A Look at Napoleon’s Legacy as France Debates His National Image

on the 200th anniversary of Napoleon's death, France asks: savior or slaver?

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras left France with very mixed results. Politics upended, France worked hard to stabilize itself on national and global fronts. After 200 years since his death, what is Napoleon’s legacy?

Napoleon Bonaparte statue
Napoleon Bonaparte stands as one of the greatest self-made men in the history of the world. Photo By Matthew Leigh / Shutterstock

On the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death, Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, laid a wreath at the emperor’s grave, inspiring much conversation—and some debate—about how France should look back on Napoleon. Should he be celebrated for building the foundations of the nation as it exists today or be condemned as an enemy of the French Republic?

Napoleon’s military victories made him the most powerful man in Europe, putting his country at the center of the world—and yet, he also reestablished slavery in the French Caribbean after its abolition. Today, France and other lands affected by Napoleon are divided in opinion over his legacy in history.

In her video series Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon, Dr. Suzanne Desan, the Vilas-Shinners Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, said his legacy is even more complicated than most people realize.

Napoleon in Spain

“The Revolution and Napoleonic age had hit the world with a double whammy,” Dr. Desan said. “On the one hand, the Revolution introduced a stunning new set of ideas and practices to do with political participation, rights, and social equality. And on the other hand, the revolutionaries and Napoleon had unleashed international conflict, which destabilized not just politics, but also international geopolitics.”

According to Dr. Desan, the diary of a trader in Bogotá offers a sudden recounting and strict condemnation of Napoleon’s actions in Spain in 1808. The trader noted in his diary that news had reached Spanish America that Napoleon had imprisoned the Spanish royalty overseas, declaring that the French emperor had committed “the vilest act ever recorded in history.”

“Napoleon’s abrupt seizure of power in Spain took place when Spain’s 300-year-old empire was already wracked with trouble,” Dr. Desan said. “Social tensions plagued the colonies, and Creole elites resented recent Spanish reforms and new taxes. Soon after Napoleon ousted the Spanish king, rebellions and civil wars broke out across South America in the 1810s and 1820s.”

You Say You Want a Revolution

Despite Spanish conflict and turmoil in light of Napoleon’s actions there, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era were, quite fittingly, revolutionary throughout Europe.

“In dialogue with other Atlantic revolutions, the French Revolution generated immensely malleable and powerful symbols; political practices; and languages of liberty, rights, and constitutions,” Dr. Desan said. “Other places appropriated them, reformulated them, and fused them with their own traditions and innovations.

“This internal dialogue about the political and social order was all the more explosive because of revolutionary and Napoleonic warfare—the wars of this era not only redrew boundaries inside Europe, but they also contributed to throwing the colonial framework up for grabs, especially in the Atlantic world.”

In light of French and Spanish unrest, Great Britain rose further to power in the 19th century. Meanwhile, Napoleonic wars brought nationalism to the forefront of debate in several European countries, among their intellectuals and political activists. According to Dr. Desan, the French Revolution and Napoleon had “essentially created a new political universe, a repertoire that challenged the old monarchical systems,” spurring on strong demand for political power in Europe to be shared beyond a small group of elites.

Napoleon’s legacy will likely continue to be debated for some time.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily