Despite coming of age during the French Revolution and even supporting and defending it, Napoleon did not share many of the extreme idealistic tendencies of his contemporaries when it came to politics. Napoleon was a realist when it came to human nature and political power. It was exactly this moderate way of thinking that allowed him to be the logical choice to take the reins of power when the inept Directory floundered. At the time of the Coup of 18 Brumaire, the French people distrusted royalists and the Ancien Régime, but they also feared the neo-Jacobins and a return to the terror. In their estimation, Bonaparte was the man to preserve the gains of the Revolution while also being able to govern effectively and sensibly.
Napoleon built his empire upon what he called “masses of granite.” These were institutions–the Council of State, the Prefect, the Bank of France, the Civil Code, the Lycée, and the Concordat–that Bonaparte used to bring stability to the chaos which had beset France. This system depended upon a group of elites called notables. These were distinguished, property-owning men who were officially recognized by the French government. Napoleon would rely upon them to help him run the empire.
In 1802, Napoleon established an order of merit system called the Legion of Honor. It replaced the nobility with a merit-based system. It was meant to recognize both military and civil service to the state. Recipients were awarded a medal star attached to a ribbon, a title, and a pension.
Napoleon received much criticism for instituting the Legion of Honor since to some it seemed to be a return to a system of privilege that existed before the Revolution. However, this new institution was based on talent and service, not on birth and hereditary considerations.
The First Consul defended his new order of merit by saying:
“You tell me that class distinctions are baubles used by monarchs. I defy you to show me a republic, ancient or modern, in which distinctions have not existed. You call these medals and ribbons baubles; well, it is with such baubles that men are led.”
Napoleon later said that his motto had “always been a career open to all talents, without distinctions of birth.”
In Napoleon’s Civil Code, he eliminated some of the more radical notions of the Revolution such as women’s rights and reintroduced a patriarchal hierarchy into the law. Napoleon was realistic about the importance of family to the stability of the state. He pressed the members of the Council of State and the jurists who were writing the Civil Code to give back more power to the father when it came to control over children, inheritance, marriage, and divorce. The Civil Code did codify many of the principles of the Revolution, but it also took France in a more conservative direction.
One can see from the examples above that Napoleon placed great importance on three fairly conservative ideas as the major building blocks of a stable society: a property-based, land-owning class, a merit based system of rewards and distinctions, and a traditional family structure.
In our day, many have a naive view of what government should look like. Support for socialism, equality, free college, and even the abolition of the traditional family abound. These people would do well to study history so that they might realize what Napoleon knew early on–you can’t rule based on fantasies. When establishing a government, certain realities will restrain us whether we like it or not.
“We have finished the romance of the Revolution. We must now begin its history–only seeking for what is real and practicable in the application of its principles, and not what is speculative and hypothetical.”–Napoleon