Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained

The True Meaning of Democracy

Reading Room: Chapter 18 Summary

Power Revealed: Napoleon Myth and Reality

“… Towards him they bend
With awful reverence prone; and as a god
Extol him equal to the Highest in heaven …”

Napoleon dreamt of ruling the world from his throne in Paris. He got closer than most to making his dream come true. At its peak, his empire held sway over some forty-four million souls. His wars led to the death of some 6.5 million people, close to fifteen percent of that population. Yet he was admired and continues to be for bringing down the walls of feudalism and ushering in the modern era.

Napoleon presented himself as the standard bearer for everything the Revolution stood for when in fact just the opposite is true. With his ascendancy to the throne he extinguished for good the remaining embers of democracy that first appeared in the early days of the Revolution.

It is unfortunate that the mere mention of the French Revolution evokes thoughts of the “Reign of Terror,” a period of violence lasting from September 5, 1793, to July 27, 1794, in which as many as 40,000 lives were lost. As horrible as it was, this is not the whole story. What is too often forgotten is that the French Revolution began as a peaceful experiment in government with democratic leanings. And that when Napoleon violently overthrew the Directory on November 9, 1799 (18 Brumaire by the revolutionary calendar), replaced it with a consulate of three and then, in 1804, with a dictatorship of one, i.e. himself, he was overthrowing a legitimate government that was in the process of establishing order and that could have potentially returned to its more democratic roots.

Over the ten-year period from 1789 to 1799 there was experimentation with three different kinds of government, each of which had significant democratic elements. In the constitution of 1793, there were provisions for direct elections, with one delegate per 40,000 citizens, a more liberal offer than James Madison’s one per 50,000. There were to be run-off elections where there was no absolute majority and in some cases, where there was a tie, selection by lottery. Elections were to be held annually. Provision was made for an executive council comprised of twenty-four members, serving for a year only. Annual elections, an executive council of twenty-four, such provisions make this constitution one of the most democratic in modern times.