First French Empire


First Empire (French Premier Empire) is a name used by historians for the period from 1804 to 1814 and 1815 in the history of France. The official state name was French Empire (French Empire français). During this period, the French state was a centralized constitutional monarchy in terms of state law, but was ruled largely autocratically in practice by Emperor Napoleon I.

The monarchy was established by the Constitution of the First French Empire, finalized by the Senate on May 18, 1804, and confirmed by referendum in November. On December 2, 1804, Napoleon I was crowned emperor in Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral, where he was proclaimed Emperor of the French (L”Empereur des Français). This was preceded by the coup d”état of Napoleon”s 18th Brumaire VIII in 1799.

The period of the Empire was marked by military victories of the Grande Armée in the numerous coalition wars against Austria, Prussia, Russia, Portugal and their allied nations, the beginning of industrialization and social reforms. Economically, the country turned into an early industrial nation and, after Great Britain, the leading economic power in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century.

Through an aggressive foreign policy and renewed entry into overseas imperialism around 1800, the French Empire became a world power on a par with Great Britain. In Europe, it dominated large parts of the continent at this time, with the conclusion of several peace treaties and alliances extending France”s sphere of influence over about a third of the world.

The Empire”s territory reached its greatest extent with the annexation of Catalonia in 1812. Located in Western, Central, Southern and Southeastern Europe (Illyrian Provinces), the monarchy had an area of 860,000 km². To this were added the colonies, which also belonged to the motherland, with which the national territory of imperial France, excluding its satellite states, amounted to about 2,500,000 km². In 1812, about 60 million people lived on the national territory, with about 46 million in Europe and 14 million inhabitants in the colonies. Thus, it was the second largest state in Europe in terms of area (after Russia) and the largest in terms of population, and a leading colonial power of the time. Of its 60 million inhabitants, the nobility retained its high social prestige despite the French Revolution and, under Napoleon, was able to reassert its dominant role in the military, diplomacy and higher civil administration. The various reforms – for example, that of the judiciary through the Code civil or that of the administration – shaped France”s state structures right up to the present day.

The supremacy of the French Empire ended with the catastrophic defeat in the Russian campaign. In the wars of liberation that followed, France fought a multi-front war against the other great powers, suffering heavy losses and the withdrawal of the Grande Armée from the occupied and annexed territories. On April 11, 1814, Napoleon abdicated as emperor and went to Elba. However, after secret arrangements, he unexpectedly returned from Elba on March 1, 1815, and once again assumed power in France (Reign of the Hundred Days). During this brief period, the constitution was significantly liberalized and a de facto parliamentary monarchy was established. However, the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 finally overthrew Napoleon and dissolved the Empire for the second and last time.

Despite military defeat, the first French Empire ushered in the slow liberalization of Europe and the end of courtly absolutism. It had one of the largest armed forces in European history, the Grande Armée.

Napoleon Bonaparte”s nephew proclaimed himself Emperor of France in the coup d”état of December 2, 1851, and also attempted to pursue a policy of expansion and hegemony. This so-called Second Empire ended just like the First in a lost war, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

In part, revolutionary imperialism became the model for other empires such as those of Brazil, Mexico, China, Central Africa, Haiti (1804-1806), and Haiti (1849-1859).

Before the Revolution, absolutism had prevailed since the time of Louis XIV, in which all state power emanated from the king. The citizens and peasants (Third Estate) as well as the nobility (Second Estate) and the clergy (First Estate) had practically no political participation rights. The state had accumulated large debts. King Louis XVI wanted to reduce this deficit by raising taxes, so in May 1789 he convened the Estates General (French: les États generaux), which were the only body that could decide to raise taxes.

This Estates Assembly consisted of 600 deputies from the Third Estate and 300 each from the nobility and the clergy. However, the Estates General demanded more extensive political participation rights and the creation of a constitution. Therefore, the National Constituent Assembly (Constituante) was constituted in June 1789. After initial hesitation, the king allowed this to happen. However, a little later he dismissed the popular finance minister Jacques Necker. This led to riots in Paris that eventually culminated in the storming of the Bastille. In September 1791, the constitution drafted by the Constituante was adopted by the king, making France a constitutional monarchy. However, the king was labeled a traitor by the people in part because of his attempted escape to Varennes in the summer of 1791, pacting with the enemies of the Revolution, as the other states of Europe viewed the Revolution with skepticism and formed alliances against France. This led France to declare war on Austria in the spring of 1792, resulting in several coalition wars until 1815. In August 1792, the king, suspected of conspiring with France”s enemies, was overthrown and executed on January 21, 1793. The de facto end of kingship was August 10, 1792, when Louis XVI placed himself and his family under the protection of the National Legislative Assembly and was imprisoned in the Temple.The First Republic, newly proclaimed in September 1792, had to deal with both its external and internal enemies, which grew increasingly out of hand and led to the Jacobin Terror. The Jacobin regime was overthrown in the summer of 1794, and the Directory Constitution was enacted a year later. Despite the military successes achieved by Napoleon Bonaparte, among others, there was an economic decline – also due to corruption in the government. The system was thrown into crisis by the formation of the Second Coalition. Substantial political pressure then emanated from Jacobin-minded deputies in both chambers, leading to the resignation of four of the five directors in May and June. Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès and three Jacobin-leaning directors took their place. For Sieyes, however, this was only a temporary solution; to truly transform the constitution, he needed the support of the military. After various negotiations with other military leaders, he decided in favor of Napoleon Bonaparte after his enthusiastic reception of him following the Egyptian expedition. On November 9 and 10, 1799, the 18th Brumaire VIII coup d”état took place, justified by an imminent Jacobin uprising.

