When we were studying the french revolution, back when I was 15, I remember asking my teacher what was the point of killing a king to end up having an emperor. She didn't bother too much answering but she did say that it wasn't the same thing, like implying that with Napoleon things were better.

Now, I do realize that Napoleon was the emperor so to some extent he was indeed a dictator, but, to what extent? I mean, was his regime more "benevolent" than what is expected when you have a dictatorship (like Stalin's, Franco's...)?, did he take decisions that improved society which would make him be regarded as a good leader?

What were the differences in French society between having Napoleon as Emperor vs. having the Louis as kings? Was Napoleon's power less (or more) absolute than the Louis.' Was Napoleon less (or more) tyrannical in his use of power? Were there greater (lesser) checks on Napoleon's power than on the kings? Was Napoleon somehow a better (worse) ruler than the kings because he rose to power on talent, rather than birth?

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    As for king to emperor. It did not happen like that. It went from an absolute monarchy, to a parliamentarian monarchy, to a parliamentarian dictatorship, to a personal dictatorship, to a mess, then finally, to an Empire. And even that is an over simplification. ^_~ – Sardathrion - against SE abuse Dec 18 '13 at 13:50
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    You're right that the question is broad enough for several books; is there something we can say that is useful? You've raised a fascinating scope question; should we discuss it in meta? – MCW Dec 18 '13 at 14:08
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    @Sardathrion wich book would you recommend? – PhoenixPerson Dec 18 '13 at 14:33
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    Vincent Cornin, David Chandlers, and Georges Lefebvre should give you a good start. – Sardathrion - against SE abuse Dec 18 '13 at 14:51
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    This question has potential, but needs considerable narrowing of focus first. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 18 '13 at 23:18


First off, address the bias. There is a substantial fraction of historians who think that Napoleon's armpits smelled like air freshener and posies sprung up in his footsteps. They believe that the word "wrong" is defined as "disagrees with Napoleon", and discussing Napoleon's failings is not just an intellectual but also a moral hazard. I'm not fond of these folks.

Napoleon isn't a single, easily understood instance, he's a generation, and over that generation he changes and he changes the world. He rejects the church, he accepts the church. He frees all slaves, and then re-enslaves the ones he finds necessary. He enfranchies the Jews and then reveals that the enfranchisement doesn't really mean much. He writes the code Napoleon, and then rules as a dictator.

I don't like him; I don't like the revolution, I don't like absolutism, I don't like conquering populism. The problems he confronts are fascinating, but I can't read about him because too many historians think the Napoleonic war is about Napoleon.

I say all that as preface because I have to admit that Napoleon is brilliant by any concievable standard. As a military genius he did things that everyone else in Europe would have agreed were impossible. There are precious few rulers who have singlehandedly written a law code for an entire continent. That law code fell short of his goals, but judged by his aspirations, even I have to admit it is pretty admirable. He was quite simply more capable than anyone around him, and was still able to motivate others to join and support his cause.

The ancien regime was screwed - they had been trying assiduously to reform for at least a generation, but were unable to make the changes that would have saved themselves. Whether you think Napoleon was the agent of the change or a tool of change, he wasn't simply a lucky guy in the right place. He was an incredibly brilliant, incredibly capable man who rode the malestrom.

I think you pose a very good question - it would be fascinating to compare absolutist rulers like Stalin, Franco and Napoleon and investigate how they deployed terror, governance and genius to reform their societies.

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