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The Napoleonic Empire: Military & Economic Expansion

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  • 0:09 Napoleon's Empire
  • 0:47 Military Expansion
  • 3:45 Economic Expansion
  • 4:41 Nationalist Responses
  • 6:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the French Empire under the Emperor Napoleon I, from Napoleon's coronation as emperor in 1804 until the fateful invasion of Russia in 1812.

Napoleon's Empire

Europe is an oddly shaped continent. With peninsulas aplenty and mountain ranges crisscrossing the land, just getting from point A to point B can be difficult for the weary traveler. The same problems experienced by the traveler were problems for armies trying to conquer the landscape for centuries. Add that to the immense diversity of its people and climate, and some military historians have surmised that Europe, in its present form, is unconquerable. That notion, however, hasn't stopped several people from trying. Indeed, one of the best efforts, and the only one made from France, was made by the first French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, in the first decade of the 19th century.

Military Expansion

Indeed, soon after Napoleon was consecrated by the pope as the Emperor of France in December, 1804, Napoleon began making plans for the conquest of Europe and particularly his chief rival: Great Britain. In opposition to these plans, however, stood a coalition of three major European powers of the early 19th century: Austria, Britain, and Russia. These grand plans had an inauspicious start, as Napoleon could not attack Britain without first doing away with its massive fleet and clearing a path across the English Channel for an invasion force.

Realizing that an open sea battle with the British fleet would likely prove disastrous, Napoleon devised a plan to raid the British colonies in the West Indies, hopefully drawing the British fleet across the Atlantic, which would clear the Channel for Napoleon's invasion. However, the British admiral, Lord Nelson, beat back the joint French and Spanish fleet before they could even attempt a crossing, and the French forces retreated to Cadiz, where the British fleet later crushed the French fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The battle gave the British supreme control of the seas, and Napoleon was forced to shelf his planned invasion of Britain.

In response, Napoleon advanced where he knew his forces were superior - on land. Two months after France's calamitous defeat at Trafalgar, Napoleon's eastward advance across Central Europe was met at Austerlitz by a much larger Russo-Austrian force. Napoleon concentrated his best troops in the center of his formation and smashed the Russians and Austrians, destroying their armies to the point that both were forced to sue for peace. As a result, the nominal status of the Holy Roman Empire was eliminated, and France carved out of it a territory called the Confederation of the Rhine, which, in theory, was an independent state, but in practice were all vassal states of Napoleon's France. Additionally, the Austrians were forced to surrender their Italian holdings to France.

This huge expansion by France into Italian and German lands alarmed the rest of Europe, in particular Prussia who now had an expansionary France at its doorstep, and in July 1806, Great Britain, Russia, and Prussia formed the Fourth Coalition, and Prussia invaded the Confederation of the Rhine in September. The Prussian invasion, however, was immediately repulsed by Napoleon's forces, and by the end of October, Napoleon was marching into the Prussian capital, Berlin.

Napoleon continued his eastward advance, into territory that had formerly been Poland, but was now controlled by Russia. Forced to answer this incursion into their territory, the Russian army met the French forces at Friedland in June 1807. The Russian forces were smashed, and as a result of the defeat, Czar Alexander I was forced to negotiate with Napoleon or risk further invasion. As a result of the Treaty of Tilsit, France gained large parts of Prussia and created the Duchy of Warsaw, which revived the Polish state that had been broken up in the 18th century. This state, too, proved to be a puppet regime controlled by France. Though this upset Alexander, he had few other options.

Economic Expansion

Napoleon's seemingly unstoppable march eastward was not meant simply to gain territory and vassal states for the expanding French Empire. As Napoleon conquered more and more territory in Europe, he hoped to destabilize and choke Britain off from its traditional trading partners on the continent. His 1806 Decree of Berlin and 1807 Decree of Milan set up the Continental System, whereby no neutral state or any state allied to France was allowed to trade with Great Britain, effectively setting up a blockade of the island without having to send out a fleet. Great Britain similarly planned a counter-blockade, blocking any states from trading with France, specifically the United States.

Though the Continental System spurred some labor unrest and caused skyrocketing unemployment in Britain, most historians contend the System hurt the French far more than the British. Not only did it hurt regions economically dependent on trade, but its enforcement also stretched Napoleon's troops thinly across the continent.

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