According to the new constitution of December 25, 1799, the first consul was elected for ten years and had far-reaching powers. In addition to Napoléon as first consul, Jean-Jacques Régis de Cambacérès and Charles-François Lebrun had only advisory functions. Thus, the right to initiate legislation rested with the first consul, and he appointed the ministers and other high state officials. The Senate, known as the Council of State, also played a strong role. The legislative branch, on the other hand, was relatively weak. It consisted of the tribunate with 100 members and the corps legislatif (legislative body) with 300 members. While the tribunate had the right to debate laws but not to vote, the legislative body was not empowered to debate but could only vote. Moreover, the members of both chambers were not elected, but appointed by the Senate. A referendum, the results of which were admittedly glossed over, resulted in the citizens” approval of the new constitution. In the Tribunate there were initially numerous critics of Napoleon, but later they were replaced by compliant members. The rights of the Tribunate itself also became increasingly limited. The domestic and foreign policy successes enabled Bonaparte, supported by a referendum, to have himself declared consul for life on August 2, 1802.

Imperial Coronation of Napoleon I.

After being offered the imperial dignity by a popular vote and the Senate, Napoleon crowned himself emperor in a ceremony attended by Pius VII at Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral on December 2, 1804. While the acceptance of the imperial crown was intended to further enhance his prestige internally, externally it was an attempt to legitimize his regime dynastically. At the same time, however, the title of emperor signaled a claim to the future shaping of Europe. The title “Emperor of the French” meant that the latter ultimately saw himself as emperor of a people rather than of an empire. Napoleon saw himself as the sovereign of the people and not, like all Roman emperors before him, as an emperor crowned by God (divine right). On May 26, 1805, Napoleon was additionally crowned king of the newly created Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy in Milan Cathedral with the Iron Crown of the Lombards.

Rise of the Empire and Reorganization of Europe

These coronations led to further conflicts in international relations. Tsar Alexander I entered into an alliance with Great Britain in April 1805. The goal was to push France back to the borders of 1792. Austria, Sweden and Naples joined in. Only Prussia did not participate in this Third Coalition. Conversely, the German states of Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden, which had been strengthened after the Imperial Deputation, entered the war on Napoleon I”s side. In accordance with his previously proven tactic of separating the enemy armies and striking them one after the other, he turned first against Austria. The first blow struck with a lightning campaign against the Austrians in the battles of Elchingen and of Ulm (September 25-October 20, 1805), where General Karl Mack von Leiberich was forced to surrender with part of the army, which was initially 70,000 strong. This left the way to Vienna open for the Grande Armée: After minor fighting along the Danube, the French troops succeeded in taking Vienna without a fight on November 13.

Subsequently, Napoleon lured the Russians and Austrians into the Battle of Austerlitz by cleverly feigning his own weakness, which he won on December 2, 1805. Although the French fleet was crushed by Nelson at Trafalgar on October 21, 1805, Austerlitz was the decisive battle on the continent. On December 26, 1805, the Peace Treaty of Pressburg was concluded with Austria. The terms were harsh. The Habsburg monarchy lost Tyrol and Vorarlberg to Bavaria, and its last Italian possessions fell to the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy. In gratitude for their support, the Electors of Bavaria and Württemberg were elevated to kings.

To ensure success, Napoleon I pursued a targeted marriage policy with the younger members of his family and installed siblings and retainers as rulers of the dependent states. Thus Joseph first became King of Naples in 1806 and then King of Spain in 1808; Louis became King of Holland in 1806. His sister Elisa became Princess of Lucca and Piombino in 1805 and Grand Duchess of Tuscany in 1809; Pauline was temporarily Duchess of Parma and, moreover, Duchess of Guastalla. Caroline Bonaparte, as wife of Joachim Murat, became Grand Duchess of Berg in 1806, and Queen of Naples in 1808. Jérôme became king of the newly created Kingdom of Westphalia in 1807. Napoleon”s adopted daughter Stéphanie de Beauharnais married Hereditary Prince Charles of Baden in 1806 and became Grand Duchess of Baden in 1811. Only Napoleon”s brother Lucien, with whom he had fallen out, was largely left empty-handed.

