. The Spanish nobility pragmatically accepted this change, but the Spanish people really did not. So what followed was the Peninsular War, eight solid years of fighting between various French armies and Spanish guerrillas, and it’s where the term guerrilla was actually popularized. When Napoleon was around, the French seemed unbeatable, but whenever he left it all collapsed into chaos again. Dubbed by history the Spanish ulcer, the Peninsular Campaign drained money, men, material, and attention from Napoleon’s other projects. It also brought General Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, to the main stage as he would lead the British forces in the Peninsular War, and would eventually be leading them right through the Pyrenees and into France itself.
Meanwhile, Napoleon and Tsar Alexander held a further summit in 1808 in the German Principality of Erfurt, helpfully dubbed the Congress of Erfurt. Napoleon’s goal was to strengthen the bond the two emperors had forged at Tilsit and get Alexander to commit to the Continental System. Napoleon brought along Talleyrand despite their now mutual enmity, and this proved to be a huge mistake. Bringing the emperors back, Talleyrand initiated secret meetings with the Tsar and convinced Alexander that for the sake of a stable Europe he needed to reject Napoleon’s overtures. And that’s what the Tsar wound up doing. Napoleon never discovered that Talleyrand had betrayed him, and simply walked away shaking his head, unable to understand why Alexander had said no to a perfectly awesome deal to be one of the twin imperial pillars of the whole European continent.
Rebuffed by Russia and with the Spanish ulcer still bleeding, Napoleon was then forced to go back to war with Austria in 1809. Believing that the time had come to set things back the way they should be, Emperor Francis I of now just Austria signed a new treaty with the British, creating the Fifth Coalition. The Austrians then launched a quick offensive to catch the French off guard, and Napoleon was dealt his first major defeat at the hands of our old friend Archduke Charles at Aspern Essling in May 1809, but the emperor managed to extract his army and come back around to smash the Austrians at Vagram in July, which was a battle waged between 154,000 men under Napoleon and 158,000 under Charles. Just for kicks, I went and looked up one of the great culminating battles of the Seven Years War, the last cycle of European wars before the Revolution. The Battle of Fribourg in 1762 pitted 22,000 Prussians against 27,000 Austrians. Napoleon’s victory at Vagram cost his army upwards of 37,000 casualties. The Austrians lost 30,000 to 40,000 men. So yeah, war is no longer a game of chess played by kings with small professional armies. It is now massive and total and horrible.
After Vagram, the Austrians had to sign an incredibly harsh treaty that stripped them of even more land and forced them to now provide support and men for the French armies. Basically, Austria was now, like Prussia, merely a client kingdom of Emperor Napoleon. To seal this particular deal, Napoleon then made the very unpopular decision to divorce his wife Josephine, who had yet to bear him a child, and marry the Austrian princess Marie Louise, which, back in France, went over about as well as Louis XVI’s merit to Marie Antoinette. But in March 1811, she bore Napoleon a son who was promptly made King of Rome and heir to the imperial throne.
Napoleon’s really real undoing came the following year.
Angry that Tsar Alexander was not going along with the Continental System, Napoleon decided that a full-blown invasion of Russia was in order. The invasion is now justly infamous as a military and, frankly, humanitarian disaster. If I did it right, the invasion of Russia would be like a three or four episode arc, so let’s just do it now with some raw figures. No two sources seem to want to agree on the totals, but Napoleon led something like 450,000 men into Russia in June 1812. Five months later, after skirmishes and battles and attrition and scorched earth tactics by the Russians and the just horrible Russian winter, Napoleon retreated out of Russia at the head of less than 40,000 men. His army suffered 380,000 deaths in just five months. The Battle of Borodino alone accounted for more than 70,000 dead on both sides.
Utterly decimated by the Russian invasion, and with the Spanish ulcers still bleeding, the walls started to close in on the emperor. But he is not going to go down without a fight. Over the winter of 1812-1813, both the French and Russians remobilized their armies. Now able to draw not just on France, but his whole empire, Napoleon was able to push his busted army stationed in Germany from a low of 30,000 back up to a high of 400,000 the following summer. But this is no longer the Grand Army of old, to say nothing of the fact that the sixth and final anti-French coalition would be the largest and most determined he would ever face. In the wake of the retreat from Russia, the Prussian component of the emperor’s army defected over to the Russians. When both sides had caught their breath and were back up and running the following year, the French faced a combined Russian-Prussian army at Lützen and Bautzen in May 1813, and these battles saw upwards of 250,000 soldiers running around trying to kill each other and combine casualties north of 80,000. So the even worse horrors of World War I have tended to blot all of this out of our memories. But remember, the Napoleonic Wars, World War I before World War I was a twinkle in the Congress of Vienna’s eyes.
