Preferred Citation: Fehér, Ferenc, editor. The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1990.

One Mars Unshackled: The French Revolution in World-Historical Perspective1

The Napoleonic Denouement

Lynn Hunt's failure to make much of the connection between revolutionary democratization and the Montagnard mobilization for war carries over into


her reluctance to accept Napoleon's rule as a logical culmination of the politics of the French Revolution. She treats Napoleon's triumph as an "authoritarian" and "conservative" solution "made possible by the weaknesses in revolutionary political culture."[35] Focusing strictly on domestic politics, she points to Napoleon's abrogation of liberal representative politics and, eventually, of elections, along with the basis of his regime among "disenchanted republicans who preferred a stabilizing modernization to the upheavals and uncertainties of widespread political participation."[36] It is almost as if Hunt wishes to preserve the old notion of the French Revolution as, in its soul, liberal-democratic, even if, in the end, that essence survived only as a set of ideals and practices to be revived later.

What this overlooks is well stated by François Furet: "The concept 'bourgeois revolution' is simply not suited to account for the . . . revolutionary dynamic, for the political and cultural tidal wave unleashed by Jacobinism and the revolutionary war. Henceforth, the war conducted the Revolution far more than the Revolution conducted the war." "Nationalist feeling was no longer limited to the new France; it became an ideological model, the banner of a crusade . . . . [T]he French people did not exactly discover a miraculously exemplary form of human community; but surely they were the first to integrate the masses into the State and to form a modern democratic nation." "The price of that historical experience was open-ended war."[37]

Indeed, the final account of the French Revolution as a great drama of integrating "the masses into the State" was drawn up under Napoleon's regimes. The Consulate and the Empire were not simply exercises in domestic political stabilization under authoritarian "modernizing" rule. Institutionally speaking, Napoleon's regimes furthered the fusion of the political and the military, and the subordination of domestic policy to foreign policy, that had begun under the Jacobins and progressed through the Directory. This reached a climax after Napoleon's coronation, when the offices of chief of state and commander and chief were joined and a massive Imperial Headquarters was constructed, through whose staffs much of the business of state was conducted.[38]

Meanwhile, in the structure and operations of his Grande Armée , Napoleon fully exploited the meritocratic and democratic possibilities of the Revolution. As Gunther Rothenberg tells us, "from the Revolution, Napoleon inherited huge conscript armies, led by young and ambitious commanders, accustomed to a mobile, offensive, and ruthless way of war."[39] The Grande Armée's officer corps maintained the principle of careers opened to talent, both in military schools and on the battlefields, where Napoleon often personally rewarded daring soldiers and junior officers with on-the-spot advancement. "Opportunities for advancement in Napoleon's forces were far greater than those in any other contemporary army and served as a potent morale booster."[40] Advancement for many officers was, of course,


also due to the fact that Napoleon vastly expanded his armies, enforcing revolutionary draft laws to bring in some two million men between 1804 and 1813. The avowed values of the rank-and-file soldiery may have changed, as John Lynn has argued, from republican "virtue" to a more professional sense of military "honor."[41] But French citizens were, more than ever, called in huge numbers to serve their nation through military valor. Especially on the field of battle, Napoleonic France was truly a mass-mobilizing regime. Certainly the leaders and peoples of other European nations were convinced that Napoleon had succeeded in channeling outward the new democratic energies unleashed by the French Revolution.

If Napoleon's regimes were devoted to perpetual, expansionist warfare, there were several reasons rooted in the overall French revolutionary process. Many Frenchmen, not to mention foreign rebels against their own old regimes, wanted French ideals to be carried as far as possible across the face of continental Europe. What is more, for Napoleon as for earlier rulers during the Revolution, perpetuation of personal rule, the "defense" of the nation, and aggression against foreign powers tended to fuse into a single impulse. French military successes inevitably alarmed and mobilized foreign enemies, who then had to be engaged again in the virtually unending conflicts of this period; and any failure in war would certainly embolden political enemies at home. Yet, perhaps most important, the very logic of the French military innovations first crystallized under the Republic called forth exactly the perpetual military expansionism that became the hallmark of Napoleon's regimes.

From the Republic onward, the enormous size of French armies freed them from the logistical constraints of the prior century—provided that they kept moving. Large French armies could bypass fortresses without beseiging them, as Old Regime armies normally did.[42] Moreover, without stopping to lay siege, the huge Republican, and later Imperial, armies could be provisioned not just by reserves and supply convoys, but above all by collecting supplies from the area and levying contributions with which supplies were later purchased. If they kept on the move, the French armies would not exhaust the supply potential of a given area; and if they fought on enemy territories, they would alleviate the burden on France. In short, the French armies could externalize their supply needs, imposing them upon conquered opponents or recently "liberated" allies, thus diminishing the need to supply French forces from a fixed base or from the rear. By fighting and living on the move, French armies avoided the logistical perils of feeding a huge force confined to one place which had previously plagued European armies.[43]

As the French armies built through the Revolution were freed from the logistical constraints of the prior century, they became highly mobile and effective. The "nation in arms" made fast-moving field armies rather than sieges the centerpiece of war and these armies, in turn, made war the means


by which whole nations could be tamed. Napoleonic expansionism was made possible because the speed and mobility of the huge French armies expanded the range of what could be done by military might in the field. French armies massed to destroy the main field forces of their enemies could inflict extensive, even catastrophic losses, breaking the morale of opposing governments and stripping them of their military protection. This forced enemy governments into negotiations under highly unfavorable terms.[44] Eventually, of course, this spurred other Europeans to rebel against French conquests and encouraged rival governments to imitate French military innovations—further perpetuating warfare. Yet, initially the military innovations crystallized during the radical phase of the French Revolution, and perpetuated in the military during the Directory, made it easy for Napoleon to lead massive French forces in triumphant campaigns of conquest across Europe.

Not only military strategies and tactics, therefore, but also the foreign policy objectives that these new strategies facilitated, were remade by the French revolutionary "nation in arms." In war without end (until he was broken and exiled), Napoleon as the "Emperor of the French" truly realized the inherent possibilities for fusing nationalist politics and mass-mobilizing warfare unleashed in the modern world by the French Revolution.[45]

One Mars Unshackled: The French Revolution in World-Historical Perspective1

Preferred Citation: Fehér, Ferenc, editor. The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1990.