In Germany, the Confederation of the Rhine was founded on July 16, 1806 from an initial 16 countries. Its members pledged military support for France and withdrawal from the Holy Roman Empire. The protector of the Confederation – as a protector in the political sense of the word or as a protective power – was Napoleon I. Franz II then laid down the imperial crown of the Holy Roman Empire. Thus the Old Empire ceased to exist. By 1808, almost all German states except Austria and Prussia belonged to the Confederation of the Rhine. A “Third Germany” developed, so to speak, without Austria and Prussia (the triad idea). Extensive centralization of the state system along French lines – in Germany, which was often still organized as a patchwork of estates – went hand in hand with the introduction of principles of the French Revolution, such as equality, property rights and the like (general fundamental rights), but also with reforms of the agricultural, educational, religious, economic, fiscal and financial systems. In contrast to the comparable Prussian reforms, which were practiced rather harmoniously and from within, beginning in 1806, the French ones were increasingly perceived by the population as rigorous and as imposed from without. The administrative system was often slow and usually adopted only incompletely. It remained a torso, like the entire Napoleonic-Rhenish reform effort. The constant drafting of new soldiers, high taxes, disadvantages of the Continental Blockade, repressive measures by the police and military, and strong bureaucratic grip on virtually every citizen led to resentment. Educational reform produced a reliable professional civil service, and the real bearer of the reforms became the higher civil service. Tax and financial reforms led to an upswing in trade and a strengthening of the commercial and financial bourgeoisie. Capital markets grew, as did the number of investors, who were now also given guarantees to do business through the improved right to property. After Napoleon”s abdication, these regions became centers of German early liberalism and early constitutionalism. After the Rhine Confederation project of 1806 to establish a confederation of states with common constitutional bodies also failed due to the resistance of the larger member states, the Rhine Confederation essentially remained only a military alliance of German states with France. Napoleon”s main goal was to align state structures to stabilize French rule over Europe. In case of doubt, power-political and military considerations took precedence over liberal reform ideas. Historian Rainer Wohlfeil notes that Napoleon had no real concept for reshaping Europe; rather, the Rhine alliance policy, for example, was an expression of a “situational instinctive will to power.”

War against Prussia and Russia

Meanwhile, France”s relations with Prussia had deteriorated. After the latter had concluded a secret alliance with Russia, Napoleon I was ultimatively ordered to withdraw his troops behind the Rhine on August 26, 1806. The emperor regarded this as a declaration of war. He advanced with his troops from the Main River through Thuringia toward the Prussian capital of Berlin in October 1806. The Prussian army, defeated at the Battle of Jena and Auerstedt, nearly disintegrated in the weeks that followed. The principality of Erfurt was placed directly under Napoleon I as an imperial state domain, while the surrounding Thuringian states joined the Confederation of the Rhine. The Grande Armée marched into Berlin.

Now the Russian army, which had marched into eastern Prussia, supported the Prussian troops that had escaped there. During the campaign, the Napoleonic army showed its limitations for the first time. The country was too vast and the roads too poor for rapid troop movements. The supply of the army was insufficient and the Russians under General Levin August von Bennigsen retreated further and further without being engaged in battle. The winter of 1806

It was not until February 8, 1807 that the Battle of Prussian Eylau took place without a decision being reached. On June 14, 1807, Napoleon I was able to decisively defeat Bennigsen in the Battle of Friedland. On July 7, France, Russia and Prussia concluded the Peace of Tilsit. For Prussia, the dictated peace terms were catastrophic. All territories west of the Elbe were lost and became the basis for the new Kingdom of Westphalia. The territories incorporated by Prussia in the partitions of Poland in 1793 and 1795 were elevated to the Duchy of Warsaw. The Prussian administrative region of Bayreuth was placed under a French military administration as a pays réservé and sold to the Kingdom of Bavaria in 1810. All in all, Prussia lost about half of its former territory, had to pay high tributes and was only allowed to maintain an army to a limited extent.

Almost all of continental Europe was now under the direct or indirect control of the French Empire. Bonaparte imposed a Europe-wide trade boycott against Britain, which remained hostile, with the Continental Blockade.

The years 1807 to 1812

In the years following the Peace of Tilsit, the emperor was at the height of his power. Inside his domain, despotic tendencies intensified during this period. Bonaparte tolerated criticism of his conduct of office less and less. Because Foreign Minister Talleyrand voiced opposition to the expansionist policy, he was dismissed in 1807. The censorship and control of the press were tightened. The theatrical decree of 1807 restricted the scope of the Parisian stages. The personality cult around the emperor grew. Aristocratization continued. In 1808, a new nobility was created by law. In addition, more and more old aristocrats of the Ancien Régime played a role at court. This development was viewed critically by large sections of the population, which was still influenced by the Revolution”s ideal of equality.

In foreign policy, the focus was on enforcing the Continental Blockade against Great Britain. In Italy, this was partly achieved by force. With the king”s consent, a French army marched to occupy Portugal through Spain. Napoleon I took advantage of the throne dispute between the Spanish king Charles IV and his son Ferdinand VII, and in a political coup, backed by French troops in the country, installed his brother Joseph as king of Spain. Immediately thereafter, a general national uprising broke out in Spain, forcing Joseph Bonaparte to flee Madrid. The Spanish were supported by a British expeditionary force under Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington. After the surrender of his general Junot, Napoleon himself had to intervene. After trying to persuade the European powers to stand still at the Erfurt Congress of Princes in October 1808, the Grande Armée moved into Spain. Initially quite successful in fighting regular soldiers, the Grande Armée soon found itself embroiled in a bitterly fought guerrilla war with the population. Without having achieved any noticeable success, Napoleon I therefore returned to France at the beginning of 1809. Small-scale warfare in Spain remained an unresolved problem that tied up large numbers of troops and was costly.

