Napoleon Bonaparte – Founder of Modern European Unification? | History Hit

Napoleon Bonaparte – Founder of Modern European Unification?

Andrew Hyde

13 Jul 2023

If the UK does finally sever its links with the European Union at the end of October, a deep 45 year-old relationship will come to an end. Starting with just 6 original founding members in 1957, it has grown into a community of 27 nations.

During this time the expanding membership has adopted many hundreds of different rules and regulations, designed to remove barriers to trade and impose uniformity and consistency in areas such as consumer and worker’s rights and civil freedoms.

To its supporters this represents a magnificent achievement, but despite the enormous transformation of Europe they represent, the organisation remains somewhat distant from the seamless union envisaged by its founding fathers.

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In the context of state-building, this has been a rather slow, organic process, the decades since its foundation representing less than three new members a year, a pedestrian programme of expansion which would arguably have been anathema to the more impatient of history’s European expansionists.

Notable among these was Napoleon Bonaparte, whose breath-taking series of military campaigns united more states than have joined the EU, and in 1/3 of the time. Yet, despite this astonishing achievement, he also succeeded in bequeathing an equally enduring raft of financial, legal and political reforms, and even the blueprint for a nascent trading bloc. That he managed this with such lightning speed is perhaps worthy of further examination.

The Confederation of the Rhine

When, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain and its Austrian and Russian allies challenged Napoleon’s growing hegemony, they handed to him instead a loose, fracturing 1,000 year-old political union known as the Holy Roman Empire. In its stead he created what would be regarded by many as his pièce de résistance, the Confederation of the Rhine.

The Confederation of the Rhine in 1812. Image credit: Trajan 117 / Commons.

Founded on 12 July 1806 it produced almost overnight a union of 16 states, with its capital at Frankfurt am Main, and a Diet presided over by two Colleges, one of King’s and one of Princes. It made him, as he was later quoted as saying, the successor not of Louis XVI, ‘but of Charlemagne’. 

Within the brief space of 4 years it expanded to 39 members, admittedly almost exclusively consisting of very small principalities, but having expanded to cover a total area of 350,000 square kilometres with a population of 14,500,000.

Medal of the Rhine Confederation.

Wide-ranging reforms

Not all his victories however, were on such a grandiose scale, but they were complemented as much as possible by the introduction of reforms instigated by first the Revolutionary French regime, and later Napoleon himself.

So, wherever Napoleon’s armies conquered, they sought to leave an indelible mark, although some proved more popular and lasting than others. The new French civil and criminal law, income tax and uniform metric weights and measures were adopted in whole or in part across the continent, albeit with opt-outs of varying degrees.

When financial exigencies compelled wholesale financial reform, he founded the Banque de France in 1800. This institution would in its turn be instrumental in the creation of the Latin Monetary Union in 1865, with France, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland as members. The basis of the organisation was the agreement to adopt the French gold franc, a currency introduced by none other than Napoleon himself in 1803.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps, currently located in the Charlottenburg Palace, painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1801.

The Code Napoleon

Arguably Napoleon’s most enduring legacy was the new French civil and criminal code, or Code Napoleon, a Europe-wide legal system which survives to this day in many countries. The revolutionary government of the National Assembly had originally sought to rationalise and standardise the myriad of laws which governed different parts of France from as early as 1791, but it was Napoleon who oversaw its realisation.

Whereas Roman Law dominated in the south of the country, Frankish and German elements applied in the north, alongside various other local customs and archaic usages. Napoleon abolished these entirely after 1804, with the adoption of the structure which bore his name.

The Code Napoleon reformed commercial and criminal law, and divided civil law into two categories, one for property and the other for family, giving greater equality in matters of inheritance – although denying rights to illegitimate heirs, women and reintroducing slavery. All men however were technically recognised as equal under the law, with inherited rights and titles abolished.

It was imposed upon or adopted by nearly every territory and state dominated by France, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Milan, parts of Germany and Italy, Switzerland and Monaco. Indeed, elements of this legal template were widely adopted during the course of the following century, by a unified Italy in 1865, Germany in 1900 and Switzerland in 1912, all of which passed statutes which echoed his original system.

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And it was not only Europe which appreciated its merits; many of the newly independent states of South America also incorporated the Code into their constitutions.


Napoleon was also adept at exploiting the principle of referenda to lend legitimacy to his reforms, as when he moved to consolidate power and establish a de facto dictatorship.

A referendum was held in 1800, and his brother Lucien, who he had conveniently appointed Minister of the Interior, claimed that 99.8% of those of the eligible electorate who voted had approved. Even though more than half of them had boycotted the vote, the margin of victory confirmed in Napoleon’s mind the legitimacy of his power grab, and there was never any question of a second, confirmatory people’s vote.

Andrew Hyde co-wrote the three-volume work The Blitz: Then and Now and is the author of First Blitz. He contributed to the BBC Timewatch programme of the same name and to the recent Channel 5 TV documentary on the Windsors. Europe: Unite, Fight, Repeat, will be published on 15 August 2019, by Amberley Publishing.

Tags: Napoleon Bonaparte

Andrew Hyde