Was Napoleon a dictator? The definition of a dictator is a ruler with total power over a country, typically one who has obtained control by force. The answer to this question is therefore relatively simple, by 1804 Napoleon was crowned Emperor of France and he had obtained this power, initially by force during the Coup of Brumaire. To quote Laurent Joffrin, he was “a dictator who spent all his time dictating”. Napoleon’s methods are ultimately irrelevant, he often gave the impression that his actions were for the good of the people of France but instead he was only aiming to consolidate his own power. Perhaps the most fundamental argument to demonstrate Napoleon as a dictatorship, is the fact that he undermined the revolutionary principles that the revolution was founded upon. Limiting rights such as liberty, free speech and equality are not the actions of a man who wanted to preserve the revolution, they were the actions of a man who was centralising power to establish himself as the ruler, and therefore the dictator.
We can acknowledge the reforms and changes that took place under Napoleon’s leadership, but it would be naive to declare that they were done so with the motives of bettering the country, each action was a calculated move to ensure that his position was safe. While Napoleon’s government appeared somewhat liberal in its application of democracy, this was merely a facade to hide a system of centralised power that stemmed from Napoleon. 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 only a tool to provide the appearance of a fair and equal society in which the government values the opinions of the people. The plebiscite on the Constitution of the Year VIII (1799) was marred by actions which violated the principle of liberty. Lucien, Napoleon’s brother frequently altered voting figures to preserve government credibility, by rounding figures up and added more ‘yes’ votes to give the appearance of a high turnout to provide credibility. This severely weakens the initial argument that Napoleon provided popular sovereignty, as it was tainted with unjust intervention to secure his own power. Ultimately, it can be seen that Napoleon operated a dictatorship, he simply used methods such as the plebiscites to give himself the appearance of popular approval.