Austria, meanwhile, fomented the burgeoning nationalism and met with great approval in its own monarchy and in Germany. Shortly after the return, the Austrian army under Archduke Charles of Austria-Teschen marched into Bavaria. In Tyrol, under the leadership of the innkeeper Andreas Hofer, the population then rose up against the Bavarian occupying troops. In northern Germany, Ferdinand von Schill or the Schwarze Schar attempted to mount military resistance. Above all, intellectuals such as Joseph Görres, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Ernst Moritz Arndt and others agitated against French foreign rule with sometimes already nationalistic slogans. However, Napoleon was still strong enough militarily to keep Prussia and the princes of the Rhine allied to him. Therefore, Austria was largely isolated from him on the continent.Napoleon I arrived in Donauwörth on April 16, 1809. On May 21, 1809, his troops crossed the Danube southeast of Vienna. In the Battle of Aspern-Essling, the Austrians temporarily halted the French advance. It was Napoleon”s first defeat and, above all, an important victory psychologically, since it caused the Grande Armée to forfeit its nimbus of apparent invincibility. In the following battle at Wagram, however, he was quickly able to make up for this defeat and decisively defeat the Austrians under Archduke Charles. In the Peace of Schönbrunn, Austria was forced to relinquish Dalmatia, central Croatia, Carniola, the coastal region, Salzburg and the Innviertel, thus losing about half of its hereditary lands and almost being forced out of the old Roman-German imperial borders. It also had to participate in the anti-British Continental Blockade, reduce its standing army to 150,000 men and enter into a military alliance with France.

That same year, Napoleon divorced Joséphine, as their marriage remained childless. In 1810, hoping for recognition by the old dynasties and the consolidation of the alliance with Austria, he married Marie-Louise of Habsburg, the eldest daughter of the Austrian Emperor Francis I. The marriage finally produced the desired heir to the throne, Napoleon II, born in 1811. Believing that they had thus established a new dynasty, celebrations were ordered throughout the empire, some of which were to become part of a permanent Napoleonic festive calendar. The weakness of the newly established dynasty was revealed by the conspiracy of General Malet in 1812.

Russian campaign

At the end of 1810, Tsar Alexander I of Russia was no longer willing to participate in the Continental Blockade against Great Britain imposed by the Emperor of the French for economic reasons. Since Napoleon I saw this as the only means of fighting Britain in the unsuccessful Anglo-French colonial conflict, Russia”s position and other factors caused relations between the two sides to cool. Napoleon I prepared for war with Russia in 1811 and the first half of 1812. The Rhine alliance states were obliged to increase their contingents, and Austria and Prussia also felt compelled to provide troops. Only Sweden, under the new crown prince and former French general Bernadotte, kept aloof and allied itself with Russia. In total, the Grande Armée is said to have been 600,000 strong when it marched. Today, however, these figures are considered exaggerated. In fact, at most 500,000 men were available at the time of the invasion of Russia. Nevertheless, it was the largest army that had existed in Europe up to that time.

On June 24, 1812, the Grande Armée led by Napoleon I crossed the Memel River. His plan for the campaign in Russia, known there as the Patriotic War, was to bring about, as in previous lightning campaigns, a quick spectacular decisive battle that would soon end the war and usher in peace negotiations. However, the Russian troops under the leadership of Barclay de Tolly retreated to the far reaches of the country. The previous method of supplying the army from the country”s produce did not work, as the Russians had a scorched earth policy. In addition, poor logistics and unfavorable weather conditions led to a considerable reduction in troop strength even without contact with the enemy. By August 17, 1812, when the troops reached Smolensk, they were only 160,000 strong. In front of Moscow, the Russians under Kutuzov engaged in battle. The Battle of Borodino was won by Napoleon I, but it became the battle with the highest losses of the Napoleonic Wars: about 45,000 dead or wounded on the Russian side and 28,000 on the French side. Not until the First World War were there even higher numbers of casualties in a single day.

Through this Pyrrhic victory, Napoleon I initially succeeded in taking Moscow without further fighting. After the invasion, the city was set on fire – probably by the Russians themselves. The soldiers of the Grande Armée suffered from hunger, disease, snow and cold. The tsar refused to negotiate. On October 18, the emperor gave the order to march. Lack of supplies, diseases as well as constant attacks of Russian Cossacks severely affected the French troops. Napoleon”s Grande Armee was finally crushed in the Battle of the Berezina.

Only 18,000 Napoleonic soldiers crossed the Prussian border at the Memel in December 1812. The commander of the Prussian auxiliary corps, Yorck von Wartenburg, separated from the Grande Armée and concluded an armistice with the tsar on his own authority (Convention of Tauroggen). Napoleon I had already fled to Paris to raise a new army. During the retreat with its heavy losses, the imperial court announced: “His Majesty the Emperor is in the best of health.


In Germany, the defeat of Napoleon I led to an upsurge in the national movement. The pressure of public opinion led previous allies of Bonaparte to turn to the opposite side. King Frederick William III concluded an alliance with Russia in the Treaty of Kalisch and called for a war of liberation. At first, only a few German countries followed suit, and Austria also initially stayed away from this alliance. Immediately after his return, Napoleon began to raise new soldiers. With a poorly trained army that also lacked cavalry, Bonaparte marched into Germany. In the beginning, Napoleon”s military skills showed once again. He was victorious at Großgörschen on May 2, 1813, and on May 20, 1813, at the Battle of the Rhine.

The opponents used this to draw Austria to their side. At a peace congress in Prague, Napoleon was given an ultimatum that included the dissolution of the Confederation of the Rhine, the abandonment of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and the restoration of Prussia to the borders of 1806. Since this would have effectively meant the abandonment of French supremacy in Europe, Napoleon I did not comply. Austria then declared war on France. Prussia, Russia and Austria concluded the Treaty of Teplitz. Since Sweden also joined the coalition, all states in Europe not directly or indirectly controlled by Napoleon I now stood against him. In the following campaign, the allies played out their numerical superiority, initially avoiding a decisive battle with the main French army as a result of the Trachenberg strategy and inflicting considerable losses on the troops of the Napoleonic marshals. The range of movement of the main French army was increasingly limited. The final defeat of the French came in 1813 in the Battle of Leipzig. Just a few days earlier, Bavaria had joined Austria in the Treaty of Ried and declared war on France. In the days of Leipzig, the princes of the Rhine Confederation, with the exception of the kings of Saxony and Westphalia, changed sides. Napoleon I retreated behind the Rhine with the remnants of his army.