A brief armistice followed in the summer of 1813, at which point the Austrians were induced to once again try to throw off the French yoke. But at Dresden at the end of August, Napoleon beat a combined Allied army of 214,000 with just 135,000 men, so he still got it, but he’s also now slipping backwards down a very icy slope.
The year’s fighting culminated at the Battle of Leipzig in mid-October. Napoleon fielded 191,000 against three converging Allied armies numbering over 400,000. With basically every nationality in Europe represented at the battle, it is also sometimes referred to as the Battle of Nations. It was the single largest battle fought on European soil before World War I. It was also finally too much for Napoleon. He was beaten and forced to retreat back into France itself.
While Napoleon was getting pushed out of Germany, the French forces in Spain were themselves getting pushed back, and Arthur Wellesley, now created the Duke of Wellington, was leading a combined Allied army through the Pyrenees. In his whole career, Napoleon had never had to fight inside of France, and now that was all that there was left for him to do.
There was a moment, though, in November 1813 when this could all have turned out different. The anti-French coalition was as much worried about their partners as their common French enemy, and the Austrian foreign minister and master diplomat Metternich wanted to maintain a chastened but still stable France as a check against the Prussians and Austrians. And so he squeezed an agreement from the coalition to offer Napoleon the Frankfurt proposal. Napoleon would remain emperor, and the French borders would be marked at their natural frontiers that had been established in 1795. It was a generous offer, and Metternich told Napoleon, I don’t think it’s going to get any better. But Napoleon still thought he could win, and so he said no, and then in December the offer was rescinded.
With a half million men invading France on all fronts, Napoleon then staged a pretty brilliant string of victories with just the 70,000 men he had left in February 1814, that was called the Six Days Campaign, but it was a hopeless effort. Napoleon belatedly said, I’ll take the Frankfurt proposal, but now the Allies said no, we have a new deal. You can still be emperor, but France goes back to its pre-1792 borders. Napoleon refused. In March 1814, the Allies took Paris almost without a fight.
Talleyrand had by now been in cahoots with the Allies for quite a while, working to ensure that when Napoleon went down, as he surely would, that France would not be taken with him. Talleyrand convinced the Allies that the surest path to a stable France, and therefore a stable Europe, was to restore the Bourbons to power. In this, he had support from the British, though the Prussians favored the House of Orléans, and the Austrians would have been happy running a regency surrounding young Napoleon II. Tsar Alexander, though, decided to go with Talleyrand and the British, and so the Bourbons got the call they had been waiting for for 20 years.
When the Allies entered Paris, Talleyrand went to the Senate and told them it is time for the Emperor to go. He then brought in Tsar Alexander, who told the Senate that the Allies were fighting Napoleon, not France, and so the Senate passed the Emperor’s Demise Act, which deposed Napoleon. Then they formed a provisional government and elected Talleyrand president, the only time the old sneaky snake ever sat in the big chair. But don’t worry, it was only for a couple days, and by April 11th, the Senate had created a new constitution, a constitution with the restored Bourbon monarchy at its center. But those are all just words on paper, right?
That’s sure what Napoleon thought. But when he started planning to march on Paris, his senior generals mutinied and said, we are not going to do it. Napoleon said, the armies will go where I tell them to. And Marshal Ney then famously replied, the army will follow its generals. With no one to carry out his orders, Napoleon gave up. On April 2nd, he abdicated in favor of his son, but that wasn’t good enough. And so on April 4th, 1814, Napoleon abdicated unconditionally.
The victorious Allies met for a diplomatic summit at Vienna in September 1814 to redraw the map of post-Napoleonic post-French revolutionary Europe. The Congress of Vienna was Talleyrand’s moment to shine. Initially, the only powers with decision-making abilities were Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria, which makes perfect sense because those are the four powers that have just won the war. But Talleyrand, negotiating on behalf of the restored Bourbons, formed a coalition of lesser states and said, hey, these guys need a say too. So if you give me a seat at the table, I’ll make sure they don’t get left in the dust.
Talleyrand then expertly played on the coalition partner spheres of each other, and he got France a seat at the table with decision-making powers. And instead of being partitioned and dismembered like some latter-day Poland, France was kept mostly intact, though it was now back to its pre-1792 borders. Then Talleyrand turned around and forged a secret pact with Britain and Prussia against Austria and Russia, breaking the anti-French coalition and putting France back on equal footing with the other great powers, despite having wrecked so much havoc and having been so thoroughly defeated. It’s one of the all-time great diplomatic achievements. And the stately quadrille danced on.
