To what extent was Napoleon nothing more than a dictator?

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To what extent was Napoleon nothing more than a dictator in his rule of France between 1799 and 1815?


  • The nature of Napoleon’s rule can by analysed through the exploration of its three key components:
  • Government: A dictatorial government would be one which holds complete centralised power within a state, with no checks on the power of the individual.
  • Machinery of a police state: A state which incorporates a repressive rule and infringes on civil liberties; primarily through police force, patronage, censorship and propaganda.
  • Domestic policy: The control of internal affairs within the country; the use of sectors of education, religion and law to either benefit the nation or secure personal power.
  • Main argument: It cannot be argued that Napoleon’s rule of France grew progressively authoritarian and dictatorial in its manner. Regardless of its repressive aspects (notably censorship/propaganda), it did restore stability in France which had been a clear aim of the Revolution, thus while it is plausible to view Napoleon as a dictator, this cannot be wholly joined with the negative connotations of a dictatorship as he did provide France with political and economical stability.



  • Napoleon cannot be seen as a dictator, as his rule did uphold ideas such as universal suffrage and popular sovereignty throughout.
  • Plebiscites, constitutions: Napoleon not only created four constitutions during his rule (1799, 1802, 1804, 1815) which can be seen as democratic in itself, but he also ‘submitted to the acceptance of the French people’. In February 1800, a plebiscite was held, allowing citizens to vote for/against the constitution of the Year VIII (1799). Moreover, Napoleon used plebiscites throughout his rule to provide popular sovereignty to the nation. A plebiscite was used in 1802 (second constitution) to pass the reintroduction of the hereditary principle, and later in 1804 (third constitution) to secure Napoleon as hereditary emperor of the French. His final plebiscite was put to the public in 1815, seeing the confirmation of his last constitutional amendment, the Acte Additionnel. This was liberal in many of its aspects, for example allowing freedom of the press.
  • Universal manhood suffrage: Napoleon did provide universal manhood suffrage through the entirety of his rule, which gave every Frenchman over the age of 21 (6-8 million) the right to vote. Although the electoral system changed in 1801, it still provided all males with a vote and therefore promoting democracy and popular choice.
  • Checks on central power, standing committees: Although the Senate was the main instrument to Napoleon’s personal power, there were various other governmental bodies which could provide checks on Napoleon. Both the Tribunate and the Legislature were elected by the people of France, the latter could vote on all legislation whilst the former could discuss and suggest amendments for the constitution. Both of these organisations were created to ensure that Napoleon’s government did not adapt into a dictatorship. In 1804, two standing committees were established with the interest of preserving liberty and freedom of the press.


  • While Napoleon’s government appeared somewhat liberal in its application democracy, this was merely a facade to a system centralised around the power of Napoleon.
  • Suffrage, insignificant vote: Despite providing every Frenchman over the age of 21 with a vote, the principle of popular sovereignty was in reality weak, especially after 1801. The electoral system changed in 1801 and remained the same until the end of Napoleon’s rule, and this new arrangement further reduced the element of popular choice. Despite male suffrage still apparent, they could only vote from a list of the 600 richest men of each department (determined by Napoleon). In this way, the liberal aspects of the voting system were hollow as the government was entirely picked by Napoleon, always favouring the wealthy, in order to fuel his own regime. Ultimately, it denied the people a representative government as the vote provided lacked any real significance.
  • Interference with plebiscites: Whilst the plebiscites employed by Napoleon may initially be seen as a direct form of popular sovereignty, allowing the people to provide judgement on laws, they were hollow and were a facade to a primarily authoritarian rule. The plebiscite on the Constitution of the Year VIII (1799) was marred by intimidation/malpractice which violated the principle of suffrage/liberty. Moreover, there was no secret ballot and fear of possible later victimisation led to many people voting against their will. Lucien, Minister of the Interior, frequently altered voting figures to preserve government credibility, rounding figures up by 900,000 and adding a further 500,000 ‘yes’ votes to represent the unanimously favourable votes that would have been cast had they attended the plebiscite. This severely weakens the initial argument that Napoleon provided popular sovereignty, as it was tainted with unjust intervention to ensure power/support. Ultimately, it can be seen that Napoleon operated a plebiscitary dictatorship, merely using aspects of a liberal government to ensure his support.
  • Centralised government, Napoleon: Although there was the introduction of universal manhood suffrage, in reality, all bodies which held any power regarding law-making/constitution were appointed by First Consul, Napoleon. This strongly denied the people of France the principles of suffrage and equality. As First Consul, Napoleon could personally control all government appointments, make/unmake ministers, initiate all legislation through Council of State/Senate and declare war/make peace. Members of the Senate and Council of State were appointed by Napoleon (where he would select loyal members, giving them a large salary with rewards of land etc). The procedure of senates-consultum, originally intended as a measure on the executive, was used to further centralise government and increase his sole power. All of these measures, brought about in the constitution of 1799, firmly secured power in the hands of the First Consul which ultimately diminished any real popular sovereignty.
  • Life Consul, Emperor: Napoleon’s rule became progressively authoritarian with the creation of the 1802 and 1804 constitutions. The constitution of the Year X, using plebiscites to appear democratic, ensured his position as Life Consul which further cemented the power firmly in his hands. Two years later, in the constitution of Year XII, Napoleon initiated a motion, approved by the Senate (the most powerful governmental body, consisted of those loyal to Napoleon) which made him Emperor of the French, with the imperial dignity declared hereditary in his family. At his coronation, he promised to ‘rule only in the interests of the happiness and glory of the French people, upholding equal rights/civil liberties’ but as his rule continued  it was clear that his regime was entirely dictatorial, acting in his personal interest.
  • Prefects, increased centralisation: Local government in France was closely monitored by Napoleon, Richard Cobb describing the structure as ‘bureaucratic repression’. Each department (local government) would have a prefect and sub-prefects; these were appointed by Napoleon and were directly accountable to him. The result was a centralised organisation, with the prefects responsible for tax collection, conscription, spread of propaganda and monitor public opinion. This was a repressive, dictatorial aspect of Napoleon’s government.
  • No checks on power, Tribunate/Legislature: The Tribunate and the Legislature, the two bodies established in order to impose checks on any legislation passed by the Senate (to prevent a dictatorship), became increasingly unimportant in the later years of Napoleon’s rule. The Tribunate was purged in 1802 to prevent any opposition to his regime, whilst Napoleon elected new, loyal members for the Legislature. In 1808 the Tirbunate was abolished, with the Legislature only surviving through its subservient attitude to Napoleon’s orders. The government became ran by the Senate and the Council of State, both of which were firmly under Napoleon’s personal control.
  • Judgement: Napoleon organisation of the Government essentially ensured that he held all power. The two main law-making bodies, the Senate and Council of State, were both elected by him and reported to him, with the other two organisations lacking any power to hold Napoleon to account. In this way, through projection of a liberal facade, Napoleon maintained support whilst adapting his regime into an increasingly dictatorial one to cement his personal power.
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Machinery of a police state


  • The machinery of a police state is perhaps the crux to maintaining sole power in a dictatorship; Napoleon manipulated the judiciary, police, censorship and propaganda to ensure the survival of his regime.
  • Judiciary: Napoleon took personal interest in the legal system of France, primarily because a centralised judiciary would allow him to consolidate his regime, ensuring any political threats were stifled. Firstly, judges were appointed by the government for life, kept subservient and loyal through supervision and a system of ‘purges’. Secondly, a new hierarchy of judicial tribunals was created; military tribunals were ...

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