On the Spanish front, Wellington advanced to the French border and France had to give up Catalonia, which it had annexed in 1812. Inside France, public opposition to the regime then arose for the first time in a long time. When the legislature demanded civil liberties, Napoleon I had it closed. Recruiting new soldiers encountered considerable difficulties because of waning support for the emperor, leaving Napoleon I with only a numerically inferior and poorly trained army to oppose the Allied forces. Nevertheless, in the face of the immediate threat, Napoleon”s skill as a commander was once again demonstrated. Despite clearly outnumbered forces, he succeeded in defeating the opponents, who were overwhelmingly superior in numbers but marching separately, several times through skillful and fast-paced maneuvering. These successes caused him to turn down another peace offer at the Châtillon Congress. Subsequently, however, it was clear that he was no longer a match for numerical superiority. Therefore, after the Battle of Paris, the Allied troops captured the capital on March 31, 1814. The emperor then lost all support from the army, politicians and even close loyalists. On April 2, 1814, the Senate pronounced the Emperor”s deposition. On April 6, he abdicated in favor of his son. The Allies did not agree with this. They demanded that the emperor abdicate unconditionally and offered the treaty of April 11, 1814 for signature. Napoleon signed this offer under the date of April 12, after he is said to have attempted suicide during the night of April 12-13. He was assigned the island of Elba as his residence and left only the title of emperor.

Reign of the Hundred Days and Waterloo

After his abdication, Napoleon went to the island of Elba in April 1814. He was now the ruler of a principality with 10,000 inhabitants and an army of 1,000 men. He began extensive reform activities, but as the former ruler of Europe, they could not fill him. Through a network of agents, he knew full well that there was widespread discontent in France after the Restoration under Louis XVIII. Encouraged by these reports, Napoleon returned to France on March 1, 1815. The soldiers who should have stopped him defected to him. On March 19, 1815, King Louis fled the Tuileries. Although the constitution of the empire was partially liberalized, approval of the restored Napoleonic regime remained limited.

Alarmed by the events in France, Austria, Russia, Great Britain and Prussia then decided to intervene militarily at the Congress of Vienna. On March 25, they renewed their alliance of 1814.

Despite all difficulties, Napoleon I managed to raise a well-equipped army of 125,000 experienced soldiers. He left a provisional government under Marshal Davout in Paris and marched against the alliance. As usual, Napoleon I planned to defeat the opponents one by one.

Initially, at Charleroi, he managed to drive a wedge between the British army under Wellington and the Prussian troops under Blücher. On June 16, he defeated the allies in the Battle of Quatre-Bras and the Battle of Ligny.

On June 18, 1815, Napoleon I attacked Wellington”s Allied army near the Belgian town of Waterloo. Wellington managed to essentially hold the favorable position against all French attacks. Prussian troops under Marshal Blücher arrived in time and Napoleon I was defeated.

The end of this battle effectively meant the end of the rule of the Hundred Days. On his return to Paris, Napoleon I resigned on June 22, 1815, having lost all support among Parliament and former loyalists. Neither the hope of emigration to America nor political asylum in Great Britain was fulfilled; instead, by decision of the Allies, he was exiled to St. Helena in the South Atlantic and the Empire was dissolved.

After the Congress of Vienna, France was able to keep its pre-Apoleonic territory (including Alsace and Lorraine). The Restoration took place and the Kingdom of France was revived. It was not until 1852 that there was again an Emperor of the French, Napoleon III (Second Empire).

Management structure

The administrative structures that had emerged during the revolutionary period and were joined by reforms at the time of the consulate were largely retained. Overall, a tendency toward centralization can be discerned. The prefects introduced at the time of the Consulate as heads of the departments were appointed by Napoleon himself. In the course of territorial expansion, the number of departments rose from 83 in 1790 to 130 in 1812. In addition to France itself, which extended to the Rhine, these included 14 départements of the conquered provinces in Italy and the 14 départements of the annexed Netherlands and the German North Sea coasts as far as Lübeck.

Below the departments, the sub-prefects of the arrondissements and the mayors (mairie) were also appointed rather than elected.

Territory and national borders

After the French Revolution, the territory of France expanded. In 1795, the High Diocese of Liège and the Austrian Netherlands were annexed. In 1798, the city of Mulhouse voted to join France. Around 1802 the Papal States and large parts of the Italian peninsula were annexed by France, in 1803 the High Diocese of Basel, in 1809 the territory of the Illyrian Provinces, in 1810 the Kingdom of Holland and the Canton of Wallis and in 1812 Catalonia. The territory on the European mainland had grown to 860,000 km² in 1812. France had thus become the second largest country in Europe, bordering 14 neighboring states: Denmark to the north, the Rhenish Confederation states of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, the Kingdom of Westphalia, the Grand Duchy of Berg, the Duchy of Nassau, the Grand Duchy of Hesse, the Grand Duchy of Baden, and Switzerland and the Kingdom of Italy to the east, the Kingdom of Naples to the south, and Spain to the southwest. The Illyrian provinces, which formed a French exclave, bordered the Kingdom of Bavaria to the north, Austria to the east, and the Ottoman Empire to the southeast. The longest national borders were with the Empire of Austria and Spain.

Insignia of the Empire

The French Empire had several official state symbols. The national anthem was Le Chant du Départ (The Song of Departure), replacing today”s anthem, the Marseillaise. The official motto was Liberty, Equality, Fraternity for a short time in the beginning, but was lost during the Empire. The French tricolor (blue, white, red) was used as the official flag. It contradicted the pattern of the flag of the Kingdom of France and became the model for the flag of Haiti. The coat of arms showed a golden eagle in Roman style and was based on the arms of the French Consulate.

The state symbols later became partly the symbols of the Second Empire under Napoleon III.


The constitution of the empire closely followed that of the consulate. The consul had extensive powers. Only he had the right of legislative initiative. He appointed the ministers, the high officials and the members of the Council of State. The latter had to translate the government”s intentions into draft laws and could supplement them with decrees. Restricted suffrage was again replaced by universal suffrage for all male citizens over the age of 21. The legislative branch was relatively weak. It consisted of the tribunate with 100 members and the corps legislatif (legislative body) with 300 members. While the tribunate had the right to debate laws but not to vote, the legislative body did not have the power to debate but could only vote. Incidentally, the members of both chambers were not elected, but appointed by a body called the “Senate.”

The decision to make Napoleon consul for life was associated with a further concentration of power. In addition to existing rights, the right to conclude international treaties henceforth rested with the consul. The right to pardon was also at his discretion. Likewise, he now also had the right to select the members of the Senate. Napoleon could single-handedly change the constitution. He could dissolve the chambers of the legislature or overturn court decisions at any time. In practice, the parliament became massively less important. The Senate became a mere instrument for enforcing Napoleon”s policies.

The new monarchical constitution not only determined that Napoleon would become the new emperor, it also established hereditary status within the Bonaparte family. Externally, the changes were most evident in the monarchical framework. Members of the imperial family were elevated to the rank of princes. Newly created were six arch offices (Grandes Dignités) and other high-ranking positions (Grands Officiers).

The grand dignitaries included the grand électeur (grand elector), in charge of the legislature and other high bodies; the archichancelier d”empire (arch chancellor of the empire), in charge of the judiciary; the archichancelier d”état (arch chancellor of the state), in charge of diplomacy; the architrésonier (arch treasurer), in charge of finance; the connetable, in charge of the army; and the grand admiral, in charge of the fleet. The Grand officiers mainly comprised the 18 divisional generals who were appointed Marshals of France in connection with Napoleon”s coronation as Emperor. Members of the Senate automatically became, by the new constitution, the princes of the imperial house of full age and the grand dignitaries of the Empire.

According to the constitution, the Senate formed two commissions. One was to take care of preserving the freedom of the press, and the other was to protect personal freedom. The body was also the highest court for ministerial impeachments. Theoretically, it even had a kind of veto power over proposed legislation. In constitutional practice, however, these rights played no role.

While the senate formed a kind of mansion, the tribunate and the legislative body also remained in place for the time being. The members of the corps legislatif were even granted limited speaking rights. The Tribunate was divided into three sections for justice, administration and finance. Both chambers met behind closed doors. Their importance remained low, since most regulations were decided by Senate consuls or decrees of the emperor.

At the time of the Hundred Days rule, Napoleon tried to make his dictatorship forgotten. As a supplement to the constitution of the Empire, the Acte additionnel aux Constitutions de l”Empire de 1815 was enacted. Drawn up by Benjamin Constant, this was a much more liberal constitution than up to 1814 and the Charte constitutionnelle of the restored kingdom of 1814.

Power centers of the empire

Between 1805 and 1810, Napoleon appointed various grand dignitaries (grands dignitaires) of the Empire. Some titles (the archoffices) were modeled on the Holy Roman Empire, and Napoleon filled many positions with his relatives. Napoleon also bestowed offices on his former co-officers from the Consulate period, Lebrun and Cambacérès. The Grand Dignitaries were entitled to the title “Imperial Highness” (Son Altesse Impériale, S.A.I.):

In addition, the normal ministerial offices remained. These were incompatible with one of the arch offices, which were remunerated with a third of a million francs per year. Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord”s hopes for an arch-office were not fulfilled and he remained foreign minister. Joseph Fouché became minister of police and was one of the emperor”s closest advisors.

In addition to the consulate, the reformed tax administration, the Banque de France and the franc as a stable currency were also taken over. From the final phase of the Consulate came the Legion of Honor.

Already since 1800 Napoleon still resided as consul in the Tuileries. A court was already created at this time. With its strict rules of etiquette, this followed the models of the Ancien Régime. The Revolutionary calendar was abolished with the coronation of Napoleon as emperor. During the Empire, court offices were created along the lines of the Ancien Régime. Napoleon”s step-uncle Joseph Fesch became Grand Almoner. In addition, there was a Obersthofmarschall at the top. In addition, there were other court offices. Talleyrand, for example, was chamberlain. He was thus responsible for the festivities at court. The numerous other court offices were given with preference to members of the old noble families. Louis-Philippe de Ségur played an important role as master of ceremonies. Ministers, state councillors, high judges and archbishops were given the title of count in a law of 1808. Other high officials, up to and including mayors of major cities, became barons. Members of the Legion of Honor received knighthood. Numerous high military officers were made dukes or princes. Thus, Nicolas Jean-de-Dieu Soult became Duke of Dalmatia, André Masséna Duke of Rivoli, Armand de Caulaincourt Duke of Vincenza or Bernadotte Prince of Pontecorvo. The titles were associated with large estates, especially in Poland, Germany and Italy, and high monetary payments.

