The code, which Napoleon rightly considered his most lasting achievement, enshrined the revolutionary principle of equality before the law, freedom of worship and limited arbitrary police powers (although this latter postulate was far more observed in the breach). This was not something done cavalierly. Napoleon himself presided over fifty-seven of the more than one hundred sessions of the Commission of Legislation tasked with forming the code. Bell observes that
"The French today do not much admire Napoleon Bonaparte, but to the extent they do, it is for his domestic achievements during the period 1799-1804, known as the Consulate. It was a period of authoritarian rule but also of energetic state-building, during which Napoleon established institutions and principles by which the French still govern themselves today."
Chateaubriand was therefore not incorrect in identifying Napoleon’s appeal in his gestures toward classlessness. Where Chateaubriand went wrong was in overstating the emperor’s commitment to equality. Broers and Bell, both longtime scholars of Revolutionary France, underscore just how liberally Napoleon borrowed from the left and the right in consecrating his rule. Triangulation and stability, not adherence to the desires of either the Jacobins or the Bourbons, was Napoleon’s aim and achievement. This was demonstrated in the initial legislation the Napoleonic government moved to pass. It was designed “to reassure the political world that they would not follow victory with revenge,” writes Broers. The regime revoked unpopular laws, released political prisoners and submitted the new constitution to the public for approval by plebiscite (albeit an unnecessarily rigged one).
In some instances, Napoleon’s authoritarian practices increased alongside his confidence. Broers recalls an episode early in Napoleon’s rule when his brother Lucien—who had been instrumental in elevating Napoleon to power and served as Minister of the Interior—published a pamphlet called A Parallel among Caesar, Cromwell, Monck and Bonaparte. The title actually was misleading in that the tract stressed that Bonaparte would not make himself a king, and was in that respect unlike Caesar or Cromwell. Nonetheless, the booklet emphasized Napoleon’s indispensability to France and asked what might happen if the leader “were to be missing.” “The issue of the succession was suddenly made central to public debate, and the introduction of Caesar into the debate, however it was handled, ignited fears that Napoleon, like Caesar, might make himself Consul for Life or, like Cromwell, resort to nepotism if allowed to choose a successor,” writes Broers. Napoleon immediately and ruthlessly stripped Lucien of his powerful ministry and dispatched him to Spain as ambassador, permanently exiling him from power. “My only natural heirs are the French people, they are my child” was Napoleon’s savvy public response to the crisis. He knew the insecurity of his position and the degree to which his legitimacy derived from ties to the more popular notions inherent in the Revolution, above all the end of aristocratic rule.
Of course, eventually crowning himself Emperor of the French—he chose the title to avoid associations with monarchical power and to recall the majesty of Ancient Rome—was exactly what he did, in 1804. It was a different form of kingship than what had come before, however: “Napoleon had created the first explicit example of what came to be called ‘the administrative monarchy,’ an authoritarian state held in check by a well-defined legal code,” writes Broers. “Nothing was further removed from the concept of Divine Right, and it drove a theoretical wedge between the old and the new monarchies.” But it was largely a distinction in concept, not execution. Napoleon had reestablished a court with all the excess and pomp, and he created titles and official costumes that outdid anything the Bourbons contemplated. He moved both his private and official quarters into splendidly redecorated residencies, and even adopted the way of walking of monarchs, from side to side. At the same time, the Napoleonic Code and civic equality remained untouched. “Napoleon clearly wished to present himself as a man of the center,” writes Bell, “reconciling the Old Regime and the Revolution in his own person.”
Bell and Broers differentiate Napoleon from Hitler, Mussolini and co., in his concessions to popular sovereignty and liberalism. Napoleon had dictatorial impulses, certainly, but they existed along other ones that prioritized domestic calm. According to Bell,
"It is important to stress that while the regime created between 1799 and 1804 was authoritarian, illiberal, and undemocratic, it was not, despite the execution of d’Enghien, exceptionally arbitrary or bloodthirsty. Fouché’s networks of spies and informers and his severe censorship system might seem to recall the worst dictatorships of the twentieth century. But unlike those regimes, Napoleon’s France had no gulag and no concentration camps. Throughout Napoleon’s fifteen years in power, there were few political executions, and the rate of political imprisonment remained tiny by modern standards. Napoleon in fact reversed some of the harsher measures taken by the Directory during the military crisis of 1798-99 and allowed émigrés who had fled France during the Revolution to return. Many of the leading French authors of the day...ferociously attacked Napoleon in print at one time or another without losing their lives or their liberty."
By minimizing large-scale repression, Napoleon minimized the political backlash to his rule. That sort of political astuteness first showed itself not in Paris but in foreign battlefields, however. After his first success, at the Siege of Toulon, he sent a letter to the Ministry of War declaring that the English had been unreservedly routed. In fact, they had sunk twelve French warships and stolen another twelve, and burned all the timber stocks needed for repairs and constructions. An expression eventually gained prominence in France: “to lie like an army bulletin.” Broers cites the Toulon letter as the first example of this tendency.
Toulon was soon followed by an astounding success where Napoleon inspired his troops by promising them glory, wealth and honor. To underfed, unpaid soldiers, this was tremendous inspiration, and it encouraged them to follow Napoleon’s brutally long marches. He led infantry columns personally across the bridge at Lodi with his colleagues, and then brilliantly commissioned a painting of him crossing the bridge essentially alone. He consolidated his victories by sending huge sums of money and art looted from his conquered territories back to the Directory in Paris.
More than just wealth, he played up the glory of the French nation to his superiors at home. Just as Franklin Roosevelt made use of radio and John Kennedy of television, so Napoleon took advantage of the explosion of newspapers and a literate public that had emerged in Paris. He had military summaries reprinted in French newspapers boasting of the valor of French troops and their smashing victories over their enemies. He had more than thirty-five portraits of him in Italy made and sent back to Paris. He founded two French-language newspapers to report on his victories. By the time he returned, he was already the most beloved individual in France—thousands showed up to a public festival honoring him. Poets wrote odes to him, playwrights composed plays about his success, biographers conjured up his past and journalists founded a newspaper called Journal of Bonaparte and Virtuous Men. This popularity made the ruling politicians nervous, and they encouraged Napoleon to once again go abroad. With royalist papers fretting about powerful generals taking over, he wisely insisted on wearing civilian clothing and becoming a member of the National Institute, which was devoted to science and literature. He cunningly realized that avoiding the still volatile French political scene could only help him.
The subsequent decision to invade Egypt in 1798 was, in retrospect, a horrible one for the French. (It also had incalculable centuries-long effects: Edward Said wrote in Orientalism that “with Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt processes were set in motion between East and West that still dominate our contemporary cultural and political perspectives.” He was not being complimentary.) But it initially appeared a remarkable success, with the French taking Cairo swiftly in the “Battle of the Pyramids” and soon occupying the entire country, entrancing France with tales of a conquered ancient civilization. Edgar Quinet, a Frenchman who wrote about Napoleon in 1865, noted that another French general, Massena, won victories in Switzerland equaling anything Napoleon achieved in Egypt. Massena was no publicist, however, and his triumphs failed in France to gain anything approaching the attention Napoleon’s received.
The Egyptians soon proved hostile to their invaders, a move into modern-day Israel was disastrous, and soon enough the British were chasing him. Fortunately for Napoleon, by this time, after two more coups had taken place in France and foreign territories were lost, the new leader of the Directory was longing for a general to bring stability to the country. Napoleon was only too happy to oblige. Egypt would fall to the Turks and British just two years after he left. Church bells rang out and crowds mobbed him—Bell terms it the first age of celebrity—but Napoleon knew the disaster he had actually left behind. His own propaganda saved him, as Philip Dwyer has put it. Napoleon transfixed the French public with the genuine intellectual and scientific accomplishments of the adventure. “He did bring back a new vogue in fashion, furniture and frippery, and there was a giraffe as well, but it died on the way to Paris,” Broers writes mordantly. By the time the true scope of the disaster reached the French people, he had already taken power through a coup.