But of course we know that there’s one final act left to play out. Exiled to the island of Elba off the Italian coast, Napoleon tried to commit suicide, but the pill he had been carrying around since Russia had lost its potency. When the Allies started reneging on promised funds to keep up his exile, and then rumors started floating around that they were going to deposit him in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Napoleon escaped from Elba on February 26, 1815. When he landed in France, the newly restored Bourbon monarchy sent an army to capture him. But when that army made contact with Napoleon, they all said, viva la emperor, and they all marched on Paris together.
With this army on the move, the restored Bourbons fled the capital, and Napoleon reentered Paris on March 22, beginning the Hundred Days, Napoleon’s last window of imperial rule. But that window was closed almost exactly 200 years ago at Waterloo on June 18, 1815. After this great defeat, Napoleon abdicated again on June 22, and this time he was exiled to Saint Helena, a thousand miles off the coast of Africa, an island from which he could not escape.
Napoleon Bonaparte had been First Consul for five years and Emperor for eleven. He ruled one of the largest empires of the modern world. He had taken France from the brink of defeat to total domination over Europe. He had reached phenomenal heights. His impact is still felt today. But after six years of dreary exile, Napoleon died broken and depressed in 1821.
Napoleon’s resurgent aggression during the Hundred Days could have cost France a lot. But by the time he had escaped from Elba, almost all the detail work of the Congress of Vienna was done. All that was left to do was sign, and nobody wanted to reopen negotiations. So the balance of power thus forged at Vienna would hold up for a century. It also created the fault lines upon which World War I would be fought, since Prussia emerged the clear victor from the Congress of Vienna and was soon busy unifying Germany.
Inside France, of course, the final defeat of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna meant that the Bourbons were finally back, twenty-three years after the Republic had been proclaimed by the National Convention in September 1792. Talleyrand stayed on as foreign minister for Louis XVIII, and the old survivor was surviving thanks to the seeds he had sown right after the fall of the Bastille. If you’ll recall, Talleyrand had told the Comte d’Artois, if you guys want to survive, you’re going to have to crack down on these revolutionaries fast and hard.
Artois had agreed with this assessment, but Louis XVI had not. Artois then fled the country in July 1789, and when he finally returned to Paris in 1815, he could not deny that before he had done anything else, Talleyrand had once tried to save the monarchy from destruction. Though, Talleyrand would not last long in office. By the end of the year, he will be forced out of the ministry, and then spend the next 15 years exiled from public life, before being invited back to power by King Louis Philippe, marking the sixth different regime Talleyrand would serve in his long and sneaky and brilliant career. Everyone went into the restoration with something resembling hope. So much had changed, and so much of that change was cemented that it did not seem possible for the restored royal family to try and undo it. But it was later said that when the Bourbons came back, they forgot nothing and learned nothing. Some things they could not change. The centralized departmental structure remained in place, as did the Napoleonic Code. I mean, how could it not? It was working great. All Frenchmen were also considered equal before the law.
But on the other hand, the king was also the supreme commander of the army and navy. He could make war and negotiate peace. He could sign commercial treaties with foreign powers, appoint public officials, and pretty much write domestic regulations and ordinances as he saw fit. As constitutional monarchies go, the restoration was heavy on the monarchy.
Now Louis XVIII was personally fairly liberal and cautious with his new subjects, who had gotten pretty used to being citizens over the last twenty years. But when he died in 1824, his brother, the implacably counter-revolutionary Comte d’Artois, succeeded him as King Charles X. Six years later, the harsh conservatism of Charles would prove to be too much, and the July Revolution would overthrow him and invite to the throne King Louis Philippe, formerly the Duc d’Orléans, the long-exiled son of Philippe Egalité.
Styled now King of the French rather than King of France, King Louis Philippe would rule the July monarchy as a truly constitutional monarchy until it too was overthrown in the chaos of 1848. The restoration of the Bourbons in 1815 really, really closes the book on the great revolutionary cycle that began with the fall of the Bastille in 1789. Though we should all now know that the Revolution didn’t really start in July 1789. It really started in August 1786, when Controller General Colon told King Louis that the monarchy was stony broke.
So if you ask me, the smaller epochs within the greater revolutionary epoch really breaks down August 1786 to July 1794, that’s the really revolutionary revolution. Then July 1794 to April 1804, call that the Termidorian Republic, and then April 1804 to June 1815, the Napoleonic Empire. But we are going to talk about all that during the final retrospective, which as I said will just be showing up in your feed at some random point. In the meantime, you can find me on Twitter at Mike Duncan so that you will be able to keep up with me in real time. But between now and then, I will have had a baby. So I am off to do that now.
See you on the other side.
Napoleon conquered Europe. Then he got beat and the Bourbons came back.
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