During the Empire there was a partial rehabilitation of the old nobility. At court, some of its members were given important court offices. Napoleon”s goal was to merge the new bourgeois elites with the old nobility. In 1808, the old titles of nobility were reinstated. With them came land ownership and monetary payments. But the new nobility no longer had privileges such as exemption from taxes and duties. Also, the title of nobility was not hereditary at first. However, it could be inherited if it came to the creation of a majorate estate. However, parts of the old nobility kept their distance and among the people the new nobility could hardly win approval.

The central element of power in the Napoleonic state was the army, known as the “Grande Armée” from 1805. Structurally, it largely corresponded to the army as it had emerged during the Revolution. The elite of the army was the Garde impériale, which had evolved from the Consular Guard.

The basis of the army was conscription. According to this, all Frenchmen between the ages of 20 and 25 were required to perform military service. In 1808, 240,000 men were called up for military service, in 1812 275,000, and in 1813 900,000. Overall, however, troop strength was below that during the Directory period. Thus, only 75,000 men were called up in 1809. Many recruits, especially in the new departments, tried to avoid compulsory military service.

In addition to the French army proper, Napoleon also required the states dependent on him to provide troops. The Kingdom of Italy alone provided 218,000 men by 1814. The permanent contingent of the Confederation of the Rhine was initially 60,000 men and was later doubled to 120,000. Including the allies, Napoleon ordered 1.1 million men on the eve of the Russian campaign. Of the approximately 500,000 men of the immediate front-line troops, only about half came from the Empire itself. Even smaller, at 125,000-140,000 men, was the number of those who came from the old departments of France. The rest came from the new territories or from the allies.

Justice system

The independence of the judiciary was restricted. The structure of the judiciary was adapted to the administrative units. The election of judges, introduced during the Revolution, was abolished. They were now appointed by Napoleon.

The legal basis was the Code Civil published in March 1804. This codified some of the achievements of the Revolution and also applied during the Empire. Among them were equality before the law, freedom of contract and the separation of church and state. Property was particularly protected. The code also protected peasants from refeudalization. Other codes followed during the Empire. These included a code of civil procedure, a criminal code (1810) a code of criminal procedure and a commercial code.

Rule inward

In the course of time, the rights of co-determination were further restricted. The tribunate was abolished by Napoleon in 1807. The members were transferred to the corps legislatif, and the minimum age was set at forty. Only seated men were to be represented in the political bodies in the future. The Council of State and the Senate were, even more than before, mere tools for enforcing the emperor”s goals. The irremovability of judges was restricted. Political opposition was persecuted. New state prisons were built specifically for political prisoners. Over time, the persecution of political opponents increased. In 1811, there were 3500 imprisoned state criminals. Many were imprisoned without trial.

The already existing press censorship was tightened. The number of newspapers was limited and unpopular papers were banned. The official mouthpiece of the emperor and the state was the Moniteur. Its political articles were written by the Foreign Ministry. Later, a separate press office was established. The state also exerted influence on art and literature. Anne Louise Germaine de Staël had already been forced to leave France before the beginning of the empire, and her book De l”Allemagne, published in 1810, was banned by the censors. François-René de Chateaubriand also had to leave the country. In theaters, usually only plays that took place far in the past and did not allow any political reference to the present at that time were allowed to be performed. In Paris, the number of theaters was limited to only nine in 1807. In 1810, a special censorship authority was established.

In the controlled press, the cult of personality increased. Various monuments to Napoleon also served this purpose, such as the Colonne Vendôme in Place Vendôme, created in 1810. The Arc de Triomphe was begun during Napoleon”s time, but was not completed until much later.

Education was centralized. An authority called the “Imperial University” was responsible for all schools from elementary to university. It founded and administered the public schools and supervised the private ones. A college of councillors drew up the teaching materials. Last but not least, a political catechism was disseminated. In it, the students were sworn to loyalty to the emperor on religious grounds. Those who turned against the emperor were threatened with eternal damnation.

This circumstance had created a conflict-laden atmosphere with numerous autonomy aspirations. In Catalonia, for example, the Grande Armée waged a bitter guerrilla war against native resistance fighters that lasted until 1813. The national uprisings of national minorities against the regime, which began with Napoleon”s defeat in the Russian campaign, prompted Napoleon to give the minorities special status. Thus, Italian, Dutch, German, Catalan, Croatian and Slovenian were elevated to official regional languages.

State and church

After the French Revolution not only pushed back the power and influence of the church but fought it, Napoleon tried to keep it under control through readmission, equality of faiths, and attachment.

The constituent National Assembly initially excluded Jews from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of August 26, 1789, and vigorously debated whether to naturalize or expel them, but then in 1791 almost unanimously granted all Jews of France the status of citizen (citoyen) in return for renouncing their status as a community. This was the first time that Jews in a European country had been granted civil rights. In return, they lost their previous partial autonomy and had to perform military service.

