In the London Review of Books, Edward Luttwak starts his review of Britain against Napoleon: The Organisation of Victory, 1793-1815 by Roger Knight by contrasting British and European views of Napoleon’s legacy:
I can recall few heated arguments with my father, but I remember very well our Napoleon quarrel. After two years at a British boarding school, I had learned a fair amount of English and just about enough history to mention Wellington and Waterloo as we were approaching Brussels on a drive from Milan. To my great surprise, my father burst out with a vehement attack on ‘the English’ for having selfishly destroyed Napoleon’s empire. Wherever it had advanced in Europe, modernity had advanced with it, sweeping away myriad expressions of obscurantism and hereditary privilege, emancipating the Jews and all manner of serfs, allowing freedom of, and from, religion, and offering opportunities for advancement for the talented regardless of their origins. I do not recall his actual words, and he would hardly have put it as I have here, but that was certainly his meaning, and I remember his equal-opportunity quotation: ‘Every French soldier carries a field-marshal’s baton in his knapsack.’ I also remember his explanation of the reason he accused the English of being ‘selfish’: Great Britain was already on its way to liberty and did not need Napoleon, but Europe did, and Britain took him away.
In other words, for Jozef Luttwak of Milano, formerly of Arad, Transylvania, as for many others on the Continent (and not only the French), all the wars of Napoleon, all his victories, counted for little in evaluating the man and his deeds. What counted was the progressive moderniser, the law-giver of the Code Napoléon of 1804, actually the Code civil des Français, which was really a civil code for Europeans, since Napoleon’s empire français extended across the Low Countries to Jutland and into northwest Italy, and took in the ex-Papal States and Dalmatia (as Illyria), adding up to a good part of Western Europe. Nor was Napoleon’s Code as ephemeral as his victories. It endures as the core of civil law not only in France but in its former European possessions, and their former possessions too, encompassing ex-French Africa, all of Latin America and the Philippines by way of Spain, and Indonesia by way of the Netherlands, as well as Quebec and Louisiana.
Even that list understates the influence of the code, and therefore of Napoleon the moderniser. Its text conveyed three powerfully innovative principles whose influence transcended by far its actual legal application, and which no restoration could undo: clarity, so that all could know their rights if they could read, without the recondite expertise of jurists steeped in customary law, with its hundreds of exemptions, privileges and eccentricities; secularism, which inter alia replaced parishes with municipalities, thereby introducing civil marriage, part of an entirely new form of individual and civic existence; and the right to individual ownership of property – which untied the immobilised holders of communal property – and employment free from servile obligations.
It mattered greatly that these revolutionary principles were proclaimed by Napoleon, already a conservative and commanding figure – unlike the revolutionaries of 1789, who could not give an aura of authority to their Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was itself soon challenged by the more egalitarian 1793 version, with both anyhow rejected by the upholders of privilege. In Napoleon’s vassal states (the Confederation of the Rhine, the Kingdoms of Spain, Italy and Naples, and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw), even where the code was not promulgated it was imitated, as was its drastically new style. Just as the florid convolutions and encrustations of rococo had been replaced by the linear elegance of the empire style, the thickets of customary law that Montesquieu had praised as barriers to despotism – as indeed they were, but only for privileged jurists – were replaced by the utterly systematic code, whose descending hierarchy of books, titles, chapters and sections that devolved into 2281 numbered paragraphs was itself infused with the new spirit of modernity. For Europeans of a liberal disposition, the code was a call to modernise not merely the law but society in its entirety – an impulse that would persist for decades.