In 1804, the Code civil came into force. It became not only the “true” constitution of France, but also the most widespread code in Europe and, moreover, the first on the continent that did not have its own regulations for Jews. All citizens were to be equal before the law. In 1806, Emperor Francis II laid down the crown of the Holy Roman Empire. With this, the Old Empire ceased to exist. Secularization was the beginning of a slow development toward religious neutrality in the German states and the separation of throne and altar.

With the introduction of consistories in 1808, Napoleon underpinned the administrative equality of the approximately 1,000,000 French Jews (as of 1812) and also enforced it in the conquered territories on the left bank of the Rhine, but met with resistance on the right bank. Nevertheless, from 1800 to 1812, almost all German states followed Christian Konrad Wilhelm von Dohm”s demands, which were now also renewed. The reforms introduced by Napoleon were initially welcomed by a large part of the Jewish community leaders, in the hope that Judaism in France would in this way be given a status similar to that of the Catholic Church in the Concordat of 1801 and the Protestants in the “organic articles” of 1802. Napoleon himself was anxious to have a means of controlling the Jewish community while integrating Jews as citizens into his French society. The statutes of the consistory were put into effect by imperial decree on March 17, 1808. From the Jewish side, the decree was soon referred to as the “Décret infame” (literally, the disgraceful decree), insofar as it reintroduced discriminatory regulations for Jews and Napoleonic France thus took a step backward from earlier emancipating laws.

Despite the fundamental separation of church and state, a certain balance was reached in 1801 with the Concordat between the Consulate and Pope Pius VII. Although Catholicism was no longer recognized as the state religion, it was recognized as the religion of the majority of the people. Napoleon retained the right to appoint bishops, while the Pope had the right to consecrate them.

His treatment of Jews, on the other hand, was classified by the Russian Orthodox Church as favoritism and he himself even as an “antichrist and enemy of God.”

Population development

Fundamental demographic changes took place during the Empire. One characteristic of this was the enormous growth of the population. Due to the hesitant start of industrialization in France, the French-speaking population grew from 28 million (1800) to around 30 million (1815). But the population in the annexed territories also grew due to the relatively high standard of living. The annexation of various large cities such as Brussels with 72,280 inhabitants, Amsterdam with 220,000 inhabitants, Hamburg with 150,000 inhabitants, Aachen, Geneva, Turin or Rome led to an internal migration in which mainly French people moved from the rural areas to these cities.

During the French Revolution, France”s economic output had declined massively compared with the ancien régime. In 1800, it reached only 60 percent of the level of 1789. In the following ten years, which largely fell during the period of the Empire, a strong economic revival set in. However, unlike in England, there was no breakthrough of an industrial revolution. Strong investments were made in cotton processing in particular. In some cases, production there was already mechanized. During this period, the economic focus shifted away from the port cities, which were particularly hard hit by the naval blockades, to areas around Paris, Strasbourg and Lyon. In an intra-French comparison, economic development was weaker in the south than in the north. Overall, development in the agricultural sector stagnated, while overseas trade was severely curtailed as a result of the wars.

The Continental Blockade imposed by Napoleon since 1806 had a massive impact on the economy of the empire and the dependent states. Some sectors of the economy, such as textile production, benefited from the exclusion of English competition. But the trading cities in particular felt a sharp decline in trade. Agriculture, which was partly export-oriented, also suffered from the loss of the English market. Many imported goods became scarce. These included colonial goods sourced from overseas, but also cotton, which was essential for the textile industry. In 1810, therefore, a licensing system was temporarily introduced. It allowed French shipowners to export goods if the same value of necessary colonial goods and other imported goods were imported. However, even this limited trade was further prohibited to the states dependent on France. This measure, moreover, was not sufficient to compensate for the negative effects of the blockade. In 1810, a severe financial crisis occurred. It led to the closure of many farms. A year later, there were severe crop failures. As a result, the price of bread rose sharply. In Paris, prices were kept artificially low. In other cities, where this was not the case, there were inflationary riots. On the whole, support for the system among the lower strata of the population remained largely stable. However, the economic bourgeoisie and parts of the new aristocracy, both of whom had hitherto benefited most from Napoleon”s policies, turned away.

Although Napoleon”s continental system was primarily aimed at political and economic domination in Europe, the empire was also intended to achieve a strong position for the continent in the supply of overseas products. This also required corresponding colonial possessions. After the Peace of Amiens (1802), the French colonial empire was much larger than it had been in 1789. The country received back the colonies occupied by the English. From Spain it received Louisiana in 1801. François-Dominique Toussaint L”Ouverture occupied the Spanish part of the island of Hispaniola. However, Napoleon”s attempt to reintroduce slavery led to rebellion and the loss of the entire island. Napoleon”s plan to establish a large colonial empire in the Americas also failed. Louisiana was therefore sold to the United States in 1803 in the Louisiana Purchase. Further possessions were lost in the following years. More successful was the trade with the Orient after the rapprochement with the Ottoman Empire (Franco-Ottoman Alliance) and Persia (Franco-Persian Alliance). With the annexation of the Kingdom of Holland in 1810, which until then had been ruled by his brother Louis Bonaparte, the French colonial empire reached a peak under Napoleon. Numerous colonies, such as the Dutch Indies, parts of Ceylon and the Cape Colony, came under French rule, although some colonies had already been occupied by Great Britain. According to Napoleon, the colonies belonged to the French motherland and increased the national territory to about 2,500,000 km².

Changes in the French colonies at the time of Napoleon:

Auxiliary means


Reference books




  1. Erstes Kaiserreich
  2. First French Empire
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